Chains of Being and Non-Being
"Marian was at work as usual in the Reading-room. She
did her best, during the hours spent here, to convert
herself into the literary machine which it was her hope
would some day be invented for construction in a less
sensitive material than human tissue."
George Gissing, New Grub Street
I just reread New Grub Street, a brick-like beast of a book, this summer, first read long ago for a doctoral qualifying exam. Like so many of the titles on the NYU English PhD* reading list, it soon leaped into the exalted arms of amnesia and stayed there comfortably unremembered, the casualty of pressured institutionalized reading requirements. The book quivers with social, cultural, literary, and technological anxiety. How to feed the public's desire for middlebrow and low-brow material? How should consumption of popular fare be measured against the diminution of aesthetic quality? How to ponder the ephemeral and the eternal when it comes to the printed word? What is the future of reading and books? How might taste, trends, and literacy be rendered and rended by mass market forces?
(*A Phd allows you to play Phddle with none of the lovely airs of an Irish fiddle!)
Gissing published his work precisely a century before the World Wide Web went public in 1991. We're now twenty-seven years on and the Internet still fills us with
anxiety about whether its ether-sphere upholds permanence or oblivion; allows for some crucial communicative quality along with its mindlessly massive quantity; whether it is all about algorithms and anesthetics rather than cellular solvents and electronic nutrients. Is it generally the cause of communal enterprise or sectarian fracturing? When we are looking into books or onto computer screens, are we impassioned or passive agents? Expressive or repressive? Authentic or artificial? Reductive or expansive?
(THE MACHINE: WHAT IS IT? WHICH ONE?)
Some readers, some online creatures, some bloggers (moi?), might adopt passivity, quietude, decrepitude, lassitude--and any number of related 'tudes--out of conditioning, habit, wish, or fate. However, none will be able to do so with the paradoxical profundity of relentless paralytic passivity as Henri Michaux's character Plume, recently returned in toto, courtesy of supreme translator Richard Sieburth. If you are perennially in search of necessary literature, track down absolutely everything Sieburth has translated.
Plume is helpless, hapless, colliding repeatedly with a world throwing events at him like hot pokers. His nature deflects their bruising and burning but his person bears the brunt of a phantasmagoria made of the quotidian. He is comic and doomed, a delightful, forever ill-fated intersection of being and non-being, doing, not doing, and undoing. From "Plume and the Legless Cripples":
"...There was this man standing across from Plume and when
Plume stopped looking at him, the man's face fell apart,
grimacing as it decomposed, its jaw slackening off into
Well! Well! thought Plume. Well! Well! How tender it still is,
the world of creation! But what a responsibility for us all! I
need to go to a country where faces are far firmer, a place
where you can just look, or look away, without catastrophe."
Now let us try to diffuse the plume of pretentiousness as it has befallen far too many souls caught up in the lit game, none more so than poets. Why do so many contemporary versifiers engage in the morphological travesty of cupping their chins or cheeks in their word-callused hands? Is it a matter of preciousness or severe, sinister occasion? Are these poets (so many come to mind but I do not want to fling diatribes at the tribe so cruelly marginalized) the victims of facial/cranial erosion such as described in the Plume passage above? Do the paroxysms of painful cogitation and contemplation cause implosion of the upper organs and does such a condition ensure the most intensive, formidable, and dynamic kinds of poems of the moment?
So fragile is the poor poet's face from which depends
hands from full cheek, jowls, or chins. What offends
is the prospect of poets all too precious--
or worse, heads tumbling into their neck's abyss.
(Is this Man a Poet? God help us...)