Tuesday, August 11, 2009

August 11, 2009 Aetat. 40

Readers of this blog will encounter ghoulish, grinning gaps: gaps in writing, gaps in knowledge, gaps in artistry, gaps in grammer [sic], gaps in Time. At wheniwasoneandtwenty.blogspot.com, the care and well-being--dare I say enjoyment?--of the Reader remains our top priority today just as it has been since Day 1 [A.U.C.]. Despite the gaps.

The trouble is, I get distracted. I wander off into ravines. Into reveries. Sometimes I secretly go fishing for ideas in calm, cool underground lagoons. I will roll up my khakis, dip my feet in the crystalline water, wiggling my toes, listening to the low hiss of my Coleman lantern. This is what I do for inspiriation, not for fish. For fish, I go to the Grand Central Market, where they have discount salmon on Wednesday. Yea, though the brain of a poet is a convoluted place, we are not all madmen. Or admen. By and large, I think, we are simply sadmen, obsessed with arranging ripples.

You know, he says, surveying his icy, air-conditioned cavern, Plato was wrong about the shadows cast upon cave walls: the luminous ideas behind the shadows we see are not idealized forms, but simply stand-ins for other things, bright things Plato had trouble defining in proper, philosophical Greek. Fortunately, we are working in English and we enjoy a much larger, more scientific vocabulary than Plato. We call these glowy things: torches. Candles. Lanterns. Flashlights. Halogen lamps. Photon emitters. Stars. In a fit of poetic whimsy, we might label them Makers of Light. We distinguish these sources of light from words because words belong to a different class of objects.
Words are ripples of thought written in the air. And one does not lightly assume responsiblity for the air--for an entire language--especially one as universally susceptible to misunderstanding as plain English. So, let me be pefectly clear here, unlike a politician.

If I were writing in Mandarin, say, no one would care what I said, outside of China, and perhaps a few concerned college professors. And even then, if anyone did notice me, or one of my poems, or blogposts, my slip-ups, elisions, or allusions, you would probably never hear about it. Our journalists certainly wouldn't report it. Most were educated in the arts of ignorance and deception by those same concerned college professors I noted above. I would simply be whisked away silently, at midnight, like one of those poor people from
Falun Gong, thinkers of unsanctioned thoughts. I would wind up in some Hell of a State Hospital having my liver rudely extracted by a bureaucrat for the benefit of some dipsomaniacal lighting designer shopping for organs on eBay in Cologne.

But everybody cares about what you say in English these days, so one must be extra careful not to hurt anybody's feelings. I know of people who have built impressive careers on nothing more than feelings, mouthing carefully constructed--largely meaningless, but infinitely malleable--phrases. And nothing else. Thus, the
Obama phenomenon.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.

Perhaps this is why I have been quietly re-reading James Boswell's book
The Life of Johnson. Samuel Johnson was a subversive in the truest sense: a man of reason, an Englishman, not a politician. He was most famous as a lexicographer, but he was also a poet of great skill. He defined the limits of words in both careers. He even tinkered a bit in philosophy. He famously kicked a stone to refute the idea that everything in the universe is merely a mental construction:

"After we came out of the church, we [Johnson and Boswell] stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the nonexistence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it -- "I refute it thus.""

Dr. Johnson defended his definitions. He was a scholar. He was also pompous, yes, as many scholars are. He was untidy, certainly. And besides his aggressive intelligence, he also had a corpulent wife who was twice his age. The widow of a mercer. And he loved her very deeply. In his defense, I think this must count for something.

One of his best friends was a shady versificator named
Savage. Together the young Dr. Johnson & Mr. Savage would wander the backstreets of London. I suppose, if London had cool caves instead of cathouses to investigate, they might have visited a few of those, too. Just to see if the fish were jumping. And how high. Sort of like I do on some summer nights...

Here is an excerpt from Dr. Johnson's Life.

"In estimating the progress of his mind during these two years, as well as in future periods of his life, we must not regard his own hasty confession of idleness; for we see, when he explains himself, that he was acquiring various stores; and, indeed he himself concluded the account, with saying, "I would not have you think I was doing nothing then." He might, perhaps, have studied more assiduously; but it may be doubted, whether such a mind as his was not more enriched by roaming at large in the fields of literature, than if it had been confined to any single spot. The analogy between body and mind is very general, and the parallel will hold as to their food, as well as any other particular. The flesh of animals who feed excursively, is allowed to have a higher flavour than that of those who are cooped up. May there not be the same difference between men who read as their taste prompts, and men who are confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks?"

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