The Beginning and the End
I once opened a fortune cookie at Hunan Delight that said, “Digital circuits are made from analog parts.” I don’t know whether this is an ancient Chinese proverb or a mass-manufactured brainchild of an underpaid copywriter somewhere in Chicago. I do know that it changed the way I look at nonfiction. I come from a family of electricians and mechanics, and though I can barely keep the oil changed in my car and frequently need my wife’s help to operate my MacBook, I know this much: Digital circuits work in bits of information, each bit working into the systematic logic of the circuit. If any bit doesn’t logically fit, the circuit will malfunction. Each bit works in a continuous strand, but has its own infinitely variable sequential order. If the nonfiction writer’s subject is the world, and his or her place in it, the first responsibility of the writer is to reduce the world into workable units. In telling the myriad stories of the world and the self, one of the writer’s first steps is shaping and condensing systematic and narrative units. If an essay or a memoir or a news story or the world can be thought of as a digital circuit, and if all the millions and millions of stories are the analog parts, then the creativity of the nonfiction writer is primarily in how the writer sorts – or lists – those analog stories. So far the prefix “list-” is the closest I’ve found to an established termfor the result of this process – list-essay, list-memoir, list-manifesto, list-novel – so perhaps that’s the best place to begin.
We tend to think of the written word as infused with story, and it is; but I would assert that, since the first moist clay surface was penetrated by bone or bronze, the first stone pockmarked with slate or chalk, the first papyrus scroll scratched upon by sharpened reed, since stylus first touched wax paper or quill stained parchment, and into the Eighteenth Century with the invention of the lead pencil and the Nineteenth with the first patented ball point pen and the Twentieth with the pixelated white screen that begs to be filled with information that all of a sudden is not just available but surplus and expendable, the written word begs to be not just told but listed, sorted, quantified, systematized. We may all be born storytellers, but we’re also all born listers.
In Book V of his Consolation of Philosophy, written in a bare prison cell in the early Sixth Century ostensibly on the cusp of his brutal execution at the hands of King Theodoric the Great for the offense of accusing a middling bureaucrat of lying, perhaps sensing his time for this world running out, Boethius wrote one of the first singular critiques of the notion of universal truth. After spending much of the work attempting to reconcile his conception of the male-gendered Christian God with his life’s reading of the Greek pagan philosophers, given conversational form in Lady Philosophy, he concludes mostly with questions:
…What God has set
Such enmity between two truths,
That things established separately
Refuse to bear a common yoke?
Whence comes this powerful understanding
That all things sees and all discerns?
Able to see particulars,
To analyze that which it sees
Then synthesize analysis
And by alternate paths progress?
Boethius, nearing the gruesome end of a life spent in pursuit of good, summons perhaps his most self-aware conclusion as a writer, a thinker, a feeler, a doubter, and a critic of the power to fabricate truth from circumstance:
As when light strikes upon the eye
Or voices clatter in the ear:
The active power of mind then roused
Calls forth the species from within
To motions of a similar kind;
And fitting them to marks impressed
From outside, mingles images
Received with forms it hides within.
Perhaps realizing the arguments of God and Philosophy as arguments within himself, perhaps out of sheer despair, Boethius saw beyond the veil of time and linear history into a conception of the world as formless sound and vision, given shape only in the mind of the beholder. Given this intimation of immortality, he died nonetheless.
In her 1935 introduction to the collection Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, Amy Lowell says, “It is an extraordinary and important fact that much of the best literature of Japan has been written by women.” (xii) I find it just as extraordinary that much of this literature was also produced before the Dark Age of English letters. In an epoch now labeled and sorted by the dynasties that ruled them—the Nara (c.710-784), the Heian (c.794-1191), the Kamakura (c.1192-1333)—everyone belonging in some way to the ruling class was both a collector and a poet. One of the first known anthologies from the Nara Period, written in the Eighth Century, was titled the Manyoshu, or “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves.” The Heian Period, which followed the Nara, saw the rise of the “pillow book,” scrapbook-like collections of observations and reflections by Japanese court ladies; the most influential of these is the Makura-no-Sōshi of Sei Shōnagon. Of the 185 entries in her Pillow Book that have been translated into English, 164 are lists – different ways of speaking, flowering trees, things that give a pathetic impression, things that lose by being painted, things that gain by being painted, things without merit, outstandingly splendid things, things that should be large, things that should be short, things that are unpleasant to see, and on and on. Through listing each of these categories, she rarely mentions herself, but somehow in reading each of them one gets to know her and her world –both the exterior of 10th-Century Japan and the interior of Sei Shōnagon– like family, or at the very least gossip buddies. Maggie Nelson, in her 2009 list-book Bluets, expresses this inclination after reading Sei Shōnagon’s account of the Festival of Blue Horses: “I feel at once the need to die and be reborn one thousand years ago, so as to see this parade for myself. But here we are in great danger—the danger of being jealous of the blues of others, or of blues of times past.”
Four years before Henry David Thoreau was counting, in painstaking (contemporary readers might call it obsessive-compulsive) detail, the time, land, and money he expended building and living in his home on Walden Pond, his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson had written in a 1841 essay, “I accuse myself of sloth and unprofitableness day by day; but when these waves of God flow into me, I no longer reckon lost time.” Many modern teachers and scholars, when referring to them, cite Emerson’s style as aphoristic, even platitudinous, and Thoreau’s as deeply personal, going into himself to find the universal. Both are called nature writers, rebels, and individualists, which is surely true. But perhaps the primary repressive force they sought to transcend was not government or society, but time itself—Emerson through summary proclamation, and Thoreau through personal bean-counting. In this sense they are surely two sides of the same transcendental impulse: the deductive list and the inductive summary.
In probably his best-known single line, William Blake began a poem fragment, “To see a World in a Grain of Sand…” I could append this quotation with a list of favorite lines from his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Songs of Innocence of Experience, even America: A Prophecy, but that seems somehow too obvious, and it wouldn’t convey sufficiently the reason why all these lines haunt me. Instead, let me tell you a story. One of my jobs my senior year of high school was at the small Kansas publisher Allen Press, cleaning the bathrooms. My favorite part of this job was the weekends, when they were closed and I could steal books from the stock shelves and mailroom in the basement. In that basement I first read Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell with his illustrations. I swiped it thinking it was a religious tract, similar to the Chick Publications pamphlets I’d been collecting since becoming a fundamentalist Christian the previous summer. Reading the Proverbs of Hell in that dim, solitary basement, with the pigeons in the ventilation shafts piping like siphons of Hades, terrified me more than watching the world end on the Eighties nuclear scare-flick The Day After in grade school, or watching the mediated Hell of the popular Hellraiser movie franchise in junior high. The seeds of doubt—in my goodness, in my salvation, in the benevolence of the world—were sown in the underworld of Allen Press. I am now agnostic, with a perhaps more worldly dread: that I am a grain of sand, and that Blake was wrong about me.
“Having replaced a purely descriptive terminology by one which is systematic or dynamic…” This seemingly throwaway line from “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” illustrates the driving force behind not just Freud but Marx, Nietzsche, Darwin, and most of the thinkers at the advent of the Twentieth Century, an epoch unique in human history for the way it condensed and appropriated time. What I mean by this is not just that a lot happened but that, more than ever before, it was recorded. Much like the role of the painter after the advent of photography, the modern thinker, no longer burdened by the need for documentation, became freer to dream, to invoke, to separate thought from experience, and to sort and systematize these dreams and invocations into organisms of natural history, political thought, psychological practice. Each of these systems of thought became in their turn millions of individual ideologies, personal journeys, maps of experience: “There are a thousand paths that have never yet been trodden—a thousand healths and hidden isles of life. Even now, man and man’s earth are unexhausted and undiscovered.”
In a 2014 lecture titled “Sonic Authority,” the poet Jamaal May invoked a “spectrum of repetition” in which words and phrases may be repeated between opposite poles of authority and uncertainty. At one end of this pendulum, an author repeats words and phrases in a readily apparent pattern in order to comfort the reader with a sense of order and predictability; at the other end, a writer may repeat the same words and phrases seemingly randomly, surprising and perhaps even discomfiting the reader by presenting a written world without a guide, a world without context or order or predictability. This seems to me the insomniac world to which F. Scott Fitzgerald woke at 3am in the late Thirties, when he sensed his life and his sanity slipping away from him, taking breaks from working on what would be his last (unfinished) novel to write long, repetitive lists: Descriptions of Girls; Feelings and Emotions (without Girls); Epigrams, Wisecracks, and Jokes; Nonsense and Stray Phrases; Rough Stuff; etc. This latter world is also the world of Hum, May’s 2013 poetry collection, where everything—young boys, car engines, young black men stopped by cops on the side of the road, mothers of dead young black men, refrigerators, old men at bars, the wind, new lovers, a heart pumping blood in and out like snow falling and melting and flowing back into the Detroit River—everything repeats itself in different contexts, until the amalgamation hums with discomfiting hope, that thing with feathers.
The evolution of popular song could be described, among many other ways, as the progress of list into story. The popular song of the Twentieth Century, and the folk ballads of previous centuries that gave them their form and meter, is essentially a list set to music: verse, verse, verse, chorus—repeat. Songsters and minstrels gathered floating verses from news headlines, their families’ oral histories, and each other, and plugged them into this simple structure, using and reusing lines like Hear that lonesome whistle blow, I ain’t got no home in this world, I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down, Buffalo gals won’t you come out tonight, that have become so ingrained in the American collective unconscious (and my own) that I don’t feel the need to put quotation marks around them. As the century progressed and more of these songs were recorded and copyrighted, the lists became more and more petrified into the sequence of the first people to record them and claim copyright. Music joined writing in the journey from open-source interaction to closed-source document, and the vocabulary of popular song became, for the first time, intellectual property.
In 1991, when I was a freshman in college, John D. O’Banion wrote a book called Reorienting Rhetoric, subtitled “The Dialectic of List and Story.” Read into the modern history of rhetoric, one could see it as an argument against what O’Banion saw as a late-Twentieth Century trend in academic writing away from narrative (the “story”) in favor of systematic structure and argument (the “list”). Read as an essay or even as a work of nonfiction art, it is a cry for wholeness, for a merging of two different, sometimes opposing ways of structuring ideas into words, sentences, visions. Channeling Kenneth Burke, he says, “List and Story, the ‘instrumentalist’ and ‘personal’ principles, are inseparable and equally important elements of thought.” It’s easy, though, to understand why they have been held at arms’ length from each other, at least when looking at their pleasures and rewards. We learn systematically; we connect via story. Narrative lifts us; systems ground us. A map is a system; the terrain of the journey is a story. Laura Riding, in 1927, complained, “The map of places passes. The reality of paper tears.” But who goes anywhere anymore without mapping the journey?
The progress of modern science has been largely one of nomenclature and enumeration. The given names and numbers for the material and forms of the natural world have become the vocabulary for finding spiritual meaning in physical manifestations. It now seems inevitable to me that this aesthetic has infused modern artistic and journalistic writing. At a cemetery on Staten Island in 1956, Joseph Mitchell recounted gravestone decorations (“…death’s heads, angels, hourglasses, hands pointing upward, recumbent lambs, anchors, lilies, weeping willows, and roses on broken stems…”) with the same vigor he recounted the types of flowers that surrounded them (“milkweed, knotweed, ragweed, Jimson weed, pavement weed, catchfly, Jerusalem oak, bedstraw, goldenrod, cocklebur, butter-and-eggs, dandelion, bouncing Bet, mullein, partridge pea, beggar’s-lice, sandspur, wild garlic, wild mustard, wild geranium, rabbit tobacco, old-field cinquefoil, bracken, New York fern, cinnamon fern, and lady fern”). On a cool September outside her shack on the dunes of Cape Cod in the early Nineties, while burning documents and manuscripts for which she longer had any use, Cynthia Huntington took note of the conversion of words and numbers back into what Kenneth Burke had called the “great central moltenness, where all is merged”:
I begin my fire with paper, burning words to drive off the chill and ignite deeper memories in wood. Black and white of old records, tide charts, ads, births, deaths, and deliberations of the zoning board: these burn so easily, crumble and smoke and send fire into the sticks and wood scraps I use for kindling.
In the disorderly souks of Marrakech in our present century, where “even the illusion of clarity is welcome, though an open space is, ipso facto, no more coherent than a cluttered one,” Barbara Hurd asked, “What, after all, do meiofauna, a holy man’s head, and singing sand really have to do with one another?” And recently, after traipsing about Newfoundland constructing, deconstructing, reconstructing, personalizing, and re-imagining the myth of the giant squid and the first man to photograph one in 1874, Matthew Gavin Frank lent summation to the merging of systems and stories: “If myth is a possession, we can quantify it.”
Sometime in 2001, I started but never finished a piece called “Completion (A Work in Progress).” Its de facto last line is, “So when I leave...it’s not because I’m lazy, or stupid, or...it’s because I refuse to...” I struggle, as I live and read, read and write, write and compile, with the recurring conviction that this will never be done. Twentieth-Century philosopher Richard Rorty said that the pragmatist’s awareness of the world was not a progression but “contingent results of encounters with various books which happened to fall into one’s hands.” Summary listing can give a person a sense of the bigness of life—historical, biological, psychological, philosophical. But foremost among its risks is the temptation to presume any authority over the chasm simply because one can hear one’s own echo when screaming into it. Or even to assume authorship of the echo.
NOTES ON THE SECTIONS:
I. Much of this section is a summation of an essay I published in 2011, called “The Answer I Found in a Fortune Cookie.”
Proctor, John. “The Answer I Found in a Fortune Cookie: Toward a Digital Conception of Nonfiction.” Numéro Cinq.
II. Though I would be remiss in assuming sole authorship of this section, no source is singularly influential enough to cite here.
III. In the last paragraph of the Consolation, Boethius, in the voice of Lady Philosophy, contextualizes his argument within the limits of man’s point of view compared to God’s: “Each future thing is anticipated by the gaze of God which bends it back and recalls it to the presence of its own manner of knowledge; it does not change, as you think, with alternate knowledge of now this and now that, but with one glance anticipates and embraces your changes in its constancy.” This seems to be the great “consolation” to the truth he discovered.
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Victor Watts. Revised ed. London: Penguin, 1999, pp. 123-129.
IV. For the historical timeline, I mainly consulted the preface and “Major Era of Japanese History” from LaFleur’s The Karma of Words and Lowell’s introduction to Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan, which includes the journals of three contemporaries of Sei Shōnagon.
LaFleur, William R. The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan. Berkley: University of California Press, 1986.
Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Seattle/New York: Wave Books, 2009.
Omori, Annie S., and Kochi Doi (trans.). Diaries of Court Ladies of Old Japan. Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1935.
Sei Shōnagon. The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon. Trans. & Ed. Ivan I. Morris. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.
V. I almost didn’t use the term “transcendentalist” in this section—it seemed too obvious—but there is no getting around it. My goal here, then, is to refine the terms of what they were both seeking to transcend.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Circles.” Essays & Lectures. Comp. Joel Porte. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1983, p. 411.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Walden.” Walden and Other Writings. Ed. Joseph Wood Krutch. New York: Bantam, 1981, pp. 139-145.
VI. I find it fitting and satisfying that the comic books of my adolescence were Chick tracts and Blake’s illustrated poems.
Blake, William. Blake’s Poetry and Designs: Authoritative Texts. Ill. in Color and Monochrome. Ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant. New York: Norton (Norton Critical Editions), 1979.
Blake, William. “To See a World...” Poetry Lovers’ Page. N.p., n.d., <http://www.poetryloverspage.com/poets/blake/to_see_world.html> (29-03-2015).
Chick Publications. Chick Cartoon Tracts. N.p., n.d., <https://www.chick.com/> (29-03-2015).
VII. That last quotation is from Nietzsche. It seemed adverse to its intent to attribute it there.
Freud, Sigmund. “Beyond the Pleasure Principle.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVIII (1920-1922). Trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth, 1962.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “On the Gift-Giving Virtue.” Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin, 1978, p. 77.
VIII. I have a feeling Jamaal May might be surprised that I’ve connected his work to Fitzgerald’s. I hope he doesn’t mind.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Crack-Up. Ed. Edmund Wilson. New York: New Directions Books, 1993.
May, Jamaal. Hum. Farmington: Alice James Books, 2013.
May, Jamaal. “Sonic Authority: Repetition as Rhetorical Device.” Vermont College of Fine Arts, Montpelier, VT. 3 July 2014. Lecture.
IX. Although I don’t directly cite any of the following sources, they all influenced my thinking on Twentieth-Century popular music as I describe it here.
Charters, Samuel. The Poetry of the Blues. New York: Avon, 1970.
Courlander, Harold. Negro Folk Music U.S.A. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.
Guralnick, Peter. Searching for Robert Johnson. New York: Plume, 1992.
Lomax, John A., and Alan Lomax. American Ballads and Folk Songs. New York: Dover, 1994.
Marcus, Greil. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music. Third revised ed. New York: Plume, 1990.
Murray, Albert. The Hero and the Blues. New York: Vintage, 1995.
Oliver, Paul. Songsters & Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records. London: Cambridge University Press, 1984.
X. I’ve had the pleasure of periodically corresponding with O’Banion via email; he acknowledges that times have changed since he wrote Reorienting Rhetoric, with personal narrative being incorporated into many composition curricula and a relatively new “genre,” creative nonfiction, embracing story, sometimes at the expense of systematic development. He and I agree that part of the pleasure of the list/story dichotomy lies in the subliminal conflict between them.
O’Banion, John. Reorienting Rhetoric: The Dialectic of List and Story. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
Riding, Laura. “The Map of Places.” Giving Mirth. August 2009, <http://givingmirth.blogspot.com/2009/08/map-of-places.html> (30-03-2015).
XI. Many recent scholars, critics, and readers have expounded on a “Third Culture” rising, one in which the schism between the sciences and the humanities is breached: science lends empirical evidence to metaphysics, and metaphysics lends human meaning to cold fact. I see this as yet another manifestation of the list/story dialectic.
Frank, Matthew Gavin. Preparing the Ghost: An Essay Concerning the Giant Squid and Its First Photographer. New York: Liveright, 2014, p. 245.
Huntington, Cynthia. “Wild Fruits.” The Salt House: A Summer on the Dunes of Cape Cod. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999, p. 182.
Hurd, Barbara. “Meiofauna, a Holy Man, and Singing Sand: Incoherence.” Walking the Wrack Line: On Tidal Shifts and What Remains. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2008, p. 34.
Mitchell, Joseph. “Mr. Hunter’s Grave.” The Bottom of the Harbor. New York: Pantheon, 2008, pp. 108, 149.
XII. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, I sang karaoke Semisonic’s popular tune “Closing Time,” whose lines include, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
Proctor, John. Completion: A Work in Progress. TS. 2009. Collection of John Proctor, New York.
Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and Social Hope. New York: Penguin, 1999, p. 133.