Gorging on the Drugs of Solitude

It’s a quote by E. M. Cioran from A Short History of Decay. “I gorge myself on all the drugs of solitude; those of the world were too weak to make me forget it. Having killed the prophet in me, how could I still have a place among men?” His prose is a reflection of what he wants. At once a tide going out, sweeping up and out all the precious and precocious structures we’ve built on the shore.

“You imagine, in the name of faith, that you are conquering yourself; in fact, you seek to perpetuate it in eternity, this earthly duration being insufficient for you… The megalomania of monasteries exceeds all that the sumptuous fevers of palaces ever imagined.”

And some more.

“I have sought for the geography of Nothingness, of unknown seas and another sun — pure of the scandal of life-bearing rays — I have sought for the rocking of a skeptical ocean in which islands and axioms are drowned, the vast liquid narcotic, tepid and sweet and tired of knowledge.

Even the skeptic, in love with his doubts, turns out to be a fanatic of skepticism. Man is the dogmatic being par excellence; and his dogmas are all the deeper when he does not formulate them, when he is unaware of them, and when he follows them

One deception triumphs: there results a religion, a doctrine, or a myth — and a host of adepts; another fails; then it is only a divagation, a theory, or a fiction. Only inert things add nothing to what they are: a stone does not lie; it interests no one — whereas life indefatigably invents: life is the novel of matter.

The true believer is scarcely to be distinguished from the madman; but his madness is legal, acknowledged; he would end up in an asylum if his aberrations were pure of all faith. But God covers them, legitimizes them.

And how could modesty be a virtue of temples, when a decrepit old woman who imagines Infinity within reach raises herself by prayer to a level of audacity to which no tyrant has ever laid claim?

You imagine, in the name of faith, that you are conquering yourself; in fact, you seek to perpetuate it in eternity, this earthly duration being insufficient for you… The megalomania of monasteries exceeds all that the sumptuous fevers of palaces ever imagined.

Me… I want to wallow in my mortality. I want to remain normal.

If we put in one pan the evil the “pure” have poured out upon the world, and in the other the evil that has come from men without principles and without scruples, the scale would tip toward the first.

A conformist, I live, I try to live, by imitation, by respect for the rules of the game, by horror of originality… It is because we are all impostors that we endure each other. The man who does not consent to lie will see the earth shrink under his feet: we arebiologically obliged to the false.”

I ramble on in the style of an essayist who freely associates one remembered quotation, or fragment of an idea with another until it becomes time to stop. Of Vladimir Nabokov Arendt writes in 1962: “There is something in [him] which I greatly dislike. As though he wanted to show you all the time how intelligent he is. And as though he thinks of himself in terms of ‘more intelligent than.’ There is something vulgar in his refinement.”

Cioran seems like an error of Clio’s. Deposited in a world that he was already too old for. By the second day he was infinitely tired of it. But here he is. It’s a cold wind that flows across his work but in some perverse sense, after I’ve read and digested his aphoristic essays that always have me reaching for a highlighter, I can’t help but feel more alive.  It is disturbing, surprising.

I suppose, in some sense, this is a book review. I don’t know if that is accurate. But I would encourage you, dear reader, to pick up the book. It seems to be one of those books that never fail to spruce up my otherwise colorless writing.

Unreadable Excursions Into the Higher Drivel

There was a bit of the New Yorker that I read. It, like most outlets, quibbled and fretted over the inclusion of Trigger Warnings.

Many of the op-eds and articles on trigger warnings published this week have argued on behalf of the sanctity of the relationship between the reader and the text. For the most part, I have agreed with them. A trigger warning reduces a work of art down to what amounts to plot points. If a novel like José Saramago’s “Blindness” succeeds because it sews up small yet essential pockets of human normalcy against a horrific backdrop, a preëmptive label like “Trigger Warning: Violence and internment” strips it down to one idea.

I relayed these thoughts to Brodsky, along with the anecdote about my professor and “Lolita.” “What a delight it must be to read a book full of graphic accounts of sexual violence and still have the book not be about sexual violence to you!” she said. “Why is the depersonalized, apolitical reading the one we should fight for?”

For those well-versed in the neo-orthodoxies of the new, illiberal liberalism the next paragraph writes itself. Immediately reference the author’s own non-WASP background. Dodge. Evade.

I admit, this was an angle I had not yet considered, and I recalled the severe annoyance I’d felt in college seminars and coffeehouse conversations whenever a white person would say a bit too ringingly that a book written by a person of color somehow “transcended race,” as if that was the highest compliment that could be paid to a work written by one of us poor, striving minorities.

Let us ignore, for a moment, an Asian-American from California talking with any authority on America’s race questions–because the only fun there is unintentional irony, and not much irony at that. Such a contrived point about the quintessential ‘white person’ making a reckless statement. I wince. Recall Heine’s prophetic observation about Marx and his peers: “These revolutionary doctors and their pitilessly determined disciples are the only men in Germany who have any life; and it is to them, I fear, that the future belongs.” I recall it daily. In name of tolerance we have a man, ostensibly a ‘man of letters,’ immediately contrite. The disciples of political correctness have another victory. He should have doubled-down. Where is Gore Vidal, James Baldwin or Joan Didion when we need them?

There is an excellent rebuttal begging to be made to Brodsky on Lolita. “What a tragedy it must be to read a book full of graphic accounts of sexual violence and have the book be only about sexual violence to you!” Brodsky has the benefit of owning a worldview that allows her to converse at length and authority on novels that she has never read.  Or if she has read them without understanding them. Give Brodsky credit, dear reader, for explicitly announcing her intention. Books should be edited for political reasons. For her reasons. Art can take a backseat. I hate the sensibility, I admire the honesty. Like an ancient Essene, or a modern Jain, she strives for irreproachable correctness in every action. But her zeal is more admirable because it is more exigent than their’s. The tenets of her creed are not eternal, but submit to the shifting caprices of Midwestern colleges and a few outposts along the coasts. If I had half as much dedication…

What I worry about is reduction. I can summarize with the lapidary phrase “Everything flows” the philosophy of Heraclitus. But what a weak reading. It consigns him to purgatory–remembered but hardly celebrated.

Take, for a moment, this synthesis by Borges.

Nils Runeberg proposes the opposite motive: a hyperbolic and even unlimited asceticism. The ascetic, for the greater glory of God, vilifies and mortifies his flesh; Judas did the same with his spirit. He renounced honor, morality, peace and kingdom of heaven, just as others, less heroically, renounce pleasure. With terrible lucidity he premeditated his sins. In adultery there is usually tenderness and abnegation; in homicide, courage; in profanity and blasphemy, a certain satanic luster. Judas chose those sins untouched by any virtue: violation of trust and betrayal. He acted with enormous humility, he believed himself unworthy of being good.

Think of the reading that began with Trigger Warning: Regicide. Or Theocide. Or Homicide. Much more consider the word conspiracy. Should that also be included and if it were consider the new meanings. Consider what has been lost. The word changes the meaning of the paragraph. Trigger warnings are edits. They are alterations of the text. It is only a difference of degrees, rather than a change of principle, between removing words. When I add a word I necessarily remove meaning, and relationships, just as if I took a word out. Some, either through stultifying or stupefying ignorance, dodge this last conclusion. Brodsky does not. For that I admire her. Be honest about writing profanities.

Notice the remarkable alacrity with which the poverty, and that is the only word I have for it, of past works will have been officially forgotten and paved over, such that deep social difference is denied or homogenized and even the most recent and contested past is available only in this nostalgic plastic reproduction carefully bracketed by authorities. In an perverse sense this, I believe, is the only way the current of thought is credible. It is the sign on the highway of forgetting. We’re all happy, except me because I am never happy, to travel on it. It may be an inauthentic journey. It may lead us to some disturbing areas. But it is an inauthenticity that is, as it were, authentically created. This effort at forgetting is not contrived. There are several people, hundreds if not thousands of people, that are sincere about forgetting.

The Lost Encyclopedia

An encyclopedia compiled at the order of Yongle, the third emperor of the Luminous Dynasty, which became known as Yongle da dian (The Great Work of Yongle), Yongle being the reign-title of the Emperor. The manuscript of 22,877 sections bound in 11,095 volumes was completed in 1408; two more copies were made in 1567. Like most work beyond 100 pages it is, and was, mostly banalities. The paper proposing and confirming the existence of the double helix was one page long.

The original and one copy were destroyed in Nanjing while the other copy, kept in Hanlin Academy in Peking, was apparently already incomplete when the Academy was destroyed by fire during the Boxer uprising in 1900. A few lost volumes of the encyclopedia are now scattered in libraries in China.

Yongle was flawed. Fang Xiaoru, the former Emperor’s former tutor was but one causality in a disturbingly fervent purging of the Chinese power structure. A common cultural ‘kicker’ to the classic threat of execution was the execution of you and your family, your family’s families, your family’s families’ families and so on. Threatened with execution of all nine degrees of his kinship, he fatuously replied “Never mind nine! Go with ten!” and – alone in Chinese history – he was sentenced to execution of 10 degrees of kinship: along with his entire family, every former student or peer of Fang Xiaoru that the Yongle Emperor’s agents could find was also killed. It was said that as he died, cut in half at the waist, Fang used his own blood to write the character “usurper.” In 1420, Yongle ordered 2,800 ladies-in-waiting to a slow slicing death, and watched.

I wonder. We see history through a glass, darkly. But I still wonder. That these two operations should originate in one person and be in some way his attributes satisfies and at the same time disturbs me. To investigate the emotion is the purpose of this note.

There is a historical answer. There is always, it seems, a historical answer. Born as Zhu Di there was but a light chance he would become Emperor. That he did forced a primitive calculus to the forefront: kill those, and there were many, who would kill him or die. That he did not die from poison or rebellion is commentary enough on his effectiveness. Creating books is a common enough task, though his largess is unprecedented. The concept, however, is tame or nearly so. But behind the concept is reality. Reality, in these circumstances, is deafening.

It is worthwhile to consider that erecting the encyclopedia and burning the families were not simultaneous acts. Imagine, dear reader, what image we receive if the Emperor began by destroying and then resigned himself to preserving, or that of a disillusioned king who destroyed what he had previously and meticulously cataloged. Both conjectures are dramatic, but they lack, as far as I know, any basis in history.

Shi-shan Henry Tsai relates the foreword, ostensibly written by the Emperor, “The reader can now follow the phonetic order to search for words, then follow the words to search for events, and as soon as he opens the volumes, there is nothing that can hide from him.” My emphasis. Too true, I thought. This information favors another interpretation. Perhaps the encyclopedia was a metaphor. What was written in the encyclopedia was the not just present, or even a part of it. Perhaps the encyclopedia was a future. A future where everything was but a reflection of one man. Not merely a future of what is officially condoned, but a future that would always remember. Perhaps those who worshiped the past had to be sentenced away from the present for the project to work. Because the present was a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the encyclopedia. Perhaps the past was a challenge and the Emperor Yongle thought “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Yongle cataloged his empire because he knew that it perishable and destroyed the people because he understood that that they were in some way a cancellation of the present and future–that they were imperishable. Or thought that they were imperishable.

The tenacious encyclopedia “which at this moment, and at all moments, teases about lands I shall never see, is the shadow of a Caesar who ordered the most reverent of nations to burn its past while creating a future; it is plausible that this idea moves us in itself apart from the conjectures it allows.”

A Liebster Award

I was recently nominated for an award by RaiBal at Rain’s Writing Realm. Her mental decline is evident because she neither nominated my blog ironically nor insincerely. She genuinely seems to enjoy something that is written on here. I am willing to give her a pass, however, because she was simply desperate to fill out the eleven-spot list and threw my blog’s name in a rush of adrenaline that obscured rather than heightened my failings.

Part of the process is that I must list 11 facts about myself.

1. I’m interested, but I’m not interesting.

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Visiting a Feminist Book Shop

I love bookstores. My love is a simple one. Uncomplicated. There is no bookstore that does not deserve one visit. The thought is in my heart and there is no reason for it. In the small hours of the night when every one is shuttered the world seems colder, sadder and tenuous. Unbalanced. I trace some of these thoughts, more like detritus, to the common thread of my childhood. There were sadder things, certainly. There were events that carried more weight and finality. But nothing competed with the dull ache of not being able to find a good book, in a store, before I had to leave. Before it closed. Such a busy life I led, even as a child, but somehow my departures, as I turn the memories over, are without purpose. I look for a reason. There is none or at least I cannot remember. I like to think there was a reason for all those early departures. When I left I knew the store would close. The world would be a little quieter and yet, without all the hushed tones floating in the air above the stacks, louder. Louder but with less purpose, with less meaning.

In the Book of Imaginary Beings, Borges writes of the Wufniks. “There are on earth, and always were, thirty-six righteous men whose mission is to justify the world before God. They are the Lamed Wufniks. They do not know each other and are very poor. If a man comes to the knowledge that he is a Lamed Wufnik, he immediately dies and somebody else, perhaps in another part of the world, takes his place. Lamed Wufniks are, without knowing it, the secret pillars of the universe. Were it not for them, God would annihilate the whole of mankind. Unawares, they are our saviors.” There is no doubt in my mind that the Wufnikes, as a general rule, are the operators of small bookstores. Independent ones, perhaps, but keeping in line with the canon (“they… are very poor”) the bookstores are not very popular. They are not necessarily well-maintained. I have my own evaluation rubric for a good bookstore. Coincidentally it more or less mimics my rubric for Mexican resturants but that’s a story for another time, dear reader. Good bookstores only have so much energy: they must spend this amount of energy one three things. The first is order. The second is selection. The third is price. In this sense my grading evokes ideas of virtually anything else: quality, quantity, price but adapted for book-buying. To that I say mea culpa. You got me. I still find it useful. The best bookkeepers of these stores are our saviors.  Continue reading

Choosing What Books to Keep

Choosing What Books to Keep

The novelist Nicholson Baker is perhaps the most vocal critic of deaccessioning in libraries, first in 1996, in a much-discussed exposé of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) published in The New Yorker, and then in a book called Double Fold. Concerned initially about the disappearance of card catalogs and the way that enthusiasm for information technologies was damaging the traditional culture of libraries, he sued the San Francisco Public Library for access to their old card catalog, which had been replaced by an electronic one as the library moved into a new building. What he discovered went far beyond the issue of paper versus electronic cataloging. He found that there were many books noted in the card catalog that no longer existed in the library. Between the time the SFPL left its old main building and the time it moved into its high-tech, built-for-the-future, and supposedly more roomy new one with its electronic card catalog, somewhere between a hundred thousand and a quarter of a million books were removed from the collection.

This was weeding on a scale—and in a time frame—that suggested reckless destruction more than considered selection. Many books that existed in no other copies, many books arguably with historic value, had been simply thrown away and buried in landfill. Partly this had been done because the new library, while boasting great architectural flourishes and lots of architectural space, did not have enough shelf space. Partly it had been done because the current librarian had a view of what books belonged in the collection that differed from that of previous librarians. He saw the library as serving the general reader, as opposed to researchers and literary professionals, arguing that with the Berkeley and Stanford university libraries nearby, there was no lack of research libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area. He conceived of the SFPL rather as a library for a current urban population and therefore saw an opportunity to pare its collections radically.

Some Thoughts on Myths

The angels are two days and two nights older than we: the Lord created them on the fourth day, and from their high balcony between the recently invented sun and the first moon they scanned the infant earth, barely more than a few wheat fields and some orchards beside the waters. These primitive angels were stars. For the Hebrews, the concepts of angel and star merged effortlessly: I will select, from among many, the passage of the Book of Job (38:7) in which the Lord spoke out of the whirlwind and recalled the beginning of the world, “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Quite apparently, these sons of God and singing stars are the same as the angels. Isaiah, too (14:12), calls the fallen angel “the morning star.”

Borges incorporated countless myths into his writing: knowing old stories, and retrieving and reworking them, brought about conclusions radically different from rational inquiry. By that I mean there is nothing logically necessary about stars, Semitic myths and the Hebrew Bible in particular that creates his story. In that sense he is similar to Joyce rather than Kafka–he was the ultimate synthesizer. His labyrinths are borrowed from history. Kafka produced the motifs for our new age, Borges loved the last era’s. Our point of departure requires a few caveats. Myths are not lies or delusions: they are, in that glittering phrase of Roland Barthes’, inflections. Myths still exist all around us, and while many are antiquated the vast majority still have a vitality.

Yes, dear reader, we still have myths and we still have our cathedrals. I think that social media is almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals; I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object. In those cathedrals instead of celebrating a child’s hand that does not know how to die or is forced to live (e.g. A Hand Grows from the Grave by A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz, A Hand Grows from the Grave: Three Legends from Mecklenburg  by Karl Bartsch ect) but something equally informative. Say, that if you are (1) unattractive, (2) stubborn, (3) egotistical and (4) nerdy you are automatically intelligent.

Look at how Steve Wozniak was fat and stubborn in his youth and how the casting in the Jobs movie was perfectly accurate for a computer nerd, which was sarcasm dear reader. Look at the chubby Bill Gates jumping over a chair, our contemporary construction of ‘nerd:’  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8TCxE0bWQeQ . Then there is this familiar television host. I cannot help but notice, especially in the case of Wozniak, how reality is bent to our myth. Wozniak, somehow, gains thirty pounds. Myths are still all around us. The only thing that has changed is that they are incorporated into shiny new cathedrals that are publicly traded.

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If I am not mis…

If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem, ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is the every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.

Borges and his unique, accurate and interesting approach to Kafka. For the full essay, and a few others, click here. 

My Bookish, Puritan Habits

To anthropologists of the future my book buying will look as much like a sinister cult as a commercial triumph (for the bookstore, of course). Book-buying, after all, has all the basic lineaments of a religion. When I walk through the shelves I am an adherent, and when I seize upon a book I am as much motivated by feelings of guilt as anything more constructive. For when I walk through all those words, winking shyly at me, my hand never leaves my side without a twinge. There are so many, how can I only choose one? And then, right alongside, is the urge to atone for fleshly sins. ‘I can read this book,’ I assure myself, and in the process relax. It will be treatment for those long hours contorted into office chairs. My back shouts in triumph. I have neglected the finer things in life and with a bit of book all will be forgiven.

Another sign of puritanical, religious beliefs? Regularity. Many visit their places of worship with a fanatical regularity: a third of LA Fitness members, for instance, go virtually every day. Once there, believers are led by sacerdotal instructors, who either goad them into mass ecstasy during aerobics classes, or preside over the confessional tête-à-tête of personal training. Similarly, I am led by my greatest instructor: my nose. Otherwise, I am led through, confessional style, by a tightly clutched list of titles urging my not to stray too far from the path, but also indulging my tendency to get lost among the trees.

I can see your eyebrow raised, dear reader. ‘You are led by your nose!’ I’m afraid so. There is no other way to describe it. My only hope is that you, too, dear reader are a member of the (secret?) book-sniffer guild. Surely I cannot be alone. When I wander through the aisles of books I wish, or at least lie, that my buying habits were motivated by a curious but pleasant mix of knowledge, taste and refinement. That is simply not the case. The situation I am in is that of a slave. I am a slave to smell. The smell of a good bookstore has the same effect as that of, well, something appropriately illicit. Would it be fair to say that it is a fetish? I am not sure, and frankly I do not want to dwell on the subject too long. But there is something intoxicating about the right balance of glue, age and love that is the exclusive domain of pre-owned books.

What always surprises me about book stores is how transparent the books are. What I feel for any single book, like Alice’s Cheshire cat, threatens to disappear if I stare at it too long. Gradually and then all at once. I pick up a winking, colorful book with a title and cover art that promises so much. But then I am left with nothing but a disembodied smile. The book is not a thoughtful meditation, or even a frothy adventure. Instead it is something dully and duly pushed by an obscure publisher. I have tendency for picking up shallow devotionals. Scripture for the young, thirty-something entrepreneur. Sigh. Another book, which promised to be a riotous adventure through medieval theology, is at best something that gets placed on a coffee table never to be loved. The editors and publishers have done too much damage. Where is the substance? It prevents no one from seeing right through.

Allow me one quick aside, dear reader. A well replicated Borges critique: “Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem “Fears and Scruples” by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.” In the same sense I feel that the best bookstores, and the best trips, modify my conception of the past. The best book stores burden my future, in the best possible sense, and brighten my past.

Each devotee has his or her own rituals, though most rely on the principles of self-mortification and delayed gratification. My own are simple. I must carry everything I buy in one armload or not at all. It is my absolute barrier. I do not do two trips. Perhaps this habit started out of hubris. But now it is a fail-safe that prevents my wallet from being emptied in a particularly riotous afternoon. I do not apologize for myself or provide excuses. Yet when my arms strain under the pounds I feel some sort of joy. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, I suppose I do something similar and in some perverse sense my arms are straining under the time they hold. In short, my aching muscles represent a perfect bridge between self-mortification and delayed gratification. There is nothing more gratifying than a book, and nothing dilates time like trying to herd my books from some obscure back table, to the front, to my car, from my car and to my book shelves.

That my grunts, sighs and quiet mutterings through this whole process provides a liturgy is only an excellent bonus. Perhaps they reach the firmament above? God I wish I was worshiping right now.