Toni Morrison

Don’t write about Woman, write about a woman. This is a simple statement but controversial.

Toni Morrison was recently appointed at Columbia University, a nice gesture. Morrison would not be teaching. She would not be publishing in any academic publications. She likely will not publish much more fiction because she is rapidly approaching her mid-eighties. “Her papers” will never be released in any form to the public and will not be viewed by any biographers. Her public refusals of Henry Louis Gates Jr. to catalog her life and African American heritage needs no additional commentary. The same is true for her repeated refusals to find a memoirist (for those dear readers who do not know—nearly all ‘memoirs’ are in fact written and compiled by other people and the ostensible subject combs through a finished project).

If Columbia does not expect a sudden start to Morrison’s academic career, has doubts about her continued career as a writer and does not, or should not, expect to be the recipient of Morrison’s generosity then there is no soft answer for why she was offered this position. But the answer is not difficult. Columbia University has joined an ever greater number of the public who read Morrison to make themselves feel better about themselves.

Few judge her on whether the prose is good or what she has to say because she’s long past being an author who is understood. Or an author at all. She is an empty memorial to everything and, so, nothing at all. She’s taught, at best, and at worst she’s just another author passing the public like two dark ships at night. And we’ll probably have nice little articles, perhaps a few honors, about a Morrison completely unrelated to anything other than the article-author’s own peccadillos and loves for quite some time.

Few people appear to be reading her books. One can pick up a glut of once read, perhaps, copies of Beloved for less than a dollar: the foisted remains of each successive high school class that struggles through a book presented by aging diversity ‘trail blazers.’ Unsurprisingly, her latest novel, God Help this Child, is currently ranked in the mid 1400s on Amazon, which in fact represents something of a crest in terms of sales potential as Amazon has recently begun combining all mediums—Audio CD, Kindle, Audible Audio. Never before has it been easier to buy a book no one else does.

That Morrison is not read because Morrison—as a person—no longer matters is a neat, linear progression I think more would make if they considered it. It also explains why Morrison, as a New York Magazine piece summarized, “decades after she won her Nobel, [her] place in the pantheon is hardly assured.”

For example, elsewhere in the article, in a burst of unintentional self-parody, the same writer fired off a slew of meaningless pretensions that explain more about the article’s author than Morrison. She writes, Morrison is successful even when she isn’t successful or, in the article writer’s words, writers with “smaller ambitions” would “live on contentedly in this plush purgatory.”

But what I found especially telling in this piece was a final, parting paragraph. Tacked on, perhaps, but truncated just as the article becomes interesting. The author writes: Morrison will escape the “plush purgatory,” and “pass the test” when  “Chloe Wofford is gone, and Toni Morrison is all that’s left.”

Chloe Ardelia Wofford is Toni Morrison’s real name and, curiously enough, her preferred name—as she has stated almost incessantly since the end of her first marriage and, likely, stated long before its end. “Oh God! It sounds like some teenager—what is that?” She laughed through one interview with the Times.  “But Chloe,” she explains “That’s a Greek name. People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best. Chloe writes the books.” Toni Morrison, Ms. Wofford clarifies, does the tours, the interviews, the “legacy and all of that.”

Her legacy, so far, is bracketed by discussions of her Nobel Prize. Note well how the international community has approached Morrison, memorializing and promptly forgetting about her. Like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah—African American literature, great stuff, see you later.’ They made a nice gesture, handed out a few medals and became (I’m reminded of Tony Judt’s comment) another gnome in the land of forgetting.

And note well how the Times, serenely unaware of its own complicity, writes in the same article that Wofford does not even have control of her own name—as if that was an accusation directed against anyone but the people who appreciate her body of work. Gawker famously remarked, on the announcement that there would be a Morrison book this year, declared that there was already a ‘Best Book of 2015.’ Enter Columbia University to finally prove, channeling Dr. Johnson’s Gospel of Matthew, that pride must have a fall to prove that it is the true thing and not merely the mock.

Or, perhaps even better, a tendentious article with the word ‘vision’ in its title. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/magazine/the-radical-vision-of-toni-morrison.html?_r=0 As the author explains, but doesn’t get at the heart of, “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Song of Solomon” are a bold holy trinity of “classics.” How do we know this? They were the jumpstart to a “literary culture that had to either diversify or die.” And if we ignore the uncomfortable fact that literary culture died anyhow along with most of the reading public, then we get at the heart of what Morrison was to the author from virtually the very beginning. Not so much a writer, or even an artist, but a thing that everyone just wished would hurry up and die so that she could be memorialized and symbolized. And since she has (unfortunately) lingered on, we will just go ahead and memorialize all her work as “classics” before she dies.

She is often discussed in terms of her audience, the older black women who fan themselves with her book covers at her readings, the teenage girls who sigh on buses and trains while reading “Sula” for class, the young male rappers who have interpolated lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their songs.

Here the author comes so, so close to making that point. I take for granted that the “older black women” who fan themselves with Morrison’s book covers, apparently just the book covers, are just as real to the author as the “young male rappers” who have “interpolated” lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their song. By that I mean not real at all. Instead, they are reduced from an actual group of people to symbols whose actual existence is irrelevant. Morrison herself flatly reflected across other people, other times, because Morrison doesn’t exist as a person to the author either. Morrison is the ultimate mirror, and like all mirrors merely reflects back at the author the author’s own opinions.

This sort of empty memorializing, Morrison “on her own terms,” is both flatly untrue if the author is writing from the Old Gray Lady and is also a choice to evaluate Morrison on no terms at all. If I evaluated you on your own terms that would only be evaluating you on whatever items I thought were neat. Cool. Exciting. Not ‘terms’ in the classical, objective sense of the word but random notes that I bang on about. The author almost admits it, “Morrison serves as a totem for so much of this energy.” Totems don’t write, they just accumulate whatever superstitions the devoted attribute to the object. Phrased a little differently, Morrison is in fact a totem.

This sort of thinking isn’t limited to popular venues. Even odd academic pursuits, such as the recent Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, is ready for those heady times when we are completely free from living with Wofford. As the introduction explains one essay, “For Stave, Sweet Home is a riff on the Garden of Eden with its ‘lush pastoral setting’ that is far from innocent. She then engages both Jazz and Paradise as a ‘startling critique of the Judeo-Christian God,’ positing salvation not as religious reward but as the ‘result of human forgiveness and connectedness.’” This essay must assume that Ms. Wofford is dead—most of these essays have to as a preliminary matter. Because if they don’t their ‘research’ is useless. On one hand they can write and write and analyze. On the other they can call her up and ask.

Less interesting, but also relevant, is the creation of Morrison as a weapon. She explains herself well: her vision of God, Judeo-Christian and all, is one of forgiveness. This anthropomorphic being creates bridges and, as the cliché goes, he does not destroy them. But here, as is elsewhere, Morrison is ‘actually’ criticizing the author’s own peccadillos. Perhaps it’s an elaborate coincidence, and that it so happens that Morrison was actually thinking that when she wrote of her conception of Judeo-Christian God she was also criticizing Judeo-Christian God—or, at least, a form. But when a whole book, a whole industry, springs up where author’s appropriate Morrison for their own views coincidence begins to look like deliberateness.

I am not saying that they must pick one side or the other. I’m merely commentating on the choice they have created for themselves. One or the other: whatever Ms. Wofford happens to say is beside the point. Her ‘true’ meaning is irrelevant and the meaning that they pull from her works, which inevitably has a meaning near and dear to their own lives, is of primary importance. Literary hashish for the 21st Century.

Part of this is inevitable. Books are never written for most Americans. They simply are not. How many comments begin “I’ve never read (m)any of Ms. Morrison’s books but…?” And when you reduce book-reading even further to all dozen African-American study programs that require their students to read novels, the pool only gets smaller. The calculus, then, is that more people will care about Morrison if she is divested of her thorny, real-person edges and transformed into being a feel good story about black experience.

Young, male rappers and old, porch-bound spinsters coming together with NYT article writers to sit in a circle around the figure of Morrison–the NYT’s writer leading the discussion, of course. It doesn’t have any meaning, but in the garden of forgetting not having a point is rarely fatal. In fact the opposite is true, so Morrison herself can be left at the door (and must be). Such that someone can be quoted, criticizing the establishment, “black literature, black art, has always been put in a separate category” almost simultaneously as Morrison herself is saying ‘I write on my own terms, African-American literature first and distinct from literature over all.’ Oh well.

I had spent hours with Morrison, accosting her with questions, thinking about her, observing her, and yet for the first time I understood Morrison was a person with real human concerns.

And for the last time.

Reviewing Ready Player One, Wool, and The Martian

With a recent announcement by Paramount Pictures that they are going to scoop of the last the ‘holy trifecta’ of self-published fantasy novels I wonder, not for the last time, whether if I am alone in my apathy towards the ‘holy trifecta’ of Ready Player One, The Martian and Wool. They’re almost always mentioned together whenever I browse blogs, reddit or anywhere at all online. I legitimately believe something is wrong with me because I’ve read all three and found all three to be substantially similar, even if the details are all fiddled about, and for those reasons to find them as books to be terrible reads.

Ready Player One was a fluff fest that could be easily devoured and forgotten—sort of like a BigMac. Its careful curator of 80s memorabilia, who occasionally acts like a protagonist, strings together little set scenes that are barely related, which come together and pop apart without much ever happening. Some people come, some die and everyone is steadfastly opposed to personal growth of any sort. Death is followed by resurrection, defeat by victory, but it is impossible to say what, if anything, changed.

Similarly, if read literally, the Martian is about a sociopath stuck on Mars. Read literally it’s someone who has a complete absence of any emotional or psychological depth, much less growth, yet is someone vaguely concerned with proving thirteen year-old science ‘enthusiasts’ wrong about his methods. Or at least that’s the only conclusion I came to after reading this very thin presentation of ‘what-if-stranded-on-Mars?’ Read charitably, it’s a book about someone who has an above average understanding of ‘science,’ if science is periodically explaining a few quirks of chemistry and engineering. That is to say, it’s a book about the author and it shows. It’s certainly not about an astronaut actually on Mars.

I recently read Wool, and I was not entirely surprised for it to be equally devoid of any humanity and primarily concerned with concocting and connecting in a generally linear way a series of somewhat-thought-out scenes that would be more fitting for the ‘big screen’ than literature. It went down easily, sometimes I detected a faint whiff of irony but eventually I assumed that it was unintended self-parody rather than intentional. And again I was struck by the same feeling of not even reading a book, more like a type of frothy summer movie mixed in with an author who never really manages to disguise themselves. An acquaintance sat down with me and sort of hashed out his vision for a movie, but unfortunately we were interrupted so he took it upon himself to inflict on me his vision in an email. Unfortunately because I really don’t have much interest in reading a movie.

In fact, about a year ago, a few months ago and as recently as last week I was recommending for people who were truly divided on what one to begin (of the three, of the two or one of them singularly) to first wait for the movies. “If you really are torn between the three I’d suggest just jumping straight to comic books or a good television series. The books are either written with an eye towards television or edited that way. Or perhaps just read the few pages that are everyone’s “favorite scenes,” because that is exactly what they are. Scenes.” A reader would be much better served by ignoring “the shoehorning into the written word and enjoy them in a few years once Paramount picks them up.”

With obviously bogus protagonists, these authors must now depend on the cunning of their narrative gifts to propel these characters through great events. Finding the keys to the kingdom, finding a way off of Mars with some poop and potatoes, uncovering the secrets of a silo that depends on those very same secrets for its existence. Throughout it all the scenery, while entertaining, never quite matches up with the characters. I’m reminded of an archaic type of film where the scenery, painted on a tarp, is flung through the air by the operators without any prompting from the actors. They can keep up or they can fall behind. They can jump ahead. But the two aren’t related. At most it’s coincidence that they’re in unison.

Of course, Fox ended up picking up the Martian and Wool. Paramount captured Ready Player One. I was sort of right. They finally get to be what they were always meant to be, movies, and I still don’t get why anyone thinks they make good books. They’re scripts, at best, or at least good ideas for scripts. And really I can’t wait for the movies to air because then we can stop pretending that these novels are primarily, or even at all, concerned about sentences.

A Wonder of Reading

In Borges illuminating, “premeditated” study of Kafka, we are deposited–in a fashion Borges’ owns–onto the conclusion that we discover Kafka’s qualities but only because he had written and Max had saved. Kafka’s influence on these earlier works “In other words… would not exist” if Max had obeyed the will or Kafka had not obeyed his will.

When Pontius Pilate was asked to take down the sign above Christ’s head—which read ‘King of the Jews’—he replied quod scripsi scripsi.There was no regret or elusion. But earlier Pilate had looked into the crowd and had washed his hands. Christ was neither his problem nor responsibility. It is a study of contrasts, who is the real Pilate? If he did not allow a single addition or elision then he is a man of towering certainty. If he abdicated his responsibility and washed his hands of the crowds’ decision then, dear, reader, come to the opposite conclusion.

Deciding who he is a question without an answer, but he is a door we have to pass through. He is still alive, having exhausted all infamy, and is a gift that we must accept gratefully. Because he is a gift I cannot refuse I am afraid that my suffering and joys and sufferings, not to mention my other sufferings, will be left for other pages. Other nights will carry the burden of my scribbling life. Tonight is Pontius.

It is a needless observation that Pilate should be damned for his actions but because of his actions he, indirectly, saved the world. Are the world’s sins cleansed forever and for all if Jesus is let go in favor of Barabas? I am not a theologian but Jurgen Moltmann would be a radically different thinker. Perhaps that is a modern point—efficiency and end results always provide retroactive forgiveness to inexcusable means. But I would consider it a small irony if Pilate was damned because he allowed the savior to save the world. Given the omniscience of God he is also a moral point and, thus, we are led back to my first paragraph—what moral point?

I refuse to believe that Pilate is unvarnished evil. He is not Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature and deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.”

What Pilate represents to us, today, is not the same moral point he has always represented. Theology always contains an autobiographical element, and an autobiography is always changing. What I see in Pilate is Kafka, but if Kafka had not written then I would have never seen him. What I see in Pilate is also an Eichmann, but if Arendt had not written then I would have never seen him.

For that I thank you, authors, and for you dear reader think of what and how figures change when you look at them through different lenses. For Borges could have, and I am sure he did, gone farther. It is not Kafka that we see in those earlier writers, though he is certainly there. It is ourselves that we see. If Zeno’s paradox against movement is reflected in Kafka’s work and Kafka’s work is reflected in Zeno’s then it is because you choose to insert Kafka’s work into Zeno’s and Zeno’s into Kafka’s. And now, as I write, I am busily inserting Borges and, for that matter, whomever you decided wrote the Gospels.

Functionally, I have become Kafka’s precursor. It is a wonder of reading. In considering Pilate I leave myself behind, for Kafka to pick up after I read him–or perhaps before.

Lolita and Eichmann

Sometime in late 1960 or early 1961 Adolf Eichmann, jailed and awaiting trial in Jerusalem, was given by his guard a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s recently published Lolita, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “for relaxation.” After two days Eichmann returned it, indignant: “Quite an unwholesome book!” (Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch!)

Eichmann’s reaction is about what I imagined for him. But guessing the officer’s intentions is another matter. There is difficultly imagining anyone offering Lolita for “relaxation.” Eichmann was writing under observation and awaiting a trial that will consign him either to death or prolonged imprisonment—which fate spares him by felling him with a heart attack. If nothing else we can agree that Eichmann did not find many things relaxing. Regardless if he was a delusional madman or simply unthinking: few things are relaxing for someone at that moment writing his (soon to be posthumous) memoirs. Nabokov’s challenging book is not one of them. That much, dear reader, we can assume.

We might speculate other intentions on the part of Eichmann’s guard. Was it a sincere gift? Or was it something of an experiment? Nabokov has never faded from the popular consciousness, but Lolita was certainly closer national recognition in the ’60s. It is probable that the guard knew the book was for the thinking public and imagined that Eichmann constituted some distorted, cruel reimagining of that public (by National Socialism? Germany? Hitler? I leave the agent in that sentence up to you, dear reader).

I can’t help but wonder: might Eichmann’s guard have seen Lolita as a sort of litmus test for radical evil, and wanted to see whether the real-life villain reacted? Was it to see how the novel reacted to him? Imagine his devastation, or glee, if the man who organized transportation for countless innocents approved of Nabokov’s creation.

In a bit of awkward preening in Despair’s foreword, Nabokov recounts the circumstances attending to this first translation of the work. “I asked a rather grumpy Englishman,” says Nabokov, “whose services I obtained [End Page 313] through an agency in Berlin, to read the stuff; he found a few solecisms in the first chapter, but then refused to continue, saying he disapproved of the book; I suspect he wondered if it might not have been a true confession” (Despair, p. xi). Nabokov’s explanation appears to be the one which we will find in nearly all of his later works. If Eichmann approved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? That he disproved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? Too little?

It is possible to imagine that Eichmann’s reaction was intended to act as a mirror. What does the guard see when Humbert is reflected through and off the lens of evil. Did Eichmann see a fellow traveler in Humbert? An alien? What could we say if Eichmann, like so many of us, grasped the novel and refused to let go? I wonder if it would make any difference and whether it should.

This is all only speculation. In Arendt’s account, she congratulates Eichmann for his indignation and moves on to other matters. In any event, given Eichmann’s radical conventionality one could hardly imagine him liking—or even very well understanding—much of the book. As Eichmann himself avowed, during his adult life he had read only two books, one of them being Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. He preferred newspapers. I don’t know what that says about the New York Times.

Maya Angelou, a Signpost in the Land of Forgetting

There was a recent article I flipped through. I worried, wrongly, that it was intentional clickbait.

Instead, we read post after post, obituary after tribute, calling her a “pimp” and saying she had “an unsuccessful stint as a prostitute.” The most detailed accounts currently online are making sure to emphasize that she spent a “brief stint,” a “short time” in the sex industry, so as to, without explicit words, solidify the shame they believe she should have felt, the shame we should feel as well. The media uses inflammatory terms to get clicks and to emphasize the terrible and shameful secret that was, in actuality, never a secret at all.

Much to my chagrin it was a useful post.

Like many writers who have signed up with a systematic way of thinking about the world, Ms. Marie’s worldview consists of all external political or social data. The data is filtered through a grid of suspicion: Things are not what they seem. These ‘things’ reveal their true meaning only when decoded in accordance with the knowledge of the initiated. At that point, dear reader, the data (and author) make complete sense and everything falls into place in a universal scheme. What her particular worldview is does us little good, but keep the thought in mind.

‘The Erasure?’ I thought. The article arouses suspicion. Since there is hardly a shared conception of the departed author, I’m a little surprised at the audacity. Sadly, audacity seems more laziness than significance in this instance. When an idea seems to tremble and treble under its own inanity, I will always add an article–or several–to make it seem more significant. The idea of the blogger at the WordPress working at the table. So ominous. Keep it in mind, dear reader, because I am similarly lazy.

But enough of this entertainment. To the substance of the argument: we have forgotten that Maya Angelou was a sex worker. True but the author can go deeper. She can implicate herself. Specifically, if we have forgotten it–if we need to be reminded about its erasure–it is only because we have not read what Angelou has written. That is my interest in this article. Admitting an erasure is an erasure itself. If I wrote a post about the erasure, the forgetting, of Mark Twain’s time as a riverboat captain–the sine qua non to understanding Mark Twain’s work–there is no distinguishable line between furthering and preventing.

In some sense, talking about the erasure of someone’s life is roughly comparable to describing Ulysses as an old soldier on his way back from the war who encounters a few problem en route. Not false, but hopelessly inadequate.

To add an sharper point to this discussion, what is the reason (notice the article) for why we do not chat, somewhat amicably, about the departed author’s thoughts on sucking cock for money? Ms. Marie has this to say “It comes to this: there is no way, in the minds of most people, to have worked as a prostitute and not be ashamed of it.” True, perhaps, but what people–exactly? It is an interesting question that, I think, has hard answers.

One answer, a simple one, requires the premise that a blog post needs to be written. So she chooses an easy target. I’m doing the same thing now. She chooses the ‘public.’ Spoiler, this is not her writing.

The public is not a people, it is not a generation, it is not a simultaneity, it is not a community, it is not a society, it is not an association, it is not those particular men over there, because all these exist because they are concrete and real; however, no single individual who belongs to the public has any real commitment; some times during the day he belongs to the public, namely, in those times in which he is nothing; in those times that he is a particular person, he does not belong to the public. Consisting of such individuals, who as individuals are nothing, the public becomes a huge something, a nothing, an abstract desert and emptiness, which is everything and nothing. . . Our Present Age

At the risk of sounding absurdly academic, if Ms. Marie holds the view of Ms. Angelou as post-erasure, we need should possess a view of post-posterasure. By this I mean that if her identity has been so successfully uprooted her old distinctions ‘people’ can no longer remember, why should they need to feel anything in favoring a return to a reality? Why, we should ask dear reader, should we keep forgetting? What does it have to do with the ‘public?’ Or any sort of system of thought? We should remember, not because of ideology or some sort of greater purpose but because, simply, that is what she wrote about. Therefore, we should read it. If we do not it is because of our own fault, not the public’s. Not some system of thought that has systematic power over our conception. If we enjoy an author and we do not remember it, especially if there are blog posts about how great we are for managing to remember something the author wrote, then there is no finger pointing.

More importantly it seems a bit bizarre to assign the problem to other people, in some other category. If her erasure is anyone’s fault it is her own. It is my own. Most of all it is the fault of those who loved her: for every individual that praised her for what she was (black, woman, ect) then, if for only reasons of personal integrity, they should have embraced her use as a pricey sex toy. I doubt we’ll see that but we should live that precept out in our own lives. Make people feel uncomfortable. It’d be honest.

Thoughts Under an Indolent Sun

There is no point to this piece, dear reader, so you should politely excuse yourself now.

I completed reading a novel by Alberto Moravia, Boredom. He is an author who embodies the modern-day author whose work has only one common requirement: the work cannot stand alone. The body of work needs to be taken in as a whole, instead of one artifact speaking for the man. Whether this is good or bad is up to you, dear reader, to decide. But the orientation of the novelist is not readily legible without acknowledging that fact and, even, placing him at the headwaters–along with Italo Svevo–of the Italian untouchables. Untouched by war, untouched by compassion and untouched by Italian upheaval following 1945. Boredom stands alone, but only weakly. His quality grows as you read him. But unlike modern writers he is not modern, and thus the typicality of his work is instead prophetic. He wrote what he could. The rest would be left up to others, perhaps those like Calvino, perhaps not. For that I admire him whereas some modern writers, given everything, still refrain.

Here is a nice quote from the Paris Review, which interviewed him: “Writers, like all artists, are concerned to represent reality, to create a more absolute and complete reality than reality itself. They must, if they are to accomplish this, assume a moral position, a clearly conceived political, social, and philosophical attitude; in consequence, their beliefs are, of course, going to find their way into their work. What artists believe, however, is of secondary importance, ancillary to the work itself. A writer survives despite his beliefs. Lawrence will be read whatever one thinks of his notions on sex. Dante is read in the Soviet Union.” The Art of Fiction VI: Alberto Moravia. Paris Review, (6), 16-37.

What a restricted view of agency! We cannot help but read Dante, Lawrence and Moravia. What an interesting thought. Continue reading

How Dante Saved My Life

How Dante Saved My Life

The Inferno is not an exhaustive taxonomy of sins (though it sometimes feels like it), but rather an allegory of the condition of sinfulness. For Dante, the worst sins are not those of the appetite—Lust and Gluttony, for example—but sins against the things that make us most human. In Dante’s spiritual geography, Hell is like a vast pit mine, with least corrupt sins punished near the top, the middling sins—sins of Violence and sins of Fraud—punished in the central regions—and the foulest sin of all—Treason—punished at the bottom, where Lucifer dwells.

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. 

They Have One Book

Some days I think it would be terribly romantic if I became someone of one book. Assuming I don’t succumb to my romantic dreams about being an alcoholic I’d be a grouch, but a well-loved one. I would always carry that one well-loved book with it’s tired pages. In this daydream I imagine myself like some sort of latter day Jonathan Edwards. But instead of the Bible it is Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Perhaps the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance and you all are unbalanced chakrahs in the hands of an angry God world. Perhaps it could be some Third Wave Feminist pink handbook or Mao’s red one. The book is not as important as the habits and the accomplishments. I’d be the Robert Graves of Aztec literature. Or the Robert Graves of Robert Graves–his works can sustain and even flourish with multiple readings.

Aquinas created the aphorism ‘a man of one book,’ or so I believe. Wikipedia confirms which is almost a reassurance. What I would like, and perhaps I should store this seed away for future efforts, is a book like Robert Merton’s. But instead of tracing the phrase ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ I trace ‘a man of one book’ used in the appropriate context. That would be scholarship of the most frivolous and fun kind.

Isaiah Berlin, in his frothy essay about Russian literature, had this to say about the phrase: “[Aquinas’s] words are generally quoted today in disparagement of the man whose mental horizons are limited to one book. Aquinas, however, meant that a man who has thoroughly mastered one good book can be dangerous as an opponent. The Greek poet Archilochus meant something like this when he said that the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The metaphor glitters. I love it. I would be the best hedgehog the world had ever known! Or so I reassure myself.

A few people have attempted to become a man of one book (how interesting is it that I have not found a woman or two to soften this list? Not very, as my ‘research’ skills are not without their blindspots but worth mentioning). Michael Dirda owned, at last count, nearly twenty books by or about E. F. Benson as well as a few by the brother Robert Benson. E. B. White carried Walden around everywhere he went. The grandmother in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time had the letters of Madame de Sevigne. Even Alexander the Great never left Asia without Homer’s tome, bejeweled with the conquests of nations.  Samuel Johnson admonished novice writers to devote themselves to Addison’s essays. There’s that well-worn anecdote that Francis Bacon always chatted about Aeschylus, almost obsessively, and his writings make him a first ballot ‘man of one book’ shoe-in. John Wesley also claimed to be a man of one book.

An interesting note: the scholarship that surrounds Wesley is, in brief, a rough mimic of the popular and academic esteem one gathered (or missed) by being a ‘man of one book.’ He was loved when he was a man of one book, the Bible, during the early scholarship but as that idea became more archaic to those who care about his reputation (or, to be honest, those who know about him at all) scholarship has changed accordingly. It’s a prime instance where there was one set of agreed on facts that were “papered over and a new set of agreed-upon facts were hurried into place.”  If I ever write a book about the phrase, I think he would be a nice pinnacle.

Perhaps I’m already someone of one book, or at least one author. I manage to throw Vidal’s name out therefrequently. But it would be another animal entirely if I peppered my posts, not to mention daily chats, with Augustine’s Confessions, or Georg Misch’s impossibly well researched History of Autobiography in Antiquity and–wait for the gasp–its two volumes. If I’m honest, and I had to commit myself to one book, I would attempt it with Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.

“That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truth and they were all beautiful.

The old man had listed hundreds of the truth in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon. Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.

And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.

It was the truth that made the people grotesques.”

The most enjoyable aspect would be the great irony of becoming a character in Anderson’s book. My one truth would be the bookwarning me away from letting a single group of truths monopolize my attention.

Even still I wouldn’t mind reading one book to death. I just never have. As it is I don’t know if I’m much better than those that have. Christopher Howe, over at the Guardian, has a long list of reasons for why it’s never a problem to have too many books. Who is he trying to convince himself except for himself? When I scan my books there are not any convincing, or even defensible, reasons for why I should not read every one of the forlorn friends. This book is for a more patient me, I assure myself, than the one that woke up today. I pick up and read the back cover of another. This one I quickly put down. Poetry! I am too patient for poetry. I want the meaning to bite me in the ass. Another book is about the English—bah! Too frumpy. Another is about peasants. I have no time for the working class.

Perhaps this worrying forgets why I read in the first place. To Professor Borges his message was always that the study of literature is about appreciation, not context or theory much less romantic ideas about how my universe would revolve around some mulch and ink. “Reading should be a form of happiness.”

The Allure of the Map

The Allure of the Map

I enjoy Borges a lot. He gets a reference.

Some days I wake up from a dream where I’m Borges but then, as I get started on my day, I realize I am in one of his books. At that point it becomes a nightmare. I never woke up but just woke up into another dream. It’s almost as if I’m trying to make a dream as intricate and confusing but as beautifully balanced as Borges was.

I wish I could explain it better but I thought I’d share.