I think I can just speak in measured sentences, calmly conveying the message, describing the situation, but every topic is so odd that I end up rushing the talk, and trying to cram in as many details as I can, hoping against all odds the person listening will stay with me. But the constant demonstration of the impossible gulf that lies between me and others, repeatedly fails to convince me, and I always just think, well–I muffed that delivery; and then I try to gather my strength for the next question that needs to be addressed, thinking this time I will speak in measured sentences, and calmly convey the message, describe the situation, marshal the facts. And sure, it seems like I never learn, and am always convicted of being overly enthusiastic. But I do learn this much, that I am able to note what always happens. And I resolve to convey that, that very frustration in all its character, in yet another occasion, in another form. The very form of resolve itself, prepared for and delivered to an even more desperate audience.
“Yeah, Mondrago,” I finally said, “all my life I’ve been worrying that someone was going to say: I can’t stand this anymore! And then throw up their hands, and run out of the room. All my life, I have looked at people, certain people especially, and thought: how do they stand it? They must be about to lose it, and run for the hills. So to speak. And now you know what, Mondrago?” I said, “I am beginning to think that person is me.” Yeah, I thought, I am beginning to envision such a scene for myself. But Mondrago could only say, “Have a cigarette.”
I guess you can’t take this seriously, when someone talks in earnest, or supposedly in earnest, about what they have been thinking about others, and then transfers that to themselves. That is like nothing at all, really. I mean I wasn’t about to go ahead and run out of the room, myself, obviously. Precisely not. And now I apparently wasn’t so sure of the image as it applied to all these others I had been condemning, right and left, throughout my life. So I guess the subject is myself. If that is the case–why not take the opportunity to zero in on it? In entirely related matters, in the category, say, of super-warped interiority, I have ongoing collections already begun, and some out of control. I have examples, say, of how, by force of some colossal naivete, I manage to assume that every other person I encounter knows practically everything about me. They are equipped with that ability, to know everything about me and what I am even thinking at any given moment. These complete strangers can therefore put my smallest actions against a backdrop, where they are completely transparent. It is as if my actions alone make my whole history explicit. This is operative in most dialogues with clerks; I am under their thumb, within their purview, however you want to put it. It is just an instinct with me, of course–any reflection shows that nothing like this is the ever the case, of course. But that doesn’t matter, I act as if it is, and that is the point and the keynote of my behavior, out in public most of the time.
We are talking about me. Say, the friendly middle-age librarian at the counter in the Rundell Library, to whom I appeal after checking the stacks, to see if they have a copy of Vila-Matas’ Bartleby & Co., well, talking to her I an shrinking in embarrassment, for some utterly obscure reason, and I know what it is. Absolutely I just acted as if this perfectly friendly clerk would know automatically that I was not asking for the short story by Herman Melville, not “Bartleby the Scrivener” I was inquiring about. This is because I assumed she knew everything about me, that it was self-evident from my appearance and even my manner that I would of course not just be excitedly discovering and asking after Herman Melville. She knew I had all of his books and was running down something else, which, making allowances for her, perhaps she had not heard of, herself. This is tortuously obscure–I know, but it is alright. We are only talking about me.
And that being established as the case, here is another tack (as in that sailing maneuver you make, when you want to get around the other side of the wind). The better I do get to know people, I can hear their thoughts. Now we are not talking about clerks, and toll booth operators, and people who lead you down long halls. Sometimes people I know very well, those very ones whose thoughts I can hear while just sitting next to them–sometime they lean over and confide in me. They say things sometimes pretty hot to handle. Recently, a close family member said to me, right before one of those gatherings we all look forward to year after year: “I’m just hoping to get through this, while making sure everyone stays happy.” Well! Guess what? This is a familiar pair of thoughts. Just get through it, and hope nobody . . . flips out. Here is one which could be a template and turned into a thousand analogies. Songs can be written, and many are, if you want to pare them down to the first piddling inspiration. I have this combination of thoughts all the time, I was telling Mondrago (who is my sidekick in my brain, you see). All I want to do is get past an event and make sure that everyone else is happy along the way. Or just doesn’t explode. I don’t know, Mondrago, you could have a room full of people where ninety percent of them are in this befuddlement. You don’t know how many others are thinking the same way, since the event itself may be to no one’s particular liking, and, since you are holding these thoughts invisibly, perhaps they are thinking it about you. Hoping they just don’t have to deal with you exploding. Life is complicated, I’ll say that. And I think that most people are, like me, if for no other reason than that they can’t imagine being anyone else, content to stay who they are.
Suddenly, I must reconsider my reaction to people when they ask me, as three people in a row just did, “are you still writing?” Always, I have made to quickly reassure them. ”Of course!” I say, looking each squarely in the face; and often even adding, “that’s what I do, you know. Write, write.” Sometimes I will add an admonishing look that says: ”What did you think, that I had given up?”
But suddenly–after reading Vila-Matas’ Bartleby & Co., and then being interrogated on this score by three people in one night, I am suspicious. I must now consider that the purpose of this question I so often get, get almost every time I see certain people–whom though I see infrequently, still seem to claim me as a bosom buddy–that their purpose may be not what I have innocently assumed. That the person asking it is not so guileless, as I assumed. But invested in this question for their own sake. Nor primarily interested in my existence as a writer. It has occurred to me that what these people are really doing is making sure of something for themselves; this piece of information that they want, and that is all they want–a piece of information, is highly useful to them. If I scrutinise their faces I can see it; they are regarding me like I am a sucker. And for some reason it is important I am maintaining my status, and continued dedication, to being, exactly, a sucker. I am doing something they do not want to do themselves, at all costs. And now that I think of it, how many times do I hear this very follow up: “You know I admire your dedication; I couldn’t be so dedicated.” Yeah, look at me!–they say. What a dunce I am, glad somebody is doing the important stuff! Waitress! I’ll have a double, and get this guy what he wants. Well, previously, I have been flattered to be gawked at as the truth-teller in the crowd. Now, I am undermined . . .
Yes. I think to write some correlary observations–now that I have broken into a cold sweat and see the naked truth. Several things tend strongly to verify this new view of the situation. First, that this question is repeatedly asked of me, and by so many; and second, that it is never followed up with any inquiry whatsoever about what it is, that I have doggedly continued to write. (Would they, per chance, like to read something?) These twin aspects of the situation seem very revealing. It becomes clear that this is, for one thing, a common ailment, and that I am the common cure. The aim of any of these persons asking this question (“are you still writing?”) is simply to establish the fact: that is all they want to know, that I am still at it! And the fact that they walk away (after the briefest ceremony) upon hearing the answer I so automatically give: “yes!, why yes of course, my good man!”, shows that they are reconfirmed!, reassured. I have the distinct impression that I have given them a reprieve–a pardon, that is the look of relief I see on their faces. For it is I–I am the one–who is still writing. I am the monkey. And, I now see, this is of some value to them, clearly; that is why they asked me, not to give me an opportunity to talk about myself (or of all things, the dread content of my writing), but because it is of use to them. For some reason. Or they would not have sought me out, stopped me in my tracks, and demanded to know, am I still a writer? I am valuable to them, I realise, precisely as I continue to define myself that way, and I only need just testify that I am, indeed, not wavering. At this point I have no doubt these people inwardly believe I am deluded in this definition of myself. Also, they have no idea of what the writing consists, and still less of how it is done. Theirs is a simple and a profound satisfaction. That is what they have achieved: a belching satisfaction.
Now (armed with Bartleby & Co.), I come to a new understanding of what this satisfaction is. And it isn’t so pretty. They are hardly rooting for me to continue, so much as checking in to make sure I haven’t quit. And they just seem to know that it is something they themselves are not doing. They are actively engaging in something very negative, and I make them feel guilty. And they like feeling guilty. Guilt is a fresh breeze to them, these slackers. I represent the impossible. That is what is important to them, to have the contrast. I am the one to be kept at arm’s length. But they want to always have me there, or . . . they lose a part of their own self-image. They loll about, and stew in their own rotten self-image. They love it!
I had it reversed; I thought they were asking me if the shining example I was was still there to give them hope, hope for humanity yet, and possibly for them to strive to emulate. That is what I thought! But the truth is, they are only looking to keep me as someone they often point to, precisely so as to keep their ironic distance. The last thing they would do is emulate me, and it is important to them that someone still occupies the position which they do not want. Why? Here is why the monkey must dance. Because if I stop dancing, and vacate that position, the contrast will be gone. The question of the existence of truth will be on them. Not the content of truth, but the sheer existence of it; the existence of meaning, like a distant association, like the memory of an old college course in philosophy. If I were to say that, finally, I have resigned, I have embraced the “Literature of the No” (as have the parade of authors in Enrique Vila-Matas’ stunning and exhaustive compilation), that I gave up writing altogether–this would upset them terribly. And they wouldn’t really know why. In this light, these people are, literature-wise at least, still adolescents. My renunciation (which in fact, any writer must repeatedly suffer) would not make them curious, nor elicit sympathy. It might (and woe to this lazy population!) occur to them to say, with a self-satisfied leer, that here was another sad case, that proved practicality wins out, dreamers lose, and the idealist writer will give up. But, though that last response might occur to them, the real effect of hearing my renunciation would be: they would suddenly feel alone. They would be crushed with the weight of a new, and forbidding, responsibility, and not know why. They would feel starved, starved of these words I keep serving up, and handing through the bars of my cage.
Memory is caused by revelation. Events alone, clearly, are not enough to generate memories. There has to be a thought, a revelation, an insight that turns on the searchlights, causes a looking into the arena that holds memories of life. Consciousness suddenly calls for something that is missing. Then, previous events are revealed, that seem to meet the challenge, and even have led to the very revelation. It is always backwards, and exciting. Memories knock you off your chair. And in a rush, why not ask, of what does the revelation consist? This we must answer. And also, what is the cause or source of the staying power of the old event? Where was it? As if in a classroom, ask these emotionally loaded questions, dryly. While it was not being called upon, where was the memory? Just what allows the past to hang around? This might be addressed in this forum, also. Or further, defying all analysis, is it that both parts of the sequence are useless without each other; while yet supplying each other with meaning? Meaning supplied, just by the relationship? Class! The very importance of the memory is that it speaks of previous life. We are correct in our hunch, today, that memory is activated by revelation. There must be a separate cause, that brings these events into view! Events that were waiting, that nicely support the mood of inquiry, relate to the very issue, and certainly give an air of truth and meaning to the whole procedure. Obviously, toning this down now, class–and I am speaking as if this were a general question, but of course it is personal, memories are most personal, and don’t have a general category–you know that–these events from the past never can become causes of anything. Obviously, memories have no power, until they are brought into the arena of the present hour. It is always that the fervently held past is stirred up, by the riotous needful present, and we simply carry an expanding desire within us. Were the world not capable of supplying new and unexpected occasions, we would not just slip semi-happily into memories, we would sink into an oblivious haze, into senility. For there is no nostalgia–and we are not dying. It cannot be that we have less and less of a reason, to call forth the history of ourselves. Calmly I say this. We are arriving, with an ever larger . . .precious cargo!
Next week, class, we will begin to use examples. I want you each to bring in some memories–well, that sounds rather . . . unmanageable. Let’s do it this way: I will supply the examples! This first example of a memory which we will dissect and examine, and pour over and wonder about, and tease to death, though it will never die, will be the memory I have of sledding in Ellison Park, when I was, oh I don’t know eight or nine years old. This thrilling memory is evoked even by the name Ellison Park, to which I am immediately, while still standing here before you, transported. Amazingly, there is still trauma attached to it–that’s the hinge, to the winter scenery, through which I flew down the terribly long hill on my sled until . . .with tears and snowflakes in my eyes, I had to fling myself off, roll sideways off the sled, or go plunging into, or skidding across what was suddenly right in front of me, a river. Probably frozen, but . . . a river! I never did get an explanation for this, apparently poor planning for a sledding course. And the sled itself was never seen again! I stood up on the near bank, as if alive for the first time in my life (that was the feeling), and I gazed into the snowbound woods. I rolled off the sled, which was going out of control, in order to stay in this life. This is the message, which of course needs to be explored further. It was in order to stay in this life. I had a tenuous grip on life. Not really time to even fear, though no one can help but assume it was fear that caused me to act then–it was really to save myself for this life. And not go across the river where a far worse, disconnected life was. With tremendous heroism, it was one of the first adventures in which I secured this now elastic bond of tenacious cause and effect, that we always think has a secret propelling us forward. When in fact the content of our memories just holds us here, spellbound.
Here at Starbucks, when I am camped out for a while and have become sufficiently morose, I have the constant impulse to pull people aside, and engage in a serious dialogue with them. It could be someone walking purposefully past me, as I sit stranded in one of those wingback chairs they have positioned as if for conversation, or it could, indeed, be the person sitting across from me, become almost like a forgotten Uncle. In any case, here in Starbucks, it is only ever one appeal I think of making, and it takes shape in the following dialogue –as I buttonhole my first victim.
Of course, I only know my part of the dialogue, as this is essentially just inflicted on a speechless, straw-man, who remains in my imagination. But it is real enough! Or at least it is the same damn thing every time.
—Where do you work? I say.
—I see! Well, that’s interesting, that can be an interesting kind of work.
—Do you think I could be of any help in this type of work? Of course I am not sure of the extent of the opportunity. But I am flexible, and willing to work on any level, really.
—Oh, you are in a transitional phase? I see. Expanding to meet the needs of an ever diverse and demanding public.
—It is interesting these days, almost everyone is adapting to shifting realities; I think about that alot myself, these days.
—More of a downward phase, did you say? Things are not going so well. I am sorry!
—Please don’t cry. I was actually trying to ask for help myself. Egads, I feel like a chump.
—What kind of problems could I possibly have anyway?
—I guess I must look pretty secure!
That is how it goes. Actually it isn’t anyone and everyone whom I think of pulling over and engaging in this striving, earnest dialogue–which, you see, never quite happens and is therefore all the more real to me. The only people I fixate on with this scenario in mind are, I am afraid, mysterious middle-aged women. Hard to focus on, extravagantly dressed, complex, fascinating women who undoubtably have unbelievable things to say, and families. Men I always think would be best to talk sports with; in short clipped sentences. And I could do that, say if I see some guy folding back the sports page, I know enough to keep up; but I usually will avoid that conversation, which would actually have to take place in reality, and is already way in overstock, you might say. Younger, beautiful, radiant, high-stepping career women, I must say, I consider part of the decor, here in Starbucks, and I like to just watch them form words on their lips, and try not to listen. A gaggle of high-school girls, and I am out of there. Starbucks is a kind of leveller, after all, but humanity is a thing I feel I must be a part of, and endeavor to get ever closer to. When you consider how sympathetically I relate to everyone, you have to make a place for me.
Basically I must regard other writers as pretenders. Trying on a voice, and settling into it, executing it for all it is worth. I always remember my Uncle Robbie saying he divided writers into those who were doing something that he could do himself, and those who were doing something he couldn’t do; admiring the latter. And this savage distinction, I remember thinking, was kind of fatal to literature. Though it sounded like he held a reverence for whose who could write things beyond his own abilities, and that he humbled himself before them, it revealed that he regarded writing itself only as a matter of ability. He had no category utterly outside his own comprehension. My Uncle Robbie was combative, in regards to writing, and fatalistic in regards to his own ability; but this I saw as essentially his own vanity, a kind of reverse vanity. It put a chill on the whole enterprise of literature, in fact. He had no expectation, no category for absolutely unheard of content. And I knew that this is what I wanted, I wanted to hear something outside of life, outside of the question of anyone’s ability–more than I wanted to be a writer myself. If I was a writer myself, I did not want to be measured, precisely not measured for this–for my ability. I didn’t want this to be the distinction, because I could see it was only aimed at heralding the well-written. These writers, like Uncle Robbie himself, a fine poet, were all of a generation that were too capable. Noble as he was, Uncle Robbie could nevertheless read everything. He expected to understand what he read. There was no category for a writer who could both access the inexpressible, and then have the stuttering ability to do it; not just write what Uncle Robbie could not find the talent, or more like the time, to do himself. This would be to present the heretofore unrecognizable, the absolute novelty of the world, the similitude of mystery itself. The execution of such content would be rendered, concomitantly, as if indifferently, with no style that one could isolate and obsequiously admire. And that is the category I put myself in, if I am to be a writer at all, because I require of myself to always start from the crisis in my awareness. I am essentially equivalent to one who strives endlessly to speak the truth of the crisis of life. And if I hold any of this ongoing content now, it has happened during a life in which, along the way, I can see no other literature–except pretend literature. And therefore I must bear the identity of it. The height of pretension is the neutral, the blase understanding that pretends to erase the self, and arrange the universe and history as if there were really no question, ultimately, daily, squarely facing a person. For I will tell you what is the question facing a person. I will tell you that, over and over, and you will not suffer any recrimination, so gently will I tell you about that question which is always facing a person. Heretofore, perhaps, no one has spoken of this quite so directly, but what of that? They are all pretenders.
“There will be plenty of time for memories,” I want to say. I get the clear impression that people think memories go no further, really, than the life in which they are generated. If you ask, say, what are memories for?, you are going to find out that nobody has given that question much thought. But you can tell that people are sentimental towards their own memories, like they were sparklers you get to light only on holidays; these memories are not made of strong enough stuff to carry into, say, another life. And that idea (another life) doesn’t get any play around here, either. I am afraid the only way I can make a dent in this situation is to just say, “oh, there will be plenty of time for memories.” When somebody starts provoking everyone to have memories, and the conversation turns into a kind of pass the hat and put a memory in, I want to just thow cold water on the whole mood, by saying, “there will be plenty of time for memories, I am sure.” And then someone might say, “what, do you mean, when we are in nursing homes?” No, I would say, “when we are in the next life.”
But I can’t say that, for you see people are convinced they have to get these stories out before they die, because after they die, the prevailing opinion is, everything will be over. There will be no more memory making! And apparently no memory receiving! Memories are bounded, experiences generate them, somehow, and the memories themselves have a burning fuse that lasts exactly as long as you do. Once the person is extinguished, so are their memories. So don’t put any higher value on them.
For one thing, it is repeatedly established, beyond any doubt, that dead people do not communicate their memories of life. So we have to get those World War II soldiers stories before the old guys pop off. They have been reticent too long. Get a tape recorder! Bring in Ken Burns! Make a documentary, and put it on PBS. That will deaden the issue. But I want to say, “there will be plenty of time in the next life for memories.” And, I think the devilish impulse here is not so much to get the memories, per se, as to finish off the person, exhaust them so we can say, well we heard it all. That was history. That was Uncle Fred. Like he finally confessed, and that might be good for his soul. If he believes he has one, which is his business. It is absolution, for Uncle Fred, that is the best construction you can put on it. It is peace, albeit delusional, but still, peace for Uncle Fred, before he dies.
Nobody cares at all what the content of the memory is, not a whit whether it was the Battle of the Bulge or bilge water. Not a whit, and it is quickly forgotten by the hearer, and the viewer of these palavering documentaries; the whole point was to expunge, expunge the spirit of the person who is at death’s door. And why? Not really for their sake, either. Look at the person holding the tape recorder, if you want to understand what is going on here. They are proving a whole theory of existence. It essentially says: history is arbitrary and meaningless, and people die and are forgotten, and that’s that. This is the truth, and I wash my hands of it. That is why they are so thorough, they are washing their hands of it, life.
And now my sister wants me to interview my mother to get her memories! Before it is too late! Great idea, interview your own mother. I am certainly opposed to this; I would rather just talk to her, and let the chips fall where they may, so to speak. We stumble around in our own kind of fanciful talk pretty good, my mother and I. We don’t need memories; we make things up. But I agree to it, because if I agree it won’t happen anyway, and if I object that will cause a discussion, an uproar even, and both my sister and mother are likely to be exposed, caricatured unfairly, as fatalists. I don’t know how to save them. I just feel like saying, “oh, their will be plenty of time for memories, I am sure of that.”