Silliman’s blog recently linked to a meditation by John Yau, a meditation on a meditation, you could call it, about Robert Kelly’s Line of Sight, a mysterious little pamphlet published in 1974 which had an intense impact on Yau. Yau begins his essay, A Map That Never Stays the Same, with the assertion that Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is one of the precursors to Gertrude Stein’s How to Write, just one of the many pleasurable moments of this piece. Yau’s thoughtfulness and his utter, unstinting willingness to give himself to reading make his essay itself a wonderful read. We follow his thoughts the way we follow our own musings: skittering down one side path or another, coming back to the original questions, referencing the vast, layered, non-sequential web surrounding a central focus. Within the lovely clutter we glimpse, for a moment, Yau as a teenager, defying every voice in his life except that of poetry, to which he seems to have come with no guidance save the ineffable inner compass which uttered, this way, the bookstore, the book, the book.
I started reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. If you include the extensive notes at the back of the novel (and one must, because they really are a part of it–much like Kelly’s notes in Line of Sight), it’s something like 1,000 pages, and it’s not the sort of book I can sink into and read late into the night. It requires (for me at least) digesting, rather like poems that I need to sit with awhile before reading on. There is a clear conversation between Wallace’s prose, and the poetry of writers like Yau, working at the edge of the known world, writing that nudges and sometimes rips clear of the structural possibilities of writing as we think we know it.
Wallace’s novel addresses our contemporary obsession with entertainment, something I’ve been mulling. As far back as we can trace, humans show a thirst for story, an apparently innate pleasure in gossip. You can easily imagine the evolutiuonary value of gossip, of knowing what the other guy is up to. Story is more opaque. We are creatures who invest in the quest for meaning, and story (in all its artistic forms) supports that quest. At the same time, these pursuits take us out of ourselves, and for some reason this too is inherently pleasurable.
So where do we cross an unhealthy line from pleasurable immersion in story, to the land of endless “realtiy” TV and personality cult? It’s a matter of balance, surely–balancing contact with the natural world, physical activity, active social engagement, with more passive entertainment. In Wallace’s novel no one will wonder if that line’s been crossed–he shreds it, with just enough of a shift beyond our current cultural norms to make us starkly aware of our own ridiculous position. In Infinite Jest, Wallace paints the beast of addiction in bold strokes, and shows the parallel nature of substance addiction, and behavioral addictions. His characters annihiliate the line between choosing a thing and being caught by it.
I read two articles today that set my teeth on edge. One was a report in the Brooklyn Rail, The Torture of Bradley Manning. In it, Chase Madar makes the case that while abhorent, Manning’s treatment in solitary confinement while awaiting trial is not only not unique, but in fact reflects a huge and growing culture of torture in this country’s penal system. If you’ve read about the Super-Max prisons this will not be news, but Madar weaves it all together in a way that feels important. Later in the day I received an email newsletter from B’Tselem, the Israeli Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, in which they document yet more cases of violence by Israeli sodiers against Palestinian civilians, evidence the Iseaeli Defense Force in the territories is either promulgating, or at the very least failing to curtail, a similar institutionalized culture of illegal and unconscienable violence. That’s not news either. You could assert that it’s simply the nature of occupying forces.
It’s not easy choosing, on a day by day basis, a life that flows outward from what you value. You can be off the hook for neither the suffering and injustices of the world around you, nor for the way you spend your own precious minutes on this planet. I started this blog by complaining about people in the arts who whine about work they consider less valuable because it is opaque, difficult, weird, doesn’t follow the accustomed paths. The tendency to reject edgier, innovative arts work can be deadening here in the midwest. But I deleted that part and decided it was more to the point to simply share some comments about exactly those sorts of art works, and workers. The ones who challenge themselves, and us as readers, to test the limits of the possible, and to reconsider the nature of the world we inhabit.
I keep saying this: isn’t that really the purpose, and the value of art?