A New Thing
I believe I have discovered A New Thing.
I recently finished reading Who Murdered Chaucer: A Medieval Mystery by Terry Jones (yes, of Monty Python fame), et. al.1 and started reading Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace (with an introduction by Neil Stephenson). Let me tell you, it's been an interesting segue; I must apologize for the style of this post. (As an aside, I also took a quick break to read a new-to-me Silver John novel, The Voice of the Mountain, by Manly Wade Wellman. (Review: meh.) I am currently trying to figure out how to work "air" (meaning "any", "every"), "to shammock", or "to gop" into this post.)
Who Murdered Chaucer is quite a good book, throwing some understanding on the politics and religion of late 14th- and early 15th-century England, the reigns of Richard II and the usurper Henry IV, and the life of the poet and courtier Chaucer. It is also heavily partisan towards Richard II's party and a bit sketchy with the circumstantial evidence. (As another aside, though, if the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, did not have Chaucer silenced and did not attempt to have Chaucer's work censored, he should have.)
However, when I mentioned Who Murdered Chaucer to my nemisis, Mittens, the conversation began like:
"...by Terry Jones. Yes, the Monty Python guy. It's pretty good."
"Did you read it in the voice of a Pepperpot?" replied Mittens.
"No, no, not at all.... Well, yes, parts of it."
So I kind of had this idea primed for me.
Anyway, after reading not more than a few pages of Everything and More, I came to a sudden and yet delayed, and very surprising, realization.
Now, Everything and More seems like it would be a perfect book for me: Non-fiction, essayish (a form I love), on a topic I enjoy and unfortunately, know something about, by a writer celebrated for his cerebral writing, his vocabulary, and his focus on compassion, existentialism, and pretension. So far, it has actually been pretty good. Unfortunately, as I said, I know something about infinity, the formal grounding of mathematics, and Georg Canter, so the hand-waving stands out.
(As another aside, one sentence early in Everything and More struck me as incredibly wrong: "Your author here ... is also someone who disliked and did poorly in every math course he ever took, save one, which wasn't even in college, but which was taught by one of those rare specialists who can make the abstract alive and urgent, and who actually really talks to you when he's lecturing, and of whom anything that's good about this booklet is a pale and well-meant imitation." Aside from the (repeated) use of the term "booklet" to describe a three-hundred-plus page trade paperback (can we slather on any more irony?), I find that the terminal "and" does not work at all. "[A]nything ... is a pale and well-meant imitation" is off; it destroys the structure of the elegant edifice Wallace has built in that footnote in much the same way that capping the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres with the marble pyramidion of the Washington Monument would (a) crush the construct (or would likely do so) down onto the labyrinth in its floor and (b) look ridiculous for the brief seconds it stood. That sentence really, really should end, "...and of whom anything that's good about this booklet is a pale but well-meant imitation.")
In any case, David Foster Wallace's prose should be read in the voice of an Englishman badly impersonating a middle-aged, middle-class, matronly Englishwoman. It's perfect: the high-pitched, tight-voiced, false squeal mixed with the amalgam of down-home, mid-American voice and prolix, erudite verbiage makes the whole experience a delight. Don't believe me? Check it for yourself: down a bit of pepperpot
and then read you some David Foster Wallace:
...There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.
Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was fifty below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."
By way of example, let's say it's an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you're tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there's no food at home. You haven't had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It's the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it's the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it's pretty much the last place you want to be but you can't just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store's confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren't enough check-out lanes open even though it's the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can't take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line's front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to "Have a nice day" in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn't yet been part of you graduates' actual life routine, day after week after month after year.
But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it's going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket's checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it's hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to.But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.3
And so on, and so forth. I hope no one minds that I quoted Wallace extensively there, but also took only selected passages from the address.
If you have taken the opportunity to enjoy my experiment there, I hope you will be able to confirm the frission of correctness, of key-fitting-into-lock rightness that I felt when I saw the relationship. I hesitate to use the term "epiphany", because it wasn't; more of a dawning realization as I continued to read Everything and More.
Perhaps the actual link here is existentialism; I chose the "Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion" skit deliberately, for it's genuine coverage of Sartre which corresponds brilliantly with the "This is Water" thing.
On the other hand, I suspect the existentialism connection is only second-order. Like the Emily Dickneson / The Yellow Rose of Texas thing, this convergence goes beyond subject matter and into fundamental questions of style.
1 If you see Al, tell him he owes me a fiver.2
2 And by this joke, I mean no disrespect towards Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher and Juliette Dor, Jones' co-authors. They are all distinguished Chaucerian and medieval scholars and do not deserve to be overshadowed by the fame of their co-author.
3 Taken from a transcription of the 2005 Kenyon College Commencement Address, May 21, 2005.4
4 Thank you, Internet Archive Wayback Machine!