Archive for the 'The Author Himself' Category

A journal of my infancy

July 10, 2007

An ancillary yet durable fear – my personality’s gallbladder, let’s call it – is that I will somehow forget the whole of the English language. To fixate on a single, temporarily-forgotten word whose connotation matches your thoughts as well as possible, or to describe that word, wringing your own entrails to divine its first letter or its number of syllables: these are ordinary experiences enough, but to forget the entirety of the only language you speak is nothing short of horror. To forget English would, for me, mean being reduced to my partial knowledge of German and French, plus a considerable amount of impotent gesturing; and because I love words, love to swaddle the most recondite members of our lexicon, the idea of having the English language, whose nuances I have worked so hard not simply to know but to render part of myself, snatched from me is enough to make me shudder, however unlikely it may be that the thought could come true.

Which is all as much to say that, yes, at this point I am shamefully monolingual and that I presently feel the weight of this dependency, this rigidity or this American middle class sine qua non, as something more akin to a pain than an itch. I feel not simply annoyed, but virtually disabled by the fact that I’ve somehow failed to grow fluent in another language in the 25 years of opportunity I’ve had; or as if that failure is itself somehow a stigma not on my facility with language (of which I’ve frankly never had cause to regard as anything but exceptional), but on my intellectual history, as if it were to prove that the arabesques into which I take such pleasure in shaping the English language belie not curiosity with the possibilities of language but an unshakable laziness with respect to content.

But let me be easy on myself, for I’m working hard to teach myself French, am taking advantage of as many resources as my embarrassment of the difficulty with which that language issues from me allows; but at the same time, I am motivated primarily by a spite the object of which is the torpid manner I’ve heretofore used in approaching language; a spite the object of which, in short, is myself. That an easy, forgiving attitude towards my past mistakes — even the objection, tempting because there’s an undeniable truth there, that dwelling on the mistakes of an unchangeable past is fruitless — becomes obviously counterproductive in light of my motivations.

But that the whole of this process has had a decisively negative tinge to it with respect to my own laziness or my past objections doesn’t adequately describe the principle frustration which I’ve confronted in a steadily increasing degree as I approach the end of the textbook: that is, how absolutely infantile my command over the language is. To simply not know a language is, in that respect, less frustrating than to know it partially; to use words in a way that feels like coughing up inflatable furniture is much worse than the resigned placidity of someone who can’t speak the language at all.

It’s hard to remember a time when I wasn’t known for my facility with English; but to have to face again that unremembered time is a much more difficult feat than simply disciplining myself to study everyday.


Internet pioneers, circling their wagons

June 17, 2007

So far as I can tell, the thought actually did pass through my mind once some time ago of how I might possibly store a two month supply of water and food in my tiny apartment. A rehearsal of the failed attempt at sleep still several minutes away from having that thought had occurred a couple hours earlier, and my determination to be among the few still breathing after disaster had befallen all of those around me was unflagging. All of this anguish was set in the bluish white light of my laptop’s screen.

If I were to say that it started simply or innocently, I might be stifling an eschatological lineage that has puzzled thinkers for centuries; but it started by dipping my toe in that raging, inexplicable torrent – following a link on the internet about the avian flu, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or peak oil. And I conflate them all not because they bear an equally plausible threat to our world, but because I have run the same course with each of them, predictably enough without ever having noticed that very predictability when once I give myself over to the hand wagging they induce. One link, as often as not followed for the pure spectacle of somebody else’s hand wagging, has brought me to this state again and again wherein I abandon any sort of reason and give myself over to manifold layers of survivalistic planning.

One followed link accomplishes all this, though, not because a single website could have such persuasive power, but because tight clusters of links form in these corners of the internet: introverted in as much as they all seem to link to each other and to build off of each other’s panic, links – tokens of these websites’ content – pour into them, recruiting new members and onlookers. Yet looking out is done only tentatively and subjected to the approval of the interpretive community.

Like the best of games, there is an incredible level of absorption in the experience of circulating between these websites, reading their discussions, their diatribes, and their advice. And like a game, a sharp distinction is made between those who play and those who don’t – that is to say, a rule-following community is created as an extension of the eschatological belief. We find, on the accepted basis that how one came to believe in this particular apocalypse is irrelevant, a terrific variety of participants in these forums – rural survivalists or ecologists, urban or suburban dwellers bent on protecting their families, otherwise uncategorizable individuals – all adopting a similar vocabulary and mode of interpretation for the sake of these online forums. (You may be interested to know, for example, that one acronym that stretches between these communities is TSHTF: “the shit hits the fan,” used to describe a situation of rioting, looting, and other desperate human behavior.)

For some, this dalliance with the end of the world leads them to buy rural properties, to start massive gardening projects, or take up shooting; but, in accordance with the theory that those most likely to embrace eschaton are those who would have the least to lose in such an event, the vast majority must content themselves with playing online only.

The agglomeration of identities which the internet allows is vital in understanding this phenomenon, and not only in that it allows the creation of an exclusive interpretive- and play-community based on an easily avowed belief. No, the stakes of this game being what they are, participants can add perspicacity to any list of their qualities. It is as if, invitations to the end of the world having been sent out, we play a game of potlatch with apocalypse itself, hoping that it will keep up its end of the bargain.

From the correspondence chronofile

June 16, 2007

Mr. D——-,

As director of the library at the University of ——,  I do not doubt that your store of reading-related trivia dwarfs my own haphazardly gathered collection. I will, all the same, dare to ask whether you know of Joseph Campbell’s decision to spend five years in a cabin upstate reading nine hours each day in lieu of getting a doctorate degree.

I do not know how he financed this retreat, but I cannot imagine he had time to take even a part-time job. We can look to Karl Marx for an example of a scholar of meager income. So dire were Marx’s living conditions in London that Friedrich Engels had to work in Germany, sending Marx money to survive and continue his studies. And study he did: he is reported to have spent all day in the reading room of the British Museum, absorbed especially with back issues of The Economist.

Sir, like both of these men, I desire more than anything else a period of intense reading and study; yet I have neither an endowment nor a partner willing to support me as I undertake this. Nor am I very fit for the exigencies of the credentialist, entry-level work world which I would be qualified at this point to enter: my tolerance for boredom is practically nil, and I have never been a team player. I am sensitive and striving, yearning deeply for stimulation yet wilting in its absence.

Let me waste no more of your time. Here is what I propose:  that I be allowed to bring a bedroll and toiletries to the library, and that I be given a small stipend for food and other needs. In return, I will be at the service of your fine institution in whatever capacity I am needed. If you require, I would happily do the more menial tasks that the library needs – shelving, dusting, whatever. Or, what I believe may be the greatest service I could render, my taking up residence in your library could be the subject of a press release, written by myself; the effect would be obvious, signifying the passion that your library inspires in scholars.

Though I obviously cannot promise to produce works on the scale of Marx or even Campbell, my residence under the wing of your institution would give me the opportunity to try.


Nathaniel ——-

On communication and risk

June 11, 2007

Though she and I have never been close, there are plenty of reasons – at least superficially – to believe that we could have been. Rather, though, it may be that our different recourses to such a similar stock of qualities condemn us: she seems to view her natural reticence dialectically, pushing through it in ways that make me wince at their potential to destroy the observational power I believe my own reserve grants me. And for all the books that we’ve both read without ever having coordinated, it seems that only I’m capable of letting those books change me – be it in the form of an author’s pet word creeping into my vocabulary, or an idea that obsesses me. I can’t understand her trajectory of reading at all because of this. But her lack of candor in discussing these ideas combines with her obvious intelligence to give me the impression that she’s writing a theory masterpiece in secret, spending her nights in a solitary labor which she’s too humble or dismissive to discuss.

If I have the urge to wonder whether she comes up with theories like that about me, is it in absolution for the ways in which I – both of us, really – have withdrawn from the platonic overtures we used to make to each other?

The fact is this, though: that neither of us can divulge moderately around the other. To the degree that I see that she is preyed upon, that the creative energies she pushes so mercilessly to dispossess herself of are lapped up mindlessly by the herd that clings to her – to that degree, she sees how scared I am by so much of life. It’s enough to wreck the economy of any burgeoning friendship, but especially so between people like her and me, who naturally long for a bit of control over the ways our energies disperse in the world.

The phallic city

May 27, 2007

To become is never to imitate, nor to ‘do like,’ nor to conform to a model, whether it’s of justice or of truth. There is no terminus from which you set out, none which you arrive at or which you ought to arrive at. Nor are there two terms which are exchanged. The question, ‘What are you becoming?’ is particularly stupid. For as someone becomes, what he is becoming changes as much as he does himself. Becomings are not phenomena of imitation or assimilation, but of a double capture, of non-parallel evolution, of nuptials between two reigns. […] The wasp and the orchid provide the example. The orchid seems to form a wasp image, but in fact there is a wasp-becoming of the orchid, an orchid-becoming of the wasp, a double capture since ‘what’ each becomes changes no less than ‘that which’ becomes. The wasp becomes part of the orchid’s reproductive apparatus at the same time as the orchid becomes the sexual organ of the wasp. One and the same becoming, a single bloc of becoming […].

-Gilles Deleuze, Dialogues II

I have a particular strategy for cities that seems hardly to change, no matter how many of them I visit. Though I may have a few places I explicitly want to visit, I spend the vast majority of my time simply walking myself to absolute exhaustion. It isn’t uncommon for me to walk between 100 and 150 blocks a day when I visit New York City, as I did this weekend. And when I lived in Korea, I would often stay out most of Friday night at the Westerner bar, then take the first bus into downtown Seoul at 5:50 AM, catching a little bit of sleep on the way. I would spend almost the whole day walking from there, usually not arriving back at home until around 10 at night. Another one of my favorite memories is when I walked to the Fukuoka airport in the pre-dawn rain and waited in a phone booth for the airport’s doors to be unlocked.

This is not the only kind of energy expenditure I undertake in cities. Usually parsimonious, I somehow don’t mind shelling out for extravagances when I’m on one of these urban treks. I bought some very nice tea this weekend, for example, and ate at a fairly pricey Korean place.

Is this expenditure – expenditure to the point of scrimping at other times – a type of invagination? A way of contributing myself to the massive enterprise that is the city, so that it will, for at least a little while, have the fruits of my exertion circulating on the surface of its incredible facade? A method of bilocation or preservation such that, on my next visit, I can compare my present self to the self whose energies still coruscate in that city (or at least in my mental image of that city) and thus gauge the changes I undergo?

The city as mnemonic device, each scene being an index to the last time I visited it. Walking by the southeast corner of Central Park this weekend, I remembered the times I was there with Clif and with Jia-Jia, and remember getting an idea for a blog entry about the shape of the Apple Store. Memory is recovered in these scenes, the space for which is created through the evacuation of intimate resources. It’s once I’m exhausted that I find in my surroundings an impetus to continue through my tiredness, that there’s a greater exchange between the city and me – or, as the quote from Deleuze might suggest, a greater sense of becoming.


May 24, 2007

Edit (7/17/08): Since this is by far the most popular thing on this site, it figures that maybe somebody has gotten a tattoo inspired by my magic marker tattoo here. If this is the case, please e-mail me pics at my gmail address, username: dymaxion.


Life out of balance

May 21, 2007

“Eight hours work, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” was one of the guiding maxims of the modern labor movement, and it strikes us now as remarkably balanced and logical. (Schopenhauer pointed out that, a generation or so after truths are rejected as wild-eyed radicalism, they are accepted as common sense.) The three parts of the working human’s life, when served in equal portion, feed into and enhance one another: an honest day’s work helps you sleep more soundly and lets you enjoy your recreation with the satisfaction that you’ve already done your part for society; a suitable amount of recreation allows you to sleep and work without the dread of not having accomplished what you wanted to that day; and sufficient sleep keeps your energy level high during any pursuit.

Readers, I am obliged to admit that I cannot comply with such a logical system. You see, I spent all last week working at a temporary job, between 8 and 10 hours each day. And my life fell apart. My French lessons stopped entirely, my output on this website slowed to the most meager trickle, and my reading faltered. I pushed back my bedtime every night in an attempt to fight my lost recreation time and, as a result, I was increasingly tired as the week progressed.

I am obliged to admit as well, incisive readers, that I would have had time for these things if only I had developed a schedule for myself. If, say, dinner were followed by 45 minutes of French lessons which were followed by a mixture of blog and book reading until bedtime, things could have worked out much better than they did. Instead, I followed my whims and wiled away my time.

Wasted time has always been a source of intense shame for me and accounts for the difficulty that I’ve had in finding lasting employment. Almost every job I see, I interpret as a waste of my time and consequently don’t apply. Yet at the same time, I have trouble developing a schedule for myself because of its essential rigidity. I am stuck between the problems of not getting everything done that I want to and the problems of being a cog.

There is so much that I want to do, though, that I wonder: is there any alternative except discipline?

Why working at a bookstore rocks

May 12, 2007

Aristotle, Poetics
+ Saint Augustine, City of God
+ Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Love
+ Zygmunt Bauman, Society Under Siege
+ Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory
+ Maurice Blanchot, The Station Hill Blanchot Reader
+ Erving Goffman, Interaction Ritual
+ Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
+ Henry James, Penguin edition of Selected Tales
+ Franz Kafka, The Trial
+ Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild
+ Herman Melville, Norton Critical Edition of Melville’s short novels
+ Plato, Republic
+ Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
+ Robbins and Palmer, eds., Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem: Contemporary Apocalyptic Movements
+ Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars
+ Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

A good mix of opportunistic interest expansion, classics, and before-bed reading that’s not too laborious but still interesting.

Retour à la savane

April 19, 2007

I have been bad: desultory, insouciant, and bad.

I have not only left things undone things which should have been done, but I have allowed myself to lie down in the cesspool of my self-pity and wallow.

Not least among these commitments which I have so cavalierly shirked is this very blog. Yes, I am both a shirker and a wallower. But no more. When I was rejected recently from every PhD program to which I applied, it occurred to me that I can no longer slide by on inborn talent alone. A minor reconciliation with my Protestant past must somehow take place, and I must learn to work.

So we have here a convenient practice – a daily reminder to hone my skills for now and for a later date. I promise that I’ll try to do better.