I was in the attic-space of a friend of mine, on the Fourth of July, where he had set up a work nest of neatly organized tools, drawers of electrical components. He pointed out, on the opposite wall, an impressive collection of medals won by his marathon-running wife. Both sides of the room were collapsed tableaus of time spent, effort awarded–they spoke of long, breath-absorbing journeys. He worked as an analytical chemist for the FDA. They had a five month old son. By the window was a telescope, and a stack of books.
Krakow! While I was typing the first draft of this, a week or so ago, there was a summer storm, and lightning bolt near enough to take out the power. Everything went dark except the computer screen. I liked the idea of writing a blog post on batteries alone, saving the words into a flickering, disconnected charge. Even now, safely plugged in, everything humming along normally, I am aware of gathering clouds of temporal limits, the pressing in of time. I will get tired, hungry, or distracted. Realize I should be applying for jobs instead. The weight of other things will pull us away from this short telepathic transcription. Lightning bugs and cicadas keep a blinking, humming pulse of inescapable rhythm. Summer is ending.
My Uncle told us once, waiting with my cousin and her kids outside of a chain restaurant, that the heart rate of organisms determined their life span. He told us the beats per minute of an elephant, and a bee, then how long they lived. The ratio was always the same. There was a website, he said, where you could enter your age and resting heart rate and then the algorithm would tell you, approximately, when you were going to die.
He has worked as an emergency room tech, freezing people who had suffered heart attacks, lowering their heart rate and temperature until they are practically dead, to be brought back safely later, after the operation, as good as new. Therapeutic Hypothermia. The old science fiction dream of cryogenic sleep, although on a more modest scale.
Writing offers, or seems to, a provisional reprieve from decohesion. A slowing down of the blood of meaning. You feed a text time, forcing your life and mind to double back, to revisit the same patterns, sentences, in the hope of nudging signal into noise, continuity into drift. Writing is prosthetic memory. Cognitive hypothermia. These words are still here, waiting in the cold.
“…the Middle English ‘grammarye’ or grammar,” Ong explains, “referring to book-learning, came to mean occult or magical lore, and through one Scottish dialectical form has emerged in our present English vocabulary as ‘glamor’ (spell-casting power)” (Orality and Literacy, 93).
Krakow! A night in early August, I was in the middle of a field, watching a meteor shower. Clouds were moving in from the North and West, a half moon still in the sky. I was tired, my thoughts hard to control. Lightning pulsed dimly on the horizon. When it started to rain, I went into the cabin and read a book I’d taken from my brother: Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, by Jerry Mander. He’d gotten it (he told me later) from an old girlfriend in California.
Oh, and then there is this time, when I was standing by the pond, reading a chapter out of Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy. I’d been thinking lately about his argument (which I studied in graduate school) that literacy fundamentally restructures human consciousness. Marshal McLuhan says something similar in Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). Unlike speaking, writing abstracts words into a neutral substrate, a kind of holographic screen that needs effort by the eye and mind to reconstitute in the original dimensions. Context is lost. Not only must I prefigure you, as a reader, addressing you in advance, guessing what kind of a post you might enjoy, but you must also paint an imprecise picture of me, as a writer, in your mind. As Ong puts it, “the reader must also fictionalize the writer,” (102).
Beside me, the Hunter was demonstrating how to throw a fishing net. It was like the hood of an octopus, weights on the edges and a mechanism at the center to draw it closed. I’d gone out on the river with him a few nights before, baiting hooks with nightcrawlers. We were both trying to draw things up out of murky waters. Fishing for something we couldn’t quite see. Even when I’m not writing I am writing, sketching outlines on the inside of my skull. Revising, and editing, drawing threads of words together as a net, to seine out the river-thoughts of days, or weeks, or years.
Putting words to screen or paper does not reflect my thoughts, it constitutes them. If I stopped writing, or trying to write, I would think differently. I would be someone other than myself. I’m either a writer, or I’m crazy; there’s no other reason I would have painted so much scenery in my mind, or made so many puppets, or practiced so many speeches. I’ve spent too much time chipping these spear-heads of plot and language not to hunt with them a while.
Jerry Mander makes similar arguments about television as Ong does about literacy: it subtly restructures consciousness, enabling one kind of thought at the expense of others. In memetic terms, both television and writing are ecologies of information that select for certain kinds, particular species, of cognition and mental experience, and filter out others.
My model of human experience draws on evolutionary psychology. The way we process information relies on modes of thinking and emotional biases that were selected for over a long history of figuring out how to live, and how not to die. You can feel a pull, when you read or write: a gravity towards a baseline of shared symbols and experience, like Carl Jung’s universal unconscious or Joseph Campell’s collective myths.
If our experience of the world is seen largely through the lens of an evolved nature, then claims for the exceptionality of literate (or modern, or television-addicted) consciousness become suspect. Human nature conspires, a believer in evolutionary biology would think, to bring all languages and codes back into the homo sapien’s pre-installed, 4-billion-year-old grammar. Television is passive and hypnotic, but the internet, as Ong points out, is pushing texts back into the realm of theater, where things happen in stages, with digital scenes, curtains, and spaces expansive enough for extemporization. Snaps of Chats, living streams, instant messages. I type on my computer, and then I go outside, and use the trees and birds to think.
For now the internet is my stage for this little stand up routine. Thank you–I’ll be here all my life. Until the power goes out. Consider my writing a serialized narrative, a continuity, one of Prospero’s protected islands.
There was, on the fourth, the flash and bang of a firework like an artillery shell, louder and brighter than I expected. Kakow! Explosion doubled by the pond, the bang by the echo. One of the neighbor’s sons, and his friends. He’s about to leave for college, and wants the world to hear his summer.
This could be the time before the war, I find myself thinking, before an ecological or political curtain. The kind of jolt that could wake you up into history, or language.
Slade House: Into the Labyrinth.
I talk about books the way other people talk about the weather, as a subject more polite, and unobjectionable, than talking about yourself. A way of passing time, and noting its passing. I read quickly, so reading feels, for me, like a way of slowing motion, of chilling down my heart.
Slade House is haunted by two evil, psychically gifted twins who have created a lacuna, a pocket universe outside of normal chronology, just before a physical house, their room in an attic, was bombed by Germans in world war II. Every nine years the twins lure their victims into this extra-dimensional trap, via sirenesque illusions, to recharge their spiritual batteries by devouring the victims’ mortal souls.
There is an analogy, I can’t help but notice, between Slade House in the book and Slade House the book, or any novel that creates an unchanging space that draws you in, creating the illusion that time outside is frozen, and that as a reader you, too, are safe, immortal, incorporeal. I read Slade House in a day, hardly moving. I re-read Niel Gaiman’s American Gods in two, slipping into his mythic underworld, dusting off the mental images from the last time I was there, long enough ago that the turns of plot were still unexpected.
In the attic of my friend, on the fourth of July, he and my brother were talking in hushed voices, so as to not wake the baby. That scene, that space, by writing about it, and remembering more details upon revisioning, becomes a lacuna of my own, an inhabited program of stored memory, a dog-eared page. This was before dinner (I brought some zucchini and potatoes), and after beer. Mosquitoes had driven us from the porch. J’s mother and stepfather were watching a crime drama downstairs.
The book on the top of the stack was Into the Labyrinth, volume six of the Death Gate Cycle, a series I had started but never finished as a teenager. Margeret Weis and Tracy Hickman, though, were among the first authors to really pull the reality-rug out from under me as a kid–their Dragonlance series ushering in an obsession with fantasy which, while mostly in remission and largely replaced by science fiction (alongside more serious and socially acceptable genres) flared up in a full-blown self-published novel, featuring a labyrinth that, I have no doubt, is a direct descendant of the maze in the Death Gate Cycle.
M told me I could borrow it, and I did, keeping it next to me at dinner like a date.
Inside Into the Labyrinth, toward the end of the book, a character named Alfred is placed in a magical prison. He is a Sartan, the race that constructed the convoluted, world-sized prison to hold the Patryn, their rivals. Alfred asks the headman Vasu, his jailer, “how exactly you keep people imprisoned? Considering that our magic is based on possibilities and with the vast range of possibilities for escape available…” (400).
Vasu explains that the magic of the prison reduces the normally innumerable possibilities to zero. He explains that “we have constructed what is known as a ‘well’–a small chamber inside the cavern where time literally comes to a halt. A person exists within a frozen second and, during that second, so long as the magic is operative, there exists no possibility of escape” (400).
Again, I can’t help but feeling that Vasu is talking about the book itself, or any book, where the characters never age, never change, and the scene is played out exactly as it was when I read it–I think I was that far in the series–20 years ago.
Ong talks about, historically, the association of writing with death. Unlike living people, he says, texts can’t answer back when questioned. And yet “the paradox lies in the fact that the deadness of the text, its removal from the living human lifeworld, its rigid visual fixity, assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a potentially infinite number of living readers” (Orality and Literacy, 81).
Vapor Trails and Transition Storms
“Most world are Closed, a few are Open. Most people are not Aware, a few are Aware. An Open world is one in which most people are Aware and there is no need to dissemble regarding the business of flitting or transitioning between worlds. Where I am now, lying in this bed in this clinic, is a Closed world, a reality where possibly nobody except myself knows that the many worlds exist, let alone that they are connected and that travel between them is possible” -Transitions 179
The copies of Transitions (2009) and Slade House that I read came from the Blue Valley library, about five miles from my parents’ house, where I have been living for the past seven or eight months. I walked there. Just before I arrived, the storm clouds that had been crawling towards me broke. Krakow! Over the library’s internet connection, I saw there was a severe storm warning, with hail large enough to pose a threat to livestock. I hoped that the worst of it would pass before the library closed.
I’ve been really into walking lately. I don’t have a car, and up until a couple weeks ago had no driving license. Like Slade House, or the well prison in Into the Labyrinth, my parents’ house, some days, seems a kind of timeless lacuna, difficult to escape from, where possibilities are reduced to zero. Like the character in Transitions, though, I can sense the other dimensions, the parallel continuities. The open road.
I was reading about “Vaporware,” a term for products whose future release date is advertised, but by design or misfortune, never actually happens. Corporations apparently use vaporware campaigns to solidify brand loyalty–customers will be less likely to abandon a brand if they think some new product or release is just over the horizon.
When I got back from Peru, I told everyone I was going to hike the Appalachian trail. I announced it on the internet, posting on forums, planning out everything I would carry. I looked at maps, entranced by those dotted lines.
In the end, I didn’t go. Not enough money. That reality, that time line, hovers tauntingly close to this one.
There was a second chance. You can either travel the trail northbound, starting in early spring, or southbound, starting in the summer, around the beginning of July. I tore myself up with thwarted wanderlust. Too much of my energy was spent trying to summon sufficient courage. If not the Appalachian trail, then anything, anywhere, all of those possibilities. Just put on a backpack and go, trust fate and that my wits would be enough to live by, to land softly enough in some unknown destination.
The same feeling of collapsing waves, of possibilities closing, the hooks of ambition tearing away from this reality, accompanies the passing of the last of my chances to set out on the trail of academic jobs. I’m nearing the point of no return, the expiration date, of my degree, and I can feel the palpably comfortable fabric of that life-path start disassembling into drift.
I’m reluctant, now, to talk about any future plans. I don’t want to paint any more vapor trails in the sky. It hurts to have the public record of my repeated losses of nerve. My biggest vaporware by far is my always-on-the horizon novel Continuity Drift. Like Transitions, it features people who travel between dimensions. A metaphor for all those other selves.
Let me draw quickly one last frozen set-piece, a haunted mnemonic space we can hide in. Prospero’s bookstore, on 39th street, near Westport. Prospero was the Magician in The Tempest, the lord over a changeless, enchanted isle. A place I love–my brother drove me there. On the shelf, downstairs, I found my novel, the one I’ve been planning, working on, over the last ten years. It was written by Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter, and in this dimension is called Time’s Eye.
Listen to the blurb on the back: “In an instant, Earth is carved up in time and reassembled like a huge jigsaw puzzle. Suddenly the world becomes a patchwork of eras, from prehistory to 2037, each with its own indigenous inhabitants.” Like in Continuity Drift, the dimensional entanglement/convergence is preceded by strange storms. The first chapter even has a pre-human hominid.
I wasn’t upset or surprised that someone had written my novel before me. I’m used to these reminders that everything I imagine is just channeled epiphenomena of the zeitgeist, the same tunes played on different instruments, the same stories broadcast over different dimensional frequencies. I live for, am powered by, that shock of recognition, when you see that someone else is actually you, that some other culture, some other language, is your own, drifted.
I like the genre of book reviews because it is an admission that all writing is derivative, and therefore collaborative. We are all ghosts of our ancestors, scripted by our genes.
My mother recently passed a book along to me called Endurance. It is Alfred Lansing’s 1959 recounting the voyage of Ernest Shackleton. There is also, in this edition, a map, on page xvii, called “The Drift of the Endurance,” representing with a dotted line the poorly plotted course of the ship. Starting with increasingly ominous labels for dots along the dashing line (“lost sight of land” around 75 degrees S latitude, then “endurance crushed and abandoned Oct 1915”, and so on) with the words “drifting on the ice” and “took to the boats” floating farther North, where they were trying to reach the Elephant Isles.
One thing that stood out to me more, because of my own preoccupations and mental states, was that the motivation for Shackleton’s voyage was money. According to Lansing, “The Antarctic and financial security became more or less synonymous in Shackleton’s thinking. He felt that success here–some marvelous stroke of daring, a deed which would capture the world’s imagination–would open the door to fame, then riches” (15).
So it was with my unreal(istic) dreaming of the Appalachian Trail. Surely, I thought, I would find something, someone, while hiking, who would recognize my spirit, my story, and offer me a job. Fortuna would pull through if I showed a little arete. Everyone I met, I would tell about my novel. The words would spread. I would play strangers songs on the mandolin. My skill set suits me most to wandering.
Shackleton seems to have been, like me, a serious purveyor of vaporware. “He was,” Lansing writes, “perennially entranced with new schemes, each of which in turn he was sure would win his fortune. It would be impossible to list them all, but they included an idea to manufacture cigarettes…a fleet of taxicabs, mining in Bulgaria, a whaling factory–even digging for buried treasure. Most of his ideas never got beyond the talking stage, and those that did were usually unsuccessful” (15).
If the internet would have been around in the early 20th century, Shackleton would have no doubt tried to be a web developer, or started his own Patreon page.
There’s something about the date of Shackleton’s departure: just before the outbreak of the first world war. The adventurer even, before leaving but after Britain had declared war on Germany, sent a telegraph “placing the entire expedition at the disposal of the government” (21). The Grayer twins, remember, created the Slade House lacuna, freezing it in time, just before it was “bombed to rubble in 1940” (180) in the second world war. The Endurance left Britain, to become literally frozen in floes of ice, just before the outbreak of the first world war. I’m creating my own lacuna, this blog post (if the republican convention is any indication) just before the third.
The last book I’ll talk about is Greenmantle (1988), by Charles de Lint, another author who planted fantasies deep in my childhood mind. My brother recently re-read the urban fantasy novel, so I did, too. A small Canadian town is haunted by airs played by an idiot boy on a pan pipe (the Peruvian version, by the way, is called sikuri which means, in Quechua, “light-headedness from lack of breath”), which summons a mysterious stag, pursued by hounds. The mystical deer is not only mysterious, it is a mystery. The answer to the question posed by the novel: is the Green Man good or evil? is resolved by a formulation that, in the hands of any other writer, would probably seem trite and superficial. The stag, the Green Man, the mystery, reflects what you bring. It heightens, makes manifest, whatever you are predisposed to find. It makes real, makes powerful, what was already in your deepest heart.
Coming back from one of my walks, I ran into my (parents’) neighbor, who felt inclined to give me a pep-talk, a life-lesson, about the power of positive thinking. Whatever you think about every day, he said, is what you will become.
This neighbor has a basement filled with hunting trophies, stuffed lions, leopards, bears, foxes, from all over the world. He earned a fortune selling and distributing toilet paper. “All I want,” I tell him, “all I need, is a place to write. Enough money to live. It could be a little shack somewhere…”
“Well,” he said, dismissing this sort of life with his hands, “if that’s the kind of energy you want to bring into the universe…”
I know the icebergs of those incantations. The Scylla-minded maelstroms of Milton’s “the mind can make a hell of heaven, or heaven of hell”, which David Mitchell in Slade House has one of the characters, acting involuntarily under the compulsive type of enchantment/spell known as a ‘suasion, recite just before throwing himself out of a window. Fred Pink, who everyone in the small Irish town thinks has been insane since he woke up from his coma, is in a pub telling the sister of one of the haunted house’s victims about Sayyid’d (the master of the mystical arts who trained the diabolic twins) who was, just as he was about to publish a book exposing their secrets, murdered by a fatal psychic ‘suasioning.
The haunted house exists, Fred Pink tells her, because of “a quartet of psychosoteric breakthroughs. First of, they perfected the lacuna. Which is what? A lacuna’s a small space that’s immune to time, so a candle’ll never burn down in it, or a body won’t age in it. Second, they enhanced the transversion their Sayyid’d taught them–what the New Age jokers call astral projection–so their souls could move into a stranger and occupy that body” (176).
I tell my big-game-hunting neighbor that Epictetus, the ancient Greek writer, wrote that the fate of people was determined by two forces: arete, which was the kind of strength, heroic endurance, that he was talking about, but that the other half was fortuna, fate, over which humans had no control. “Yeah,” he said, “that’s like Republicans and Democrats, right? Half of the people are strong enough to control their fate, and half are always going to blame their luck, or the government, or someone else…”
It was a brilliant conversational move, as intentional misunderstandings go. I had to explain that no, Epictetus meant that everyone’s fate was determined by these two opposing forces, their strength and their luck, and that no one had control over their own fortuna.
My arete, I think, comes from sensing the transitions, the empathic possibilities of other branches, lives I might have had. I recognize my possible selves in other people. I know my fortuna has been exceedingly kind.
Two nights ago I was on a lake, in a kyak for the first time, with two friends, the moon on one side and a sunset on the other.
One night ago I was on a night hike in a park, with a group of a dozen people–an internet thing. We came to a clearing, a breeze, and a yellow moon, nearly full. “This is nice,” we all said.
Tonight the moon is full (like the lyric to the Blues Traveler song “no matter what the waitress brings / I will drink it and always be full”). I’ll publish this now, lowering its temperature, slowing its flow, and edit it later.