One Last Preparatory Post
It’s been interesting to reflect on the change I’ve felt after posting that long introductory “manifesto.” I’m tremendously grateful to the people who read the thing closely. (Special thanks to Tony Dias, Jeppe Graugaard and Brian Shampnois). It feels like a great privilege to have found even one person, let alone a half-dozen, who rigorously engaged the piece. And I suspect that the ideal size of this pool of perceived readers corresponds to David Bohm’s ideal pool for dialogue – between 5 and 25. I can’t realistically picture more than that without the voice becoming vague and almost political in character (as if I were making a public speech).
I never used to think I needed anyone to read anything I wrote apart from the one person to whom I was writing. But that person’s attention has been wavering of late (it was my dog). And I know now that the quality of attention I’m able to put into this thing is dependent on the quality of attention of the reader. And this is a strange thing to realize: I can’t say certain things unless I know there’s someone there who understands what I mean.
I’m not blaming the dog. But not everyone has the time, energy or inclination to read this kind of thing.
I remember hearing about a whale researcher who went to work day after day with an unconscious presumption of a whale’s capacities and limitations. The whale always seemed to meet her expectations. It was an intelligent animal, she felt, but still just an animal.
One day, something happened (I forget what and have lost the original source). But something happened that made her reflect on how she might have unconsciously influenced the results of the tests. So she tentatively widened her expectations of how the whale might respond. She quickly realized that the more “credit” she gave the whale, the more empathetic the whale seemed to become. There was a startling moment when she saw that the whale responded with as much subtlety and recognition of meaning as she herself was able to muster. She had vertigo looking in the whale’s eyes. The eyes seemed to suggest a great precipice, as if the whale saw meaning that surpassed her own perceptions. She felt foolish and uncertain. And I think, unfortunately, in the end she dismissed this moment of vertigo as too outlandish, not substantive enough to engage rationally.
I guess I’m trying to say that this is why, even after 30 years rehearsing words to one dog after another, I still like to write. I’m looking for those eyes that give me permission, you might say, to find more subtle meaning in the world. Somehow it comes into being only between us, not as mine or yours. It’s the finding of patterns of connection extending well beyond this “me”. And it causes vertigo now and then, but that’s more or less my natural state.
Admittedly, my dogs would listen to this same speech and quickly doze off or start licking themselves. I hope that doesn’t happen to you.
Meat of the Message?
I was born with a large introductory gland
That leaves me to point like an Irish Setter
At the meat of a message, which flies out of hand.
It’s a sickness from which I will never get better
‘Til a doctor of English invents a compress
That squeezes out garbage and leaves a PS
That was part of a long poem I wrote my brother Brian 35 years ago, and it’s still true today. I appreciate all the responses I received to the “manifesto.” And in some ways I’m tickled more by the puzzled earnestness of some very intelligent readers who can’t help responding like this: “well, you do seem to like writing, but you do also drift a bit! What is the point you’re trying to make?”
They’re right. I am drifting. The “point”, I suppose, is to enjoy drifting. To leave old certainties behind in order to look at the world from different, perhaps even holistic, perspectives. This is not to imply “seeing everything,” but not “seeing double” — not having one’s perceptions fragmented by an alienating self-consciousness.
But I don’t think we can positively aim at being unself-conscious or free of fragmentation. I think it happens in an almost slapstick manner, by running headlong into fragmented habits of thinking without recoiling in a fragmented manner. These habits are the certainties we rarely question.
“A change in meaning is a change in being,” as Bohm said. I think this is how the world is changed – by learning to release our death grip on old certainties, to remove the blinders that prevent us from seeing the incompleteness and incoherency of our visions. This allows us to shift our assumptions as a bird might shift its wings. Then the errors that dog us can be felt instead as the current of truth ushering us perhaps against our will towards some profound moment.
Not towards some new and improved “point.” The “point” (negatively stated) is only to let go, to learn to shift between points of view, without conclusion, without a permanent resting place. Our nests are only temporary structures, metaphors and theories sooner or later blown to smithereens. So our sense of home shifts from these static verbal landing pads to those perpetually shifting currents of meaning. That’s more fun than making a point.
I’m engaging a wonderful series of essays by Tony Dias on John Berger’s The Moment of Cubism. The full significance of what he’s saying is too far-reaching and subtle to summarize here. But it was interesting to realize that in Cubism, a shift of perception was being made away from a Classical “single-point” relationship to painting. With this shift in perspective, the painter’s “being” shifted too. She or he was no longer separate from the painting, the outside “expert” applying paint to capture an external object. In Cubism, Krishnamurti’s observation that “the observer is the observed” was independently realized.
But Cubism isn’t the only manifestation of this observation. In its “moment” the insight took that particular form, but it wasn’t limited to that form.
And in writing, “the observer is the observed” calls the all-knowing narrator into question. It doesn’t mean we’ve lost access to that narrator. It only means that the narrator can be used now more knowingly as an element of the story or essay itself. It becomes a part of the conversation.
There may have been many moments in writing similar in spirit to “the moment of Cubism.”
Beckett perhaps. I enjoy Beckett’s writing not so much for what might be his personal ideological “movement” towards ever-increasing economy, but for what might be his own “moment” of realization of the observer as the observed. Maybe it’s clearest in his bawdy, delicate, precise, self-deprecating and self-revealing trilogy — The Unnameable in particular. There he exposes (perhaps inadvertently) the nature of the trap thought sets for itself in sentences gymnastically tripping over themselves in mental slapstick, like a literary Charlie Chaplin.
Every sentence lands with a sprained ankle or tied up in double-binds. If he offered a way out, then we wouldn’t be given the chance to see the trap forming. We’d look away, towards some premature release. But he surrenders to the fact, allows the thinker and the thought, the writer and written-about, the reader and the book, to collide head-on, like some intellectual rake-handle/head collision.
There I was, sprawling on the page, unable to escape, surrendering, forgiving myself for being stupid, because the tricks of escape were too obvious now. There is no way to outrun the infinite horizon of thought. And in coming to rest, the discreet but infinite space of thought gives way to an eruption of a new infinity, which is a geography that thought can’t enter, where thought is negated. To Beckett, it’s the silence beyond “silence.” Here it’s called a negative geography.
It seems odd to compare Beckett with Krishnamurti. But with both there’s no way out. In both, the tricks of thought are presented so unrelentingly, so hopelessly, that proprioception is the only possibility. (That or ringing one’s neck in frustration).
Proprioception is a vertical plunge through the horizontal horizon of thought.
At the very least, the trilogy was a display of confidence in lack of confidence itself, which amounts to a kind of alert drifting. I don’t know where I’m heading but if I drift alertly, then vistas inadvertently open that we can momentarily share.
None of this will interest those who need confidence in the writer, some expert guidance to some clear-cut resting point, before they dare to listen. But why trust something as indirect as the authority of the writer when we can directly immerse ourselves in the flow of meaning? Maybe I’m lost, but life itself isn’t. I trust life to reveal itself.