The Ruricolist is now available in print.


[Preface to the print edition.]

The Ruricolist is an essay series in the form of a blog. By the time you read this, the last sentence may be unintelligible. What is an essay series? What is a blog? But what the Ruricolist is will be recognizable as long as books last.

In writing fiction we do not hesitate to imagine ourselves as equals with the masters. But when we sit down to write prose we console ourselves with our limitations. The masters could rely on the interest and knowledge of their audience, could coin their own words and bend grammar to their needs without defying spell checkers and proofreaders, could write sentences that needed to be read twice to be understood. They could put as many ideas as they wanted in an essay – in a paragraph – in a sentence – in a very long sentence. For them, style was end and means.

If our work is lesser, if it does not endure, it is not our fault. We are creatures of our time. We have to draft query letters, appease editors, and calculate reading levels. We defer to specialists and hedge against character-limit assassins. We admit concentrated literary effects only on credit, as quotations. Our works are stepping stones, not bricks. We do not build on them; we use them to get ahead, and we leave them behind.

But there was a moment. A chance to meet an audience without editors, without marketing departments, without censors official or self-appointed. A chance to do what would never sell, what would never pay. To write without the need for permission or forgiveness. A moment the work could stand on its own. A moment we stood before an ocean not yet acidified, while our messages in bottles could reach another shore.

I saw other people using that freedom, admired what they were doing with it, and though I am not a joiner, I decided to join in. And I used that moment for all it was worth. I took it as far as it could go.

What would happen if one of us – someone from our century learned and ignorant, our century callow and sensitive, our century then hardly begun – what would happen if one of us assumed the same freedoms, the same scope, as the canon and the classics?

What would happen if a modern writer attempted the classical essay? Opened all the resources of the language? Took the synoptic view? Philosophy, psychology, history, literature – why not do everything at once? It would be hard; but it’s not supposed to be easy. And none of it seemed worthwhile by itself.

That was me; that was the Ruricolist. I was bounded only by my idea of general interest. I never found a large audience; the audience I did find was composed mostly of other writers. I turned the writers I admired into readers.

There was a moment, but it ended. Crisis frightened us. We wanted nothing to identify us as dreamers or thinkers. We retreated from our freeholds into the shelters of social media, only to discover that what we thought was a shelter was, in fact, a barracks. That we were not guests, but conscripts.

There was a moment, but it ended. In the end, I looked up and saw I was alone. And now so many of the writers I admired are missing, gone silent or self-effaced.

The Ruricolist was never meant to be read from start to finish, but to draw in readers as it went. And unlike many of its contemporaries, it is not one of those projects that builds up its own idiosyncratic vocabulary over time. Start anywhere; start with what interests you, and I will try to earn your trust.

It has been eight years since the end of the Ruricolist. Naturally, some of my opinions and conclusions have changed. Only a fool never changes his mind; only a coward pretends his mind has never changed. But I have clarified arguments that could be misunderstood.

This is the point where I am supposed to self-deprecate. I was young, it was a different time, I was writing on a schedule. But the truth is I could never renounce what is here. What is here is who I am.

(Novel: The Endless City)

The Endless City
Paul M. Rodriguez
Argiope, Print, Kindle.

The City is endless to the edges of the world. West and east, north and south, unbroken, the City goes on, long arterial highways spreading into streets and boulevards, nourishing the buildings that are born and age and die. It has always been this way; it must always be this way, the City of and for itself, the silent lives of empty rooms.

Men live here too. While the walls stand and the seals hold, their shelters are their homes. But seasons pass, and walls rot, and the old buildings make way for new. Men live here too. But they are few, and frightened, and afraid...


The ending is the most important part. Not in all arts: pictures are endless. Not even in music, where skipping ahead is bad faith. But in writing the ending is definitive. You do not know how a sentence is meant, whether you are being told or being asked, until you reach the end.

The problem with endings is that they are all a kind of punctuation, artificial because the criteria of a good ending are abstract. A speech sums up; a sonnet turns; a story rounds off when something recurs. The key determines the cadence.

I have good reasons to prolong the Ruricolist; I feel how much I owe to it. But I must admit that the Ruricolist is over. The essay series has its natural term. These have been long years and I am different from the man I was when I began. His clothes no longer fit.

In conversation we are improvisers. For our improvisation to succeed, we must be willing to take whatever comes, trusting the outcome as we trust one another. We never say all we meant to say, or everything we think of, but that is the point: as much as we spend, we leave enriched. Now, at the end, I can affirm what I wrote at the beginning: I wrote for myself – not for friends, not for followers, not for an audience, not for posterity. This was my end of a conversation. And since this was a conversation, it must end as all conversations do, with a kind of aposiopesis, when the bill arrives, the sun comes up, the car stops, and suddenly we part.


Darkness is shadow. The golden shadow of the incandescent bulb; the stainless shadow of the fluorescent; the quivering shadow of the gaslight (seek it where it lives yet; deep down in the oven, the pilot flame is the last gaslight). The footlight, the searchlight, live to dazzle, are stingy with shadows; but most generous of all is firelight, flicker and blaze, casting long shadows that strut and stride, the shadow players whose performance has never been commanded.

You will read that, for our ancestors, the succession of the long, dark nights of winter, solaced only by the wavering fire, relieved only by brief treks through a twilight world stifled with snow, gave on to a kind of trance, and that it is to the visions of the long winter that all superstitions may be traced. Now, the tropics have their own superstitions, but certainly the mind abhors a vacuum, and where there is nothing to be perceived, something will be imagined. Night by night, they overlaid the everburning stars with bold constellations.

Darkness is night. Morning and evening circle, glooming and gloaming, matutinal rise intersecting crepuscular fall at the liminal coordinate where the spectrum unfolds. Twilight that never ends while the night lights burn: mercurial moonlight over the fields, mercury vapor skyglow over the cities, and the noctilucent auroboros rattling the northern sky, over forests quiet and umbrageous as the shadow lands. The stones under your feet strike triboluminescent sparks. Fireflies constellate with the stars. Far ahead a porchlight shines, generous intent as harborless as a lighthouse.

Darkness is night, darkness is shadow; the one thing darkness is not is the absence of light. The retina is stretched like a drumhead, strung with tense nerves that toll every photon, an inchoate kaleidoscope so sensitive that it need only be pressed behind closed eyes to coruscate with phosphenes like the scintillas of cold light that kindle the eddies of the troubled sea. What light conceals from us, what we see in caves and face-down on the pillow is not darkness but eigengrau, the eyes’ gray, lightened by the twitches of our dreaming nerves. Seeing eyes have never seen full dark. Darkness is not even the opposite of light; it is only a mood of light.


What makes a loser? There is nothing special about him. Being dull, awkward, foolish, and feckless only makes him unlucky, and being unlucky is not enough to make a loser. What makes him a loser is not that he loses, but that he does not know why he loses.

Losers have always been with us, since Thersites at least, but of course they are rare in hierarchical societies, where everyone is born with a part to play, where every kind of failure is keyed by coordinates of folly and vice. Being a loser is idiopathic, because losers are inconsequential; they do not even have anyone to let down.

He may have abilities, even remarkable ones, but he spoils them. He stops too soon, or he goes too far, and all his good intentions, all his hard work, come to nothing. Worse, just by being the one who has them, he makes his own abilities ridiculous. For his skills, we call him a geek; for his wealth, we call him vulgar; for his commitments, we call him pretentious. He is not a loser because he never wins; he is a loser because even when he wins, he loses.

What makes him a loser are not his mistakes but how he doubles them. Defying logic, he spans the extremes without ever touching the center, impaling himself on both horns of every dilemma, robbing Scylla to pay Charybdis.

He is the one who has nothing to say, and never gets to the point; the one who can’t take a hint, and can’t take a joke; the one who never learns, and the one who never gets over it; the one who can’t talk around girls, and babbles around women; the one who can’t express himself, and the one who gives everything away; the one who never takes a chance until he throws everything away.

In short the loser is a bad actor playing himself. Nothing feels real to him unless he is playing to the balcony. In the beginning, he tries too hard; and every time someone leaves, he tries a little harder. In the end the seats are empty and there he is, alone on the stage, the singularity where tragedy and comedy meet: the clown who does not know he is a clown.

The Traveler

“You haven’t gone yet? You should go. It’s the right time of year. It’s wonderful with all that space, and those views, and not a tourist in sight. I wish everybody could go.

“What? What did I…? Oh. That’s an oxymoron, isn’t it? Like ‘nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded.’ But that really is how it goes. Whenever we find something that’s really a jewel, people just descend on it until they suffocate it. I can’t even go to Venice anymore. I swear it’s sinking out of embarrassment.

“If we were smart, really smart, we wouldn’t blab about things like that. We’d organize a guild or a secret society. We’d have apprenticeships and an initiation. Seven years of studying languages, and etiquette, and survival skills to become an Honorable Traveler with the right to visit. Plus another ten years of study before you get to take a camera.

“Instead, we love it so much we have to tell somebody about it. And they have to tell somebody and we all love it to death.

“Maybe that’s too harsh. I don’t want to seem elitist. The fact is I pity the tourists even more than I pity the places they ruin. They have no way out. They cross oceans and continents but they pack their boredom, and ignorance, and petulance.

“I don’t know why they bother, unless it’s because they still have that instinct that tells them growing up means leaving home. But no matter how far they go, they drag home along behind. It’s not even travel; it’s just a change of venue.”


Notes repeat themselves, higher or lower, at the interval we now call an octave. Double or halve the speed at which a string vibrates and the sound, in some sense which is as undeniable as it is gratuitous, remains the same. And between notes in simple ratios, most of all the interval we call the fifth, there is a sweetness sweeter and more dizzying than wine.

Between the octave and the fifth, the world almost seems made for us. This appearance is deceiving. The world is not just unfair, but rigged. Chances are you know what it is to pick up part A, and part B, never having doubted they went together, only to find that they don't quite fit. The world is like that. Between the octave and the fifth there is a small but shattering discrepancy we call the Pythagorean comma.

The comma of Pythagoras is as bad as the flaming sword. It means that music, even music, must always be compromised, whether by a diet of a few safe notes, or an intricate microtonal dissection of the octave, or a distortion of the fifth.

This distortion (the Western approach) goes by the name of temperament. Since the Middle Ages the West has known and used several exquisite systems of temperament for particular purposes, but in the last century they gave way to a single system brutal in its simplicity. Equal temperament deals with the Pythagorean comma the way the senators dealt with Romulus, when they caught him in a sudden fog, hacked him to pieces and, walking away with the pieces hidden under their togas, called it apotheosis.

(Are the jitters of the West, its frantic days and restless nights, the symptoms of our addiction to this uneasy music, the Pythagorean comma working its way deeper and deeper under our skins?)

Of all things with value, music is the purest, the most abstract. If even music must compromise, what hope is there for anything else? None at all; but do not take it too hard. Consider poor Pythagoras, twice betrayed, once by music, once by math. Traumatic as Gödel, Turing, Russell, and Tarski were for us, how much worse was it for him, the philosopher who thought number was truth and music was beauty, only to find that numbers could be irrational and music sheltered wolves.

The last century was not, as it boasted, the moment when thought ran up against the limits of certainty and perfectibility. From the very beginning, the whole arc from faith to doubt, from certainty to anxiety, has always been with us in Pythagoras and his comma.

The Entrepreneur

“Did I ever tell you about my grandfather? Of course I didn’t. He was nobody. He spent his whole life at the factory, retired, boom, dropped dead. That’s the one thing I’ve been afraid of my whole life, turning out like him, a nobody with nothing to show for himself, nothing to show he ever existed except for a chip of stone at the veterans’ cemetery. Which one? I don’t know. I have his medals around here somewhere.

“After I’m gone, people need to know I was here. They need to know my name, and remember me. I want to be up there with the greats. I want to leave a legacy. For all he did with his life my grandfather might as well never have been born. My life has to mean something. The world has to be different because I lived in it. So thanks for your concern, but I’m fine. And I kind of have to get back to work, so if that’s all…”

Cell intelligence

Before we live by ideas, we seem to live among them. Nothing goes unprophesied. The shadows of ideas fall ahead of them and mark out the shape of things to come for those who care to trace it. The prophecies of science fiction writers are an obvious example: I nominate Looking Backward. In 1887 Bellamy felt the shadow of the radio and colored in the pattern of affordances he traced from prophecy.

There are a number of music rooms in the city, perfectly adapted acoustically to the different sorts of music. These halls are connected by telephone with all the houses of the city whose people care to pay the small fee, and there are none, you may be sure, who do not. The corps of musicians attached to each hall is so large that, although no individual performer, or group of performers, has more than a brief part, each day’s programme lasts through the twenty-four hours. There are on that card for to-day, as you will see if you observe closely, distinct programmes of four of these concerts, each of a different order of music from the others, being now simultaneously performed, and any one of the four pieces now going on that you prefer, you can hear by merely pressing the button which will connect your house-wire with the hall where it is being rendered. The programmes are so coordinated that the pieces at any one time simultaneously proceeding in the different halls usually offer a choice, not only between instrumental and vocal, and between different sorts of instruments; but also between different motives from grave to gay, so that all tastes and moods can be suited.

Contrast this prophecy, made in the heat of fiction, with another made in earnest. I own a book – a curiosity – entitled Cell Intelligence, self-published 1916 by one Nels Quevli: registered pharmacist, bachelor of law, and flaming eccentric. The argument of the book is encapsulated in its full title:

Cell Intelligence the Cause of Growth, Heredity, and Instinctive Actions, Illustrating that the Cell is a Conscious, Intelligent Being, and, by Reason Thereof, Plans and Builds all Plants and Animals in the Same Manner that Man Constructs Houses, Railroads, and Other Structures

This sounds stranger than it is; try The Selfish Cell. Quevli in 1916 maps to Dawkins in 1976. Both Quevli and Dawkins conclude that life does not fall out of any equation, and that since it is not a force or a property of matter, its existence at all is contingent, and its forms must be historical.

There are two main theories by which the growth and development of plants and animals in life are explained: First, chemical and mechanical forces; second, Intelligence or a Divine Being. However, so far no one has yet ventured the proposition or statement that the intelligence that has caused the production of all these structures we see, such as plants and animals, was the property of the cell.

And since it is not determined, it must be intelligent (or selfish) because its survival and ramification imply something equivalent to memory.

I do not pretend to know what intelligence is, nor what memory is, but I want to show that the cell is a being possessed of that something, whatever it is. If man is intelligent the cell must be.

Both are asserting that cell intelligence and human intelligence are the same. The difference is whether we follow Quevli in applying the vocabulary of human intelligence to the cell, or Dawkins in applying the vocabulary of the gene to human intelligence.

Bellamy’s prophecy is interesting, but after Bellamy radio still had to be invented. But Quevli in 1916 knew what Dawkins knew in 1976. Ideas are autologous: the description of an idea, is an idea. To predict it is to bring it about; to imagine it is to create it.

This property of ideas leads to certain perversities. Everywhere we find that the longest training, the deepest commitment, the finest specialization yield ideas that could just as easily have been dreamed up on a long walk or talked out in a bull session. The difference is the imprimatur.

But if specialization does not yield better ideas – if it only makes them more persuasive – then someone who is more interested in understanding than persuasion might ask whether it would be better not to specialize, and cultivate the faculty of having ideas directly?

The case could be made that the person who has one idea, and devotes their life to advancing it, is wasting their life: settling for an idea that, being their first attempt, probably isn’t even very good. The case could also be made that intellectual monogamy ought to be the goal of anyone who takes ideas seriously, and that though essayistic dalliance with a series of ideas may be charming in the exuberance of youth, it becomes absurd and pitiable if protracted into maturity.

This tangle recalls others. Being one person – having one personality – is enough for most of us; yet we see writers and actors contain multitudes where each member, whether absorbed from life or condensed from fancy, is as much a person as the person who contains them, having virtues and vices of their own they do not pass on to their host. If myself is something virtualizable, am I wasting myself in being only myself?

But writers and actors are not the best people; what they contain they do not combine. The conversation of Shakespeare was surely intense, but less than Hamlet times Falstaff times Rosalind. And actors especially may owe their multiplicity to nothing but the quality that Borges imputes to Shakespeare (who was also, remember, an actor): they can become anybody only because they are nobody.

The homuncular fallacy is not a real fallacy. It could turn out to be part of the definition of consciousness that it is built from what is also conscious, a potential infinity like two facing mirrors. We contain cells, cells abridge us; we are people with personalities and yet we contain people with personalities. Sometimes it seems that everything is recursive, that even reality only represents itself: considering Robertson’s Titan, for example, I cannot help suspecting that the world, too, only serves to perform what has already been anticipated in imagination.

Nondefinition #33

Sharks. The shark is no pilgrim: half as old as life, streamlined by a million generations bent on the same restless, uncompromised purpose, he has never yet doubted. He has an ancestry but it does not matter. Once hunger met water the shark was inevitable. He is written into the laws of physics between the ratios of buoyancy and the equations of flow and drag. He belongs utterly. When he dies he leaves no bones to protest it. They say that deep enough there is no more up or down, but they should know better. The shark is down. The moment your blood enters the water, you start to fall. In the whole wide ocean there is nothing to catch you. First he smells you; then he hears you; then he sees you; then he feels the current switching in your muscles as you try not to breathe. But you have nothing to be ashamed of. The hunger you feed is not a vain hunger like the lion’s, not a grubby hunger like the worm’s, but perfect hunger: unhurried, impartial, and pure.