16 March 2007

Notebooks Vo: 1

The Cost of Silence

Yehuda Amichai writes that a man 'doesn't have seasons enough to have a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes was wrong about that.'

Here, in the twilight, against a windowsill, in the middle of a spring hailstorm, I might take some comfort in this: my long silence here has just been a time for gathering stones.

But I can't, of course; I know as well as Henry James that writing is mostly muscle memory, and we've all got to keep up the practice while we still can. The things we leave undone stay that way, and all memories fade. James wrote:

I have lost too much by losing, or rather by not having acquired, the note-taking habit. It might be of great profit to me; [...] I ought to endeavor to keep, to a certain extent, a record of passing impressions, of all that comes, that goes, that I see, and feel, and observe. To catch and keep something of life - that's what I mean.

Writing gains its power by making manifest: not for nothing did God speak the Word. Language makes things so. Thoughts are only feeble impressions, grey smoke, dreams. Writing forces us to unstop our mouths, make ourselves clear, render our ideas intelligible, spell out what otherwise we would tremblingly leave unsaid.

We write to be read. 'I can't write without a reader,' John Cheever wrote. 'It's precisely like a kiss - you can't do it alone.' The readership we carry awaiting us in our minds informs how much we explain ourselves, and in what language; it makes us think about whether we're being too obscure or too superficial, keeps us on deadline, worries us into greatness.

Nobody writes for themselves. Language, after all, that imperfect and baroque abstraction, only operates so that we might make ourselves understood. It automatically gestures towards a common humanity. Writing isn't for ourselves. It can't be. It's at least partly for what we hold in common, or think we hold.
If we were alone in this world we wouldn't need to write, except in notes to aid our memory, rendered in shorthand, organized inscrutably in a manner tailored to our own inner workings.

All that said: I've been silent here too long, and refusing to document along the way has let me forget most of my best ideas, bottle up and block until the weight of everything I'm trying to keep in mind unwritten chokes me and I cease to be able to surprise myself. Thinking is all well and good, but the thing about writing is that after a few minutes you're taking a mysterious sort of dictation. Thought has nothing to do with it. Muses be damned. To realize the implications of a little sentence you've thoughtlessly spilled is more rewarding than sitting around with pursed lips, contemplating, in that showy and half-asleep way. Inspiration happens halfway through; it's not a thunderbolt.

Henry James and I both: we've been cowards, or unprofilgate, and we've both agonized over it, the gap in talent and renown notwithstanding. Jacques Barzun writes somewhere in the thick, magisterial, invaluable From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life that the 20th century has irreparably damaged a writer's output; we live too well-connected, surrounded by distraction. The world, as Woodsworth might say, is too much with us. François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand - a man from an earlier time - began his career in travel-writing shipboard on the Atlantic Ocean over a period of months. He wrote volumes. I'd like to meet the person capable of sustaining a single thought in an airplane at cruising altitude.

This is all by way of a reintroduction, with more to come. If it seems dense, overthought - didn't I just make clear that's the danger of hiatus? The form can't bear too much weight - is already overburdened - so I'll leave my thoughts here, with a last impression, some months old, caught in one of my notebooks:

On a bus at night in the South End. A man boarded - he was shouting at his own reflection in the window, spitting on the floor, the people around him, well trained, staring into the middle distance impassively. The seven or eight youths behind me, who had been joking about gay bars and faggots in a way that was making the well-dressed man in front of me flinch, decided to rile him. They started shouting they were with him, shouted go on, say it - his face relaxed into an expression, he raised his fist in a Black Panther salute and suddenly you could see his life arc for decades, you got a vision of him as a boy, his father, you felt the frame expanding, on the verge of some kind of revelation - he got off the bus, he was pounding on the windows, happy to have made friends. The boys were suddenly uncomfortable. They made 'v' signs, laughed uneasily. He's fuckin crazy, one said, with too much force. They were glad to get away.

I won't unpack this here. I've written enough as it is. More to come.

A Man In His Life

A man doesn't have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn't have seasons enough
to have a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn't have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds,
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn't learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there's time for everything.

- Yehuda Amichai

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