Levelling

And so, it was at Puerto Rico that I first made contact with the United States; for the first time I breathed in the smell of warm car paint and wintergreen … those two olfactory poles between which stretches the whole range of American comfort, from cars to lavatories, by way of radio sets, sweets and toothpaste … The accidents of travel often produce ambiguities such as these. Because I spent my first weeks on United States soil in Puerto Rico, I was in future to find America in Spain. Just as, several years later, through visiting my first English universtiy with a campus surrounded by Neo-Gothic buildings at Dacca in Western Bengal, I now look upon Oxford as a kind of India that has succeeded in controlling the mud, the mildew and the ever-encoroaching vegetation.

What strikes me more and more now as I am rereading this book is how many different ways it finds to reflect its facets on each other. I’m not sure where to find the point of origin of any of its themes. Or are they themes, like melodies in a piece of music, subject to repetition, variation, and inversion? – or are they more like the instruments, themselves invariant, producing the infinite variety of melody? Should I say that the way the scents of America are strung along a single line with conceptual endpoints is a feature of the author’s psychology? Or is it more suitable to say that the world and human nature are like that, which is why his mind reflects it? Or does it have something to do with the specific portrait the book is painting: of a world aranged in the rigid graphs of an order of concepts, where the concepts are made of fluid perceptions that merge and separate like a kaleidoscope with colored water-droplets for beads; the way his memories and experiences merge into and are shaped by his analysis and later understanding.

Performance anxiety

It’s always best to begin with questionable etymology, no matter what the subject. (See, Heidegger did teach me something after all.) Wikipedia says (today) that the word sin ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European *es-, to be. Provocative! – to be is to sin. Even better: the word(possibly) (maybe) comes through an unattested intermediary, whose meaning is “it is true”. Truly, to be is to be in sin.

That’s how I was feeling the other morning: I can’t help but fall short. I don’t have the resources to live adequately the shortened, cramped life i’m leading now. How then could I make the fuller life I want? I’m not capable. Only so much energy. Then I have nothing. (Funnily: I tend to act out this feeling with frantic bursts of energy, shouting and stomping.)

The parable of the talents has always been terrible to me. In lower, quieter moments, I seem to hear a voice, asking: Why have you done nothing with what I have given you? Over and over again, I feel like I have given hope and disappointed it, throughout mylife from start to now. Overcommittal and underperformance are my foci, I always feel equally too close to each.

And I feel judged by a distinct personality, who has distinct hopes and wishes (which are masked from me, in the vain but loving desire to allow me my own [terrible] choice). I can sympathize with pantheism intellectually, but I don’t feel it. With a full belly and with a good night’s sleep behind me, I can talk myself into feeling the oneness of nature. But it’s a derivative oneness, with a created character, bearing the stamp of its maker. When I was still trying to believe in god, I felt that atheism would be such a comfort. There is no judgment! – because no one is there to judge. No one but myself. Now that I am confident I can’t believe, I find (with relief) that the perpetual feeling of being judged has not disappeared. Only there is no god any longer to bear the personality. I went to where he was not, and even there he still was.

The empty, worn out feeling is uncanny. I wriggle with panic in the grip of it. It seems larger than any energy I could have the use of, and I vanish in comparison while my uncompleted tasks only grow. It’s large, and dark, and heavy, and turning my eyes to it makes me furious with terror.

Also funny: the reaction that calms me down fastest: the kind of backstage banter that acknowledges the anxiety but shows its other face. It’s all a performance; the eyes that watch me from the dark don’t have power over me; I can relax and take off my mask. It’s a particular knack to this kind of banter that both affirms my sense of the immensity of the dark, but that also deprives it of ultimate reality. God is only my father, I don’t have to do anything I can’t, just dip this sponge in water and those painted lines come right off the face.

Those magic caskets

So we’ve got through the first section of the book. Chapter three, of course, just finishes the story begun in ch. 2 and, although there are some amusing anecdotes, he’s not really going anywhere except on a narrative jaunt. But chapter 4! The first section of the book is like one of those shortbread cookies with jam in the middle: the jam is always uninteresting and a bit of a disappointment compared to the actual cookie, but without the jam the cookie wouldn’t taste nearly so good. Chapters 1 & 4 are the cookie (i.e. the substance), and 2 & 3 are the jam (meagre travellog with all the annoying pips and sugary congealments of the genre). I was thinking of beginning with a quotation like I did last week and I just couldn’t choose: I wanted to quote the whole chapter. E.g.:

Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. A proliferating and overexcited civilization has broken the silence of the seas once and for all. The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine freshness of human beings have been corrupted by a busyness with dubious implications, which mortifies our desires and dooms us to acquire only contaminated memories (37f.).

And so on and so forth on the falsity of travel narratives – as though he weren’t implicated, though he is and realizes it:

I wished I had lived in the days of real journeys, when it was still possible to see the full splendour of a spectacle that had not yet been blighted, polluted and spoilt; I wished I had not trodden that ground as myself, but as Bernier, Tavernier or Manucci did … Once embarked upon, this guessing game can continue indefinitely. When was the best time to see India? At what period would the study of the Brazilian savages have afforded the purest satisfaction, and revealed them in their least adulterated state? Would it have been better to arrive in Rio in the eighteenth century with Bougainville, or in the sixteenth with Léry and Thevet? For every five years I move back in time, I am able to save a custom, gain a ceremony or share in another belief. But I know the texts too well not to realize that, by going back a century, I am at the same time forgoing date and lines of inquiry which would offer intellectual enrichment. And so I am caught within a circle from which there is no escape (….) In short, I have only two possibilities: either I can be like some traveller of the olden days, who was faced with a stupendous spectacle, all, or almost all, of which eluded him, or worse still, filled him with scorn and disgust; or I can be a modern traveller, chasing after the vestiges of a vanished reality. I lost on both counts, and more seriously than may at first appear, for, while I complain of being able to glimpse no more than the shadow of the past, I may be insensitive to reality as it is taking shape at this very moment, since I have not reached the stage of development at which I would be capable of perceiving it. A few hundred years hence, in this same place, another traveller, as despairing as myself, will mourn the disappearance of what I might have seen, but failed to see. I am subject to a double infirmity: all that I perceive offends me, and I constantly reproach myself for not seeing as much as I should (43).

With that I’m going to sit back and see what the rest of the book brings.

I did want to ask (and this will display my ignorance) how that would fit in with the recent Bakhtin craze, if at all? The word ‘spectacle’ set off some little bells in my head and I’m wondering how far it’s legitimate or how much it’s just a false alarm brought on by silly pseudo-critical conditioning.

Idle thoughts

Idle thoughts while at work. (This means: not enough material for a post in any of them alone. So I put them together on a tray and serve while other posts stew in the kitchen. How bloggy.)

1. Have you ever actually heard anyone say that two plus two equals four in “the tone in which one says that two plus two equals four”? When I was taught it, it was an important fact to be studied and learned (so I heard it in tones of incantation, tones of authority, and tones of confusion). Now that I know it, it’s a fact to be referred to on the deductive way from fact to fact (so there’s a pensive tone, well, let’s see, we need to carry the two, and two plus two equals four, so…). But when someone says that someone says something in the tone in which one says that two plus two equals four, they mean a certain unaggressive firmness to the tone which indicates a firm belief that may not be shared with the interlocutor.

2. Throat singers seem to spend as much time teaching technique as they do singing. Why can’t people leave the music to the professionals? I don’t know what it is about producing overtones that makes everyone want go off and make their own instead of listening to the artist. It seems disrespectful. (Yes, I know I do the same thing. When did I become the image of all that is respectful?) Is it because they hear it as unusual noise, not music? But music is just that, very unusual noise with a specific unusualness. I wouldn’t say 25% of concertgoers have the urge to get a precis of Gradus Ad Parnassum after the show. Or are there guerrilla violin workshops that I don’t know about, held in the late evening, when the bowties are all let down?

3. I tend to think that my current concatenation of interests is in itself interesting. Whatever jumble of unrelated things I’m looking into at the current time (why yes, I would love to tell you, but they might just be all too fascinating, especially how they reflect on each other and on me, and especially on me, and you might lose the thread of what I’m saying) are just so attractive, and make me so attractive, that I can’t imagine other people being able to stand remaining uninformed about them, so I inform them. (I try to work all of them in at once, when I can.) Until next week, when they seem played out and boring; and the things I have uncovered about them so obvious and well-known I wonder at anyone’s not knowing them. (And I avoid explaining them, unless I feel like being pedantic and insulting.)

On board ship

[T]here was a general urge to complete the operation quickly and get out, for the unventilated huts were made of planks of unseasoned, resinous pine which, after being impregnated with dirty water, urine and sea air, began to ferment in the sun and give off a warmish, sweet and nauseous odour; this, added to other smells, very soon became intolerable, especially when there was a swell.

One of the things I like best about Tristes Tropiques is the pleasure it takes in getting the sensuous detail right. There’s a kind of knowledge muscle it likes to flex as well: “unseasoned, resinous pine” has the ring of expertise to it that pulls the trust from me needed to allow him to give me the whole picture of the cramped, unpleasant on-board showers. It’s the same kind of implication of explanatory power that helps me take in his picture of wartime Martinique, with its purposeless guard, confused as to which side they were on and who their enemy was, taking out their agression with bureaucracy on a helpless boatful of refugees.

The nature of the beast

Adventure has no place in the anthropologist’s profession; it is merely one of those unavoidable drawbacks, which detract from his effective work through the incidental loss of weeks or months; there are hours of inaction when the informant is not available; periods of hunger, exhaustion, sickness perhaps; and always the thousand and one dreary tasks which eat away the days to no purpose…

Having read the first two chapters of Tristes Tropiques, I can only say that I like how Levi-Strauss fleshes out his narrative. In the first chapter he firmly states his dislike of the travel genre, cutting himself off (or setting himself apart) from it and all its weaknesses. By the second chapter, though, he’s added a historical element, provided a context both personal and historical for the writing of the book. It’s the promise of flesh (observations on history and culture and his own personal development) for the skeleton he set out in the first chapter (anthropologist goes to Brazil). A good start for what looks like a complex and thoughtful book.

Tristes Tropiques

Blogs collect unfulfilled projects. (It’s a form of internet lint.) Why should this one be different? One more thing I plan to use this site for, another thing I get to avoid doing in avoiding coming here, I won’t notice it. So let’s announce it: We, Mfc and I, plan to read Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, a couple chapters a week, for the next however long, and blog an exchange about it. It’s one of my favorite books, and I haven’t read it in five years. I’m really looking forward to revisiting it. You’re welcome to participate, comments are open.

The rough idea is: we’ll choose a short passage, one each each weekend, and write a short, off-the-cuff post about it. Dialogue, hopefully, to follow, threaded beneath. (No promises, though.)

Post

Shortly before I moved across town at the beginning of December, I sent a letter to my new address, as a welcome home. But I didn’t include my apartment number (it had slipped my mind). I sent it a couple days too early, there was no one by that name at that address. So it was sent back. But by that time, I had changed my address at the post office: so it was forwarded on. But it had already been sent back from the new address once. So it was sent back again, and went into postal limbo, from whence it emerged only last week; but I had forgotten about it by then. So it was a little traveling time capsule.

The longer pace time walks with when you write letters: you write, you send, you wait. A month later, the conversation you had started continues, with the reply. You view it from a new place – much has happened. Do you still speak or think in the same way? But not much has changed in a month: are you different at all? An interchange of letters makes a good repeated theme: longer than a measure, shorter than a movement. And, unlike either, subject to variation, expansion, iteration; potentially never completed.

I used to be an excellent correspondant (up to about eleven years ago), I remember writing letters between classes, on the metro, during classes, at home in the morning and the evening. I would have hardly sent a letter off before beginning another, often to the same person (to be completed, and sent, after I got the reply back). The extended monologue directed to a single person is a model of thinking.

Recently I decided to start writing again. I made a list of everyone I could think of (I made a file of stamped and addressed envelopes), I wrote three letters a day. I scattered them, for about a month. And so now I’m receiving my bread back from the waters. A couple times a week, another letter comes in, or two, replies go out. Correspondances make a nice zigzag canopy to live under: they provide continuity and mutually reinforcing roof support, like a web of interlocking rafters, or better grape vines growing on a scaffolding above a path.

Piling up

I’m not being productive unless I’m feeling overwhelmed. Usually I don’t do much. Then I’ll have a burst of activity. Then the energy will run out, and I’ll find myself overcommitted. & then I retract from my commitments, rest, then feel ashamed of how little I do, and start the cycle over. I’ve never learned how to surf, but an analogy suggests itself:

In between active periods, I’m just afloat. A wave will cross me, I’ll swing with its motion, and return to my original starting point. Likewise a new interest will come up under me, and carry me with it for a limited period of time, and then it passes and I am back where I started. This is the normal state of things: rest, ride, retreat, repeat.

Then a wave of energy approaches (I can feel it coming across the calendar), and I start to gather myself up: I sign up for more activities, I plan to start new habits, I acquire responsibilities. The wave comes, I’m on top of it; the best part of the feeling is the power I have. I can do anything, and I can take anything. The feeling of infinite adjustment: I have room in my time for whatever new might come along, and any jar that comes along I can translate into a pleasing bump in my schedule; accidental becomes intentional.

The wave comes down eventually – it runs out of room underneath, and brings me down with it, or in it. The bouyant forward motion that sustained me before begins to push at me from all sides, with no coherent progress that I can perceive. I’m suspended in chaos by contrary motions. (And I get sand and salt in my mouth and eyes.)

When the wave is done with me, I’m deposited, exhausted, on dry land. Little waves of energy come and go but don’t move me. (They sort of tickle.)

Later, what remains with me, both in what I’ve produced and what I remember, tends to be the period of falling and unwilling abandonment to too much from too many sides. The fear and loss of control make it exhilarating, in a different, less pleasant way from the feeling of gathering power that comes on the crest of the wave, but more true, in a way I fail to express adequately.

Low

I haven’t been blogging, because I haven’t been writing posts, partly because I’ve been feeling low, and strung out. That shouldn’t keep up for too long.

By weight, blogs are 75% and upwards apology, like zines and communications with thesis advisors and editors.

Here’s something I wrote six months ago, and I wonder at myself:

Avoidance of responsibility can also be a sign of confidence. Either in yourself: you are sure that the responsibility is not onerous, you will get to it at some later date, or that this failure will not affect you (your essential you); or in events, that they will smile on you, and your debts will be erased.

I think I had told myself I had to write one of those a day. So there are a lot of iffy ones. I’m not sure the thought on that one was all bad, but it’s poorly expressed. More exactly: I’m not sure what I’m saying or whether I mean it. And I’m pretty sure I’ve got the intellect to power it through regardless. So it’s strutting; checking its fly with one hand and combing its hair with the other. This one has more zip:

The foundation is measured quickly, but what if you become old, waiting for the concrete to set, before you can begin building.