An Unquenchable Desire to Know and Describe

David Whyte's introduction (from The Three Marriages) to the following poem by Alden Nowlan "...a literary guessing game in which he looks at the way many authors who are considered authorities in their areas actually had no direct experience of the subject. They looked all the more closely at their subject exactly because they were unfamiliar with it. Any familiarity was made through what seemed like an unbridgeable distance. What they had was an unquenchable desire to know and describe."

The Seasick Sailor and Others
by Alden Nowlan, from Selected Poems 

The awkward young sailor who is always seasick
Is the one who will write about ships.
The young man whose soldiery consists in the delivery
Of candy and cigarettes to the front
Is the one who will write about war.
The man who will never learn to drive a car
And keeps going home to his mother
Is the one who will write about the road.

Stranger still, hardly anyone else will write so well
About the sea or war on the road. And then there is the woman
who has scarcely spoken to man except her brother
and who works in a room no larger than a closet,
she will write as well as anyone who has ever lived
about vast open spaces and the desires of the flesh:
and that other woman who will live with her sister and
rarely leaves her village, she will excel
in portraying men and women in society:
and that woman, in some ways the most wonderful of
them all,
who is afraid to go outdoors, who hides when someone
she will write great poems about the universe inside her.

The Mind Postponing Action in Indecision

Excerpt from "The Chattering Mind," by Tim ParksThe New York Review of Books, June 29, 2012:

“Who is the most memorable character in the novels of the twentieth century?”

It’s a typical radio ploy to fill some mental space on a Saturday morning. Dutifully, people phone in. Studio guests discuss their choices. The obvious: Leopold Bloom, Gatsby. The wry, Jeeves, Sir Peter Wimsey. To select Proust’s unnamed narrator in In Search of Lost Time indicates a certain sophistication. Somebody, not a child, proposes Harry Potter. Then Miss Marple, Svevo’s Zeno, James Bond, Gustav von Aschenbach, Richard Hannay. People are telling us about themselves of course. They want to talk about themselves. There’s no question of establishing if Frodo Baggins is really more influential than José Arcadio Buendía or Bellow’s Herzog. But Sherlock Holmes can be safely ruled out because first published in the nineteenth century and Lisbeth Salander because she doesn’t turn up until 2005.

I can’t be bothered to think of a name myself. I resist these games—the most this, the best that. Surely these characters are all actors in a grand cast; they all have their roles in the larger drama of the collective psyche. But now suddenly it occurs to me that by far the main protagonist of twentieth century literature must be the chattering mind, which usually means the mind that can’t make up its mind, the mind postponing action in indecision and, if we’re lucky, poetry...

...Seeing the pros and cons of every possible move, this modern man is paralysed, half-envying those less intelligent than himself who throw themselves instinctively into the fray: “[The man of action] is stupid, I won’t argue with you about that, but perhaps a normal man ought to be stupid.” And the voice is actually pleased with this formulation. It’s great to feel superior to those happier than oneself.

In the twentieth century this monstrously heightened consciousness meshes with the swelling background noise of modern life and we have the full-blown performing mind of modernist literature. It starts perhaps in that room where the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Soon Leopold Bloom is diffusing his anxiety about Molly’s betrayal in the shop signs and newspaper advertisements of Dublin. In Mrs Dalloway’s London people muddle thoughts of their private lives with airborne advertisements for toffee, striking clocks, sandwich men, omnibuses, chauffeur-driven celebrities.


Keep Your Temper

Excerpt from “Algebra in Wonderland,” by Melanie Bayley, New York Times (March 7, 2010):

Alice has slid down from a world governed by the logic of universal arithmetic to one where her size can vary from nine feet to three inches. She thinks this is the root of her problem: “Being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.” No, it isn’t, replies the Caterpillar, who comes from the mad world of symbolic algebra. He advises Alice to “Keep your temper.”

In Dodgson’s day, intellectuals still understood “temper” to mean the proportions in which qualities were mixed — as in “tempered steel” — so the Caterpillar is telling Alice not to avoid getting angry but to stay in proportion, even if she can’t “keep the same size for 10 minutes together!” Proportion, rather than absolute length, was what mattered in Alice’s above-ground world of Euclidean geometry.

Scene from Jan Švankmajer's Alice.

To Trust Uncertain Things

"What this play, [Hecuba], says that is so disturbing is that the condition of being good is that it should always be possible for you to be morally destroyed by something that you couldn't prevent. To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances. In circumstances for which you are not yourself to blame. And I think that says something very important about the condition of the ethical life, that it is based on a trust in the uncertain, a willingness to be exposed, that we're more and more like a plant than a jewel — something rather fragile, but whose very particular beauty is inseparable from that fragility."

~ Martha Nussbaum, discussing the idea from her book, The Fragility of Goodness, with Bill Moyers back in 1988.

Remain Warm among Ice

From Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville:

The Fossil Whale, Frank Stella For the whale is indeed wrapt up in his blubber as in a real blanket or counterpane; or, still better, an Indian poncho slipt over his head, and skirting his extremity. It is by reason of this cosy blanketing of his body, that the whale is enabled to keep himself comfortable in all weathers, in all seas, times, and tides. What would become of a Greenland whale, say, in those shuddering, icy seas of the north, if unsupplied with his cosy surtout? True, other fish are found exceedingly brisk in those Hyperborean waters; but these, be it observed, are your cold-blooded, lungless fish, whose very bellies are refrigerators; creatures, that warm themselves under the lee of an iceberg, as a traveller in winter would bask before an inn fire; whereas, like man, the whale has lungs and warm blood. Freeze his blood, and he dies. How wonderful is it then — except after explanation — that this great monster, to whom corporeal warmth is as indispensable as it is to man; how wonderful that he should be found at home, immersed to his lips for life in those Arctic waters! where, when seamen fall overboard, they are sometimes found, months afterwards, perpendicularly frozen into the hearts of fields of ice, as a fly is found glued in amber. But more surprising is it to know, as has been proved by experiment, that the blood of a Polar whale is warmer than that of a Borneo native in summer.

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter's, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

[Check out Kurt Anderson’s Peabody Award winning episode of 360 in which he sails into the icy waters in search of Melville’s white whale with the help of Laurie Anderson, Stanley Crouch, David Ives, Elizabeth Schultz, Tony Kushner, Frank Stella, and Ray Bradbury.]

Less Like Homework


“The founders of Electric Literature, a new quarterly literary magazine, seek nothing less than to revitalize the short story in the age of the short attention span. To do so, they allow readers to enjoy the magazine any way they like: on paper, Kindle, e-book, iPhone and, starting next month, as an audiobook. YouTube videos feature collaborations among their writers and visual artists and musicians. Starting next month, Rick Moody will tweet a story over three days…One thing Electric Literature seems good at is getting people to read serious literature, making it less like homework.”

From “Serving Literature by the Tweet,” by Felicia R. Lee, New York Times (October 27, 2009)

Artists and Scientists

Generosity An Enhancement “I do not see a profound difference between art and science. I feel as if they are engaged each in different aspects of negotiating the world, of figuring out this precarious balance between inside and outside, the theories that we make about ourselves. This lovely kind of two-way portal between what we can measure and reproduce and what we intuit and feel in our viscera. We are these complex creatures. All of us are simultaneously artists and scientists. And wouldn’t it be lovely to create a kind of fiction, a kind of literature that did more than fear the transformation of material existence by science and technology? But said, rather, that these pursuits were every bit as much our pursuit and expressions of our own hopes and fears and desires as our social interactions.” 

~ Richard Powers discussing his recent novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, with Studio 360’s Kurt Anderson (October 23, 2009)

Encouragement to Keep the Mistakes

Robin Romm discussing writing programs Michael Silverblatt of KCRW’s Bookworm (3.26.09). She has written a collection of short stories (The Mother Garden) and a memoir (The Mercy Papers), both fueled by the experience of her mother’s death from cancer.

Robin Romm: I didn’t have a lot of expectations. I didn’t know what would be The Mother Storiesup for the taking. And what I found at San Francisco State were a lot of faculty members who were interested in new ways of approaching the creative life, who had sort of gotten away from workshop. And I didn’t take too many workshops actually. I spent more of my time in classes generating work and finding ways to look at the world—to learn to stare and to go deeper.

And for me, graduate school was this very interesting pause in my life where I could scrapple with what was going on for me emotionally, intellectually and try to get that down on paper somehow. And it was less about nit picking a sentence and making it conform to something.

The Mercy PapersAnd interestingly when I first met my editor on the phone, she said, “Did you take workshops?” And I said, “Not very many.” And she said, “I can tell. These have the quality that they’re different from a lot of the stories that I see. They’re rawer. They have edges and sharp places.” And she meant that as a compliment not a criticism.

I do think that the writing workshop is a great place to generate work and to get feedback on your work, but it has its limits, too.

Michael Silverblatt: It interests me because I have said and I think it’s true that what a young writer needs is encouragement to keep the mistakes. That what people are calling the mistakes are probably the sounds and insights that make the writing strange and individual. And that making sure that the writing is all mistake is the process of finding your own voice.

Almost Completely Forgotten

"Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance. Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air."

~ Herman Melville (Aug. 1, 1819 – Sep. 28, 1891), Moby Dick

From The Writer's Almanac (8/1/08):

...Melville got married and had four children, and the family bought a farm in Herman Melville 1860Massachusetts, where Melville became friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Melville was working on Moby-Dick, his story of Captain Ahab's obsessive hunt for the great white whale, and Hawthorne encouraged him to make the novel an allegory, not just an account of whaling.

Melville became consumed with writing Moby-Dick. He would work all day without eating until evening, and he would bellow across the house, "Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand!" He was elated when he finished his novel (published in 1851) and considered  it his greatest work yet. He wrote to Hawthorne, "I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb." But it was a flop. Readers didn't like it. His American publisher only printed 3,000 copies, and most of those never even sold; in 1853, a warehouse fire destroyed the plates and the unsold books, and the publisher refused to reset the book or compensate Melville.

Melville wrote two more novels just to make money, and he said the experience was like "sawing wood," but he still couldn't make enough to live on. His work became darker and more psychological, and it sold even fewer copies, and Melville began to get depressed. His last major work was The Confidence Man (1857), a biting satire of American life. He wrote poetry but couldn't find a publisher, so he had to publish it himself. He moved to New York and got a job as a customs inspector on the New York docks. The manuscript of his final work, Billy Budd, was found in his desk after he died. At the time of his death, Melville had been almost completely forgotten, and The New York Times called him "Henry Melville" in his obituary. Moby-Dick is now considered one of the great American novels.

Art Garfunkel's Library

"Art Garfunkel ...a chronological index of the thousand and twenty-three books that he has read since June, 1968. He has been recording their particulars neatly on sheets of loose-leaf paper—forty or so titles to a page—for nearly forty years. About a decade ago, he posted the list on his web site (which he pays a fan in Levittown to maintain). It begins with Rousseau’s “Confessions” and ends with Booth Tarkington’s “The Magnificent Ambersons,” which he finished before Christmas. In between, the list ticks off, at a rate of 2.16 books a month, a dazzling syllabus that’s a testament to steroidal self-improvement, as well as to the magical time-furnishing powers of royalty checks. Foucault, Balzac, Chesterton, Heidegger, Spinoza, Hazlitt, Milton, Proust: he has slayed them all, and let us know."

From "The King of Reading," by Nick Paumgarten in The New Yorker (Jan. 28, 2008)

[Thanks Carolyn!]

Skimming Proust

Valerio MezanottiPierre Bayard, French literature professor at the University of Paris and author of How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, responds to questions posed by Deborah Solomon in today's New York Times Magazine.

"I think between reading and nonreading there is an indeterminate space that is quite important, a space where you have books you have skimmed, books you have heard about and books you have forgotten. You don’t have to feel guilty about it."

But what about those of us who read to feel things — to experience pleasure, an end to loneliness? Of course I read in order to feel something. And to feel an end to my loneliness, of course, just as you.

Then why are you so willing to devalue the experience of close reading in favor of skimming? You seem to believe that knowing a little bit about 100 literary classics is preferable to knowing one book intimately. I think a great reader is able to read from the first line to the last line; if you want to do that with some books, it’s necessary to skim other books. If you want to fall in love with someone, it’s necessary to meet many people. You see what I mean?

Have you read all of Proust, on whom you once wrote a scholarly book, “Off the Subject: Proust and Digression”? Proust is very difficult to read. His sentences are long and have very strange constructions, so it is not very possible to read it from the first line to the last line. You are obliged to use another way of reading.

Are you saying you skimmed Proust? Yes, of course I did! I prefer to say that I live with Proust. He’s a companion. Sometimes I go to Proust and I seek advice for my life. I open it and I skim some pages. That is to live with books. It’s important to live with books.