Wednesday, July 28, 2010

I woke one recent morning from a dream where I was in this big industrial and pretty much impossible building, it was a learning institution of some sort and I was going up a very Blade Runner kind of elevator when on a platform somewhere below me, in a throng of admiring students, Jeffrey Eugenides and I met each other's eyes. In the moment, I was lucky, because he recognized something inside me that was what Michael Chabon describes in Wonder Boys as "the midnight disease," and I had been needing counsel about what to do with my heavy heart, so relentlessly hard on itself. I asked the person I was with what he was doing there, and found he was scheduled to give a lecture on the aesthetics of numbers and mathematics in works of literature. In the moment that flitted by something had transpired between us, and as he was pulled into rooms and conversations, and I made my way through a complex maze of levels and rooms to find where he would be, I felt my heart pumping with this peculiar feeling of being really known by someone. It wasn't romantic, it was just human to human understanding, the ideal I am so seeking, so far from the fool's errand of love. I found him finally in one room full of an audience at rapt attention, and found myself sitting on the floor in a number of them. He would see me occasionally and my face would flush. We never spoke. We never would. But his lecture became more and more about this idea that books are the best way to give us insight into others and teach us empathy. And his words gave me some of the comfort I was in need of. He also spoke about how David Foster Wallace said God's language is in music and numbers, and I felt somewhat frightened about how much I would never understand, but how things feel just feel like truth sometimes, and how much I want to know.

I've had the fantasy most of my life to experience the kind of moment I had in the dream where Eugenides just saw right into my soul- to transcend all very real demarcations that alienate us from one another. It's kind of a lazy person's fantasy- oh to not have to work at understanding, oh to just be understood. If there's anything to take away from everything I read- Rilke, Wallace, Kafka, whomever, it's to stop being solipsistic, to break from self obsession, to understand my cluttered interior self so that I may stop making so many mistakes, and make choices of authenticity, and understand others better, and go out into the world. Even this kind of writing itself strikes me as sort of dull and tedious and self-focused in a way that's numbing and indulgent and false, and then having that kind of thought makes me think it would strike one to hear the way I think that I'm pretty foolish and young in my thoughts (particularly considering how fleeting my youth), that my thoughts aren't informed by systems that work, only conjecture, and then I would want to combat this with having one know how much I want to give. How impossible it is to relate this truthfully. I was thinking about my impulse all morning, when I was hit with the memory that I really have experienced a moment where someone seemed to transcend barriers, generously, and help me to understand something without having any real knowledge of me. It was the first week of my course in Modern Poetry at Chico State, and we were laboring over an Emily Dickinson poem:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes--
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs--
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round--
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought--
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone--
This is the Hour of Lead--
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons recollect the Snow--
First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--

I was staring hard at the text, trying to will myself to dissect it and find out its hidden secrets, and our instructor said something to me about how she could see that I was trying pretty hard to understand it. It was written on my face. Somehow frustration and a desperate longing to *know* were coming off of me in waves. I stood outside this locked door of perception, beating my head up against it, and she, in an instant, could see precisely what was transpiring inside of me. I was grateful to her, and jealous of her too. I am in constant awe of others' capabilities for insight into everything everywhere around them.

I also realized after looking through The Unnamed again, as Emilie gave me a lovely signed copy (the inscription being "To Willow, from one fan of Buffy to another" which is just too great for words), that the chapter titles are taken from this Dickinson poem, the one that captured my concentration and consternation so many years ago.

Memory, ways to live, I am too preoccupied with generalities to work very hard- what a lazy lazy way to be. I know I dreamed of Eugenides in particular because his short stories Air Mail and Extreme Solitude I read recently on one very hot evening, and their central questions are about authenticity and enlightenment, and the weird worlds locked inside our hearts and brains, and the difficulty communing with others truthfully-things that always speak to me, no matter how much I want to forget them.

A lot of writers say that they aren't particularly smart, they somehow have reserves of will that just make them work, and they work enough that sometimes good things come out of it. I wonder about this, because some people have wit that really just can't be denied, sharp insights just fall out of them, ideas are endless. I labor slowly to revelations and typically find when I reflect on what they were, that they were kind of shallow. It's a totally used up analogy- but I suppose being good at writing is simply like being a good alchemist in a kitchen- a magical mix of practice at following formulas, discipline and hard labor, and a knack for seizing upon some kind of true seeming inspiration.

I wrote earlier that I read DFW because I'm sad, but that's not wholly true, of course. He was so peerlessly funny and no one was better at recognizing absurdity but he was never ever glib, and that's a source of endless inspiration. I'm working at taking joy in the age of the endless mash-up, where what initially existed gets further and further away and not being overwhelmed at the idea that my burden as a student is going to be the construction of meaning with faltering language and not knowing where to focus in all of this stuff going inside inside inside itself, wanting to understand mimesis as it transpires today- a pretty impossible feat. I need to get to a place where I participate, explicate, create, and don't wallow in easy cynicism simultaneously. Lines must be drawn, but with heart!

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