1. “John Billy,” which begins, “Was me supposed to tell Simple Ranger how Chuck Nunn Junior done wronged the man that wronged him and fleen to parts unguessed,” and is the fifth of 10 stories that appear in Girl with Curious Hair, strikes me as starkly different from most of Wallace’s work. This is, for example, one of the very few of his short stories that feature or is focused on lower class characters. There is also the tailor in the story “Say Never,” in Girl with Curious Hair, and the last piece in Oblivion involves some poor Midwesterners, though it’s not about them, and there are some stories in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men where, it seems to me, it’s ambiguous. But, for the most part, Wallace’s world is made up of well-educated, gainfully employed, could-go-to-therapy-if-they-wanted, upper middle class whites. There is no one in his short stories who mows the lawn, or stocks shelves at Wal-Mart, or drives a truck for a living. There is no one who would appear in a Raymond Carver story or in the worlds Cormac McCarthy writes about, but “John Billy” is an exception to that, and this story actually could have been told (differently, obviously) by either of them. From the moment it opens, “John Billy” is dramatically different.
2. In his later work, Wallace is primarily interested in ethics — human relationships, solipsism, sadness, etc. — and some of that comes through in Girl with Curious Hair, but in this story he seems primarily interested in language. “John Billy” most clearly owes a debt to McCarthy, who Wallace praised a number of times and in a number of places, my favorite being the three word recommendation/review of Blood Meridian that reads, in entirety, “Don’t even ask.” In an interview somewhere Wallace said he didn’t know how McCarthy “gets away with it,” and that’s the part of McCarthy’s project that Wallace focuses on here: how to make the anachronistical and anarchic, mythical, biblical, dirt poor, ungrammatical, spoken language work.
Some of it works and works amazingly well, like:
And was me told the table how except for the eyes, the jaw, and the pelvis, which to our community relief all healed up, prime face, in just weeks, leaving good luck bad luck Chuck Junior a sharper shot, wickeder dancer, nearer to handsome than before, how except for that, the major impact and damage from the accident had turned out to be to Nunn’s head, mind and sensibility. How right there in the post-accidental car he suddenly got conscious but evil …
Now the buzzards outside the Outside Minogue Oklahoma Bar was down, sitting row on straight and orderly row on the edge-of-Minogue land stretching off toward dirt. Appeared to us through the window like fat bad clerics, soft and plump, teetery, red-eyed, wrapped up tight in soft black coats of ecumenism and observation. Had orange beaks and claws.
Was a good thousand orange beaks out there. Double on the claws. Lined up.
But other attempts seem to me to still be too far away and condescending, informed more by Deliverance than by any actual contact with poor whites. More bad joke than interesting use of language. An example is the title character’s use of the phrase “interjaculated,” for “interjected,” which is funny, but in a snobby, snickering way. It has the same attitude as The Jerry Springer Show.
And Wallace is really better than that.
3. There also, curiously, some sentences with cadences that could fit into a Bob Dylan song. The names all seem like something from Dylan — T. Rex Minogue, Glory Joy duBoise, Simple Ranger — and there are passages that could be narrated in his nasal, for example:
T. Rex Minogue was asking us to drink to his death.
We passed the jars around and unscrewed Minogue’s bootleg lids.
We was silent at our table, expected T. Rex dead, or at least twisted, traumatized, Nunn-struck.
“Hi,” he said.
4. Which — 2) & 3) — is not say this piece is in any way derivative or merely imitative. What is exciting here for me is precisely the way Wallace is experimenting and pushing himself and trying to use language with which he is unfamiliar. There are some parts of this, too, that are very traditional. For example, “John Billy” is told as a story being told, a style that goes back to Chaucer, was used by Conrad, and wasn’t, in 1989, experimental. But Wallace finds ways within this form to experiment and does a number of things that seem to me to be original. For one, it’s narrated as a story told to us about a story told about a story, which makes the traditional style more complicated, and, for two, Wallace starts introducing prosodic elements like line breaks into the prose narrative, which I’ve never seen anywhere else in fiction.
How right there in the post-accidental car he suddenly got conscious but evil,
“evil,” I emphasized, and there was shudders from civilians and Glory Joy,
and how a evil Chuck Nunn Junior fought and cussed and struggled against his spinal restraints, invected against everything from Prime Mobile to OU Norman’s head football coach Mr. Barry B. Switzer hisself; how even slickered in blood, and eyes hanging ominous half out of their holes, Nunn’d laid out two paramedics and a deputy and shined up my personal chin when we tried to ease him into an ambulance …
Or, the same thing with stranger punctuation:
She told how Nunn come more or less to, in his little wrap-around car, his torch-lit busted eyes in blood like bearings in deep oil;
“Remember the eyes of Nunn,” I interjaculated, and Simple Ranger give me a watching look
; and as Glory Joy finished up communicating anger and justicelessness she felt, upon seeing T. Rex’s brother V.V. Minogue, listing far to port up against the largely unharmed cab of his IH liquor truck, weepy, shitfaced, scratchless …
5. Stylistically, there’s something constant in Wallace’s work, which can be found in his non-fiction and fiction pieces, which can be found here too, even when Wallace is writing in a voice that isn’t the one that comes to him most naturally. I don’t know exactly what it is called but it is a hyper-accurate, very technical language. The sense, which Wallace conveys with this almost-sometimes-stilted voice, is of someone struggling to express what’s hard to express, what’s delicate, struggling to do justice to the complication — a very careful, cautious, circuitous way of speaking (common in therapy and the best of continental philosophy), which is sometimes criticized as obfuscationism but is, in fact, normally an attempt to be ethical verbally, to be fair to that which is not simple.
To me it seems like it’s the texture of Wallace’s writing, but while this texture is vital to the kinds of questions Wallace asks in Oblivion‘s “Mister Squishy,” or Brief Interview with Hideous Men‘s “The Depressed Person,” it didn’t have to happen here, in “John Billy,” which points to this being something essential about Wallace and the way he writes.
He has this ethico-linguistic texture, here, with his use of,
— coordinating modifiers (“at an ominous and coincidental point in time”)
— compound nouns and modifiers (“a climactic and eternal chase-down-the-field and catch-from-behind” and “the runner-plus-interference problem,” respectively)
— extended and sometimes doubled non-defining relative clauses (“V.V., stepped in post-explosion guilt and self-loathing, plus not a little eau d’sweet potato, was speeding away”)
— very specific, technical or speciality-specific vocabulary (“near-gerunds confrontation,” “vis a vis,” “institutional-caring facility”)
— irregularly-used works, such as brand names as verbs (“to arrive and gawk and Kodak”)
all of which express the kind of carefulness that emerges later, when Wallace returns to fiction, as explicitly ethical, and shows, even this early, the impulse towards writing as a kind of ethics.
His very first song on his very first album is “Grapefruit Moon.” In the song, the title image, along with “one star,” is “shining, shining down on me.” It’s a lovesick ballad played slow on the piano. A pining song that’s that close to cliché. It teeters on the edge, almost sappy, almost silly, a song built around that lunar fruit that almost drips with saccharine.
It’s the first moon in a career of moons, and like a first crush, it’s clumsy and, in retrospect, maybe a little bit embarrassing. He wasn’t done, though. Waits has a thing for moons, and has been working on lyrical variations of this one metaphor for gong on 40 years.
Waits tops most lists of great living songwriters today. On March 14, he’s being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When critics talk about him, they talk about his voice and his use of odd instruments, his wide range and experimentation, his cult following and how he’s a musicians’ musician. They talk about his junkyard, Salvation Army aesthetic and his originality and theatrically and how his wife is the not-so-secret force behind his artistic originality.
And they talk about his 38-year career of lyrical genius.
In his long career, Waits has returned regularly to this image of the moon. It is, in many ways, central in Waits’ work. There are other common images and tropes across his corpus — Waits likes rain, and names of towns, people’s names and food to eat — but to me it’s the moons that stand out. Everything there is to say about Tom Waits’ work can be said about his metaphors for the moon.
There are 93 moons in Waits’ songs, according to the Tom Waits Library. 93 moons — it’s a lot of commitment to one image. A lot of work on one turn of phrase. Surveying them reveals a lot about his work, and also shows how one man has grown, artistically, writting this one metaphor and hanging in the skies of his songs again and again, but doing it better, as he gets older, and making it more interesting as he improves as an artist.
In his first album, 1973s’ “Closing Time,” the moon is pretty much the hackneyed, romantic rock in the sky it has been for bad poets for forever. Except that Waits really wants to describe the moon with a fruit metaphor. It’s almost like he went shopping with the moon on his mind. There’s the grapefruit moon and a bananna moon, both of which are shining in the sky. Then there’s the third moon, towards the end of the album, which the narrator sees the morning after a long night of pining for a lost love. It hangs there, in “Rosie,” “all up, full and big” along with “Apricot tips in an indigo sky.”
It’s not a bad line, but it does feel more than a little bit belabored.
Waits was in his James Taylor phase. Overly romantic, a sap singing ballads and mooning over girls named Martha or Melanie Jane. He croons lines such as:
And it’s you, and it’s you
And it’s you
And it’s you
And it’s you
Lonely, lonely, lonely,
Lonely eyes, lonely face
Lonely, lonely in your place.
His moons, at first, are really not that sophisticated, not that complicated, not that lyrically interesting. Moons equal mooning, is about the whole of it.
Waits was interested, in those early years, in the work and the lifestyle of Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski — down and out and bumming among the tramps, romanticizing winos, saying the city was jazz and the night, music. As is common with over-earnest young men trying to imitate the Beats, though, sometimes he sounded a little too much like John Denver. The Beat idea in these early works is both the limitation, and the inspiration Waits needed to imitate to push himself, artistically.
As he went on, in the next couple of albums, he tried to get away from that balladeer style, and went more into a full-out jazz-bum routine. When Rolling Stone wrote about Waits for the first time in ’75, they described him as he did his Kerouac act: “Looking like an emaciated Skid Row refugee in a rumpled black suit and undone greasy tie, he would do a wino shuffle to the microphone and open each set with the jazzy talker.” He created a musical world, Rolling Stone noted, of “muscatel moons and naugahyde bars, cruising Oldsmobiles and used car salesmen with Purina checkerboard slacks.”
His lyrics could be interesting, in this period. Could be creative. But there was also a lot of it that was too much an act. Too much trying too hard. And that shows in his moons. They’re all just not-quite clichés. Overstrained. Overwrought. Worked at too hard. They’re too close to the expected, and sound a bit like parodies of what a Beat on the street in night of Jazz might say.
“I thought I heard a saxophone / I’m drunk on the moon,” he sang in his second album, “The Heart of Saturday Night.”
The next year, in his next album, he comes to that image again in his song, “Better Off Without a Wife.” It’s an ode to “bachelorhoodism,” Waits said. He preformed the piece in ’75 with cigarette lit and a cloth cap cocked to the side, a growl in a voice that wasn’t there a few years before. He sang:
I like to sleep until the crack of noon
Midnight howlin’ at the moon
Goin’ out when I want to,
And comin’ home when I please.
His moon metaphors, in the early years, are just about atmosphere. There’s not a lot of craft to them, but Waits isn’t done yet, and the idea of this turn of phrase is lodged in his aesthetic craw, and he keeps working at it. Even before he grows out of this phase of romanticized drunks and Beat imitations, Waits starts to show some of the lyrical creativity he’s known for now.
Still working with the edible metaphors for moon, he gets past the fruit connection and creates something interesting in “Nighthawk Postcards,” a jazzy, spoken-word piece. He offers up “a yellow biscuit of a buttery cue ball moon / Rollin’ maverick across an obsidian sky.” It’s overworked, this metaphor, but it’s also more interesting.
He goes on in the song (an “inebriated stroll”) to expand the metaphor in a deliciously weird ways. He sings: “I know I’m gonna change that tune / When I’m standing underneath a buttery moon / that’s all melted off to one side.”
He’s not done, either. In that one, extended riff, Waits works in two more moons. One is “a moon holdin’ water,” and the other is, “a Dracula moon in a black disguise.” In some preformances, too, Waits switched out his one edible metaphor for another lunar allusion, saying he’s “underneath kind of a stray dog moon in a tenderloin sky.”
He kept on that Beat imitation shtick for a while after that, perfecting it, but never breaking new ground. He was afraid, he later said, to push himself to do something more. Afraid to experiment and grow and change. It had worked in the past, so why not do it some more?
There’s a “bloodshot moon” and “now the moon’s risin’, ain’t no time to lose / Time to get down to drinkin’, tell the band to play the blues.” And that’s about as good as it gets, with those early Waits moons.
Waits is artistically aware enough, though, to know he can’t really just repeat his maudlin songs. He can’t recycle sappy moons that stand in for the emotional state of the narrator-bum. He doesn’t seem to know where else to go, with his moons, but he knows he can’t keep them coming like they have been. So he starts messing with them.
In “Small Change,” in ’76, which is really the pinnacle of this period of Waits’ career, where his work feels like it’s more than an imitation and he’s made the style his own, there are two more moons. Both of these though, show some awareness of what his moons have been doing in his songs. There’s a consciousness that he’s going to need to develop, and to do something more.
In “Tom Truabert’s Blues,” one of his best-known songs, Waits starts out by noting, “it ain’t what the moon did,” dismissing it’s influence, it’s romantic power.
That, he later told a journalist, was the first song he wrote where he felt he was “completely confident in the craft” of songwriting.
The other moon on the album is Waits first attempt to take this image that he keeps coming back to, and turn it upside down. Certainly a lot of artists, a lot of poets, have found themselves repeating lines and reusing images, and, wanting to grow, they make themselves a rule, like “no more moons.”
Waits does something different.
He doesn’t abandon the image, but starts to try to use it in another way. To not just use it and reuse it but, instead, subvert it. He keeps the image, but refutes and refuses the sap, the romantic cliche, committing himself to try something else.
“No, the moon ain’t romantic,” he sings, “it’s intimidating as hell.”
Waits frustration with the moon metaphors is maybe starting to show, at this point. There’s a frustration and an unhappiness with these hackneyed moons. Simple sappiness that’s “so maudlin it seems.” In ’77, Waits has a song where a woman drops her drawers and gives “the finger to the moon,” an act of aggression that doesn’t seem far from the artist’s own feelings of frustration at the limitations of his artistic power.
Waits is moonless, after that. The lunar metaphors wane out of his work.
For two albums, three, then four, there’s no moon. For three years, four, then five, the man doesn’t sing a single shining moon in the sky. He just avoids the metaphor altogether.
Then he meets his wife, Kathleen Brennan. They fell in love. She said yes. She had wanted to be a nun but he “saved her from the Lord.” She saved him from himself. And from his artistic stagnation.
She got him sober and got him to listen to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Captain Beefheart, Bertol Brecht and Georg Büchner. It was a revolution for his music. Radicalizing to his art. By ’83, Waits was experimenting, and pushing himself. He had the confidence to bust up his routines and his easy tropes. He had a newfound willingness to make music that was really original, take the risk to do something interesting, which is also the risk of failing horribly.
Waits said of his wife, she “pulverises me so that I don’t just write the same song over and over again.” He said, “A good woman will push you beyond your normal restricted safe area. My wife kind of pushed me out into traffic in a stroller … She’s much more adventurous than I am. She’s always trying to disrupt the whole thing and take it apart and put it back together with its tail in the wrong place.”
This is evident in what happens to Tom Waits’ moons: they’re not just subverted, after he marries Brennan, they’re perverted. They’re twisted, reshaped, made weird, reworked and hung hodge-podge in the sky.
In the first album after his marriage, “Swordfishtrombones,” Waits opens with a moon that isn’t even a moon, but just an empty spot in a scary sky.
“I plugged sixteen shells from a thirty-ought six,” Waits sings, the music a rattle and chug and scream, now, his voice now a distinctive gargling bark. “And a black crow snuck through a hole in the sky.”
By his next album, “Rain Dogs,” Waits was able to come back around to his moon metaphors with a deftness and originality only hinted at in his early work. He returns, in ’85 album, to his edible metaphors, but now he does it backwards. Instead of there being a bit of good-looking fruit hanging ripe in the sky, now it’s the moon that does the eating. In “9th and Hennepin,” “the moon’s teeth marks are on the sky.” It’s a startling image and a very different world.
Now, in the sky of Waits’ songs, even normal-appearing moons that might, in the past, have been purely romantic, are quickly shown to be different and downright abnormal.
“Outside another yellow moon,” starts one song on that album, with a line that seems like it connects directly back to the grapefruit allusion of 12 years before. Another one. A yellow one. Kind of like a bit of fruit. Except that now, newly experimental, he takes it apart, and does the moon differently.
“Another yellow moon,” Waits sings. “Has punched a hole in the nighttime.”
In his recent works, Waits has built whole weird worlds in his song. His imagination is gothic and grotesque, cousin to Flannery O’Conner and Cormac McCarthy, nephew to Irving Washington and Charles Brockdon Brown and the original, twisted versions of Brothers Grimm. He stages worlds of weirdness and evil, where
a man with missing fingers
plays a strange guitar
And the German dwarf
dances with the butcher’s son
as he sings in the first song on “Bone Machine” in ’92, giving the critics the character they always talk about when they talk about Tom Waits’ song.
In this world, where men are alienated by the ground on which they stand, he repeatedly comes back to images of abnormal moons, repeating the idea often enough that this image, by itself, seems to express the world Waits wants to express. He taps into the American gothic idea, where it’s not the strange things that frighten us, but the things that seemed normal.
“The moon is a cold chiseled dagger,” in “Black Wings,” in ’92, “And it’s sharp enough to draw blood from a stone.” In “Earth Died Screaming,” the same year,
There was thunder, there was lightning, then the stars went out
And the moon fell from the sky, it rained mackerel, it rained trout
And the great day of wrath has come, and here’s mud in your big red eye
And the poker’s in the fire and the locusts take the sky
In ’93, in the song “November,” there’s “a moon that’s the color of bone.” In ’99, on Mule Variations, “the moon is broken and the sky is cracked.” In ’02, on Blood Money, there’s a “Bloody moon rising with a plague and a flood,” and in ’04, “The moon climbed up an empty sky,” in the song, “How’s it Going to End.”
Instead of overworking the orevewrought romantic moon, Waits plays with phrases that evoke terribleness and apocalypse. He’s working, to be sure, on one idea, but each of these is rendered simply. There’s a deftness and originality that’s really remarkable. These are moons one will remember.
This continues in his most recent album, Orphans. Waits puts freakish moons in freakish skies to preside over the world that it us. The moons have twisted faces — there’s something wrong with them — and he crafts moons which, by themselves, contain the contortedness of these songs.
He sings, for example, in “Jayne’s Blue Wish,” which is set to a lullaby tune:
The sky holds all our wishes
The dish ran away with the spoon
Chimney smoke ties the roofs to the sky
There’s a hole over head
but it’s only the moon.
He returns again, too, to the food allusions, but here, now, after years of working at this metaphor, Waits can turn this phrase without appearing to try at all, slipping the moon into the song, into the sky, and in a way that feels fresh and creative, and evocative without being overworked. In “Bottom of the World,” he sings:
Blackjack Ruby and Nimrod Cain
The moon’s the color of a coffee stain
Jesse Frank and Birdy Joe Hoaks
But who is the king of all these folks?
And I’m lost, and I’m lost
I’m lost at the bottom of the world
I’m handcuffed to the bishop and the barbershop liar
I’m lost at the bottom of the world
That might be my favorite of all his moons, since it’s such a simple way to put it, and seems so effortless, yet captures, too, the lunar shape and slightly sickly color, while, at the same time, rendering a mood. The moon is the color of a coffee stain, but one wouldn’t have seen it that way without Waits’ song.
I really like Waits’ horrible moons. Each one is different, twisted a new way, and interesting. What’s more impressive, though, is that, while Waits has worked with this one type of lunar metaphor from ’83s’ Swordfishtrombones to ’06s’ Orphans, he hasn’t he hasn’t simply been satisfied with it. It could have been the case that Waits just inverted the romantic use of the moon, made it horrible, and then did that to death, and nothing more.
But, with all this experimentation and twisting of the moon, Waits finds a freedom to sometimes just let the moon be the moon. That might actually be harder, artistically. To let well enough alone. To be subtle. To know when enough is enough.
Waits’ later work has plenty of moons that aren’t anything but moons. Starting with Mule Variations, he has these moons that are liberated from metaphors. On “The Low Side of the Road,” “The moon is red and you’re dancin’ real slow.” In Real Gone, which came out in ’04, the narrator “stood by the window until the moon came up.” And it just comes up. That’s all it does. In “The World Keeps Turning,” Waits has a totally literal moon that is “gold and silvery” “in the meadow” as “the world keeps turning,” and he has, in Blood Money, in ’02, a song where the “moon is yellow silver / On the things that summer brings,” implying, maybe, that it’s the moon that’s drunk, where, the first time he had the moon this color, it was the singer who, in a belabored metaphor, was “Drunk on the Moon” of this color.
Were this all that Waits did with his moons, he would well deserve his place atop the list of contemporary lyricists. Waits goes further though. He retakes the romantic moons of his youth, and works them back into the music. In “Night on Earth,” in ’92, Waits sings,
“When I was a boy, the moon was pearl
The sun a yellow gold.
When I was a man, the wind blew cold
The hills were upside down.
He reuses the sappy moons but, now, puts them in the context of the experience of characters in the song. Now, instead of just buying wholeheartedly into the idea of the romantic, the moons are used to show an entire experience, and he does it in a way that re-inscribes his developmental arc, from crooner’s moon to apocalyptic ones, back into the image of the moon. In “Big in Japan,” a song of crazed braggadocio, the singer shouts “I got the moon, I got the cheese / I got the whole damn nation on their knees.” The moon acts as this representation of “it all,” the “it all” that everyone wants, and risks everything for, but can’t ever quite get. In “I’ll Shoot the Moon,” from Black Rider, the phrase is used as a promise of everything. A promise against odds. A promise to fulfill every promise. It’s undercut, though, the other promises in the song:
I’ll shoot the moon right out of the sky
For you baby
I’ll be the flowers after you’re dead
For you baby
In “Green Grass,” on ’04s’ Real Gone, the narrator describes the moon as “on the rise,” but, since it’s sung from the point of view of the dead and buried, he goes on to beg, “Don’t say goodbye to me / Describe the sky to me,” making the moon at once just simple, just the moon, and, at the same time, something romantic, something to reach for and long for and pine over, and, wrapped up in that, and the distance between the one thing and the other, horrible too.
Maybe my favorite example of this last twist of the moon, where Waits works the metaphor both ways, romantic and horrible, is in the song “Dead and Lovely”:
She was a middle class girl
She was in over her head
She thought she would
stand up in the deep end
He had a bullet proof smile
He had money to burn
She thought she had the moon
in her pocket
But now she’s dead
She’s so dead
Forever dead and lovely now
I don’t know of a better way to put that: “she thought she had the moon in her pocket.” It’s heartbreaking, and sweet and sad. It’s also immediately memorable, and recognizable, so familiar and yet so new, too. It is a master touch, a perfect use of a metaphor moon, and shows how Waits has, for almost 40 years now, been working on these phrases. He puts so much into the idea of the moon. He says so much, with the moons he hangs in the skies of his songs.
There are 93 moons in his body of songs. Shining and falling and cracking. Aching and breaking and just there. Out of reach. In pockets. Tantalizing and drawing out obsessions, insanities, and expressions of the emotions that make up frail, frail humanity. Tom Waits has many, many moons.
The last one, the 93rd moon in his 38 years of work so far, is borrowed. It’s not his, originally, but one he found and repurposed and made his own. He takes it from Georg Büchner, the 19th century German writer. It comes on the third part of Waits’ latest album, Orphans, a spoken word piece about a small child, called, “Children’s Story.”
Once upon a time there was a poor child,
with no father and no mother
And everything was dead
And no one was left in the whole world
Everything was dead
And the child went on search, day and night
And since nobody was left on the earth,
he wanted to go up into the heavens
And the moon was looking at him so friendly
And when he finally got to the moon,
the moon was a piece of rotten wood
Isn’t this, though – this horrible little story that’s pretty much the worst bedtime story imaginable – also the story of growing up? The question isn’t what the moon is made of, but, as Waits found, I think, what one does with the material of the moon. Of course it’s rotten wood. Or green cheese. Or sappy and overly romantic metaphors. But can you make art with it? Can you make art with the rotten moon?
Photography must be the most self-erasing of arts. The most self-effacing: it makes itself invisible. The texture of photography is invisible and it has an authority that’s so great as to seem not to be an authority, but just to be a natural state. It is just there. Of course we take photographs to be more than record, but to be, actually, evidence: they are not just most in line with our idea of actual truth, they are what we mean by the word and idea. The photography itself erases itself for us, and leaves us just the real.
Or so we think.
The photographic nature of photographs, the photographic qualities of photographs, the photographic characteristics and texture of photographs … they all evaporate before us. We can’t see them. They disappear for us and we see only the referred to, only that which is signified. The sign is see-through, the referential transparent.
A question I’ve been toying with, though: can one photograph in such a way as to make that invisible visible? In such a way as to make the photography part of the photograph? To show the texture of the thing, and not erase it, not embrace the “myth of photographic truth,” which is this invisibleness, with the photograph, but to acknowledge the mediation, induce meditation on the mediation — and even appreciate it?
Other arts, as much effort as there is to erase — ars celare artum — the texture is still there. It is observable even, to some extent, by the casual reader. The narrativistic nature of narratives, the painterly qualities of painting, the writerly texture of writing, the rhetorical texture of speech — all are noted, even by some unsophisticated readers, and are praised or bemoaned accordingly.
Even the concept of “reading” a photograph, in contrast, seems strange. The photographers we do know, commonly, the one’s we have heard of and have thought of as artists, are famous, note, either for shooting nature, where their technique is more or less ignored and considered incidental, as they “captured” what “was there,” or for posing the people they shoot, where this, and not the actual taking of the photograph, is considered the art.
Put it another way: amateur poets write poetry to express themselves, while amateur photographers take photographs to document their lives. We still basically always accept the idea of photography as promoted by Kodak so long ago with the slogan, “You push to the button, we do the rest.” That is, we think of photography as a mechanical act of recording the real, rather than as an art, as an act of seeing, and the mechanical, being mechanical and nothing more, becomes transparent to us.
Even criticism of the idea of photographs as truth generally tend to focus on manipulations, which reinforces the idea that photographs are truth, are supposed to be truth, and are truth unless they’ve been manipulated.
My real concern, here, with the invisibility of the photographic quality of photographs, with our allowance of the erasure and self-effacement, is primarily ethical. In that I think ethics is acts of awareness, requires the thoughtful attention that such erasure makes impossible, and that violence of all sorts, from ideology to acts of brutality, proceeds only from structural exemptions of our own innocence, that we are not culpable here, that what is, is natural, and normal, from the kinds of ethical “fourth walls” that assure us we are not involved. In this way, for me, analysis of these structural edifices is an attempt to be ethical.
With other arts, there are experimental artists whose work calls attention to its own texture: Abstract painters like Pollock and Rothko, for example, or even the Impressionists, and modernist literature, like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons or William Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury, and the metaficiton of John Barth or the anti-novels of David Markson. Photographs can do this too and there are photographers, for example, Lee Friedlander, who have done this. Friedlander is known for shooting street scenes where his own shadow falls into the frame, making the invisible photographer a presence.
Other self-referential strategies of calling attention to the photographic character of the photograph include:
I first started noticing the possibilities, though, of photographs that reveal the concealment, with Andrew Sullivan’s View From Your Window project. In the context of Sullivan’s blog, the photos function to reach out to the readers and give them the sense of being a part of something, and something global. Beyond that rhetorical function, though, I found them interesting. I wasn’t sure why, at first, but I liked, I knew, the limitation of photos taken from windows, the restrictions inherent in them, and started taking some myself.
<a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/danielsilliman/4843786012/” title=”Indiana in the morning (welcome back to America) by What is in us, on Flickr”><img src=”http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4106/4843786012_d330d724a5.jpg” width=”500″ height=”312″ alt=”Indiana in the morning (welcome back to America)” /></a>
Pretty quickly, I decided that what I liked about those fist window photos was actually excluded from them. I liked the effect of the pre-existing frame, which was lost in the way I took the picture. I realized, kind of slowly that I was shooting windows in both directions, both in and out, and that I wanted, specifically, to keep the elements of the window: the frame, the glass, and that specific sense of space that implies (sometimes uncomfortably) that one is looking.
There are others, of course, who have done this before. Saul Leiter has a whole series of through-window photos which are completely great and inspiring. I’m very much discovering this as I go along.
These photos I’m taking, I think, can work to establish a kind of imagistic stutter: the window works to repeat some elements of the photographs that are normally concealed, normally invisible, and because of the repetition, the photo can act to call attention to the photographic texture of the photograph. It’s these three elements that are repeated:
1) The frame: Photography is, first of all, an act of selection. Things are included, and things are excluded. The presence of a frame within the frame of the photograph serves to point to that, and it can act to make us aware that this is not a picture of the world, but an act of framing. There is, implied by the window, more there that we cannot see.
2) The glass: There is always a distance intrinsic to a photograph, and there is a lens between the viewer and the viewed. That glass is transparent, but when it’s made visible it acts, kind of dramatically, as a denial of access. It shows the barrier that was always there, and the distance, and that one does not have the thing, the reality. One is blocked in, in a sense, by the glass.
3) The voyeurism: photographs should make us uncomfortable. There’s a kind of viewing going on that’s more than a little invasive, more bold than ordinarily acceptable. There’s an objectification and a flattening that goes on with photographs, and that’s part of the characteristic texture of photographs, and a photograph through a window can remind us of the kind of invasion that’s happening here.
I wouldn’t say that I’m totally sure that what I’ve done actually works. It’s possible that I’m the only one who looks at these photographs and sees photography in them, sees them as making the normally-insivisibe photographic texture visible. It’s an attempt, though, to induce meditation on the nature of this mediation, to isolate the act of looking, to be more thoughtful about photography, and to show and point to that which is normally, in photography, erased by photography.
I like art museums. I’ve been to the museums and frequented museums in every city I’ve ever spent any time in. Seeing Jackson Pollock at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was like a religious experience, a moment of revelation, and I saw what I never could have seen in the art book reprints and cheap, dorm room posters of Pollock’s drip paintings. The Howard Finsters at Atlanta’s High Museum are amazing. Toledo has a surprisingly good museum, for a little industrial city, and Portland has some really good examples of American painting, including Albert Bierstadt‘s Mount Hood, and George de Forest Brush’s paintings of Native Americans, including The Sculptor and the King. I got to see Gustav Klimt‘s work in Vienna, and discovered and immediately loved HAP Grieshaber‘s woodcuts in a castle that’s been converted into a museum on the edge of the Bodensee.
I worry about museums, though. They can add a seriousness that weighs a work down until it’s dragged down to the ground. They can add a weigh that’s like chain mail on a sparrow. Sometimes the seriousness and officialness, the somber formality of a museum, means art is void of joy.
And joy is good in art.
Art can be light, and it can be fun. It can convert one into a child with surprise, and I like art that does that.
I like art that’s like a sudden laugh. Art that’s unexpected joy.
The thing that bothers me about museums occurred to me when I was in a museum. I was in the one in Philadelphia, the one with the famed “Rocky Steps” — by any measure one of the best museums in the US — and there was a group of people standing around one of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. It was the bike wheel that’s attached, upside down, to a kitchen stool. A couple of more people were peering carefully at the plaque where the title of the work, which is the most self-obvious title in the history of art titles, was duly inscribed. The whole scene was very somber. People weren’t stroking their chins and saying in faux foreign accents, “very interesting,” but they could have been.
Then, walking away, I heard a woman say to her friend that she just didn’t get it. “It’s just a bike wheel,” she said.
I really wanted to say, “exactly!” I could be wrong, and maybe some disagree, but to me, for me, Duchamp’s work is hilarious. I like Dada and early Salvador Dali specifically because it’s so unserious. Lobster phones are funny. Signed toilets are funny. I don’t think you’re supposed to “get it,” but just supposed to laugh. This is a ridiculous situation we’re in, being human, and to “get it” is to laugh, at least sometimes. The hush of a museum can make that hard, though. It all seems so high art.
If I had a bike wheel screwed in to a stool in my apartment, I think it would be fun, sometimes, to just give it a whirl. I think that’s the point, and I think it’s too bad that sometimes, in museums, the presentation of the art what makes it great.
To some conservative tastes that silliness means the art is not art. It doesn’t strike the right tone. Yet, I find that the ridiculousness of this art is liberating. It allows me to see things in new ways, and think about things in different ways, and always makes me want to go out and create. Which means, for me, it does exactly what I want art to do.
One of my favorite sculptures is Leo Sewell’s Rolling Suitcase. There are personal reasons for this — I used to live right by the airport, so close the airplanes would fly about 50 feet overhead, the jets overwhelming everything with their roar, and I could drive by the sculpture every day — but I love the fact the whole idea of the permanent installation is art as surprise. The suitcase is made out of old road signs: INTERSTATE, and STOP, ONE WAY and WARNING CHANGED SIGNAL AHEAD. If you sit outside the airport and watch people as they wheel their suitcases from the parking garage to the Delta counter, sometimes they stop and stare at the sculpture, sometimes they laugh, or point, or sometimes they take pictures.
I got to talk to Sewell, once, and ask him about the suitcase. He said he liked the idea of his art at the airport because he liked the idea of art as unexpected. People don’t go to the airport expecting to see art; they’re in a rush, with things to do, and they’re thinking about their ticket and boarding pass and passport. They’re hoping the line won’t be too long and the security check will go smoothly and they’ll get off the ground on time. And then, right there, in the midst of all those practical worries and everyday concerns, maybe they’ll see the giant suitcase made out of road sign scraps, and maybe they’ll smile.
All of Sewell’s work is like this, fun and inspiring, full of the joy of a kid at the dump. I think it’s great:
I wouldn’t want to suggest that art should never be serious. I find Cormac McCarthy more compelling than almost anything, and I love Flannery O’Conner and William Faulkner. I think Michael Herr’s Dispatches is a work of genius and find I cyclically need to re-read the part of Roberto Bolano’s 2666 that most people found too violent to bear. Whether dark or light, though, I want art to surprise me. I want it to put the world off kilter, and to make me think, and to make me think about what it is to be human.
Sometimes, I know, this idea of art works out to odd ends. For instance, I think the world’s largest ball of twine is really interesting. I know why it wouldn’t normally be considered art, but I don’t really know how not to take it as art. It’s not like I disagree with any of the points one might make in dismissing it as ridiculous, but I look at it in its ridiculousness and think, this is us, this is human. This is what it’s like to be alive. On the other hand, I find a lot of poetry readings unbearable. The stilted, self-serious, breathless and constipated style of reading so common among contemporary poets has, I find, almost nothing to do with world I know. If anything, that imbued seriousness insulates the listener from any serious thoughts: rather than surprising us out our normal torpor, it confirms in us our own sense of being serious.
Too much poetry is designed as a kind of hush, meant to evoke self-satisfied feelings of being poetic, and that’s all.
If all art does is make us stroke our chins and say in somber tones, “very interesting,” then art isn’t worth it to me. I worry, sometimes, even though I love museums, that what they do is lay this hush down over art, smothering it with the kind of officialness. A formality. There’s something about the space, the lighting, the tone of the presentation, that can, too often, be inhibiting instead of liberating. It’s as if the art communicates its own artness, and the aura of high culture, and we’re ensconced in that like bugs in amber. There’s something about it that makes it so we can’t laugh, even though, look, it’s a bike wheel on a stool! Even though, look!, the title of this work is “Bicycle Wheel,” and it’s not even the original one, like that would matter or be extra special, it’s a replica!
I still love museums. There’s all sorts of really amazing work I never would have had access to, without them. In a world without museums, all the Vermers and Rembrants and Twomblys and Picassos would be owned by the rich, and I would have only ever seen photos in books. Without museums, and their guiding idea of democratic access to art, a person like me might never have been exposed to great art at all.
I’ve also learned to really love the kind of art that thrives outside formality, though. The stuff that will never be and can never be enshrouded in the hush of officialness. I love the extra crazy art that exists outside of art environments, the art that’s “out there,” in the wild, so to speak, ready to surprise. There’s something liberating and wonderful about the junk sculptures at the airport in Atlanta, something liberating and wonderful about the skittery strandbeasts on the beaches of Holland:
If anyone wants to say what Theo Jansen’s doing isn’t art, then I say let’s all give up art and do what he’s doing instead. It would be, I think, a wonderful thing to see his giant bug-devices centipede-stepping up the beach, wings aflutter in the wind from the sea. We wouldn’t have to “get it.” There would be no hush or stilted seriousness, but I think if I was walking one way on a beach, and Jansen’s art went walking the other, then I could rightly say, “this is what it’s like to be alive.”
I think it’s a plausible mission for artists to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit, to steal from something Kurt Vonnegut once said. I think it’s good for art to surprise us, and that might be the only way to make us appreciate what it is to be human. If I had to name a living artist who pulled that off, I might reply, “Leo Sewell and Theo Jansen did.”
Grammar didn’t come natural to me. The first time, when I learned there was such a thing as grammar, when we were introduced — like, “Daniel, meet grammar,” “Grammar, Daniel” — things did not go smoothly.
It was more like sliding bare-bottomed down a sandpaper hill.
I was in first grade, and we had “writing time.” The teacher was young and teaching a split, first-and-second grade class. There were too many students, and even at 6, 7, 8 and 9, we knew her control was kind of tenuous. The class was always on the edge of anarchy. As the year went on, the teacher, Miss Lane, added an increasing number of “quiet times” into her lesson plan. We had story time, where all of us were supposed to put our heads down and listen to the story. We had writing time, where you could go anywhere in the class room, sit anywhere, lay anywhere, as long as you were quiet and turned something in at the end of the hour that looked like writing.
I loved writing time. I went to the little side room where the assorted recess equipment was kept and spread out on the floor and chewed my pencil and wrote. I remember the first story was about a saber-toothed man. It was awesome. He was part superhero, part prehistoric creature, and he was walking through the woods, a saber-toothed man.
I’m pretty sure that was the whole story. My strong suit was description, not narrative arc.
I got it back about a week later. Maybe it was two weeks. Miss Lane had, in that time, very carefully murdered my story. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t paid attention to the story part of the story, which was awesome, but she had marked each and every sentence as wrong. That’s how I learned what grammar was. She’d written “GRAMMAR” on the top, in the same bleedy, red, felt-tip pen she’d used to draw angry squiggles all over my story.
I felt kind of like I’d just been criticized for walking. Or breathing. Like, this was something I felt I knew how to do. It seemed like it was just natural, I’d been doing it and everything had been fine, and now someone stops me to tell me there are rules. And I’m doing it wrong. I was walking along just fine, and now I’m getting yelled at.
“STOOOOOP! That’s NOT how you walk!”
“Are you ignorant? Are you from a bad family? Is your family poor?”
“I don’t understand.”
“There are rules. And everyone knows them except you. It’s called GRAMMAR. Now everyone thinks you’re stupid.”
This was how I became a descriptivist. I have since learned that there are some really good reasons to be a descriptivist. At the time, though, it was purely defensive. I was a descriptivist in exactly the same way I was a put-your-arms-around-your-head-and-duck-tivist when the 6th graders yelled “faggot” and threw rocks. It wasn’t exactly a philosophical decision.
The one grammatical correction I remember, from that murdered story, was about how you shouldn’t start sentences with conjunctions.
“What’s ‘conjunctions’?” I said.
“Like ‘and,'” she said, “or ‘but.'”
“You can’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’?”
“It’s against the rules. It’s GRAMMAR.”
The whole idea that there were rules, out there somewhere, was a little disturbing. How was I supposed to know what they were? Who decided the rules were the rules? Also, they seemed kind of arbitrary. What was wrong with conjunctions? Was I the only one who was starting sentences with conjunctions and I just never noticed that no one else did it?
This is a little like wondering if you are retarded, and everyone’s just been too nice to tell you. Or maybe they tried to tell you, and you were just too slow to actually get what they were saying.
But wait — I wasn’t the only one who started sentences with “but” or “and.” The Bible has sentences that stat with “but” and “and,” which meant that my grammar was like the same as God’s.
I tried that defense with Miss Lane, but she said I was still wrong. She didn’t say so, but apparently she would’ve marked up God’s writing too.
Which didn’t really make me feel better. And I still didn’t like grammar.
I did learn grammar, eventually, though not from Miss Lane. A whole slew of copy editors and editors taught it to me during my time as a journalist, and I took several years of Latin in college, where I got poor grades but finally figured out what “dative” meant and what an adjective was. I figuring out how clauses worked in the middle of an Episcopalian morning prayer service, where they used the old prayer book, which has a lot of archaically-constructed sentences. I’ve actually spent a lot of time with grammar in the last few years, as I’ve been working as a grammar teacher, teaching German university students who want to study English, and as a freelance proofreader and line editor. I think about that first experience I had, though, that slide down a sandpaper hill, when I hand back papers I’ve marred with my markings.
I try to remind them and to remind myself what grammar’s good for. Besides beating people over the head, besides flaunting one’s class or excellent education, besides pedantry and dickishness, what grammar does, what grammar can do, is give one excellent control over language. I am still a descriptivist — I believe usage is paramount, that there are no rules, really, only use — so grammar is not, for me, about being right, but about breaking down the language and taking it apart, so that one can know how it works and can make it work most effectively. I try to teach it the way I would teach mechanics.
It’s like, I sometimes tell my students, I know you know how to breathe, but I want to teach you how to breathe so you can run for hours.
What grammar did for me was enable me to analyze sentences. This has made me a better writer, but also — and this is something I’ve never seen promoted in a grammar book, never heard in a grammar rules rant — it made me a better reader. I am able, now, in a way I wasn’t before, to analyze a writer’s writing by looking at the writing itself. I can dig in, on the sentence level, and see what’s happening.
Consider a few examples, just looking at how independent and dependant clauses are used. I teach clauses to my students so they’ll know how to avoid sentence fragments and comma splices in their academic writing. I want them to be able to identify simple, compound and complex sentences, and use a variety of sentences to write with a more sophisticated rhythm. Too often, beginning writers, especially those, like my students, who are writing in their second or third language, write with the rhythm of a Dick and Jane book. It’s just DUM dum dum, DUM dum dum, forever and ever. I teach it for the sake of their writing, but it’s also helped me be a better reader.
For example, Joan Didion opens her novel Democracy with a single complex sentence, followed by fragmentary rephrasings, followed by a simple sentence that’s repeated with increasing complexity, increasing specificity. It’s structured as a struggle to find the right phrase, and the altered iterations expand outwards like ripples:
“The light at dawn during those Pacific tests was something to see.
Something to behold.
Something that could almost make you think you saw God, he said.
He said to her.
Jack Lovett said to Inez Victor.
Inez Victor who was born Inez Christian.
He said: The sky was this pink … ”
Then, in crescendo, Didion lets this sentence that’s the sentence of a writer trying to write, trying to find the right words, take off and just go. It’s a description of the pink of the Pacific island sky after the blast of a test bomb and it starts with a banality and unfurls from there, a description that tells us more about the man than the sky described, and then as it almost falls apart she puts in a comma and a complete sentence — a comma splice, technically an error — as if everything should be ignored and this is the thing, the sentence has resolved with the phrase the narrator wants:
“The sky was this pink and the air was wet from the night rain, soft and wet and smelling like flowers, smelling like those flowers you used to pin in your hair when you drove out to Schofield, gardenias, the air in the morning smelled like gardenias, never mind there were not too many flowers around those shot islands.”
Her comma splice communicates this need to re-state or re-phrase, which captures both the problem of the moment of these two characters and the whole novel’s expression of an ennui that isn’t boredom but an inability to exactly say. The whole problem or project of the novel is expressed, actually, in that comma splice, which is brilliant, I think, and which I wouldn’t have known except that I’ve been focusing on clauses.
Or consider, for another example, Walt Whitman’s poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Almost the whole first stanza is dependent clauses — “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, / Out of the mocking-bird’s throat,” — cascading down in one long sentence without a subject until, finally, in the 20th line, we get the subject “I.” There’s a missing “what” for 19 lines, and an ambiguity about the subject of the poem that is sustained by the structure of the sentence.
A lot of times people talk about Whitman like he was just wild, like his free verse had all the structure of a kite-high hippie dance. If you look at it, though, if you look at the grammar of it, this is a very carefully constructed sentence that very carefully puts the “I” of the poem in a very specific relationship to the world around it. The grammar isn’t incidental to Whitman’s poem; it is the working out of a major part of Whitman’s project.
One doesn’t need grammar to read Whitman or Didion or anyone else, of course. It’s not even necessary to read them well. Part of what makes good writers good, though, is their ability to sometimes, somehow, do everything they’re trying to do with the placement of a single comma. I want to be able to read that comma, to see what’s happening when the subject of a sentence turns up in a place you wouldn’t usually find it.
I know that’s not the point of grammar, and it certainly wasn’t what Miss Lane was trying to teach me when she wrote GRAMMAR on the top of my paper, but this is the other thing that grammar’s good for.
For most of us, I think, grammar is a brutal, brutal thing. It doesn’t come natural. Most of the time, even the word signals a fear, a panic even, at being embarrassed about being wrong. There’s something about it that can evoke deep shame. We imagine our mothers’ being embarrassed for us, as embarrassed as if we’d went out in shit-stained pants. We’re afraid of grammar because “grammar” means making stupid mistakes — there, their or they’re, or something like that — and we imagine stupid mistakes being taken as evidence of our real intelligence and value. That’s too bad, though, because it doesn’t have to be that way.
Grammar can be empowering. It can be about being a better writer and a better reader. It was, eventually, for me. I now know that it can be about knowing how the language works, instead of just driving along, listening to the rattle and choke under the hood, waiting, clenched up tense inside and waiting, until the whole thing breaks down.
When I die, I want to be buried under the ground under the floor of a library. I want the musty smell of turned-over pages to seep down through the wood floor, through where the wood turns black around the nails. I want to dream of ink, through the stone-scattered earth and a plain pine coffin, of ink pressed as words into the pulp of paper, of the way the afternoon light comes yellow through the high windows sprinkling down on floating flecks of dust. I want to hear the footsteps of a kid looking for the first time for a particular author as the joists creak. I want to feel the shift in the weight as a girl stands on her toes to find the place her books will be on the shelf, when she writes them. I want to see the sigh escaping a man who’s finally found a book he once loved, once lost.
I bought my first book shelf at an estate sale, after they’d sold everything worth something, everything but the clothes and the cat and the press board shelf. My granddad, the girl said, as an answer. He was 74. It had five shelves, the top shelf too small and the bottom one too large so the books had to be arranged by size. I set it by the head of my bed, and stacked my books all there, with only a few left on the floor unshelved. I lined the top shelf in paperbacks, pushing in the penguins and the signets, the bantams and the ballentines, until there wasn’t room for another full book. The last one I pried in, trying to keep the cover from crushing back. At night, trying to see the shelf in the dark light of the alarm clock, I smelled the old owner’s cigar smoke seeping out of the pressed particle wood. For weeks or maybe longer it hung there, in the dark, the soft scent of hours spent smoking and reading, paper turned and leaves burned and a life spent rocking quietly into the night.
The books you read, as a boy, they’re about men of action. Knights and cowboys and heroes and adventurers. Men who went over the horizon, into the next day, and if they die they die gloriously as a testament to things accomplished, to deeds done and victories claimed. You never read, when you read the books of a boy, about men who die wearing a bathrobe and reading until the end finds them half way through a cigar, half way through another book. But you read, when you’re a boy like I was a boy, with glasses and a book shelf and a penchant for words that aren’t usually used, you read and you see things in books like you’re the first one to see. You read and, as word follows word follows page follows cover, you see that specter. You get a glimpse of the outer limit, of your mortality.
In books, the man said, in books rowed up on the shelf you see, for the first time, your own death. You begin to measure the time this way. To come to feel the passing of life in titles. You come to look at a library the way the alchemists kept skulls on their desks, as a time check. Remember death, reads the space of every shelf, remember the limitations. I read 47 books, this last year. And 43, the year before, and 40 the year before that.
If a year of my life means 45 books, then I’ll read 270 by the time I’m 34. A few more than 2,000 when I’m 74. Two thousand titles I’ve yet to choose that will mark my accomplishments. Two thousand titles that could be any titles but whatever titles will pass, will pass shelf by shelf, author by author, passing my time. All of them could be bound together as the book of my days, the record of my lamp-lit nights.
This anxiety Walt Whitman has about poetry emerges in the poem “Song of Myself,” as Whitman seeks to establish a taxonomy of poetry, a system classifying what is good poetry, what bad, but the structure he establishes keeps collapsing.
The poem is one Whitman’s fullest explanation of his theory of language and poetry, perhaps even more clear than the few prose pieces on the subject that bear his name, and it serves to show and highlight his theoretical conceptions, but also to show how his work pervaded by a fear, a deep anxiety about poetry that inflicts his poems.
He works out, in the poem, a three-tiered idea of poetry. The lowest tier, the first level, is the poetry of refinement, and death. It is the poetry that actually goes by the name “poetry” in the poem, and reflects Whitman’s ideas about language, and how language can stagnate, separate from life and reality, and be dead. The second tier is the poetry of people using everyday language — “speaking.” In the poem, Whitman praises speaking, which is in accordance with his theory about the American people and the vitality of their everyday talk, reflected, for example, in his love of slang, place names, nicknames and technical terms, but speaking is still not entirely free and safe from the death that inflicts “poetry.” “Speaking” has the life that Whitman wants, but it’s not entirely stable, and it can be buried, it can be silenced, and it can die. This leads him to a third tier of poetic language, the one he calls “singing.” “Singing” is vivified and revitalized language, language that’s not convention and not a system of signifiers, but which truly is alive, is life, is reality. “Singing” is also the elevated from of common speech, the form that raises the life that exists in language as it is actually spoken by Americans to a new level, in a sense beautifying it. It liberates language. It is, then, the opposite of “poetry,” for poetry takes common speech and refines it, strangles it, and kills the life it had. This means, of course, that “speech,” though praised by Whitman, celebrated by him, is also the site of a certain anxiety, as it is fragile and in danger of dying. There’s always the possibility it will be smothered.
Up to this point, of course, the account of poetry presented in “Song of Myself” doesn’t create any problems. It fits quite nicely with the image of Whitman as great emancipator who begins and ends barbarically yawping. No sooner is the system constructed, though, then it begins to fall apart. It collapses, and deconstructs.
The death that marks “poetry” as bad is also, Whitman finds as the poem progresses, as he sets out the ideal of “singing,” a part of “singing.” The best poetry always has a little of what makes the worst poetry the worst. It’s haunted, and always already involved with the death, the dying, the stagnated, merely signifying language that is not vivified. No sooner is the three-part structure of poetry set up in “Song of Myself,” then it disintegrates, and a panic sets in, a desperate worry about the worth of poetry. As he talks about “singing,” the poet becomes paranoid, and fears the whole project has, before his eyes, flatly failed.
Very early in the poem, Whitman moves to attack poetry and also to separate his poem from that which is commonly called poetry. There’s a bit of a sarcastic edge to the lines 30-37 and a kind of dismissal that could even be considered reminiscent of the disses of rap battles: “Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?” Whitman asks. “Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems … You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres of books” (32, 33, 35).
Whitman, here, is degrading poetry as such, and also setting his poem, his project, up against poetry. Even if one takes this as mere bravado, though, the braggadocio or the posturing of a young man who wants to challenge the establishment to a battle, the terms of his dismissals are important. The problem of “poetry,” as Whitman sees it, is death. Poetry – the poetry he’s rejecting and is opposing himself to – is a thing of ghosts, and sees with the eyes of dead. It is dead because of it’s distance from the reader, from the reader’s own body, life, breath and experience, is that way because it is a thing of reckoning and practice, which is exactly the kind of refinement Whitman thinks has marked the whole tradition of poetry, and which doesn’t befit America. “The whole tendency of poetry,” Whitman said in a newspaper interview in 1876, “has been toward refinement. I have felt that was not worthy of America. Something more vigorous, al fresco, was needed.”
Whitman further pushes this idea of the wrong-headed tendency of refinement in line 49, where he opposes elaboration, which is “no avail,” and opposes it to himself and his life, his soul, and other people’s lives and life in general and their souls too. “While they discuss I am silent,” Whitman writes, “and go and bathe and admire myself” (56).
Of course the contrasts here between death and life, books and experience, debates and one’s own glorious nakedness, fit neatly into the frame of Whitman as a Romantic writer, the frame that’s taught to American high school students and which works to give Whitman the reputation he has with Beat poets and ad agencies alike, but it also fits with his theory of language. The language he opposes is the language which Swinton’s book called “dead mechanism.” The language he wants is the language that is vitalizes, “something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground” (“Slang in America”). The contrasts and oppositions of Romanticism also have this poetic shape to them, and when Whitman lays out, early in one of his most famous and most recognized poems, his poetic project, he’s using that specific theory of language to set the terms.
Having more or less started with a sign declaring the death of so-called “poetry,” Whitman’s “Song of Myself” then turns to the second level in the tier of language, that of common, everyday speech. Poetry is contrasted with “voice,” with “talking,” which is better and more natural than “poetry,” but is tainting (from the start) with an anxiety:
“Speech” is presented as something that cannot be quite trusted, since it can be silenced, as in line 164, where it is “buried” – as though dead, like poetry – and “restrain’d by decorum” – also like poetry – even though it is, by nature, something that “is always vibrating” and howls. Speech, or voice, is pictured by Whitman to be something that has vitality, this life he wants his poem to have, and yet it is also something that isn’t free from the danger of death. Common people, the one he wants to celebrate, can be oppressed and suppressed, and made to act like they’re dead, even if they’re actually not (145), and the same is true with their language. “Voices” can be made “long dumb” (508), becoming like poetry. Whitman doesn’t want to attack talking, because it is, actually, a force for life that just happens to be dead or to look like it’s dead, unlike poetry with is an agent of death. He does want to distinguish and distance himself from it, though. The poet-author knows that “the talkers were talking” (38) and what they were talking about, but finds it important to point out that he, himself, is not talking.
Whitman will want to celebrate and appreciate speech, both in the ways it’s normally conceived of and as this second tier of his taxonomical account of poetry, but it’s still problematic for him. It isn’t free from the problem of “poetry.”
This can be seen when the poet engages in speech, and then wrestles with it, almost epically battling with “speech” that, personified, tries to trap him, trick him, lock him into this limitation of articulation. “Speech is the twin of my vision” (566), Whitman declares, which might be taken as a commitment to “speech,” but then that line’s immediately followed by an explanation of an adversarial relationship: Whitman isn’t attacking speech, but speech is attacking him. “It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically, / Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?” (567-568). The poet then resists “speech,” counters it, argues against it, rejects it, and ultimately rises above it. “Come now,” he says, “I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation/ Do you know O speech how the buds beneath you are folded?” (569).
Mark Baulerlein, in his work, has identified this section as the center of the struggle in Leaves of Grass, as Whitman fights to find “a language adequate to a certain emotional-spiritual import” (55), as he struggles against what Ezra Greenspan calls the “representational limitations of language.” Whitman is fighting against language here, fighting for it to be more than mere system of signs, and as it threatens to trap him in he attempts to resist, He addresses speech, here, almost as God addresses Job from the whirlwind, attempting to take the position of having confounded “speech,” which is too small for him. Speech, like a mere mortal inappropriately attempting to surmount the divine, has tried to reduce Whitman to something containable (just as “poetry” is a reduction of the life force of “speech”), but that reduction would, if Whitman, be a reduction unto death, and he rejects it:
My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am.
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you
Writing and talking do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and everything else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic (576 – 581).
Whitman is still placing “speech,” in his taxonomy of poetry, on a level above poetry – he, after all, is enthusiastically committed to everything that even seems democratic, and he will declare that talking is “the sound I love, the sound of the human voice” (585) – but he himself is doing something different. He is not one of the “talkers talking,” and has separated himself from “speech,” risen above to do something more.
What Whitman really wants to do with this second tier is save it. He wants to liberate it and elevate it, empowering the talkers with a new kind of language in the same way he has been liberated and has transcended. He knows a different type of speech, a different poetry than “poetry,” a life-ful language with which Whitman can come and set the talkers free. He knows “the password primeval” (506), the “sign of democracy”; he can “Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” (501, 502); through him, dead voices are resurrected, as he says, “Through me forbidden voices,/Voices of sexes and lusts, voices veil’d and I remove the veil,/Voices indecent by me clarified and transfigur’d” (516-518).
He can do all this, as presented in Leaves of Grass, because he knows this different kind of poetry, “singing.” This is the third tier, the top tier, of his taxonomy, which is presented, in the poem, as a discovery, a revelation. If the poem is taken as a narrative, Whitman engaged in “speech” and then with “speech,” and then, in rejecting it, in finding it not quite free, not quite liberated from the stagnation and stink of “poetry,” he finds this new thing, this higher plane of language with which he can transfigure and clarify the “voices veil’d” (517), the voices “long dumb” (508), “buried” and “restrain’d by decorum” (164). Right after Whitman rejects “speech” as insufficient, he discovers music. He sits silent and listens and he discovers music, starting with, hearing first, the birds. Returning the reader, perhaps, to the revelation (and the submerged anxiety) of the bird’s he heard as a child on fish-shaped Paumanok, Whitman hears “the bravuras of birds” (584) and that acts to open him up to a long list of sounds, which are, notably, not “voice,” not “talking,” even when and where they might have been taken that way by another, but music, singing and song.
The revelation of hearing the bird – this one and the first one too – is pronounced by Whitman with the sigh, “I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,/Ah this indeed is music – this suits me” (599-600). In the context of the actual poem this is, of course, also literal music, with singing soprano and violoncello and keyed cornet, but as it “shakes mad-sweet pangs through [his] belly and breast” (598), “whirls [him] wider than Uranus files” (604) and “wrenches such ardor from [him] [he] did not know [he] possess’d” (605), he is opened to “feel the puzzle of puzzles,/ And that we call Being” (609 – 610). The bird reveals music to Whitman, and music reveals Being.
Following the revelation of music in Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s lists become longer, more exuberant. For example, poem 33 starts with the exclamation of “Space and Time!” and lasts, in that ecstatic mode, for 160 lines, with the narrator declaring himself liberated, “a free companion” (817) able to sleep with any bride (818) and speak in any voice he wants (819), since he is unencumbered by any law, unrestrained by any guard (801-803). It is as if, the poetry worked out, the justification of the poem itself established, Whitman is free.
He intends to use this freedom, this revelation that leads to liberation, to breathe life into speech. This Whitman, singing Whitman, is Whitman the liberator.
There is, in Leaves of Grass, a whole list of people who do not sing, but use “voice,” for example preachers and scientists, slaves and a sea captain, people whom he does not want to reject, but whom he, with his singing, can elevate to singing by singing them. His poem, his song, which is of himself but also of them, is intended here to be and is expressed here as being a manifestation or a realization of their spirit. “I act as the tongue of you,” he says, “Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d” (1248 – 1249). This music is understood to have a kind of salvific function. “Music rolls,” Whitman says, “but not from an organ” (1061), coming to the aid of the speakers whose struggle for the breath of freedom he has. The prime example of this function of his singing and how he places “voice” in this middle tier of the taxonomy is the dying general who speaks to the narrator at the end of poem 33.
In line 869 and 870, Whitman writes, “Again gurgles the mouth of my dying general, he furiously waves with his hand,/He gasps through the clot Mind not me – mind – the entrenchments.” Here speech is presented as a) difficult, b) involved with death, c) as something the reader and the poet should ignore or transcend, precisely for the sake of the speaker. The general cannot go on, and can barely utter the words he needs to utter, but Whitman can do it for him, with his singing.
This brings us back to the title of the poem, “Song of Myself,” and the most the famous couplet, “I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,/I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” (1332 – 1333). This is Whitman’s idea and ideal of poetry. This account, in Leaves of Grass, fits into Whitman’s Transcendentalism and his Romanticism and is how Whitman is typically viewed. Whitman is seen yawping, singing this barbaric, al fresco song, a sort of noble savage of verse. He is free from anxiety and invites his readers to come and romp, howl, dance naked and liberate themselves. Yet, just as “speech” was infected with the illness of “poetry,” so also “singing.” At the moment poetry – the new poetry Whitman has conceived as his project, his life’s work – is supposed to take off and soar, to expand ever out like the universe “wider and wider” “expanding, always expanding” (1185) in unstopped and unstoppable growth, the anxiety of form and theory is there again. It vexes; it depresses; it comes crushing down. The bird, at the moment of the yawp, accuses him of being tame and translatable (1331). He claims this organ-like music rolls forth from his breast, but inside that is this cavity of anxiety that won’t stop worrying him, “Ever the verxer’s hoot! hoot! hoot! (1067).
Scattered throughout the poem are these little lines speaking of doubt. There is this fear, bubbling up, that his song is no more liberated than “speech,” that is, after all, a poem. Not quite congruent with the image of Whitman, the singing savior, the one who’s come to set us free with a song, to make us as free as his uncut beard, there are these moments of despair that speak of a man bothered, a man who would have to rewrite and revise almost until the end of his life: “I know the sea of torment,” the narrator says, “doubt, despair and unbelief.”
He is, despite protestations (1289), alarmed by death. It’s not the death of his body that worries Whitman, though, but the death that seems to seize the words as they grow cold and lifeless on the page. The poem, Whitman’s masterwork, ends with this note of anxiety and fear of failure entirely entangled with declarations of hope. He concludes with the despondent note that “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean” (1341), and counters “But I shall be good health to you nevertheless” (1342), and then counters and counters again, perhaps in a debate with himself, perhaps in an oscillation between hope and despair, “Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you” (1344 – 1346).
It’s a failure Whitman feels, too. The anxiety that underlies many of the poems, that seems to bubble up in them, sometimes erupts in his work in full-fledged declarations of failure. The problem of poetry sometimes seems too much to bear, and Whitman, in a poem, disavows poetry, gives up the project of vivifying words and putting life – his life – into a poem. “Conveying a sentiment and invitation, I utter and utter, / I speak not” (25-26), he says in “A Song of the Rolling Earth.” The poem sets out the transcendentalist doctrine of nature, but the poem also denounces itself for its inability to be what the transcendentalist theory would have it be. Whitman wants “A song of the rolling earth, and of words according” (1), but cannot achieve it with the tool of the poem. “Were you thinking that those were the words,” he asks, “those upright lines? those curves, angles, dots? / No, those are not the words” (2 – 3). Whitman uses the poem to commit himself or recommit himself to exactly the romantic, Transcendentalist, the vibrant, plenum of life he spoke of in “A Song of Myself,” but where once Whitman was going to yawp over the rooftops of the world, now he says utterances all have to be abandoned:
I swear I begin to see little or nothing in audible words,
All merges toward the presentation of the unspoken meanings of the earth,
Toward him who sings the songs of the body and the truths of the earth,
Toward him who makes the dictionaries of words that print cannot touch.
I swear I see what is better than to tell the best,
It is always to leave the best untold.
When I undertake to tell the best I find I cannot,
My tongue is ineffectual on its pivot,
My breath will not be obedient to its organs,
I become a dumb man (98 – 107).
There should be a warning on the cover of Moby-Dick. Beware, it should say, reading this will require blood.
Fair warning would only be fair. As it is, the word of caution comes too late. Melville only mentions this cost, this culpability, when one is already hundreds of pages in. It’s only mentioned after we know to call him Ishmael, after we’ve followed, fascinated, behind Queequeg the face-tattooed harpooner who carries his god in his pocket, after we’ve sat through a scary sermon, heard a beggars warning, met the crazy Quaker shipping company owners and boarded the Pequod with Ishmael. It only happens after we’ve watched the waters for whales, watched while the water’s impossibly calm, and after we’ve learned the customs and social structures of whaling ships, after we’ve met everyone and after we’ve seen the one-legged captain with his thumping and his obsession.
Then we’re told we’re doomed.
The structure of this moment — this too-late announcement that one is irrevocably involved — is, of course, the same for the reader as it is for the characters in Moby-Dick. This is what happens in the novel and what happens, at the same time, to the reader of the novel. It’s a metafictional moment revealing one’s ethical responsibility, revealing it not as a choice, but as a sentence.
This metafictional moment comes in a metafiction chapter of the novel, the chapter where Ishmael, the narrator, uses this genre to directly address the reader, directly address the nature of the narrative, the bookness of the book, and the question of the truth of the story. It comes in Chapter 45, “The Affidavit,” which starts out, “So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book…” The function of the chapter is the function of an affidavit, that is, to swear to the truth of something, and Ishmael does this by epistemological appeal to his own eye witness testimony, to the stories commonly known among those who know these things, and news accounts and written documents, where “A fact thus set down in substantial history cannot easily be gainsaid.” He swears and declares that what he says is the truth. He has, he says, “no more idea of being facetious than Moses when he wrote the history of the plagues of Egypt.”
To make this direct appeal on behalf of the truth of the narrative, the narrator has to step a step away, into metafiction, and in doing that directly addresses the reader. He warns that “they,” by which he means “landsmen,” by which he means us, “might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.”
Ostensibly this misinterpretation — which is, maybe, the most common interpretation seen in readings of Melville’s magnum opus — horrifies the narrator because it’s wrong, and because it remakes the horribly real into a nice little morality tale. It seems, though, that, in truth, the fear here is also that the readers, in making the whale into an allegory, in making the story a fable with a learnable lesson attached at the end, might exempt themselves from any moral responsibility. Swearing to the truth of what he has to say, by means of metafictional address, the narrator also in this moment manages to point out that the reader is always already ethically involved.
“Do you suppose,” the narrator says,
that that poor fellow there, who this moment perhaps caught by the whale-line off the coast of New Guinea, is being carried down to the bottom of the sea by the sounding leviathan — do you suppose that that poor fellow’s name will appear in the newspaper obituary you will read tomorrow at your breakfast? No: because the mails are very irregular between here and New Guinea. In fact, did you ever hear what might be called regular news direct or indirect from New Guinea? Yet I tell you that upon one particular voyage which I made to the Pacific, among many others, we spoke thirty different ships, every one of which had had a death by a whale, some of them more than one, and three that had each lost a boat’s crew. For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! Not a gallon you burn, but at least on drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.
This is a sort of shocking moment, for you are sitting there or I am sitting here, reading, quietly reading, for all intents and purposes innocent of the world’s blood and bother, its violence and tumult, and Ishmael comes right out of the page and accuses us of blood. Whether by not reading about our involvement, when we read the paper in the morning, or by reading about it here, we are not separate, he says. We are, in our actions and inactions, culpable.
Moby-Dick is, in one basic sense, an economics story. It’s about the kind of capitalistic colonialism America has always been involved in. Like Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the story suggests that this system, this kind of colonialism, whereby we scour the world for resources to take, just assuming they’re ours for the taking, is pretty normal, pretty acceptable. The problem with the system, these novels propose, is that sometimes a crazy person, a Kurtz or an Ahab, takes the enterprise crashing over the edge into excess and insanity. It is, in this sense, a warning about a limit. Melville shows us, though, that it’s not just the crazy people, those who betray the fiducial interests of the mission, who are the problem. It’s also those who acquiesce.
When Ahab announces his insane mission, “And this is what ye have shipped for men …”, the harpooners all shout out “Aye, aye!” Starbuck alone resists, saying he’s there to do business, not vengeance, to make money, not mad revenge. Starbuck wants to focus on this normal business of capitalism, rather than waging war on the ontological, attempting to “strike through the mask!” of visible things through to the “inscrutable malice,” the “inscrutable thing” behind reality. Starbuck resists, but only for a second, and then he falls silent. He cannot separate himself from this, cannot opt out. In his silence, Starbuck acquiesces. “Aye, aye!,” Ahab says, “thy silence, then, that voices thee.”
We, the readers, in the same way, slip past the limit we are supposed to be aware of. If we are not reading, the narrator says, we have, in that, tacitly accepted the situation, and are involved. And if we are reading, well, look at the light we’re reading by: its oil we’re burning, oil that can only be got with this system, that always requires blood.
The metafictional moment acts as an ethical trap, and, more than 200 pages into the text, it’s sprung, a surprise, and we’re caught.
It’s a surprise, I think, because we think of reading as safe. Library posters and summer reading programs teach us that.
There is even a strain of thought that understands reading to be a kind of act of ethical resistance, as a way to ethically opt out, ala Slovoj Žižek’s promotion of politics of Bartleby, with Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener’s radical repeated refusal to participate. Reading, the idea is, is an act of passivity that exempts you from the hubbub of capitalism, the structural violence of our modern world. Reading is a moment wherein one is not a part of the machine. Reading, where one is so intensely turned inward, is a place where one is not acquiescing, by act of mere modern existence, to the system.
It’s a tempting thought precisely because reading feels so safe. It has, at least for me, been an existential refuge. As we become increasingly aware that our lives are entangled in structures and systems we didn’t choose, structures of race and class and economics, structures of global power, of ideologies invisible to us, of what the old Calvinists called sin and sin nature and our fallen state, and are always entangled in ways which can be to our benefit but also our damnation, of course we have wanted to find a safe place. And reading feels like a safe place. When I, by contrast, am standing in a grocery store, looking at the kinds of coffee on sale, I am caught up in the colonialism that made this possible, the environmental problems that this entails, the Cold War politics and third world policies of US, and the choice I have is not whether to participate or not, but how. When I interact with other races or don’t interact with other races, when I interact with other genders or don’t interact with other genders, when I step out my door with an American passport in my pocket, an American passport with its patriotically-themed pages printed in pale blue, I’m all ready involved. I don’t get to choose in the way I think I want to choose. In the way I was taught that ethical action is a kind of choosing. I’m just stuck with the responsibility and the question of how. Against this, though, reading has felt like it was safe.
Then Melville says: This costs blood.
There are a number of problems, of course, with conceiving of reading as an act where one isn’t ethically involved. As “ethical resistance.” What does that even mean? Another, the big one, for me, is that it is always this move of self-exemption that enables unethical behavior. We always, always, always find ways of making other people the bad people, and ourselves safe from moral responsibility. We disown our own responsibility and culpability with never-ending displacements that would rival a nursery rhyme, the cow takes the dog, the dog takes the cat, the cat a rat, the rat the cheese, and no one just stands alone with it. The search for the guilty party is always the search for other people. It’s displacement. Trying to find a way out of our ethical problems seems to always involve saying we never had them, they weren’t ours, we resisted, and this exactly repeats the structure of the problem. Actual ethical moments, it seems to me, can only come as this kind of shock that collapses the distance we place between ourselves and culpability.
Melville does this in this moment of metafiction. It’s one of the brilliant things metafiction can do, though it doesn’t always. The knock against metafiction is that it’s narcissistic, self absorbed, smart kids showing off. This can, in fact, be the case, but metafiction also offers us or can offer a real chance to see ourselves for what we are, to acknowledge our own responsibility.
Consider a work that is by no means a classic of the metafiction genre: Jud Süß, Oskar Roehler’s 2010 film about the 1940 Nazi film of the same name. Roehler’s film shows the original film, even integrating clips from Joseph Goebbels’ original into the story about a story. In one scene, Roehler shows Nazi soldiers watching the vicious, anti-Semitic film, zooming in on their awful, leering faces, and then he cuts, and shows the scene from the back of the theater, and we see their heads and shoulders as silhouettes, watching the movie. We see them, in that moment, in the same way we see the people in front of us, and the shot collapses the distance we might normally place between ourselves and those evil other people. We are watching them watching, and that visual stutter serves to point to the fact that we are sitting there as they are sitting there, leering at them leering, and we are not separate and distance from them. It isn’t, I don’t think, an act of moral equivalence, but simply serves to focus us on a question: How do we distinguish ourselves? How do we separate ourselves? How is that we’re different?
There is, in metafiction, a possibility for ethical realization. Moby-Dick isn’t metafictional, by and large, but a brilliantly shaggy, multi-genre work. When it is metafictional, though, in this chapter, “The Affidavit,” it manages to surprise, and to collapse the distance we so often put between ourselves any sense of culpability.
To carve a face in wood you must practice. And practice and practice. You must practice eyes, especially, and mouths and noses, though you cannot think of them that way. Think only of the wood and the edge of the knife and of shapes. You must break the face into pieces, in how you think of it, and think not of faces but of pieces and parts, 0f shapes and lines. Practice triangles with your knife. Practice triangles with your gouge. Practice circles and ovals, oblongs and uneven polygons, rectangles and slightly-off squares.
Cut triangles with the tip of your knife for eyes, pairs of triangles on each side of each eye. Connect them with thin, arching lines, cutting a curl of wood away, leaving a circle remaining, a mound, a pupil, inside.
Practice until you have a whole boards of eyes. Practice until there are a million ears clustered in irregular patterns on a totem that could be an icon of a wooden listening god. Put it somewhere where you can see it. Let it sit and look at it, all those wooden ears, all those wooden eyes, all those abstract, crescent-shaped smiles. Then sharpen your knife again. Feel the fine edge on the edge of your thumb.
I started carving when I was 14. I started writing around then too. Both were really bad. I wrote a rhyming poem about a chicken I’d owned. It was pretty much what you would think. The first thing I carved was a sheep. I imagined I would carve a nativity, a whole set, sheep and shepherds, wise men, cow, and Christ, but I didn’t understand my material, and didn’t understand my tools. In the end the sheep had three legs. There was a giant, raggedly hole where the left haunch was supposed to be. The ears and nose were about the same size, giving it the look of a three-headed, three-legged thing. I had no idea how to carve something that looked like wool. It was only a sheep if you squinted and were generous.
The poem was published. I started getting letters, semi-regular, from one of those scam poetry places. They said they could see I had talent. A fresh new voice.
No one ever lied to me about the sheep.
There was a carving club of old men in the town where I lived—retirees. They were grandfathers and WWII vets with shops with band saws and stacks of carving wood. They looked at the sheep I had and showed me how I hadn’t paid attention to the grain, hadn’t understood the wood.
First they asked me what I was using to carve. I showed them my knife, a three-bladed pocket knife I’d found in a cardboard box of tools at an estate sale from where an old man had died.
No, they said. That’s not what you want to use. They showed me knives, better knives, and which tool to use when.
I have read, since then, a lot of books and a lot of articles about how to write. I’ve listened to a lot of advice. I’ve read a lot and listened to a lot about how to carve, too.
The instruction on carving is always better.
For one thing it’s always practical. It’s technical, specific, and helpful.
Most of the advice on writing I’ve read is mostly inspirational. There’s nothing wrong with inspiration, of course, but it doesn’t help a rhyming chicken poem. Most of it ends up being premised, too, on the idea that I am an artist, and we are artists, and special, and spiritual, and its romantic mumbo-jumbo, mostly, that doesn’t tell you how to get better. It doesn’t tell you how to write better, how to write a better line. It works only to preserve your view of yourself.
Most of the rest of was truisms, clichés, and crap.
Woodcarvers, by comparison, never told me to carve what I know. They never said, everyone has a great carving in them. Instead, they said, keep at it. Keep working. Try this. Try again. See how this tool can be used to do this job?
They told me how to get better.
They didn’t think of themselves as artists, the old men. They didn’t encourage me to think of myself that way either, didn’t assume I could just reach into myself, magically or mystically, and come out with a great work. Carving was a craft, to them, something you did because you wanted to do it, because you got joy from doing it and doing it well. It was something you worked at. Something you learned how to do by doing, and doing it, got better. They didn’t assume there was a secret, 10 tricks to learn to become successful. They assumed it was work. They assumed it would take practice.
I took some classes, from some of them. In a class the teacher carves something simple. Then you copy him. He makes a cut; then you make a cut. At the end you have a piece that’s almost just like his, and you know the concepts of how to carve. Then you go practice that, and try to do something better. I’ve never heard of a writing class where you learn to write that way.
With carving, there were workshops, too. In the workshops, you sat there and carved, then someone with more experience would say, “try it this way.” They’d show you what they were working on, and how they did it. If you cut yourself, they’d show you how to stop the cut with superglue. They’d suggest that next time you try something harder than what you did before.
They’d encourage you to keep working. Practicing. No one ever acted like they thought they were a genius, or like what they were doing was too amazing to be understood or appreciated. It was a craft, and we were all very practical.
They’d say, “what kind of wood is that you’re working with?” They’d say, “what you want with wood is something with a real consistent grain.”
They’d say, “let me show you how to sharpen a knife real good.”
Then they’d show you how to feel the fine edge with the edge of your thumb. Then you’d practice, and practice some more.
To carve a face you must know how to pick a piece of wood and how to sharpen a knife and to hold a knife. You have to know how to use it. When to be delicate. When to be bold. Carving is tools and materials and practice. You must know how the knife is going to cut and how the wood is going to be cut, how it will be before you slice. You have to know, and can only know from having done it, and done it repeatedly.
Carve until your hand hurts from holding the knife. Pile up chips in your lap. Pile up chips around your feet until the feathery frays of white wood stick to your socks and get into your shoes. Put a chip in your mouth and taste it. Taste the grain with your tongue. Stretch your hand and massage between the muscles until it feels better.
Cut an isosceles notch with the flat of the knife below what will be the nose. Cut curved lines for what will be the smile lines with the tip of your knife, pulling the blade with a paring motion, curving around, pressure from your pointer knuckle, towards your thumb. Work with the grain of the wood. Curl away from the triangle eyes, up from the eyes, length of the blade, twist of the wrist for the brows.
Put the man you’ve carved up in a window. Look at him with the light. Think about what you’ll do next time.
Nixon went down to the beach and sat in the sand and waited. The waves came in, the waves went out, and he sat there in his suit and waited.
There comes a point, in every election, where there seems like there’s nothing anyone can do. Whatever is going to happen will happen. It has happened already. Sometime during the day, sometime while the votes are cast or after they’re cast but haven’t yet been counted, the candidates can’t do anything anymore except wait. Politicking ends. Maneuvering stops. Everyone waits. They’re as helpless as hitchhikers, at that moment, in that in-between time. As helpless as sinners in that old Calvinist doctrine of waiting for grace.
For the last few years, every election day I’ve gone down to the county headquarters and waited while they count the ballots. In the evening at the end of the day, the poll workers pull up to the bunker, lining up their SUVs and unloading the voting machines by the front door. It was the 911 call center at one point, a concrete building half-built into the ground, radio aerials like squiggly doodles drawn in the sky. They transformed it into a community center, though, and reporters and candidates, party hacks and other observers are shuffled over into a room that is used, most days, for a battered-wives support group. There are chairs there and we wait while they count. On the bulletin boards are brightly colored flyers saying love shouldn’t hurt, help is available, break the cycle of violence. We can see through a window to where they do the actual counting–election officials in a rush, unlocking the machines, sorting and shifting and tallying districts, then uploading the count onto the official site, where, all over the county, all over the state, candidates and journalists, party workers, regular voters, and other observers wait for the numbers to say what is already decided.
That is the weird thing, watching the poll workers come in and unload the machines, watching the counters count and the election watchers watch. You know the decision’s been made. There’s nothing anyone can do anymore. You’re in the interregnum. You’re in that period where you know that soon everything will appear clear and as foreordained as if providence had made it so, everything is complete, and soon this history can be what cultural studies scholars call “presentist,” where everything clearly leads up to what it did the way it did and makes sense retrospectively. But for the moment everything is undetermined. What’s going to be already is and we wait for what’s done, what’s inevitable and, in fact, is already accomplished but only not yet realized.
The future is fluid, to you there, standing there at sunset on election day as the counting counters scurry, and the past is fluid too. The past is done, but unknown; the future done and unknown too. All of it moving. All of it’s as formless as water. But only to you. In another sense, in a real sense or a more real sense, it’s all already solid. The past is decided and the future’s decided and has its shape, its form is fixed, but for you it’s all only liquid.
The tide goes out. The tide comes in. Nixon butt prints in November beach sand.
It’s strange that for a country as political as America, for a country that makes or can make anything political, whose day-to-day drama and national narrative is internally tangled and intertwined with party machinations and affairs of state — our own present history even actually narrated back to us by party hacks and political commentators — that there’s really very little art that directly deals with the political process.
The one work that really stands out is Robert Penn Warren’sAll the King’s Men, which, interestingly, puts a whole narrative in this interregnum state, where history is all fixed and predetermined and fated, and yet, unknown. It starts with driving directions, which also work as metaphor:
To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or it was new, that day we went up it. You look at that highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right front wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll reach to try to turn off the ignition just as she starts to dive. But you won’t make it, of course.
The book was written in 1946, Warren’s third novel. It won the Pulitzer in ’47, and seems to somewhat cyclically attract attention without ever making it onto anyone’s “great” list, or gaining a firm place in any cannon. It’s the story of Jack Burden, the narrator, a newspaper writer who goes to work for Willie Stark, a character loosely based on Louisiana’s Huey P. Long, a rising populist, a reformer who grabs power with both hands. It’s a political novel, in that it’s about politics. It might be the best book we have in American literature on politics–it’s the best one I can think of–but it’s also a meditation on destiny. Or what we might call a kind of secular Calvinism.
Burden is, by calling and by training, a historian. He is also an amateur philosopher, who flirts with Idealism, and a nihilistic, materialistic version of Calvinism that pictures history as a great big “twitch,” and he meditates confusedly on questions of destiny and time. He says, “And all times are one time, and all those dead in the past never lived before our definition gives them life, and out of the shadow their eyes implore us. That is what all of us historical researchers believe,” and “go out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time,” and other philosophical, poetic thing. The book is narrated from the future with a feeling of dread. A sense of doom sending its shadow back over the story. Huey P. Long, of course, was assassinated at, perhaps, the height of his power, and we know, even at the start, even if it’s just as a feeling from the sense of style, that that is going to happen and bad things are going to happen before the end of the book. We can see it coming–“coming at you”–down the middle of a highway, flat and straight for miles. Burden narrates with a sense of destiny that might, more rightly, be called inevitability.
Foreordination that’s more like foreboding.
He believes in providence, but in the sort of providence that only shows you the solid form of your fate in the moment after it happens. Everything’s liquid, as he stands there, an ocean that undulates without form, until suddenly he sees, and the past is solid and was what it was, and the future is now what it is and was always going to be.
There’s a sense of doom, in this, and All the King’s Men is Calvinistic too in its sense that everyone’s implicated, intertwined and tangled up inescapably in the horrible human condition. It’s secular, though, in that the human degradation does not and is not meant to emphasize the distant glory of God, but only highlights our helplessness. There is no salvation, in All the King’s Men, but only the waiting. Or, there is a salvation, but it’s only political, it’s only a new road or a new state policy or an inspiring speech, and the characters in the novel are always on the way towards a crash into the limits of the limited scope of that hope.
As Willie Stark says to Jack Burden, “We been in it up to our ears, both of us, you and me, boy.”
Or as somebody says to Stark, when his first run for governor flounders out, “You thought you were the little white lamb of God.”
Everyone’s condemned in this novel — always already condemned — and what’s interesting, reading it, is seeing how you already know how it’s going to end just from the tone, just from the style, and yet it’s riveting anyway. You can’t look away. That secular Calvinistic sense of sin is injected into every part of the narrative, and the characters, even at the beginning, are already framed by their doom. Framed not in the political sense of made-up scandal with planted evidence, but framed by history and fate. As Stark says, trying to explain it,
I never did ask you to frame anybody. And you know why?
Because it ain’t ever necessary. You don’t ever have to frame anybody, because the truth is always enough.
We are, that is, all already framed. Framed by history. We just know how yet.
The narrator regularly signals what’s going to happen, but the character who narrates can only wait, helpless, until it does. Jack Burden is, as a character, as condemned as Oedipus, of the ancient Greeks, who made his fate come true by working against it. He’s doomed and destined, and the facts or events of the novel are fixed, and there’s a way in which Burden doesn’t actually act any more than Nixon did on that Election Day, waiting for someone to come find him and tell him what he’d done. Instead, what changes for Burden is the way he thinks about himself and history and the history that is to come. The whole novel is watching him drive straight into the crash of the realization of his Calvinistic kind of fate.
Then the share-cropping black man, chopping cotton in the very first pages of the novel, can see “the little column of black smoke standing up against the vitriolic, arsenical green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and […] say, ‘Lawd God, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit.'”
Of course, we might say the same thing about secularized Calvinism in American literature, about displaced, disenchanted destiny in the American novel: Hit’s a-nudder one done done hit again. It’s a subtext that stretches and a question that comes up from Hawthorne to Pynchon. Nathanial Hawthorne, even in early stories like “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” cross-layers providentalisms against each other, until the characters all get caught in them, destroyed in them (and maybe the story does too). Thomas Pynchon’s Slothrop, the paranoid center of the apparently conspiratorial universe of Gravity’s Rainbow, is, appropriately, the descendent of providentialist Puritans, the son of a whole history of paranoid histories. America is a country, too, that has always confused it’s providentialism and its politics, with its Manifest Destinies and Cities on Hills, which is all foreordination and fixed history, fixed into the future, the “God” little more than the manifestations of the mystery of it was going to happen, its history always one of retrospective and presentist explanations, meta-narratives that put the whole thing in a frame.
What’s interesting about Jack Burden’s secular Calvinism, in all its foreordination and mystery, with history that’s both God-given and unknowable, is this moment: the interregnum. The election day moment. He lives there, right there, the narrative is structured there, where everything’s already been decided and there’s nothing you can do. Sitting on the beach where everything’s liquid, everything’s fluid, it’s all an ocean, and then in a moment you see the shape of it all, a shape you can then never un-see.
In this novel we’re always in this moment where we’re watching the voting machines unloaded and knowing that here the Vox of the populi has already been uttered, but isn’t or hasn’t yet become, hasn’t been transformed into the vox of the Dei, and so can’t yet be heard or understood.
For most of us, most of the time, fate and history are fixed. Or seem fixed. We are meta-narrativists and presentists, by training and by nature, and the past seems to us to be solid, the present predetermined even as what we’re really doing is reading it, interpreting it, socially constructing it from where we sit. There are moments, though, where we’re waiting, where we don’t have what we need to determine the providential shape of the narrative of “now.” We will, with our tellings, fix it as if it’s the voice of God, as if it’s the only way things are or could have been, but there are moments where that indeterminacy of history, the openness of how we read or could read and how we understand, is, for a moment, if not clear, a feeling we clearly feel as dread in our stomachs as we watch the ocean tide.
Moments of uneasy interregnum.
Moments of waiting, waiting for what has already happened or will seem like it has when the past is appropriately fixed and firmed-up by the future, moments of suspended shock, before everything fits into place.
“When a heavy-caliber slug hits you,” Jack Burden explains, “you may spin around but you don’t feel a thing.”
Moments when, watching the middle line of a flat highway like 58, watching it flicker and shimmer until we pass into a daze while driving, hypnotized by ourselves, and we imagine as if in a trance, a daydream from which we cannot wake, what would happen if we veered off into the dirt shoulder and crashed, what the smoke would look like, what the cotton choppers would say to themselves, a mile away, and we imagine the other alternative too, where we go “whipping on into the dazzle […] at the horizon where the cotton fields are blurred into the light, the slab will gleam and glitter like water, as though the road were flooded,” and we’ll go “whipping towards it, but it will always be ahead […] that bright, flooded place, like a mirage.”
It’s a hypnotic moment, where we stare off unfocused, like Nixon looking at the ocean. There, in the in-between when the votes are being counted, the past, present and the future could really all go either way, could take any shape. Until it happen. Then it won’t seem like anything except our story of fate and future-from-past, present-from-past, now as it was always going to be because of secular providence, was possible. After it happens.
Herman Melville doesn’t announce the ambition of Moby-Dick directly. He kind of sneaks it in. It comes in late and sideways.
At the start the feeling is almost haphazard, and Ismael says, as if in afterthought, “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery parts of the world.” It’s imagined as a minor event in “the grand programme of Providence,” a little headline lost between “Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States” and “BLOODY BATTLE IN AFFGHANISTAN.” When the ambition is announced, it’s done almost obliquely. It’s done as if the narrator had lingered a little longer than necessary in the library, hoping somebody else would write the book so he wouldn’t have to: “As yet, however,” he says, “the sperm whale, scientific or poetic, lives not complete in any literature … As no better man advances to take this matter in hand, I hereupon offer my own poor endeavors.”
It’s more admission than announcement. It’s a cautious, carefully phrased version of what Walt Whitman wrote, when Whitman, the endless self-promoter, repeatedly claims in poetry and prose, essay and interview that his goal with Leaves of Grass was to put himself and his country, a whole living person and a wide, ever-undulating democracy, into a poem. Melville’s aim is no less ambitious, to put a whole living whale into a book.
Melville isn’t quite so brash to sing of himself, though, or to equate directly himself with the country as a whole. He worries, also, that his ambition will fail, that his picture of the whale will “remain unpainted at the last.” He is always aware he’s always on the verge of the whole thing breaking down, but the ambition is there. Beating underneath. It acts as the will to will it onward, the drive to make it work, a promise to try to do something great, the stakes that are high enough to make it worth while even if the whole thing fails.
Ambition, all by itself, makes the work a thing of value.
There’s so much out there, so much art that doesn’t promise anything. That makes no claim, and no attempt at anything. We’re awash in pop and flutter, blog and clutter. It’s not that little works can’t be great, whether they’re chapbooks or minimalist novellas or graffiti, and it’s not that least important texts of an era, its disposable and mass market texts, can’t actually be really interesting, but there’s no effort, no attempt so great I should yearn for it to succeed.
There are, of course, several very legitimate critiques of such ambition-driven books, of works that weigh this much and have this size. Feminists say phallus. Freudians say ego. Both comments can be kind of true, I think. Both are fair critiques. Megaworks can have the hubris of Manifest Destiny. But ambition, even by itself, even with nothing else sustaining it, can be, for me, a source of value. The scope and scale attempted, even if it fails, means, at least, there’s an attempt at something important, to be something significant.
Put it this way: If I read a single poem and it’s no good, all I can say, I think, is it’s no good. If I read Louis Zukofsky’s “A” and I hate it, at least I can say he was trying to do something important.
I’ve tried and failed to read Zukofsky‘s 803-page, 40-year poem several times. I don’t know that I’ve even gotten to the middle, though I flipped ahead far enough I know, towards the end, it devolves (?) into musical scores. The first time I picked it up and tried to read I was in a cafe and the waitress, an older lady, asked me if the sequel was B, which basically sums up the work for me.
I mean, I know there are passages in “A” I have found moving and meaningful and riveting —
“Love speaks: ‘in wracked cities there is less action,
Sweet alyssum sometimes is not of time, now
Weep, love’s heir, rhyme not how song’s exaction
Is your distraction — related is equated
How else is love’s distance approximated.”
“‘You write a strange speech.’ ‘This.'”
“– Clear music —
Not calling you names, says Kay,
Poetry is not made of such things,
Music, itch according to its wrongs,
Snapped old catguts of Johan Sebastian,
Society, traduction twice over.”
— and I find it interesting how World War II breaks out in the poem, and I can tell you something at least of why people who think it’s important think it’s important —
“Lower limit speech
Upper limit music
— but I don’t know that I can argue that it is. I read it, though, and try again because of the ambition, because, even if it fails, “A” seems like it’s trying to do something serious, something important, and because it seems like it’s making, as a work, a promise to be worth while to me. It is or has the air of a grand experiment, of something that can be believed in, invested in, even as it seems to falter and fail.
Even as I struggle with Zukofsky, I find I can believe in him based even on so slight of a thing as ambition. I find myself willing myself to want this experiment to endure, to want to believe, like Lincoln at Gettysburg, to make the comparison between the work and the nation, a comparison Walt Whitman would love, that something “so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
There’s something that’s consecrating about the struggle. There’s something worthwhile about the effort even if it fails.
Which is why, and I know I’ve come here the long way round, I’m disappointed with Sufjan Stevens. This album he’s released, Age of Adz, is not a bad album. It’s not. But it marks, for Stevens, an abandonment of a project that was Whitmanian in its ambition, that was, like Leaves of Grass and Moby-Dick, an ambitious attempt to put a whole country into a work of art. There are not a lot of efforts on this scale, but Stevens, this indie musician who was known, at one point, for wearing wings in concert and signing surprisingly religious songs, started something with his “Fifty States Project.”
With Michigan, in 2003, he started a work that promised to contain a country. A map of a place that is an idea and a feeling, a vision and an angst, our home, the place half known and half remembered and misremembered, mythologized and reinterpreted, the place where we are lost.
In Illinois, in 2005, he continued that. The map moved outward and Stevens started to show us the shape of the country he felt, beautiful and strange, scary, sad and mournful. I know, for me, part of my affinity for the work was the way what it described was the home I’ve known, the country I’ve lived in — this was no Whitman ebullience, but a county of serial killers to feel sorry for, of factories as empty as suicides, cities which were once great, and this was no Melvillian pursuit of transcendence, but a country of UFOs to wonder at and miss when they’re gone, of bible studies where we pray over people with cancer but nothing happens — but besides that, ignore that, the work was a promise of scale. This work was claiming to attempt to do everything that can be done with the art form, to be big enough to be important, to try, try to take the whole scope and scale of what we know, all fifty states of our experience, and put it in a series of albums.
It’s like the car broke down on the first day of a road trip.
Stevens is free, of course, to produce what he wants to produce, and if it was a gimmick, as he’s said, then it was a gimmick. But I was willing to trust, when it was clear he was trying to do something worth doing. I was willing to engage, when there was this promise of vistas. Without that effort, that attempt at greatness, that attempt to do what Whitman did or Melville did, to get a whole man, a whole whale, a whole life or country into a work, I don’t know that I’m convinced it’s worth my attention.
Interviewer: The Paris Review has one quintessential question, which it has asked everybody from William Faulkner to Ernest Hemingway. What is the implement that you write with? T.C. Boyle: I use my toenails actually—collect them, hammer them down, mold them into shape …
William Styron didn’t write in notebooks. He tried notebooks, but they didn’t work for him. They do work for Paul Auster, though, so he writes in notebooks. He likes the ones with gridded lines, which he calls “quadrille lines — the little squares.” When Auster’s done with the notebooks he types everything up. He has a typewriter he bought in 1974.
What is that supposed to tell us? What does this reveal about Styron? What do we know or understand about Auster that we didn’t before?
The Paris Review has been interviewing writers since 1953, and for more than five decades they’ve been asking this question about implements, about the actual, tactile things writers use to write. The question is, why? What is it we actually want to get at with this “quintessential” question? What are we supposed to know when we know the answer?
Hemingway would sharpen all his pencils — seven No. 2s — before he started writing. This is what he said, anyway. He said this in the Paris Review interview in 1954, which is about half way between his Nobel Prize and his suicide, after he’d stopped publishing books, and in the interview, when he says it, it sounds like it could be a joke, or maybe a self-made myth, a little mystification.
I don’t even have any pencils in my house, much less seven, and the last time I can remember writing with a No. 2 was when I took the SATs and filled in those little bubbles. If I had them, though, I’d take them out now and sharpen them all and lay them out in a row. And then what? What would I know?
It’s possible, I realize, that I’m thinking about this wrong. It’s possible the question isn’t probing at anything deeper. Maybe we really are just earnestly interested in typewriters and notebooks, pens, paper and blank computer screens. Maybe it’s just interesting to know. It’s framed, though, as an important question. The question seems to me to be about more than it’s about. It’s like a fetish. We seem to think there’s a secret here, a revelation to be revealed, a mystical, magical something we want to learn.
I’ve been thinking about this question because I’ve been reading all the times it was asked in those old Paris Review interviews. They’re all online now, as of a few weeks ago, which means they can be more easily looked at as a group. I have often liked particular interviewers and found them interesting and useful. As a whole, though, as a corpus, there’s something disturbing there.
There’s something very canonistic about them. Something … institutional. By which I mean, literature is presented in a weird way; its mystified, presented as if authorized, and made into something sort of magisterial.
Maybe its the problem with the interview as an art form: the condition of the interview is that the subject be worth interviewing, be an institution, be recognized. The author, in the interview form, can only be approached respectfully. The author is given, granted, this assumed position of authority to speak with finality, an authority that’s something like God’s. The author-god gets the final word, gets to answer the question about meaning in final way. That’s the ground of the form, the assumption of it. If the author-god protests against that assumption not least because it diminishes the work itself, marks he work as insufficient to itself, as something that needs this supplemental pronouncement, if the author-god protests as Faulkner does in his interview, saying “The artist is of no importance,” and “If I had not existed, someone else would have written me,” the protest is feeble in the face of the force of the assumption. Even as he says it it’s undermined by the fact he says it as Author. Anything he says is said from this position of having the right to the last say, and of course even if the author refuses to answer, that only heightens the mystery and makes us surer, because we were refused, that the author has the secret, the ultimate answer.
It’s not an accident, I don’t think, that the Paris Review interviewed its first author in 1953, inaugurating its “alternative to criticism” in a series that developed and popularized a form of discourse giving authors ultimate authority to pronounce on (and foreclose) the meanings of their texts. This was the same year and the same place that Roland Barthes published his first book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, which looked at the arbitrariness and constructedness of language, beginning a career that developed and popularized the school of thought that pronounced authors dead. It’s literary equivalent of the parting of Abraham and Lot, when Abraham dwelt in Cannon and Lot went down to the cities on the plain. The interview form might well be thought of as the counter movement to the movement that killed the author, though the effort wasn’t one to keep the author alive as much as to enact a kind of deification. But, just as the death works to liberate the work, to open it up to criticism and to thinking, the enshrinment of the author acts to canonize literature, it lock it up in an orthodoxy.
This can be seen in the Great Books movement, which happened in America at the same time: The great works of Western literature were bound in black and peddled from door to door, 54 forbidding volumes of works you were supposed to read.
They were, with this mystification, authorized, and elevated, raised to an aspirational level where they would be safe from reading. Instead of literature as a loud conversation, this was literature as a cathedral. It was conceived of as a class marker, a taste marker, as something genteel the middle classes could work towards and aspire too.
Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t just an attack on the great books. Or even The Great Books capitalized as they so often are. I went to the college I went to so I could read the canon, and I have read and value having read Virgil and Dante and Milton, Chaucer, Cervantes, Whitman and Hawthorne and Melville. But reading, for me, only makes sense as a struggle. Reading is a fighting-with. It isn’t and cannot be an act of reverence, because to read I must engage, and engagement implies a kind of conflict, a struggle. More than one conservative old prof. told me I was doing it wrong, but for me the great books is a big street brawl.
I guess this is what bothers me about the quintessential question they ask at the Paris Review. Writing is mystified with this question. The objects are presented like they’re magic, and they become objects to fetishize.
Joseph Heller wrote stuff down on 3×5 cards he kept in his wallet, which he called a “billfold” in ’74. Gore Vidal writes fiction on yellow legal pads, but essays and plays on a typewriter. John Updike had a typewriter too and Jack Kerouac had two. Gay Talese wrote outlines in different colors of ink on the shirt boards he got when his clothes come back from the dry cleaners.
What if none of this information actually acts to reveal anything? What if what it does is conceal? I think the question could offer a chance to think seriously about the materiality of writing — Don DeLillo does this, a little, with his answer, as does Jonathan Letham — but most of the time the question and these answers act to do the opposite, to cover up the complications and contingencies, to mask writing and make it mystical. It could be a good question. It could be followed up with questions that open it up: What difference does it make that you write the way you write? How does how you write shape your writing? Do the tools you use naturalize the text for you, make it kind of invisible, or does it heighten your awareness of the text as text and make more apparent the texture of the words?
It could, I think, really open some questions about writing up to thinking, but it doesn’t. Instead we end up with pin-up pictures of typewriters.
It’s like seeing a math equation with all the work erased. This is the example Roland Barthes uses, talking about Einstein in popular culture and how a fetish developed about his brain. Culturally, Barthes says, we began to talk about his brain as a machine, but not to actually reveal the thought and explain how the thoughts were thought, but to veil it in the mystery of genius. He says,
“Popular imagery faithfully expresses this: photographs of Einstein show him standing next to a blackboard covered with mathematical signs of obvious complexity, but cartoons of Einstein (the sign that he has become legend) show him chalk still in hand, and having just writing on the empty blackboard, as if without preparation, the magic formula of the world.”
If they asked Einstein, at the Paris Review, “what do you write with? what is the implement you use?” he would have said chalk. He would have said, “I write on a blackboard.”
But the answer to the quintessential question wouldn’t tell us more about his writing, but less. It wouldn’t reveal, but conceal. It would enable us to make a fetish out of his chalk like we make a fetish out of his brain, and we could put his chalk next to Heller’s note cards and Hemingway’s pencils, but we wouldn’t have a better critical understanding of the formula of the world, or how it was different because it was written with chalk then it would have been if it was written in red ink, or in a margin, or on a note card on a rooftop at dawn.
I really think it could be a good question. It could do what Charles Bernstein said he wanted to do in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Vol. 4, when he said he wanted to “establish the material, the stuff, of writing, in order, in turn, to base a discussion of writing on its medium rather than on preconceived literary ideas of subject matter or form,” a way to make the materiality of writing visible instead of repressing it and “making the language as transparent as possible.”
What we end up with, though, is a fetish. Another way to not think about writing. The quintessential question is quintessential as an “alternative to criticism,” which is also, I think, an alternative to thinking, and isn’t just an alternative, but actually a defense against it
There is a specifically poetic shape to the anxieties visible in Walt Whitman’s poetry. Looking at Whitman’s theory of language and how that theory works out in the poems, the shape of the anxiety becomes apparent.
He had this Transcendentalist idea of language, detailed by Tyler Hoffman in his essay, “Language,”by C. Carroll Hollis in his crucial work, and by Mark Bauerlein in Walt Whiman and the American Idiom. This idea of language is one where “words are emanations of reality and truth,” Hoffman says, and for Whitman “language is not just a system of signs we humans have at hand to express ourselves; rather, it stands as a cultural complex, one that registers our deepest beliefs as a people and a nation.”
Whitman rejected the empiricists’ claims about the arbitrariness of signs, that language is basically a convention that only happens to have the grammatical structure and phonetic sounds it has, and instead, following Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Prussian language theorist Wilhelm von Humbolt, and American philologist William Swinton (who was Whitman’s friend and for whom, it has been extensively argued, Whitman ghost wrote on the subject of language, cf. James Perrin Warren’s “Whitman as Ghostwriter,” Hollis, and Hoffman), embraced the idea that words contain within them the reality of the spirit of the people who use them. As Swinton’s book says, in a chapter possibly ghostwritten by Whitman, “Language is not a cunning conventionalism arbitrarily agreed upon; it is an internal necessity. Language is not a fiction, but a truth,” and, again, “Speech is no more the dead mechanism it used to be conceived. Each language is a living organism.”
Words are not mere signs or symbols for representations, but embodied the spirit of those who use them. As Whitman said, in an essay on American slang:
“The scope of [Language’s] etymologies is the scope not only of man and civilization, but the history of Nature in all departments, and of the organic Universe, brought up to date; for all are comprehended in words, and their backgrounds. This is when words become vitaliz’d, and stand for things, as they unerringly and soon come to do, in the mind that enters on their study with fitting spirit, grasp, and appreciation. Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea.”
If his language theory stopped at this point, and was merely a point about the importance of the life and spiritual reality of words, it wouldn’t necessarily feed any anxiety, but Whitman went further. If he had just believed that this is the way words were, then that wouldn’t have necessitated any internal, poetry-focused worry, but he believed words could, depending on the way they were used, lose the spirit they have. They could be more alive, “vitaliz’d,” or they could die, depending on the poet. He believed words and the things they represented could, if words weren’t used well or if their use was too domesticated, too refined, be separated and disunited, and when that happens, then the words would be just inert symbols on a page, abstract and arbitrary and dead. This was the distinction Whitman made between good and bad poetry, but he also thought of it in terms of life and death. He believed the life that words contain and carry could be killed, could be buried, and there was a need to connect word and thing, and a need to reinvigorate the language. Whitman was not being metaphorical when he said that a great poet
“would make words sing, dance, kiss, do the male and female act, bear children, weep, build, rage, stab, steal, fire cannon, steer ships, sack cities, charge with calvary or infantry, or do anything, that man or women or the natural powers can do.”
This can be and has been taken as mere inspirational blather – the poet’s equivalent of a poster for a library’s children’s summer reading program with castles and flying horses and faraway lands – but Whitman’s theory of language is that this is what actually happens, this manifestation of life, this invigoration, when words are used well.
To use the structuralist terminology of “sign” and “signified,” Whitman wanted the sign and the signified to be the same thing, to come together and, at the moment of poet’s invocation, be one. He wanted to cross the gap between sign and signified by poetic force. He said:
“A perfect user of words uses things—they exude in power and beauty from him—miracles from his hands—miracles from his mouth—lilies, clouds, sunshine, woman, poured copiously—things whirled like chain-shot rocks, defiance, compulsion, horses, iron, locomotives, the oak, the pine, the keen eye, the hairy breast, the Texan ranger, the Boston truckman, the woman that arouses a man, the man that arouses a woman”.
He wanted the sign to be more than a sign, more than arbitrary, to really be alive, to be the thing, be filled with the spirit of the thing signified and the spirit of the people using the sign, but he consistently found that he was trapped in the realm of the sign, unable to bridge over to the reality of things, and that poems are made out of words – the vibrant life he wants to yawp is, on the page, only arbitrary symbols. There is, on his pages, throughout his work, Hoffman says, a pervading “anxiety about the ability to communicate through inert signs and symbols, about the intermediation of the printed page.”
There are moments of panic and places where he is desperate to escape mere words, to sing something untranslatable, something that is not language but just life. Whitman believed his work was worthless unless the words were alive, unless the poem was the same as his body, the same as his life, and he felt himself failing, which might go some way to explaining the constant, life-long revision, and the ongoing innovation, a “pattern of completion and escape” that appears almost compulsive. Whitman’s poetry often takes this form James Perrin Warren calls “constantly reinventing itself and thereby eluding the form it had already taken” and he seems to have this “sense of elusive, pervading ‘something'” that he cannot grasp, cannot achieve. Indeed, his life work might be better characterized by revision of poems than by actually writing them. One need not do a comparative analysis of the various volumes of poetry to find this anxiety, though. It comes across in the poems in their final, “authorized” form.
This anxiety is evident throughout the work: In his talk about singing birds, with their untranslatable songs that simply express life as the model for poetry, Whitman holds his verse to a standard that he fears he cannot meet; in his three-tiered description of poetry in “Song of Myself,” Whitman attempts to establish a taxonomy of poetry, and of the ways of using words, but then it collapses, and he finds his own best version of poetry is always inflicted with the death and artifice of the worst; in his declarations and pronouncements, his illocutionary speech acts, Whitman attempts to push and invoke life, to call it forth and animate the poem (almost, it seems, by force), but the attempts are ridden by their failure, and by an anxiety about poetry.
Because of this theoretical foundation, Whitman’s poetry is full of worries about theory and form, and the yawp so celebrated for its liberating barbarismis an anxious yawp.