The instability at the core of stillness

It struck me today that words are the spiritual equivalent of subatomic particles: at the base or the foundational moment, shall we say, of meaning, is this object, this barking sound or set of glyphs, that doesn’t mean anything or means too many things or whatever it might mean doesn’t last, even though meaning itself is timeless. So too the Higg’s Boson, yes? (I’m no nuclear physicist but I know what I like, my uncle used to say.) From what I read at the time of all teh excitement, the Higg’s Boson is the first principle or prima causa of material existence but it hardly itself exists. Certainly, in terms of time and space, it can hardly be said to exist.

As so many thoughts, this all got underway because I was curious about a woman.  Her photograph captured my attention.  So I looked her up and read about her — a critic named Barbara Johnson — I’d seen advertised a book of her essays recently issued by Duke University Press, with no fewer than four editors, plus introduction, plus afterword, that’s six contemporary “publishing” credits all dangling off the already circulated work of a dead woman (she died in her early fifties).  If you view the larger advertisement on the DUP website you’ll encounter some other critic who called Johnson’s essays “a contribution to theory as ambitious and accomplished as any in the last half century–” which takes you back to 1964 and so blankets the entire history of what most people think of as the academic field “literary theory”… Which calculation then would lead you to conclude that this is coming out the ass horn, that the remark is eminently overblown — until you look at those clever adjectives: ambitious: indeed, there’d be no refuting that, for who’s to say what fire burned in those figurative loins.  And accomplished: another word that doesn’t hold together long enough to argue with. He could have meant she typed quite well.

To use words that don’t mean anything is, of course, like  a salute to theory itself.  I had not heard of Johnson, but struck as I was by the photo of her, I went poking around to read about her work. She got her Ph.D. at Yale in 1977 and if you know about how European linguistics and French literary criticism of the 20th century were transmogrified in the US into the academic lace-and quilt-making societies known as “Theory”, then that date and that university tell you much of what you’d want to know about Johnson. She was — coming with Ph.D. from the Yale English department at that time, she had to have been — a disciple of the very troubled creation known as Paul de Man. (See Louis Menand’s accomplished and ambitious, as well as informative and devastating, essay about de Man in the New Yorker this past March — Under de Man and others (was Geoffrey Hartmann also there? I cannot remember) Yale become in the 70s and after the gravitational center of the literary theory industry in the United States. There are New Haven pizza joints whose names are now metonyms.

You can read, as I did, the Wikipedia entry on Johnson and whatever else on page 1 of your Google search that catches your eye; what stopped me, though, and gave rise to these considerations, was a certain word that would seem quite an important one in literary theory — polyseme, which means, boiled down, a word that means several different but related things — think of the word “pick”, for instance (every time I re-read this I see “prick”, did you?), which has many different applications but most of them are related.  This as opposed to words that mean several unrelated things, such as “saw”, which can be the direct past tense of see; or an old adage or expression; or the well known tool with steel teeth for cutting wood and as verb the using of that tool. English, being a simplified and capacious mish-mosh of other, more precise languages, has many of both of these kinds of words: it has the largest number of words of any language but it is also full of rollicking ambiguity.  There are all kinds of reasons — historical imperatives even — why linguists and literary theorists — especially in the U.S. — have in the years after World War II latched onto the idea of words not only having different meanings, but of entire texts, built and swaying on these liquid foundations, being inherently unstable and contradictory. The whole idea of a coherent life, or a regular life, or a traditional life, was shattered for much of the world by that war and its transformative aftermath. One can go on and on with simplistic historical reasoning of this kind: I’ll add one more of my own: that the growing sense of self consciousness of the modern person in the West, informed by evolutionary science as well as psychology, genetics, and the neurological sciences, has eroded the idea of a stable self. And if the self cannot be viewed as permanent and stable (whereas the medieval soul, which was the only self that mattered, was indeed quite permanent and stable), then there’s no reason to believe a narrative should be. Indeed, in the evolution of theory, the very act of the narrative (by trying to pin down a personality or a set of identities) becomes for the theory-envisioned reader (who is always “other”, you see) a cause of oppression to be resisted; other meanings, other possibilities must be projected into the text, as a bomb in a suitcase is left on the train by a revolutionary.

This, taken down a few notches geo-politically, represents something a decent writer of fiction understands, either intuitively or explicitly: which is that the narrative, to seduce, cannot be too precise: the bed cannot be too small. The written prose narrative (very much not like the film or staged nazrrative) requires a co-imaginative creation on the part of the reader, who will see things differently from the author certainly. “They sit together on the red couch, a man and a woman, not speaking .”  You envision certain aspects of the scene, freely, constrained only by the contextual information that preceding text might have given you (which in this case is none).  Is it day or night? Where are they from, how old are they, are they lovers, are they mother and son or father and daughter, are they white, are they brown, are they yellow, are they black? Are they oppressed by the remnant circumstances of colonialism or merely the blind beneficiaries of it?  Etc. Teaching this concept of narrative pointillism,  I used to use a test, I’d tell the students to close their eyes and please envision the person I was about to reference, then I’d say “His clothes are dirty, but his hands are clean.”  Open your eyes, I’d say. How many people saw a blond man? Over six or seven years doing this in perhaps a dozen classes, thus between 100 and 200 students, only two saw a man with blond hair.  (Some percentage, between ten and twenty percent, reported not seeing his hair at all.) Of course none — not one — ever mentioned that this is a line from “Lay Lady Lay”, but that’s another sad subject all together.

For the novelist these characters, and their story, starts as something very nebulous: they’re seen as if through a few feet of gently moving water, unreachable, fragmenting and reforming. They become. They take possession of their existences.  And as they become, each expresses a will;  they do as they will.  As this becomes more solid the writer is trying on the fly to find the words to describe them and their actions before he loses them. Then he ends the scene, cuts away, and frequently, if he’s a time waster, he goes back and fusses over the sentences, the words, the commas… and the  ellipses.

Which is to say, from the practical standpoint, of course the text is “unstable” and “contradictory.”  Everything is contingent: writers are changing sentences in the printed books when they do public readings: you can often observe this.  We hardly know what we’re doing. We’re the Higgs Boson of that particular reality and the closer you look at it the more it changes.

In our usual lives, we insist on meaning; we insist on physical reality; we insist on some detectable pattern of cause and effect; we insist on narrative; we insist on time. It is the truly modern condition to continue to act within these assumptions even while we know that hardly any of it actually, or compellingly, or determinatively, exists.  This is the fundamental irony at the core of creation.  The Higg’s Boson, it seems to me, should end all the goddamned arguments about “Irony” — the mechanism necessary for physical existence doesn’t. So shut up and go home.

I just read somewhere — forgive me if it’s not perfectly accurate — that if the world were reduced in your mind to the size of a grain of sand sitting on a table in New York then Jupiter would be a basketball in Denver and our solar system would extend, I don’t know, to Vladivostok, our galaxy unimaginably larger than that and ours not a very large galaxy, with vast distances of nothing between it and any of the others. In this enormity of black space and unconquerable silence and nullity, taking up a miniscule bit of space on our grain of sand, each of us squeaks: I exist.

Why else speak? The only other essential expression, love, needs no words.

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