By Matthew Cheney
14 May 2012
This is my final Lexias column, the last in a series that began some fifty columns ago with my first, "Walls," on February 7, 2005. I'm stopping because it feels like it's time, and because I'm proud of the work I've done here over the last seven years, so I don't want to dilute it. I've had an extraordinary freedom to write how I wanted about what I wanted, but the last thing I want is for my writing to become dutiful, and I fear if I continue much longer it will.
As I was looking over the previous columns, trying to think of a fitting way to bow out, I kept coming upon sentences and paragraphs that I wished I could share with readers who probably had better things to do with their time than wander through seven years of archives. Then I thought back to that very first column, "Walls," and how much I enjoyed its collage structure. Collage has long been my favorite artform in any medium, and many of my favorite writers are people who specialize in fragments and juxtapositions.
And so I have created this collage, composed from sentences and paragraphs lifted out of all but a few of the columns. (The ones left out were purely because their subjects were so specific that trying to repurpose them served them badly.) This is an especially appropriate form for a column that I ended up naming "Lexias." I stole the term from Roland Barthes, himself a master of fragments and collage. In S/Z, Barthes defined lexias as "units of reading" and "blocks of signification," the pieces of a larger text. For this final column, I have tried to create a larger, mosaic text from excerpts of previous texts, and thus to make a lexia from lexias.
It has become a cliche to say that we are flooded with information, that the life of a person who lives and works in a post-industrial environment of electronic networks and instant communication is fast, stressful, distracting, and overloaded. That we can't talk about any one thing with depth. That our subjects change all the time. That we are afraid, and unable, to think.
Most people who invoke such arguments have some sort of agenda—they want you to believe that everybody is addled and alienated, and that's why everything is as bad as it is in whatever way everything is supposedly bad, and if we all just stopped using computers and started talking to each other more, God and peace and biodiversity and children with good manners would return to Earth from the undisclosed location where they are holed up, waiting.
I'm sympathetic to this argument, mostly because I'm sympathetic to any argument that suggests the world is doomed.
I've realized recently that it's not that, as I previously have thought, I dislike all labels, but rather that I dislike not having enough labels.
Internet quizzes help me realize this goal. Yesterday alone I found out I was a Mazda RX-8 sports car, Spider-Man, the moon, a ghost, schizotypal, and a deadly strain of projectile vomit. Still, it's not enough.
Plenty of readers and writers are perfectly happy within the walls they have built around themselves, but the desire to turn the walls into barricades and set cannons on them is mysterious to me.
Maybe the best thing to do with an old wall that is no longer useful or necessary is to break it apart and use the stones for other things. Otherwise, all that's left is a roadside attraction or a museum. A fine enough fate for an artifact, but not for a style of art.
To pretend that all-encompassing binary terms such as "fiction" and "nonfiction" can dispel all ontological problems is a delusion—worse, an evasion.
Aristotle claimed that the greatest tragedies, the most worthwhile literary art, achieved greatness through complexity—tragedy as a form developed, he maintains, from less complex (and less dignified) forms. This complexity is partly a complexity of incidents, but not in a loosely episodic way—the plot has a wholeness to it, a unity that gives incidents a relationship to each other, and this unity leads ultimately to the most important effect: the creation of a sense of pity and fear within the audience.
If we were to bring a vaguely Shklovskian interpretation to Aristotle, we might say that the complexity that leads the audience to a full and meaningful response is a complexity not of storyline, but of plot. The complexity lies in how the writer shapes the material, not the complexity of the raw material itself.
A style is different; a style is simply a way of saying something.
I am a lover of long sentences, sentences that wind their way through various clauses and complements, bucking the contemporary trend toward bite-sized bits of information and prose that relishes its own staccato impoverishment, as if the sign of a great writer lies in her or his ability to keep everything small, to simplify and etiolate, rather than to perform high-wire acts of syntax and grammar, pulling the reader's attention first in one direction, then another, balancing it all on a string of phrases, a string that allows us, the onlookers, to revel in the sheer joy of language, the crazy courage of the feat itself, the suspense of wondering when it will collapse like a castle made of toothpicks or a spaceship built from playing cards. . .
In How to Write, Gertrude Stein stated, "A sentence is not emotional a paragraph is." This idea obsessed her for a while, and she returned to it numerous times in the lectures collected in Lectures in America. In "What is English Literature?" she proposed that emotion in English literature had moved first through words (particularly during the Elizabethan era, when the English vocabulary expanded considerably), then through sentences in the eighteenth century, phrases in the nineteenth century, and paragraphs in the twentieth century. (By this logic, we're now in the age of the page. And given how most of us read writing on the Internet, for instance, this seems an accurate generalization to me.)
It's almost always foolish, or at least fruitless, to try to pin Gertrude Stein down to one particular meaning, and so I will not attempt to explain exactly what she meant in saying that sentences are not emotional but paragraphs are. Nonetheless, I like the idea. It reminds us that paragraphs are expressive units of their own, that their shape and composition matter.
Some stories change our lives, but many others settle down in the recesses of our personalities, echoing the patterns that make us who we are. The great moments of epiphany and change are exhilarating, but it's all those other stories, the ones that tag along with us, and sometimes run ahead, that make a reader's journey through life one of substance and depth.
Consuming vast quantities of a type of art does not necessarily dull the ability to be entertained. I've listened to a tremendous amount of music throughout my life, and I remain a quite happily naive listener, despite seven years or so of music lessons as a child. I deliberately do not think about music analytically. I have varied tastes, but I can't explain them. If I were to expound on why I like a certain piece of music, I would probably say something like, "Well, that part where it does the whooba-whooba thingy, I like that. And the kling-kling-kling in the background, that's nice, too." Such a response is willfully ignorant, yes, but it is also what lets me enjoy all sorts of different types of music without guilt or strain.
The intersections of writer and writing are mysterious and powerful. Some people are contemptuous of the cults of personality that seem to accrue to certain writers—Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath. The writing should stand on its own, we say, a text apart from a biography. Aesthetic Puritans insist we shouldn't read literary biographies, only literature. They admit somebody wrote the words we read and cherish, but insist we shouldn't misplace the person in the words.
I am sympathetic to the non-Puritan elements of this argument; I am all for Roland Barthes's desire to kill the Authors-Gods; and though I enjoy reading around in literary biographies, I only occasionally get caught up in biographical interpretation. (A body of writing can live far longer than a human body, but human lives are nonetheless the stuff of stories, fundaments of fascination.)
In the fall of 1947, Phil Dick, a young man who lived with his mother in Berkeley, California, decided to leave home. He wasn't quite nineteen years old. He later said that when he told her he was moving out, his mother threatened to call the police. He asked her why she would do this. "Because," she replied, "if you move out and leave me, you'll wind up a homosexual."
Philip K. Dick's biographer, Lawrence Sutin, notes that Dorothy Dick was probably even more upset when her son revealed where he was moving to. The bohemian accommodations on McKinley Street in Berkeley, California (a floor of a warehouse converted to rooms), would certainly have given her pause, but she would have been aghast had she known who her son was living with—in Sutin's words, "some of the most notable young gay artists on the Berkeley scene," including the poets Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer.
In a quest for omniscience, we dig through the data of genes and history to find what is natural and what is not, we crunch numbers to calculate normality, we generalize and accuse, legislate and imprison, delineate and define. To define is to control, and the appeal of narrow definitions of sexual identity is that they allow the person doing the defining to feel in control of the people being defined. Say whatever you want about yourself, but we know the truth.
I am at this particular moment working from the assumption that you understand the majority of what I am writing here. I am, then, assuming that most of these sentences are accessible. To do that, I have to make some assumptions about my audience. I assume that you are literate in English, by which I mean not that you can simply decode the denotative meanings of English words, but that you have a mature vocabulary, experience with complex sentences, and at least a basic understanding of expository modes of writing. I assume that you have some ability to follow a logical argument, and that you will judge what I write based on how well I construct that argument. I assume that you are a reader of fiction of some sort (probably science fiction and fantasy, given the venue I'm writing for, but not necessarily) and that you have at least a vague interest in thinking about fiction's writers and audiences (because otherwise why are you still reading this?), and in particular the fiction that grows out of literary traditions in Britain and North America. I'm sure there are other assumptions I am making about you that are less apparent to me, but the basic fact is this: I am assuming you and I are mostly working from the same conventions of communication and a shared body of knowledge.
The accessibility of these sentences has nothing to do with their value. They are not useful or interesting sentences to a child just learning to read (and to whom they are inaccessible), but they are also not likely to be of much use or interest to a graduate student in literary theory, either, at least not if that person is looking for some new and original insight, because, despite the accessibility of these ideas to such a person, there is nothing particularly new or original here.
Perhaps everything I have written so far, despite its likely accessibility to my target audience, is utterly worthless. I'm sure at least one reader thinks so.
Perhaps it is an unconscious remnant from my New England ancestors—taciturn, ascetic, Puritan, skeptical of luxury and ease—but I rebel against the idea that values should be convenient. The easy choices should be the evil choices. Here, though, my postmodernist tendencies clash with my Puritan forebears, because I don't believe in evil as an essential quality. "Evil" is a label we stick on actions and events we disapprove of, actions and events that are in some way horrifying to our sense of how people should behave and how society should be organized. We may have good reasons for thinking that people should behave in a particular way or that society should be organized according to certain guidelines. Order is generally more productive than chaos, and thus most people prefer it.
Fiction remains fascinating when it refuses to offer easy answers to questions of fantasy and reality, history and imagination, dreaming and waking.
A generous definition of allegory would suggest that all fiction, regardless of its label or merit, possesses an allegorical connection to reality: fiction is the shadow on the walls of Plato's cave. It provides an imaginary Real that renders briefly visible selected elements of a vast, intangible reality. In the theatre, where the audience sits in what each member thinks is the real world while actors create an imaginary world on the stage, a narrative propelled by the friction of reality meeting fantasy is nothing to remark on, because fantasy and reality are equally imaginary in such a setting.
Real people and events have been the stuff of fiction ever since it began, as has fantasy. Fiction in any form, whether prose or drama or poetry, is always to some extent about the question, "What if . . . ?" What if these people did these things? What if this place were like this? What if, instead of X, we had Y? What if . . . ? From the raw material of the real, storytellers shape imagined worlds. Fiction without reality would be nonsense to us, because we would have no reference with which to make any meaning of it.
Maureen McHugh inserted an epigraph from Camus at the beginning of her novel China Mountain Zhang: "A simple way to get to know about a town is to see how the people work, how they love and how they die." More science fiction writers should heed this idea rather than trying to write heroic epics, because the effect, done well, offers the benefit of realistic and powerful characterization while also allowing vivid worldbuilding.
There is, or at least should be, room enough for all sorts of different types of fiction with all sorts of different purposes, so I don't mean to call here for the abandonment of heroic epics and grand adventures—more readers enjoy them than not. But novels like China Mountain Zhang are in a small minority, and we would gain much if that minority were just a little bit bigger. The act of imagining other worlds is as important and enjoyable a one as imagining other minds, and when the two are mixed, without hyperbole and without melodrama, the effect can be deep and satisfying.
For a few years, I did not want to admit an attraction to horror stories. It's an odd thing to have done, since if any type of stories has consistently attracted me as a reader, it is horror stories, but nonetheless, when I started coming to terms with the fact that yes, my life as a reader had been and was going to continue to be the life of someone profoundly affected by and attracted to genre fiction, I didn't want to admit that the effect and the attraction included horror fiction.
Looking back now, the problem seems to have been that I encountered some particularly thoughtless and manipulative stories all at once, and something in my brain decided to deny years and years of reading and instead scream out, "No! You are not the type of person who reads this stuff!"
One of the attractions of dystopian stories is that they offer opportunities for rebellion, even if, in the end, the rebels are overcome by the powers that be. It's the same attraction offered by a story such as Alice Ramsay's, the first woman to lead a transcontinental journey by automobile—a story of a person striving not just against the odds, but for new ways of living. It's the antidote to dystopia. New worlds do need bravery, after all, but they need the bravery of possibility to overcome oppressions large and small, visible and invisible. Such bravery never gets to rest, alas, because new worlds quickly grow old, and yesterday's possibilities harden into today's constraints.
Alice Ramsay was a pioneer, but the tool of her liberation, the automobile, has become an oppressor in our day, filling the veins of the Earth with asphalt and addicting us all to fuel refined from the debris of lost worlds. We need, as always, new pioneers. Forster's story ends with a sentence of both horror and hope: "For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky."
The ever-present challenge to human character is to see the untainted sky before joining the nations of the dead.
I am a bookshelf voyeur; any time I go into a room with books, I spy and pry. A new room—whether a waiting room, an office, a basement used for storage—always contains excitement for me if it has books, because, until I have thoroughly pored over them, there is the potential for surprise, and the potential is often as electrifying as the reality. The arrangements of books tell stories, even if the arrangements are haphazard or accidental—a shelf becomes a collage. For those of us who spend much of our lives reading books, thinking about books, exploring the history and influence of books, a shelf is far more than a bit of furniture.
(You love the books because they are dependable, they wait for you, and when they are most frustrating, you can close them, abandon them, take a break, move to another. When you don't understand what they're trying to say, they remain there, patient, always ready to say it again until you give up or get it. This is how you love them: selfishly. They let you indulge all the worst parts of yourself, and they don't complain.)
Once we know what is to become of the characters, it is impossible to return to an innocent gaze.
My introduction to the "hero pulps" came from some old Bantam Books Doc Savage paperbacks a friend loaned me at the tail end of our elementary school years. My friend, whose name was, I think, Jamie, came from an impoverished family where the only leisure items, it seemed, were some old books, including maybe a dozen of the Doc Savage novels. Jamie had, in true geek fashion, read them many times and memorized everything in encyclopedic detail—he knew who did what to whom in which particular story, how that contradicted some of what was in a later story, which story was originally published when, and what it all meant. I was impressed in the same way I was impressed by my friends who had memorized various baseball statistics, but I was fascinated by books much more than by sports, and so, once Jamie was able to secure permission for me to borrow one of the novels, I, too, dove into the world of Doc Savage. This new enthusiasm only lasted a few months, though, because Jamie and his family moved away; without access to the books or, more importantly, someone to discuss them with, my interest waned.
Weirdness is the antidote to homogenization. It thrives on the local and specific, but it can never only be local and specific, because then it would be inscrutable—it wouldn't transfer or travel, it wouldn't live.
Since the early part of the twentieth century, at least, science fiction writers and fans have delighted in creating new movements, styles, factions, tendencies, labels, manifestations, wings, branches, blocs, camps, cliques, cabals, and isms. We've had new worlds and waves and weirds, cyber- and steampunks, Gernsbackians and Campbellians, fabulists and fantasists, questers to the core and swimmers in the slipstream—and, like ice cream and porn, the hard and the soft. Every age is golden except the current one, and the dinosaurs inevitably groan as the young turks gobble their way through the latest taxonomy.
Literary cultures of all sorts are kept vigorous by tectonic shifts, but such shifts can be frightening to the citizens of the landmasses that get reconfigured by them, and particularly so for people who have devoted much of their lives and passions to erecting solid institutions on the land. The fright causes some of the screaming, but it would be better if fewer people stuck stakes into their little bits of land and instead joined in the joy of a new cartography.
Narrative is reality: it makes reality. Neither word is stable, though, because both are built by and rely on human perception: language, thought, memory. Language, thought, and memory, too, are aspects of each other. They are consciousness, and consciousness enables and enacts them. Writing seeks to capture consciousness, to replicate and represent it, and consciousness is affected by writing. Writing goes to work in the world. The world is our perception of the world.
The symphony exists beyond the orchestra, the orchestra beyond the symphony, but neither without the other.
The movie is not its summary, but even more than that, summary is irrelevant to its pleasures. The experience of the film is where the surprises sit, the engagement of the viewer-listener with what is viewed and heard.
"How often do you have idealistic moments?" D. asked.
"Once every few months," I replied, with a bit of a laugh. "The rest of the time, I tend to think the problems of the world are too vast and that addressing any of them is an immense waste of time."
D. pointed out that I had said I was a writer and a teacher, and he suggested that such endeavors could be immensely valuable to the world. I replied that they certainly could be, but I did not have a lot of faith that my own efforts in those areas had been particularly successful by such a standard. After all, few of my students seemed to rise much beyond apathy, and my writings, scattered and pitiful as they were, never found much of an audience. For the amount of work I had put into those two realms, I could have, for instance, learned basic medicine and worked at a clinic for underprivileged people, saving lives.
I don't believe in astrology, but I'm a Libra, which means I see two sides to things, and so I accept my Libra-ish qualities without letting that affect my conviction that belief in astrology is about as valid as belief in the homeopathic idea that water has a memory. My inherently dialectical nature can be annoying, because it makes it difficult ever to feel certain about, well, anything. Seconds after I come up with a thesis, I can come up with its antithesis. Synthesis, though, is rare and seldom solid.
Criticism at its best creates a way of seeing, a lens through which to measure the experience of art. We value the critics whose sensibilities most provoke us, and whose ideas have the strength to prompt us to think. I often grow suspicious if I find myself continually in agreement with a critic I particularly like, because I wonder if I am giving in to the force of their personality and surrendering my own capacity for thought.
I often suggest for students to read old books as they would read science fiction, because the world of the book is one different enough from our own that we must be especially alert to the subtle cues revealing why things are the way they are. Once you start thinking about the represented world of the text that way, you become aware of the systems and hierarchies that structure not only the novel, but the universe it portrays. Thinking about such representations may then lead to thinking about the systems and hierarchies of the reader's own world and experience.
The ideal masculinity espoused by the cultures of most American high schools is a power fantasy—"real men" are strong, dominant, and heterosexual. Boys have two ways to show that they are striving for this ideal: they can try to demonstrate power and mastery over girls, and they can try to show that they have not failed in their masculinity by taunting boys who are weaker or less conformingly masculine than themselves.
The idea that men and women are almost separate species is one that's perennially offered to us by the popular media, and the effect of this idea, if not the underlying motivation, is to suggest that inequalities between men and women are justified and that attempts to address and overcome inequalities are not only doomed to fail, but are violations of the natural order.
Jonathan Ames: Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers. . . .
Books have lots of different uses, and so calling one type inherently less useful than another is, at least for me, ridiculous because if the label useful has any application to books, then the application is situational. When I want my brain to be filled with the richest, most complex, most invigorating, challenging, and powerful works of art that novelists have so far created, then yes, I will read the sorts of books he praises. But those books are useless to me on airplanes, or when I have the flu, or when I just need to shut my brain down for a bit because it's threatening to jump the rails. I could watch TV, I could stare out the window, I could try to sleep, but I'd rather read because I love stories and I love words, and the act of reading is familiar and even comforting for me.
I have surrounded myself with books partly for pragmatic reasons—I do read them, or at least a lot of them—but also because acquiring books allows me to give concrete form to certain aspects of my personality. When the days grow solitary, I don't need to feel lonely, because I can read the words of thousands of people. When the world becomes bewildering and life slips into shades of meaninglessness, I can rescue myself with other worlds and ideas. When I grow tired of my own words, there are always millions of somebody else's waiting within arm's reach. We collect to fill holes.
It may be that kipple is a manifestation of post-scarcity consumer society. I don't know if other sorts of cultures have to fight against it as hard as we do, because it's a personal sort of fight, and I've only ever lived for an extended time in this post-scarcity consumer society of ours, so I can't speak to living in less kippled cultures. As we have fused ourselves with our stuff, we have created the ultimate niche environment for clutter, kipple, and chaos.
The books that will go with me to my new home are books that are useful and books that are more than useful. The useful books serve various practical purposes; the more-than-useful books are the treasures, the real heart of my collection, the companions that sustain whatever it is I might identify as my soul. They are books I could not give away, because they will not convey to someone else quite what they convey to me: moments lost, moments lived, moments still to come. Some of the books I save are vessels of nostalgia, some owe their preservation to sentimentality, but most are more than that, a mix of looking back and looking forward, as I try to make room for the future amidst the cherished rubble of my past.
It's common to speak of artists as having muses, but don't we all have them—muses for our thoughts, for our dreams and desires, for the shapes we try to make of our lives? It's no surprise to me that parents should play such a role, since parents are, for most of us, the early legislators of our experiences and perceptions. What can we do, though, when the muse becomes a memory?
Anything taken for granted is invisible, and invisibility leads easily to neglect, destruction, eradication, extinction. Perhaps, like so much else, those things are unavoidable in the long run and in the big picture, but my desire is a simple one, even a sentimental one—my desire is that we should all be so lucky in our final moments to hear the sounds of birds and to know the presence of animals.
There's something to be loved about endings. The end of the road, ends and means, where everything ends up. Even bad ends can be appealing, and loose ends are the only ones the human mind seems inclined to loathe.
Learning how to speak again.
Learning how to write.
One of the final entries in Jules Renard's Journal:
Besides, I'm through. I could begin all over again and do it better, but no one would notice the difference.
Better make an end.
After that entry, one more page.
—for Susan Marie Groppi