Acheronta movebo*

(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.

Fragmentary, No. 16

The notion of ‘just now’ has been lived out indeed in a century already divided into decades with names and nicknames, ranging from the dynastic to the dynamic, from Edwardian to Roaring. Most important, an instant-by-instant difference in the actual experience of historical time lives out—and in—the rhythms of an unprecedented and accelerating pace of change in the history of material cultures. Accordingly, the imaginative experience of temporality moves beyond one of crisis time to one of time itself in crisis: a formerly natural, apparently gradual time of diurnal days and seasonal rounds has been lined ever more finely and grandly by the developing mechanisms of chronometry, which have worked in ways little and large—from the division of the globe into twenty-four equal time zones to the parsing of micro-times within a supposedly seamless instantaneity—to unsettle temporal measurement itself.

♦ Vincent Sherry, “A History of ‘Modernism'”

Presence

present

Expectation is a curious orientation. At its heart, it is a state that we feel entitled to. When we turn ourselves outward, grasp invisibly into the future, and take hold of a thing un-yet realized . . . something about that feels justified; even if it doesn’t feel so very realistic. What we expect draws within and coalesces around a core of right: as if some deeper reasoning has been at work, drafting a bill that comes into effect at midnight. From inside our subjectivity: the eager public: ourselves: we have been given just enough grounds to dwell upon even our most modest desires and our willingness to be spoiled. There is something in the future that we feel we deserve just as much as we want.

Often what comes to be revealed on the day is both a fulfillment and a desolation; a raw recognition or conversely equal disappointment. Jubilation. Despair. The accumulated evidence of many tomorrows waited out has its own way of making us feel adequate but out of sync. We are led to invest in the coming moment, to foresee a kind of destiny upon its arrival. Life, it may be said, encourages it. Patterns emerge effortlessly, and we project them on a luminous screen that banners across the approaching morning.

To expect, in the true sense of the word, carries with it an array of consequences. To expect brings all stray desires home with you, but snappingly hungry and irritable about the meal that’s on offer. In reality, and I speak broadly, the random, unforeseeable nature of even the simplest outcomes means that our dreams are constantly thwarted; but also that the most reasonable drafts detailing our rights in the future promised by ourselves to ourselves refuse to manifest faithfully. Our fictions are choked with characters perfectly adapted to the whims and uncertainties of their time and place. The sleuth susses out the criminal, rarely surprised by the knave’s nefarious endgame—but together they’ll often talk it out, until all the motivations are clear. The valiant and perspicacious leader addresses the crowd—but wasn’t he always sure of persevering, and wasn’t the defeat in line with his expectations from the beginning? The Machiavellian plots of the mastermind results in a coordinated pulling of all the strings of countless hangers-on, and puppets, wound in clockwork, dance according to the might of the right she has invested her powers in. The dream of a dream realized is reinscribed over and over. We might expect that at some point our own hard-won deductions, inductions, or abductions will someday work out for us unequivocally. The projected rights of tomorrow will work out right in an end befitting our creative drafts.

This is a season of expectations. Despite the anti-climaxes of ambitions thwarted and dreams unrealized—relationships, presents, and events unrequited despite our unquestionable deservedness—the holiday season is a lesson in acceptance, of things as they are with all of their unexpected manifestations. Our right to the future can only ever be approximate, just like everything else. What we see coming our way, behind the luminous screen, resolves itself into view as it crests the horizon. Is that what I was waiting for?

Yes. This is what you get.

Notational, No. 7

But you know how shameless I am in the presence of anything that calls itself an idea. The idea is time. Living in the future. Look at those numbers running. Money makes time. It used to be the other way around. Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism. People stopped thinking about eternity. They began to concentrate on hours, measurable hours, man hours, using labour more efficiently.

♦ Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis

“Shameless” is a good call. I think many of us lose our sense of propriety when it comes jumping at the chance to inhabit tomorrow; to exploit the concept; to make the best of the continuum purportedly so soon available to us. It is the fact of life that coaxes us forward. The merciless exigencies of capital force a certain speed: the spectre of falling behind is always haunting us, the fear of missing the boat. Harvesting every screed of the moment, spending it “efficiently,” becomes our conscience, a relentless task-master seeking to circumscribe our actions even as it drives us to comply. To make the best of our present, it sometimes feels like we must accept the judgement of an unremitting and disembodied third-person, one constituted by an inanimate mechanism that we use to interface with the shape of our lives. Unabashedly we focus on a prize that can never, definitively, materialize. We can only remain current by projecting into the future.