Lecturing in Japan
Stephen Hawking was asked
not to mention that the universe
had a beginning
(and so likely an end)
because it would affect
we all need a prehistory.
According to Freud,
we do nothing but repeat it.
Beginnings are special
because most of them are fake.
The new person you become
with that first sip of wine
was already there.✧ Anne Carson, “i wish i were two dogs then i could play with me”
(A Short Essay)
*“Do not disturb what is at rest or settled”
Moving targets are hard to account for. Anything busy—operational—energized—mobile, brings with it the acute awareness of change working its way from one moment to the next. This results in the immeasurable. This makes any account quite literally unaccountable. If one really is to know, one must look at something finished, something spent.
Ostensibly, the study of literature is the study of objects at rest: words inert; sentences fixed; editions complete and seldom revised. One reflexively thinks of books as shelved quietly in cases, set behind doors fastened against the damp and against the elements; dust accumulating at an invisible pace—evidence of the motionless sleep that accrues volumes of time around the volumes of history. Novelty occurs when a book is sprung. When one is released the archives of the world expand by the iota of a thousand words recombined to say something slightly different than all of those words have said before; but, once that’s done, the novelty is relegated to the archive of history—history which, as we all know, is written and so remains, unchanging.
Sitting in a library would seem to be a quiet sort of respite from the hurly-burly, from the frantic momentum of all the cosmopolitan disasters consuming the world at the pace of seconds subdivided to the power of 21. Each zeptosecond contains a trillion neutrinos’ passage through the Earth’s disaster. Billions of trillions more will pass beyond the scope of my entire life before I read thirty pages of Gertrude Stein. It’s a quiet, still life, no?
It is a quaint thought, and thought is at the root of it. The hurly-burly I am caught up in regards all the regarding, the reading that assumes the shape of words worked out long before I came along but still move the world as much as they move me since they have been and were put down to make a point, and that point is traveling. Now they act as actors, driving as many minds as can reach them. This is a frenetic life of repose—the work of the mind at odds with the lassitude of the body that cramps and whines in tics and pains that come from a stationary rush toward the end. It may not be a good idea to disturb the thing or the person at rest or settled, but I know that I don’t fall into this category of stationary, motionless. The torpor of a library’s resident is cosmetic. I have been disturbed for years, from the beginning—always already plying at the crannies of the real with restless symbolic notions—and I am at a loss to describe what has stopped. These things called books make for dangerous bedfellows. We are bound together under well-established covers, but insecure from one night to the next.
It’s a quiet life; except there is no quiet, and there is no rest. The soundless noise of history is not settled. Pages turn and so do we, from facing to following to walking away with our backs turned obstinately. Every old book, a new book. Every long sit, a scandal. Every age recorded, a cataclysm from the settled volumes of the past.
The moderns confused products with processes. They believed that the production of bureaucratic rationalization presupposed rational bureaucrats; that the production of universal science depended on universalist scientists; that the production of effective technologies led to the effectiveness of engineers; that the production of abstraction was itself abstract; that the production of formalism was itself formal. We might just as well say that a refinery produces oil in a refined manner, or that a dairy produces butter in a butterly way! The words ‘science’, ‘technology’, ‘organization’, ‘economy’, ‘abstraction’, ‘formalism’, and ‘universality’ designate many real effects that we must indeed respect and for which we have to account. But in no case do they designate the causes of these same effects. These words are good nouns, but they make lousy adjectives and terrible adverbs. Science does not produce itself scientifically any more than technology produces itself technologically or economy economically.✧ Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern
“The strongest guard is placed at the gateway to nothing. . . . Maybe because the condition of emptiness is too shameful to be divulged.”✧ F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
Isn’t electricity a mysterious thing? Wasn’t it Benjamin Franklin who tied a key to a kite? We live in such a mysterious universe, don’t we? Some people say that science clears up all the mysteries for us. In my opinion it only creates more!✧ Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie
Amanda’s frivolous banter not only insinuates but also declaims a persistent reality, one that springs tenaciously from a devision of knowledges that springs from a modern bias. The conviction that comprehension and control of nature is a kind of revelation which remains unrelated to the understanding of human life, especially as it unfolds in day-to-day routines, obscures our imbrication with the very forces which have threatened us, and forced us to adapt, whinge, and pray to be delivered from for most of our frenetic history. To be sure electromagnetism is mysterious, as all action at a distance is mysterious; as light is mysterious, and the energy which drives all the motors of action. More, the mysteries of our universe do not collapse in the face of modelling and control, but multiply, and present new questions to replace the ones predictably answered. As a flippant toss of phrase isn’t what she’s saying eerily apropos? To point out that there is an outside and an inside to human experience—that the world continues to threaten and bamboozle us despite our research and inventions—is an indisputable truism; but is it not also something that genuinely needs to be contended with, not just when the lights burn out, but when we feel complacent and at ease with the idea of a “safely” manufactured environment, even though there is nothing to mediate between any bit of matter or energy, anywhere, that is not natural. Mystery remains nature’s default.
poets are useless,
. . .
are not only ‘non-utilitarian’,
we are ‘pathetic’:
this is the new heresy;
but if you do not even understand what words say,
how can you expect to pass judgement✧ H.D., The Walls Do Not Fall
on what words conceal?
When anyone was witty about a contemporary event, she would look perplexed and a little dismayed, as if someone had done something that really should not have been done; therefore her attention had been narrowed down to listening for faux pas. She frequently talked about something being the ‘death of her,’ and certainly anything could have been had she been the first to suffer it. The words that fell from her mouth seemed to have been lent to her; had she been forced to invent a vocabulary for herself, it would have been a vocabulary of two words, ‘ah’ and ‘oh.’ Hovering, trembling, tip-toeing, she would unwind anecdote after anecdote in a light rapid lisping voice which one always expected to change, to drop and to become the ‘every day’ voice; but it never did. The stories were humorous, well told. She would smile, toss her hands up, widen her eyes; immediately everyone in the room had a certain feeling of something lost, sensing that there was one person who was missing the importance of the moment, who had not heard the story; the teller herself.✧ Djuna Barnes, Nightwood