le clézio on lautréamont and co.: “man’s freedom to seek & reveal himself through visions & dreams”

J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Freedom to Dream”

 

We could begin the story this time around 1867, when the young Isidore Ducasse—not yet Comte de Lautréamont—decides to move into a furnished room on the Right Bank of Paris, and when, in 1868, he gives "Le Premier Chant" of Les Chants de Maldoror to the publisher Balitout. This act, perhaps one of the most important of modern literature and thought, begins an epic tale of dreams that ends in death and oblivion. Indeed, between 1868 and 24 November 1870, when the young poet dies at the age of twenty-four, in the solitude and abandonment of the Parisian winter, the story unfolds of one of the most burning and disturbing dreams that poetry has ever known—a dream that throws off flame and consumes the dreamer, in the silence and indifference of those around him, and whose waves will not touch his fellow man until long after, like one of those stars whose fixed and silent explosion seems to outrace time.

Freedom of dreams: this seems paradoxical, since dreams are clearly the freest expression of life. But it is this very freedom that is frightening, because it is a threat to reason and the moral order, which is why society’s prohibitions, censorship, and propriety have sought for so long to obscure or stifle it. Dreams are free, but locked up in the prison of silence, thrown into the dungeon of memory. Dreams are the hidden fire that man must steal off with in order to reveal the other side of himself, in order to attain real freedom.

In the chilly aloofness and hypocrisy of Europe’s nineteenth century, Lautréamont’s sacrifice has something truly cruel and despairing about it, but it allows us to see the error that corrupts the mind of civilized societies at the outset of the Industrial Age. Through its indifference and forgetting, nineteenth-century bourgeois society in its entirety casts Lautréamont out into another world, in both senses of the term: it sends him back to the world in which he was born, to Montevideo, the overseas territories, tomb of the banished; but it also throws him back to a world from before civilization, a primitive, violent, magical world, one to which the rationalism and bankers’ reign of the Second Empire could not give credence. It casts him back toward dreams—that is to say, toward the deepest past of mankind.

It is indeed a question of a return toward our origins. The freedom to dream, and to live one’s dreams, takes us back toward another world, that of prehistorical societies (in Lévi-Strauss’s sense of the term). In the Indian societies of the New World, for example, the social structure in most cases is that of a "loose democracy,"1 founded on equality and the self-sufficiency of the family, where each person can be at once warrior, preacher (or shaman), doctor, artist, or orator. The Indian societies of North America (the Iroquois, Sioux, Comanches, Apaches), of the subtropical forests (the Carib, Tupinamba, and Amazonian tribes), and of South America (the Araucan Indians of the pampas) all testify to this full expression of man, which seems to precede the specializations of the hierarchized and sedentary societies (Mexicas, Mayas, Quechuas). But the importance of this full expression of man is apparent even in the most urbane and organized of societies. The Amerindian religious rites all express these influences—magic, concepts of recurrent and cyclical time, the possibility of man’s identification with the gods—which in a sense form the foundation of "savage" philosophy and which the conquering Europeans will try (successfully) to extinguish.

It is in dreams that the original civilizations of the Americas found their explanations for existence. For the ancient Mexicans, as for the Tupi-Guaranis or the Quechuas, dreams were a soul’s journey outside the body, which enabled contact with the beyond and knowledge of the future. The Mexicas, Purepecha, Carib, and Quechua nations were troubled by dreams (or auguries) to such an extent that they couldn’t find the force to resist the conquering peoples from the East whose coming had been announced by the auguries. Upon the arrival of the Spaniards in Mexico, the omens multiplied: visions of death and of peoples in chains, lakes of blood, comets, and swarms of insects. As in the books of the Yucatec Mayas’ Chilam Bilam or in the apparition of the gods meeting on the mountain of Xanoata Hucatzio in the Relación de Michoacán, the most ancient dreams associated with the prophecies thus meet up with reality, but only to bring about the destruction of the dreaming peoples.

The first Spanish writers captured this final moment of the dreamers’ society, manifested in its strange rites, dances, and sacrifices. The Relación de Michoacán, chronicle of the Purepecha Indians, shows us a people wholly given over to their omens and dreams. The kings’ power and their destiny depend upon their dreams, during which the supreme gods (Curicaueri, god of fire, or the moon goddess Xaratanga) appear before them and strike up alliances. Father Bernardino de Sahagún recounts that the cruel and bloody festivals of the Aztecs took place in this mytical incarnation of gods dancing among men, as in the ixnextiua festival: "It was their belief that on this festival all the gods were dancing, and therefore all the natives who danced were dressed in diverse fancy costumes, some impersonated birds, others different animals; some represented the bird called ‘tzinitzcan’ [hummingbird], others butterflies; some dressed like drones, others like flies, still others like beetles; some carried on their backs a sleeping man who, they said, represented sleep."2

This magical society, this society of dreams and auguries, will be destroyed by Western civilization in the name of rationalism. For the conquering Spaniards, Portuguese, and, later, Anglo-Saxons or French, these magical societies are antiquated. They must be transformed, confined to reality, in order to integrate them into the rationales of productivity and causality on which the modern world rests. This will also be the Christian church’s role, shared among its millennial illusions and its will to destroy religious and philosophical concepts in contradiction with those of the conquerors.

As has been said, for the Renaissance mind, belief in magic and dreams is absurd and illogical. Founded on the sciences, on observation, nascent humanism can only condemn these obscure aspects of the human soul, since the new ideas come about precisely as a response to the beliefs and superstitions of the Middle Ages. In order to affirm this new "man," it is necessary to kill the old one, the one who lives off dreams and chimeras.

The new era is also that of absolute powers: Charles V, Francis I, and Henry VIII each demonstrate the supremacy of true power, armed force, and merchant empires. Curiously, however, it is in these periods when political powers are most extreme—the immense power of gold and silver, the Spanish flotilla, the Holy Roman Empire, the world divided between Spain and Portugal, the birth of the English Empire, the slave trade, the colonization of the Americas—that the place of doubt, dreams, and magic seems the largest, the most troubling. In France, the biggest witchcraft trials, in Louvain and Pau, take place first under first Louis XIII, then under Louis XIV. The peak of Spain’s rise corresponds in fact to the Baroque Age, which is the age of doubt and questioning.

The dreams of the Baroque Age are a questioning of reality, power, and money and mark the appearance of a certain relativity (as one would say today in this other baroque age which is our own). Time, value, love, goods, and the pleasures of our lives are ephemeral. Who is not familiar with these magical lines from Francisco de Quevedo? "Yesterday has gone; tomorrow hasn’t arrived; / Today is going away without stopping for one one moment; / I am a ‘was’ and a ‘will be’ and an ‘is’ tired."3

Or these mysterious and moving lines from Luis de Góngora:

 

While, to compete with your hair, gold burnished in the sun gleams in vain; while, with scorn, in the midst of the plain, your white brow regards the lily fair; while each lip is pursued by more eyes than follow the early carnation; and while with proud disdain your neck triumphs over bright crystal: enjoy neck, hair, lips, and brow, before what was in your golden youth gold, lily, carnation, crystal bright, not only turns into silver or a crushed violet, but you and all of it together into earth, smoke, dust, shadow, nothingness.4

 

The Baroque is not merely a literary mode or school. It is a philosophy, a natural tendency of man, the expression of his nocturnal side, of his dreams and worries. Approximately one hundred years before Góngora’s verses, Quevedo, and La vida es sueño, in the Aztec world on the verge of disappearing, the great Netzahuacoyotl, Lord of the Acolhua people from Tetzcoco, sang the same elegies and laments that would make up the poetry of the English Romantics and of Novalis. One finds here as well the themes of the fragility of happiness, time, the beauty of youth, death and destruction, the final void.

 

Dress yourself in flowers
In flowers the color of the ara of the lakes,
Brilliant as the sun,
The flowers of the raven,
Adorn yourself here on earth,
Only here.
It is thus
Only for a brief moment,
The flowers, for a moment,
We have readied them.
Already, we carry them to the god’s home,
To the home of the Fleshless.5

 

The Baroque asserts nothing other than the right to dream, and it speaks of nothing other than man’s former ties to the supernatural, which is why that right is the dominant force of civilization.

It is in the very era of rationalism, the Age of Classicism, that dreams reveal their power. Cartesian philosophy also has its part of shadow, as Descartes’ dream and the Pascalian illumination bear witness. Writings on the irrational flourish during the years of the Encyclopédie. One can cite not only the writings of Saint-Martin and Swedenborg but also the fantastic tales of this period: Jacques Cazotte with his Diable amoureux, the translations of A Thousand and One Nights, the English Gothic novels by Beckford and Lewis, the German ones by Tieck, and the sometimes absurd, often disturbing tales of the famous Cabinet des Fées, published in Amsterdam at the end of the eighteenth century.

Born of the European wars and the Napoleonic adventure, the Age of Romanticism also dreams of a different society. The second wave of Romanticism (the one which will nourish the young Isidore Ducasse) is at the once the era of the birth of the great industrial empires, colonization, and banks, as well as an era of dreams, of a return to origins, of the resurrection of magic and mysticism. If, as Vladimir Propp notes in his essay on the origins of Russian folktales, most dreams are tied to the tribal or theocratic organization of human societies—the dragon, for instance, as an expression of tyranny and despotism—then the imagination of fantastic literature expresses a demand, a struggle for the freedom to dream.

Romanticism is also the age of messianisms, in the Americas, Oceania, and Africa. The same "wave of dream," as Paul Eluard would later call it, runs throughout the world, pitting conquered peoples against the new industrialized masters. In North America, the Indian "dreamers"—Sioux, Arapaho, Apache—guide the last barbarous nations in total war against the conquering Europeans, who for their part draw on the most effective weapon of all, that of money. Dream dances, ghost dances,6 visions, dreams set the primitive peoples against the modern world and send them on toward the only outcome possible: death. It is a case of a total confrontation between the ideas of the modern world—utilitarianism, logic, determinism—and the prior beliefs in magic and the beyond. Dreams are an insurrection aimed at a new freedom, the freedom of the individual against the prohibitions of classical morality, against logical order; they are a means of access to a new perception of being—i.e., this totality which was the primary value of primitive societies. The deep meaning of Lautréamont’s quest lies in this insurrection of dreams.

After Lautréamont and Nerval, the Surrealists also defend the right to dream, this freedom to dream that can hardly be considered a gentle one. For the Surrealists, dreams are far more than just a poetic theme or means of inspiration. It is a question of a total experience, both physical and metaphysical, from which man will emerge different, changed. It is for this reason that they spoke of a "Surrealist Revolution."

At issue therefore is a complete reversal of values (born, moreover, of nihilism and of the absurdity of the deadliest wars man has ever known). As Breton states in the first Surrealist Manifesto from 1924:

 

To reduce the imagination to a state of slavery—even though it would mean the elimination of what is commonly called happiness—is to betray all sense of absolute justice within oneself. Imagination alone offers me some intimation of what can be, and this is enough to remove to some slight degree the terrible injunction; enough, too, to allow me to devote myself to it without fear of making a mistake (as though it were possible to make a bigger mistake). Where does it begin to turn bad, and where does the mind’s stability cease? For the mind, is the possibility of erring not rather the contingency of good?7

 

Man’s freedom to seek and reveal himself through visions and dreams implicates the dangers of limits, which is why the rationalist and progressivist society of the modern world, spawned by the Reformation, cannot allow it to exist. Man—this "definitive dreamer" as Breton puts it, or Lautréamont’s "pubescent dreamer" victimized by the cruelty of his own creator—ust choose for himself the path of his revelation, the means to his freedom. In undertaking this extreme experience, a man sometimes risks his own life, like the poet Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, creator of the movement "Le Grand Jeu"; like Nerval; or like Antonin Artaud, who, in the tradition of his hero Van Gogh, was "suicided by society."

Doubtless one of the last seers of the modern world, Artaud le Momo, poet-magus par excellence, takes his introspective quest to the very edge of madness: "Where others present their works, I claim to do no more than show my mind. / Life consists of burning up questions. / I cannot conceive of work that is detached from life. / I do not like detached creation. Neither can I conceive of the mind as detached from itself. Each of my works, each diagram of myself, each glacial flowering of my inmost soul dribble over me."8 Artaud renders the totality of this experience of being, in which man is the receptor of magical and unreal forces, in the following terms: "Delights and furies, the entire sky / Launches upon us like a cloud / A whirlwind of wild wings / Torrential with obscenities."9 This burning, harassing freedom leads Artaud all the way to Mexico, to the lands of the Tarahumara Indians, where he seeks the Mountain of Signs, the Race Principle, and a complete, ecstatic communion with creation. Later, in the solitude of madness, it leads still further, to the asylum in Rodez.

Acquired through so much suffering, anguish, and pain, this freedom to dream has something mythlike to it. The myth of katabasis comes to mind: out of curiosity, love, or a fascination with the unknown that is the destiny of some, the human hero descends into the underworld, defying danger and taboo, crossing through the portals of death. Most of the heroes of ancient civilizations have made this journey: the giant Gilgamesh, seeking the flower of immortality; Orpheus, for the love of Eurydice; or Quetzalcóatl, the god of Tula, sacrificed by his celestial enemy Tezcatlipoca and reborn at the end of each century in the form of a morning star. The ecstasy of the shamans and the visions of the prophets had no other goal than to undertake, one more time, this initiatory voyage beyond death. The poets and the seers after them sought out this encounter, this meeting with the two truths of man: that of his life and that of his death. Primitive man, or, in Lévi-Strauss’s terms, "man without history" (since, by way of this other reality, man abolishes time and death, the very things which make up histories), experienced this meeting in its entirety, in each one of the acts of his daily life. In hiding this truth, the determinist, rationalist, Western society has mutilated the nocturnal side of man, the side of his magical and creative origins. Thanks to the poets’ dreams; thanks to Baudelaire, Nerval, and Lautréamont; thanks to Jorge Carrera Andrade and Octavio Paz; thanks to the writers since Joyce and Proust, up to those of today—Borges, Rulfo, Onetti, Mercè Rodoreda—we know now that this imaginative freedom is one of our most precious assets. Like the ancient Mayas, like the Egyptians and Greeks, we have learned that time is cyclical and that visible reality is only a reflection. As Borges, perhaps one of the last visionaries of our world, so admirably puts it, we have learned that "the whole of time has already happened and that our life is a vague memory or dim reflection, doubtless false and fragmented, of an irrevocable process."10 Is this not the rejoinder to the ancient Aztec proverb that expresses the notions of time and creation through the myth of eternal return? "Another time, it shall be thus, another time things shall be thus, in another time, in another place. What happened long ago and which now is no longer done, another time it shall be done, another time it shall be thus, as it was in very distant times. Those who live today shall live another time, they shall live once again."11

—J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Seminar On Lautréamont And ‘Freedom To Dream,’” University of Oklahoma, 18 February 1997.

 

Published as J.M.G. Le Clézio, “Freedom to dream.” World Literature Today v. 71 (Autumn 1997) p. 671-4. Translated by Ralph Schoolcraft III

 

Footnotes

1 The phrase appears in English in the original.
2 Sahagún, A History of Ancient Mexico, vol. 1, tr. Fanny R. Bandelier, Nashville, Fisk University Press, 1932, p. 146.
3 Quevedo, "Metaphysical Poems, #2," in Elias L. Rivers, Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, tr. Elias L. Rivers, Prospect Heights (Il.), Waveland, 1966, pp. 260-61.
4 Góngora, "Sonnet CLXVI," in Rivers, Renaissance and Baroque Poetry of Spain, p. 163.
5 The translation used here is that found in J.M.G. Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream: Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations, tr. Teresa Lavender Fagan, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 113.
6 These two phrases appear in English in the original.
7 André Breton, "Manifesto of Surrealism (1924)," in Manifestoes of Surrealism, trs. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1972, pp. 4-5.
8 Artaud, The “Umbilicus of Limbo,” in Selected Writings, tr. Helen Weaver, New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976, p. 59.
9 Artaud, "Windowpane of Sound" ["Vitre de son"]; my translation.
10 Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," tr. Alastair Reid, in Ficciones, New York, Grove, 1962, p. 25.
11 Codex Florentinus, facsimile edition, Mexico City, AGN, 1969, tr. Alfredo Lopez Austin, book VI, p. 196. This English translation is also from Le Clézio, The Mexican Dream, p. 208.

 

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“every decision you make is a mistake”—an edward dahlberg miscellany

Edward Dahlberg was admired by and a friend to an exceptionally diverse group of writers: Jack Kerouac, Lydia Davis, Guy Davenport, Paul West, Anthony Burgess, Charles Olson, Samuel R. Delany, Gilbert Sorrentino, Thomas McGonigle, Jonathan Lethem… 

edward dahlberg biography (from wikipedia)

Edward Dahlberg (July 22, 1900 – February 27, 1977) was an American novelist and essayist.

Dahlberg was born in Boston to Elizabeth Dahlberg. Mother and son wandered through the southern and western United States until 1905, when she opened a barber shop in Kansas City. In April 1912 Dahlberg was sent to the Jewish Orphan Asylum, Cleveland, where he lived until 1917. He eventually attended the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University.

In the late 1920s Dahlberg lived in Paris and in London. His first novel, Bottom Dogs, was published in London with an introduction by D. H. Lawrence. He visited Germany in 1933 and in reaction briefly joined the CommunistParty, but left the Party by 1936. From the 1940s onwards, Dahlberg made his living as an author, and also taught at various colleges and universities, most notably Black Mountain College. He married R’Lene LaFleur Howell in 1950.

Dahlberg died in Santa Barbara, California, on February 27, 1977.

 


assorted quotations

life, truth & the self

Every decision you make is a mistake.

Everything ultimately fails, for we die, and that is either the penultimate failure or our most enigmatical achievement.

So much of our lives is given over to the consideration of our imperfections that there is no time to improve our imaginary virtues. The truth is we only perfect our vices, and man is a worse creature when he dies than he was when he was born.

Men are mad most of their lives; few live sane, fewer die so. The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered. Man is driven to justice by his lunacy.

Ambition is a Dead Sea fruit, and the greatest peril to the soul is that one is likely to get precisely what he is seeking.

There is no place to go, and so we travel! You and I, and what for, just to imagine that we could go somewhere else.

The people who think they are happy should rummage through their dreams.

Genius, like truth, has a shabby and neglected mien.

We cannot live, suffer or die for somebody else, for suffering is too precious to be shared.

What most men desire is a virgin who is a whore.

When one realizes that his life is worthless he either commits suicide or travels.

It takes a long time to understand nothing.

Man hoards himself when he has nothing to give away.

I would rather take hellebore than spend a conversation with a good, little man.


a
merica & society

We are a most solitary people, and we live, repelled by one another, in the gray, outcast cities of Cain.

No people require maxims so much as the American. The reason is obvious: the country is so vast, the people always going somewhere, from Oregonapple valley to boreal New England, that we do not know whether to be temperate orchards or sterile climate.

Intellectual sodomy, which comes from the refusal to be simple about plain matters, is as gross and abundant today as sexual perversion and they are nowise different from one another.

One of the weaknesses in the cooperative is that it has never been sufficiently leavened by the imagination. This is a quick-silver faculty, and likely to be a cause of worry to any collective settlement.

The ruin of the human heart is self-interest, which the American merchant calls self-service. We have become a self-service populace, and all our specious comforts — the automatic elevator, the escalator, the cafeteria — are depriving us of volition and moral and physical energy.

There is a strange and mighty race of people called the Americans who are rapidly becoming the coldest in the world because of this cruel, man-eating idol, lucre.

A strong foe is better than a weak friend.

One cat in a house is a sign of loneliness, two of barrenness, and three of sodomy.

Men are mad most of their lives; few live sane, fewer die so. The acts of people are baffling unless we realize that their wits are disordered. Man is driven to justice by his lunacy.

Nothing in our times has become so unattractive as virtue.

The Americans have always been food, sex, and spirit revivalists.

The ancients understood the regulation of power better than the regulation of liberty.

The machine has had a pernicious effect upon virtue, pity, and love, and young men used to machines which induce inertia, and fear, are near impotent.

The majority of persons choose their wives with as little prudence as they eat. They see a troll with nothing else to recommend her but a pair of thighs and choice hunkers, and so smart to void their seed that they marry her at once. They imagine they can live in marvelous contentment with handsome feet and ambrosial buttocks. Most men are accredited fools shortly after they leave the womb.

It is very perplexing how an intrepid frontier people, who fought a wilderness, floods, tornadoes, and the Rockies, cower before criticism, which is regarded as a malignant tumor in the imagination.


writers & writing

The earnings of a poet could be reckoned by a metaphysician rather than a bookkeeper.

Herman Melville was as separated from a civilized literature as the lost Atlantis was said to have been from the great peoples of the earth.

Though man is the only beast that can write, he has small reason to be proud of it. When he utters something that is wise it is nothing that the river horse does not know, and most of his creations are the result of accident.

The bad poet is a toady mimicking nature.

Hardly a book of human worth, be it heaven’s own secret, is honestly placed before the reader; it is either shunned, given a Periclean funeral oration in a hundred and fifty words, or interred in the potter’s field of the newspapers back pages.

Writing is conscience, scruple, and the farming of our ancestors.

To write is a humiliation.

What has a writer to be bombastic about? Whatever good a man may write is the consequence of accident, luck, or surprise, and nobody is more surprised than an honest writer when he makes a good phrase or says something truthful.

We can only write well about our sins because it is too difficult to recall a virtuous act or even whether it was the result of good or evil motives.

Writing is conscience, scruple, and the farming of our ancestors.

Those who write for lucre or fame are grosser than the cartel robbers, for they steal the genius of the people, which is its will to resist evil.

Recognize the cunning man not by the corpses he pays homage to but by the living writers he conspires against with the most shameful weapon, Silence, or the briefest review.


excerpts

Edward Dahlberg, Because I Was Flesh (1964)

Would to God that my mother had not been a leaf scattered every-where and as the wind listeth. Would to heaven that I could compose a different account of her flesh . . . Should I err against her dear relics or trouble her sleep, may no one imagine that she has not always been for me the three Marys of the New Testament. Moreover, whatever I imagine I know is taken from my mother’s body, and this is the memoir of her body…

Kansas City was my Tarsus; the Kaw and the Missouri Rivers were the washpots of joyous Dianas from St. Joseph and Joplin. It was a young seminal town and the seed of its men was strong. Homer sang of many sacred towns in Hellas which were no better than Kansas City, as hilly as Eteonus and as stony as Aulis. The city wore a coat of rocks and grass. The bosom of this town nursed men, mules and horses as famous as the asses of Arcadia and the steeds of Diomedes . . . Kansas City was the city of my youth and the burial ground of my poor mother’s hopes; her blood, like Abel’s, cries out to me from every cobblestone, building, flat and street…

 

When the image of her comes up on a sudden—just as my bad demons do—and I see her dyed henna hair, the eyes dwarfed by the electric lights in the Star Lady Barber Shop, and the dear, broken wing of her mouth, and when I regard her wild tatters, I know that not even Solomon in his lilied raiment was so glorious as my mother in her rags. Selah.


Edward Dahlberg,
Bottom Dogs (1929)

The next five years were spent in a kaleidoscopic succession of occeupations, which took him all over the country. He has been a Western Union messenger boy in Cleveland, trucker for the American express, driver of a laundry wagon, cattle drover in the Kansas City Stockyards, dishwasher in Portland, Oregon, potato peeler in Sacramento, bus-boy in San Francisco, longshoreman in San Pedro, clerk in a clinic, and vagabond everywhere. . .

She moved from town to town, selling hair switches, giving osteopathic treatments, going on again when she felt the place had been played out. In this way she hoped to save a little money and establish herself in some thriving city. She had taken Lorry with her wherever she went.


Edward Dahlberg,
Do These Bones Live? (New York, 1941)

There are no abstract truths—no Mass-Man, no proletariat. There is only Man. When the Pulse has been nailed upon the crossbeams, lo, Reason gives up its viable breath and becomes a wandering ghostly Error. Truth and folly are ever about to expire, so that we, like our beloved Sancho Panza kneeling at the death-bed of Don Quixote, must always be ready to go out to receive the holy communion of cudgels and distaffs, for the rebirth of the Pulse, living anew, in our veins and bones, as the quickened Truth.

Finally, this Whitmanesque poem (in its entirety):

Edward Dahlberg, “The Leafless American,” (1967)

How old are we?

We are still a horse and buffalo
people, heavy, lumbering cattle, with
prairie and grain virtues, and our avarice
is primitive wigwam barter; we ought to
adore the great fish god, for we are a
costal people, and New Mexico and Arizona,
which are saurian undersea country, breeding
pine, cactus, and snakes, are Galilean land.

We are passing from a morning horse
innocence to unusual vices, and we are not
ready.

Is Pike’s Peak a hummock of old world
sin, or the Rockies Scythian debauchery,
or the mineraled Colorado dawn the Orient
pearl? It is hay and brook and sweet pony
corral, appled meadow garnished with odors
more virtuous than spiced Eden.

Take no stock in American turpitudes;
look to the Toltec of the Mayan for the
lascivious parrot and monkey.

The Platte River, the pine, the sage
brush are hardy character, but not history,
and I admit that nothing has ever happened
to me, and that I am mad for events.

Whatever we do is vast, unconscious
geography; we are huge space giants of the
mesa, surd, mad rivers that rush along, and
we do not care to be near each other; this
is not ancient wickedness, but solitary
prairie grazing.

We cannot bear each other because we
are immense territory, and our most malignant
folly was to closet us up in cities, and take
away our ocean past.

We should have the deepest reverence
for poverty, because we are New Testament
ground. Every day I offer a sacrifice to
the extinct bison, the horse and savage
Iroquois, who are our muse of cereal, yam
and maize, and when somebody strokes my
head, I walk to Mt. Shasta, or the Oregon
orchards which are my epistles to the
Cornithians.

Who is my Father?

The rising sun-man disappeared,
and the step-father, the petticoat parent,
is rearing the children since the tent,
the wagon, and saddle have gone.

The great, grassy basin, the Catskill
eagle made us tribal and fierce; the Pawnee,
leading the sorrel of the Platte by a bull-hide
rope, lessoned us in poverty, for want too
is a tough, rude god make out of dried buffalo
skin, to which we must offer our orisons, lest
we perish of sloth and surfeit.

Our forefathers were giant volcano-horses;
we were a hot earth animal as the elephant
shaped mounds found in Kansas show.

Give us back our origins, for I am out
of season in any other land, or plant except
the corn seeds of Quetzalcoatl, the yucca,
the cactus, and the Mojave joshua tree,
dearer than the desert tamarisk beneath
which Saul sat.

We have lost ground, city-cursed
that we are, left it behind us like the
Quiche did the Yaqui for whom they wept.

Return the Platte, the bison, the hoof-print
of the deer, for I am as hungry for them as
the wandering Quiche who had to smell the points
of their staffs to deceive their empty stomachs.

Our Mother paps were rabid gulches
in which the white and gray wolves howled,
and now that the Toltecs and the Pawnee
are dead, we are their evil genius, looking
for a relic, a flint arrow, a teepee, a
harness, a piece of bread.

I need confidence, the antelope, the
pack-mule, the Indian apple, but we have
killed the old bread gods made of plums,
incense and the coca plant. Until we find
the Quiche bread idol, we are orphans.

The word together has become a tabu
devil; everything is public except guilt,
which is hidden like hands that are pursed
and pocketed lest they be demanded for
hand-shaking, which is some uneasy, first
sin; touch a man and blood goes out
of his cheek; the mountains, the hills and
the grass are turning against men, and
every man dreads every man.

The mating season that once cattled
the fingers of the marriageable now brings
the alley tree, cemented in the side walk,
and the tuberose poodle together. Aging
men walk through the macadam auto ravines,
until magnolia dusk, and then they go to
their rooms, walking from faucet to window-hole.
They crawl under a mealy blanket seeking that
primeval night that came before creation, and
fall at once into a water of sleep, void of
vegetable, animal or root.

The highways have no ancestors;
the 19th century American was kinless
iron, and these men of the
20th are houseless sepcters because
they have never claimed the continent.
They have destroyed the old, rooty
deities of the Cherokee and the Huron
which are now howling in their dead,
double-breasted coats and pants. The
city auto man has killed everything,
going through the unowned land without
branch, leaf, trunk or earth. The
autumn comes, and he has no foliage
to shed, and the winter appears, and
he cannot rest or sleep or die until
April, and his destiny star, too, is
dead. He has no green May shoots and
no loam in which to sprout. He feeds
listlessly and is alone when he genders
with his wife. He is an unseeding,
hating man who has forgotten to plant
a street, a blue-bell, a house.

Prophecy, O lost people without
a fate, is seeing the quick of the
instant. You have no porch, no yard,
no steps, you are groundless, and bitten
by gnats because you have slain the
earth. Can you die? Death is sweet
and dear, for it is quiet. But there
are no hills to appease you, and no
mountains to give you hard, striving
will, or rivers to wash your eyes to
make them see.

Homeless, denatured ghost of many
leafy races, where do you blow? who
will gather you up?


— from The Leafless American and Other Writings

a fellow of infinite jest—david foster wallace dead at 46

 

When I found out David Foster Wallace had killed himself, my reaction was—I imagine—typical of so many who had read him, even just a little (and had of course never met him): a kind of immediate mind freeze for a couple of seconds, followed by hours of stunned disbelief. This summer has proven to be a very bad season for literature: The U.S. poet and critic Reginald Sheppard died from cancer just days ago, and novelist and poet Thomas Disch killed himself only several weeks before. When you further consider the deaths of Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, William Styron and Norman Mailer over the last few years, it’s hard not to conclude that the vitality of several generations of American writers has now all but disappeared from the literary world.     

 

Transcription of Kenyon Commencement Address, May 21, 2005

Delivered By David Foster Wallace

 

(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I’d advise you to go ahead, because I’m sure going to. In fact I’m gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings ["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How’s the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried thatI plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about quote teaching you how to think. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education — least in my own case — is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what "day in day out" really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.

But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and so forth and so on.

You get the idea.

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and [unintelligible — sounds like "displayal"]. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

"This is water."

"This is water."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.

 

From: http://www.marginalia.org/dfw_kenyon_commencement.html

 

happiness studies: highlights in the history of human misery

Paradise was unendurable, otherwise the first man would have adapted to it; this world is no less so, since here we regret paradise or anticipate another one. What to do? where to go? Do nothing and go nowhere, easy enough. 
 
— E.M. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born
 
 
Man, who is an organic continuation of the Logos, thinks he can sever that continuity and exist apart from it.
 
Heraclitus
 
 
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; my self am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a
Heav’n
.
O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame…
 
Satan, in John Milton’s Paradise Lost
 
 
Conformity is one of the nihilistic temptations of rebellion which dominate a large part of our intellectual history. It demonstrates how the rebel who takes to action is tempted to succumb, if he forgets his origins, to the most absolute conformity. And so it explains the twentieth century. Lautréamont, who is usually hailed as the bard of pure rebellion, on the contrary proclaims the advent of the taste for intellectual servitude which flourishes in the contemporary world.

Albert Camus, Man in Revolt
 
 
Cut off from every root, unfit, moreover to mix with dust or mud, we have achieved the feat of breaking not only with the depth of things, but their very surface. 
 
— E.M. Cioran, Civilized Man 
 
 
Man is the great deserter of being.
E.M. Cioran, The Fall into Time
 
  

bernardo soares (fernando pessoa) on the task of living

… I have lived so much without ever living! I have thought so much without ever thinking. Worlds of static violence, motionless adventures heavily oppress me. I am sated with what I never had nor will never have, annoyed by non-existent gods. I wear the scars of all the battles I avoided fighting. My muscular body is exhausted from the effort I have not thought of making.
 
Dulled, silent, nothing … The sky high up there is a dead, unfinished summer sky. I look at it, as if it were not there. I sleep what I think, I am prostrate when walking, I suffer without feeling anything. That immense nostalgia I have is nothing, it is nothing, like the high heavens which I do not see and which I stare at impersonally.
 
***
 
The whole of life is an attempt to make life real. As everybody knows, even if we act in ignorance, life is totally unreal in its direct reality; fields, cities, ideas are totally fictive things, born of our complex realisation of ourselves.

… To speak! To know how to speak! To know how to exist using the written voice and the intellectual image! Life is worth nothing more; the rest are men and women, imagined loves and false vanities, digestive subterfuges and those of oblivion, people who race around like insects when a stone is lifted, under the vast abstract rock of the unfeeling blue sky.

 
— Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet