There is a charm to Gaiman’s writing that waxes and wanes as you move about his body of work through the years. His Ocean At the End of the Lane is particularly rapt by instances of imagination that seem to have occurred to him before, and that he has shared with his public, but they have seldom played out so well, or so well crafted. It is a book that neatly walks the seam between what strikes one as young adult and what might be termed a more mature fiction, but it is really a story about revisiting your childhood from a distant—yet not unmanageable—vantage point. He neatly weaves together motifs that lurk in the psyche of our current age in amongst each other—pop culture references, the trappings of modern life in the seventies, mythology, juvenile pulp-ficiton, popular science—and the result is a little bit of spellbinding. His conceptualizations of eternity, and his spin on the underlying nature of reality, are formulations that crop up from the pens of other fantasists working in the English language, but they are no weaker for the similarities. There is something comforting in this coalescing mythology that attempts to unify the mysteries that lurk beyond understanding in the world of an increasingly atheist and agnostic educated class, where there are a mass of facts but very little interpretive meaning. It is nice to know that there is room for dreams in the spaces between instances of our scientific and technological growth. It is nice to read something that finds permutations of comfort and solace in amongst the frightening scale of the universe.
More Die of Heartbreak is an extended meditation on the longings which suffuse the core of modern existence, at the heart of the “posthistorical” world. For the most part it takes place in an undisclosed, Midwest American city that rises vertically out of a declining Rustbelt. Kenneth and Ben are the foci of the narrative, what is primarily Ben’s story pulled together from meticulous notes Kenneth keeps of conversations and excursions he participates in with his Uncle. We are painstakingly introduced to the content and foibles of these two intellectual men, our narrator a scholar of Russian literature surrounding the Revolution; his uncle, a world famous botanist who has a “magical” rapport with his objects of study. These men are both romantically challenged, and love each other more than they are seemingly capable of loving others, or perhaps even desirous of accomplishing. Their homosocial bond in more intimate than any of the heterosexual ones that they develop throughout the book. Which is part of its charm. The argument, if there is one, is that longing, and heartbreak, are at the centre of more misery than other, more sensational natural and man-initiated phenomena, and that love between two heterosexual men cannot assuage the misery or the damage that can grow out of it despite one’s best efforts to nurture or even avoid it.
Kenneth is incapable of switching off his academic analysis for more than a couple of moments. Everything that transpires elicits a host of tangential, associative pondering, directed at either his unspecified reader, or his reader and his uncle, who participates in the endless unwinding of the permutations of living a life that yearns for a higher plane, but is unequivocally mired in the dirt with those who live a “throw-away existence,” including, most especially, Ben’s new wife, who is a fully realized avatar of the commerce-driven, consumer identified, day-by-measured-day concatenation of mundane events—even if they are held to a certain aesthetic and monetary standard. Kenneth is chasing a dream, a vision of education—the kind of education that comes from being close to a luminary who has cracked some element of the world’s code. The usual suspects that he lumps into this category are identifiable, but where the poet Blake and his realer-than-real compatriots are sealed away from him by space and time, his Uncle Ben is accessible to him, and holds him in high regard. They are attempting to gain enough perspective to render a coherent image of what it is that they encounter in this world. They are critical and dismayed, angered and impoverished in their encounters. They are two souls gifted with reflection but little ability to muddy themselves in the trenches of life. As they do get dirty, they make a mess of everything they come in contact with except their relationship to each other.
There is something in all this that speaks to the heart and the soul’s yearning for communion with something higher and more refined than what we toil with in the quotidian world. I spent much of the book sympathizing with Kenneth and his Uncle. Their journey is the journey of the rarified intellect contending with contemporaries and peers who do not share the patience, the insight, or the inadvertent innocence that marks their experience of the world. They both secretly yearn to be paragons of the human project in a sense that only those who can leave something to antiquity can be, and this may ultimately be incommensurable with a more regular modern life. Although who’s to say that these kinds of powerful ambitions were ever commensurable with any age of life; but the speed at which the sedate are dodged and made to accommodate the contemporary, the up-to-the-minuet transmissions of information, beggars contemplation. That which stands to contend with it on the plane of human consciousness, and looms over us in invisible transmissions like a vast, geodesic dome, is anchored by the twin horns of an Electronic Tower and stands at the centre of the modern concern.
I’ve developed a nasty habit, and it has become obvious that, in its modest way, it is supporting the disintegration of a culture I adore. To be fair, it’s insidiously easy to access, and the convenience of indulging the compulsion is almost obscene: I can do it at home, at school, on the streetcar. The initial satisfaction it provides is almost instantaneous, but the long-term personal payoff is a humble, yet steady, stream of pleasure. I admit, it might be a problem. There must be a way to curb the urge. Somehow, I have to cut down. I must try and give Amazon the slip.
Perhaps there’s a program.
This epiphany came after reading George Packer’s rather epic survey of the monolith’s history of operations, “Cheap Words,” that just appeared in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. It summarizes the rather horrifying operational strategies of the company and the calculated exploitation of a market that is already besieged by the vicissitudes of the information age. “Amazon is not happening to bookselling,” the founder Bezos is quoted as saying. “The future is happening to bookselling.” Which, in its way, is probably true, but in the hands of someone who sees professionally published writing simply as a specialized niche product, rather than an institutionalized and rather unique medium of exchange, there is bound to be some damage done to the culture which surrounds it. In this case it’s a little ironic. The big, intimidating publishing firms, which have held the keys to the kingdom all these years, are finding themselves being muscled around by an entity even more interested in the bottom line than they have proven themselves to be, and if they suffer a little I doubt many writers or readers will shed many tears, but it’s the independents that suffer; and, without a doubt, the writers.
The rise of Amazon’s power to influence and determine the decisions of the houses that publish, based solely on consumer buying patterns and cost efficiency, represents the democratization of content selection. This, on its face, may not appear to be such a horrendous thing. A marketplace dominated by the most generally appealing products is, most would agree, efficient; but it does nothing to address issues of discernment and the prospect of innovation. I do not agree that the expert has nothing to offer to the process of selecting and curating the products that are exposed to the world. I’m rather invested in the premise that the authority of the specialist is worth paying attention to. Much that has become culturally relevant to antiquity through the ages has not been contemporaneously popular. The frame of appreciation has to be adjusted by innovators and connoisseurs. Complacency needs to be challenged if there is to be any room for the new, as well as reverence for the old, and I don’t want an uneducated committee to determine what art is available for me to interface with.
I came of age as Amazon was coalescing within the invisible circuitry of the Internet. Its presence in the world has developed as I have, and as we have both matured my attitudes towards the company have been fairly ambivalent, up until now. The mega bookstores were already annihilating the independents when I started my working life; the more fragile components of the trade were already suffering by the time I ordered my first book online. I felt like I was shafting Chapters, not the publishers of small press and academic work. This past year my Kindle has felt like a reasonable acquiesce to the realities of the modern age, and one that could save me significant shelf space. It still does, if I’m honest; but I need to stop clicking so thoughtlessly through the pages of a digital marketplace that has no reverence for the literature it trades in, or for the true value of the objects that it barely profits on, objects it just uses simply as a means to an end. There’s an evil ring to “total commercial domination.” It may be an exercise in futility, but a small act of resistance—ordering my volumes from an actual bookseller while the option still exists—is a reasonable enough commitment to an industry that I not only support, but steadfastly believe in its necessity.
As outright rebellion I have deleted my Goodreads account. For, although I feel comfortable judiciously sharing components of myself through Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress, I feel like I must draw the line at handing over my consumer profile to an entity that simply wants to exploit my data to, in turn, exploit those I would rather support. Though perhaps, in another way, that decision may ultimately prove more harmful, by refusing to let my reading choices stand and be counted amongst the crowd of bestsellers and reams of pop-psychology. Ah, the double bind.
Who wants to fight the future?
Oh, I do.
Yesterday Judith Butler was in town. A room bursting with bodies helped underscore the topic of her lecture, Public Assembly and Plural Action. And there we were, assembling: people were crowded on the mezzanine, crouched on the radiators by the windows, standing in an attentive throng at the back. The vaulted ceilings and tall stained glass windows did nothing to disguise that there were pressures within the confines of the hall. Spatial concerns; fire code violations; but also those pressures produced by psychic human concerns. There were tensions. There were individuals heavily invested in being there, and not everyone could be accommodated. Butler attracts a multitude. It is quite a feat, writing and being read across so many disciplinary boundaries, in and out of the academy. There were undoubtedly a number of unspoken agendas circulating and invisibly pressuring each other amongst the crowd; but we all surrendered to plural action. We all made nice, right up until the end.
My companion and I had secured some uncomfortable wooden chairs right in the center of the assembly. In spite of her protests of disbelief, I prevailed upon my friend and got us there 75 minutes early. For, despite harboring genuine anticipation, I was not excited enough to warrant standing at the back of a crowded room for hours just to hear the professor in person. I wanted to attend—not haunt—the event. In the end we were well situated, even if our chairs did inexorably deaden our backsides.
“We the people,” Butler intoned in the early phrases of her address, to frame the discourse of her paper; and these words, so freighted and resonant south of the border, have their own undeniable currency abroad. Their rallying premise, as a point of genesis rather than a jingoist mantra, undeniably has the capacity to stir something positive, especially in those who believe that individual people can coalesce around a core of collective well being. I certainly believe we have that capacity. I invest in that premise with all the devotion of a sweetheart. I would carve hearts around the letters of an ideal democracy on the boards of bridges, into the trunks of trees.
Butler’s “we the people” constitutes a performative, one that is enacted even when the gathering of individuals is not entirely physical, or not entirely or explicitly idealistically cognate. It happens through its very collectivity, in the identification of a larger body, with or without a clearly articulated agenda; simply as a fact, as a thing; and it is possible that that this thing has a sovereignty that presupposes the sovereignty of the state. Perhaps, in fact, it must.
I came away boiling with thoughts of plural action, articulating across the world, across temporal boundaries, in and out of spaces sanctioned for the purpose, in and out of public. How do these mobilizations happen? What are their boundaries? Where does inclusivity and exclusivity occur? How does a collective initiate the move from figurative to actual change? And in this age of intense visualization, how do we imagine the legitimizing forums that provide the stage for meaningful gatherings? Do they have a component of broadcast media, is that necessary to be taken seriously, or does collective action supersede these modern, virtual arenas?
Butler remains provocative, 25 years out of the gate.
The objects of sense are supposed to be real—but in truth they are not. Only the atoms and the void are real.
For my talent is to give an Impression upon words by punching, that when the reader casts his eye upon ’em, he takes up the image from the mould which I have made.
♦ Christopher Smart, Jubilate Agno
Undeniable that talent has a weight, both as an aptitude and as a currency. What you might trade it for, how it might exchange, is heavily dependent on a market value that is largely outside the possessor’s control—also, on where and who is deprived of its heft and influence. The value in this case is clear: Smart’s ability to produce an impression in a textual medium, punch an outline in “words,” and manifest the affective register of his language, the evocations of startling turns, nouns translated into verbs, actions and things superimposing to occur as unified objects. He knows what he’s doing is effective. He has a strong enough sense of what he is worth to pay the audience almost impudently, as if the suggestion of madness has never veiled the lines of his verse. Are all iconoclasts inherently confident?
The burdens of this season are not melting yet. In fact, they’re settling in strata. There is a transient geology to be studied in the sediments (and sentiments) that layer and compound, as winter weighs this chapter of the almanac down. We’re compressed. We ossify a little between frozen ground and snow, but also between the sub-freezing temperatures and the cost of keeping warm. Each stratum that complicates movement or rest contributes to our fixity and our preservation. We need to last ’till spring.
This season is uncommonly heavy with anticipation. This time around I am particularly aware of the burden, waiting out the winter of 2014; it is the year that the conditions that define my environment will change. We just do not know what precisely they are changing to.
This afternoon I wrote a technical summary of Lamarck’s theory of adaptation, the ideological precursor to Darwin’s version of descent with modification. In the early 1800s Lamarck proposed an intimate relationship between any given organism and its environment. He was one of the first to suggest that it is what surrounds life, what composes its boundaries and limits, that determines the expression of that life, not just behaviourally but physically. Accordingly, we are not born with a purpose or function that is our own: we inherit these things from those ancestors that developed them, an intergenerational transaction that tracks so far back that the concept of origins dissolve in a nebulous region of pre-identity, of deep time. We are all tracing the intricacies of a continuum that begins simply, but complicate as creation marches forward.
The premise states that the structure of our life, as it functions in the present, is more complex than the life that prefigured it. By exercising what we need to exercise, by flexing those faculties available to us—to cope with the acute demands of our environment—we are strengthening not just ourselves, but our descendants. There is agency in our inheritance and in our evolution; although Lamarck never used the word “evolution.”
It is an appealing theory in the way that it mobilizes the feel of history. The components of a use/disuse effect upon our very nature rewards the effort we put into our dedications, and seems to suggest that we can imprint our accomplishments onto a nascent future. It is not quite like Darwin’s lottery, where dice composed of cosmic rays determine the pace of change; even if, in the case of this example, the dice are anachronistic.
I like to think of my own development as Lamarckian, within the boundaries of my own existence. I prefer to consider my intellectual life in terms of successive generations, less complex manifestations self-generating my next iteration in response to an environment that has bounded me, and creating better adapted individual to live in the next era, just a little more complicated and assured. (The complication is an unavoidable consequence: I don’t know if I work more efficiently, but I do know I work more.)
You can see how compelling it is to think in these terms. You might understand how the modern theory of evolution still becomes easily conflated with more antiquated designs of thought. I hope the pressures of these layers upon me right now preserve some of what I have been during this last period. It may not be an accurate way to describe what is going on within the ecosystem of my own boundaries, but I feel the beginnings of another self more complex and purposeful.
So many turns you sigh, the linguistic turn, the political, the ethical and so on et cetera, enough to make you turn in your grave, prematurely, you think, no need for another, especially not a literary turn, you have to be joking. You always considered the phrase ‘linguistic turn’ to be a sort of joke, a somewhat comical but also delusory gesture apparently intended to refer to a new attentiveness to the importance of language in thinking, in philosophy and culture more generally, as if there were something before the turn, as if it thus confirmed that there were writings (Shakespeare’s, for example) that weren’t turned and already turning from the beginning, and as if the words ‘linguistic turn’ could be written, read, spoken or thought about without any need to register or try to reckon with the metalinguistic logic thereby inscribed.
♦ Nicholas Royle, Veering: A Theory of Literature
The post-structuralists animated this provocative kind of movement in language so vividly; but you can’t avoid the joke, not really, especially now that it has been articulated so eloquently, so persuasively, so repeatedly. The idea that there was a kind of writing before the straightness of language was called into question, before any evident kink was discerned in the central structure of what we consider legible—that there was somewhere, sometime, a literature free of inherent instability—comes off as more and more absurd the more the premise is examined. The need to address the “turn” becomes evident. We move from our trajectories mid-stoke. We do veer. If universal translation was possible from print to mind, from text to template, it would be an anodyne accomplishment fit for endless application—if we could clean up the mystery of transmission, so much suffering and confusion could be erased, but we would live with so much less in the outcome. I commit to exploiting the turn because I feel like there is some resolution to my restlessness in proliferating the field. These very real complications that deny a direct conduit from the undisclosed to the enunciated keep me from losing faith in the entire human project.
It is worth noting that the books do not close after dark: not when the sun goes down, nor when the lights go out. My Kindle gives off a sallow, uneven glow that only serves to cut out its unnerving “stable text,” even after the rest of the apartment is shut down. I can read wrapped in the approximate gloom of the urban night. And even after I’ve deactivated my 21st century reader and put it aside, sometimes, I still go at it. There are periods of sleep where words will scribe themselves through the pages of my dreams. There are times when I read my unconscious.
I suppose this is the result of being so absorbed by the act. Reading is the constituent, cerebral material that composes the greater share of my commitments, my ambitions, and my pleasures. Yet I always feel behind. It doesn’t happen fast enough. The list is too long. My eyes, my brain, are too slow. These past four years I have been trying to catch up, to inscribe a state of knowing on a space of acute ignorance, but there abound more and more possible texts to assess and consume. Beyond reading lists, beyond recommended articles and current distractions, there is a paralytic superabundance of things written down that it would be useful to encounter; and there is only so much time.
This is a situation that I must make peace with. Reading and dreaming share a coterminous relationship for the academic in training: sleeping or waking they are activities that superimpose upon one another and share the same boundaries of experience. They expand as a fused, organic unit. I need both to continue forward; I am bound up by both as I plan and galvanize the trajectory of my future; and the spectre of improbability haunts both their enactments.
“Have you heard the speech?” asked a professor last fall after I had asked him for a letter of reference.
“Which speech?” I responded warily.
“The one where I tell you that there are no jobs, that the whole institution is in flux, that tenure may be a thing of the past—”
“Oh, that speech!” I said. “Yes, yes—I heard it when I first decided to come back to school.”
“Alright then. I just feel I have a moral obligation to warn you off.”
“And I respect that.”
Which is true. What I told him then, and what I’m affirming now, is that there is little else that I can envision myself doing besides this. It is not apathy that has driven me to this point—it is genuine ambition. I have tried other avenues, other prospects, and the result was not only underwhelming, but also depressing, and somewhat claustrophobic. The dream has always involved many books, and disseminating the texture and tenor of thought. Contributing to the sum total of human knowledge. There is no other professional arena for a humanities major. My only option is to think and write my way forward, and heed my unconscious as it discloses itself in phrases: words scribbling their way out in the dark.
“One of the mysteries in the history of chemistry is how seldom chemists blew themselves up while investigating novel substances and reactions. Hydrogen and oxygen . . . can burn smoothly together, but they can also react explosively. Priestley used to carry small bottles of these two airs, and he entertained visitors by exploding the gases.”
♦ Trevor H. Levere, Transforming Matter: A History of Chemistry from Alchemy to the Buckyball