23 March 2007

He She

He plays a train
She plays a whistle
They move away travel.

He plays a rope
She plays a tree
They swing.

He plays a dream
She plays a feather
They fly.

He plays a general leader
She plays people
They declare war.

— Dunya Mikhail, Iraqui poet living in Michigan, emended by Emna Zghal in War: an Essay (2005).

17 March 2007

Inspector of spiders' webs

To appoint oneself... an inspector of spiders' webs for many years in succession, and for long seasons, means joining a not overcrowded profession. No matter: the meditative mind returns from that school fully satisfied.
— Jean-Henri Fabre, quoted in "Spider Woman" by Burkhard Bilger, New Yorker March 5, 2005, 73.


I found this in Ye Antient Blogge:
Every new medium is a machine for the production of ghosts. (Kafka knew this.) As Friedrich Kittler argues [in Grammophon, Film, Typewriter, 1986], "The spirit-world is as large as the storage and transmission possibilities of a civilization." The oldest available print of a printing press is a 1499 image showing skeletons cavorting about a press, pages in hand, doing a dance of the dead. Spiritualists, as we have seen, did the danse macabre of the telegraph, celebrating the spirits conjured by electricity, the first of many in the nineteenth century to recognize that the realm of the immortals had expanded from the remembered dead to the transmitted and recorded dead.
— John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air, 139.
And then there's the recorded dead re-recorded in saecula saeculorum...


Gentle Reader...

Billy's Downtown Diner
Bethlehem, PA

When my wife Deb was associate editor for the exquisite (late) quarterly Books & Religion, editorial meetings would often concern the needs & desires of what they affectionately (and not without irony) called Our Reader. Unfortunately, this mythical creature, at least among her masters upstairs in Corporate, wasn't enough of an abstraction, and B & R tripped — or was pushed — over the bottom line into its grave.

I know it's different somehow with a blog, but my grasp of economics (which, if my Greek has not completely abandoned me for a more fertile frame in which to dwell, once meant something like "customs of the home," maybe even "Cider House Rules" without the "Cider" part) is insufficiently sophisticated to apply it to the case, and besides, the dang thing won't stand still, but keeps on transmogrifying, markets merging & splitting, devouring & excreting each other, and sometimes, like Neo inside Agent Smith, busting the matrix — i.e., "the way things are" — apart.

I've strayed from my original intent, Gentle Reader, which was to greet you after a long absence. I've brought along a few gifts, some no doubt of dubious value, as is often the case in such reunions, like the T-shirt your friends brought you upon their return from a vacation in Ireland, when what you really needed was for them to have taken you with them, and never come back.

Rambling again, sorry. Trouble with being my age is having so many damn stories to tell, & so little time to tell them in.

Which brings me round to my point at last. I'm going to perpetrate a subtle hoax — but then it's not a hoax if you're in on it, I guess — by backdating posts that actually I'm only loading in now, which will give the impression of an uninterrupted logorrhetic flow since my last "real" post of nearly two years ago. These false posts date (I *love* the ambiguity of "post" in this context, don't you?) correspond to jottings in my vademecum (if I'm using that term for my pocket notebook correctly — help me, some *REAL* classics scholar!) during my exile from the blogosphere, so I'm not lying about that.

But how can you trust me now? — short answer: you can't, and I invite you to apply that insight as widely as you wish.

What this means is that I'll be adding old stories as time allows, and they'll show up *under* this post, to preserve the appearance of chronological posting.
Enough already — except to say thank you for your patience, if you're not already long out the door, if you even exist, Gentle Reader. I hope you'll let me know if you do; I'd be grateful.

11 March 2007

New life for an old kompyootr

Yesterday I set up a new computer in my apartment. It was paid for by my new employer, an online journal, for whom I'm the work-at-home managing editor. I've been on the job a couple months, and am just starting to feel like I know what I'm doing.

The new machine orphans the laptop that's been my main workspace for most of the millennium so far, and upon which I'm typing these words, through the soft rubber cover I put over the keyboard a long time back — a lesson learned from spilled coffee and flakes of paint falling from the old ceiling.

Naturally, I'll still use this battered re-conditioned pre-Intel Mac PowerBook for work, when I go on trips to conferences and weekends in New York City. But it's slow, one of its memory slots is hosed, and the screen's pretty cramped (though not as bad as the clamshell iBook, my first digital vademecum, fondly remembered as the ToiletSeat model or iCommode®).

Something occurred the other day that made me think of another way to use this ole thang. The details — "what really happened" — don't matter: it was just the most recent disillusionment, the kind that stops you dead in mid-stride, making traffic pile up behind you on the sidewalk. You know, when it dawns on you that things ain't what you thought they wuz?

You don't have to live very long upon this bank and shoal of time for this to happen more than once to you, though about the umpteenth iteration you have to start to wonder if you're *ever* gonna learn how to pay attention.

As with others at such moments, my first response was to wonder where I went wrong. That's what it feels like: being in the wrong, having fucked things up. And my natural reaction is to cast about for a way to fix that problem. But, as always, every solution is lame, or the cure's worse than the disease, or "all the river crossings/all the way to the sea//have been bombed" — as Galway Kinnell's exquisite new poem puts it — "and we must make our way by pure balance."

Easy for him to say. He's achieved apotheosis, he figured out years ago how to transmute his mistakes into Pure Poetry, to inspire and daunt the likes of scribblers like me.

The Buddhists are occasionally helpful in a circumstance like this, with their sad smile at mad humanity flailing about in the muck, sinking ever deeper into the morass of illusion. But it's hard to maintain that detached-though-compassionate attitude towards the human condition when a crushing deadline's bearing down on you, your feature writers are "having problems," and your server's gone down in Australia, where it's the middle of the night.

On the other hand, is it ever any different? That question encapsulates my insight du jour, and it's precisely no help, like saying, "Well, if you'd been watching where you were going, you wouldn't have stepped in front of that bus."

Not long ago, I awoke in the predawn dark, writhing to the jabber of my monkey brain haranguing and jeering at me, reciting the litany of all my failures and fuckups. I couldn't get awake enough to shake off this onslaught of self-denunciation, but I clearly wasn't going back to sleep any time soon, either. Then, into this turmoil, there dropped ten words from a quiet but commanding voice that shut up everything else: "Have a little respect, BBly. There's a soul stuggling here." In the ensuing silence, I heard the first cardinal of the morning give his wake-up call.

Hard to remember these moments of clarity — or rather, to reconstitute the immediate calm they produce. Dumping my possessions and cutting all ties with the world to go meditate in a cave in the mountains might enable me to persuade these epiphanies to come a little closer together, with less racing around and shrieking in between. Maybe not.

One thing is clear, however. I could use "a place apart" in my digital life where I can ponder such questions — including "Where did I go wrong?" — that isn't completely entangled in the wired world that sometimes appears to me to be like Ahab lashed to Moby-Dick, beckoning us all to follow him down.

Well, that's probably a bit operatic. Fact is, I love this little machine, not least because it's very comfortable to write upon, and I can set it up in front of my bedroom window, out of reach of the cable modem, and contemplate the here and now, even as it's passing away.

And because I'll be doing it for free, I can do it freely. Yeah. That can work.

01 March 2007

Updike on the new authorship

In my first 15 or 20 years of authorship, I was almost never asked to give a speech or an interview. The written work was supposed to speak for itself, and to sell itself, sometimes even without the author's photograph on the back flap. As the author is gradually retired from his old responsibilities of confrontation and provocation, he has grown in importance as a kind of walking, talking, advertisement for the book — a much more pleasant and flattering duty, it may be, than composing the book in solitude. Authors, if I understand present trends, will soon be like surrogate birth mothers, rented wombs in which a seed implanted by high-powered consultants is allowed to ripen and, after nine months, be dropped squalling into the marketplace.
— John Updike, "The End of Authorship," New York Times, June 25, 2006.