Friday, February 29, 2008

Dupont Circle

What makes me feel that I have the right to live this life I live, and then to write about it?

I am where I want to be, where I have always wanted to be. I might have longed for temporary sojourns in one or another of the great capitals of the world, but Washington, DC is the place I've always wanted to call home.

When I think of writing about this, the models of literature serve me. The images of city life in the books I love are created by people whom I can think of as being much like me, and they describe my life. They are created by people who breathe air. The light they see the world through is the same light that illuminates me and my surroundings. They suffer through cold and wet, and yearn for sun and warmth. Their food is agreeable. The city teaches them of loneliness and alienation or the misfortunes of their neighbors. The city also provides a home.

From 1988 to late 1991 I worked at a large Washington law firm whose offices in downtown were a stone's throw from Dupont Circle. In warm weather I used to buy lunch at one of the many take-out restaurants in the neighborhood and head to Dupont Circle to settle on one of the inner row of benches. The fountain in the center of Dupont Circle resembles a flying saucer, held aloft by two Greek women in flowing robes and one scantily clad Greek man blowing on a conch shell. Water pours from the saucer in a silky curtain into the basin below.

My theory that Dupont Circle is a paradise in the heart of the city and the nation goes this way: In Dupont Circle poor meets rich, old meets young, gay meets straight, native meets new arrival, and the peoples, styles, and languages all squish together to form America. Love begins here during morning rush hour with a glance. At midday, political and religious evangelists stop passersby with a few words, a petition, a holy book. In the afternoon, solo figures pursue venture capital and real estate deals using tiny phones. In the evening, dogs approach or snub one another. People find good food nearby, designer and regular ice cream, coffee simple or embellished, newsstands, movie theaters with smallish screens.

But what conclusively distinguishes Dupont Circle from its Parisian ancestors and Washington cousins are the dozen bookstores within a few minutes' walk. Bookstores enough to gladden any newly published author's heart. Bookstores chain and independent, specialty and general; large stores inventoried via satellite and corporate projection, small stores inventoried according to individual whim. Bookstores filled with thrillers and self-help books that sell like hotcakes, and bookstores obstinately maintaining law, philosophy, literature, and social history collections. Stores where books are as surprised to find themselves rubbing up against each other as the people who crisscross great Dupont Circle itself, queer theory thrust into briefcase alongside military biography, genetics text squeezed into the same well-worn backpack with epistolary love story.

Dupont Circle, despite commercialization, gentrification, and Metro-station domination, is still perfect.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The English Patient

I sense a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall trees in the park just beyond my window sway. I hear the first drops of rain on the window pane.

I lie on my couch, on a sheet, naked: my body exposed to the mild breeze from the window which is opened slightly on this warm day in early spring. I turn my head slowly to the book I hold awkwardly in my left hand. I had purchased the book second hand at a book shop near Dupont Circle. My gaze turns to my body, beginning at my feet and ankles, then to my legs, then to the penis sleeping like a sea horse. I lie on my back, my head on a pillow, looking up at the ceiling. I take a bite of a plum that I hold in my right hand. I withdraw the stone and pass the flesh of the fruit into my mouth. My mind is focused on the book I am reading and the well of memory that I plunge into from time to time.

My memory slips from level to level like a hawk. It is late afternoon. My hands play with a piece of sheet, the back of my fingers caressing it. I stand up naked and walk across the room to the kitchen, where I wash my hand.

I return to the couch. I am not tired enough to sleep. I read from the book. A candle flickers over the page, barely revealing the pictures that decorate the walls. I swallow the words of the book like water. It is still raining. I smell the liquid in the air. The rustle of things. Tree branches and dead leaves. The banging of a tin can whose deep pitch reveals it is full of water.

I lie and read the book under the waver of light. I glance now and then at the wall of books across from me. For years I had fallen upon books as the only door out of the prison cell that is my life. They have become half of my world.

The book is perched on my lap. I realize that for more than five minutes I have been looking at the porousness of the paper, the crease at the corner of page 17 which someone had folded over as a mark. I brush my hand over its skin. A scurry in my mind like a moth at the window. A table sits next to the couch. Earlier I had ceremoniously poured myself a small beaker of wine and set it on the table and now I lift a glass to my lips and sip away further into the book I am reading. The book has gaps of plot like sections of a road washed out by storms, missing incidents as if plaster on the ceiling had pealed away.

My past, my memories are much like that. Some phases of my life cannot be entered because the rubble of memory, fragments of lived experience, have crowded in on each other leaving many periods inert and lost to reminiscence. I am not concerned about the gaps in plot, either in the book or in my life. I simply continue to read. I hear the sound of a bird and I look up from the book again. My eyes come to rest on the high wall of books, then the walls.

I glance back at the book. Some of the pages are joined together in a stiff wave. I feel like Crusoe finding a drowned book that had washed up and dried itself on the shore. The English Patient. As in all of the best books, there is the important page with the list of illustrations, a line of text for each of them.

I enter the story knowing I will emerge from it feeling I had been immersed in the lives of others, in plots that stretched back more than sixty years, my body full of sentences and moments, as if awaking from sleep with a heaviness caused by unremembered dreams.

The candle goes out. I light a match in the dark room and move it onto the wick of the candle. Light lifts itself onto my shoulders. I breathe in the smell of sulfur. I imagine I also breath in light.

I pick up a notebook that lies on the small table beside the couch. It is a book that I have had with me for many years -- a copy of The Histories by Herodotus that I have added to, cutting and gluing in pages from other books or writing in my own observations -- so they all are cradled within the text of Herodotus. I begin to read my small gnarled handwriting, and set as aside The English Patient.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Kafkaesque Endeavor

I recently met with my job counselor at the District of Columbia's Rehabilitation Services Administration. The Rehabilitation Services Administration places disabled workers, like myself, in employment. My case has been wending its way through the bureaucracy since August 2005.

The meeting with the job counselor caused me little concern, almost to my own surprise. I sought to explain this to myself on the grounds that, judging by my previous experiences, dealing with the bureaucracy's authorities was very simple for me. On one hand, this was due to their having issued for my affairs, apparently once and for all, a definite ruling as to my future employment as a paralegal that was outwardly very much in my favor, and on the other, to the admirable consistency of the agency which was, one suspected, especially perfect on occasions when it appeared to be missing. Sometimes when thinking of such matters I almost concluded that my situation was quite satisfactory, though I always told myself quickly after such fits of satisfaction that this is precisely where the danger lay. Dealing directly with the authorities wasn't all that difficult, for no matter how well organized they were, they only had to work with distant and invisible causes on behalf of remote and invisible clients, whereas I was fighting for something vitally close, for myself, and what's more of my own free will: namely, securing a position with a local law firm.

But what if my case were to be permanently or semi-permanently stalled in the bureaucracy? If this went on, if I weren't always on guard, I might one day, despite the friendly attitude of the authorities, despite my meticulous fulfillment of my exaggeratedly light official duties, be deceived by the favor seemingly granted me and lead the rest of my life so imprudently that I would fall to pieces, and the authorities, gentle and friendly as ever, would have to come, as though against their will but actually at the behest of some official ordinance in the District of Columbia Code of which I knew little, in order to clear me out of the way. And what did that actually amount to here, the other part of my life?

Indeed my case had more cause for worry than I was able or willing to admit to myself.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

An Analytic Hour

My writing has saved my life. What one comes away with is my total isolation, my fear of people, my panic over closeness, and that's why my real life is so chaotic and my writing is so much more controlled and stable.

It's amazing to me, you know? The interesting thing apart from the obvious sexual guilt that I've always felt is that nothing has changed in my life since I was young. It's years later. I had a shrink then and now I still see a shrink. It's years later, six shrinks later. I'm innumerable jobs down the line. I got fired from my last two jobs. And I still can't get my life in order.

I still fantasize about whores. It's ideal. You pay them, and they come to the house and you don't have to discuss Proust or films or . . .

I don't know what's happening to me. I just have not grown up and I feel . . . I see other guys my age. I think of fucking every woman I meet. I meet a woman in the bank or on the bus. I think: What's she look like naked? Can I fuck her? This is crazy. I see guys I know that are lawyers and doctors with families and houses. They're not so . . . Did the President of the United States, President Clinton, want to fuck every woman he met? Bad example. I don't know. Take Raoul Wallenberg. Did he want to bang every cocktail waitress in Europe? Probably not.

I was so immature in college. I couldn't buckle down. I almost got thrown out of college. I was not interested in college. I wanted to be a writer. Writing was all I cared about. I did not care about the real world. I cared only about the world of fiction.

Now, for the first time in my life I have writer's block. This, to me, is unheard of. I start these short stories and I can't finish them. I finished the novel I was working on for eleven years. So that's done. And I can't settle into something new, a new project. I find I'm taking more pills and medicine and . . .

My last shrink said I expect the world to adjust to the distortion I've become. I don't expect anything. I'm going through something. For the first time in my life I can't seem to write. It's not coming. And for me all l have in life is my imagination.

I'm sorry, our time is up.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Cleveland Park

I live in the Cleveland Park section of Washington, which spreads throughout the northern part of the District of Columbia. The neighborhood first attracted residents because it was the high ground -- blessed relief from the swampy heat of Washington summers. In fact, Cleveland Park got its name from President Grover Cleveland, who bought a country "cottage" in the area in 1886. Similar "cottages," with their wraparound porches built to catch the cool breezes, still line the streets of Cleveland Park. I have lived in this neighborhood for about 23 years -- almost as long as I lived in my hometown of Philadelphia. I know each block, each apartment building. There has been little building here on upper Connecticut Avenue in the last decades, and I have the illusion of having put down roots here. There is a synagogue in the neighborhood, Adas Israel, a large conservative congregation to which many illustrious Jews belong. They know me in some of the stores but not in any of the restaurants. I never eat out. I am a minimalist. I haven't been to the movies since 1992, though the neighborhood theater, The Uptown, features first-run movies. Movie premieres that take place in Washington always happen at the Uptown. In the late 1990s former President Clinton attended a movie premiere at The Uptown. I stayed away from the theater that night. My presence near the President of the United States would make the Secret Service apprehensive. I have, in fact, been investigated by the U.S. Secret Service as a potential threat to the President. But we won't go into that.

Even the pigeons of Cleveland Park know me; the moment I come out with a bag of feed, they begin to fly toward me from blocks away. It is an area that stretches from Cathedral Avenue on the south to Tilden Street on the north and west from Wisconsin Avenue to Rock Creek Park on the east. Although readers unfamiliar with Washington will not know these street names. The stretch of Connecticut Avenue, where I live, that passes through Cleveland Park is lined mostly with apartment houses and condominiums. But the side streets are lined with beautiful old homes, many of them built in the late nineteenth-century. One steps into another world when one walks along the side streets of Cleveland Park, an old and gracious world. Almost every day after lunch, I go to the neighborhood library, built in 1953, the year I was born. There's been talk that the library may be torn down and replaced with a modern structure. I hope not. The library, though antiquated, has its own charm. The library is the home of my ambitions and illusions. It is at the library where, in fantasy, I meet with Shakespeare and Dickens and negotiate foreign policy with Napoleon. Though I never eat out, I imagine that the library is a kind of cafeteria where one converses with old friends and gets one's fill of food for the soul.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Pleasure versus Fortitude

by Suzanne Jacobson

Suffering stems from desire, but the entire premise of modern life is built upon want. Want for a better future, want for a career, want for material goods. The Tao masters suggest to just be, the Nike copywriters to just do. Is there a middle ground to be found among extremes?

Surrendering one's life in pursuit of fulfilling a want is not necessarily self-centered. We, as humans, are irrelevant. The only thing we have to offer is that which will supercede our lives. Love left in our loved one's hearts is irrelevant because they too, will die.

This is not advocating for self-centeredness, this is an acknowledgement of what Americans will never admit — our lives mean nothing; unless we abet in a cultural evolution. Such an evolution is the only way to live forever.

That notion could be construed as nihilistic, but if one takes the equal and opposite stance, the sacrifice could be freeing.

Could. Because should one submerge the self in pursuit of something greater than themselves, then the self is lost and so is any chance for enjoyment. Yes, perhaps there are beers to be drunk after a long day of building something outlasting the evaporating human spirit, but then a life lived without regard to evaporating life, the human spirit forgets its chance to prosper. Without proper indulgence, there is no energy left to build that which lasts forever. But with too much indulgence, the goal is forgotten in the midst of enjoyment, an enjoyment that can be more detrimental than if it never existed. Because enjoyment can be distracting.

Few people have the temperament or desire for such a path. 'Why?' they say. Life is fleeting and should be enjoyed. And that is 100 percent true.

So what if you find yourself on a path with little enjoyment, but it is the only way you can conceivably begin to build something that lasts beyond death? What if pursuing the one thing you enjoy means forgoing opportunities for pleasure. Does this mean that the path is wrong? Does this mean one should return to the path of pleasure and forget that of service? When we, in America, have such freedom and such opportunity to sit at a desk for eight hours a day and cash a paycheck every other Friday with no outpouring of self or sacrifice, why would one pursue the other path?

Is it ego-ism that would allow one to preposterously perceive notions of contributing something useful to society? And then there are those that seem to do exactly what it is what you want, but effortlessly. Does this mean you are not meant to act in the capacity you see as your destiny?

But then if destiny is a choice, is the only choice between pleasure and work? And perhaps pleasure will come at a later date, after trees are cleared for an easier passage. But somehow, the further I travel along this road, the further I become from what I want to be. Perhaps this is untrue in ways cloudy from proximity, but that I cannot see yet.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Emperor's Garden

Frustration, whether occasioned by loss or the result of unfulfilled aims, is difficult to bear. Substitute satisfactions will always be sought to mitigate the pain of loss or to soothe the grief of disappointed ambitions.

It is said of Napoleon, for example, that in exile on St. Helena, he took to gardening, attacking its problemswith martial courage and discipline. Historians note that he conscripted his entire colony to join in the enterprise of digging, carting, planting, watering, and weeding. Napoleon is said to have consumed with delight the fresh vegetables that the well-watered garden produced.

Perhaps, for Napoleon, gardening provided a substitute satisfaction, a replacement for a lost empire. I have no doubt that for my aunt, gardening was a substitute for something she never had -- children.

For thwarted dictators, regardless of hue or shade -- those who have lost an empire, or those whose desire for an empire has been frustrated -- gardening provides a sublimated fulfillment of a childish wish to dominate. The garden is a world that accepts the authority of its master without question -- a world in which vigilant cultivation, a sort of horticultural discipline meted out by the gardener-as-master to his slave empire, the garden, generally assures the realization of the ideals of rigid compliance and luxuriant perfection.

Invoking Nietzsche, and a little German philology as well, we learn that "slavery is, as it seems, both in the cruder and in the more subtle sense, the indispensable means of spiritual discipline (zucht) and cultivation (zuchtung), too."

My aunt inhabited a psychological world in which the concepts of cultivation (i.e, zuchtung, in the form of compulsive pruning and weeding -- really horticultural castration) and discipline (zucht) merged; a world in which the distinction between the cultivation of plants and the disciplining of children was blurred so that reasonable pedagogic limitations on the feasibility -- not to mention desirability -- of molding absolute perfection and compliance in children were incomprehensible to her. Failure of the child to respond to cultivation would be perceived by my aunt as the thwarting of the will of the gardener, and would suggest the need for pruning -- i.e., castration -- the preferred means of dealing with weeds, overgrown plants, and obstreperous children (and troublesome males of all ages, for that matter). My aunt's motto: "If it offends the subtler taste, prune it!"

The gardener despises weeds and recalcitrant plants ("nature's rank and gross") just as the dictator abhors political dissidents; nonconformity with the established norm -- really the narcissistic ideal -- is highly threatening for both the dictator and the earnest gardener.

The presence of weeds in another person's garden -- and my aunt never failed to notice the weeds in other people's gardens -- was always an occasion for stern condemnation of both the gardener and his lax methods of cultivation. One could expect, also, a lecture on the inferiority of the species of plant, tree, and shrub found in other people's gardens, as well as a critique regarding the placement and arrangement. "That tree is too close to the house," my aunt often said, pointing to her neighbor's dwelling, "a storm might cause it to topple and damage the property." Her neighbors were obvious miscreants.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Boredom in the Library

This post is dedicated to William Decosta and the staff of the Cleveland Park Neighborhood Library.

"Wishing to go where you don't belong is the condition of most people in the world" is the opening sentence of Trespassing, a novel I have just picked up and started to read. I have that sentence in my head as I turn and lift my reading glasses from my face to glance back at the patrons who are sitting in the library, some sleeping in their seats, in the waning hours of an early spring afternoon. The people in the library ignore one another as if they are all blindfolded, their imagination turned to some inner realm, some slumped over the tables, with tilted faces, and some with gaping mouths, enclosed by the howl and bedlam of the monologuing blare emanating from the children's room. I excite my imagination by seeing the other library patrons as helpless captives or hostages, yet I know better. Like me, they are tired and bemused people, some waiting to get onto the public access computers -- maybe some of them daydreaming of far-off places, but certainly not hostages or captives of anything other than their own illusions. I slip back into my seat and readjust my glasses, and return to Trespassing, the book I had been reading.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Farewell

This post is dedicated to my Brazilian friends: Eduardo Nasi, The Jeca, and Ricardo Pilla -- and the ever-beautiful Carolzinha.

The sun departs behind the mountains. In all the valleys, evening descends with its cooling shadows. O look! Like a silver boat, the moon floats on the blue sky-lake above.

I feel the fine wind wafting behind the dark spruce. The brook sings loudly through the darkness. The flowers stand out palely in the twilight. The earth breathes, full of peace and sleep, and all yearning wishes to dream now.

Weary men go home, to learn in sleep forgotten happiness and youth. The birds crouch silently in their branches. The world is asleep! It blows coolly in the shadows of my spruce.

I stand here and wait for my friend; I wait to bid him a last farewell. I yearn, my friend, at your side to enjoy the beauty of this evening. Where do you tarry? You leave me alone for so long! I wander up and down with my lute, on paths swelling with soft grass.

O beauty! O eternal love - eternal, love-intoxicated world!

He dismounted and handed him the drink of parting. He asked him where he would go, and also why it must be. He spoke, his voice was choked: My friend, on this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! Where do I go? I will go, wander in the mountains. I seek peace for my lonely heart. I wander to find my homeland, my home. I will never stray to foreign lands. Quiet is my heart, waiting for its hour!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ode to Saddam

'Tis done---but yesterday a King!
And armed with Kings to strive---
And now thou art a nameless thing:
So abject---yet alive!
Is this the man of thousand thrones,
Who strewed our earth with hostile bones,
And can he thus survive?
Since he, miscalled the Morning Star,
Nor man nor fiend hath fallen so far.

Ill-minded man! why scourge thy kind
Who bowed so low the knee?
By gazing on thyself grown blind,
Thou taught'st the rest to see.
With might unquestioned,---power to save,---
Thine only gift hath been the grave
To those that worshipped thee;
Nor till thy fall could mortals guess
Ambition's less than littleness!

Thanks for that lesson---it will teach
To after-warriors more
Than high Philosophy can preach,
And vainly preached before.
That spell upon the minds of men
Breaks never to unite again,
That led them to adore
Those Pagod things of sabre-sway,
With fronts of brass, and feet of clay.

The triumph, and the vanity,
The rapture of the strife---
The earthquake-voice of Victory,
To thee the breath of life;
The sword, the sceptre, and that sway
Which man seemed made but to obey,
Wherewith renown was rife---
All quelled!---Dark Spirit! what must be
The madness of thy memory!

The Desolator desolate!
The Victor overthrown!
The Arbiter of others' fate
A Suppliant for his own!
Is it some yet imperial hope
That with such change can calmly cope?
Or dread of death alone ?
To die a Prince---or live a slave---
Thy choice is most ignobly brave!

He who of old would rend the oak,
Dreamed not of the rebound;
Chained by the trunk he vainly broke---
Alone---how looked he round?
Thou, in the sternness of thy strength,
An equal deed hast done at length,
And darker fate hast found:
He fell, the forest prowlers' prey;
But thou must eat thy heart away!

The Roman, when his burning heart
Was slaked with blood of Rome,
Threw down the dagger---dared depart,
In savage grandeur, home.---
He dared depart in utter scorn
Of men that such a yoke had borne,
Yet left him such a doom!
His only glory was that hour
Of self-upheld abandoned power.

The Spaniard, when the lust of sway
Had lost its quickening spell,
Cast crowns for rosaries away,
An empire for a cell;
A strict accountant of his beads,
A subtle disputant on creeds,
His dotage trifled well:
Yet better had he neither known
A bigot's shrine, nor despot's throne.

But thou---from thy reluctant hand
The thunderbolt is wrung---
Too late thou leav'st the high command
To which thy weakness clung;
All Evil Spirit as thou art,
It is enough to grieve the heart
To see thine own unstrung;
To think that God's fair world hath been
The footstool of a thing so mean;

And Earth hath spilt her blood for him,
Who thus can hoard his own!
And Monarchs bowed the trembling limb,
And thanked him for a throne!
Fair Freedom! we may hold thee dear,
When thus thy mightiest foes their fear
In humblest guise have shown.
Oh! ne'er may tyrant leave behind
A brighter name to lure mankind!

Thine evil deeds are writ in gore,
Nor written thus in vain---
Thy triumphs tell of fame no more,
Or deepen every stain:
If thou hadst died as Honor dies.
Some new Napoleon might arise,
To shame the world again---
But who would soar the solar height,
To set in such a starless night?

Weigh'd in the balance, hero dust
Is vile as vulgar clay;
Thy scales, Mortality! are just
To all that pass away:
But yet methought the living great
Some higher sparks should animate,
To dazzle and dismay:
Nor deem'd Contempt could thus make mirth
Of these, the Conquerors of the earth.

And she, proud Austria's mournful flower,
Thy still imperial bride;
How bears her breast the torturing hour?
Still clings she to thy side ?
Must she too bend, must she too share
Thy late repentance, long despair,
Thou throneless Homicide?
If still she loves thee, hoard that gem,---
'Tis worth thy vanished diadem!

Then haste thee to thy sullen Isle,
And gaze upon the sea;
That element may meet thy smile---
It ne'er was ruled by thee!
Or trace with thine all idle hand
In loitering mood upon the sand
That Earth is now as free!
That Corinth's pedagogue hath now
Transferred his by-word to thy brow.

Thou Timour! in his captive's cage
What thoughts will there be thine,
While brooding in thy prisoned rage?
But one---"The world was mine!"
Unless, like he of Babylon,
All sense is with thy sceptre gone,
Life will not long confine
That spirit poured so widely forth---
So long obeyed---so little worth!

Or, like the thief of fire from heaven,
Wilt thou withstand the shock?
And share with him, the unforgiven,
His vulture and his rock!
Foredoomed by God---by man accurst,
And that last act, though not thy worst,
The very Fiend's arch mock;
He in his fall preserved his pride,
And, if a mortal, had as proudly died!

There was a day---there was an hour,
While earth was Gaul's---Gaul thine---
When that immeasurable power
Unsated to resign
Had been an act of purer fame
Than gathers round Marengo's name
And gilded thy decline,
Through the long twilight of all time,
Despite some passing clouds of crime.

But thou forsooth must be a King
And don the purple vest,
As if that foolish robe could wring
Remembrance from thy breast
Where is that faded garment? where
The gewgaws thou wert fond to wear,
The star, the string, the crest?
Vain froward child of Empire! say,
Are all thy playthings snatched away?

Where may the wearied eye repose
When gazing on the Great;
Where neither guilty glory glows,
Nor despicable state?
Yes---One---the first---the last---the best---
The Cincinnatus of the West,
Whom Envy dared not hate,
Bequeathed the name of Washington,
To make man blush there was but one!

Yes! better to have stood the storm,
A Monarch to the last!
Although that heartless fireless form
Had crumbled in the blast:
Than stoop to drag out Life's last years,
The nights of terror, days of tears
For all the splendour past;
Then,---after ages would have read
Thy awful death with more than dread.

A lion in the conquering hour!
In wild defeat a hare!
Thy mind hath vanished with thy power,
For Danger brought despair.
The dreams of sceptres now depart,
And leave thy desolated heart
The Capitol of care!
Dark Corsican, 'tis strange to trace
Thy long deceit and last disgrace.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Punctuation Grandiosity

I recently decided to overcome my disdain for people who do not use capital letters while typing. Next comes the elimination of all incorrect punctuation.

With respect to punctuation I am unyielding and serve as my own authority. The whole of my makeup as a dialectician with an unusual rhetorical sense, all my quiet conversations in the company of my thoughts, my practice of reading aloud -- all this necessarily makes me first-rate in this respect. For it is in fact an artistic feat to be able to transfer to the written page the cadences of speech, the pauses, the breathing; it is an expressive act that must capture something fleeting while it is on the wing.

It is especially with respect to rhetoric that my punctuation deviates from the norm, because it is quite advanced. I am particularly preoccupied with the architectonic-dialectical aspect, which is simultaneously clear to the eye in the proportions of the sentences, and to the voice when one reads them aloud, as rhythm -- and I always have in mind a reader who reads aloud.

For this same reason I restrict use of the comma, which puts me in constant conflict with readers of the English language, who in their well-meaning way insert commas everywhere, thereby disturbing any sense of rhythm. I also have my own way of using the period: In my opinion, most English stylists use the period altogether incorrectly. They dissolve their discourse into nothing but short, choppy sentences, but this has the result of depriving the logical element of the respect that is its due.

I want to see similar respect paid to the question mark, which most writers do not treat with the requisite restraint: In general the question mark is misused in a foolish manner, by being employed in abstract fashion whenever there is an interrogative clause. I often use semicolons and conclude with an omnibus question mark.

Do I make myself understood? And they call me a hack!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Mood Swings

My joys are fleeting. Sooner or later, as though by magic, joy and calm suddenly deserts me; all fat plump illusions, all my self-satisfaction and self-importance, and idle peace of mind falls away. Something plunges me into solitude and brooding, makes me contemplate suffering and death, the vanity of all undertaking, as I stare into the abyss.

At other times a sudden joy blossoms from the hopeless depth of uselessness and horror, a violent surge of optimism, the desire to listen to music, to write. I have only to dwell on a lovely sight or read a poem, and my childlike agreement with life comes back to me. Tomorrow or the day after, the world will be good again, it will be wonderful. At least it is so until the sadness returns, the brooding, the remorse for suffering humanity and the vanity of hope, the horror of insensitive, piglike, staring-but-not-seeing human existence.

It is at such moments that thoughts about my career in the law always come to mind. With torturing curiosity and deep anguish, I think of the career I destroyed, the career I never had. And I wonder what had become of my desire to be a lawyer. Had I lost that desire completely, does anything remain of it? The bare essentials of legal knowledge, and perhaps a few concepts remain. And what would become of that knowledge? How long was it, decades or just years, until all my legal knowledge lost any meaning and crumbled into ignorance?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

My Life as a Fake: A Monologue

When you are cut off from the rest of the world, things are bound to develop in interesting ways. I've always been a loner. My life is almost a waste. I am a struggling writer, trying to find my voice, hoping to be published. I did not have the benefit of a cultured family life. My parents' home was as bare as a cupboard, no books, dried-out plates of leftovers in the fridge. Imagine if I had grown up in a family with a bloody wall of books, Turkish rugs, modern paintings, De Chirico, Leger. Unfair that anyone should have such a start in life.

I attended The Central High School of Philadelphia, school for clever boys. Who would guess it now that I have become such an intellectual mongrel? I never won any awards at school or had a piece published in the literary magazine. Though even then I dreamed of being published. I was a loner in high school. I made no friends in adolescence.

How I longed for a special friend -- someone to share Rilke and Mallarme. Someone to lend me The Little Review. To have a friend, members only, but that was foreign to me. I longed for a friend who would complement my shyness, someone with no natural reticence or modesty. Always thrusting himself forward, must have a different table than the one he is shown by the waiter. Soup has to be made hotter when I would eat it as it came. Someone whose qualities, nay, virtues, I could envy, I could covet. Jealousy. A friendship based on jealousy. Why not? I was such a fake, so half past six. No head, no tail.

I will tell you the feeling -- exactly like listening to my father -- a high school dropout -- talking about his favorite pastime in his twenties: going to court to hear cases argued and fantasizing about a career in the law. Always the smell of something false about him. All rise, the court of the Honorable whoever is now in session. You may be seated. Making an exhibition of his failures and illusions. All the same -- fake is fake no matter where you find it. There was something so shallow in his character.

Like my father, I invented a whole life for myself. The life of an artist, of an aspiring writer. My life embodies true sorrow and pathos. I am a living person, alone, outside literary cliques, outside print, dying, outside humanity but of it. . . . Perhaps I have no literary talents. Yet I do have something of the soft staring brilliance of Franz Kafka; something of Rilke's anguished solitude; something of Wilfred Owen's angry fatalism.

I walk, I live, I suffer -- and I strain to make my inner life accessible to the world at large. I close my eyes and conjure up such a literary mongrel -- a combination of Kafka, Rilke, and who knows? -- composite and cosmopolitan. A person without the protection of the world that comes from living in it. A man outside.

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Continuing Relevance of Freud

This post is dedicated to Stanley R. Palombo, M.D., one of my former treating psychiatrists.

Every dream, Freud maintained, exhibits "a point of contact with the events of the previous day. Whatever dream I take in hand, my own or someone else's, confirms this experience every time." These "day residues," as he called them, frequently offer the easiest access to the interpretation of a dream. Take Freud's short dream about the botanical monograph, in which he saw before him an illustrated book he had written, with a dried plant specimen bound in each copy; the instigator of that dream had been a monograph on cyclamens he had seen in a bookstore window the morning before. Still, in nearly every instance, the dream ultimately borrows its essential ingredients from the dreamer's childhood days.

Earlier researchers had already noted that infantile material may push its way into the adult's manifest dream; recurrent dreams, first dreamt in childhood and returning years later to haunt the sleeper's nights, are another tribute to the agile acrobatics of human memory. But to Freud only the infantile material that interpretation can uncover, the material concealed in the latent dream thoughts, was truly absorbing. He found it so absorbing in fact that he devoted a whole section to it in his book The Interpretation of Dreams and recounted a number of his own dreams, complete with extensive, exceedingly intimate autobiographical revelations. He was prepared to demonstrate from his private memories that "one finds the child with its impulses living on in the dream."

Contemporary investigators have built on Freud's fundamental theory of dreams, which holds that dreams are concerned with past and present experience, that is, the events of the previous day as well as events from the dreamer's childhood. It seems clear that some kind of scanning or re-programming takes place in dreams which has a beneficial effect upon ordinary mental functioning. Dreaming seems to be biologically adaptive. Stanley R. Palombo, M.D., suggests that dreams are concerned with matching past and present experience. He thinks that

the dream compares the representation of an emotionally significant event of the past with the representation of an emotionally significant aspect of the previous day's experience.

This information-processing function of the dream is concerned with allotting the new experience to the right slot in the permanent memory. Whether this model accounts for all dreams is dubious; but it goes some way to explaining why it is that in dreams, time is so often out of joint. If past and present are compared, it is not surprising that, in the dream, they so often appear to be confused.