The Marvel of Al Kaline’s Name

I had a lot of gloomy introductions to this post, which I have excised. There is a lot of gloom, if that’s what you want to look at. Marilynne Robinson writes that for many people, “the worst thing you can say is the truest thing.” Every sentence I tried to write to set up the sentence I eventually want to talk about wound up drifting to the worst thing, which made me feel angry and overheated. Rebecca Solnit writes, “Much political rhetoric suggests that without anger there is no powerful engagement, that anger is a sort of gasoline that runs the engine of social change.”  I myself tend to get gloomier than angry in every circumstance except for people who are walking in front of me and walking, in my opinion, too slowly (maybe that’s good; Solnit follows up her point by adding that “sometimes gasoline just makes things explode.”) In “The Conversion of the Jews,” Roth describes a particular day by saying, “It was a gusty, clouded November afternoon and it did not seem as though there ever was or ever could be such a thing as baseball.”

I thought about this last quote in relation to this installment’s sentence, which is none of the above sentences but which I will be coming around to shortly, a great deal while I was driving around recently in the rain. I was on an errand to retrieve, from a house on Cape Cod, a mislaid pinstriped suit; the last time I had been down there in such dismal rain, I had listened to Game Four of the World Series that the Kansas City Royals would eventually lose to the Giants, on a mission to retrieve, from the same house, mislaid earrings. The rain that day, in late fall, drove in a particularly nasty and horizontal way, making yesterday’s dull springy rain a kind of amelioration. It was not November yesterday, which means there was, and could be, such a thing as baseball.

 

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My interest in baseball is not particularly well attuned to the thing itself. My friend Darius will sometimes describe to me aesthetic practices of the baseball men — a beautiful swing, an understated delivery relative to a pitcher’s handedness — that leave me with a blank mystification that I have to fake my way through. Of course, I have learned to say. Typical, for a guy with an arm slot like that. I do not, as often, know what I am talking about. I am much better with knowing what happened in a series, or which pitcher once rolled the ball, Bocce-style, for a 1-3 putout: the hermeneutics, not the erotics, of baseball. It is perhaps related to this failure of a real detail-level connection to baseball that makes me go pretty quickly to Philip Roth quotes about the game, and also why I love the greatest and sanest of all the baseball hermeneuticists, Roger Angell.

Roger Angell wrote a passage in a stellar essay about the 1975 World Series called “Agincourt and After” justifying his love of sports, which comes, essentially, down to the desire to believe in something. “It seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved.” That was in 1975! Nearly two decades before Reality Bites! Anyway Angell knows that it’s dumb to care about baseball, and that part of the reason that it’s important to care about baseball is that it’s dumb. There are more Important Things to Know About.

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I’ve been thinking a lot this baseball season — a season which, incidentally, has seen the best player on my favorite team get popped for an almost comically retro steroid and suspended for eighty games — not about the “Agincourt and After” passage, but a different one from Angell, which I wish to analyze now. (It’s actually two sentences, yoked together between parentheses):

(Not until this summer, by the way, did I suddenly become aware of the marvel of Al Kaline’s name. Somewhere in the world, I wonder — perhaps in Spain — could there be an outfielder named A. Cid?)

This is baseball analysis as an epiphanic dad joke, and I adore it. So much of what we are compelled to notice all day is obnoxious and embarrassing and bad, even in something like baseball, a putative distraction (although: how much of a distraction, and for whom, is evident by looking at any argument that involves someone on twitter being told to stick to sports). The marvel of Al Kaline’s name — that, without a space, it’s a word — seems to me to be truly marvelous; I have had just the phrase “the marvel of Al Kaline’s name” bouncing around in my head for weeks now, and I could not be happier.

This marvel is essentially the opposite of that other greatest of baseball sentences, which is the boy at the end of Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain” saying “Short’s the best position they is.” Angell’s sentence is kind of baroque, and it more or less needs to be read (I have found out first hand and repeatedly how badly it goes over when said out loud to half-listening family members). Wolff’s sentence — the thing that the protagonist surprisingly thinks of just at the moment of his death — is sheer sound. I love them both, and I love that both of them — along with Roth’s observation on the glumness of certain days — are all appurtenances of baseball despite having essentially nothing to do with it.

I was thinking about all of this at a bar yesterday, when the bartender’s brother told her that all jokes were against someone. She countered this reheated Freudiansim with a joke about a lion and a cheetah playing cards; the lion accuses the cheetah of cheating, and the the cheetah accuses the lion of prevaricating (out loud, it’s funny). The brother said that “language jokes” don’t count. Such a way of being in the world is too grim even for me. Language jokes are the only thing that count, as far as I am concerned; the joyful contingency of Al Kaline’s name, a sudden meaningless piece of order in the unending disorder that is being alive today, is not against anyone. Bergson thought that we laugh when we see “the mechanical encrusted upon the vital” — some poor alive schmo sticks his foot in a bucket and falls down, and we laugh at him because his aliveness wasn’t enough to hold off gravity. What the gentleman at the bar called language jokes are a kind of marvel for reminding us that language is mechanical and vital at the same time; being able to have both of these at the same time is the best position they is.

There have been three major leaguers born in Spain, but Roger Angell and I are still waiting for A. Cid.

The love of your life

This is a kind of love story. The sentence for this installment is the following:

“The love of your life will appear before you unexpectedly.”

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On what turned out to be March 16, 2006, I was sitting in Goodrich Hall in Williamstown, Massachusetts, doing the New York Times crossword with my crossword friends. It was a Thursday, which was my favorite day to the crossword: maximum cleverness (rather than the blunter difficulties of Friday’s or Saturday’s puzzle), along with its being readily accessible at Goodrich, which is where my crossword friends and I got lunch. Sunday’s puzzle, though it often has the same measure of cleverness as a good Thursday, runs on a little long, like a joke that has gone through two too many iterations of its setup. Also, when I was in college, I usually had a hangover on Sunday, plus they didn’t deliver the Sunday paper to Goodrich, so I’d have to go to the library and make a copy: a big production. Anyway I was doing what I would eventually rediscover to have been the March 16, 2006 crossword with my crossword friends and at one point I cracked the theme of the long clues. The gimmick of the long clues in this puzzle, by Ben Tausig, was brilliant. I swacked at the table, I honked, I was rendered nonverbal. I happened to have arrived at the gimmick ahead of most of my friends, and so I stared with dumb anticipation of them coming along to getting it and enjoying this tremendous piece of verbal cleverness with me. And I that’s the day that I met what I would refer to, with wavering degrees of specificity over the next eight years and five months, as my favorite crossword.

Sometime in early 2013, I was texting one of the people with whom I used to do the crossword at Goodrich, and reiterating my new complaint, which was that everyday was like Sunday, in the sense that I was everyday forced to go to the library at my new school, and make a copy of the crossword. No more the free deliveries of the headstrong middle-aughts, when print media were in a richer form of denial about their demise. Sometimes the Times didn’t show up to the library at all, and where was I then? My crossword friend obliged me with her father’s Times password, and I exulted in it, dutifully logging in and printing out the crossword every morning (I didn’t do the online version, to avoid interfering with my friend’s father’s filling in the crossword himself, and later, at this friend’s wedding, I found myself standing next to the father, whom I had not met, and only just barely restrained myself from telling him all of this). That’s how I did the crossword until June, 2014, when I was going away to a summer program in Ithaca New York to study literary theory, and where I feared I might not have access to a printer; and then I finally got my own subscription, and took up doing the crossword online, without the possibility of ruining things for any friends’ fathers.

During these renewed months of diurnal crossword completion, another thing I would not do, I am sorry to say, is shut up about them, and about the ghost of my favorite crossword in particular. On a certain level, doing the crossword is a way to emphatically be by yourself. There’s a reason that on The Office it’s standoffish Stanley, rather than any of the more gregarious characters, whose thing is that he does crossword puzzles. The famous supposed reason for even reading fiction — that it encourages empathy — is in most senses vacated from any kind of word puzzle: in spite of the grid, it’s difficult to “only connect” with 12 Across. Nevertheless, what I wanted to impress — on my scattered crossword friends over gchat and text, on my poor mother and brothers and sister mostly in person — was a kind of at least promise of communal appreciation of the things that words can do — and the things that, more granularly, letters can do, when they are just slight detached from semantics and left to float a little on their own. I adored not just my half-remembered favorite crossword, but others — the one with the eclipses, the one with the cyclone, the one with the Moby-Dick theme that I paid an entire six dollars for at a gas station in North Carolina — and I really wanted, somehow, to make my adoration shared. Despite this, the main thing that people — correctly! — said to my accounts of crosswords overcome were either a polite “that’s clever” or, on the part of my mother, a semi-outraged “why would they think you should know that?” My mother’s question crystallized, I think, a part of the contingency of community that the “fiendish” instances of crosswords promise. There really is no reason that I should have known that 13 of the squares should have two letters in them, and that each of the two letter squares would contain the state abbreviations of the original colonies. But someone thought that some people might know, and I was one of them. There is a sense in which the shared contingent community that that hope to be understood and to understand is a very low wattage instance of love.

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In addition to the relief that I would not accidentally spoil my friend’s father’s crossword, and that I was now supporting The New York Times in its various missions to inform and entertain, I was now able, starting in June 2014, to wade around into the puzzle’s back catalog; and part of what that meant was that I was able to begin a hunt for my adored favorite crossword. I remembered the following about it: (1) the gimmick, which I am not going to spoil here, but which I am only too happy to talk about when asked; (2) that it occurred during the academic-year months of the four years I was in college; and (3) that it ran on a Thursday. A part of me thought that I might start in 2003, and march through the Thursdays (skipping summers) until I found it, but I decided that — unlike the rest of this project — such diligence was insane. So instead I would pick a month and year at random and, usually once every two days, if I had already done most recent crossword and failed to slake my appetite for gridded wordplay, do another one. I bounded around like that for a few months, and one day I went to the P.F. Chang’s in Natick, Massachusetts, which is inside of a mall, and ate the Spring Rolls and Street Noodles and got a fortune cookie, the slip of paper inside of which said on it “The love of your life will appear before you unexpectedly.” This was something about which to think on the hot drive home, on a night in August, from the Natick P.F. Chang’s where I had just eaten dinner by myself.

Based on the narrative contour of this story so far, I cannot act like it is a big reveal that, later that night — a Tuesday — after I barreled through the day’s crossword, and a random Thursday from my college years, I, like Charlie Bucket deciding to buy ooooone more Wonka Bar, decided that my course preparation could continue to wait, and that I clicked on the crossword for March 16, 2006, and the down fills led to me seeing that 17 Across began YGO, a very rare trigram to begin a word, and I squelped a little noise as I remembered the first of the themed clues from my favorite crossword and realized what I had just come across, and blissfully completed the fill, grinning dumbly and looking around with a simultaneously word-derived and wordless kind of joy. Whether or not the fortune cookie’s prophecy had been, so quickly, fulfilled, is something on which I continue, years later, to think.

Appropriate or wholly inappropriate

 

It’s easy most of the time to not make any sense. It seems to me that the default position that most readers and auditors have is that the person generating utterances is making a kind of sense, and let them go at that. Most movies don’t make a whole lot of sense, whether they are popularly considered as nonsense (how did Quincy Adams Wagstaff earn his degree, anyway?) or otherwise (how did the Joker get all of those explosives into that hospital?) A failure to, even once, make any sense at all does not disqualify citizens of this great country from serving as a Secretary of Education, or as President. Human beings, to their occasional great imperilment, are willing to be charitable readers of what other people are saying (“take him seriously not literally” being a dumb and harmful instance of this charity; “who cares, he’s the Joker and it’s a movie” being the other type of instance). My favorite poet, John Ashbery, rarely makes any “prose sense” at all(“Sure, a bitter pill/multiple corn dogs, and I ask you”), but he sounds excellent; this is true too of the sentence “I don’t wanna hear you lie tonight/now that I’ve become who I really are”.

None of those people — Ariana Grande, the Joker, Betsy DeVos — is trying real hard to make any sense; they are up to something else. People who make sense do things like write encyclopedias. And thanks to the democratic adventure of wikipedia, these two domains occasionally collide and we get gems like today’s sentence, which is from the Wikipedia page describing the 1984 album “Weird” Al Yankovic In 3-D:

“This album marked a musical departure from Yankovic’s self-titled debut, in that the arrangements of the parodies were now closer to the originals and the accordion was no longer used in every song, now only being featured where deemed appropriate or wholly inappropriate for comedic effect.”

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The felicities of this sentence are, I think, readily apparent. It has a baroque paratactic structure, with a long explanatory dependent clause (“in that…”) that contains its own long explanatory dependent clause (“now only being…”). It has the false paradox right off the bat, which claims that a musical departure was enacted by virtue of hewing closer to the original musical arrangements (and as much as I love “Another One Rides the Bus,” this was a decision that paid tremendous dividends). And then: the ending. I am obsessed with the logic — with the sensible entailments — that arise from the claim that there must be three exhaustive types of songs in the world: songs where the accordion is appropriate; songs where the accordion is wholly inappropriate, and thus a successful comedic effect; and, magnificently, songs where the accordion is inappropriate, yet not so inappropriate that the song would be made funny by having some accordion in it.

It turns out, reading a bit further in the Wikipedia article about “Weird” Al Yankovic In 3-D, that the worldview from which this position arises belongs to…”Weird” Al himself, who substantially said that quote on the Ask Al section of his website. (Depressed and discouraged for much of the middle of last November, I spent a very large quantity of time listening to “Weird” Al songs [particularly “Frank’s 2000′ TV”], reading about him on Wikipedia, and trying to improve my score on the “Can you name the “Weird” Al songs (studio tracks)?” sporcle. I can’t say I’d specifically recommend this course to anyone, but, I am still here, so.) One change is that the Wikipedia editor buffs up the adjective in front of “effect” — Al says “comic,” but the introduction says “comedic.” This is good, because the “ee” noise makes “comedic” a funnier word than “comic”. But this digression about effects cannot stop us in our quest to grapple with the tripartite division of songs, and that third category, of songs where an accordion might make the song funny, but not funny enough. Was the accordion merely uncomedically inappropriate as an addition to “Stop Dragging My Car Around?” I think it’s funny; who knows.

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This image combines the idea of categories and “Weird” Al, via In 3-D‘s “I Lost on Jeopardy”, which does not feature an accordion

Categorization is allied to the compulsion to make sense. If you could put everything into a category correctly, everything would make sense. This is the aspiration of Kantians, and of the lunatic Platonist fringe (if you would like to hear my full thoughts about the lunatic Platonist fringe, ask me sometime about the “is a hot dog a sandwich” debate). Borges had a grand old time with the categories of the “Chinese encyclopedia” which supposedly divided animals into the categories of: those that belong to the emperor; embalmed ones; those that are trained; suckling pigs; mermaids or sirens; fabulous ones; stray dogs; those that are included in this classification; those that tremble as if they were mad; innumerable ones; those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush; et cetera; those that have just broken the flower vase; those that, at a distance, resemble flies. Foucault praised the list (which is really such a lovely list) for “breaking up all ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things”. He’s right: that’s what “innumerable ones” and “those drawn with a very fine camel hair brush” do, right next to each other, as categories of the animals.

So: does “songs that are inappropriate for the accordion, but not inappropriate enough for comedic effect” break up the planes with which we tame the wild profusion of existing things? I don’t quite think so. If anything, the existence of a logically entailed category that doesn’t itself make sense seems to me to be reassuring. There’s an aura around Borges’s categories of the mathematical sublime: so many of them! It is vertiginous to contemplate. There’s a comforting lack of vertigo in the contemplation of a song that is wrong for the accordion but dryly so. It comes at the end of that long goofy sentence; and in a formal, pleasing way, is required for at least the semblance of sense.

Take a risk, take a chance, make a change

In January 2006, I did two things that rose to the level of a habitually told anecdote. The first one was, I wore a track suit everyday. Earlier, in December 2005, I had asked a friend of mine if he would continue to be my friend if I wore a tracksuit every day for a month.

I would not be your friend, he said, if you didn’t.

That was good enough for me. I wore the tracksuit to class; I wore the tracksuit to the liquor store; and those were the only two places I really went, apart from upstairs from my dorm room to the floor where we had parties. The one exception was, after I had worn my tracksuit to the Albany airport to pick up my good friend Brian, he insisted on taking me out to dinner at a place whose fanciness shamed my tracksuits; so I put khakis on over the tracksuit pants, and put the tracksuit jacket on over a button down shirt, and felt like I had hewed close to the spirit of the thing.

These tracksuits had been provided to me as a Christmas present by my mother; I told her my intention to wear a tracksuit every day for a month, and she had cheerfully abetted this. The only obligation I had, apart from getting my friend from the airport and receiving my reward that one time, was to go to a class twice a week on the subject of SHAME. We read Hawthorne, Rushdie, Coetzee, and Silvan Tomkins. I spent so much time, in the days in between Christmas and the new year, deliberating on whether it was better to wear the tracksuits in an observable rotation, or catch as catch can, or in a day-specific manner with wildcards on the weekends (there were five tracksuits), that I cannot now call to mind what system I ultimately adopted. The professor in the course about shame pointed out that nobody in the novel — including the narrator — ever says, explicitly, what the A in The Scarlet Letter stands for.

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I apologize for not writing for some time; I have been busy enough writing other things, and facing the frustrating operation of writing in what seem to be dismal times. I have several wordpress drafts containing a mixture of (1) good ideas, to which I hope to return, (2) attempts to talk about Our Times in a wise way, most of which involve James Baldwin, and most of which I feel I cannot live up to, and (3) blistering DESTRUCTIONS of various of the current people who are hard at work making the times dismal, to which I am very disinclined to ever revisit. The oppressiveness of lies, gaslighting, hypocrisy, and blithe disregard for what YOU think tend not to wither in the face of point-by-point demonstrations of their bad qualities and poor judgment. Your utterance: but I know this true! fails to count much for people uninterested in truth. That there are ways to make them see, or to prevent the oppressive haze of uninterest from setting in permanently, I hope, even if an assumption of concern about demonstrable untruth becomes dubious. Eve Kofosky Sedgwick, the great critic whom we also (I think?) read in the course about shame, puts this fear well, and understatedly: “a writer who appeals too directly to the redemptive potential of simply upping the cognitive wattage on any question of power seems, now, naive.” All that cognitive wattage; so little to do; at a point it can produce only heat, not light, and only heat that redounds on its source.

I am resolutely dubious about my ability to accomplish such a thing, and so my would-be TAKEDOWNS sit in drafts and instead I have been thinking about all of the not-knowing that I have done, and all of the ways in which not-knowing might be recuperable from the vile dissemination of alternative facts and the complete vacuation of the meaning of “fake news.” I hope so. Being within not-knowing can be a relief, and I think a different kind of epistemic relief from just turning your brain off. Or, again, I hope so.

The other thing I did in 2006 was: I drove home, at one point, from my college town to Lockport, the place I come from. Though I remember it being bright, I doubt that I wore sunglasses, because, somehow, I did not wear sunglasses driving until I turned thirty. Having failed to learn any lessons about talking to my friends about prospective plans, I asked one of them what he thought would happen if I listened to just one song, over and over, the entire five and a half hour drive back.

Wow, he said. Who can say?

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I decided that I would be able to say. To get home, I would drive on country roads for about an hour, and then get to the interstate around Albany. And, I decided, I would spend the whole time listening to “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson.

“I gotta take a risk, take a chance, make a change, and breakaway”

That’s the sentence, then, that I think of; it’s from the final chorus of “Breakaway,” and it changes the lyrics from the first two times, when she says “make a wish” instead of “take a risk.” All versions have one of my favorite things, which is the one-word version of “breakaway,” making it a noun needlessly pressed into service as a verb. The change in lyric, however, tended to cause me enormous trouble in singing along to the song, particularly when I endeavored to listen to it an entire trip home on a bright day at the end of January 2006; I would forget where in the song I was, mix up my wishes and risks, and look around briefly with embarrassed, unsunglassed eyes, even though there was no one in the car but me. And I made it….all the way to the interstate in Albany, when I did something foolish and tried to figure out how many times I had listened it so far.

It was not immediate, but it was not long after, that I figured that the best image for what happened to me was Wile E. Coyote, out over the void, surrendering his bliss by looking down and only then realizing that his obliged to obey gravity. I know it was not immediate because I had a genuine moment of swimmingness, that I felt so far from the right places to hitch into reality, as I merged onto the interstate 90 from 87 that I not only could not continue listening to “Breakaway” for another four hours, but I had to skip immediately to the next track on my special traveling mix cd, which was “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison. I spent almost the time it took to get to Syracuse trying to figure out how much of this story I was going to report to my friends, and whether and how much I should lie; I am pretty sure I mostly told the truth. Some math would doubtless help me to figure out, at least within one or two iterations, how many times I did manage to listen to “Breakaway” before untethering, but I don’t want to know, precisely.

All the nations of the world

“She made Bisquick batter, and stirred the berries into it while we attempted to list all the nations of the world.”

The “we” here is Ruth and Lucille and their aunt Sylvie, the triad who make up the main characters of Marilynne Robinson’s outrageously good debut novel, Housekeeping. I love Marilynne Robinson. Certain authors have colonized certain words or phrases for me, in obvious ways (“purity” is yours now, Franzen, for better and for worse) and in less obvious ways (thanks to the ending lines of Beloved, I think of “clamor” as belonging to Toni Morrison). Most weather words put me in mind of Shakespeare, whether herein imitating the sun, or putting up with winds that crack their cheeks. But to me, I am reminded of Marilynne Robinson by an entire grammatical person — the second person, because of her brilliant novel Gilead, which is written as a very long letter from an older pastor to his very young son, and in which the tone of loving address so suffuses the novel that it takes only a suggestion of such apostrophized care for me to think, “oh, like in Gilead“. While it hasn’t happened yet that this has occurred to me while reading an empathetic car manual, I can easily imagine it.

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this, with a filter, was one of my more popular instagrams

But now I am not rereading Gilead (or either of its good, third-person followups, Home or LilaLila is a sort of prequel to Gilead, and Home a kind of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of same); I am, for work, rereading Housekeeping. My work, which I have talked a little bit about here, consists currently of reading novels about what it means to do work and then trying to arrange those meanings, which are idiosyncratic to their novels, into an amalgamation such that, taken together, people might learn to think about their own work differently. It’s a living, kind of.

Aunt Sylvie’s mode of having a living is unclear. We know that she is interested in keeping up a kind of minimum appearance of domestic labor, because when she shows up we hear a lot about her establishing her eponymous “housekeeping”. She doesn’t seem to have a real good handle, however, on what this should consist of; she doesn’t make Ruth or Lucille go to school, she doesn’t seem to mind much when the house floods, she goes out during the day and seems like a constant flight risk; she does spend some time arranging cans. And one day, when Lucille and Ruth skip school, she comes across them by the lake on whose bottom, somewhere, are the bodies of both Sylvie’s father (Lucille and Ruth’s grandfather) and Lucille and Ruth’s mother (Sylvie’s sister). She doesn’t yell at them; they go home, and they make pancakes with blackberries in them, from Bisquick.

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My father once made weirdly salty Christmas cookies, Christmas cookies that were more like dog biscuits than the cookies built according to the family recipe of which my father is the custodian. And it turns out that Bisquick was the culprit: he had used that stuff instead of flour, a move somehow fatal to the cookies. I guess there’s a lot of salt in Bisquick. I myself have more successful Christmas related Bisquick memories, namely that I used to make cheddar Bisquick biscuits smothered in melted butter with garlic salt, a thing that is, unlike Christmas cookies, more or less impossible to screw up. The two things that I most remember about these biscuits was an idiotic sense of accomplishment I felt at believing my mother’s claim that I was uniquely adept at creating these unfuckupable blobs, and the squeals of delight with which I would eat glumps of the stuff, uncooked, particularly after demonstrated to my grandmother that I was not likely to die because of this since the recipe called for no eggs.

So that’s what’s what on Bisquick. Ruth and Lucille and Sylvie don’t stop at Bisquick though; the other major component of that sentence from Housekeeping is the recitation of all the nations of the world. The nations that make the list are Liberia, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Andorra, and San Marino, the last four of which are invoked because they are the ones that Lucille and Sylvie always forget. The one that I always forgot, until I started to remember that I always forgot it, was Kiribati. There is some question about when exactly Housekeeping is set, though it is certainly set before Kiribati became independent of the United Kingdom (which was in 1979, only a year before Housekeeping was published). So Lucille and Ruth and Sylvie would not have forgotten Kiribati, much less always forgotten it. Of course, they don’t forget Latvia, Liechtenstein, Andorra, or San Marino, either. Once you know which one you always forget, there it is.

The most common way to describe Aunt Sylvie in the literature about Housekeeping is as a transient: Sylvie is transient, she is the cause of transience in others, and the principle threat she offers to the keeping of house is that she may at any moment become acutely transient (that is, she may bolt). Apart from anchoring my egomaniacal Christmas tradition, there’s something transient about Bisquick as well — it’s a powder for people who can’t be bothered to biscuit slow, for people who need to get onto the next thing. And, I think, remembering which one you always forget is a way of being transient too, of acknowledging that eventually the whole manifold of intuition is hovering liminally between the things you can think of and the things you can’t, leaving you with the things you always forget. A list of all the nations in the world is one thing, and a biscuit is another thing. Stirring into the batter, trying to name all the nations in the world, are transient things, and I am glad they are stuck together in that sentence.

Nothing Against Heaven

“This is without doubt, but nothing against heaven, since heaven means, precisely, the impossibility of crows.”

Now there’s a verb I think about all day! “Means”. The scale of meaning is screwed up. Everything means too much, except for things that mean too little. The confederate flag, to people who want to like it: “oh, it doesn’t mean support for a slave-owning plantocracy!” (Of course it does). This is in large part a question of how much of what we say we are obligated to mean, and it — and its opposite problem, of meaning too much — is something that keeps me up all night and improperly focused on other things all day, so I am going to try to talk about it here.

The opposite problem I think about the most when I think about sports, which is too often. Tom Brady is one of, and possibly, the best quarterback of all time. But to a lot of people one of the things that “mean” that he is a great quarterback is that he has won four Super Bowls and only lost two. The most recent one that he won seemed like it might go into the L column, until Malcolm Butler (who is not Tom Brady) intercepted a pass from Russell Wilson (who is also not Tom Brady). Nevertheless, for a particular way of making meaning, this sequence of events was extremely important for the question of whether Tom Brady is a great quarterback (4 Super Bowls!) or (somehow?) not so great (he’s won as many Super Bowls as he’s lost!).

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Sports!

This is related, I think, to my ongoing suspicion — voiced earlier here on my sentence analysis blog — of knowing too quickly, at the beginning of a sentence one’s reading, where things are going to go. The more you can assume about how a sentence ends from how it begins, the less work you have to do, which is normally helpful and normally fine. Outside of growing bored during bar sports arguments, it doesn’t really matter if someone tells you that Malcolm Butler’s interception made Brady a better quarterback. “A championship type quarterback” is a thing that is easy to talk about, easier than getting into whatever specifics make up the Tom Brady story. And life is hard! Lots of things are good to do the easy way.

And yet: it does rankle, this gravitation toward the smoothly narratable, the desire to sand the edges of something that one has come across until all of a sudden it matches something we already know about and then we can fit it into a name we know. The struggle to make meaning is often the struggle to get something to fit under a meaning that is in our armature, and then to move on to something else. In both directions: this flag only means this, this interception entirely means that. I spend most of my life trying to figure out the right level of meaning to ascribe to everything, and I assume that I am almost never not wrong.

Professionally, I am supposed to be in the camp where anything can mean enough if we put enough into it. I spend a good chunk of each semester trying to get eighteen year olds on board with this idea. Why, I ask them, do they think that Nell Zink decided to have the protagonist of Mislaid decide to pass as an African-American woman? “Just because,” they say. “The book would be too short if she didn’t.” Which: true. But on the other hand: we are not yet utterly committed Wittgensteinians; we have not decided yet that there is nothing we can speak on and that all we can do is be silent. So we ought to say something; which runs into my troubles in civilian life, when I am constantly suspicious that things mean too much, that the right attitude is closer to a kind of Wittgensteinian quietism.

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This is a cat named Kafka, who presumably does not like crows

This long excursus on mostly sports has been in the service of talking about the sentence above, which is the second half of an entire story by Franz Kafka*. The first half of the story goes like this: “The crows maintain that anyone of them could destroy heaven.” And in case you’ve forgotten the sentence that we’re here to talk about, it is: “This is beyond doubt, but nothing against heaven, since heaven means, precisely, the impossibility of crows.” And because of what I think about all day, as I’ve tried to describe in the foregoing, I am so keenly interested in, and half in love with, Kafka’s “means” there. What could this possibly mean, that heaven “means precisely” (precisely!) the impossibility of crows? 

*(One of these days, I might have something to say about a story of Kafka’s that is only one sentence long, and which the great Donald Barthleme used to demonstrate what good sentences ought to do; as a sneak peek, it’s about leopards and has, if I remember rightly, two semicolons).

 

Obviously it does not work the same way as the confederate flag meaning what it means, or Malcolm Butler’s interception failing to mean what it is purported to mean. The abstract condition is introduced last, even though it is the title of the story (“Impossibility of Crows”); it is preceded not only by an outrageous threat — the destruction of heaven — but also by the marvelous announcement of the belief maintained by the crows, and also by the wonderfully forgiving dismissiveness with which the speaker grants the crows their long maintained belief. (I am putting a little plug here to once more announce that someday soon I will write about my favorite sentence, but also to point out that this gem from Kafka might be my second favorite sentence). And it all comes down to what heaven means, which is the impossibility of crows. What could meaning there possibly mean — as a metaphor? a metonymy? an allegory? I have no idea. And that is why I love so much this sentence, and its rich resistance to meaning too much or too little.

In the names of vintage wines or plump courtesans

“Do you like quotes?” says Mary Svevo, Kirsten Dunst’s character in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She does; she rattles off some good ones from Pope and from Nietzsche. I do, too, although on the face of it there’s something weird about liking quotes. It’s like liking laws, or food. Surely one should like some, and not others? And is it different to like quotes than to like sentences? It certainly is, based on the practice that I have observed and never fully understood, often carried out by the people who make greeting cards and those tiles you can hang up in your kitchen* and various internet-based sites of inspiration, which is that they put some quote up and attribute it to “anonymous”. The quote’s the important thing, not even whose quote it is. The person creating these sites of inspiration seems to think: It’s not important that you take Eleanor Roosevelt or Dr. Seuss or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s word for it; it’s only important that you don’t have to take mine.

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*(I at first tried searching for an instance of this by googling “anonymous quotes” and I received instead, as I should have guessed, a bunch of stuff about nonconformity with pictures of Guy Fawkes masks, Anonymous having gone through a weird verbal process and become, at least on the internet, a name; something like Odysseus with the cyclops.)

Anyway here’s a quote:

Such titles display a specious glamour acceptable maybe in the names of vintage wines or plump courtesans but degrading in regard to the talent that substitutes the easy allusiveness of literacy for original fancy and shifts onto a bust’s shoulders the responsibility for ornateness since anybody can flip through A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet, or, perhaps, the Sonnets and take his pick.

That’s Nabokov’s Charles Kinbote, in Pale Fire, being the special kind of idiot that Kinbote is. I don’t think he would get the impulse toward anonymized tagging either; he might not even like quotes. Why not? What separates Kinbote from me and Mary Svevo?

First some background on the various shot through Kinbote’s complaint: this long sentence comes in Kinbote’s footnote to a line in the poem he’s supposedly annotating (Kinbote’s delusional, self-obsessed misreading of the poem “Pale Fire” make up most of the novel) that refers to a volume of poetry by John Shade, the author of “Pale Fire.” Kinbote doesn’t like that Shade has named one of his books of poetry The Untamed Seahorse*, which is a reference to “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, and, unsatisfied with pointing out the reference, grumbles in that fun, long, dismissive sentence about the kind of people who title things after references to well known

*Nabokov has a weird genius, in Pale Fire and in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight particularly, of coming up with book titles — like The Untamed Seahorse — that sound, more than anything else, like the names of book fictional book titles. The essence of these titles, their family resemblance, is something that I would be very pleased indeed if I could one day describe better than just listing them off.

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My favorite accidental piece of (near) Nabokovania

And so here of course are the jokes: this novel and this poem are actually of course titled after a line from Shakespeare; only it’s not a line from something like the Sonnets or Romeo and Juliet, it is from Timon of Athens, which is not really a Shakespeare play much beloved or known by non-experts (the “anybody” at the end of that sentence getting some qualification in Nabokov’s own case). The fact that it is from Timon of Athens leads to a series of other narrative high jinks and low jinks that I will avoid describing here and merely direct the unfamiliar reader who likes that kind of thing to Kinbote’s endnotes themselves.

Kinbote is an annotator, and so I am, I guess, so it is up to me to try to learn things from how bad at his job he is. One reason that I always think of this sentence — the “shifts onto a bust’s shoulders” sentence — so quickly when I think about Kinbote* is that it does so much of what he does that is awful: it is dismissive, fussy, it outlandishly misses the point of the things he’s supposed to be annotating. And yet it’s a kind of a delightfully formed sentence. His examples — the vintage wines and plump courtesans — are funny, and they come after both “acceptable maybe” and then the staccato monosyllables of “in the names of,” which set them up with the maximum amount of amusing derision (it amused me, anyway). Mary-Svevo style quotation would slow Kinbote down and screw him up and detract from what he thinks he is doing.

*(which is kind of often; the other sentence I usually think of, in obvious circumstances, is his early non-sequitur outburst, “There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.”)

That sentence also has almost no commas. There is no comma in that sentence between “ornateness” and “since,” speeding it up a little more than it ought to be sped, as if Kinbote were so worked up that he had to get to his fussy condemnation of the more popular of Shakespeare’s plays (and his implicit denunciation of Shade and Shade’s wife) as quickly as possible while still maintaining his verbal delight in rattling through all those paratactic clauses. I know this because when I was typing the sentence above from my copy of Pale Fire I kept putting the commas in and then I had to go back and delete them.

I am myself, I confess, a fussy man. I like the contemptuous rush of that sentence probably for reasons not unlike those that Kinbote does. I am not averse to a good “acceptable maybe” type construction. However, Kinbote is terrible, and the temptations of his swift and seductive prose ought to be mostly resisted, and I plan to do resist. One reason that he is so inviting is that he goes so engrossingly fast; that he will not break for commas. What I will do, to make myself tolerable and to try to live decently, will always be to insist on inserting my own commas.