Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Jonah is Crusoe - or - a whale is an island that moves. This seems pretty obvious to me. But what about the opposite? An island is a sleeping whale...

Among the many, many beauties of fourth grade, the myth of Pangaea was perhaps the most startling to me. To think that the ground I was standing on, which felt so stable and hurt so much when I fell on it, was really just a hat in a swimming pool! I was crushed.

And yet: one of the great things about disasters is that they spur us into counter-movements. Currents don't just sweep away islands - they create them. Something gets stuck, like sand in an oyster, and then from that resistance a larger dream begins to happen, slowly at first, but then bigger and bigger, until finally the pearl has achieved an existence that turns the surrounding water into a sort of background.

A sentence is also an island, insofar as it is an agglutination of something (meaning) in a current of something else (language). And sometimes you can feel this happening. In the first paragraph of "Voice from the Chorus," for example, by the great Russian Crusoe, Andrei Sinyavsky:

"... a book which goes backwards and forwards, advances and retreats, sometimes moves close to the reader and at other times runs away from him and flows like a river through new countries, so that we sail along, the head starts to whirl from the sheer abundance of impressions, even though everything passes slowly enough before our eyes, allowing us to view it at leisure and then watch it till it drops out of sight; a book which has a number of themes but only one trunk, and grows like a tree, embracing space with the totality of its leaves and air, and - in the manner of the lungs which have the shape of an inverted tree - breathes by expanding almost infinitely, only to contract again down to a small point; a book whose meaning is as inscrutable as the soul in its innermost kernel."

Reading this is like spending a day at the beach: drive home, stop for soft serve, watch a movie, go to bed - and then just as your head hits the pillow feel that identical movement, revelation of your own  sea, which has caught and translated that movement without even realizing it. Language at that point is the tree that blooms - not outside us, but inside (echoes of Tarkovsky, that other imagistic border crossing, with his cathedrals full of snow).

I don't know how to write like this, but I think it must have something to do with trying to make language follow thought - or rather, to make language and thought follow one another, so that language darts ahead and says something and then thought thinks about what language has said, and then language says something about what thought has thought, over and over again until you have is a record of passage that you can go back over and pick apart and even participate in yourself (a generous idea, sure, but then what is this kind of writing but a sort of confidence - a "putting faith in the reader," a la Bachelard or Kiarostami or Mandelstam).

I don't know how to write like this. I certainly don't know how to live like this. But I dream about this kind of writing, the way that Sinyavsky in his prison cell must have dreamed of his magical book. And then isn't this another piece of optimism: that in dreaming a book we create it, as we create a reader ? Of course, and yet how else (and yet, and yet: "My blood was full of them/My brain bred islands." - Elizabeth Bishop, "Crusoe in England")? How are you supposed to resist the current and draw from it at the same time?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Ghosts and Machines

One of my favorite party stunts is to corner unsuspecting guests and "explain" the 1980s cult classic Goonies to them. In order to do this, you need to start with One-Eyed Willy, the main synechdoche of whom in the movie is a penis-shaped key that our hero and future Samwise Gamgee finds in his parents' attic, and then carries around with him through the long, dark, moist, weedy and dangerous tunnels that apparently exist under most pacific northwestern small towns. Queue the comically-repressing family of matriarch and mama-whipped sons; queue underground misunderstandings that occasionally end in a kiss. Queue most importantly Sloth, whose forehead is about as phallic as foreheads come outside of the Star Trek universe, and whose homosocial bravura leads to one of the greatest metaphor for pre-teen orgasm ever put to film: a fully rigged Spanish galleon exploding out of the side of a mountain...At which point whomever I'm talking to has probably started inching slowly towards the door.

Jon Negroni's Pixar Theory is superior to mine in every way; it is also different, in that it does not try to find a meaning behind the details, characters and events in the Pixar universe. On the contrary, one of the most fascinating things about Negroni's theory (to me at least) is how it continually, almost perversely resists this drive. In this way it is both perfect, and strangely innocent - like a reading of the New Testament that traces every use of fish imagery, but without asking itself why fish might have mattered to Jesus, or the writer of the New Testament, or even us.

The next logical step for someone delighted by something like this would naturally be to ask "But why?" - except, of course, that the question has already been answered, by the delight. "Only connect," said Forrester; but what was an ethics in the early 20th century becomes, in the 21st, something both more and less. A pragmatics, let's say, meaning a way to do things: connect this to that and you will receive pleasure. And because pleasure is itself an end, don't worry about thinking about why you're doing what you're doing.

God knows this is not a criticism. Okay, that's not true: it is a criticism. Finishing Negroni's article, I found myself scrolling down, down, searching for that last cathartic paragraph that explained why the connectedness of a particular aesthetic world should interest me. Because it reflects and "proves" (the only way art proves anything) the connectedness of the actual world? Or because it shows us how shrewdly Pixar (following, let's see, Marvel, Nintendo, Lucasfilm, and pretty much every other genius popular behemoth of the last twenty years) has learned to manipulate and extend our innately human desire to join discreet entities into superbeings? Or maybe the meaning is "love", which Negroni mentions with an audacity that reminds me of Simone Weil's "The Iliad as a Poem of Force", but which also emits the kitschy sproing of flowers pulled from a magician's hat.

Well, every physics both rejects and implicitly provokes a metaphysics, which is why I find myself thinking above all, as I read this piece, about Negroni's three suggestive categories: monsters, animals, and machines. Suggestive, as in "hey, that's cool that the many different characters that we see in these different movies can really be reduced to three basic categories, which makes me think that the universe is not just ordered but basically understandable. So, by reading about these categories I must be on my way to understanding something, right?"

The German writer Heinrich Kleist has this ur-text about marionettes, much cited but still very useful. It is, to my mind at least, essentially an essay about mastery and innocence - more specifically, about the way that an art that has become bored of its own ability has to then discover or manufacture a new set of limitations, a new way to be bad. In other words, art is not a matter of being objectively awesome of something - it's a matter of creating a theater in which people can watch you going from "no way" to "wow!" - of turning the grass of adversity (reality, as Goethe said, or "That which resists us") into the hay of art. Puppets are great at this, since what we love when we watch a puppet show (or - and here we come to the germane aspect of the article - a cartoon, a piece of artistic technology) is the way that puppeteers make this clumsy little doll remind us of something real - even, if the artist is very good, of ourselves.

Pixar has always been good at this, as you might expect of a company that essentially based its appeal on overcoming something people thought could never be overcome - that is, the limits inherent in using computers (the most artificial tool around) to try and depict the natural world (presumably, the most real thing one can dry and represent). People probably don't remember this, but the question of realism is one that the studio grappled with from its very beginnings. Sure, they could figure things out quickly, but how could machines create a realistic leaf, or more importantly capture that je ne sais quoi of realistic movement that a hand-drawing animator could? The assumption - the dogma, really - was that they couldn't. There was no way. Art was something that only the human hand could make. Reality was our province, ours to imitate and evoke.

Except that, lo and behold, the copying of the real world turned out to be exactly what Pixar was best at. First there was Woody (so close to an actual marionette that the Kleist estate probably should have sued); then water; then Sully's fur; then superheroes; then red hair, and so on. Each movie a Columbus-level rediscovery of reality in this medium that was supposed to be so cold but turned out to be, mysteriously, full of exactly the "love" that Negroni ascribes to it. The power to connect things, in other words, be they monster, animal, or machine - to make them all, essentially, look like us. So that dearest human emotion turns out to be, not generosity, but defense: a desire to domesticate and humanize the strange, inanimate, or bestial world. A desire so powerful that, so far at least, nothing has been able to resist it.

The one exception to this has turned out to be us, of course. Humans are notoriously tricky to make look real - to "render," as the terminology has it. Which is why I think both we and Pixar itself need Negroni's categories. An alibi-seeking species, we disguise our rapacious hunger for reality under myths of the status-quo: the world is all alive, a giant living room, and best of all it loves us back. Love, the Pixar kind of love at least, is beautiful. It is also powerful - so powerful a technology in fact that it can make everything, from the monsters under our bed to a streetlight to an ant, into something that reminds us of ourselves.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Fattest Armor

Skinny poets last forever, but fat poets last only as long as the world  - just ask Joseph Brodsky. With his blue eyes and impeccable deadpan (which sounds in Russian like nothing else but in English like John Shade) he did not invent, but almost certainly did extend the role of the poet as tourist.

Poets have always been tourists, of course, but Brodsky made the pose cool or rather interesting: productive, at least of poetry. His best poems are basically just him walking around looking at stuff, and his best lines a combination of super-retweetable aphorisms and typically Russian mini-conversations with things that most people would assume to be voiceless - things like salt-shakers, picnic tables, beaches. Here, for example, from Lullaby of Cape Cod:

"A giant clock on a brick tower
rattles its scissors. The face is drenched with sweat.
The streetlamps glisten in the stifling weather,
formally spaced,
like white shirt buttons open to the waist."

(translation by Anthony Hecht and probably Brodsky himself too - see Daniel Weissbort's whiny but illuminating journal of a translator, From Russia with Love)

Now maybe it's the summer, which is after all a great season for walking around and looking at things, and then kind of transforming those things into other things or just picking them up and putting them in your pocket, but I love this kind of stuff. It's the Euro of poetry: a terminally uncool super-currency that lacks in specifics but nonetheless opens everything up, at least for a little while. Its ethics are pragmatic, which is boring but at least honest: what it promises is that everything can be interesting, the same way that the American Dream promises that everyone can be rich. I have a sense that it is doomed, not just because its various CEOs (some of my favorites: Derek Walcott, Les Murray, Seamus Heaney) have strip-mined their sources, but because there is a point where plentitude itself becomes a ponzi scheme and we have to blow the whole thing up. Why do we have to blow the whole thing up? I don't know. Maybe because you can only offer band-aids for so long until people start wanting a Rimbaud to come in and reinvent the universe. Maybe because we just have to.


As a Petersburger, meaning as a native of a city that was created, Brodsky had an intuitive grasp of apocalype. Things had a beginning, and we can remember that beginning therefore they would have an end, and we will see it. Here he is talking to Solomon Volkov:

"Once Susan Sontag said that a person's first reaction in the face of a catastrophe is basically to ask, 'Where did the mistake occur here? What should have been done to take this situation in hand? So that it doesn't happen again?' But there is another, alternate behavior, she says: to let the tragedy steamroll you, to let it crush you. As the Poles say, 'to lie down under it.' If you ever do manage to get back on your feet after that, then you rise up a different person. The phoenix principle, if you like." (Conversations with Joseph Brodsky, p. 45)

Brodsky's calm in the face of disaster helps explain his fatness, I think - explain and excuse it, since there's a subtle but important difference between Nero fiddling and the Wandering Jew. Both men know they're going down, both are slightly detached from the disaster going on around/within them; but the WJ has his eyes open. He understands himself as a witness, and the particular end really just one more version of a thing that has been happening over and over again, as it should. Recently I was arguing with a couple of Russian friends about this. I said that the same thing happened in the US, and that if you squinted you could still see the blue and grey uniforms on TV commentators and supreme court justices - but Svetlana stuck a finger down into the air between us as it were a gigantic cauldron she was stirring. History for Americans moves around, but up too, she said. A spiral. But in Russia it is only round and round.

One good thing about being strapped to a wheel of course is that it allows you to shake hands with your predecessors - in Brodsky's case, with the great amor fatist Alexander Pushkin. For me, Pushkin is the key to Brodsky - not to understanding him (Brodsky is not the kind of poet you have to "understand"), but to liking him. Read on its own, Lullaby of Cape Cod is good, but read as a sequel or fourth season to Eugene Onegin or the Journey to Arzrum it starts to feel like necromancy. It's like, Brodsky's saying "Watch me be Pushkin for a few minutes, meaning watch me try and reconcile myself to the brevity/limitedness of life by throwing language at everything. Because I'm honest, and because I'm a poet, it will not stick everywhere - it will not even stick in the places it did before, and this will be why watching me is worth your while, since by doing so you'll get some tips on which parts of the world are still poetic and thrilling and which parts have been exhausted for now."

The "for now" is an important part of it. In his brilliant biopic of Brodsky, the animator of genius Andrei Khrzhanovsky reminds us of the advantages a city dweller has when it comes to remembering: namely, that with a city, you can see the same relatively small space change, age, disappear, be reborn, in a way that, ok, may be possible for someone who grows up on a farm but is not really possible for someone who grows up all over the place. I have literally not seen the continents, let alone countries, I lived on between the ages of six and fourteen since I left them. So Brodsky's preference for time over space possesses a certain... fascination for me. Actually, it makes me jealous and a little suspicious of his "exile" - for is it really possible to be an exile when you consider the entire earth to be a single huge ship sailing through time? Or is it only possible then?

To put this another way: Oh America! Oh Olson, with his "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America" - as if spelling it in Poundian caps makes ANY DIFFERENCE! I can hear Brodsky chuckling at our insistence that time needs to be dealt with only in its congealed form (like believing in air conditioners but not electricity). Maybe that's why we're so lonely, and so communal - for lacking any handshake with ancestors we cuddle in the boat, anxious for the brown-eyed handsome man to come and make experience not important any more, and the skinny man therefore king.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Cordelia - with Cats Now!

Imagine, if you will, that cultural history is neither progress nor regress but a sort of food court, in which the stories of our lives are played out and then resampled like so many Tiffany singles. Cats do this all the time. With front paw extended and head bowed for example our tubby Maine coon appears to be a natural courtier; but look closer and you'll see that he has really only refined the Friar Tuckishness of his even fatter older brother. Similarly Yuri, the youngest, takes the natural jitter of the skinny black cat about as far into art nouveau as one can go without lapsing into parody (which happens anyway, cats being hilarious). So watching all three together, we make a momentous and inarguable discovery: as cats age, they move back in time through the history of English literature.

Which brings us, naturally, to Cordelia. As seen "by herself" she's a riddle: a wormhole whose silence threatens to knock her play out of its tenuous psychological realism and into the allegorical strangeness of a Saturday morning cartoon. But then what if we don't see her by herself? What if, instead, we put her next to Jonah, and see the ways that the two of them get along, or rather don't, since for all their love and resemblance siblings are put on this earth for one reason and one reason only: to fight? 

Also stick up for one another, which is what I think Cordelia must be doing with her silence. Think about it: for however many hundreds of years, the Biblical prophets called out to a gradually-less-communicative God. Where had he gone? And why, when he reappeared, did he answer their very understandable questions with weird tasks and enigmas, instead of just coming out and addressing the problem? Get eaten by a whale! Spend a year in the desert! So that by the time we get to the Prophets (or parodies of prophets, which is what the book of Jonah really is), God has become something like a cross between a game show host and what I can only assume is the dashingly-dominant male character in 50 Shades of Gray. 

Sadism like this grinds us - and by "us" I mean all of us, "the prophets," or, if I can be slightly less self-aggrandizing, "those who would speak" - into a mixture of mealy obedience and gravelly Rebellion - which works for a while, I guess, except that really, don't you ever want to teach God a lesson?  Cordelia does, which is at least one of the reasons why she stops speaking - not because she doesn't love her father, but because she wants to teach him, and by teaching him turn the tables, and by turning the tables, presumably, turn the story, turn the world itself away from Simone Weil's famous wrathscape into a place so empty and meaningless that compassion has no choice but to seep in, as if following a sort of emotional/spiritual Second Law of Thermodynamics (and then writing this, I see that the understory here is basically Antigone's: when kings become unbearable, you appeal to the gods. When the gods are unbearable, bear them. See A Simple Heart, Breaking the Waves, maybe The Royal Tannenbaums).

Does it work? Absolutely not. She doesn't fix anything. Actually, she breaks the world. I mean that: shake a good paperback Lear and you can actually hear the pieces of world rattling around inside it like used matches that some asshole has decided to put back in an empty box. Because God always wins. And when we know that, I mean really know that,  our only recourse is to loose so big that His victory becomes embarrassing. Which is kind of the point, since in doing this, what such a stunt secretly hopes is that God can be embarrassed, and therefore change his mind (a hope that, depending on your own point of view may be heroic, or beautiful, or absurd). 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Patient Rose

Other than Shel Silverstein, Bruce Springsteen and the immortal Gary Rosen/Bill Shontz combo Rosenshontz (if we're counting lyricists), Rilke was the first poet I fell in love with. It was late summer, 1998. After a high school career spent rigorously disguising myself, I was off to Moscow to spend three months marinating in the resultant loneliness - but not before my parents brought me to that heaven of adolescent book-buying, the Harvard Coop. Up to that point, my favorite author  had been Tim Robbins and my favorite book Microserfs; when I got back three months later I was reading Hemingway and Faulkner and Eliot. But for those three months in between I was nowhere, in Niemendsland, and Rilke was there with me:

Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy
of being No-one's sleep under so many

The letters, of course, had a lot to do with this. Though not technically addressed to me, they spoke so directly to my needs as a sensitive, ambitious, book-loving adolescent that I claimed them immediately. Within a few nights of landing in Russia they had assumed a regular spot under my pillow, from which they permeated my dreams with the cloying reek of incense and rosewater - a scent that became insufferable but in Moscow fit perfectly with the dishwater twilight of the room my host family had outfitted for me. My favorite item from this room? Difficult to say - for in the mixture of these two colors (and then isn't all of Rilke a similar tincture of pink and grey?) the dreary little cube was transformed into a shuffling, jingling tram-car. Books, mugs, pencils, shoes - even the slightly-ripped poster of a mid-scream Freddy Mercury all seemed to have their story to tell. Patient as a sage (like his fellow Czech Franz Kafka, he worshipped patience), Rilke showed me how I could place my loneliness against these objects like the bell of a stethoscope. Your loneliness is your gift, he said, twirling his mustache in a way that somehow seemed more earnest than creepy. Which was wonderful to hear since, at that point, loneliness was pretty much the only thing I felt. 

Almost fifteen years later, I should probably know better than to revisit this feeling. I've watched The Neverending Story (most of it, anyway) and returned to Microserfs - certain passages of which I can practically repeat verbatim. Time has ticked a heaven around the stars, and many of the things that I loved the most as a kid have not survived this. Those that have survived have been transformed, in a way that Rilke promised me they wouldn't, so that now I can't help but hear a strange under-note in his own great obsessions, Rodin and Cezanne. On a term used by the first of these maistres he observes:

Le modelé...I know what that means: it is the science of planes as distinct from contours, that which fills out all contours. It is the law governing the relationships between these planes. You see, for him there is only the modelé... on all things, on all bodies, he detaches it from them, and after he has learnt it from them he makes of it an independent entity, that is, a work of sculpture, a work of plastic art. (7)

"An independent entity"; which was what Rilke wanted to be, of course, not in literature (where it was harder) so much as in life. Free, empty; "to be unnoticed, unseesn, invisible" (58) And the reward? "Then you lose yourself no more" (12) (so different from Hart Crane's wonderful admonition to the young poet, that he "spends out himself again"). So the sly German secretary learned from his Balzacian host how the new aesthetics - the aesthetics of the impressionists and cubists, in which an object was not represented as in a photograph, but broken down into its component planes, colors, shapes, and then built back up in the second world of the painting - could be used to free oneself from, for example, a wife and child. One (or rather No-one) could make one's life into a painting of sorts, an aesthetic object.

Is this true? As Reverend Lovejoy might say, Short answer yes, with an if; long answer no, with a but. I've noted Rilke's interest in the Prodigal Son story before; and then, keeping this in mind, I find it hard to read the letters as anything less than a diary of guilty prodigality. "If only it could go on," he writes to his wife, Clara, "This being known by no-one." (54) Which means he knows that it can't - that it shouldn't, maybe. Similarly the poetry - itself a paragon of lyrical self-containedness - is shot through with images of fracture. Things are always breaking in Rilke - for example in the poem of his that everybody remembers, as they should, The Archaic Torso of Apollo. It ends:

                      :for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

These lines! They find you, don't they - catch you like mirrors and hold you like prongs, until you've seen that thing that's been following you all these years. Like all utterly unforgiving things, they are invigorating to read as a young person and perhaps slightly annoying to read as an older one - because jesus, I don't want to change my life! It's hard, and besides who are you who have nothing and are nothing to tell me that I'm not perfect? No shit I'm not, and you're not either, and this puritanical transcendentalist bullshit has gone far enough already. Life isn't about seeing imperfections; it's about accepting them. The country to which you journey may shame you initially; but within a few weeks, it'll just be your life. 

Reading Rilke now, I can see better than ever that there is something deeply insufferable about him. He rewrites the story, refusing to come home, but producing in his suffering music so beautiful that it makes us doubt our concessions to the world. It's like he knew the game in advance. But how did he know? Jonah leaves the whale because he thinks God is going to keep his side of the promise in exactly the way Jonah wants him to - but Rilke never makes this mistake. He speaks out of himself, perfect, unsuffering, insufferable. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kicking up/off the Dust

Another piece of the puzzle, from Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Brigge:

It would be difficult to persuade me that the story of the Prodigal Son is not the legend of a man who didn't want to be loved.

As put this way, here - at the tail end of a book so basted in amour de soi that it turns whatever room you read it in into a stuffy Parisian garret - the sentence unwinds hypnotically and strikes you on the forehead. Was it there the whole time? Meaning, have I really been returning every night, after days of dreaming, to a room not empty and peaceful but in fact stalked, like a bathroom sluice by a venomous cobra? 

The prodigal fears knowledge because for the same reason we all do: because he knows that it will imply him in the world, which he loves deeply but is also revolted by and terrified of. The story of the prodigal, like the flight of a boomerang, gets its shape exactly from this weird tension, between the hyperactive, self-involved twirlings of the hero, and the larger, slower, but no less circular arc along which these twirlings are gradually returning. For a good example of this, pick that most Oedipal of our century's genre's, the neo-noir. The private eye works his way deeper and deeper into a mystery, until finally he becomes a part of that mystery - and not just any part, either, but the agent: the keyhole through which evil leaks at last into the world. He has tried to do good, but in his puritanical, utterly-cool way he has insisted that the good he does be done on his own terms, meaning professionally, in a way he could escape if he wanted to. Except that you can never escape, no one can, and to build a super-capable persona around the idea that there's somewhere else to go other than the world means, in the end, to become that most beautiful and illustrative of characters, the Fool. 

What does this have to do with us? The philosopher Stanley Cavell's kaleidoscopic reading of King Lear, The Avoidance of Love, frames the problem with characteristically care (and commas): "If good is to grow anywhere in this state, it must recognize, and face, its continuity with, its location within, a maze of evil." For Cavell, Lear messes up because he refuses to recognize this - and he refused to recognize this (the world as a "maze of evil") mainly because he does not want to admit that, in this kind of world, we have an obligation to one another - an obligation that we must acknowledge in order to even begin to consider ourselves good people (or maybe just people). 

But Malte, like all prodigals, kicks instinctively at obligation. "Not until long afterward would he realize  how thoroughly he had decided never to love, in order not to put anyone in the terrible position of being loved." Oh how generous of you, Malte! How utterly selfless, to avoid that most difficult of human works - not because you resent having to take out the trash and brush your teeth twice a day, but because you want to relieve all your potential lovers of "the terrible position of being loved"!

It's easy to laught at Rilke - but I remember reading NMLB for the first time when I was 17 and being floored by this very inversion. Yeah, I thought! (with that peculiar, almost glandular feeling of teenage epiphany, which I remember being somewhere between popping your ears and realizing that you're coming down with a cold) Being loved sucks. It pulls you out of your self-sufficient dream and into a relationship, meaning something contingent and social and imperfect. More importantly, it forces you to "put yourself out there" in a way that Cavell, again, utterly nails in the Lear essay:  "We must learn to reveal ourselves, to allow ourselves to be seen. When we do not, when we keep ourselves in the dark."

The dark, the dark. The other night, a friend and I had a few beers and walked around town talking about atonement. Portland at midnight is an interesting place: empty enough to feel strange, but still small enough to feel domestic. Its west end (spotted like a pumpkin patch with empty brick mansions) crests in a promenade that overlooks the city like a tsunami too in love with itself to fall. Inspired, perhaps, by this melancholy vageling, my friend (who has read far too many German books) made the suggestion that his decision to go into healthcare (after years spent doing something completely different) was motivated in some part by a desire to atone. Cue shiver of recognition - but then isn't that how it happens in the story, too? The prodigal sits in a strange bar, salted by indolence, unaware of everything except the person who sits down next to him by chance, and then opens up his mouth to say a truth so startling that our hero understands immediately that someone is watching. The boomerang of meaning returns. As Rilke says somewhere else, forever, "You must change your life". 

(image: not sure. If anyone has any idea, please let me know)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sleep: a Job for Ghosts

Sleep. As a nursing assistant working the night shift in a large hospital, I have a complicated relationship to it. On the one hand, I worship it the way a farmer worships the sun - that is, as the mysterious fickle God of my art. On the other hand, I don't get much of it. So, despite all my attempts at equanimity I find myself eyeing sleepers with a sort of sideways glance, like a vampire at a drive-through.

One of the most paradoxical things about hospitals (especially big hospitals, which seem to be the only kind there are these days) is that they prize sleep as a central component of the body's healing process, while at the same time making it practically impossible for real live patients to get any. They are noisy, terrifying, and most importantly full of interruptions; on an average night an aide like me will wake up a patient at least twice simply in order to check his or her blood pressure. The reasoning behind why I do this is sound from a medical perspective: most of the patients on my unit are in a fragile state of health and therefore need to be monitored. But the actual consequence of this reasoning is paradoxical. We monitor the patients' health, but every time we do this we wake them up, meaning prevent them from healing as effectively as they would in a more quiet environment.

Real nursing, as far as I can tell, begins where the various manipulations that are typically help to be the profession's bread and butter - the pulse taking and medication-administering and catheter-inserting - end. In the aftermath of the disregulation forced on the patient by such interruptions the good nurse (or nursing assistant) creates something utterly different: calm. With meticulous art, he prepares the patient's room for sleep - and not just the literal room, but the other rooms floating inside it: bed, body, heart. The head-scratching and - I hate to put it this way, but so it goes - magical nature of his ability cannot be overstressed. I have seen it happen. Great nurses walk into a room and people start to relax. Relaxing, they begin to heal.

Nurses bring sleep: because of this, however, they are not typically great sleepers. Like Morpheus, they are imagined most of the time as watchers, lingerers, pausing in the corner of other people's dreams but never staying there long. Gennady Aygi, in his essay/poem "Sleep and Poetry", writes about the Russian poet Velmir Khlebnikov: "Unlike the other futurists, [he] belongs to the 'sleepers', the dreamers. But he is vigilant too, like a tempted saint." Are nurses similarly tempted by sleep? No doubt. But, the lure is bitter - for like all creators they buy their power at a significant cost. They can manipulate, but not participate.

The peripatetic nature of "runners-from-sleep" (to translate from an Aygiism that doesn't exist) links them with that other character of recent concern: the walker. Like him, they exist on an edge that may be made-up and may be real, between will and waste. Having sublimated their true fears (of surrender, extinction, regeneration), they move through the world without every being completely in it. Are they happy? No less than other people - though perhaps it is this very question that prevents them from resting, since it suggests that happiness will be found if only they keep looking.

"To speak means to be forever on the road," says Mandelstam; still, it's always interesting to ask how much sacrificers secretly enjoy their sacrifice, no matter how much they like to complain about it. Nabokov characteristically called sleep "the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals". My own relationship, for all its leer, is similarly patronizing. I don't want to sleep, because deep down I think of life as a race and sleep as time wasted, away from the fight (somewhere, someone is gaining on you). So I feel compelled to say that night nursing - that most sleepless profession - is actually perfect for me, since it lets me both have my cake (not sleeping) and eat it too (complaining that I never get to sleep). A job for prodigals, it posits the testamental division between prophets and false prophets, meaning those who can renounce their pride, and those who only pretend to. One group is sleeping, the other is not. But then the next question comes: which one?

Image: Chagall, "Poet with Birds", 1911. "The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping the sense of wonder awake in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in his long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep"