Cover Story: Life Gets Complicated

I hate the covers of books, as much as I love what they conceal. On the second floor of the library, just as I was about to finish Shantaram (a wonderful, glowing novel by Gregory David Roberts) the thin plastic laminate wrapped around the front and back like a cognitive prophylactic began to peel away from the edges. Sensing serendipity, as I finished the last few pages I pulled at that slick, toxic film, tearing the synthetic polyethelyne or whatever it is from the corpses of trees. In order to read the book I had, each time, to get past that gaudy cover story, or paratext, under which illicit, coded messages are sent. I had to turn past the stink of blurbing burps from well known authors and publications meant to triangulate the text in a matrix of cultural capital, approved and sanctioned by the same sort of promoters and fluffers that have to stamp their seamy approval on every other piece of prose before it can pass through the bowels of industry and land on consumers’ plates. In the novel, the main character works as a counterfeiter in the Bombay mafia, and describes that smell exactly: it is the stench of money, all of which, in one way or another, is counterfeit.

The color of the cover was gold, and once the plastic was gone that itself began to flake off, like some cheap municipal dome or cathedral. Under the gold, I was surprised to find, was silver. These layers, I suspected, were meant to make the book shiny, attracting the pack-rat part of the brain that clutches unthinkingly at glittery things. I finished the novel, and kept scraping at it with my fingernails, until the laminate and gold foil were spread around me on the desk and floor. I kept tearing, into the glue of binding, the pages, the words, and the ideas of words. I wanted desperately to get to the center, to the one thing that I knew I would never reach: the voice.  Spoken words. I wanted to hear. I couldn’t.

Then I went and taught my class. I’d given them Plato’s Phaedrus to read, although I knew they wouldn’t. The week before I’d photocopied and handed out a chapter from James Gleick’s new book The Information, where he talks about the evolution of writing, and how scriptural or scripted consciousness reshaped the music of language and thought. Gleick’s hubris, common to the literate, genocidal cultures to which we all belong, is echoed in another book I’d read recently, called The Empathic Civilization. According to the author, Jeremy Rifkin, technologies like writing, printing, and ultimately the internet have been steadily enfolding human societies into wider circles of sympathetic communication. At the same time, he argues, the increased energy through-put of modern nation-states is destroying the living biosphere without which, no matter how empathetic and enlightened, our species will be unable to survive. Thus his subtitle: “The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis.”

In the Phaedrus (which, to be fair, both Rifkin and Gleick mention), Socrates offers an opposing view, that writing is not an instrument of increasing progress and complexity, but on the contrary is an inferior imitation of true oratory, which cannot be scripted, and must be spoken, or improvised. There are two main questions in the Phaedrus, I try to explain to my students, some of whom are listening: whether a lover is better than a non-lover, and whether speaking is better than writing. The two questions, though, might really be the same. After all, you can read someone’s text without ever meeting them face-to-face. How they feel about you doesn’t matter. Phaedrus, in the first part of the dialogue, is reading Lysias’s speech advocating non-lovers to Socrates, while in the later sections, when Socrates defends love as inspired madness, he is speaking off the cuff, inspired himself. If someone takes the time to actually talk, like Socrates is doing with his interlocuter, then that itself indicates affection. You only speak to those you care about. I pause, looking at the class, the plastic glaze and gaze of cynicism falling between us. “Teaching is different,” I tell them. “I don’t really care about you; I’m getting paid to do this.”

I remember an astronomy class I took in college, the kind they offer non-majors in order to dip their toes in the sky of science to feel how cold it is. The professor was bald, his cranium itself like the dome of a planetarium, and he wore with thick glasses. One day he invited everyone in the lecture hall to the observatory near campus, where he worked. “It won’t affect your grade,” he said. “In fact, I won’t even know if you are there are not.” He was very insistent. “It is dark in the observatory, and I’m not going to take attendance. I won’t be able to see you. So really, you’re not required to go. Really–it won’t affect your grade.” I went, of course, and he kept his word, squinting indistinctly through his glasses at those of us who listened, and staring clearly, only, at the stars. That night, for me, is a perfect figure for academia: if you take attendance, if you give grades, if you see your students at all, it is impossible to show them anything. The stars disappear in the light pollution of tests, tuition, and dead grandmothers. Students (like all customers) cease to be human, becoming forms, abstractions, readers.

There’s a quote from Zizek that I love, from Living in the End Times, that goes like this:

“In market exchange, the two complementary acts occur simultaneously (I pay and I get what I paid for), so that the act of exchange does not lead to a permanent social bond, but merely to a momentary exchange between atomized individuals who, immediately afterwards, return to their solitude. In potlatch, on the contrary, the time elapsed between my giving a gift and the other side returning it to me creates a social link which lasts (for a time, at least): we are all linked together by bonds of debt. From this standpoint, money can be defined as the means which enables us to have contacts with others without entering into proper relations with them” (41, my emphasis)

I only have that quote because I typed it out before I loaned the book to a friend, one of the few professors I have had that I still talk to. I gave her my copy, filled with marks and marginalia, because I care about her, and am indebted to her beyond the dictates of our professional relationship. I hope she never gives it back, so I can always feel that connection, that hint of a gift economy on which the monetary one is based, and which it inevitably destroys.

Shataram, though, is a wonderful book. I’m telling you to read it. One of the characters is a crime-lord, Khader Khan, a gun-runner the protagonist helps smuggle weapons and horses into Afghanistan. He, the hero of the novel which the gaudy cover encourages you to identify with the author himself, is an Australian ex-convict, and Khader Khan wants to take him because he can pass for American, and the mujahadeen like Americans because they are the ones supplying them with the arms to fight the Russians (it took me a while to realize they were talking about that other, earlier, war in Afganistan). Anyway, Khader Khan elaborates on a philosophy, or a Resolution Theory, which he purports to be able to infallibly distinguish between good and evil. The universe is, according to Khan, and has been since the beginning of time, progressing into ever and ever more complex states. Atoms form molecules, molecules compounds, compounds life, and onwards in an ever compounding and complexifying process resulting in sentience, society, and ultimately some unknowable endpoint of maximal entropy or enlightenment. The universe is always trying to become complicated enough to understand itself. For the Afghan philosopher, anything which helps this process is good, and that which hinders it is evil. End of story.

It is the same theory, more of less, that Gleick and Rifkin riff on, and that goes back as far as Herbert Spencer’s ideas on socio-cultural evolution in the 1860s, and probably much farther. Instead of relying on technology or civilization to propel the world towards complexity, though, the fictional character’s version of this teleological cosmology appeals to me because it suggests that life tends towards complexity, not technology, and it is debatable whether or not humans, with all of our simplifying machinery of death, are “good” in the sense of fostering this tendency.

Thoth, the EContinuity Driftgyptian diety who invented writing, is also the god of death. Plato says that writing is the means by which the “dead speak to the living, and the living to the yet unborn.” Books have filled the world the wailing of ghosts, until our own thoughts are  impossible to hear. I’ve spent most of my life studying literature, and I can’t say it makes me feel more connected to anyone, or at least anyone alive. My own writing, yes, I try to keep green, feeding it scraps of things I love, folding it into origami,  and maybe theorists like Marshall McLuhan or Walter Ong are right and the digital age is a kind of return to orality, to participation, and to discourse unbounded by covers and corporations, but I doubt it. It doesn’t feel that way.

For the books that I like, that I will read more than once, I cover the covers of with torn apart and pasted bits of comic books, old drafts, and drawings. I try to cover them in the sense of songs, something heard instead of seen. I read somewhere that language might have evolved out of music, out of singing that was beautiful enough to pull meaning into itself. I avoid writing from copies and copy rights. I make as little money as I can. I try to talk, but not to teach, and only give water and light to living forms.

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