You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2008.

Calvino, again:

We can prevent reading: but in the decree that forbids reading there will be still read something of the truth that we would wish never to be read…

This is a brief post and reminder: John Steinbeck is utterly amazing.  I finished East of Eden at 11 PM this evening after a five-hour binge, and I’m still reeling.  The book is so well crafted, so rich, so completely thought out.  Steinbeck doesn’t push the stylistic envelope with Eden; he uses intercalary chapters as a tool, but they’re never stream-of-conscience, and seem less self-conscious than some of his other work.  In Eden the parallel narrative simply moors his family history to the story line.  And he does this quietly, almost insignificantly.  Steinbeck gives the impression of writing substantially for his own gratification.  But he knows what he’s doing, and he’s ok with it.  Still, this and the nostalgia may take Eden down a notch in the eyes of critics.  Perhaps the greatest blow to Eden came before it was written, though.  For how, how is an author supposed to escape the shadow of his own “most discussed book of the century”?  The Grapes of Wrath is better known, but I don’t know if it deserves greater notoriety.  To be sure it’s younger, wilder, more political.  Comparisons with Grapes of Wrath are inevitable, but Eden is a much older book, written by a much older man – a man whose concern is communication rather than incitation, and whose communication bears the weight of all his years.  I’m left with the impression that Steinbeck wished Eden to be his greatest work.  I don’t know if it is.  But the passion is such, the wisdom is such that, in the end, I don’t care.  I’m just glad I got to hold them.

You forget the incidentals of pain on purpose. You forget the details out of self-defense. Even in writing the mind works hard to eviscerate the scent of rotting tomatoes and mucous-bitter vodka sauce, the decaying lettuce latent in the crevices of your mouth and only smelled from the back of the nose, only tasted with the weight of your mother’s exhausted tears. “No, it’s not simple! It’s not just something I could do later. I try and try to make everything go smoothly and then, when I ask a question you tell me to go away – I have had it. I HAVE HAD IT!” And you can see the dust motes shift as she turns in the doorway, the frame shrinking, extending, distant, a tunnel.  You shrink, too, internally, a piece of your chest collapsing under the truth.  The whole room moves as your stomach twists and the sour liquid rises in your throat behind the waves of heat on your face and the small pins in your fingers and groin, and your body feels more shame than your mind in its unconscious self-flagellation.

And even now I say “you” to distance myself from the feeling. But it was my mother, and my tongue told her to go away, and the taste still lingers in my mouth.

Lunch time reading is a beautiful thing – principally as a mental break from work (i.e., reading math), but also because, between brushing crumbs from the page and pausing to explain myself to passing officemates and professors, I may hit upon the sort of literary fireworks that explode golden behind the eyes and make you gasp aloud. O glorious revelatory instants! This afternoon’s enjoyment was at least partially egotism, because I’ve felt what Italo Calvino speaks of, but he takes more risks in his question:

Will I ever be able to say, “Today it writes,” just like “Today it rains,” “Today it is windy”? Only when it will become natural to me to use the verb “write” in the impersonal form will I be able to hope that through me is expressed something less limited than the personality of an individual.

And it is true. When I have written well, truly written well, I would have said “It writes.” Those were the times when I became a channel, and my fingers and mind were trying to stay out of the way of the thoughts flowing through them. This is the feeling of being held under by the waterfall, that glory of drowning in the flow of words and ideas. It doesn’t happen very often. My good writing is writing envisioned through the memory of great writing. And the latter has only happened a couple times. But the true estimate of someone’s ability is in his or her good writing. The telling question is, having seen the brink and jotted some of it down, how well does a writer translate that glimpse of the abyss back into the daily grind?

Reading those lines again, I wonder if Calvino felt something similar. I’d like to think so. Regardless, as much as I was starting to lose interest in If on a winter’s night a traveler, I’ve been recaptured. I’m impressed. The resurrection from what was rapidly turning into a self-referential mire was beautifully timed. Using the very structure of the book Calvino flirts with inciting frustration, confusion, even rage in the reader, but through all these I was still hooked. I still wanted to keep reading. It was a recent creeping sense of indifference that had struck me as the book’s death knell. And now he’s overcome that, too. Bravo.

Don’t read If on a winter’s night a traveler if you want a fun story. Read it if you want to bounce about a few different ideas of what a book could be, or could not be. Read it if you want to find the extremities to which an author can push you and still hold your interest. Read it if you want to be teased. That sounds a little sick, but give it a shot. I think we all here have enough masochism in us to enjoy the ride.

The friends standing around the carpool meeting area all seemed a bit unsure what to say when I got off the phone last night. I nodded to them ruefully, apologized, and said “I was fighting with my ex-girlfriend.” There was a pause, and a peach-colored wind lifted the leaves of the small trees on the edge of the parking lot. “You know, I didn’t think that was how things were supposed to work. I thought we were supposed to be done with that part.” And they nodded, and we all got into Katie’s big red Buick, and drove to the dance.

All of you who questioned my ability to transmute a romantic relationship into friendship are allowed a quiet “I told you so.”

Anne Fadiman takes the cake in my personal “sexiest vocabulary” competition. The ease and panache with which she employs such gems as hortatory, alluvium and premasticate stand as the final flourishes in a bourrée of words, glances shot coyly over departing shoulders in a flirtation that leaves me smitten and begging for more.

Those desiring multiple pages of such treatment are advised to seek her 1998 collection of essays, Ex Libris, a book offering meat enough for even the most rapacious logophile. (For particularly gratuitous indulgence, c.f. The Joy of Sesquipedalians, p.11) My own rambles through the book have overturned many a delectable morsel, but one in particular which struck my fancy and for which I vowed to find a conversational use – specifically, eidetic. It’s a Greek-rooted adjective, defined as “marked by or involving extraordinarily accurate and vivid recall, especially of visual images <an eidetic memory>” (courtesy of Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary).

Fadiman uses the word on page 67 in the essay You Are There. I tried to use it last night at a contra dance, but failing to have quite an eidetic mind, instead said euchetic. Something didn’t taste right about the pronunciation, and my suspicion of personal verbal misuse was confirmed this afternoon upon consulting the source. Euchetic appears nowhere in Fadiman’s book, but I was fairly sure it was a word – likely a word I’d seen before, since I’m not prone to making neologisms. Thus, in an effort to determine origin, I naturally turned to THE source. I went to Google.

I will confess to rarely consulting printed dictionaries. Wikipedia, Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster’s Online, and a host of other electronic sources provide ample opportunity to check appropriate usage and until now have never failed me. Until now. Euchetic, it turns out, is a single-word Googlewhack. Actually, my usage is a little off. Technically, a Googlewhack is any two-word phrase which elicits exactly one result when searched. The magazine New Scientist has suggested the term Googlewhackblatt for single-word Googlewhacks, but, rather like antidisestablishmentarianism, this verbal innovation strikes me as a little over the top. It’s not like I have room to talk, though. I’ve never found a single Googlewhack or a Googlewhackblatt before today, whereas some people have spent large amounts of time and money pursuing these ephemeral and fleeting quarry. The British comedian Dave Gorman even published a book about them – the people, and the Googlewhacks.

The troublesome part, though, was that I still hadn’t found the definition of euchetic. I was convinced it was a word. The instance of euchetic yielded by Google existed in a call for papers for the 28th Symposium of the Christian Archeological Society with the special aim of “…enhanc[ing] the meaning of the written word (prose or metrical) on all manner of moveable [sic] objects, both religious and secular, in the Byzantine Age (4th-15th century).” Papers dealing with “euchetic and apotropaic enscriptions” were among the topics accepted. So here stood an apparently scholarly use of the word. But knowing the verbosity of scholars, why was there only one use of euchetic online? I had developed a fondness for the word by now, I didn’t want it to be a typo, but like the protagonist in Borges’ Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, I was beginning to wonder if I had found an artifact of an imaginary world.

It turns out I’m not delusional. Thankfully, euchetic is indeed a word. And we should all at this point raise a resounding huzzah, because the The Oxford English Dictionary (bless you, O editors of that illustrious publication) trumps Google. Found in Volume V of XX of the Second Edition, the Oxford only needs one entry for its victory to be complete. Euchetic stems from euchet, an alternate spelling of euchite, defined as “One of a sect which arose in the fourth century, taking its name from a belief that perpetual prayer was the only means of salvation. The name was also applied to later sects holding similar views.” It was with great satisfaction that I folded the blue covers shut, nodded in triumph to the Wake reference librarian, and walked back down to the atrium.

To quote a friend, “Word.”

There were blackberries this morning on the cross-country course behind Wake. Honestly, I don’t know if they were blackberries or black raspberries, and part of me will be needled by the fact that I’m not sure, but another part is still back in the bushes by the trail, reveling in that incomparable blend of sweet and sour, pricked fingers and succulent fruit.  The lip-puckering sun-filled globules burst sugary black against my tongue, leaving their seeds to be fondled and swallowed while I stood smiling, blissfully unconcerned with the other runners going by.  I hope they came back to feast after their warm-downs, too.

In addition to my normal contra fix I’ve recently taken up blues dancing, and (in an inverse extension, since most people develop these dance habits the other way around) I’m now also attempting to learn Lindy Hop. For the second time. Some people may remember certain futile efforts in high school, back in the day when I thought it was cool to do four-wheel power slides in the gravel parking lot at North Asheville Baptist. It’s interesting in retrospect reflecting on those lessons with Chip and Kelsey, and Kelsey’s comments about having been part of the swing and ballroom scene, and having left, and how breaking with that community had been good for her. But that’s a different story.

Last weekend, June 28th, there was a blues dance in Richmond and a carpool from Chapel Hill, and multiple new friends with whom to couch-crash and develop beautiful late-night conversations. And I had the (Humbling? Exhilarating? Terrifying?) experience of being thrust into a brand new dance scene. This isn’t the sensation of walking into a new contra dance and not knowing anyone, or being unsure what the group’s stylistic detents are, or realizing you’re the only man in a skirt. Rather, it’s the distilled anxietous liquor, sweat-tinged and sickly green, of being absolutely, totally brand new. And sucking.

It’s a very good sensation to re-experience now and again. It’s also a good reminder of why sane people stick to their own bubble of experience and rest heavily on those skills which came to them easily, or were developed at a tender age when more people in the room were less coordinated. But I am not sane, and am rapidly exceeding the title of kid, and the only thing left is to bite that lime and take the shot.

The dance in Richmond was a collection of some of the best dancers in a 150 mile radius, along with a few invited beginners – precisely the learning environment you want. Not high on the ego-stroking, but effective. And gratifying when, five hours later in the dark, hazy rooms of a late-night after party, girls are leaving you at the end of a song with looks of pleasant surprise and saying “Thanks. That was a really fun dance!”

Fast forward to this weekend, throwing myself headlong into Lindy. Again there was an invitation from Chapel Hill, though from a different friend. And again I said yes, but the difference is that blues is slow. Lindy is not. Attending the pre-dance lesson didn’t work with the carpool, and the crowd on the dance floor at Loafer’s contained no beginners – at least, no beginner leads. And I had committed one of the seven deadly sins of the dance community: wearing suede-sole shoes as a noob. Suede soles are one of the universal marks of an experienced dancer. Wear such shoes, and nobody knows you’re a young budding Lindy virgin until they’ve already asked you to dance. I felt like David Sedaris speaking broken French at his friend’s Paris dinner party, surrounded by colorful, witty, highly-educated conversation and only capable of interrupting the room to say “I saw a rabbit, in the road, and he was happy!”

As Ken from the blues night in Richmond would later note, Lindy isn’t something you can just pick up in an evening. And although I did end the dance with a few non-abortive swingouts thanks to Tonia’s impromptu lesson, the overall sensation of the night was not one of success. Perhaps it would have been different in a different room with a different group. But these people were here seeking something from the dance that I couldn’t provide. I was the unfortunate left-footed schmuck who occasionally stumbles into a middle line at the Old Farmer’s Ball, and and receives a mixed bag of looks ranging from hold-still-so-I-can-wipe-my-booger-on-you to the equally uncomfortable just-because -you-suck-doesn’t-mean-you’re-a-bad-person. Although, I’ll say it again, it’s not a bad thing to remember what those looks feel like.

I’m not throwing in the towel. Ken offered to help me find some good Lindy group lessons around Winston, and I’m going to pursue that. But the lessons are going to be in order before I again poke my head into a Lindy ballroom. And next time….next time I think I’ll wear sneakers.