Mystery of Self and the Needs of the Body

In the midst of a meditation on the mysteries of food and its consumption comes this passage:

Not just the physiological self, the perpetually hungry, eating, food-besotted self, but the nighttime, dreaming self as well — these rebuff our attempts to understand them, let alone define and control them. Mysterious as we are to one another, we are equally mysterious to ourselves. And this mystery deepens with time, when we see that answers to our questions are in continual retreat, like desert mirages.

from Joyce Carol Oates "Food Mysteries" in Antaeus 68 1992

Tantalus as a figure for our human condition seems to be just out of reach. Without the questions, there would be no mirages. We must, as we breathe, stop asking questions at some time. And that is a mystery.

And so for day 627

Gardens, relationships, complexity

She introduces "Familiar prettiness" (collected in A Joy of Gardening) with the following paragraph:

The more one gardens, the more one learns; and the more one learns, the more one realizes how little one knows. I suppose the whole of life is like that: the endless complications, the endless difficulties, the endless fight against one thing or another, whether it be green-fly on the roses or the complexity of personal relationships.

A nice take on the labour involved in gardening and in the cultivation of relationships as per Vita Sackville-West. The more and the endless — it seems almost hopeless but we carry on.

And so for day 626

Use of Imagination

Winifred Gallagher in Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life provides this gem of circumlocution in the interests of anticipating hurdles:

Deciding beforehand what you'll focus on when sticking to your goal becomes difficult can even be a better strategy than trying to rev up your motivation.

Good thing it was preceded by this clear injunction:

[S]ome pragmatic research suggests that it's easier to shift your focus from that rich dessert to your goal of losing those five pounds if you practice ahead of time. When you rehearse in your head how you'll react to the lure of the all-you-can-eat buffet or the neighborhood watering hole before you're standing in front of it, you're much likelier to resist temptation than if you trust in your spontaneous response.

Planning makes sense.

And so for day 625

Abstraction, purpose of

It's a novel meditating on the reader's relation to the writer. From Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker

[M]aybe when you care, terribly, painfully, about the shape of the world, and you desire nothing but absolute, radical change, you protect yourself with abstraction, distance. Maybe the remoteness of my texts is the measure of my personal involvement? Maybe that chill you describe is a necessary illusion?

Cool sense of disavowal.

And so for day 624


Fadi Abou-Rihan in "Affect-Time" posted at The Psychoanalytic Field provides us with an enlightening tricolon:

Indeed, there is nothing unitary about the drive, the dream, and the transference; the drive is polymorphous, the dream is overdetermined, and the transference is multilayered.

I like the progression from drive through dream to transference. It is a way of introducing a uniform path in all the multiplicity.

And so for day 623

Dental Pickings

Arthur Quinn in Figures of Speech: 60 ways to turn a phrase in the section on metonymy provides a Biblical example

And I also have given you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and want of bread in all your places

Amos 4:6

I was a bit puzzled by this until the next page where Quin explains "Sometimes the substitutions are not immediately clear. When in the above passage Amos prophesies that God in His wrath is going to give the Hebrews clean teeth, we know this has nothing to do with dental hygiene. But it is is only on reflection that we realize that you don't have to brush your teeth if you don't eat."

Go figure.

And so for day 622

What are these shores?

In the collection of poems Mourning in the burned house by Margaret Atwood there is a section devoted to the slow but definite decline of an aged father. In this section, one of the poems is called "King Lear in Respite Care" and from that poem is this passage

Who knows what he knows?

Many things, but where he is

isn't among them. How did it happen.

this cave, this hovel?

It may or many not be noon.

Time, person and place. So rudimentary. Yet so necessary.

And in the final poem in this section, recounting the emergence from a dream state, the speaking voice recognizes "It always takes a long time / to decipher where you are."

And so for day 621

Step Softly

Ursula K. Le Guin The Telling

Where my guides lead me in kindness I follow, follow lightly, and there are no footprints in the dust behind us.

. . .

And so for day 620

Dodging Anticipation

William Gibson in this passage from All Tomorrow's Parties invites us to ponder the nature of design:

That which is overdesigned, too highly specific, anticipates outcome, the anticipation of outcome guarantees, if not failure, the absence of grace.

It is a well crafted sentence that defies anticipation.

And so for day 619

Glory and Process

Edmund White has suggested that there is something alchemical about James Merrill's poetry. He suggests that the "alertness to transubstantiation is the religious impulse behind Merrill's verse." Take for example this excerpt from a poem from The Inner Room

Open just one
Tiny bronze-purple thurible: briquettes!
Black as coal next year, they'll catch, they'll climb,
Repeating their tribe's miniature
Resurrection myth, where seed is saviour.

Morning glory seeds described by their vivid physical qualities and their gift of potential. Religion buoyed by botany. A smart conceit.

And so for day 618

The Space Between Places

William Gibson in Idoru opens a chapter thus

Between stations there was a gray shudder beyond the windows of the silent train. Not as of surfaces rushing past, but as if particulate matter were being vibrated there at some crucial rate, just prior to the emergence of a new order of being.

Nicely captures the experience of riding the subway.

And so for day 617

Detail Dilation

I am always fascinated by the text that is what it is describing it to be. I rather like the description of Leonardo's practice in one of the lectures from Italo Calvino (Six Memos for the Next Millennium). One can picture in the mind's eye the columns as they are being described as being written.

Let us take the fable about fire, for example, Leonardo gives us a rapid summary: the fire, offended because the water in the pan is above him, although he is the "higher" element, shoots his flames up and up until the water boils, overflows, and puts him out. Leonardo then elaborates this in three successive drafts, all of them incomplete, written in three parallel columns. Each time he adds some details, describing how, from a little piece of charcoal, a flame bursts through the gaps in the wood, crackling and swelling. But he soon breaks off, as if becoming aware that there is no limit to the minuteness of detail with which one can tell even the simplest story. Even a tale of wood catching fire in the kitchen fireplace can grow from within until it becomes infinite.

No surprise that the lecture is called "Exactitude". Pleasant surprise that I found myself recalling a short story by Carol Shields in which the narrator, a professor of literary studies, is found asking "So where exactly do I stand, then on narrative enclosures? Or, to put it another way, how small can ficto-fragments get without actually disappearing? [...] And I'm not just talking minimalism here. I'm saying that fiction's clothes can be folded so small they'd fit inside a glass marble." (from "Ilk" collected in Dressing Up for the Carnival)

Exactly, small and precise. Folded.

And so for day 616

Fabulous Fabulist

Edmund White on Proust

Proust may be more available to readers today than in the past because as his life recedes in time and the history of his period goes out of focus, he is read more as a fabulist than a chronicler, as a maker of myths rather than the valedictorian of the Belle Epoque. Under his new dispensation, Proust emerges as the supreme symphonist of the spirit. We no longer measure his accounts against a reality we know. Instead, we read his fables of caste and lust, of family virtue and social vice, of the depredations of jealousy and the consolations of art not as reports but as fairy tales. He is our Scheherazade.

From a different time setting, there is Zero Patience a musical about AIDS by John Greyson which has a song that also apostrophes the figure of "Scheherazade (Tell a Story)"

And for some reason (a passing reference to Proust in a citation from Barthes Le Plaisir du texte), I am carried to a passage by Rosalind Coward and John Ellis in Language and Materialism, a passage that recalls for me those wonderful waterfalling sentences that cascade upon the page and into memory:

The continual process of writing is not a mere addition, a piling-up of citations onto other citations to form an ever more compact tissue of realist language; it is a constant process of displacement and revision. Each new citation alters those that have gone before; imperceptibly, the form of the realist illusion is changed, new sociolects emerge and others have their particular energies scattered and redirected. It is this aspect of intertextuality that is exploited in avant-garde texts: they throw together scraps of phrases, etc. but without a unifying, totalising position. They play with and in ideology.

It is the vision of emergence and scattering that recalls the sweep of a grand novel and its play with the recurring phrase...

And so for day 615

Melancholy, Struggle and Book Reading

Gregory Ulmer. Applied Grammatology.

The book is perhaps the most charged cathected object in Western civilization, representing, according to Freud's analysis of his own dream of the botanical monograph, the Mother. Derrida's frequent allusions to the need for mourning (a process associated with the child's defenses for dealing with the loss of or separation from the mother, an essential element of the entry into language), signaled by funeral knell in Glas, suggests that gramatological writing exemplifies the struggle to break the investiture of the book.

Reminds me of a line from Robin Blaser (Pell Mell): "our battle with the book is our Buddhist battle".

And so for day 614

Intimations of Mortality

I am struggling with material from Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I know I want to propose a reversal of old and young in this passage:

The young man proudly names his scars for his lover; the old man alone before a mirror erases his scars with his eyes and sees himself whole.

I want the reversal to come out of a reading of the text i.e. find a passage elsewhere that levels all difference. I found it.

You see the creatures die, and you know you will die. [...] I think that the dying pray at the last not "please," but "thank you," as a guest thanks his host at the door.

This intimation of mortality deconstructs the opposition of youth and old man.

And so for day 613


Catherine Bateson. Composing a Life.

It is time now to explore the creative potential of interrupted and conflicted lives, where energies are not narrowly focused or permanently pointed toward a single ambition. Theses are not lives without commitment, but rather lives in which commitments are continually refocused and redefined. [...] what are the possible transfers of learning when life is a collage of different tasks? How does creativity flourish on distraction? what insights arise from the experience of multiplicity and ambiguity? And at what point does desperate improvisation become significant achievement?

These are important questions in a world in which we are all increasingly strange sojourners.

And so for day 612


I like this characterization of the work of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Straus.

There is an Hassidic parable which tells us that God created man so that man might tell stories. This telling of stories is, according to Lévi-Strauss, the very condition of our being. The alternative would be total inertia or the eclipse of reason.

This is from the Massey Lectures delivered by George Steiner under the title Nostalgia for the Absolute. I like it all the more because Steiner situates Marx, Freud and Lévi-Strauss in a narrative of his own.

And so for day 611

Force of Fiction

The New York Times Book Review, Colm Toibin reviewing a biography of E.M. Forster, July 25, 2010.

[...] novels should not be honest. They are a pack of lies that are also a set of metaphors; because the lies and metaphors are chosen and offered shape and structure, they may indeed represent the self, or the play between the unconscious mind and the conscious will, but they are are not forms of self-expression, or true confession.

Consideration of Forster's Maurice launches this. But it is the reading of the pre-posthumous oeuvre that informs its character.

And so for day 610

The Made and the Making

Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace by Janet H. Murray examines ways of world making and at its heart is a tension between two modes:

There will always be a trade-off between a world that is more given (more authored from the outside and therefore imbued with the magic of externalized fantasy) and a world that is more improvised (and therefore closer to individual fantasies). The area of immersive enchantment lies in the overlap between these two domains. If the borders are constantly under negotiation, they will be too porous to sustain the immersive trance.

There appears to be shock if one is expected to move too often between an authored world and improvised world and vice versa. Implied here is a sticking point when changing gears. Implied in the co-existing overlap is the premise that negotiation reacts against immersion. I wonder how this would play out if instead of overlap one thought about a relation of consecutiveness.

And so for day 609

Working It Through

In the concluding pages of The Telling by Ursula K. Le Guin one finds a nice summation of the novel:

[...] belief is the wound that knowledge heals.

And the irony is that reading fiction progresses by a suspension of disbelief ... reader made whole upon exiting the reading experience for the reader progresses from a state of not knowing to one of knowledge. Would re-readig be playing with a scar?

Somehow the metaphorics fall apart. The encounter with fiction is beyond belief — it is a special type of knowing that inhabits an alternate universe.

And so for day 608

Composition as Dialogue

Snipped from elsewhere, composed here.

Analogies of Dialogue

Perhaps by analogy one could claim that the modular elements of a film are assembled in a such a manner as to constitute a performance of dialgoue. Parts work with or against other parts to form a "dialogue". It is a manner of speaking. It is worth testing how far the analogy of parts working with parts to form a dialogue can be applied. In music, in a painting, in a verbal artefact such as a poem? Composition, a being together in the same space, can become dialogue, a passing through the same space.

x responds to y

Indeed the coming together to occupy the same space for a matter of time can be conceived as a dialogue. To make a composition is to engage in dialogue.

About placing, about place...

And so for day 607


Found inscribed in the flyleaf of a copy of Yevgeny Zamyatin's We translated by Mirra Ginsburg

No wonder the Russians can't grow wheat — they're too busy writing.

The sentence concludes a longish encomium. I like its wryness.

And so for day 606


In this passage from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We translated by Mirra Ginsburg I am struck by the juxtaposition between the Rousseauesque wilderness outside the ordered city.

Through the glass the blunt snout of some beast stared dully, mistily at me; yellow eyes, persistently repeating a single, incomprehensible thought. For a long time we stared into each other's eyes — those mine-wells from the surface world into another subterranean one. And a question stirred within me: What if he, this yellow-eyed creature, in his disorderly, filthy mound of leaves, in his uncomputed life, is happier than we?

I raised my hand, the yellow eyes blinked, backed away, and disappeared among the greenery. The paltry creature! What absurdity — that he could possibly be happier than we are! Happier than I, perhaps; but I am only an exception, I am sick.

I like the question it poses but more so do I like the question that arises for me: what counts as an "uncomputed" life? Are we not creatures of calculation?

And so for day 605

Not Stopping

From Audre Lorde The Cancer Journals

Castaneda talks of living with death as your guide, that sharp awareness engendered by the full possibility of any given chance and moment. For me, that means being — not ready for death — but able to get ready instantly, and always to balance the "I wants" with the "I haves." I am learning to speak my pieces, to inject into the living world my convictions of what is necessary and what I think is important without concern (of the enervating kind) for whether or not it is understood, tolerated, correct or heard before. Although of course being incorrect is always the hardest, but even that is becoming less important. The world will not stop if I make a mistake.

Throughout The Cancer Journals the concern is with the overcoming of a silence that petrifies and damages. Expression is vital. Here it takes on a velocity that is contagious. The enumeration brings on a sympathetic vertigo. It is almost impossible to unhook oneself from the prose and contemplate an ethos of care and attention. It is not evident at first blush but a second reading imagines that the world will not stop if I do not make a mistake — or indeed it just might.

And so for day 604

Consequences and Their Representations

I like how this passage builds the crescendo of exaggeration.

Fat Charlie was thirsty.

Fat Charlie was thirsty and his head hurt.

Fat Charlie was thirsty and his head hurt and mouth tasted evil and his eyes were too tight in his head and all his teeth twinged and his stomach burned and his back was aching in a way that started around his knees and went up to his forehead and his brains had been removed and replaced with cotton balls and needles and pins which was why it hurts to try and think, and his eyse were not just too tight in his head but they must have rolled out in the night and been reattached with roofing nails, and now he noticed that anything louder than the gentle Brownian motion of the air molecules drifting softly past each other was above his pain threshold. Also, he wished he were dead.

from Neil Gaiman Anansi Boys

Chapter Five In Which We Examine The Many Consequences of The Morning After

And so for day 603

Sublime Selves

Marlene Goldman in Paths of Desire: Images of Exploration and Mapping in Canadian Women's Writing in a discussion of Jane Urquhart's The Whirlpool provides us with a concise and incisive explanation of the sublime:

According to both authors [Burke and Kant], these emotions arise because sublime objects challenge the mind's capacity to organize experience. [...] For Kant, however, astonishment is only the first step of a complicated cognitive process which leads the mind to recognize itself as sublime and the source of the sublime in nature, and to substitute the humiliating awareness of our 'physical impotence' in the face of nature for the empowering awareness of 'an ability to judge ourselves independent of nature'

The explanation is not an endorsement. In her introduction, she indicates that such accounts of the sublime "help clarify the dangers involved in adhering to the concept, which is based on the sacrifice of the body and nature in favour of an illusory sense of power and transcendence."

It is the key phrase "challenge the mind's capacity to organize experience" that reverberates. It seems the key to understanding the reading, copying and making of maps, Maps chafe the imagination: taking a this for a that.

The mind that resists metaphor has a hard time processing maps.

X marks the spot. And the view is sublime.

And by the recursive work of revisioning, we come to learn of an other, an immanent source of power. And learn with Austin Warren that "Art is the ordering of landscapes and loves." (Rage for Order).

And so for day 602

Lists and Curating

Aldous Huxley at the beginning of Heaven and Hell argues for the work of gathering:

However lowly, the work of the collector must be done, before we can proceed to the higher scientific tasks of classification, analysis, experiment and theory making.

I am reminded of the memes that circulate often among blogs, memes that call for the generation of lists. A list is an itinerary. A list maker is in a sense a map maker. Huxley's is a fitting beginning to an essay about the transporting properties of art.

As a species of curating, list making is also a type of caring.

And so for day 601

Positions and Transpositions

from a while ago, a question snuck in a declaration...

the will to write is in part a will to dialogue, is it a will to fracture the self into various listening and speaking positions

from sometime in 1997

And so for day 600

Temporal and Spatial Qualities of the Novel

In honour of Tara Collington, friend from graduate school days, and author of Lectures chronotopiques: Espace, temps et genres romanesques

There is an old riff I've always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student [...] struggling through Kant's abstruse account in his Critique of Pure Reason of the barely comprehensible categories of time and space, and decided that all this could be put much more simply [...] "Time exists in order that everything doesn't happen all at once... and space exits so that it doesn't all happen to you."

By this standard, the novel is an ideal vehicle both of space and time. The novel shows us time: that is, everything doesn't happen at once. (It is a sequence, it is a line.) It shows us space: that is, what happens doesn't happen to one person only.

from Susan Sontag "At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning".

And so for day 599

Our Solitary Nature

One of the most eloquent expressions of our existential condition is given to us by Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception

We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcedence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies — all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable.

And so for day 598

Perception Capture

From "Hyperboarding: From Aristotle to Brenda Laurel and on..." by Heikki Salo comes this lovely and telling typographical instance:

In real world we perseive [sic] and distinguish objects and their relations - this is also true of abstractions like thoughts and hypermedia.

Which (selectively reading "ei" as "ie") leads me to point to a picture of a sieve

And so for day 597