The Minotaur Reads #2: Selected Poems by Robinson Jeffers

. . . does it matter, Cassandra, whether the people believe your bitter fountain?
-Robinson Jeffers, “Cassandra”

Fame endures beyond Pleasure. Pain endures beyond Fame. Life endures beyond Pain. Death endures beyond Life. Art endures beyond Death. Earth endures beyond Art. Kosmos endures beyond Earth. God endures beyond Kosmos. Nothing endures beyond God. Nothing endures beyond Nothing. Nothing endures. 
-Shi Fu Tzu

Is there something inherently paradoxical about a misanthropic poet? Orpheus, the archetype of the poet, shunned half of humanity (the female half) and chose to work his poetic magic on trees and stones, but we could attribute this disdain to the heartbreaking loss of his wife in Hades (perhaps illustrating Harold Bloom’s principle that “the poet-in-a-poet cannot marry, whatever the person-in-a-poet chooses to have done”), and anyway his destruction at the hands of the Maenads serves as an object lesson.

More typical by far is the poet found at the center of civilization, though at the periphery of that center, at Court or in Academe. For Robinson Jeffers’ kin we have to look at the Old Testament Prophets and perhaps at the odd philosopher such as Diogenes, who was said to have lived in a wine-barrel and mocked every civilized virtue. He was called a Cynic, a name deriving from the Greek word for dog. Aristotle thought that anybody that could live outside the civilized polis must be “either a beast or a god.” Interesting, then, that we find the two fused in one of Jeffers’ best poems, “Roan Stallion.”

Jeffers enjoyed a brief period of fame in the mid 1920’s and early 30’s, but eventually almost all major critics turned against him. Perhaps it was because of the strange sexuality and violence of his long poems, which I have not read, but which a contemporary defender Dana Gioia described in filmic terms as “Bergman’s Cries and Whispers reshot as a Peckinpah western or Kurosawa’s Rashomon reset as a California thriller by De Palma.” But I suspect it has more to do with his vocal isolationist politics, with which a surprising number of poems in this anthology is occupied, as against the overwhelming tide of intellectual opinion that America should enter the second World War. Recently, he has since fallen into near-total obscurity. “No major American poet,” Gioia writes, “has been treated worse by posterity than Robinson Jeffers.” This, I suspect, is about to change in a big way (or at least as big as it gets for poetry). Jeffers’ voice was not welcome during the push to war, and it was practically obliterated in the period of mandatory optimism that followed. But Jeffers sure as hell befits our current mood of Cosmic Pessimism, which has also elevated the reputation of H.P. Lovecraft, despite all of the latter’s “problematic” politics. I could easily imagine a book of Jeffers poems on the shelf of that avatar of contemporary pessimism, True Detective‘s Rustin Cohle, right next to Schopenhauer, Dawkins, and Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

Jeffers’ disdain for civilization, his attraction to the primitive and brutal, is at times reminiscent of DH Lawrence. Indeed, the one long narrative poem featured here, “Roan Stallion,” has a distinctly Lawrentian flavor. It’s a weird fauvist parable that I cannot pretend to have understood, in which an intense woman, symbolically named California, worships the titular horse as God, yet kills it after it kills her husband, a man toward whom she has a reasonable disdain. Christianity here mingled with Paganism (not just in the generic sense of the pre-Christian spirituality, but in the sort of natural mysticism attributed to people who live in the country, “pagan” having its root in the Latin “pagus” or country district), sex with spirituality (California’s interest in the stallion is partly erotic), man with beast with god.

From poets and primitivists such as Jeffers, we expect a disdain for reason, science, and technology. But it’s not that simple. On the one hand we have the poem “The Purse-Seine,” which would probably win the admiration of Ted Kaczynski, (and, I suppose, Diogenes the Cynic and John the Baptist). Gazing from a mountaintop at “the galaxies of light” in the city below reminds Jeffers of the nets used by fishermen to trap sardines:

I thought, we have geared the machines and locked all
        together into interdependence. We have built the
        great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations
incapable of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless
        on all dependent. The circle is closed and the net
Is being hauled in. 

On the other hand, in the poem “Science,” Jeffers shows that he isn’t, like Rousseau and Lawrence in their worst moments, and enemy of scientific knowledge per se. The problem is not that humanity has learned too much, but that we are unable to handle what little knowledge we have.

A little knowledge, a pebble from the shingle,
A drop from the oceans: who would have dreamed this
        infinitely little too much?

While much of Jeffers is in tune with the cosmic pessimism of Spengler, he does nevertheless buys into the notion, much bandied about these days, of “The West” as a single unified tradition, exemplified by the poems “The Torch-Bearers Race” and “Shine, Republic.” I myself find more plausible the radical epistemic and ontological break Spengler inserts between the classical world (which he calls “Apollinian”) and the medieval and modern world (the latter being different phases of what he calls the “Faustian” world). Arnold Toynbee, whose A Study of History I’ve just begun, has a completely different cyclical theory, but he too sees the medieval and modern West as one civilization, and the ancient Greco-Roman world as a different one entirely, though he argues that the relationship is that of parent and child, while for Spengler these worlds are unique and incommensurable. I suppose that’s all neither here nor there: the point is that for Jeffers as for Spengler, our society is bound for the scrap-heap, and the only live question is: bang or whimper?

Jeffers is at his best when his vision is cosmic. Otherwise he can be thematically repetitive, even in this slim volume, and stridently moralizing or didactic (surprisingly so for one who proclaims an “inhumanist” philosophy). Wit, irony, ambiguity, musicality, and the intricate pleasures of formal experiment are all virtues nearly absent from Jeffers’ poetry. This is certainly the reason for the lack of critical or academic interest in him over the decades. Poetry has become increasingly fond of small worlds incoherently rendered.

Ever since Joyce, in 1922, invited us to overhear old Poldy Bloom’s musings on the crapper, contemporary literature has tended toward a near-obsessive rendering of the particular, minute, and quotidian. I think of Nicholson Baker’s novels, such as The Mezzanine, which follows the thoughts of a man as he travels from one floor to the next on an escalator during his lunch break, thoughts which are sometimes occupied with traditional intellectual matters as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, but more often of everyday objects such as straws, milk bottles, and shoelaces. This in turn makes me think of New York poet Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, which detail the activities of his own lunch breaks. True, he was a freewheeling bohemian who worked at the Met in NYC, but the poems are filled with such mundane details as drinking milkshakes and deciding what books to buy. Or take Language Poet Ron Silliman’s “BART,” which attempts to record, with all its miscellany and no poetic ornament, an all-day ride on San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit.

By no means do I think any of this material unworthy of literature. In my Borgesian view, Literature is a mirror of the Universe. But Jeffers is odd company here, for unlike almost every contemporary poet he stands in the thrall and squall of Nature’s immensity, and takes a hawk’s-eye view of man’s place in it. Where the postmodern writers are zooming in to make a cosmos out of dust-motes, Jeffers widens his lens to the point where galaxies flicker momentarily in a vast black eternity. Not just this perspective but the wisdom he extracts from it, with statements such as “Remember that the life of mankind is like the life of a/ man, a flutter from darkness to darkness,” or “It is time for us to kiss the earth again,” makes him seem somewhat ridiculous in the current literary milieu, like Baudelaire’s albatross, “exiled on earth,” and whose “giant wings prevent him from walking”; or perhaps a time-traveler so removed the current era that he puts on clothes from the wrong century. I mean, imagine HP Lovecraft on Twitter, Louis-Ferdinand Celine on Facebook, or a Dante Aligheri Youtube channel. For all my sympathies, I have to laugh at a poem like “Summer Holiday,” in which the sight of so many people having a fun day at the beach makes Jeffers think of the day when “the tow-/-ered up cities/ will stains of rust on mounds of plaster.” You cannot read Jeffers if you are in a good mood! I laugh just like the boorish sailors at Baudelaire’s poetic bird, and only in part because I myself have almost written this poem.

But political and environmental changes may already be underway which will vindicate this albatross. Jeffers wrote again and again of America’s doom, and identified himself in one of his best and most uncanny poems, “Cassandra,” with the famous Trojan prophetess. She always spoke the truth about the future, yet was never believed. In myth, this is because this is her curse, but in Jeffers’ poem it is because “men hate the truth; they’d/ liefer/ Meet a tiger on the road.” Many of his overtly political poems speak of the inevitable slide of Republics into Empires, but I think his most ominous, if somewhat obscure, prediction, which ought to share company with Yeats’ Rough Beast, is in the poem “Diagram,” which describes two arcs, a smaller one of “the Christian culture-complex,” now already into its decline, and a much larger one of which he says only that it “began at Kittyhawk.” This probably refers to a small town in North Carolina that would remain totally obscure if it hadn’t been the sight of the first successful airplane flight by the Wright Brothers. I may be wrong, but I take Jeffers to mean here an age of weaponized technology. When the two arcs cross, he says, “you will see monsters.”

As a literal monster myself (I admire the exactness of this term, for the word originally referred to a mixed type of creature, here referring here I suppose to thing which is part Jesus and part 5-52 bomber), I could take offense to this line, or shrug it off. Why not an age of monstrosity? the beast in me asks. The world was not made for man alone. It was once the stalking-ground of immense predators, clever of claw but dumb of mind, and may yet be the sole habit of rats or robots, without human feeling nor even memory of it. Why do they not have equal right to this planet? But the man in me would regret the loss of the human difference, even with all its weakness and hypocrisy. What can I say? I eat men’s flesh and I read their words. Perhaps this makes me a Christian.

A less vague prediction of doom comes from the poem on the very next page, “We are Those People,” at once a rebuke to the believers in American Exceptionalism and to the Cult of the Other, which tends to view victims as inherently righteous. In fact, victims are the most likely perpetrators of atrocity, and history is a grand cycle of revenge, with no party above or below it by nature. The poem is worth quoting at length.

                                            it becomes clear that we too
may suffer
What others have, the brutal horror of defeat—
Or if not in the next, then in the next—therefore watch
And read the future. We wish, of course, that our women
Would die like biting rats in the cellars, our men like
wolves on the mountain:
It will not be so: Our men will curse, cringe, obey;
Our women uncover themselves to the grinning victors
for bits of chocolate.

You do not believe this. I can feel your incredulity in the labyrinthine dark. The human half of me doesn’t believe it either. The beast in me that is also the human in me knows it. Open the book of Genesis, with its God-ordered remorseless genocide: we are those people. Hear the brutal beauty of the Iliad as it celebrates the vain butcher, rapist and defiler of corpses, Achilles: we are those people. Not a discernible speck of moral progress has been made, though our weapons have been magnified to fathomless power. Western civilization, which murdered the ancient Mexican civilization in its prime, and which nearly tore its own self to bits in the 20th century, will fall. Its assassins will commit unspeakable atrocities and feel as spotless as Christ, perhaps evoking his name, or Mohammed’s, or Marx’s, or that of some now-obscure prophet. Like you, I don’t want to hear this. Then I think of Cassandra, and Robinson Jeffers.


Thought-scraps from Old Notebooks, Collected and Presented so that They Won’t Die Like Maybe They Should

Imagine if one of the globules now hurtling through your veins suddenly became aware of its surroundings: what a screaming it would hear. Quit smoking. Quit drinking. God gave us bodies to enjoy and we turned them into politics. The idea of invective. The ideal of invective. Hesiod describes a world (I love how you shiver, whimper, and have such fits) born of lust and fury (as I slap and spit on your pendulous soft tits), propelled by murder and theft. Lucifer and Christ. “Silence” said the smiling Sphinx. A deep yearning for the whole in a world of parts. Brazil, muscular left shoulder of South America. Abydos, just west of Phoenix. Listening to Miles Davis’ On the Corner, dancing gods with ruby bones, seagulls in the noble dirty dawn. A word is a gravitational field. Dilettantish attempts at careers, relationships, vanity and silly pretensions. Poetry is a mosaic art. Somewhere out there, burning. Evidence of Kant’s Asperger’s. The “weightlessness” of simulacra can be observed in Barthelme’s “The Balloon.” Study the technical language of printing and making books/scrolls/manuscripts. Keep a dream journal. Worlds are altered rather than destroyed. The American religion of self-improvement. We met upon the level and we’re parting on the square. The doctrine of perpetual revolution. Stun yourself into life. A monument to the expressive possibilities of rock music. I and my contemporaries prefer to remain in our cells. Solitude is being alone with nature or with God. Agamemnon is air, Achilles is the sun, Helen is the earth. Loneliness is being alone with people. Hector is the moon, Demeter is the liver, Dionysus the spleen & Apollo the bile. Madame Bovary is a tragedy of desire. Myths are truths. Flaubert skewers the bourgeois myths of prosperity and individual fulfillment. Philosophers like to use tables as examples. A legitimating function. Bright sand writhes between the cars. Violence cuts the Gordian knot of collective action. Their own father loathed them from the beginning. Greece: war between generations; Israel: war among siblings. How long will I feed on the fat of dreams? No “theory” should be taught to undergraduates. Dated as dayglow.  List specialized areas of knowledge. I can destroy my abscess. The Parallax View. The Neverending Story. Prospero’s Books. Burn After Reading. Write a spontaneous essay. Find a list of definitions. Just keep showing up until they fire you. The second thing you will probably notice about Daniel is that he has long fingernails. A scowl wants to reproduce itself. Process and Reality. Melty cheese. Cape Buffalo. Vintage ephemera. Shaggy leviathan, an explosion of veins, perceptual winnowing, veil and valence, hobo camps in the hollow. Her mother took her daughter/ and aunt her baby boy/ but every other weekend/ she buys them each a toy. “Matter may with propriety be described as merely alien.” “Our concern is not merely to be sinless but to be God.” In order to prove this idea, he injects his reanimating serum into a headless corpse. Typical 90’s story. Ending as contrived as the beginning.

Stochastic Staccato #1

For years now I’ve been making poems based on other texts using different techniques utilizing chance. I hope to one day collect them under the title Stochastic Staccato The ancestor of this is obviously Tristan Tzara’s Dadaist newspaper collage, yet the emphasis is somewhat different (for instance, I have no counter-cultural axe to grind). Some conscious editing is applied, but there is always an element beyond my control. In this example, I took aphorisms out of The Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger based on last words that rhymed. In most cases I truncated them so that they made better poetic lines. Then I arranged them into verses. So each of these verses is made up of pieces two or three different aphorisms which strangely complete each other. I have to say, I’ve never had such remarkable results as this before.


We know what people are.
A lovely butterfly turns
into a repulsive caterpillar
and writes error with four r’s.

Prune his extravagance, sober him
and you undo him.
He only sees the earth
sinking deeper below him.

He is never so truly himself
as when he is acting a part.
The mind cannot long act
the role of the heart.

Subject to be hurt by everything
it taketh for a remedy,
the heart is either a grand seigneur
or a nobody.

But the soul must have
a complete alphabet,
the index finger
through a lorgnette.

Life is not a spectacle or a feast;
it is a predicament,
a new and surprising combination
of unedifying elements.

Life is too short to be small.
It never realizes itself at all.


New Poem

It’s been about two years since I’ve written any poetry. I fell into the popular delusion that one is a poet and therefore it’s okay to write poetry. Few can keep up the daffy notion that they are a poet for very long. The prose of life just seeps through the cracks day and night and drowns that image. Inevitably you think, no I’m not a poet, so I can’t write poetry.

Really all you ought to do is slap down some clay, start hacking at it and see what it turns into. Or you see some rootlike thing sticking up out of the mud of your psyche, which may be a feeling you don’t have words for yet, or some phrase or word cluster you have no sense to attach to, like “The flail of Zarathustra” or “careering blue orbs,” and then you start tugging at the root until the whole weird rhizome reveals itself. Or you take a paper and start moving ink across it.

Anyway, I was reading out of an anthology, English and American Surrealist Poetry and thought, “I could do something like this. I think I’d like to do that right now.” I won’t make great claims for this poem, or say that I am or am not a poet, but I do have a rather poetic itch in my brain.


My Lady is a crystalline mystery.
My Babe she don’t stand no foolin’.
My Gal’s a fool & she embraces her surrounding air.
My Woman’s a tyrant a tenor a tongue & a tangle.
My Lady is not my Lady.

My Babe’s a book I found in childhood or a dream.
My Gal “is” the internet.
My Woman’s a word we lack in our language.
My Lady requires an introduction to my Woman.
My Babe admires but fears my Lady.

My Gal was my Lady this day last year.
My Woman’s always my Woman tomorrow, never my Woman today.
My Lady is all heart & eyes, stars & the shadows of stars.
My Babe absconded before I could memorize her face.
My Gal grows hungry and sweet like a vine in my bones.

My Woman is drawn as from a pack of cards.
My Lady is yet, as in “not” and in “and.”
My Babe is so, like everything else.
My Gal is nothing or so she says.
My Woman is everything, she is, she just is.


The Minotaur Reads #1: The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem

. . . I assure you, in a couple of years everyone will consider the possession of a soft, hairy, sweating body to be shameful and indecent. A body needs washing, deodorizing, caring for, and even then it breaks down, while in a prostheticized society you can slap on the loveliest creations of modern engineering, What woman doesn’t want to have silver iodide instead of eyes, telescopic breasts, angel’s wings, iridescent legs, and feet that sing with every step?

The Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem has been on my list for a long time, as he’s often mentioned alongside leading lights of New Wave Sci-Fi like Phillip K Dick, J.G. Ballard, and Ursula Le Guin. He also wrote the novel Solaris, which was made into the beautiful film by Andrei Tarkovsky. But I was warded off that novel by reports that there’s no good English translation available. That’s thankfully not the case with The Futurological Congress. I’m in no position to tell for sure, but it seems like something of a miracle on the part of translator Michael Kandel that it reads so well, since it’s stuffed with puns and neologisms.

The story is fairly simple: Cosmonaut Ijon Tichy attends the Eighth Futurological Congress, a meeting of scientific luminaries, at a resort hotel in Costa Rica to discuss (highly unorthodox, to say the least) approaches to world problems, where he soon finds himself in the middle of a battle between revolutionaries and repressive government forces. Since weaponized hallucinogens are a key tactic in this war, this is where the book starts to get weird, before it gets really weird. Tichy is fatally injured, or nearly so, and put in cryonic sleep (which is actually narrated) until a future society arrives with the technology to restore him to health. The rest of the novel is the stranger’s description of the strange land in which he now finds himself.

This is a zany kaleidoscope of a novel. There are so many clever little inventions, on nearly every page: books are digested rather than read, people vote on the weather, linguists attempt to predict the future through an analysis of “the transformational possibilities of the language” (it is explained that the word “robot” would have been a nonsense word in the 15th-century, but if somebody had discovered it, they would have easily predicted automata (Rene Descartes did in fact do this, though in the next century and without the word), so you get scientists imagining possible words (ex: “macrotrashm,” a universe made of garbage) as possible worlds; I believe there’s supposed to be a comment on the art of science fiction here, but if there’s anything to the idea, I’d suggest contemporary futurolinguists get to work investigating Finnegans Wake), and above all a galaxy of specialized hallucinogens which offer fantasies of all possible variety, every kind of heaven and hell, are administered both with and without the consent of the governed.

I looked, petrified at the transformation taking place, realizing in a sudden shudder of a premonition that now reality was sloughing off yet another layer—clearly, its falsification had begun so long ago that even the most powerful antidote could do no more than tear away successive veils, reaching the veils beneath but not the truth.

I don’t want to describe too many of the innovations, because the real fun in reading this book is seeing Lem throw out so many ideas, all of them strange but most of them not entirely implausible, and any one of which would have served as the sole driver of a story by a less clever writer. When you step back, however, and consider the novel more globally in terms of its themes and the overall arc of the story, you won’t find anything that hasn’t been previously explored by Aldous Huxley or Phillip K Dick (of course the basic idea is as old as Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes). That doesn’t mean that the book is in any way predictable. I don’t think I’ve read anything that so relentlessly tries to shift the ground from under the reader’s feet. Any new revelation is bound to morph again within a few pages or so. This sounds as though it could be tiresome, but somehow it isn’t. The exception may be the revelation of the final page, which I did guess at ahead of time, yet it still seemed the most appropriate ending.

The question we are left with is the same as Huxley raised in Brave New World, which he described in a later introduction as the problem of “the modern Procrustes” (which Lem slyly references by having a company called Procrustics, Inc.). Procrustes was a villain defeated by ancient Greek hero Theseus (who stalks me in my dreams and is fated to liberate my head from my body), a torturer that attempted to fit victims to an iron bed. Those too short he stretched, those too tall he amputated. This is discovered in the modern era as an image of science, which ought to be our tool but is instead our torturer. How is science going to stretch or amputate us in the future? How much alteration can we take and remain human? Does our survival and happiness depend on us bidding a final farewell to the ideas of nature and reality?

Another theme in this highly imaginative book is the impact that imagination has on the future. Can it help us solve our problems or does it just help us invent new ways to avoid those problems, along with creating new ones? Like the best science fiction, The Futurological Congress awes us not just in the strangeness of its future but the strangeness of the fact that we are living in a future, one that had been at the same time imagined, not imagined, and perhaps unimaginable:

Averroës, Kant, Socrates, Newton, Voltaire, could any of them have believed it possible that in the twentieth century the scourge of cities, the poisoner of lungs, the mass murderer and idol of millions would be a metal receptacle on wheels, and that people would actually prefer being crushed to death inside it during frantic weekend exoduses instead of staying, safe and sound, at home?

That image of the (unnamed) automobile as a lethal “metal receptacle on wheels” is an example of what critics, following Russian theorist Viktor Shlovsky, call “defamiliarization,” or “estrangement,” in which everyday objects and acts are rendered alien through surprising description. Poetry makes the most extensive use of the technique. Wallace Stevens, in “The Auroras of Autumn” describing the appearance of stars at night: “Eyes open and fix on us in every sky.” But it is also everywhere in science fiction (more so, I think, than other fiction, where there is a greater emphasis on mimesis). Phillip K Dick, the most original genius in sci-fi, was especially great in this respect. Usually we experience defamiliarization through the use figurative language to describe ordinary things, as in the Stevens example. But in a very short and funny story, “The Eyes Have It,” Dick uses literal interpretation to defamiliarize typical (that is, cliche) figurative language. The narrator reads a story that he interprets as describing an invading alien species, with detachable eyes that “roved about the room,” and “moved from person to person.” He reads such ordinary phrases as “we split up,” as descriptions of the aliens’ capacity for “binary fission,” and literally understands that characters had “no guts,” or “no brains.”

Habit makes our everyday lives dull, but it takes the imagination, which is nowhere employed more radically than in literature, to remind us how weird our world really is.

I’m getting a little afield of my subject, except to say that imagination, in this novel and in “real” life, is at once our salvation and damnation. We never, in fact leave the imagination. “What is now prov’d,” says Blake, “was once only imagined.” And once it is proved, it recedes into the background, becoming nothing to us. Until the imagination rekindles (or unfreezes) it. Take a look, it’s in a book. This book ends on a completely apt image, of a scientist’s manuscript (a symbol not of the imagination, since it is scientific and not poetic, but rather of humanity’s attempt to attain understanding and thus control of the bewildering cosmos) slipping out of his hands and drifting away into chaotic waters.

Not Ideas about the Thing

I sometimes think that I’m less of a person than a collection of compulsions, delusions, and evasions of reality.

For instance, reading is a compulsion. I’m literally (and, in light of the word’s etymology, I mean literally) always reading when nothing else is compelling my attention. I’ve read 40 books so far this year, and at that rate I’m on track to hit 60 by the end of the year (which is where I top out, historically). But that’s just books. It doesn’t count the Wikipedia articles, randoms poems, short stories, essays, etc.

People admire readers, mostly because we’re encouraged by our culture from a young age to read read read, but few people actually read that much. But it’s wrong to think that reading is good for you per se. Even on the cultural level. I don’t want to get deeply into Marshall McLuhan’s analysis of text-based society except to say that bureaucracy, militarism, and statism are a few of the follies he attributes to it. On a personal level, I can tell you that reading  can be as effective tool of avoiding problems as pot, porn, or video games. But if any of those were my addiction, somebody probably would have attempted a mild intervention by now.

I’m almost certainly a smarter and more complex person because of how much and especially what I have read. But so much of the wisdom I have acquired has never been put into practice. I have read to become other people, which is a dream that dissipates as soon as I look up from the book. Reading has taught me to be overly abstract and ignore the language of the body and of nature. As the information I command has grown and the rational faculty I use to order it has strengthened, my intuition and imagination have dulled and withered.


I’m spending a week where I read nothing. Not literally nothing. Reading text that you happen to see is actually an involuntary reflex. But no books, essays, articles. I’m also not listening to podcasts or watching YouTube videos where people are talking. Just music. My hope is that I can spend some time exercising, meditating, being in nature, being more present, spontaneous, and mindful.

Today is day 2. I’ve already noticed that when you tamp down one compulsion, others leap up like hydra heads to take its place. You can do a lot online without actually reading all that much. Write blog posts, for instance. I’m also a compulsive list-maker: to-do lists, favorite music lists, list lists. What is the point of this? Is it a form of Apotropaic magic, a kind of spell to ward off bad luck? Or perhaps a kind of Homeopathic magic: writing a to-do list is a simulacrum of action, and is meant to make the thing actually happen. But it often just becomes a substitute for action. I have a tendency to think the answer to every problem is in a book. Which is true. But reading about the problem tends to substitute for actions to remedy it. In literary terms I guess this is synecdoche, a substitution of part of a thing (I would think that thinking about a problem would be a necessary part of solving it) for the whole.

Have you ever seen the movie Synecdoche, New York? It’s about a successful playwright who, instead of dealing with any of his personal problems, writes an elaborate new play that perfectly mirrors them, but then the line between his life and the play blurs, and this simulacrum he has created becomes his life. I shouldn’t have to say that this does not solve any of his problems. I dunno though, it’s been 10 years since I saw that movie.

And I’m trying not to read about it.



There is an inherent connection between writing and death. A trilobite outline etched in Paleozoic mud is the first letter. The sign for something emerges when its signifier dies. The sign says “here lies X.” Nietzsche wrote, “That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts.” According to McLuhan, it is the letter, literacy, itself that is dying. A dead letter. This is a letter from a dead man, or minotaur, slain in his labyrinth. Let the dead bury the dead.

This post was written by H.G. Wells: “The markings and fossils in the rocks, and the rocks themselves, are the first historical documents.” (Outline of History)

This post was written by John David Ebert: “. . . [scholars] make the mistake, and it’s a big one, assuming that a written medium represents the beginning of the appearance of something when in most cases it actually represents the end of a tradition, as with the pyramid texts for instance. The pyramid texts were inscribed on these walls of pyramids starting with the fifth dynasty, because before that they hadn’t been inscribed at all, because they were orally recited, so it became clear that the reason they were inscribed in the fifth dynasty of Unas was because they were being forgotten, they were in danger of disappearing. . . Something appears in writing because it’s about to disappear.”

This post was written by Herman Melville: “The pale Usher- threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now. He was ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars, with a queer handkerchief, mockingly embellished with all the gay flags of all the known nations of the world. He loved to dust his old grammars; it somehow mildly reminded him of his mortality.” (Moby Dick)