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?

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