During the Spring 2011 14-week semester, Phillip Loe found himself in the enviable position of having no courses. He was biding his time waiting for his fabulous May Interim study tour to Ireland (link), his only courses for the semester. Fellow majors often spotted Phill in Polk Library, reading things they only dreamed of having time to read. Here, Phill shares his experience.
A Semester in Reading; or, Pot Globs
by Phillip Glen Loe
I started to read One Hundred Years of Solitude while on the car ride to Grandma's the day after Christmas. A lot of people don't really like reading in the car because they say it makes them motion sick. It makes me motion sick too, but I don't really mind much. The feeling of motion makes the book seem like it's moving, too.
My grandmother lives about five hours away, in a small agricultural town in western Wisconsin. Everyone there speaks with a strange accent hinted at in Fargo (that Ethan Coen's senior thesis was titled “Two Views of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy” should come as a surprise to no one), but not really accurately described by anything I've ever encountered. I guess, being a city dweller, the “rural” world feels insurmountably surreal. Their accents, for example, may as well have been descended from the accents of ancient trees and strange monoliths (and here I should note that the area in which my grandmother lives is primarily ethnographically Norwegian). Western Wisconsin is a place of rolling hills and old trees and deer, which, oddly, matches the dry, hot, and barren environment of Marquez's Macondo. Just like the Buendia family, the family of my grandmother is infinitely intricate—stuffed with nearly forgotten stories of love and betrayal and cruelty and death, all of which I am a product. Perhaps that's why I found myself so enchanted by the warm opiate of Marquez's words. (My grandmother shares quite a few characteristics with the book's matriarch, Ursula--both women are children and mothers of large families, both handle money well, both stand firmly on the ground in the face of a world swirling with impossible dreams) Marquez's language has a certain rhythm (I've read that the English translator, Gregory Rabbassa, is an avid fan of Jazz, which is something easily transparent in all of his translation. Rabassa translates a lot of Latin American literature, and he is quite good at it; I have several of his translations). The cadence of his sentences form a drum beat, which matched the vibrating rhythm of our car in motion.
In any case, by the time that we arrived at Grandma's house, I wasn't finished reading, so I ended up finishing the rest of the book on Grandma's couch while my parents chatted. Grandma's house is painted a pale green (green is her favorite color—and mine as well) that has been chipped and worn by too many winters. The house itself leans at a strange angle unusual for a building, but not so uncommon in nature. The hills around the house used to be used for corn, but when that became too much work, my Grandfather started to use them as a used-car lot. He didn't sell too many cars, so now that he's dead, the hills are haunted by the empty, rusted, shells of the cars that somehow seem to grow like weeds. Anyway, no one has used the hills in so long, that they have begun to be re-claimed by nature. Trees burst through the rusted car shells, and the hill is coated by savage flowers (in the summer, anyway).
I turned the last page of One Hundred Years with triumph (I had read it in a single sitting), and walked over to the kitchen table. Waking up from a reading binge is a lot like waking up from a long nap. The reality of the book still felt more real than the hollow mirror of reality. I confused the face of my grandmother with Ursula, the strange, grey hair of my uncle Kevin reminded me of Colonel Aureliano's tiny gold fishes, at any moment I expected one of the farm cats (probably the one with dichromatic eyes that stares at passersby with a certain knowing) to ascend into heaven under the weight of its weightlessness. I can't remember the topic of conversation being held. I do remember that my mother was knitting a boot (she is a compulsive knitter. The next day, I challenged her to knit a pair of boots in under three hours, which she completed with ease) and that my father was munching on cookies (I had baked them a couple of days earlier).
“Did you like the book?” My father asked.
“Yeah, I really liked it.”
“Oh yeah, you finished that one pretty quick.”
The next book I read was Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie, which I started a few days later. I didn't read this one with the ferocity that I read One Hundred Years, but I still found myself helplessly trapped under his spell. Since we had just finished visiting the Grandma on my mother's side, this time we were visiting the grandparents on my father's side. They live all the way in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, so the car ride (which takes us through Chicago) is often exhausting. But, they are family, and it's always worth it to see my grandparents. My grandpa used to work on the railroad. He never completed his high school education, but he has a wild intelligence evident by his eyes. My father often claims that as a young man, my grandpa was able to count cards, fleecing several of his buddies in the army out of their pay with his considerable Gin Rummy skill. Now, he keeps his mind sharp by playing Cribbage or Euchre against the computer. While there, my dad and I played countless card games with him. Although, as I payed closer attention to the details in my grandfather's face, I began to understand that perhaps my Grandfather does not actually enjoy all the card games we play with him. He looks not satisfied or gloatful, but relieved after reaching 121 points on the cribbage board, as though to play card games is not a choice, but a compulsion--and it is only after finishing the game that he can be free of it.
I read in the same way. The cribbage games of my grandfather are much like the Snakes and Ladders of Saleem, the book's protagonist. Both are games of considerable chance; both prove themselves to be microcosms of the universe. As the cracks in the Saleem's skin begin to show, as he begins to be overcome by dust, I look at my hands and see the same cracks, feel the same dust. I feel as though, through me, India and Indiana are joined by invisible eldritch ties; or perhaps they always have been tied and it is only now that I am standing in its way that I can see the threads that bind them. Maybe, if I were to look closely, I could see the infinite invisible gold strands that tie everything to everything else
My grandmother, freed from the compulsion of games or reading or work was faring much worse. She was hooked up to a oxygen machine, but it seemed as though breath was still difficult for her, so much so that even eating had to give way to the immense challenge of breath. To me, she looked like a porcelain doll, delicately balanced between the Now and the Other, ready to shatter at any moment.
“It was fun, wasn't it?” She asked me
“Yeah,” I said—it was easier to agree with whatever she said.
“I was dressed in red, and you were dressed in blue, and we danced and we danced, didn't we?”
“Yeah, we did, Grandma.”
“Oh, don't call me that. We where so young then. Oh my, it's hard to believe we were so young and so beautiful dressed in my red and your blue dancing all through the night.” She laughs and looks out the window.
“Oh to be red and to be blue again. I can see us dancing, you know.”
She went on talking like that for several minutes before she became too tired to speak to me anymore. It reminded me of the way Rushdie's prose unfolds. That would be the last time I saw Grandma before she died.
It took me several more weeks to complete Midnight's Children (In one interesting episode, a group of adults in a church, on seeing my book, praised themselves for already having read some Rushdie, while a child taunted me for choosing to read such a boring book). Frankly, I was relieved when I was finished with it, because that meant I could read something else. Rushdie's prose, while highly visual and exciting can become grating if one isn't in the right mood, and I found myself bouncing between hating the book and loving it. A lot of the difference between Marquez and Rushdie can be summed in that, while Marquez used to work as a journalist before becoming a fiction writer, Rushdie wrote advertising slogans. Marquez's style is clean and (mostly) unornamented, while Rushdie's is messy and excited. Both are brilliant, both concern themselves with issues of family and nation and magic, but they approach the same material with different eyes. In any case, I was sick of reading Magical Realist texts, so I decided to read Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco next.
Describing the plot of Foucault's Pendulum is pretty boring; it's pretty much the same as The DaVinci Code, except written much earlier, in the eighties. The plot, however, is far from Eco's central focus. The narrative itself, it seemed to me, wasn't even Eco's central concern. The book itself is more or less about the power of symbols to create reality. Through investigating a conspiracy that doesn't really exist, the protagonists end up creating it. To those familiar with Eco's other work (I've only read three other Eco books, Kant and the Platypus, bits and pieces of Travels in Hyperreality, and Serendipities: Language and Lunacy, all of which are, by the way, brilliant essay collections--Eco has the most encyclopaedic knowledge of the weird than any other living author. Reading his books, I became trapped in the spiral of the wonderfully misguided, lost in the web of his semiotic theory) this is a theme expounded in several of his essays. For Eco, reality is a series of symbols. Since these symbols are man-made, the individual has total control over reality, or, perhaps more accurately, what reality means to that individual. Eco's thesis was proven by the appearance of The DaVinci Code (which purports as real what, to Eco thirty years before, had only been fiction) which may be why Eco seems oddly pleased whenever interviewers bring up the similarities between the two books.
By this time, I had begun the habit of reading in the University library. The library is the perfect place to read. The building, familiar with the action of reading, allows its reader to fall into pre-established groves of psychic activity, much like well-worn paths in wild and otherwise untamed forests. As a regular dweller of the stacks, I had begun to notice several other inhabitants of my wild library. They look at me, recognizing me, and I look at them, recognizing them. We, by the very act of visiting the same place at the same time, have become mirrors of each other, and to me, looking into their face is the same as looking into mine. Or perhaps, as Eco might have liked it, it is only by thinking they are my mirrors that they have become my mirrors.
I never finished Pendulum. To me, and perhaps this the fault of the translation, Eco will always be an essayist and an academic. His essays are always more excited and more fascinating than his fiction, which essentially exists only to illuminate his essays. His encyclopaedic knowledge of medieval weirdos seems out of place in a paperback thriller about conspiracies. And second, I had become more and more tempted by Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after having accidentally glimpsed at my copy lying on the floor in the disorganized book pile I call my room.
Portrait is a quite short book, so I was able to finish it in only a few days. I read the majority of it while working. I work at the Writing Center, and although I'm not really supposed to, I often read in the slow periods between sessions. Of course, reading when one isn't supposed to makes the reading much more fun. I remember as child, my parents bought me a game boy one Christmas. I never really got into video games (if you ask me, video games are an inferior artistic medium because they try to extend reality (i.e. create a hyperreality (to borrow a term of Eco's)), rather than replace reality), but the game boy made an excellent flashlight by which to read late into the night.
What struck me the most by Portrait was how strongly I connected with the narrator, and how much I hated him. I guess that's kind of the point with most bildungsromans, to make the reader feel somehow connected to youth and all the foolish promise youth holds. To me, Dedalus as a child is far more interesting than Dedalus as an almost-adult-not-quite because the child Dedalus doubts more, he reads and explores and considers, while the older Dedalus is more firm. He argues his positions, he pontificates, he soliloquizes...reading the book makes my face flush with embarrassment at myself.
A few days after I'd finished Portrait, my Grandmother died. Although I probably should have been expecting it, I feel surprised. I excuse myself from work and school to go to her funeral. The book I decided to bring along was Nikos Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation of Christ. I don't know why I choose to read it, but it seemed like a good fit. Kazantzakis's prose feels like synesthesia, colors are described like smells, and ideas are explained by dreams and visions.
Returning to Grandfather's house felt strange without the presence of Grandma. Her oxygen tank was gone, and Grandfather seemed more stooped than usual. We played cards all through the night.
The funeral service was held two days later. The service was very small, only the immediate family and two or three of Grandpa's friends made it. The funeral home used to be owned by an avid semi-professional wood carver, so the walls were all lined by various little wood-carvings. Most were of dogs or birds. They were all quite good. The current owner was the grandson of the man who had done all the carvings. He was obviously in the funeral business because he felt he had to be, because his father had done it, and his father before him, and his father before him, etc. Since Grandpa really didn't care who performed the funerary rights, he went along with the funeral service's usual pastor (who charged a fee). The pastor was a somewhat short man, a Presbyterian, who was legally blind. His front lip folded over into a point over his bottom lip, so that he looked like a turtle. The pastor, seeing all of us very quiet, too his opportunity to talk as much as possible. He regaled us all with stories of his youth in South Carolina, how superior the South was, how his mama used to bake apple pie, his experience as a blind man, his days at the seminary school, whatever came to mind, really. He was quite sociable, but none of us really wanted to joke around or hear about his life. I asked him if he'd ever read any Borges or Milton; he said he hadn't.
I remember the pastor's service going a little like this:
“I don't know much, but I know about Jesus. And I can't say who you are or what y'alls believe in, but that you choose “ye old rugged cross” as your funeral hymn tells me a little somethin'.”
My grandmother was a non-practicing Jewish woman. Grandpa had chosen the hymn at random out of a list of a few dozen the day before.
“It's through our faith in Jesus that we get to heaven. Now I can't see much, as I'm blind, but my lack of vision has taught me one thing: that this life is a life of shadows and darkness. You see, y'alls are just as blind as I. We're all born blind, and it's not until death that we can really see. Yes, this life is a life of pain and suffering at the hands of our own sinfulness, but Jesus and that ol' rugged cross guide us to a heaven we don't deserve.
None of us are very religious (I dislike even the word “religious”), but we listened anyway.
“Now, I can't describe what heavn'll be like at ya, but I can say with a certainty in my heart, that as long as her faith mirrored the faith I sense in all you right now, I can say with certainty that she's up there, and it won't be long now 'till we're up there with her.”
I can't remember the rest of what he said.
Next, some Korean War veterans gave my grandmother a military funeral. My grandmother served in the navy for two years (it was at an Army/Navy ball that she meet my grandfather). They all seemed very nice, but they were all quite old. Several of them had difficulty marching in time with the others, and they all had unkempt wire-y white beards, but it was nice of them to come, and no one complained.
I accidentally left The Last Temptation of the Christ at Grandpa's house, so I wasn't able to finish reading it.
The next book I read was a book by the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. I had become acquainted with him through several you-tube videos in which he dazzingly dissects everything from Hitchcock to toilets. He is a very radical Lacanian, Marxist, left-Hegelian, who seemed enjoyable enough to me on you-tube that I decided to read one of his books. I found a few at the library, and started in on Looking Awry, which was one the very first books he had written in English.
To me, the book felt very disorganized and chaotic, but his prose always gives the reader the sensation that if you read closely enough, that if you were to simply continue reading, eventually all of his minute points would snap together to form a single dazzling truth. Maybe it won't be in this book, but in the next; not in this video, but the one after. He acrobatically swings from dissecting Rothko's avant-garde paintings to analyzing the minutia of Romero's zombie apocalypses. For the most part, he describes life as a struggle to define oneself and one's reality against the Other. I found myself scouring the internet for more of his videos. Most of his videos are done in a classroom with all white walls. Zizek is a wild gesturer, his hands violently wave all around his unkempt beard. He speaks with a child-like lisp, which make his 'R's sound a little like Daffy Duck's. It doesn't help that his accent is incredibly thick, but after an hour or two of listening to him, it's impossible to even read one of his books without hearing his voice. I would often fall asleep listening to his lectures on-line before bed. One time, I had a dream:
“Phillip, you are late.”
“I'm sorry, Dr. Zizek.”
“Don't worry about it. You'll find that in dream life, as in so-called “real” life, time is both relative and absolutely unnecessary. And please, call me Slavoj. I am frightened by all those who call me by my correct name. So, tell me, have you done what I have asked of you?”
“I've tried, but I'm too lazy.”
“Ah Phillip, you have no one to apologize to but yourself. Let me at least see what you've done so far.”
We walk over to the table where I have slowly been building an exact replica of my life out of coffee spoons, mirrors, wilted rose petals, and pages torn from The Phantom Tollbooth. Slavoj clucked his teeth in disappointment.
“Phillip, you cannot become an artist until you believe that you already are. Look, your childhood is too well kept and orderly; look, your teenage years are all distracted by the wrong books and the wrong ideas. Here, look at this.” He pointed to a place in my structure where I had carefully glued a spoon to a picture of the Whether Man. “Wrong, all wrong. Art is not the act of describing a life of meaning and truth and beauty, but of literally creating” Here his hands gestured wildly. He grabbed at his nose several times before continuing. “...life where before there was only the Other. A formless void without signifiers, signified, or any way to tell where one object begins and the other ends. It is from our language that we separate the chaos from the chaos to create an ideal, a platonic object, but it is from art that the ideal is created. Which is to say, the presence of art assumes, inversely, that all life is meaninglessness. Art assumes, it knows, this to be true The signifying chain has grounded its roots firmly in ignoring the Other. Therefore, the act of creating meaning is, perversely, (and I absolutely mean this in the most sexualized sense of the word) the most nihilistic act possible. The goal, therefore, of literature, is not, as Plato thought, to re-create life or mimic it, but to actually create it in the face of meaninglessness, to save us from confronting the horror of the Other. Do you see now? The reason I have you build this, is not because I get some kind of pleasure in seeing you fail to understand. I do it because in order to exist, first you must will yourself to exist, and it is in so-called “re”-creating your past that it even exists in the first place. This essay, for example, you write it not because you want to explain to everyone what you have read, but because you want to create meaning your reading. You do it because otherwise, there is nothing but the Other, life outside of the symbolic veil. Phillip, all artists are nihilists too perverse to admit their own nihilism.”
I quickly grew tired of Zizek, and became interested in reading fiction again. Since the Border's near me was closing, I thought I would check out their sales and see what I could get. I got several books, some Marquez, some Rushdie, some Kundera, and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. After apologizing to the clerk (who actually seemed kind of cheerful, even though she was losing her job), I immediately started reading the Tolstoy.
Reading Tolstoy was pleasantly different than I expected. I thought he would be dense and serious, but he wasn't. He is light and cheerful. He seems like an angel, hovering over his characters, laughing as they worry their small, petty worries; he forgives them for being shallow and self-centered, because everyone is shallow and self-centered. All the characters create their own truth, and all interact with each other as though their truth was the only one. To me, the book is a polished mirror, into which I can see myself. I see myself, and I forgive myself for all my own folly, for all my self-centeredness, and I can leave the book feeling as though I am no longer the same person that I was when I started the book.
Perhaps this was Tolstoy's intention, perhaps it's me seeking forgiveness after having read Looking Awry, for having stared too directly into the face of the Other, but I feel as though intention or not, it doesn't really matter. I felt very awkward for a while, telling everyone how much I was enjoying Tolstoy. I felt like the eighth grader who has discovered the Beatles for the first time. Everyone knows he's brilliant, and saying something as stupid as “I like Tolstoy” is an absurd redundancy.
A little while later, Dr. Mueller came into the writing center.
“What are you reading, Phill?”
“I'm just reading Anna Karenina.”
“Oh, haha, good for you! You know, It seems like you're always reading something different, but you don't have any English classes this semester, right?”
“Yeah. It's actually really nice. I can read whatever I want and on my own schedule. I'm really enjoying it.”
“Oh, that sounds great! Hey, how would you feel like writing a blog post about it for me? It would be great; you know, really talk about what it means to be an English Major. I think it would be really fun!”
“Yeah, I'd like that!” I said.
It would take me a few tries, a few mis-starts, and still I feel as though this isn't good enough. Maybe it's because reading is such a passive activity (although that's debatable). Maybe it's because I spend too much time pontificating, and frankly, I'm too young to pontificate. Maybe it's because I'm just not great at writing yet (I figure in ten years I'll be mostly okay). I missed a few books. I missed the book of Job (which I read in the bathroom in one sitting). I missed Hegel's The Phenomenology of the Spirit (because to explain the thought process behind why I chose it would have been too distracting). I re-ordered some things. I told some lies, filled in some half-truths; I hope you don't mind. As it is, it's far too long but far too short. I need to be more concise.
Anyway, I think I'll read Lacan's Ecrits next.