Notational, No. 18

I really believe that brotherhood is what makes a man human. If I owe God a human life, this is where I fall down. “Man liveth not by Self alone but in his brother’s face. . . . Each shall behold the Eternal Father and love and joy abound.” When the preachers of dread tell you that others only distract you from metaphysical freedom then you must turn away from them. The real and essential question is one of our employment by other human beings and their employment by us. Without this true employment you never dread death, you cultivate it. And consciousness when it doesn’t clearly understand what to live for, what to die for, can only abuse and ridicule itself.

♦ Saul Bellow, Herzog

The body is not a solitary fact. The system of interrelated organs that pulse and prompt action, which motivates reciprocal engagement, is only distinguished through interrelation of an external order. Other bodies are necessary for our own identities to be. This reality asserts itself from any direction you might approach to validate your own facticity. We are generated out of relationships. Think of the vast heritage of meetings that have occurred to beget each individual now present on the surface of the earth. And the continuity of our somatic heritage is reproduced in the vital need for contact and communication between bodies, in order to assert the singularity of the human self. We need each other as much as we have needed our ancestors.

There is another body that needs to be considered when an individual contemplates the extensions and limits of its own awareness. It is constructed of a virtual anatomy that has come into being through the genesis, transmission, and reception of what has been assessed as culture. Multiply coded, inter-relatable, ever changing, and fiercely compelling, it has grown out of that primal activity of naming things as well as their actions. The corpus of culture inhabits the activities that have accrued (and are accruing) between us. It transcends the limits of any solitary person, any one that exists or has existed. Each mind is the product of many minds.

We may only depart for regions unknown from the shores of collective achievement. Freedom requires a community to, in fact, be a state of being. Eschew the multitude! Fly to the metaphysical hinterlands of self-discovery! Climb the mountain and dig yourself into the summit! Cultivate the transcendent spiral of a featureless infinity! It denies the work that goes into making this radical undertaking significant. We are, none of us, self-corroborating entities. Each must send messages to each if there is to be a dialogue to emulate in the mind. A body that does not articulate and contend with other bodies has nothing to articulate or contend to itself.

herzog letter

Bellow’s Howl

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.