Indefinite Tools

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“We can express our feelings regarding the world around us either by poetic or by descriptive means. I prefer to express myself metaphorically. Let me stress: metaphorically, not symbolically. A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite. We can analyse the formula that constitutes a symbol, while metaphor is a being-within-itself, it’s a monomial. It falls apart at any attempt of touching it.”
—Andrei Tarkovsky

(Illustration by Valerio Vidali.)

The Counterpoint

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Yesterday I attended a quiet memorial for a beloved graduate school professor—a wonderful and serious scholar named Roger Simon—who passed away last September after a difficult illness. It was both moving and strange to be in a room full of former classmates and colleagues, many of whom continue to work within the university. I don’t mean to slag academia (“Some of my best friends are…” and at the level of influence I still consider myself part of that extended family) but it did strike me at several moments how decorously cerebral and painfully restrained the whole event seemed. It’s not that I expected outpourings of grief or the rending of garments—my former professor (a man whose very work addressed cliches of mourning and cheap appeals to sentimentality) would have shuddered at the prospect—but, still, I wanted something more.*

I have many fond memories of grad school. Nothing surpasses that feeling of being very intellectually AWAKE in a community of other very AWAKE people. But the entire time I was there, I always felt that something was missing. Some pulse. Some mystery. (The words “I feel” may have limits but to not use them at all is also limiting.) Of all the courses I took, it seems somehow fitting that the one that stays with me most vividly was a novel-reading class. It was led by a brilliant visiting scholar-writer who used Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism as a starting point for reading “contrapuntally.” And, so, we read Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea in counterpoint to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, then Maryse Conde’s I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem in counterpoint to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

In music, counterpoint is the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent, but independent in contour and rhythm. Similarly, reading in counterpoint is not a matter of antagonism but of polyphony—recognizing how different voices are attuned to each other. It’s a way to see how one storyline can reveal the shadow of another and it’s a way of taking the parts that have been separated and integrating them back into our awareness and hearts.

Edward Said’s own illness became the sad counterpoint to his writing in his final years. In his last book, completed posthumously by his close friends, he poignantly noted that he was “always interested in what gets left out”…the counterpoint to any moment.

Maybe what I wanted yesterday was more counterpoint. More music. More art. A different contour and rhythm. Something to ambush our habits of separating intellect from emotion. Something to honor our fumbling, ineloquent acts of remembering.

*There is a beautiful poem written by Mahmoud Darwish for Edward Said which addresses the difficulty of easy elegy: “And nostalgia for yesterday? A sentiment not fit for an intellectual, unless…”

(Image: Clementi’s ‘Epitome of Counterpoint’ from the 1st volume of his Selection of Practical Harmony, original 1801 edition.)

Advance Copy!

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My new picture book arrived by courier today. It’s a collaboration with the supremely talented Matte Stephens and I couldn’t be more thrilled. In fact, I want to vandalize my copy and plaster my walls with Matte’s incredible (stylish and funny) paintings.

The story is very loosely based on George Maciunas, the founder of a 1960s art movement known as Fluxus. George was a notoriously visionary but somewhat mercurial man (who among other things wanted to “purge the world of bourgeoisie sickness….”) Truthfully, I cannot think of a more unlikely picture book subject, but there you go, I seem to gravitate towards inappropriate picture book subjects.

The book will be in stores by April 1st, so expect more on Fluxus and other arty and inappropriate things in the months to come. In the meantime, I leave you with this photo of our dear man George:

Bring on the Bad Reads

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At what point in our literary history did it become desirable to devour books, gobble them up, or have them go down smoothly? When did the idea of a “good read” come to connote something blandly palatable, soothing and diversionary? (Here, see Kirsty Gunn, who has written a great piece for The Guardian about “the terrible rigor mortis of the phrase that is ‘a good read’.”)

Perhaps it’s time to make a case for the “bad read.” (I can see it now: a mirror site for goodreads. It would feature all those terribly demanding books that have dared take us to the frontier of the familiar. Catch-22, Pastoralia, Slaughterhouse-Five, 1Q84, Sexing the Cherry, The Accidental…) Yes, bring on the bad reads. Bring on those lousy good-for-nothing novels that embrace novelty, possibility, and surprise. Let’s hear it for god-awful fiction that believes anything can happen—that captures the weird, the awkward, the complicated, the downright bizarre…in all its ghastly glory.

(Excerpted from a guest post in which I discuss the value of literary estrangement and one of my favorite Canadian writers…with thanks to the good people at the 49th Shelf.)

Image: Olaf Hayek