Blogging as textual meditation: Joyce Carol Oates and The Paris Review

One of the surprise pleasures afforded by Twitter has been following The Paris Review (@parisreview) and getting tweets linking me to their archives of author interviews.  I know I could just go to the website, but it feels like a daily act of grace to run across the latest in my twitter feed, as if these writers are finding me in the ether rather than me searching for them dutifully.

(In my heart of hearts I am probably still a Calvinist;  the serendipity of these lesser gods finding me is so much better than the tedious duty of seeking them out).

This evening over dinner I read the latest, a 1978 interview with Joyce Carol Oates, a real gem.

INTERVIEWER

Do you find emotional stability is necessary in order to write? Or can you get to work whatever your state of mind? Is your mood reflected in what you write? How do you describe that perfect state in which you can write from early morning into the afternoon?

OATES

One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so. Joyce said of the underlying structure of Ulysses—the Odyssean parallel and parody—that he really didn’t care whether it was plausible so long as it served as a bridge to get his “soldiers” across. Once they were across, what does it matter if the bridge collapses? One might say the same thing about the use of one’s self as a means for the writing to get written. Once the soldiers are across the stream . . .

via Paris Review – The Art of Fiction No. 72, Joyce Carol Oates.

Oates doesn’t blog, I think, and I wouldn’t dare to hold my daily textural gurgitations up next to Oates’s stupendous artistic outpouring.  On the other hand, I resonated with this, thinking about what writing does for me at the end of the day.  I’ve had colleagues ask me how I have the time to write every day, my sometimes longish diatribes about this or that subject that has caught my attention.  Secretly my answer is “How could I not?”

Ok, I know that for a long time this blog lay fallow, but I have repented of that and returned to my better self. Mostly (tonight is an exception), I do my blog late, after 10:00–late for someone over 50–like a devotion.  I just pick up something I’ve read that day, like Joyce Carol Oates, and do what English majors are trained to do:  find a connection.  Often I’m exhausted and cranky from the day–being an administrator is no piece of cake,( but then, neither is being alive so what do I have to complain about).  Mostly I write as if I were talking to someone about the connections that I saw, the problems that it raised (or, more rarely, solved).

It doesn’t take that long–a half hour to an hour, and mostly I’ve given up television entirely.  I tell people I seem to think in paragraphs–sometimes very bad paragraphs, but paragraphs nevertheless–and years of piano lessons have left me a quick typist.  Sometimes I write to figure out what I think, sometimes to figure out whether what I think matters, sometimes to resolve a conundrum I have yet to figure out at work or at home, sometimes to make an impression (I am not above vanity).

But always I write because the day and my self disappears.  As Oates says above,  the activity of writing changes everything, or at least appears to  do so. Among the everything that it changes is me.  I am most myself when I lose the day and myself in words.

Yesterday on Facebook I cited Paul Fussell saying  “If I didn’t have writing, I’d be running down the street hurling grenades in people’s faces.”

Well, though I work at a pacifist school and it is incorrect to say so, that seems about right.

Poor Folk Redux

In the last ten days I’ve read most of Dostoevsky written before his sojourn to the penal colony, and a little written in its immediate aftermath,  but just a couple of more words about Poor Folk.  I’m intrigued by two aspects of Dostoevsky’s work as an artist.  For a first novel it strikes me as being remarkably sophisticated in terms of it’s narrative technique.  His use of gaps and empty places where the reader has to fill in the blanks keeps the reader working.  In this sense it seems to me that reading Dostoevsky is a thoroughly active process, something quite different than the passivity that people sometimes attach to reading.  We’re constantly being given bits of information in the letters that imply a world of fact, of allusion to a life beyond the text (though, of course, that life is a fiction of the text) that the reader must construct and fill in in order to make sense of the text at hand,  the “narrative” then is a process between the reader and the text itself.  We understand the text both by reading what is there, and by filling in what isn’t there.  The reader’s active participation is necessary for making means.

I hope it’s not just a deconstructive turn of some sort on my part, but I’m struck by how Doestoevsky is obsessed with both reading and writing throughout this text.  To this degree it strikes a fairly common tone in first novels—we don’t know what else to write about, so let’s write about writing—Joyce’s kunstlerroman “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” being the exemplar here.  But I find it intriguing in Dostoevsky that this isn’t embedded in the life of a young man struggling to find a voice, but in the consciousness of a middle-aged and aging man who never found a voice, whose struggle with language will, by his own lights, has proven fruitless even while writing is his stock and trade as a kind of scrivener.

I know I that I can earn but little by my labors as a copyist;  yet even of that little I am proud, for it has entailed work, and has wrung sweat from my borw.  What harm is there in being a copyist?  “He is only an amanuensis,’ people say of me.  Bust what is there so disgraceful in that?  My writing is at least legible, neat, and pleasant to look upon – and his Excellency is satisfied withit.  Indeed, I trtanscribe many important documents.  At the same time, I know that my writing lacks style, which is why I have never risen in the service.  Even to you, my dear one, I write simply and without tricks, but just as a thought may happen to enter my head.  Yes, I know all this;  but if everyone were to become a fine writer, who would there be left to act as copyists?

Who indeed? I’ve commented somewhere else on this blog of the peculiar cultural imperialism of writing in our own day, but perhaps every day.  I increasingly get English majors who have no interest in reading, who even claim to dislike reading, but who are obsessed with writing.  Everyman his own author.  So much so I have no time left for reading Dostoevsky since one must keep busy updating one’s blog, twittering one’s feed, and textings one’s faves.

But this is beside my main point for the day, which is the fascination I find in Dostoevsky who turns in a first novel to Poor Folk as his subject, not because they have a superior or natural style—as Rousseau or Wordsworth or Whitman might suppose—but because they have no style at all.  His work doesn’t seem intent on disproving that claim.  At the end of this text, one isn’t led to declaim endlessly on the natural style of poor folk that Dostoevsky has managed to produce.

No.  What’s fascinating is that he has made interesting and plausible the story of two people who are not of their own accord self-consciously interesting or stylish.  I am not sure what lesson of the day to draw from this, but when I come away from Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, I find that I respect them, but I do not admire them.  This is terribly politically correct these days, but it strikes me that it is pretty clear-minded.  I’m reminded, for some reason, of all those Christian artists who go about romanticizing the middle ages, and refuse to recognize that the life really was nasty brutish and short, even for most of the most exalted, and none of us would for one instance trade in our latte’s and air conditioning for smallpox, plague, and roast pig on a spit.

Well, I’m drifting now, but thought I should come back to this particular element of Poor Folk before moving on.

Bodies and Books–II

I’ve continued reading Karin Littau’s Theories of Reading.  The second chapter is mostly a schematic History of Reading that will be familiar with anyone who’s read some stuff about that history.  Still, I was struck anew or again by two aspects of that history.

First, Littau rehearses the manifest distinctions between our own (gradually eroding??) views of textual authorship and those of earlier periods.  According to Littau there’s no real way to distinguish the copying of a text from the creation of a text in the Middle Ages (which makes me think that more than a few of our students would be more textually at home in the middle ages than in our contemporary academy).  According to Littau, one reason for the fluidity between “copying” and “creating”  was “‘the common classical and Christian view of poetic inspiration’, in accordance with which ‘the poet does not originate the poem but is the inspired channel for a divine act of creation’ (Selden 1988: 303).  In pre-print culture an author, or auctor, was therefore less a creator of a given work than its assembler, whose rights to the work extended merely to the physical object of the manuscript he or she had produced in the first instance rather than the text as the fruit of his or her private consciousness, as is the case in the copyright law now” (16).

The relationship to our own modes of electronic creation almost don’t bear pointing out.  How many blogs are simply compilations of materials generated elsewhere, and yet we still think of them as something we’ve somehow produced or written, unique only in their assemblage, not in creation?

Still, I’m more interested in the implications of the latter part of the quote.  I wonder especially whether this doesn’t reaffirm the notion that trying to get back to original intention springs from a god-like view of authorship.  However, in the ancient world, the idea that the words were divinely inspired allowed them to be disseminated endlessly into new texts and new assemblages, without worrying fastidiously about the point of historical origin in a particular writer in a particular time and place.  By contrast, our own view of the author as Godlike locates that divine authority in a specific moment of history, to which we have to return to the point of exhaustion.

I wonder how this plays out especially among Christian views of scriptural authority and inspiration.  Our own view of historicism insists that grappling with the historical uniqueness and situatedness of the point of creation–with the author is one can be determined–ironically discards a sense of authorship, authority, and inspiration that would have been common at these earlier points in history. To some degree we make the text captive to history, rather than releasing it to new and unforeseen forms of assemblage and creativity.

Well, this is too much for me to flesh out right now, and I’m not sure it would go anywhere anyway.

Cryptomnesia: Originality, thy name is plagiarism

For the past several years I’ve used the Footprints poem in my literary theory class to discuss theories evaluation and aesthetic quality. (For those of you unfamiliar with the Footprints poem, I want to say first, “What planet have you been living on?” There is, after all, no more popular item of American religious kitsch than the Footprints poem. My very conservative guess is that is has been shellacked to about 14 million pieces of 1X4 plank board pieces at Vacation Bible Schools across the country.–For those of you unfamiliar with Vacation Bible School…well…bear with me. This may be a my culture/your culture sort of thing. In any case, just enter Footprints poem in any search engine and prepare to be inundated.)

As I was saying, I’ve used this “poem”–in some versions it’s kind of more of a paragraph–to talk about theories of aesthetic distinction. My very good English majors are often aghast that there could be a serious debate about the aesthetic qualities of such a piece of tripe. On the other hand, they are often very chary of the notion that someone could tell them that some things are better than others. Good Americans all, their instincts tell them that it is elitist in a sad and undemocratic fashion to assert that Wagner is “better” muscially than Eminem, or that some things are just inherently better than other things. Brought home to them through Sunday School poetry, however, we deal with the question of why they believe that the Footprints poem is inferior. If it is inferior, what justification to we use for saying that some things are better than other things. Is making this claim an objective claim or is it merely a subjective preference they’ve developed through their years of being elitist English majors. If Hopkins really is better than the Footprints poem, should we take it upon ourselves to teach people that love the Footprints poem that they are really rotting their aesthetic brains and ought to be reading Gerard Manley Hopkins. And if we really believe people would be better off reading Hopkins, why is it such a leap to believe that Wagner really is better than LL Cool J, or that in general everyone would be better off listening to opera than to Country and Western or Rock and Roll.

Found out today that I can now use the Footprints poem to also teach about the philosophy and history of authorship, another main topic of the course. Hank Stuever over at the Washington Post has written a great piece on the contested authorship of the Footprints poem. Turns out that lawsuits abound, and that no less than 3 people are claiming ownership over the text, though one of them also claims to have written the words to a famous Beatles tune when she was a pre-teen. There are claims and counterclaims, with drafts and manuscripts and other forensic evidence.

And we only thought Shakespeare worthy of this attention.

One academic has even traced the basic essence of the poem back to a sermon in the 1880s and has asserted that it’s possible that nobody actually wrote the poem. Says Stuever:

Last fall, in an online article for the Poetry Foundation, a Brooklyn journalist and literary sleuth named Rachel Aviv traced elements of “Footprints” to a sermon delivered in 1880, and raised the tantalizing possibility that nobody really wrote “Footprints in the Sand.” Those who have claimed to, Aviv noted, may be suffering from the collective “accidental plagiarism” that Carl Jung explored in his paper “Cryptomnesia” more than a century ago.

Everyone knows a cryptomnesiast, of one sort or another. It’s your cousin who stood up at Peepaw’s funeral and tried to pass off the “Do not cry, I did not die” poem as his own; or those crafty tykes who keep submitting bits of Shel Silverstein as original verse to The Post’s kids’ poetry contest. It’s the woman who sends you a sympathy card after your dog dies, with her handwritten version of the (also disputed) fable about dogs waiting for their masters in Heaven. It’s your church pastor or corporate motivational speaker who keeps coming up with those amazing “I-recently-met-a-man-who” anecdotes to illustrate his point.

Something can be so profound, so true, (so “duh”) that the cryptomnesiast is sure she thought it up herself. There is very little you can buy at a crafts fair or in the self-help section at Barnes & Noble that doesn’t have a whiff of the unattributed.

This happens to me ALL the time. I’m always running across published stuff out there on the internet that I KNOW I came up with first. My brain is the great unacknowledged source of most of the intellectual creativity out there in the last couple of decades.

Ok, seriously though, I do have this experience of feverishly working out an idea only to discover someone else has already done it, and much better than I could even if given world enough and time. Cryptomnesia is apparently a specific form of memory in which you recall what you don’t know that you’ve forgotten and don’t remember ever learning or reading.

A new explanation for Borgeses story about the rewritten version of the Don Quixote.

I find, in fact, as I get older that I do this all the time. I was reading in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier today, and ran across a blog about an aging professor who talks about how he downloaded an article and wrote feverish and exalted notes about it, thrilled at these new ideas and contributions to his own work until he discovered somewhat later that he had already read the article, and had written feverish and exalted notes about it thrilled at these new ideas and contributions to his own work.

Okay, I really have done this. And at 48 I don’t really consider myself aged. I’m reading Dicken’s Hard Times at the moment, and I keep having the nagging suspicion that I’ve read it before, but I can’t remember enough to know what is going to happen next. Does this count as a memory?

Although it’s laughable on one level to think of the many people wanting to claim ownership of the Footprints poem, I wonder if there’s not some more serious relationship between cryptomnesia and creativity. It’s not an original thing to say that creativity is primarily a matter of rearrangement, of finding creative connections between the many things that are rather than a discovery or manufacture of the absolutely new. There are people out there with absolutely unerring memories, who remember the details of their lives from many years ago–what they had for breakfast, how long it took to eat, whether they burped or sniffled after downing the last bit of egg. I suspect, though I cannot know, that such people would find it intensely difficult to be “original.” They would experience themselves self-consciously plagiarizing or replicating experiences all the time. If I could not forget that I had read something, I would find myself less free to combine it anew with other things that I have forgotten that I learned. Recombination is made possible by dislocation, by tearing something away from it’s original context. My guess is that Crypotmnesia makes that possible.

In the same fashion, we imagine ourselves as unique and original individuals until we awake in our forties to discover that we like the same kind of socks as our fathers, that we scratch our noses in the same way between sentences, that our lower lips protrude while thinking just like his, and that we roll our thumbs around one another in precisely the same annoying way that he rolled his thumbs when we were teenagers.

Not that any of that has ever happened to me. But I’m sure if we had to live in a constant awareness of all the ways our lives are imitative, we would never be able to allow ourselves to invent new contexts and meanings for all the things we’ve plagiarized from others.

But I’m sure that someone already said this better.