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.

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.

One-Off: Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark

One-Off: Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark

Dark matter and dark energy are more directly motivated by observations of the real world. Dark matter is apparently needed to account for the gravitational effects that seem to come from parts of space where no ordinary matter is visible, or not enough to explain the tug. For example, rotating galaxies seem to have some additional source of gravitational attraction, beyond the visible stars and gas, that stops them from flying apart. The “lensing” effect where distant astrophysical objects get distorted by the gravitational warping of spacetime also seems to demand this invisible form of matter. But dark matter does not exist in the usual sense, in that it has not been seen and there are no theories that can convincingly explain or demand its existence. Dark energy too is a kind of “stuff” required to explain the acceleration of the universe’s expansion, discovered by astronomers observing far-away objects in the mid-1990s. But it is just a name for a puzzle, without any direct detection.

It seems quite possible that dark energy, and perhaps dark matter too, will turn out to be like Crookes’ “dark space” and “radiant energy”: not exactly stuff, but symptoms of some hitherto unknown physical principle. These connections were exquisitely intuited by Philip Pullman in theHis Dark Materials trilogy, where (the title alone gives a clue) a mysterious substance called Dust is an amalgam of dark matter and Barrett’s quasi-sentient psychomeres, given a spiritual interpretation by the scientist-priests of Pullman’s alternative steampunk Oxford University who sense its presence using instruments evidently based on Crookes’ light mill.

Scientists, of course, are not just making things up, while leaning on the convenience of supposed invisibility. They are using dark matter and dark energy, and (if one is charitable) quantum many-worlds and branes, and other imperceptible and hypothetical realms, to perform an essential task: to plug gaps in their knowledge with notions they can grasp.

From Nautilus, a great publication for all the obvious reasons. This article was perfect. I’d definitely recommend it. If only I could write half as well. 

A One Off

One-off does not mean merely “unusual”; nor does it mean “like Halley’s comet,” coming back once in many blue moons. The one is off by itself, standing alone, pristine in its singularity. The compound adjective and noun means, in my mind, “without precedent, easily copied but impossible to perfectly reproduce or clone.”

Hello, dear reader. I am going to start something to accompany the somewhat standard ‘Today I Noticed’ blurbs with a few posts titled ‘One Off’ or ‘Another One Off.’ It’d be something small. Appetizing, I hope, but still small. Perhaps a photo but more often a link. 

The first one-off will be about the etymology of the word. Happy reading.

Also, dear reader, feel free to post links that you find interesting.

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.”