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Essaying to be

by Robert Minto

On Melting

Reading poetry requires both a great deal of effort and a great deal of stillness, which is probably one of the reasons so many people are afraid of it. It requires effort because there’s no easing into it. You must come to a poem ready to pay attention from the first word. And as you read, deciphering upended syntax and coping with the semantic shock of poetic juxtapositions and new images, you can’t really relax and enjoy it until you’ve worked through it. But it also requires stillness: you haven’t really read a poem until you’ve received its effect in a single impression. It reminds me of playing the piano. From inside a piece, as a pianist, you don’t really hear it properly until you’ve so thoroughly mastered it that you can let yourself play it while some other part of you, somehow, sits back and listens. Likewise the stillness of poetry is the stillness of a performance contemplated from within. What Nabokov said about books in general applies even better to poetry: you can only reread a poem.

The demands of poetry not only make it difficult, they make it dangerous.

First there is the danger of bad poetry. Because you can only reread a poem, you can’t really prejudge a poem. Some of the best poems aren’t very appealing until you’ve put in the work. But a bad poem makes you angry if you’ve worked at it, understood it, and stilled yourself to receive it. Encountering an inferior poem with the intensity of a poetry reader is liking gulping down a large mouthful of bad milk. It’s vile; but it’s too late.

Second there is the danger of exposing yourself to something genuinely traumatizing. By the time you’re receiving a poem as a single impression, you’ve essentially turned yourself into a single, large, thrumming nerve. You’ve opened yourself to the language and imagination of another person in a way that leaves you defenseless against the emotions and ideas their constellation of words might introduce into your delicate system. In a way, the process of reading poetry is the process of melting your own defenses, exposing the tender, gasping animal whose preferred tactical relationship to life is to be frozen away from it, safe behind the ice of indifference and inattention.

*

In the summer of 2016, a long-frozen reindeer carcass thawed out and almost caused an anthrax epidemic. It had been buried in the Siberian soil for perhaps 70 years, until a deep layer of permafrost temporarily melted, turning up the rotting meat. Two thousand living reindeer were infected, as well as dozens of humans. Populations had to be airlifted, herds of reindeer quarantined. At least one child died. It could happen again, since the permafrost will surely melt in coming summers, as we continue to break heat records. Perhaps this summer. More anthrax, or worse, could be waiting in the ice, waiting for the next big melt.

*

I’m writing a dissertation in defense of evil stories. I use the term “evil stories” to mean stories that portray evil characters or evil actions. Moralists of various stripes have targeted such stories at least since Plato, claiming that they are wrong to experience, that they normalize evil, or that they contaminate their audience. (That language of contamination shows up everywhere: evil is a disease, moralists think, a contagious disease.) There are so many dimensions to the question — from whether one’s response to a work of art is even amenable to moral judgment, to how our autonomic tendency to imitate what we see or imagine might make unrelenting exposure to violence, for example, psychologically dangerous for anyone, no matter how gentle or ideologically opposed to violence they are. So I’ve had to focus on one very narrow subset of the problem, on what is called secondary simulative imagination. That’s the way you inhabit a character’s perspective to make sense of narrative statements about them — is it morally dangerous to inhabit an evil perspective? (I don’t think it is, with certain exceptions, and provided it’s not the only kind of imagining you do.) But I could very easily have written about poems, or rather about the types of literature that entail melting.

In some ways, I wish I had. Simulative imagination requires you to adopt certain perspectives, to mentally mime attitudes and actions you might abhor and pretend to believe propositions you might reject, but what I’m calling “melting” isn’t about the content of consciousness at all, but its quality. Melting is exposure, openness, receptivity. Is it susceptibility? Perhaps someday I’ll investigate the question more formally.

*

Memory itself is a form of numbness; it cheats the senses. You feel neither sorrow nor joy. You feel that you’re feeling nothing. —André Aciman, from “Rue Delta”

Does writing […] seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience? —André Aciman, from “Intimacy”

*

When I was a weird, homeschooled child, I read C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. For a long time it was my favorite book. It’s an autobiography / bildungsroman / conversion story. Lewis describes feeling an intense pang, a mixture of longing and pleasure, which first surprised him in relation to Norse Mythology and the romantic idea of “the north” in general. When I read this I sat up. I’d had this exact pang myself. And not just for northerness — though I knew exactly what he was talking about — but in relation to other things as well. Certain kinds of science fiction that made me aware of deep time and vast spaces gave this mixture of longing and pleasure; likewise a selection of pictures in an atlas on my parent’s shelves; also Madagascar, the name and what I imagined the place to be like.

Ultimately, Lewis claims that “joy”—his rather inexact name, I think, for “wonder”—is a sort of clue that you should love god. He makes a very Augustinian argument to the effect that all love is more or less indirect love for god. Ho hum; I found this to be untrue.

When I first read Surprised by Joy I had been suppressing my inclination to dwell on the things that gave me this mixture of pleasure and longing, because it also tended to make me sad and lonely. But Lewis lead me to think I should dig up the feeling if I could. This was probably the first time I tried to make myself feel something — or rather, to make myself feel more intensely in general — and so I encountered for the first time that very adult problem of numbness.

I tried to feel “joy” for a whole day, and got absolutely nowhere with it. The inaccessibility of a feeling scared me. Was I becoming hardened and insensible, withdrawing from life at a wizened thirteen years old? By evening all my projects and plans seemed insignificant beside the over-riding necessity of getting that feeling back. I got out all the books and music and images that had ever made me feel “joy.” It’s a good thing I didn’t have access to alcohol. And I read some poetry. I’d just discovered serious poetry, and owned a large collection of Dover Classics of the Romantics. I think I read from Wordsworth that night, or some other poet whom I now find laughably innocuous, but to whom I was, then, insanely susceptible.

Anyway it worked. But it worked too well. Undoubtedly I was aided by the fact that my stress had produced a migraine variant, the bane of my youth, during which I’d hallucinate or undergo intense mood swings, followed by head-splitting pain. This might have helped, but I’d tenderized my soul with poetry, and things went profoundly to shit. I had, I think, the poetic equivalent of a bad trip.

I remember lying cowering in bed that night, torn apart inside with terror and gusts of emotion, hallucinating that I could hear a small child’s voice in the wind outside my window muttering an endless string of obscenities. I couldn’t sleep and it was unbearable, and finally I banished the mood by writing about it in my journal (I still have it, a shaky entry describing a waking nightmare). Which was how I discovered the prophylactic possibilities of writing.

But the larger point here is: I’ve been careful with this business of melting ever since.

I have to laugh when people claim that reading’s on the way out because it can never compete with the vividness of other media. I don’t see it. Perhaps you can only make that claim if you’ve never put in the effort to read poetry, never melted. As an adult with access to the full pharmaceutical, social, and interpersonal range of techniques for combatting numbness, I’ve never found a solvent as reliable as poetry.

*

After Trump was elected, everybody started reading poetry. Some great stuff was written on the subject, but I couldn’t help thinking the deepest explanation for this sudden, collective turn to a specific form of literature had to do with melting. The trauma of the onset of our very own kakistocracy, and the unexpected and disturbing way it happened, put us in an exposed state we normally have to work to arrive at. Imagine trying to read a story when your nerves are primed for poetry. What you need is the explosive force of compressed imagery and subtle words, not analysis or narration: you need the fountain of poetry not the river of prose.

Our numbness isn’t the only thing that’s melting. As half the world, it seems, makes its way ideologically left or right, the frozen assumption that there is a “center” in matters of poverty and environmental catastrophe, justice and respect for difference, has revealed itself to be an illusion for the first time to many people.

We live in a melting time. Our icebergs are melting, our hearts are melting, our illusions are melting. It’s dangerous, a little heady, and unavoidable.

*

What will we find when the ice has fully melted, I wonder. The toxic carcasses of dead reindeer? Poetry?


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As plain a thing as an ordinary sentence

Don’t all writers have a hidden nerve, call it a secret chamber, something irreducibly theirs, which stirs their prose and makes it tick and turn this way or that, and identifies them, like a signature, though it lurks far deeper than their style, or their voice or other telltale antics?

These words are by André Aciman and they apply to him also, though it can be difficult to look beneath his style, which is so unusual, so beguiling in its coils and toils, that it’s often the first thing critics mention. So let’s dispose of that style summarily and look at what “lurks far deeper,” then return to the style to consider it as a manifestation of that deeper thing.

The uniqueness of Aciman’s style follows almost entirely from his willingness to write long sentences. His sentences are remarkable for more than their length, but length is their precondition. Because Aciman is willing to give himself space, to sacrifice the sacred cow of modern English prose—immediate, self-effacing intelligibility—in pursuit of more rarefied aesthetic goals, he simply has more room to experiment. Long sentences, as should be mathematically obvious, have more possible variations than short sentences. Many of Aciman’s long, recursive sentences have an exploratory feeling, as if he is always probing into the terra incognita of syntactic hinterlands. Here’s a lovely example:

You go out into the world to acquire all manner of habits and learn all sorts of languages, but the one tongue you neglect most is the one you’ve spoken at home, just as the customs you feel most comfortable with are those you never knew were customs until you saw others practice completely different ones and realized you didn’t quite mind your own, though you’d strayed so far now that you probably no longer knew how to practice them.

Within these long sentences, Aciman performs miracles of subtle rhythm and felicitous diction. He seems to feel what few writers, however inventive and vigorous their prose, feel anymore: the difference not just between the right and the wrong word, but between the beautiful and the ugly word. His sentences are beautiful, but they’re emphatically not his signature, hidden nerve, secret chamber.

That would be desire.

Desire’s a funny thing. It’s a pain, a discomfort, because it signifies a lack. When you desire something, you move toward it restlessly, hoping you’ll get it and desire will cease. But if you get the thing you want, and have no further desires to prick you with further discomforts, likely you’re bored. Boredom is even more uncomfortable than desire. And so the life of someone attentive to their own gratification will be a constant rocking to and fro between desire and its fulfillment and the emptiness that brings. Perhaps the lowest point of all is to be bored so intensely that you begin to desire to desire something: and this desire, this meta-desire, a second order self-consciousness of the lack of desire, is numbness.

These three moments in the movement of desire are basically the entire focus of Aciman’s writing. Writers with such exclusive focus upon their theme are rare. If he were a lesser writer, this narrowness of vision would make him minor; but I think he plumbs the depths of his theme, makes the minor major by sheer thoroughness.

The book I read recently which prompts these reflections is called Alibis. It’s a collection of travel writing, but as, I imagine, anything Aciman writes will tend to do, each piece bends toward evoking and analyzing the workings of desire: “it is not the things we long for that we love; it is longing itself. . .”

 

alibis

 

When Aciman visits a place, his regard slides off the present into memories of his own dreams of the future. You know that aesthetic, the retro-future? The future as imagined by someone from the 50s, say? That’s Aciman’s experience of the present: he revisits a place and remembers how he imagined it otherwise. He experiences this both as a painful thwarting, and, self-consciously, as an exquisite pleasure. So when he goes to visit Rome, where he lived as a boy, he thrills with nostalgia for the memory of how he despised the streets he is now seeing, how he used to imagine them as the streets of other cities from the books he escaped into. Or when he writes about New York, he imagines how it might have appeared to Walter Benjamin if he had managed to escape France and emigrated to America. “What we ultimately remember is not the past but ourselves in the past imagining the future.”

But boredom is also there in the elaborate pains Aciman takes, when visiting or revisiting a place, to arrange the most exquisite sensations, to ensure that he will stir up the most poignant desires. And when he fails, he complains about numbness, and turns to writing to kindle the missing fire, and then turns against writing with doubts about its suitability for the therapeutic role in which he’s cast it: “Does writing, as I did later that day, seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life—or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?”

If these brief adumbrations of the theme he explores at excruciating (and exquisite) length, in every variation, haven’t made it clear, I’ll say it bluntly: Aciman’s travel writings use terrestrial geography as a pretext to explore the geography of consciousness. These essays, and the travel that occasioned them, are themselves pretexts for inner journeys away from the places his outer journeys are toward. The full title of the book is Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere. That word “elsewhere” does typical Acimanian double-duty, alluding both to the fact that this is a book of travel essays, and to the fact that Aciman himself is always elsewhere than where he travels to.

I say this is about desire, because I think Aciman raises to the level of an all-absorbing theme a dynamic of universal significance—desire itself—but Aciman himself seems to interpret his hidden nerve, secret chamber, signature, as exile. In childhood his family was forced to move from his birth city, Alexandria, and also to descend socially due to the circumstances of their departure. So he attributes his “parallax” vision, his constant absence from the present in favor of the speculations of the past or the counterfactual future, as a consequence, an internalization of the fact of exile: “an exile is a person who is always in one place but elsewhere as well.” His sense of exile is so complete that it has no relation to place; it’s an exile in time, a complete exile, permanent, irrevocable: “This feeling of being cut off from oneself or of being in two places at the same time is as though what was left behind were an amputated limb, something that was cut away from us and was not allowed to travel with us—an arm, a grandparent, a baby brother.”

So, given this absolutely unwavering interest in the dynamics of desire as raised to consciousness by the fact of exile, what are we to make of the style? Is there a connection between those lovely long sentences and the displacements of desire? I think so, yes, absolutely.

For one thing, at their most expansive and wandering, his very long sentences act out the displacement he’s usually describing. With imperceptible slippage, clause by slippery clause, he leads you to a thought that leaves you wondering: where did that sentence begin? You wonder not in a startled, confused way, as when the run-on sentence of a bad writer startles you into attention by a sloppy failure to be consistent in tense or precise about antecedents: no, instead it’s the kind of wondering that comes from wandering, as when you look up from your walk and realize you don’t know where you are are because you got lost in thought and then in reality, or when you’re trying to meditate, to think of nothing, and catch yourself cleverly metamorphosing this well-intentioned nothing into elaborate daydreams.

But the best part about the perfect fit between Aciman’s style and his subject is that he professes to be as helpless in the former as he is in the latters. He regales us with the intricacies of his travels by foot into memory because that’s just how he can’t help but experience those travels, and likewise, “cadenced prose, for all its pyrotechnics, is also a way of hiding that I can’t write as plain a thing as an ordinary sentence in English.”