Departments

Fable of the Spider and the Songbird

On the hot island of thick forest and air thicker with wet, a bright and brilliant spider like a hand, with legs like fingers, wove and strung her yellow silk into a golden web.

One day a small songbird with the sun behind him did not see the sheen of the spider’s silk or the shine of the flies and beetles wound in it. He felt a brushing at his wingtips, weight against his face, then something soft and resistlessly strong folding him at every side. He tried to pull free; but he could not even pull his wings in to his sides, for the silk held them away. He stilled and stayed himself, and hoped that he would not be noticed.

She knew that he was there. She had felt the shiver of his contact, and the ripples of his struggle when they traveled through her web and into the tips of her legs. Now she felt the subtle rumble of his tensed muscles as he held them still, and the rushing, bounding flutter of his heart; and she came for him.

When he saw her coming, he gave up hiding. He thrashed and shrieked and fought. He struggled, tossed, twisted. But she was closer now, and he was still in her web. When he felt the first strands of fresh silk fall over him, he gave up fighting.

He was lost, and he knew his defeat. So he sang it, low and low, high and quick, turning and rising and falling in circles through lungs ceaselessly propelling the whistlings and cryings of his song. His song was in him, and in the air, and among the trees, and in the web – and through the web into the tips of the legs of the spider who scuttled away into a tree as her singing web betrayed her.

When his song was finished and he was ready to die, the bird found that he was alone. The web kept some of him, of his feathers and blood; and he kept some of the web, strands that trailed from him even after he had worked himself free.

Moral: Sing, Muse.

Notebooks

The difference between writing on loose paper and writing in a notebook is in the relationship of the writer and the thing written. Unless you pledge to care for them, you may expect to outlive your loose papers. They will be lost, be thrown out, or wear out—simply, age and die. But barring catastrophe, you may expect that your notebooks will outlive you. And a notebook has a kind of life, insofar as it is hard to kill: the things which could destroy it—fire and flood—are the same as those which could destroy you.

This is true even of cheap notebooks. Some, arguing from the perishability of loose paper, suppose that notebooks age at the same rate. But a closed book of whatever kind defies time. From my own slight library I have before me now, as I write, a book from 1944 containing a a pressed carnation as a messenger of the sunlight of 60 years ago; and a book from 1906 wherein is interleaved a sheet of cheap ruled paper (which has turned the brown of a paper grocery bag) with someone's homework in Roman history. It is probably a decade or two less than a 100 years old; but it is safe to suppose that the man is long dead whom the boy became who wrote: "The Romans who were mostly peasants by working hard on their farms acquired the strength of will which made them the best soldiers of the world." Perhaps his children are dead, and his grandchildren know little more of him than his name. But kept by covers, the cheap paper can still be unfolded and re-folded after a near-century of Louisiana summers.

To start a notebook, even while young, is to feel the reality of futurity and posterity. Decades on, your friends, your place, your name, the world may have changed; your face, your frame and figure, will have changed. What you will be, you would not now recognize. But you may still have, you may still read, you may still use that same notebook.

Or after a hundred years? Lost to accident and inconsideration; burnt up or drowned; or mouldering deep in some distant garbage dump, like a message in a bottle which never sees the shore? Or browsed by curious descendants of an unimagined generation, who would otherwise know you only as a few garbled stories, a fading or grotesquely discolored photograph, and a few characteristic gestures and a bad joke on film? Or annexed to some unborn historian's or anthropologist's collection, as a lens through which that age to come, with its own preoccupations, may enter into sympathy with the past and gain perspective on itself? Or displayed in a museum, as a curious time capsule—or as the monument of a departed mind? Under the sky we know, or under a new sky in a city yet to be named?

We, dead, will not decide. But our notebooks are like the trees an old man plants—given not to anyone, but for the sake of giving.

Writing on the computer

A writer using the computer must have the resistance to temptation of a desert saint. Computers make every approach to writing well—through research, revision, or rhetoric—so smooth that you can spend as long as you please working, without ever writing anything. Worse, a writer may attempt to mix them with writing.

1. Revising while writing seems innocent, even wise—what is wrong with writing one perfect paragraph after another? Nothing, for each paragraph; but something for the whole, when each paragraph is disconnected from the next and might be as good if re-shuffled.

2. Research while writing has the effect you would expect in enlisting a Panel of Experts to stare over your shoulder as you write. This kind of writing is like driving the Interstates—you need never be lost, and you need never discover anything. You may travel forever and never go anywhere.

3. Thinking about writing, and listening to what other writers have to say about it, are good. But rules are proved in use, not in argument; you learn them to break them, and break them to prove them by the exception. If you must stop in mid-sentence to check a rule, then either you do not understand it, or you do not need it—likelier the latter. On the computer, you must both resist the temptation, and ignore harassment. Spelling is important enough to check after, but not important enough to stop for; and it is no better for a computer to interrupt you, to object to your spellings or grammar, than for a stranger to look over your shoulder and do the same.

Computers are either too convenient or too inconvenient. The keyboard, with practice, can be used without thinking. It then becomes the sluice through which a flood of raw language is carried onto the screen, mixed with whatever debris or waste happens to be lying on the mind. But first—and something else always comes first on the computer. Turn it on, wait, log on, wait, start the word processor, wait, open your file, wait, write—no, wait. Choose a template, a font—what format did they need this in again—no, the margins are wrong—save it, write—no, wait. It crashed. Start over.

These waits are more than wasteful. Handwriting has its interruptions—running out of ink, blunting the lead—but the computer sets its own pace, of impetus and urgency. This is most dangerous to those most experienced with computers. Those who start young on computers have a rapport with them, not because they can keep up with them, but because they reflexively slow down to match them; those who come to computers in adulthood are impatient with them, not because they are stiff and brittle-minded with age, but because they lack this ability to synchronize themselves with computers. This synchrony is one reason why many find books hard to read on screen: a book has its own rhythm of attention which clashes with a computer's. And often in what is written on the computer you find a uniform rhythm formed by log-ons, command lines, queries, entries, games, chats, clicks and double-clicks.

Writers who would ever experience inspiration should beware computers. Even writers of prose, aiming to avoid the poetical, should aspire to be poets in the sense which is above meter or line breaks. It is obvious that poets and computers make bad couples—poets are from Xanadu; computers are from Porlock.

Computer files suffer a natural attrition which backing up alone may not solve. A file may easily be forgotten, or confused with another. The document format will become obsolete; the backup software will become obsolete; even the backup hardware will become obsolete. The price you pay for the weightlessness of computer files is that nothing holds them down; unless you hold on to them continuously, they drift away from you unnoticed. I do write some things on computers—less than paragraphs which I see close enough to entirely in my head that what method I use to get it down does not matter; and things that I want to sound dictated. But as a rule of thumb, I never trust a computer with anything that I might possibly need more than five years from now.

I admit that none of these reasons are proofs. Each is only circumstantial evidence. I cannot call witnesses, because I cannot write the same thing twice to compare. I could only re-write what I had written before. You can never start over; what you have done, even forgotten, weighs on what you may do. Though problematic, writing well on the computer is possible; I would not have it thought that someone who writes on the computer therefore must be a bad writer. And if some can find the self-discipline to write well on the computer, what excuse do I have not to do the same? How dare I admit to (let alone argue for) such eccentricity and self-indulgence? But I have a last plea.

What I write first on paper is all my own. Notes that I write by hand I rarely have to look at again: the act of writing so reinforces the memory that the written words are only a backup. Reading over an essay written by hand, I remember what I was thinking at each step; reading over a fiction, I remember the feeling I began with and how everything therein relates to it. This is true even of looking at a typed copy.

But what I write first on the computer is not my own. I know that I wrote it only because I recognize my style. I have no connection to it. It is through but not of me; it is mine but not my own. I do not mean that it is received through inspiration. Rather, reading it is like reading something in a dream—there because of me, but not mine.

Decluttering

Some feel a certain nameless pleasure, sharp-edged and sexually tinged, in stripping others of their individuality, in shoving them back down into the uniformed background. Their principles are their expectations: what they do not expect insults them. They take pleasure in the squaring of the round peg. This goes with Schadenfreude, but something is left over. Could it be the subconscious abstraction of an eye for health, where aberration implies sickness? But their pleasure is not a healer’s.

Consider soldiers’ short hair and uniforms. The scheme of military alchemy which produces a soldier is to break down and build up. It is the difference of the warrior, who fights alone with his own strength, from the soldier, who fights as part of a hierarchy of units, each with the aggregate strength of its members. One of the few clear lessons of history is that soldiers beat warriors, one to hundreds: think of the British warriors under Boudica slaughtered by Roman soldiers, the British soldiers at Rorke's Drift slaughtering Zulu warriors.

But why are businessmen short-haired? Why the uniform of the suit? Certainly, business organization is borrowed from military hierarchy, and the idea of the businesslike descends from the armed worldview of the period of universal conscription. But while it is a given, these days, that it is not the company man who creates the future of the company, the easiest way forward in life is still through the barber and the tailor. As for politicians, we are seriously considering in this country that a black man, or a woman, could now become President; but who can imagine another president with a beard?

The soldier and the careerist are both told to feel liberated in being shorn. Certainly, things are always easier for those of us who are easily categorized. That much is as true of bohemianism as of conformism, of tattoos as of ties. But the majority mark themselves with the absence of marks. It is left to the minority to assert themselves by signs (clothes, symbols) and performances (slang, gesture).

Saints and sages are admirable, but not because of their simplicity; their simplicity is only the proof of their devotion. They travel light because they are going somewhere. This word Simplicity evokes Walden Pond and cloistered gardens; but think rather of Newton or Handel in stale little rooms, unwashed, unfed, swept up in the brittle frenzy of the Messiah or the Principia. Think of Edison, catching naps in a coffin-sized niche in the wall of Menlo Park. Think of wandering hermit-beggars, melting away in slakeless need to find some posture of self-abasement absolute enough to make bearable the burden of their worth-opposing abjection. To live in the flame is to be smelted by it; to practice simplicity is to be on fire. But people do not do great things from simplicity; their lives became simple once they are pledged to great things.

To be human, even human, only human, is to be complex, to be distractible, to be various and try many things; to have, to keep, to pile up, to hoard. To declutter is more than just organizing and sorting out because it requires the discarding, not of what you cannot justify to yourself, but of what you cannot justify to another—especially to someone who takes money for this kind of work—someone who finds their nameless pleasure in taking things away from you.

For the young, to be distracted, or to be cluttered, is to be open to surprise. The act of de-cluttering declares that the season for hope is over; that the last contraction of possibilities has taken place; that the path is chosen and mapped to its end. Since your future is known, you should keep only what the future will call for. You will hear that these are just things—which they are, if you can replace them. But if you cannot replace them, then these seemingly useless things are more than things: these are chances that you are throwing away. Only tomorrow, or whenever it is too late, will you discover what you could have done with them.

For the old, who live beyond hope, who know that it is only the inertia of their routine that carries them forward, it is only their possessions that let them claim some connection with a human race without further use or patience for them. As the memory grows porous and ghostly, everything that triggers and proves it becomes precious. I do not have to be old to see that the nursing home or the Florida house is haunted with more than loneliness, regret, and despair. When the day comes that yours is just one more failing body among other bodies in a room among rooms in a building among buildings; when your thoughts begin to twist on themselves, skip like a scratched record, jump like disordered movie reels; when all your thoughts are not your own and even your doubt is uncertain—you do not have to be dead to be a ghost.

Postscript, 2011

My father hated having things. He loved to throw them out or, better yet, give them away. Anything he did not need he got rid of: not always his own. The rooms he lived in looked unfinished. Once they were empty, there was nothing to suggest they had ever been lived in. But somehow I carried out box after box. There was so much of it, and every item meant another new decision: what to keep, what to sell, what to give away, what to throw away. I am still making those decisions.

I have become uneasy with my own possessions. For me the fear of not being able to get what I need when I need it has always outweighed the inconvenience of leaving room for what I do not need today. But now in the back of my mind I feel my heirs, and dread the burden of decision I am preparing for them. Getting rid of things used to be hard for me. Now it is easy; it brings relief. I wrote an essay a few years ago against decluttering. I still recognize a pathological form of declutterer whose practice is among the insidiously moral cruelties. But I cannot condemn declutterers any longer; the truth is that I have become one.

Progress

I have tried, and failed, to disbelieve in progress. The question of progress is not whether, but how. To build or to make is in vain, and to live is insupportable, without the idea. The twentieth century—and let us only say of it that every worst thing that has ever happened, happened in the twentieth century—killed the metaphysical notion of its provident inevitability, of Progress as the slope down which History flows. But the worth of a faith in progress is proved not in society, but in the individual.

Not everyone need be rooted in the present. You may more or less share the sensibility of your age; you may find it unsympathetic, or unapproachably alien. You may fly to the remnants and inheritance of another age for the company of like souls. But however alone in it, there is something unworthy and childish in abandoning your own age for the past. What is too harsh to be said of the cowardice of someone who would volunteer for such an amputation, as to leave off access to—if not adoption of, which is a separate question—the latest developments, discoveries, creations, thought? Of someone who would turn from the unknown, who could live out his life happily within some foreknown and mapped-out stretch of time? We rightly curse those who would burn old books because they hold them worthless, mistaken, or dangerous. The attempted escape from new books and their authors rises from the same vanity and is, in truth, as misled. To surrender or deny any part of human experience is to cheapen the whole.

Progress is not by levels, but by accumulation. We find that every age, every generation, every city, every circle and school and subculture has its characterizing contribution, it work and its problems. What does not meet them is either addressed to the past, which cannot answer; or to the future, which cannot reward. But only to share the work of others is to be held back by them. Whatever work you propose to do, if you do not mean to keep it only to yourself and God—or to contribute only a footnote to your age—you must allow for progress as a tactical consideration.

In science there is much which seems valuelessly obsolete: ætheric vortices, caloric fluid, absolute time. But these retain their place as begetters in a genealogy of ideas: they were mistakes, but not barren ones. And what were wrong turns for those who made them become signs and stories of warning for the rest of science against naïve materialism, against the applicability throughout the cosmos of the experience of Earth, against the applicability throughout the æons of Earth of the experience of mankind. Even crank theories have psychological moment—at the edges, in work which bears that appearance, but is not taken from that well, like Ramanujan or Dalton; and in how ready power is to champion them, like Lysenkoism. Science has eddies, where in the pursuit of a strange end, a familiar thought rings out ahead of its time—Bruno's inhabited cosmos, Boscovitch's grains of energy; and science has tragedies, where it takes the wrong path so long that it cannot find its way back, and a good idea must be re-invented—like the nebular hypothesis or heliocentrism. Under the appearance of successions of obsolescence, science proceeds by accumulation. It even has heroes, like Archimedes who, millennia dead, can make the front cover of a physics journal. Worked out systems of ideas have an imperishability and a transposability which can deposit them far from their original purpose: how the Hippocratic system of humors, intended to explain disease, has become the model for modern analyses of personality.

Art is not, in any obvious way, ever obsolete. Still, we are told that art is inextricable from the class, the sex, the generation that created it; that our distant appreciation must be inferior—at best, second-hand. Art, certainly, cannot mean for you what it meant for those who made it, and for those it was made for. You cannot catch all the puns and allusions, or interpret all the symbols. In the age of photography, you cannot recapture the sense of the miraculous in the meticulous realism of the Dutch Masters. But the notion that your circumstances fully determine the reach of your meaningful reaction to art is an injury to individuality. To any given artwork, you will not react like a person of another generation; nor would another person of that same generation have reacted in the same way as the first; nor would another person of your own generation react as you do. Art that is not valent between individuals does not endure. And the change is not all lessening. We may without regret say that after Walter Pater, the Mona Lisa means more to us than it did to Leonardo, or to Lisa Gherardini, or to her husband—as long as remember that it meant something different to each of those. We do not only make progress by accumulating art, and subjects for art; or by widening the range of subjects and sensibilities that art can address (Nature and ectasy with the Romantics, horror and terror with the Moderns); but also by allowing every work and every milieu to acquire an ever-lengthening wake of associations.

Progress is real gain; but change in the world is less by introduction, than by different emphasis. Each age is distinguished by the kind of human natures which characterize it; but all kinds of human nature are always with us. On the street, you may pass or meet a man whose gravitas would have fitted him to be a senator of Rome; another, hard and hungry, fit to pillage with Huns; another, patient and subtle, a born Schoolman; another, willing and pitiless, a wild-west gunslinger. They will likely be undistinguished, for (outside of the arts) in any given time, only a few kinds of people have full room to unfold themselves; only a few can have or find a place of their own in the world. But they are all always with us as the armory of mankind against the uncertainty of a future as unknowable as (it is to be hoped) very long. The lesson of history is less of cause and effect, than it is a promise and threat which are the same: that whatever we are, some have been before; and therefore, that whatever we have been, at worst or best, we may yet be again.