Intelligent Life

Intelligence might mean an ability to exercise choice, even if the options seem limited or nil. A couple of weeks ago, meeting for a beer with fish and chips at a local English styled pub where soccer from the real England was playing on hanging television sets to an audience of rapt fans sipping beers, an old friend asked me if I thought there exists intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. At once I had to consider the definitions of intelligence and life and universe. I also had to consider that at first he said simply life, then qualified the question by adding intelligent, as if other kinds of life were assumed to exist but even if so had already failed some test of life.

In the midst of this morning’s freshly updated global warming news, walking with a cup of coffee in ye olde Americana backyard, I stopped to consider again why the Dogwood tree now refuses to flower. About 25 years old, flowering reliably every spring until seeming to lose interest in recent years, full of healthy green leaves, not a touch of pink blossom does it this year yield. I would blame last year’s torching hot summer, when the temperature one day in July hit an unprecedented 116 degrees F, easily the hottest ever locally, or this April’s absurdly late snow storm, which piled a few feet of heavy wet snow on branches already leafing out, bending them all the way to the ground under the weight of the late snow, but elsewhere around the neighborhood all the other Dogwoods are blooming to beat the band, a bumper year.

Maybe this Dogwood has simply chosen not to bloom this year. The reason may be nothing more than a desire to exercise its ability to choose. But where would this desire, seemingly baneful to its existence, come from? Or maybe the energy required to produce blossoms is being used to correct some deficit in the soil or water or location – but again, similar conditions around the area are at the same time thrilling all the other Dogwoods into fully blessed vibrant pink blossoms.

What have I done to offend this Dogwood such that it refuses to bloom? At worst, I’ve ignored it, but the other plants in my yard seem to appreciate being mostly left alone to their own devices.

Nature, left to its own devices, continually overseeds. It has always done so, blasting and piping surely enough that somewhere somehow something takes hold roots and spreads. But never alone, always sewn from a diverse bag of seeds, some seemingly smarter than others, whatever that means. And it means nothing. The same intelligence that informs me informs the Dogwood. Thus as I sit here in my attic room from where I can watch through the window the Dogwood willfully refusing to bloom, I choose to write.

What I Write

Having addressed, as it were, most recently, Why and How I write, we now turn our attention to What. Yesterday, I said that when and where writing is written are not important. I rush now to correct that. When and where are maybe more important than why, how, or what. Consider, for example, Beckett’s Watt, written in double exile (from Ireland, his homeland, and from occupied Paris, hiding out in Southern France). But Watt does not seem to be about the war. But I don’t want to write about Watt this morning. I want to write about what. But it may not matter what’s intended; readers are notorious twisters of words, collecting twine into a ball, where to twine is to moan, complain, whine.

The problem lies with linearity. Where there are no straight lines. At the moment, I’m typing on the keyboard of a laptop computer. A MacBook Pro, circa 2010, so an old one, as these things go. Directly into a WordPress block. Such my brass. I watch the cursor flicker, waiting. I should slow it down, but I forget how that’s done.

When, yesterday, reader and old, old friend Dan commented regarding paper and pen, “it almost seems a quaint nod to a passing phenomenon,” I thought of McLuhan and his analysis of the printing press (see his The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man), also now a passing observable fact or event. A machine we understood how it worked. It made everything the same, uniform. Straight lines. Single point of view. That sort of thing.

Outside, through the second story window, I can see a Camelia, pink and white, just coming into bloom, and a weeping Cherry in full bloom, and some scraggly plums not boasting just saying bring us your bees, your flies, your birds, your squirrels. The plums are just over the back chain link fence, up against it, ignored. Occasionally a branch breaks, ice or snow laden, or heavy near the end of summer with fat purple plums that fall into my yard, more than I can eat. I should learn to make plum pudding, jam, or some sort of plum soup. Plum Clafoutis. That’s it.

There you have it. I would not have mentioned plums this morning had I not decided to write from the upstairs window instead of the downstairs nook where I usually set up.

How I Write

Most writing begins in Purpose, a very crowded city, with directions out unclear amid contradictory signs. North of Purpose is Poetry, South is Prose. East is essay. West is Uncharted Territory. It doesn’t matter which direction you choose; Purpose is surrounded by ocean. The easiest and most travelled conveyance out of Purpose uses words. Words come from Language, some say the oldest of cities. But not all languages use words, semaphore, for example. Other examples of language without words might include body language, talking drums, whistling, smoke signals, music. We might say that those languages are not written, but music is written, and without words.

But I do use words, and because I’m only an average speller, poor pronouncer, mostly monolingual, and usually lost in Purpose, I keep a dictionary open while I write, but also because individual words are like recipes; I want to know what’s in them. Sometimes I spend so much time in a dictionary nothing gets written. One easily gets sidetracked in Genealogy and never reaches far from Purpose.

That one uses words doesn’t necessarily mean that one writes. One might talk, achieve one’s purpose, no need for pen and paper. Others might commit what someone said to memory, and repeat it themselves for a ticket out of Purpose. Talking is not writing, but it is a kind of writing.

And I don’t always use words. I draw cartoons. But if the cartoon is an argument, it is at least a kind of writing.

Sometimes it’s enough to ramble around Purpose, maybe with a camera in hand, walking through the neighborhoods, down to the industrial section, out to the ballpark.

If writing were a sport, it might be baseball. The outfielders adept at prose. At third base and first, essayists. At shortstop and second base, poets. The battery of pitcher and catcher a thesaurus of pitches: location, intent, speed, deceit. Readers may want to put the Shift on here.

We might say our purpose is to entertain, so we give our writing twists and shouts, a preacher’s sermon. The purpose of most writing is argument, an attempt to persuade. Purpose should not be confused with occasion. The occasion of writing is an assignment: a query, a synopsis, a critique or analysis. And occasion should not be confused with form. A postcard (from Purpose) is form, not content, but we begin to see how one shapes the other: “Wish you were here!” “You should have come!” “Can’t wait to get home!” “Not coming home, ever!”

In short, how we write is not quite the same thing as what we write or why we write. When we write is not important, nor where.

But it’s very hard to get out of Purpose. You never know when you’ll be stopped by the Authorities and asked to present your papers. Documents, photographs, identifications, QR Codes. They might even want to draw blood or have you pee into a bottle.

Purpose can be a mean place, a town without pity.

So I mostly try to avoid Purpose, and that’s how I write, or try to.

The Reading Crisis Revisited: Amazon and the Gatekeepers Against the Wall

Mark McGurl has a new book out. I enjoyed and reviewed his previous book “The Program Era,” here, and his new work, “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon,” which appears to revive the Reading Crisis theme I first started following over at Caleb Crain’s site, is reviewed by Benjamin Kunkel in a recent Bookforum post: Sense and Saleability: How Amazon changed the way we read. After reading the Kunkel review, I don’t feel I need to read the new McGurl take.

First, it’s still too early to say what’s really going on or how dramatically it’s affected our reading, particularly the reading of the common reader (who seems to persist, in spite of the odds). Second, Mcluhan, who explains the effects of the printing press, and predicts a long time ago now the current reading crisis (not to mention a plethora of other ideas), I still find more convincing. And while McLuhan did not personally look forward to the changes in literacy his theories explained or predicted, he didn’t necessarily feel the world would be a worse place as a “global village.”

In any case, if I’m reading Kunkel correctly, what today’s gatekeepers seem to want protecting turns out to have been cut off only in its infancy:

Between the Great Recession and 2019, the number of undergrads majoring in English shrank by more than a quarter, and it’s difficult to imagine the pandemic has reversed the trend. Meanwhile, over approximately the same dozen years, professors in English and other literature departments have more and more bent their attention away from the real or alleged masterpieces that formed the staple of literature courses ever since the consolidation of English as a field of study in the 1930s, and toward more popular or ordinary fare. Sometimes the new objects of study are popular books in that they belong to previously overlooked or scorned genres of “popular fiction,” such as crime novels, sci-fi, or horror: this is popularity from the standpoint of consumption. And sometimes they are popular books in the different sense that they are written, in huge quantities, by authors with few if any readers, whatever the genre of their work: this is popularity from the standpoint of production.

Bookforum, Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

Theory and the Social Sciences, not to mention Reagan as governor of California ruining a good thing for the children of laborers who might have somehow discovered literature in the 50’s and 60’s and where McGurl now sits as public intellectual gatekeeper at Stanford, presumably with small cohorts of readers filling sandbags, had already altered how we read and precipitated the slide of the English Major, still a baby if born as recently as 1930. Amazon has not changed anything, at least not having to do with literature.

Meantime, James Lardner posts a recent Gatekeeper entry on the New Yorker online site, lamenting and lambasting the so called for profits (as if schools like the factory at UCLA pumping out Phds in the 60’s and 70’s is not de facto a for profit).

But not all English majors are created equal, and this one wishes he would have become a plumber like his father (having never read a book, good or bad) wanted him to become. And then he wouldn’t be sitting here writing a post no one will read on a subject few care about when he should be down in the basement checking that the plumbing didn’t freeze last night.

“pond”

(Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett, Riverside Books, 2016, originally published in Ireland by Stinging Fly Press, 2015, 195 pages)

There are thirty snippets of “Praise for Pond,” cutlets from big and small zines and papers (and authors selected or solicited for blurbs) on and offline, from reviews, presumably, four full pages of front matter, mostly adjectives and adverbs describing the author’s (Claire-Louise Bennett, Riverside Books, 2016, originally published in Ireland by Stinging Fly Press, 2015, 195 pages) “prose… mind…debut…sensibility”:

  1. sharp, funny, and eccentric;
  2. dazzling…and daring;
  3. unnerving…sensitive…porous…lucid, practical…cognizant;
  4. ardent, obsessive-compulsive, a little feral…kookily romantic;
  5. innovative, beguiling…meditative…fresh;
  6. witty;
  7. dreamlike…startling;
  8. attentive…baroque and beautiful;
  9. stunning;
  10. cool, curious…intense;
  11. elegant and intoxicating;
  12. fascinating…immersive…readable;
  13. exhilarating…comfortable…confident;
  14. deceptively simple…unsettled…formidably gifted;
  15. strange;
  16. muddiness…deliberate and crisp;
  17. sharp…discursive;
  18. weird;
  19. impressive;
  20. compelling;
  21. quirky…opinionated;
  22. inventive;
  23. believable…dazzling;
  24. captivating…wonderful;
  25. quiet and luxurious;
  26. ablaze;
  27. absorbing, compassionate;
  28. distinct;
  29. provocative;
  30. wry.

But I will add that what Bennett requires of her reader is patience, the kind of indulgence one might assume will not make for a popular reading, yet here it is, an “eccentric debut…of real talent.”

The common reader might already suspect we are in for deep waters in “pond” when we see the page that comes after the list of twenty titles in the table of contents, quotes from Nietzsche (The Birth of Tragedy), Natalia Ginzburg (“A Place to Live”), and Gaston Bachelard (The Poetics of Space). I can’t explain why the titles of the Nietzsche and Bachelard books are placed in italics (in the Riverside paperback copy under review – i.e. the one I read, the first American edition, and have posted a pic of above, sitting in the kitchen nook window looking out on the wet yard as I type) while the title of the Ginzburg book is placed within quote marks. But, as it happens, the book I finished just prior to opening “pond,” coincidentally, (and I don’t really know if it should be typed as “pond,” “Pond,” or “POND”; or pond, Pond, or POND) was a Natalia Ginzburg book: “Family and Borghesia” (nyrb reissue, 2021), a very different kind of book from “Pond,” though similar in its wanton flow of words and focus on detail (how’s that for blurbing?). Moreover, as I looked up “patience,” wondering if it was the right word, appropriate and all that, for where I wanted to put it, adding my own descriptive, albeit with a noun, to the thirty clips, knowing full well it will never nor would have made the cut, I came across this sample sentence to illustrate the use of “indulgence”:

“Claire collects shoes—it is her indulgence” (Google dictionary, Oxford languages).

I don’t collect shoes, nor, I suspect, does Claire-Louise Bennett, who apparently lives or lived during the making of POND on the Atlantic Coast of Ireland in a small stone hut of some kind, again, apparently, as I put together a few clues from the book as well as from rummaging around. I live on the Pacific Coast of the US, not within a stone’s throw of the water, anymore, but close enough to enjoy the waterlogged winters of the Pacific Northwest, about ninety miles away from the big pond as the roads go, about seventy miles for the birds, assuming they take a direct route over or through the passes of the Coast Range. The coordinates for Galway are 53.2707° N, 9.0568° W; while for Cannon Beach, Oregon are 45.8918° N, 123.9615° W. It’s currently (as I type) 44 degrees in Galway and wet at 8pm, a bit of wind maybe a bit of sun tomorrow to close a rainy week and start a new one; while at the Oregon coast it’s wet and 47 degrees finishing the morning with a high wind warning in place for this evening to close a wet week and start a new one. That’s not to say living on the Pacific coast of the US is anything like living on the Atlantic coast of Ireland. Except that, we both get our weather for the most part from our close proximity to what some call wild oceans.

In any case, I very much enjoyed reading “pond,” and thought I might put up a post from another West Coast of rivers and streams dampness and moss and ponds and puddles galore:

“aplenty
in abundance
in profusion
in great quantity
in large numbers
by the dozen
to spare
everywhere
all over (the place)
a gogo
by the truckload
by the shedload”
(Google dictionary)

I think galore is the descriptive word I’ll end this review (if, indeed, it can be called that, and, if not, I don’t know what) of “Pond” with.

Claire-Louise Bennett’s “Pond” presents writing galore.

First Snow on Fuji, 1959 (transl. 1999)

Nine stories and a “Dance-Drama” by Nobel Prize winning Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata. Domestic settings around living quarters, gardens and paths, plants and pets, involving marital and extramarital relationships, post World War II thoughts and experiences in lovingly (at once sympathetic and detached) close, naturalistic readings of character motivations and responses – to one another, to nature, to self. In a “Translator’s Note,” Michael Emmerich summarizes the style:

“He [Kawabata] had to make the most of each unclaimed moment, each precious word. So it’s no surprise to find that the pieces in this collection are incredibly distilled, often dealing with the relationship between language and being, words and the past, and with being claimed, with losing possession of one’s historical self” (ix).

Not that the motivations and responses are necessarily absent any ambiguity, in spite of the lucid, no-nonsense prose. There might be an impulse to get away from one another, the hugging closeness of living together, from one’s own place, of wondering what taboos have to do with you, from, in the end, comparing and contrasting what you have with what you think others might have, to break one’s silence of the solitude that comes with living with someone else:

“Once more I seemed to have said too much. Wasn’t what I was doing like forcing a desperately wounded soldier to return to battle? Wasn’t it like violating a sanctuary of silence? It wasn’t as though Akifusa was unable to write – he could write letters or characters if he wanted to. Perhaps he had chosen to remain silent, chosen to be wordless because of some deep sorrow, some regret. Hadn’t my own experience taught me that no word can say as much as silence?” (167).

Kawabata’s writing is full of atmosphere created from the smells and sounds, visions and touch, of ordinary living. The effects might be described as calming, even if the events portrayed are not. And in that sense there is an acceptance of life the characters often in personal rebellion don’t want to accept, or, at least, wonder what life might be like on the other side of such acceptance. That is brought forth from description, dialog, shifting point of view, of course, but here the brush strokes, the word juxtapositions, the storytelling flow, just seem so perfect and create that sense one sometimes yearns from reading – a momentary relief, as Frost said of poetry, against the confusion of the world, even, again, if confusion is what it’s all about.

The copy I read is a Counterpoint (Washington, D. C.) paperback, 227 pages, Perseus Books Group (ISBN: 1-58243-022-5), 1999, but there appears to be a reprint, “revised,” which I’ve not seen, from Counterpoint (Berkeley, 2000, 248 pages).

In the Sober Reality of Celestial Shade

Day ends with a walk to sleep,
ends again in the sober reality
of celestial shade, one awakes
in the dark and quiet, too early
to get out of bed, too late
to start some new episode
on the television or telephone,
and this is when one turns
to paper and words seep
out shy and uncertain fearful
like little furry animals searching
the brambles for food and drink
day’s fire now cool ashen,
and while certainly somewhere
in the city of night madness
drones on, an asocial tinnitus,
here in the paper we find
we can hear the pencil’s breeze
and feel the bluish-gray lead lighten.

Spelunking

What’s written by candle in yr cave
won’t be read for eons by anyone,
no views, no visitors, no likes, no
comments, until erelong perchance
some fair spelunker crawling
horizontally across the buried
rocks of yr commas, not too deep,
discovers yr degraded predicament,
etiolated undertaking to connect
images in the dark of creatures
now extinct, spellings archaic,
broken syntax of yr past, and finds
yr crushed crumpet of a skull
buried like a period at the end
of yr tunnel up against a wall,
a scurvy potation spilled betwixt.

Dear Reader,

Won’t you please tell me your rules,
style flaws that send you over the edge,
your conjugations, constructions, con-
junctions, your clauses and marks
memorized, when to be and not to be,
double negatives and things dangling
in white space and other wedded dark
matter; for I will find immense
pleasure in breaking & trashing
the etiquette of your ways & days.

Thanks,
Nomere Ana R. Chist

About Nora

Most of us carry about a particular picture of ourselves, seldom the same picture others have of us. Some carry a portfolio of pictures about, anxious to show all they meet all about themselves – their family, schools, jobs, homes, accomplishments, disappointments, hobbies, books read, movies liked, places visited, lived, abandoned. Friends. Others don’t like having their picture taken, the only photo about them on their driver’s license, and that they don’t like either. Acquaintances may be more interested in your market value than in your face value.

Taken at face value, that is, legal value, net worth at birth, which may or may not bear any resemblance to one’s market value at the end of a life of living, of struggle, of getting by, of adapting to, or avoiding where possible, the more absurd cultural mores, steering as clear of the wildly ridiculous ones met on the street as one possibly can, Nora Barnacle’s life story is nominal, average, without great distinction. Most of us share a similar story. But, as the lifelong partner of the famous writer James Joyce, Nora’s life story far exceeds its salvage value – it’s a life worth a ticket-scalping.

But how should Nora’s story be told? Nora never read her husband James’s books, though he often read aloud to her from them, and she put no stock in literary values other than as a means to put food on the table, and which, as a means to make a living, for most of their lives proved woefully inadequate. They were never, until later in life and only then to satisfy the legal issues of the passing on of debts and assets and to protect their children, married, though they remained devoted to one another, having two children they were almost never separated from, living literally on top of one another in a seemingly endless succession of rented rooms, flats, shared spaces, hotel stays, sustained by gifts from sacrificing siblings and wealthy benefactors, until at long last Joyce’s reputation and writings began to produce earned royalties, distinction, and then the trappings of fame.

Joyce was always, and in all ways, a difficult man to live with. He was impractical, stubborn, inattentive, wasteful, and drank to excess. They fight and argue, Nora threatens to take the kids and leave, but of course she’s nowhere to go, but more importantly nowhere she wants to go – she wants her life with Jim to settle in with the peace and love of its original promise, which was to take her away from a life and family and place of destitution, beggary, and abuse. At the same time, they love and celebrate – their family, birthdays and holidays, their marginal achievements and successes, their apartments, the air and freedom of life away from dreary and unfair Ireland. They celebrate food and drink, family and friends, music and poetry, dance and lovemaking. Meantime, they’ve the bad luck of having to live through two World Wars and the Great Depression.

But how is the life just described, at face value, any different than most? Why do we want to know Nora’s story, particularly when, as we probably already know, she’s destroyed Jim’s letters to her and requested him to destroy her letters to him to keep private their private lives? They both remain victims, or feel victimized, to attempts to shame to control – attempts by the state, the church, society, friends and acquaintances, critics. Their attempt to live an existential life, defined by free choice, true to one another and to Jim’s belief in himself and his ability to make a difference with his writing (a difference to art, literature, and to all of the above), is a messy affair.

Readers familiar with the James Joyce story, whether fan or foe of his writing, may feel differently about the Nora Joyce story. In Nuala O’Connor’s “Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce,” we experience the James Joyce story through the eyes and ears – the sentiments and temperament – of Nora, who tells the story in her own voice. And we get the Nora Joyce story. Nuala’s book is neither straight biography nor straight fiction. Readers may choose to focus on one or the other, but the blend is a perfect mix, and you can’t have the one without the other. The Nora here is Nuala’s Nora, not Joyce’s Nora nor even Nora’s own selfie. But you come to see that you can’t have James Joyce without Nora Joyce, nor can we have Nora without James. What a glorious and perfect union.

Nora: A Love Story of Nora and James Joyce, by Nuala O’Connor, 2021, Harper Perennial.