“But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must, — when the soul seeth not, when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining, — we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear that we may speak. The Arabian proverb says, ‘A fig tree looking on a fig tree, becometh fruitful.’”—Emerson, on reading (The American Scholar)
“'Touch' is a word that comes from the old French 'toucher,' which is related to the Italian 'tocco,' to knock, stroke, and 'toccare,' to strike or hit, both of which emphasize the violence of contact. The violence of touch, the contact with corporeality, is a refusal by the Emersonian soul, a refusal that may be overcome in some other place, in some other way, perhaps by someone else. Touching contains within it an entire critique of Descartes; it is a force that makes us confront the fact of our mortality, our need for each other, and, as Butler puts it, the fact that we are undone by each other.”—Thomas Dumm
“Animals hold us to what is present: to who we are at the time, not who we’ve been. What is obvious to an animal is not the embellishment that fattens our emotional resumes but what’s bedrock and current in us: aggression, fear, insecurity, happiness, or equanimity. Because they have the ability to read our involuntary tics and scents, we’re transparent to them and thus exposed—we’re finally ourselves.”—
Gretel Ehrlich, The Solace of Open Spaces
This makes me think of this, which moved me beyond words.
“The title of Aldous Huxley’s book ‘The Doors of Perception’ comes from a William Blake quote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” In this writing, Huxley—working with ideas from Cambridge philosopher Dr. C.D. Broad—proposes that the human brain is essentially a “reducing valve,” the function of which is to winnow down and order vast quantities of information, to make manageable the infinite.”—Scott Black, from Isotope: A Journal of Literary Nature and Science Writing
Earlier this week I found myself in an extremely interior circle of hell. I speak of the Comcast Customer Service Center in Chicago, where I thought I was just stopping by to pick up some self-install equipment. This stopping-by turned into over an hour of queueing followed by one of the most angrymaking customer service interactions I’ve ever had. I resurrected my long-dormant yelp account just so I could vent my spleen. Having gotten that out of my system, let me tell you about a fun game I play in situations where I might otherwise have a rage-out:
THE WERNER HERZOG GAME
Number of players: 1 (2 if you count imaginary-Werner-Herzog-in-your-head)
Prerequisite: Having seen one or more Werner Herzog documentaries (ideally late-period ones where the voiceovers approach a brilliant kind of self-parody)
How you play: Imagine Werner Herzog narrating your horrible experience. Allow his doomy-yet-weirdly-soothing Teutonic soliloquies to transmute your experience from one of mundane frustration, boredom, etc. to one of sublime terror, or one that exemplifies the murderousness of nature, or the pitilessness of the universe.
Some examples to get you started:
“I believe the common denominator of this food court is not harmony, but chaos, hostility and murder.”
“The blank stare of my oral hygienist bespeaks a terrifying malevolence. The scraping of her tartar pick is the nightmarish sound of cannibals whispering darkly.”
“The post office is a place of pestilential despair, a primordial soup one wishes to crawl out of, if only to evolve to further Lessons of Darkness.”
Tip: If you’re having trouble channeling your inner Werner Herzog, imagine the person standing behind you in line, or jostling you on the overstuffed train car, or whatever, is Klaus Kinski, and he is trying to murder you. This always helps me get in the mood!
“And that’s why books are never going to die. It’s impossible. It’s the only time we really go into the mind of a stranger, and we find our common humanity doing this. So the book doesn’t only belong to the writer, it belongs to the reader as well, and then together you make it what it is.”—Paul Auster (via youmightfindyourself)
“An informant told me that many years before he was sitting in a tent one afternoon during a storm, together with an old man and his wife. There was one clap of thunder after another. Suddenly the old man turned to his wife and asked, ‘Did you hear what was said?’ ‘No,’ she replied, ‘I didn’t catch it.’ My informant, an acculturated Indian, told me he did not at first know what the old man and his wife referred to. It was, of course, the thunder. The old man thought that one of the Thunder Birds had said something to him. He was reacting to this sound in the same way as he would respond to a human being, whose words he did not understand. The casualness of the remark and even the trivial character of the anecdote demonstrate the psychological depth of the ‘social relations’ with other-than-human beings that becomes explicit in the behavior of the Ojibwa as a consequence of the cognitive ‘set’ induced by their culture.”—
D.H. Hymes, The Analysis of Communicative Events (1964)
Hymes argues that in general, no phenomenon can be defined in advance as never to be counted as constituting a message.
“What about little microphones? what if everyone swallowed them, and they played the sound of our hearts through little speakers, which could be in the pouches of our overalls? when you skateboarded down the street at night you could hear everyone’s heartbeat, and they could hear yours, sort of like sonar.”—Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives. Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.”—
Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture, 1993
I came late to Toni Morrison. So late, in fact, that I had never read anything by her until I had to teach Sula for an American Lit class I was substituting. And Sula became one of those rare, literary palate-cleansing books, a book that wipes clean what you thought you knew about language and storytelling and the art of making meaning and makes you realize just how much of writing merely skims the surface.