The clay pot from Syria and the stone head from Egypt. “Syria and Egypt are not so far apart,” you think. Shapes, after all, are shapes. I get a sense that Charles Freer would like this thought. He assembled his collection to bridge differences of time and space, to find unities and common threads. And yet, nearly three thousand years separate these objects.
In the National Gallery, a few steps will take you a hundred years from Raphael to El Greco, and nobody’s confused by the differences between them. Gallery after gallery is organized by time, place, and artist. On one wall, Eakins, on another Whistler, and then two of Sargent. A row of Monet’s, each featuring a reflection in a body of water. We recognize the separate hands. We differentiate—pointedly so—Cassatt from Manet. We recognize that an early Pollock gets tossed upstairs in the glass cases of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Benton gets a wall in a room, and Lavender Mist has a bench in front of it at the National Gallery so you can sit and think about it.
Walking the galleries can be a jolting experience. It should be a jolting experience. Even in the galleries designated “Arts of the Islamic World,” the shifts from one work to the next makes me question what any of the artists thought, and even more so, what any of the viewers thought. There is no monolith here—or there is, and it constantly fractures and fragments. Yes, of course, Islam, but also them, and me.
Some of my friends comment, “What a nice Sunday ritual you have,” hinting that the museums are peaceful places of reflection. I walk past two sets of angels (Mohammed and Mary, each surrounded by beings of glorious verve and color) listening to The Rolling Stones singing “Can You Hear Me Knocking.” Yeah, peace is my goal. I spend time every Sunday in the company of Monet and Calder—quieter voices after a fashion—at least they aren’t dissonant. The day is dissonant.
The vase from Syria and the head from Egypt. 1100 kilometers between them–roughly the distance from Washington DC to Alabama, Illinois, or Maine. So yes, I can see the confusion. Add 3000 years. 3000 years ago, Greece was beginning to lose Mycenaen writing. The New Kingdom in Egypt was collapsing. Babylon was in decline. Celts had started migrating from central Europe—Ireland was still in the future. Turn your head and watch the world change.
Perhaps we think that it changes more slowly now. The leaps from Stone Age to Bronze to Iron seem so slow and so enormous. Now we are cocooned in steel and silicon. Everything is instantaneous and, almost by magic, eternal. Time has stopped. Travel and commerce brought every place within our grasp. Disney helped us imagine a small world, but how quickly it fragmented over my lifetime. Maybe the differences were always there.
Even walking through the Art of the Islamic World at the Freer, there is an early 15th Century folio from al-Qazvini’s Wonders of Creation. From 100 years earlier, a page of the Shahnameh includes an illustration of Gushtasp slaying a dragon. I don’t know how these stories were received.
It is a commonplace to claim that people have universally enjoyed, even hungered for, stories. I don’t know how each of these audiences spread over 100 years, a thousand years, longer, came to story or to art. I cannot simply state that what I feel, they must have felt. I walk the galleries and try to imagine across time and space how those who came before felt.
In a matched pair of screens, Hokusai depicts two groups who are out enjoying an afternoon. I imagine that it is afternoon—it could be morning or early evening. One group of people—larger, closer to us—turns to notice the other group. They are in the distance, smaller, but whatever noise they are making is enough to draw their attention.
Some of the quiet group seem curious about their noisy almost neighbors, and some are clearly annoyed, aggrieved, really. The woman playing the shamisen looks over her shoulder. “What is that ruckus.”
Across the way, two men dance—or fight—with fans. A child rides on his parent’s shoulders. They seem of a lower class than those spread out on a red blanket on the hill above them. They seem unaware of their neighbors or the disturbance they have created. So small, so far away, and yet, so loud. And so fun.
Some of the quiet group seem to look with a kind of longing. “We could be having that fun if we were over there.” The annoyance comes at once from the disturbance and the awareness that a woman in the quiet group (it is a man in Hokusai’s painting that is particularly aggrieved) might want to be with someone else who offers more fun. Pardon me while I engage the metaphorical: beauty wants a little riot.
The museums are, generally, quiet spaces. Most people use the most indoor of indoor voices, except for tour guides and children. In the sculpture garden this morning, one youngster offered a delighted “Wow” when he turned the corner on a Calder. Kids played on the walkway between the East and West buildings of the National Gallery (which is a work of art), amazed by the softness of the walkway and the glistening lights above their heads. A woman gives an impromptu explication ofThe Feast of the Gods, explaining the cast of characters in Bellini and Titian’s painting.
There are other less quiet conversations. Sometimes about lunch. Sometimes about a musical composition and performance. Phone conversations are always louder than imagined. In a museum? Always. I eavesdrop, and sometimes I ask questions.
Besides all that, the paintings are noisy. Wait, what? No, of course, they aren’t. And then you hear the visceral click-click of Keith Sonnier’s Go Between, but let’s be honest, stone and paint are silent. Except, who cannot hear the snigger behind the kerchief in Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s Two Women at a Window? Or the bawdy laughter in Quentin Massys’s The Ill-Matched Lovers? Or who thinks that the animals gathered for Circe’s lesson in Circe and her Lovers in a Landscape attend her in silence? Or that she is silent? Or the squeezebox playing angel in Mary, Queen of Heaven? Even the idyllic scenes contain the rush of wind over a field.
Still lives and portraits test this, but once again, if you cannot hear the voice of Cardinal Pietro Bembo, it’s your fault and not Titian’s.
Then there is abstract art, which seems to want to put a cork in art’s ample mouth. It’s hard to hear Rothko or Louis or Andre; there may be a note or a chord playing in your mind’s ear yet, these pieces wrestle elsewhere. They are either loud or static-filled or, like Oldenburg’s Clarinet Bridge, just out and out messing with you.
I spend my Sundays surrounded by noise—the art and the people—and it rejuvenates me. I reflect on a time in my life when I was surrounded by people who preferred silence during their slice of Sunday. I wish I did not think about this. I do not enjoy thinking about people who complained about the noises children made in church or griped how a fellow congregant beat a tambourine during hymns. While I write this, a child shrieks in a Smithsonian American Art Museum gallery in a full gale. Life happens.
Of course there is a value to spending time in the field or forest, the mountain or ocean, but none of these are silent at all. There is a generous cacophony in nature. But silence has come to dominate spirituality. People gather and decide to subdue noise for ostensibly spiritual reasons. I wonder at how fragile one’s spiritual life must be to suffer from human noise. I watched Barak Obama’s Eulogy for Reverend Pinckney with my Speech students, and it was a noisy event. People chipped in with “yes,” “that’s right,” and dozen other verbal nods; they would have earned hard stares at my church.
The valorization of silence imposes a purity narrative on the spiritual. Like all purity narratives, this only serves to control an otherwise uncontrollable experience. And it places the blame for distraction someplace else—the same way that some faiths require the covering of women to prevent men from being distracted. We all are so easily distracted.
Perhaps we wrestle with distraction because is a piece of our evolutionary puzzle: we had to be easily distracted to avoid danger. Our senses are always on alert. But maybe the problem isn’t so much about distraction as focus. For instance, when I attended Quaker Meeting, we all sat silently. But we listened—not for our thoughts or ideas, but for the spirit. Silence was a way of severing us from not just the world but from ourselves, so that we could listen—attend—more closely.
I’m not sure that we are listening the right way anymore. We try to “hear ourselves think,” and then replicate that strain of thought everywhere around us. We listen to confirm our biases, and it is almost impossible to do anything else. Our brains strive for homeostasis—not just of temperature, but attitude. The more we listen to the “still strong voice,” the less we hear the clarinet blast—or the tone of the angelic pipe organ squeezebox—that calls us to what we, fortunately, do not know.
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me. (Moby Dick, Herman Melville)
We all know “Call me Ishmael,” but there is a reason that the narrator of Melville’s Moby Dick wants to be acknowledged as such. He has left the tribe. Or been summarily cast aside, born of the wrong parent, and replaced by Isaac—he who laughs. Today, I woke up at Ishmael’s side: no laughter, all asunder.
Whether you look to the ocean or not, who hasn’t woken up not just on the wrong side of the bed, but the side that leads you to swear at the news (It’s marginally better these days), then at the car (who designed doors that are guaranteed to make spilling my coffee a near impossibility?), then at the fellow travelers on the road (you cut me off when there was no one behind me to make a left hand turn?) , then at the people clogging the door at Un je ne sais Quois (In or out; I have croissants to buy), or at the spell check that insists on who the fuck knows what for “Un je ne sais Quois.” Yeah, and there it is: “fuck.” Everything is one long variation on that theme, culminating, without effort, in “I fucking hate people.”
Usually, that feeling is evanescent—gone with the glint of sun off a pane of glass. But—my big but—it is always there. The opposite is present as well—gloriously so, necessarily so. The world holds too much that is joyful, whimsical, and beautiful not to be shared and smiled over. I share a few thoughts about Dewing with a woman photographing his The Lute. A man and I share thoughts on Hokusai, and he gives me an added incentive to travel to Tokyo. I keep the persistent disdain and disgust to myself. Who needs more of that?
Even now, as I shared with you, I am writing my way out of it, careening toward something constructive. Ugh. Why does everything need to run aground on the shoals of constructive? There is rarely anything constructive in “Fuck you!” or “Fuck off!” Does that make it any less, what? energizing? It is not just an escape of steam but an increase in indignation. “I see your selfishness and raise you my rage.” Why wait for the dying of a light?
A year or so ago, I started writing about evil and had to put it aside. The news was too full of people accusing each other of evil. The moral high ground wasn’t a hill, rounded and easily climbed or rolled down; it was a mile high pinhead, with more angels crowded on it than can be counted. Except it wasn’t one pinhead. It was two, maybe three, but always two: good and evil, us and them. The clamor from one pinhead to the other was deafening. But, if we stood angel shoulder to angel shoulder on the head of our respective pins, the anger we wielded was a broad mallet. Brickbats of “fuck” dispatched with full flail—forget about nuance and contradiction. Unlike Ishmael, no one knew to run to the sea, and hats went flying.
Now, with lives on the line, people ally themselves with justified rage. Some conflate their rage at wearing a mask or getting a vaccine with the annihilation of 6 million Jewish people by the Nazis. When over 700,000 people have died of COVID in the United States and nearly 5 million in the world, what matters is me, and I will use the rhetorical and emotional arguments I need to make my case. The lack of perspective is mind-blowing. But we have clamored to such extremes for years. We borrow rage when it suits us, when we need to enhance and emphasize how right we are, and diminish and demean those who oppose us.
How hilarious that 4 years ago, people on the right chanted, “Jews will not replace us,” and now people in the same political galaxy are claiming a kind of solidarity with Holocaust victims; we are replacing Jews with us. And the late-breaking news is that Israelis with vaccine passports and will require the booster to be considered fully vaccinated. But, what do they know? Rage knows no shame.
The funny thing is, when Ishmael gets in his moods, he gets on a boat and heads to the ocean—the beautiful open sea. However, on a boat human contact is not just unavoidable but necessary. There are few places as confined as a boat on the ocean. You put aside differences in a hurry when you stand watch through the dog hours. This is a stirring contradiction. Ishmael feels misanthropic, so he goes where he cannot avoid contact.
I spent a chunk of my morning at “high fuck,” then settled in among strangers who are unified only by the call of free art and time to enjoy it. A man stares up at Calder’s Rearing Stallion, and I cannot help but assert how I think it is so cool that the shadow makes a second work of art. We both smile, and you can tell, even though we are both masked, and he tells me what he sees and likes. “It is so cool.” We are on the boat together, looking at the amazing world.
I am honest with myself: I will not stop feeling rage. And love, the sweet balm of human contact in all its brilliant and unbearable forms. I lack a middle ground. I try to put myself in front of things that inspire love and unbridled delight. I will still mutter, “I fucking hate people,” and the angel on my shoulder will buzz in my ear, “Liar.” To borrow from Whitman again, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” I am back on the boat, sailing once again, to you.
On Sundays, I wander. Truth is, I wander most days. My colleagues and students see me in the halls, going no place in particular. When I attend baseball games in the spring, I do not take a seat in the stands, but pace, eyes focused on some part of the game, feet constantly moving. And yet, I have read 600-page novels in a sitting and watched Lawrence of Arabia in the theater, begrudging the roadshow intermission—and delighting in Maurice Jarre’s intermezzo.
I wander because my mind wanders. A problematic admission for a novelist. Yes, there are touchpoints in each of my Sunday rambles. Monet’s Houses of Parliament, Sunset, the Calder Room in the East Building of the National Gallery, Dosso Dossi’s Circe and her Lovers in a Landscape, all the Dewing at the Freer, all the Sargent everywhere, when the space is open at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Butterfield’s Monekana, Thayer’s Stevenson Memorial. But my attention is drawn elsewhere. A piece of blue tape on the bottom of the pedestal supporting Houdon’s Diana. All the other Dianas. Ingres’s Madame Moitessier. A man sporting a yellow “YINZ” emblazoned on a black t-shirt (Okay, “gold”). An older man walks gingerly with a cane—his halting, carousel-like step revealing that one leg is three inches shorter than the other. A woman who is too beautiful for her date. Wait, am I her date? Is it today?
Wait. It’s not her date; he’s her husband, and they hold hands as they walk through the galleries. Definitely not me. And definitely today. Again.
As I make my way to the stairs that rise in the National Gallery’s East Building tower, I note that Edward Hopper’s Ground Swell is lovely, but who sails parallel to the swell? We sail through or across, never with. Pattern eclipses subject. Same with Ingres’s Madame Moitessier. She stands in front of a wall adorned with patterned red wallpaper. It turns her into part of the pattern. Compare this with Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun’s Madame d’Aguesseau de Fresnes hanging in the same room. Madame d’Aguesseau de Fresnes is the subject and the background Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun gave her is tantamount to a brown tarp. What matters to the artist is the woman, her dress, and her hat. Of course, these, too, are part of a pattern. What isn’t? But Ingres makes it obvious: there is no escape from pattern.
My Sundays—all my days—have a pattern. On Sundays: Coffee, almond croissant, Freer/Sackler, National Gallery, lunch, Smithsonian American, and then home. Some days I add the Hirshhorn. Within each museum, I have a particular path. But I diverge. Today I skipped the Flemish paintings and headed downstairs to walk past Louis Maurice Boutet de Monvel’sJoan of Arc series. Just a glimpse. I recalled when I walked through the galleries almost too distracted to pay attention to Daumier’s heads. Almost.
And even if I did take the exact same route, the people around me would be different. Today, a man broke into impromptu yoga in front of Katharina Fritsch’s Hahn/ Cock. On the cement. In the Courtyard Café, a woman at a neighboring table talked about workers complaining about having to go back to the office. “With teachers back in classrooms, it’s hard to argue,” she said. “But teachers knew what they were getting into.” People change everything.
The secret is that even if I took precisely the same route—if the coffee was just as hot, if the croissant was just as flaky, and if the day were as perfect for jeans and a flannel shirt as today was, all the guards standing in the same places—it would still be different because I am different. Whatever has happened during the week, whoever I met, whatever words I put on the page, all these things and more changed me.
Twenty years ago, I stood up in Quaker Meeting at the opening meeting of my old school and praised the opportunity for change. In my hubris—I was 40, I thought I knew better—I called it “the blessing of change.” I had moved to Baltimore and started a career that would sustain me for 20 years. And then a series of unwelcome changes began: my mother got cancer; my relationship ended; my father died. The annus horribilis. Oh, so you like change? Here it comes.
Maybe because my life has taken enough (one can be enough, but who keeps track?) turns (expected, unexpected, this makes no difference), I feel ready to make a few proclamations. At the very least, I proclaim for me, but like Whitman (“And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”), I proclaim for you.
I recognize that in our self-driven culture, we value inward focus. I had a minister who emphasized, ala Jack Palance in City Slickers, “one thing.” On a more profound level, this impulse is driven by thinkers like Buddha or Henry David Thoreau. As for the Buddha, I have (not authoritatively) commented on suffering. Here in the United States, we celebrate Thoreau without knowing him. We acknowledge and follow his desire “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” But we forget that he “left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves .” Two years is enough. More lives wait.
Pattern and habit are as intractable as gravity, and this is not always a bad thing. If I was ever put in charge of a Creative Writing curriculum, I would insist on teaching the creation and maintenance of habit. What about artistic standards? Figure out what you need to do in any circumstance—in every place and weather—to keep a daily writing habit, and then worry about quality. Develop a practice that will survive against the “slings and arrows”; they are coming. The routine will help you improve. Words (writing and reading and listening) beget better words. Repetition begets mastery.
Except when it doesn’t. The rest of the time, habits get in the way. Habits become ruts. While a good groove can speed one on their way, how many times does expedience swallow excellence? Other than races, speed is overrated. And yes, this is the novelist talking. Endurance counts. There will be sprints along the way, but this is an ultra-ultra marathon.
Let me extend the sports metaphor one step further. We do not improve based on our intuition; we need a coach to help us succeed. Once upon a time, I was a recently separated father, and I researched how other recently split families managed the transition. I bought books. A friend teased me, “Don’t be silly. You know what to do.” Except, I didn’t. I did not know a thing about managing a split household—let alone a married household, but that’s another story.
In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert concludes that our lives are not all that unique; no matter how much we protest, “No one knows how I feel!” If you want to know whether something will make you happy—divorce or infertility regimens, for instance—ask someone else who has done it. “How did you feel when you divorced your spouse? How did your kids feel?” “How did it feel going through infertility treatments for a year?” Nobody has lived your exact life, but experiences start with incredibly similar foundations.
Intuition is an illusion. We do what we did yesterday, and we do it for a reason. “Wash, rinse, repeat” isn’t just a cheeky mantra. The brain loves to predict and then demands that we adhere tightly to its predictions. When we don’t, the brain sends error messages to our bodies, triggering all sorts of responses, most of which are angled to get us back on track—back into the predictable rut. We only learn when we err. Modern psychobiology is for the feint of head.
Wandering helps trick the brain. Surprises, collisions, and near misses open gaps in the “I-already-know-that” mental processes that keep us on course. “I-did-not-know-that” is the gold. Even if you look inward, if you want to learn yourself, then you will need to make yourself strange and surprising. You will need to interrupt the predicting mechanisms that perpetuate a kind of mental and emotional homeostasis.
Let me revise. I wander because my mind does not wander enough. The brain cannot; that is not how it evolved, not how it works. I seek out error messages—“This is not what I predicted”—lots of little ones to jostle the mechanism as gently as possible. Gently does not always do the trick—at least not if I am going to write.
Look, most people do not write. Why would they? It is hard work and requires tenacity and wildness—two qualities that do not play well together. A writer must be able to apply ass to chair (the commonplace starting point) and want to destroy—and re-create!—every chair that every ass occupies everywhere. I wander and re-create the world with every step, or I do when I finally stop and write. And then, and this is the big secret, let your writing wander. Find the thing that breaks all predictions and deal with it.
Do you want to write? Sit down and wander. Or wander, then sit down. Either way. Wander.
When I was 17, I read Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. Not on my own—it was for an Ethics class in high school. We also read Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, Mill, Kant, Golding, Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment over Winter Break!), Mishima, and Descartes. And when I wrote “Not on my own,” I lied. I chose the class, and I gobbled down everything Fritz Marks put in front of us. I still refer to Hobbes (40+ years later). I expanded on my understanding of the rationale behind Descartes in grad school, when I pulled apart the “cogito ergo sum” as it applied to ideas in William Blake’s prophetic poems. We are never done.
Hobbes’s vision of mankind, based so much on what was observable—limited, one might say—was grim—is grim—and foreboding. The social contract—or some kind of explicit and implicit agreement—was all that stood between us and the enduring war of all against all. Kant threw us a life preserver—the notion of the sunnum bonnum—but tell me when in history that any group of people could agree on a greatest good for more than 26 minutes. Hobbes hangs around the same way that Thrasymachus is craftily ushered out of Plato’s Republic. We may move on from the dark vision, but it’s hard to wash that blood off your hands.
This essay will head in two directions, and I’ll get the weighty one off first. I’m not sure how you feel about the social contract. We give it more than a little bit of lip service—some implicit set of agreements that keeps us from (figuratively and literally) eating each other. I once pointed out the difficulty of claiming a moral high ground because of the numerous daily petit disruptions to the explicit contracts. In a sermon, I pointed out speed limits as an indication of a rule that was almost designed to be broken—and was taken to task for asserting that people knowingly violated laws. But what high moral ground can we claim? I lived in West Philadelphia when the mayor allowed the police to drop an incendiary device—a bomb—on a row home; the resulting fire consumed 61 homes and killed eleven. In the final days of the US evacuation from Afghanistan, a drone strike killed 10 Afghan citizens, in what the US military admitted was a “fatal mistake.” Yesterday, 2000 people died of COVID in the United States, and we will never know how many of those were infected by people who refused vaccines or masks. We are always living in the fog of the war. Is it the war of all against all? I don’t know, but I know that despite best intentions or assertions of individual freedoms, someone, somewhere, is getting served. Again.
The will to power, in whatever form it takes, is hard to set aside. Jack Merridew (from Golding’s Lord of the Flies) stands as a perpetual caution. We want meat (metaphorical and actual), and we have Roger to keep the boys in order. I know that some point to the schoolboys who disproved Golding’s fictional account of our race to destruction. I will point to the differences: the Tongan schoolboys were not British schoolboys; the boys were friends and not assembled hodgepodge to avoid an oncoming nuclear war; there were only 5 boys joined in a common purpose as opposed to the 20-50 in Golding’s novel. And one is true, and the other rings true. So yes, given the circumstances, we can avoid eating each other. If we are those boys. An obvious common purpose wrapped in the warm cloth of friendship creates the conditions for a reasonable implicit contract.
In the end, I suspect that the social contract is a useful fiction, but I also acknowledge the power of story in our lives. We need good stories. Linda Cron says that we are “Wired for Story,” and I show my students clips of Marlon Brando weaving the story of Caesar’s assassination. Do you want to win the argument? Tell a better story. A bloodied body helps. Of course, Brando has the advantage of Shakespeare, but who hasn’t been swayed by rhetoric as sharp and story-bound? The line will be short.
One story is that we are brutish, that we are only a few thousand years removed from a more animal existence, and we must acknowledge that former life and behave accordingly. Our inherent biology drives us to fuck and fight and eat (Paleo!). This kind of biological absolutism ignores that whatever we evolved from, we did evolve (if in fits and starts) and continue to evolve. We are, always, changing—from our guts to our brains. One startling aspect of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary is how it posits an almost lightning-like speed of change.
Another story is that we are imbued with goodness or holiness. Or that at least a few of us have been chosen for such rewards. Can I not unpack the problems of us/them either/or here or the tribalism that religious fervor unleashes? The moment any group names itself “Select,” all those who do not face immediate peril. When a supreme being is the source of authority and man (any man) wields the will of God (any God), then disagreement and diversity become less than second thoughts. Or, to quote Hume, “[O]ne party by tracing up government to the DEITY, endeavor to render it so sacred and inviolate that it must be little less than sacrilege, however tyrannical it may become, to touch or invade it in the smallest article.” What you call Sharia, I call Texas.
It may seem as if misanthropy is the only safe harbor once one heaves the contract away. Still, this afternoon, I joked with complete strangers about the title of Tiepolo’s Wealth and Benefits of the Spanish Monarchy under Charles III. Beautiful painting. Hilarious title. I asked a guard about the signs surrounding parts of Sarah Cain’s installation. Huge single-colored circular inserts into stone benches have signs exhorting, “Please do not sit or stand on the colored circles.” As if. The guard laughed about the kids who could not help themselves. My daughter gets embarrassed by my exchanges, but they keep me sane. Without an esprit de corps, life becomes too ponderous. We are all in this together.
We all know this, especially after the past year. The virus ignored all divisions: class, race, gender, religion. The virus—as viruses always have—leaped across boundaries as nimbly as a 9-year-old leaping over hopscotch squares. COVID could have (should have?) been an occasion for recognizing our togetherness. After all, viruses have happened before and will happen again. Calling it a name or blaming someone (an animal, a person, a city, a nation) ignores history and biology. Viruses don’t mean to do anything; they have neither will nor strategy. Like the lilies of the field, they neither reap nor toil. You cannot go to war with a virus. We tried. And on a war footing, we—and this “we” is a particularly American “we”— got angry—and not at life in general or some god, but at each other. Perhaps, in our relatively comfortable lives, we forget that life is hard, that living in the world requires work and alteration.
A friend texted me Sunday morning with news of his family’s encounter with COVID. His daughter’s classmate brought the virus to school from her infected parents, and you can guess the rest. My initial response was anger, disgust, relief, and commiseration. I am a parent, and I teach.
I understand why we want our kids in school. Students do better when energized by each other and by teachers. Teachers also get more from the verbal and nonverbal give and take of the classroom. But schools, private schools too, are confluences of race, class, gender, religion, and now, attitude. We now claim attitude (I don’t like masks. What?) as a fundamental right, which strains even the fictional social contract. The virus has no attitude and no philosophy. Take a lesson.
I began this essay by explaining my first encounter with Hobbes. One of the initial contracts I entered into was a student. Throughout my life, I was an enthusiastic student, save for a few unfortunate cases. I never took to Mr. Ewell in chemistry, and as much as astronomy holds a charm for me today, I failed Wulff Henitz’s class at Swarthmore. Otherwise, I chased rabbits down the deepest holes, and learning never felt like a chore. Call me crazy (or seriously misguided), but I expected my students to feel the same way. I quickly recognized that I would need to persuade many of my students to my way of thinking, and I did. I cajoled. I amused. I swam across desks to demonstrate the power of metaphor. I taught for 25 years at various levels and enjoyed much of the task. This past year, when the pandemic tore the school year to shreds and sent us to zoom screens, I felt as if the implicit contract between my students and me—in fact, most of the unspoken agreements between administrators and teachers and parents—got tossed in the shredder. Contract, my foot.
Teaching English has always been a matter of teaching about humans. Writers may care about structure and grammar, but what matters most is the human condition. As a writer, the only thing that matters is getting a fully human experience onto the page. When I write “fully human experience,” I mean one that grapples with our brightest gifts and most dreadful failings. We live our lives veering from one to the other in some vast internal and external landscape. Mountain ranges and inward seas. Admirable struggles await.
Several years ago, I worked as a principal at an Orthodox Jewish Boys’ School, a Yeshiva. One of the Rabbis called me “The Warden,” and at that moment, I knew my time at that helm was short. I do not blindly accept authority, even my own, and I know there is so much that I do not know, and this goads me on to learn more, think harder, and dig deeper into this loamy life. The Cuban writer Virgilio Piñera has a story about a man who devours a mountain. If I am going to do the impossible, I will need to focus my efforts. This work will not devour itself.
I have chosen my mountain, and my ocean, my desert, and my city. I will write about what I find there, but I am no longer interested in standing at some imaginary gate telling students they didn’t qualify—either for entrance or escape. Not to put too fine a point on it, I am absolutely not interested in being the warden. I will wrestle with existential “no’s” in my work—and the existential “yes’s.” Always the Yes! I choose to cheer in my life among the young. They have hills enough to chew (read the Piñera). That is my contract. For now.
A placard on the wall of Gallery 19 at the Smithsonian Asian Art Museum announces that thousands of bi were found at “elite burial sites” dating from the Liangzhu culture (3300-2300 BCE). They are jade: nephrite colored richly by strains of iron and other ores over millions of years. Craftsmen sliced the discs with string saws.
The bi are displayed face on—almost perfect circles. Suspended in midair, they appear perfect: several circular discs floating behind plexiglass enclosures. This is, in part, a trick of the eye; we see what we expect (or want) to see. Actually, their shapes vary. While definitely circular, many are lumpy or lopsided. A long look from the side shows even more irregularities—thicknesses vary, and some of the bi undulate like warped records.
Some of the bi have barely intelligible marks. The note on one display explains that markings were “extremely rare.” What does that mean? 1 out of 100? 1 out of 1000? The marked bi are neither more nor less perfect than the others.
Nowadays, we mark everything. Like it or not, we even leave a faint digital signature on what we wish to be anonymous. Mostly. At my school, we check drafts of student essays for plagiarism, and when they come back with unnamed and unnecessary sources, it is an embarrassment of unoriginality. 5000 years ago, anonymous discs went to the grave and into eternity. We have them now—disturbed from rest—because of a construction boom at the beginning of the previous century. They could have slept longer.
Not surprisingly—or entirely a surprise—we have few records of the Liangzhu Culture. Evidence of the once-thriving culture ends abruptly. The people who lived in the region around Lake Tai seem to have disappeared. We don’t know why. We know that they thrived primarily because we discovered their funerary deposits: jade bi for the rich and pottery for the others. We build an idea of their lives on what they took to death.
We do not know why they prized their bi. Nor why a few of the bi have marks.
We do not know. Those words can feel intractable, like a dead end. Or like a challenge, a kind of epistemological “try harder.” But how can you know what you cannot know?
We coined the word “Kafkaesque” to describe the nightmarish world circumscribed by a bureaucracy of the soul. Franz Kafka, who repeatedly depicted such a world in his fiction, also told us how to escape. In his short story “An Imperial Message,” the emperor is dying. Before he dies, he sends a message for you. Sadly, or predictably, his messenger cannot get it to you. This is genuinely Kafkaesque—the emperor is at the center of a thicket of throne rooms, attendants, imperial bureaucrats, and cities within cities. Even though he is the emperor and his messenger bears the imprimatur of the emperor, the message will never arrive. However the story ends, “Du aber sitzt an deinem Fenster und erträumst sie dir, wenn der Abend kommt.” (Roughly, “But you sit at your window and dream it to yourself when evening comes.”).
Of course, the emperor is god—something or someone with absolute power. Except, once enthroned, the emperor’s power is circumscribed, in no small part by the same apparatuses of the power he wields. How often do we mistake the apparatus for the thing, imbuing that which is meant to do little more than act for or transmit with more? How often do we mistake laws for actual authority? We create limits (I can, or I can’t) because we cede control—and the attendant responsibility. Our current idea of self-authorized action is little more than lust and gluttony on steroids; to be the emperor, we must grapple with the full repercussions of having authority (read Shakespeare for a full gloss on the weight of the crown).
But, in Kafka, a dream cuts to the quick. You already know the message. You are the emperor.
In our dreams, we build worlds. A few nights ago, I dreamed of traffic patterns, and police, and cul de sacs. There were merge lanes and scofflaws who drove on the shoulder. I was looking for a purple Jeep. I didn’t make any effort; the world bloomed in my mind—a mind profoundly(and subconsciously) at work. So must it be as we sit by the window (a liminal space) in the evening (another liminal space). Dreams are no time for laziness but a bursting forth of our full power.
If I want to know what I cannot know, then I must dream.
We have found thousands of bi. Each one cut from a long round piece of jade. I wrote “craftsmen” earlier, but how did this not become domestic work—foisted, as much domestic work is, on women? Or children? I think of the scene from Parasite when the family folds pizza boxes. Instead of sewing circles, sawing circles. Who did the repetitive work that wore down fingers, hands, and arms for hours at a time? Not a crew of slaves hoisting blocks into pyramids alongside the Nile, but an army of hands slowing sawing through stone.
Does this mean that the Liangzhu people had slaves? I don’t know, but I think about the tech factories outfitted with nets so that the workers do not find relief from their toil. Bone crushing construction or endless hours of grunting agriculture? Slaves, over and over again. Did they sing while they sawed? I try to imagine songs that keep to that frantic beat. Did they race each other to cut their slice first? We compete everywhere. Why not? Imagine a John Henry of the Neolithic Yangtze River delta, whipping a string bereft of crushed quartz through jade as if it was mashed rice paste.
We know that they did not speak Chinese. We know (from genetic analysis of remains) that they shared genes with Austronesian and Tai-Kadai people. But what we don’t know renders what we know into little more than conjecture and guess. Our knowledge is imperfect. In the same way that the bi have imperfect shapes and imperfect history, our understanding is imperfect. The message—the truth—is never coming from the emperor. All we can do is imagine.
More often than we would like to admit, we straddle the worlds of the known and not-known. We lead essentially liminal lives—caught between knowing and not-knowing. Too often, we trade hard-won ignorance (the awareness that as hard as we try—and we must try—our effort will not provide a satisfyingly clear answer) for arrogant correctness. We cannot admit that we do not know. We have a mechanical reflex against unpredictability—whether we read the past, present, or future. We value prediction over genuine discovery. “I was right!” supplants “I found out!”
If we are going to model reading on dreaming, part of the task is to recognize that we are out of control. We will predict—it’s what we do—but surprise will derail our predictions. Surprise is an error message in the infinitely predicting machine of our brains. However, if we substitute rigid certainty for precise and imaginative uncertainty, our interpretations will fail even if they are clear.
I’m going to make a leap here. Reading is prediction directed to the past; the words are already written. Even though it is past, we still try to fit what we read into models of everything else we have read. When my students assert, “I can relate to X, Y, or Z,” what they are saying is, “This fits with a model that I already know.” And those of us who teach know the living hell of relatability. Anything outside that narrow ravine threatens to stop the students in their tracks—already when they are 16. Earlier.
In the same way, when we encounter new situations, when a circumstance calls on us to genuinely predict, we predict following models we already know. It is nearly impossible to get someone to predict beyond what they expect to happen beyond the known. Happily, most things in our lives adhere to patterns. Until they don’t. Fortunately, most of us are not making predictions that will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, but some are, and they fall prey to the same internal mechanisms. The results are too often catastrophic.
So, how do we avoid the quotidian and useful process of prediction? How do we read the exceptional? How do we incorporate the genuinely new and surprising into our homeostatically driven lives?
When I look at the bi, I can guess (which is not to say that I take incoherent swipes at possibilities) at their significance, but I realize that even my best guesses are circumscribed by the limits of my experience. I know there is something that I do not know, and I realize that ignorance will stymie me over and over. I return to the bi to marvel at them and to marvel at my ignorance. They remind me that despite my reasonably well-trained intelligence, that something as simple and elegant as a jade disc will remain out of bounds. I experience hubris in the face of the unknown. This drives me to consider the undiscovered countries. And consider them I must.
How then do we confront systems that are quantitatively more complex? We try to bridle wild horses (mistaking tigers for horses—they both have four legs!) with prediction and end up eaten. Our imaginations must be more thoroughly engaged.
When Kafka exhorts us to “erträumen,” I do not believe he is suggesting anything passive, or for that matter, lazy. The truth is like a message from the emperor. When we dream that message to ourselves, when we imagine it, our imagination must be fully engaged because it is not as simple as a dream for snack cakes or even a dream of bedding a fantasy partner. Truth may be a dream, but it is, fortunately, a demanding and difficult dream. But if we do not dream the big dream, our thoughts will be confined to the palace’s myriad chambers and infinite passageways. Our imagination will take us to a place we do not yet know.
We all dream, and so the experience is not uncommon. We fly, we fuck, we fall. Jungians and archetypalists of all sorts would normalize and defragment the conspicuously bad writing in dreams to give them viable and understandable meaning. Last night—in the morning, really, when I cadged an extra hour of sleep after my alarm gently nudged me—I dreamed about lifting weights. The gym—a fancy place with magnetically attaching plates—did not have—or rather, did not seem to have—bars long enough for bench presses. I had to go outside—in the dark, behind what appeared to be a dock or loading bay—to find the six-foot-long, forty-five-pound bars. Then I put plates on the bar, started lifting, and the weights felt light. I told my friend, Brian (yes, I have a friend who shares my name), who was spotting me, to stop helping me. I was covered in sheets. The word that came to mind was “shroud,” and it was getting in the way. I needed to take it off. Then I woke up.
Yes, this dream is poorly written—a shroud? Really? Concelo ex machina. I remember thinking, “Get this fucking thing off me!” Yes, I curse as much in my dreams as in real life. Obvious, clunky, and weird.
I forgot to mention that the gym was in a hotel in Marseilles. My mind populated the rain-wet streets with a raft of people of different nationalities, all drawn to the port city—a city that is liminal in real life and not just my dreams. I heard them speaking French, Spanish, Arabic, and Farsi and knew that I could not communicate with them even as I heard them. They would not be able to tell me where to go—where the weights were—even if they knew.
There isn’t a book (or website, or Reddit thread) that will provide a definitive interpretation of a dream because there isn’t one. Even our own dreams unravel without narrative coherence or discernible significance. And they are our own dreams! Who better than the dreamer to make sense of the image soup that our brains simmer in the night? Besides, they almost always end with “And then I woke up.” So we rarely encounter a well-orchestrated climax and satisfying denouement.
Imagine, for a moment, treating what we read as if they were dreams. What if, instead of artistic unities, we sought to immerse ourselves the same way we are immersed in dreams. “Why not like life?” you ask. We exert—or attempt to exert—control over life. The homeostatic drive irons out all that is strange or random or, well, dream-like. In dreams, even for the lucid dreamer, there is an element of the unexpected. The joy (jouissance?) of dreams comes in their unpredictability. When else in life do we forsake prediction for sheer experience?
I struggled to teach my advanced students how to “read like a professor” because they sought to corral meaning. What they read needed to reflect their experiences or interests. But then, I also struggled with my professors and grad school colleagues, who also harnessed what they read to suit their beliefs. Few readers meet the work and let themselves alter when they alteration find. We have a terribly hard time meeting the wild with our own wildness. Besides, surprise, the harbinger of change, runs counter to how our brains process information. Brains—by design—seek to match what happens with deeply rooted predictions. We predict and demand that the world conforms to our predictions. I am drawing on the work of Mark Solms for this.
What if, instead, we read literature like reading a dream?
First, we must know the dreamer better—or, at the very least, recognize that the dream comes from a profoundly intimate and personal space that is entirely subjective and therefore unqualifiable compared to our lived experience. While there may be correspondences with our dreams, relying on what we know of ourselves will lead not so much to a misinterpretation as a “mis-experience” of the dream. While holding up a mirror to ourselves is absolutely enchanting (and even, at times, essential), it becomes a solipsistic activity when left unleavened by a deep understanding of the dreamer.
Second, just as dreams surprise us, we need to be astounded by what we read. Even if we are reading a novel in a class on post-colonialism, even if the novel makes straightforward claims about the post-colonial world, reading it only as an exemplar will circumscribe the work’s overall effect. It will remove the dreaminess of the work, and in that dream, there may be more (or less) about post-colonialism than we imagined at first. Pardon me while I carry this a step forward; we cannot colonize dreams with reason.
The same way that an out-of-place detail (that shroud!) opens up ways of understanding a dream, it is precisely literature’s ability to flash incongruous elements into being—not only as counterpoint but as mawing gaps in the well-knit Markov blankets of perception. We are lulled into a kind of affirmative satisfaction when pleasantly predictable patterns repeat. The surprises, the mistakes, and the interruptions all unravel the carefully constructed conceptions leaving what? A mad scramble to reweave—midnight (or midmorning) Penelopes trying to stay one step ahead of the rapacious reason-making suitors.
Dreams are strange, and most writing is not. Most writing belies its transactional origins. It keeps accounts, documents ownership, concretizes agreements, or dissolves partnerships. Most writing is officious and tedious. Dreams are not. Granted, we may feel that another person’s accounts of their nighttime rambles are inexplicable and therefore of little interest to us. Still, compared to a bill of sale or divorce decrees, they are candyfloss. The harder bone to chew is that we are primarily transactional beings. Writing reflects our need to organize and regiment experience to a suitable and predictable medium.
Dreams are a rebellion in our brains. While we spend our days demanding sense, dreams help settle a more extraordinary account—that of strangeness and unpredictability. Literature is a semi-intentional settling of accounts. It balances the need for predictable and measurable outcomes with the unsettled and unreliable aspects of existence. And if you make sense of last night’s dream, there is more confusion ahead. Why not court confusion and read to dissent with all common sense?
I go back to Mrs. Dalloway and how Septimus Smith’s death made Clarissa “feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.” Few moments feel as gloriously incongruous as that—as disruptive and necessarily reframing. You cannot read Mrs. Dalloway the same after that moment, and if you are a serious reader, you better start all over again. I will suggest that almost all works of literature have such moments—or several such moments—that just don’t fit. Or completely fit. Each one shatters the pattern and forces the reader to reconsider and reconceive.
There’s a reason that we do not experience reality the same way we experience dreams. It is impossible to have the world perpetually exploded and rearranged out of order. I may seem to critique how we live when I make claims about our essentially transactional natures; I am not. But I see the tension between the drive and indefatigable desire for predictable outcomes and the violently unpredictable nature of complex systems. Reading literature is not a way to practice making sense but of recognizing the failure of making sense. We must need to constantly reassess, and recognize that even in a world that we have (subconsciously) organized (that cleanly appointed gym in a hotel in Marseilles) that there are twists and turns ahead. We need to learn that the world is more unpredictable, more incongruous than we would like. As are we.
The year came and went. After having change imposed on me, all I could think of was, what could I change? What would match the upheavals of the past fifteen months? The pandemic, my mother’s death, the next round of the pandemic, my school’s response to the pandemic, the election, the pandemic, the insurrection. It felt as all I did amounted to little more than defensive maneuvers: wearing a mask, cleaning my mother’s house, writing words for her service, eating outside, voting, reading the news, and charting the waves, eating outside in cold weather, wearing two masks. All I could do was persist.
I hate “persist.” Fuck resilience.
And yet, I love to persist—to take the helm in a storm. But to go! To have a destination and a challenge in mind, and then to pursue it heroically. Listening to The Iliad (because what else does one do when one needs to be reminded of heroic persistence?), I am struck by the grinding effort of warfare, even heroic warfare. In among the shining moments of triumph, Ajax sweats. Idomeneus is wounded and then returns to battle. Achilles waits. Before we witness his mastery of battle, he is a master of brooding. A friend said, “But he’s a god.” He is the son of a god, but many sons of gods perish at Troy. War does not distinguish—or it did not.
Over the past two years, I have learned the value of persisting at my work. This does not mean learning to put up with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or the stupid requirements of the day—of all the other things I must do. This year, everything that took away from that work became anathema. Returning to the slog and joy of persistent daily writing has reminded me that anything else is not enough. While I am willing to work and commit to the project, I also need to throw overboard everything—and everyone—who does not contribute to my journey.
After all, writing is work. It isn’t something I do to make me feel better. I listened to a young man who said that his writing “picked up during the pandemic” that it helped bond him to his friends. These posts try to reveal some of the bones and muscles and nerves of the writing animal. And while I may feel connected to some of you when I write them, I am still at work. I may not sweat as much as Ajax, nonetheless I aspire.
One of the clichés about writing is that it comes from inspiration. We focus on art and the ineffable merits of vision. Yes, some writers are more talented than others and have a scope and art that exceeds all others. If you don’t have a list of 10, or 100, then you haven’t really thought about the problem and challenge of excellence. It’s a worthwhile list to make, so long as you don’t turn that list into a wall or a fortress. Walled cities do fall, but the casualties are as numerous as specks of dust in the air. You would die counting them.
What sets most writers apart isn’t vision. Writers write. Yes, Harper Lee goes silent after her one great book, and after a flurry, so does Salinger. Dickens, Woolf, Rushdie, Mahfouz, Kawabata, Austen, Eliot, Morrison. Or consider Rowling, King, Grisham, Steel, Gabaldon—writers whose books edge others off the shelves in bookstores. If there is inspiration, then it is the inspiration to sit down (or stand up) and write. Success—often determined in monetary terms—helps fan that inspiration (You like me! You really like me!), but chances are that those writers already established a habit, a ritual, or, more likely, a regimen. They worked, and the work was their inspiration.
I have the natural bent to slog but have lacked the discrimination to choose the slog that best suited me. It is so easy to fall into work that offers something like a reasonable remuneration. Except no amount—neither how little nor large—is enough to satisfy. I am reminded of the psychology experiment in which a rat is rewarded for performing a task—pressing a lever. The rat that received a reward each time it completed the task stopped; fat and happy rats will not work. The rat that received no reward gave up quickly. No shock there. However, the rat that received rare and random rewards pressed the lever feverishly. I have been that rat. Give me a task—any task—and watch me work for unpredictable and unsustainable reward.
When I began writing in earnest three years ago, after a hiatus driven by all manner of tasks (worthy, meaningful tasks, I should add)—I knew that I was fighting against the idiot rat. Or that I was in the wrong experiment. Because I do not expect the rewards to be anything other than rare and random: someone from Senegal read my blog post; an agent sent a complimentary rejection; the audience at a reading sat enraptured and gasped in unison at the right place. There are moments when, after putting words on the page that I raise my arms in triumph. I delight myself, which is, fortunately, neither a rare or random occurrence.
And I am not a rat. Neither am I an ape nor a proto-human. While those instincts and drives may be part of the first draft of my evolving consciousness, evolution has provided me with a brain that can reflect. My brain (and yours) produces an inner voice that can guide me out of danger or deep-seated dissatisfaction. So, back to resilience—while I can persist or, even better, thrive in less than ideal circumstances, I can see that if those circumstances can be changed, I can change them. I can rewrite the early draft of my life.
The challenge for the late writer is that unlike Dickens or Woolf or take your pick, I do not have habits so ingrained that an explosive event—or a persistent eroding series of nonproductive events—will not affect them. And so, I must make a way forward that limits time spent elsewhere. I have lessons—the Sailing Lessons included—for how to plot my course. I have completed my practice sails. It is time to go, leave this year behind, and count the words as they tumble down.
I got chickenpox, mumps, and measles. I had my tonsils out—an operation that required an overnight stay –when I was in 3rd grade because they had been the source of repeated infections. I bounced through cases of flu and other passing illnesses. Years later, I had mononucleosis during the first semester of college. Nothing keeps us from bumping into some microscopic problem. And forget about the web of mysteriously genetic and environmental causes that lead to Parkinson’s Disease or Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma—the two illnesses that plagued my parents—but that was on the distant horizon.
I read Alistair MacLean’s novel The Satan Bug—in which a mutant virus threatens to wipe out humanity—in the 7th grade. In a world that lived under the menace of nuclear war, a biological threat was quieter and almost less tangible, and therefore more insidious. I traced these threats through films and books like The Andromeda Strain,Pursuit, and Rage. Even Close Encounters of the Third Kind used the possibility of a gas or disease outbreak to move the plot along. The insidious unseen nature of these gaseous or microscopic adversaries held my interest.
In my 20s, the HIV-AIDS epidemic galvanized my attention. How could it not? The emergence of a disease that would kill you after sexual intimacy staggered all of us who enjoyed the freedom afforded by birth control and an unshackled moral climate. We felt screwed (and not).
Whether fear or mordant curiosity drove me, I began to study viruses and epidemics with fury. The sudden spread of hemorrhagic fevers that Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) and Laurie Garrett (The Coming Plague) wrote about exacerbated my concern. It was impossible to moralize about what was coming—this wasn’t about sex. Deadly diseases lurked. Diseases have always been half a hair away. In Norfolk, a small park memorializes those who died during an outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1855. I lived a block away.
Still, in my 30s, I read Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. And then, almost by accident, stumbled on reports of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918. I read Alfred W. Crosby’s America’s Forgotten Pandemic at some point in the late ’90s and then John Barry’s The Great Influenza when it came out in 2004. How could it be that we all knew about the Great War, but not the pandemic that occurred at the same time? We know about this now; Barry’s book made it to the bestseller list in 2020, but the memory of the pandemic faded in popular culture. I was surprised this past year when I realized that Mr. Gower’s son dies of influenza in It’s a Wonderful Life; it was the Spanish Flu. Where else was the pandemic?
So when COVID emerged in the winter of 2020, I was not surprised. After all, SARS and MERS had already flourished in their own specific ways. When it became clear that this would be more serious, I bought masks as soon as possible, kept my distance, washed my hands even more assiduously than usual, and settled in for the count. History provided stern warnings; I knew that a count—of cases and deaths—was coming.
We like to predict what will happen, and strangely enough, we tend to think that the future is unwritten. It is, and yet, for a good indication, look to the past. This is true whether you want to know what the weather will be like on May 14th or if there will be traffic on I-95 tomorrow morning. Yes, there are exceptions and random occurrences that will skew the numbers, but the past is all too reliable a guide. Fifty Million people have not died from COVID as died in the last great pandemic, nor have half a billion people contracted the disease. But our imagination does not need to stretch far to encompass those numbers. 675,000 United States citizens died in the influenza pandemic; that number is all too close to where we are headed this year. Yes, the population was smaller in 1918-19, but did anyone expect this to happen?
Over the past year, I gobbled down the numbers. I felt a strange intoxication with having a sense of where things were headed and seeing them move, painfully, sadly in that direction. Anthony Fauci, and most of the medical community, played Cassandra to a population that wished for another outcome. As if wishing could make it so. But what good did it do to know? What effect did my knowing have on anyone other than me? The numbers were a despairing gruel that neither nourished nor encouraged me. I had to wait them out. Eventually, I stopped reloading the numbers every hour and settled on the grim results that appeared each morning in the New York Times.
So what’s the point? Partly this: when you see it coming, get ready: hurricane, pandemic, or whatever is on the horizon of time and place. Get ready before you see it. You have been sick before; people have been sick around you. We should have known better, and our ignorance cost lives. The obvious is always right there. Yes, while knowledge can be overwhelming, there must be a sweet spot: enough information to teach us and lead us into productive discomfort without flooding us into anxious inaction The only way we learn is by exposure.
But there’s something more.
There must be a reason that the pandemic of 1918-19 disappeared from memory. Why and what do we forget? We forget, or remember selectively, and not just about events like pandemics. I’m not aiming at what we don’t retain. As a teacher, I am too aware that students do not retain everything. I wonder why do we forget some things and not others? This is not a reflection just on this pandemic or the last or the run of diseases. What else have I forgotten? I scramble to instill new habits and new awarenesses or avoid falling down the well of past practices. To borrow from Robert Creely, “[w]hat am I to myself that must be remembered, insisted upon so often”? But more, what have I failed to remember and insist upon?
We resume the remembered rhythms of our lives and return to our old habits and anxieties as if they were never interrupted. Repetition has essential gravity and draws us back. Except sometimes some things should interrupt us. The persistent nudge of discomfort—that we do have something new to learn and some new way to behave—should goad us onto a new course. Except, we stay the course and return to the known, even if it is a life half-lived.
I can (and I suspect that I will) point to the world and shout, “J’accuse! You forgot!” I shout at myself. I must insist that I remember—or that I remember to insist. I write in the face of forgetting, in the face, to borrow once more from Creely, of “the tiredness, the fatuousness, [and] the semi-lust of intentional indifference.” I must return to the hard work of insistence.
I grew up reading the news. We did not watch it in my house; my mother felt that the news, which included reporting from Vietnam, was too ugly (her word) for her sons. Keep in mind, this was the same mother who read Edgar Allan Poe to us at bedtime. However, my father brought home the Philadelphia Bulletin every night—back when the Bulletin was Philadelphia’s evening newspaper. He also had Time magazine delivered weekly, and my brothers’ names were often on the subscription. Whether my father was honoring us or getting a new subscriber’s bonus, who knows? I read both.
Later in life, I listened to Philadelphia’s all-news radio station KYW-1060 and grew inured to the rhythm of repeated stories. If they were updated over the course of hours, I noticed. Even later, when I was a night owl, I would slot in my 35 cents for a freshly delivered morning paper. A newspaper and breakfast before bed was near to heaven.
Cable news in its early iteration varied little from the repeated scroll of radio news. That was no matter in Philadelphia, which delayed the spread of cable TV until I was on my way to grad school and other obsessions. Nowadays, whatever used to be journalism has faded out of reportage to be replaced by a carnival barker’s promotion of something like the news. Reporting is more about the changing opinions than the changing facts. The internet does better, providing repeated updates of the day’s events: everything from the stock market to an ambassador arriving in Bahgdad to a 3-2 count on a hitter in the fourth inning of a baseball game in Seattle. Information pours out. At first, it came through the box on my desk, but then it glimmered miraculously from my phone. I pay attention.
I get obsessive. I chase the news with the same intensity that I once chased down sources in the library. And worse. I sit as rapt as I had when I churned through drafts of stories until 7 o’clock in the morning—if I slept at all.
I recognize that I had fallen into the trap that Henry David Thoreau noted back in 1854 when he claimed that “[h]ardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ as if the rest of mankind had stood his sentinels.” I felt that if I knew, then I could be one of life’s sentinels. On guard, on the post, always. There was no radio, no television, and no internet, and still, he bemoaned the obsession with “news.” Go figure, our national illness.
I tried to know everything. When my family gathered, we were all expected to hold forth on any topic of the day: popular music, politics, foreign affairs, movies, the weather. Our knowledge was expected to be sweeping and insightful. I could not understand people who did not consume—and comment on—news as we did. My father spent hours wringing information from the Wall Street Journal and passed that fervor onto his sons. My mother, despite herself, had some news station, finally settling on NPR, blaring in the background.
It was too much. This past year’s perpetual blast of breaking news—the fires, the politics, the case numbers—drove me to distraction. And I realized that I had been distracted for years. I don’t believe that “ [a]s for Spain, for instance, if you know how to throw in Don Carlos and the Infanta, and Don Pedro and Seville and Granada, from time to time in the right proportions… it will be true to the letter, and give us as good an idea of the exact state or ruin of things in Spain.” While there are recognizable patterns to history—and history’s first draft—the distinguishable differences are meaningful and worth noticing. And yet, the news can pile up.
Thoreau was on to something, if only that our drive to know masks another deficit: a feeling that life is out of our control. Information is the salve to uncertainty, but it’s snake oil, especially when opinion is disguised as fact.
Writing, for all my appreciation of the uncertainty, is about control. At the very least, and perhaps the very most, I control when I write and that I write. As for the what, well, I take a gentle hand, relying on surprise and a fair amount of chance. Yet, I am aware that no writer, short of a few Dadaists, Postmodernists, or Pornographers, slaps words on the page and waves, “Voila!” I avoid Prufrock’s “hundred visions and revisions”; I don’t have time for such nonsense. The work needs to be done.
During the first draft, I write to discover—just as I listen to the news to find out what is happening in the world. I research my subject the same way I study how the new vaccines work. I have learned (painfully and too slowly) that I must write to the point where I do not know what will happen next; there must be surprises. I go back, organize the words, and develop the surprises, letting them, and not all my preplanned ideas, serve as guides. The writing must be out of control for me to find control. Otherwise, it all falls flat. That was not an easy lesson. No one can stand that—not the reader and not the writer. Not this writer.
This past year, while everything felt out of control: the fires in Australia, the pandemic, my mother, the election, and its aftermath, I charged back into the news. Did knowing all about it help me? Maybe. But knowing got in the way of the creative uncertainty that I needed to engage. I have spent years wielding some kind of authority, and like it or not, that has been the death of my creative life. I do not know how other writers do it. So, for now, I am backing away from the news, cutting the cable, and heading back into the unknown.
Emily Dickinson writes about the “Route of Evanescence”—the road of fleeting possibility. Take her advice. This way can be daunting, especially for someone who likes—no, loves to know. You too write to be in control, except, finally, we are not. But the route Dickinson so briefly and beautifully delineates is one way to uncover the mysteries that wait: “Some mail from Tunis, soon.” So must it be. The unknown and fleeting. Get there.