Greg Dening’s Readings/Writings
A half-price MUP sale and my temporary book-buying ban takes leave of me. I first encountered Dening’s beach crossing metaphor in his final book, and it has stayed with me, as has the memory of slow absorption (because this is what the book demands — no skimming, no gobbling).
I had crossed a beach and found what all beach-crossers find, my own otherness. […] Gossip had it that Gauguin was Tohotaua’s lover. That is not what Tohotaua would have called him. Because of who she was she would have called him pekio, secondary husband, a man who had feminised himself, exchanged his male tapu status, so that he could have access to a powerful woman. […] We have to wonder if Gauguin knew how liminal he was and whether his ego would have allowed him to cross his beach so far. (‘Pego‘s Grave’)
‘Seeing’, wrote William Herschel, the maker of the telescopes they were using, ‘is in some respect an art which must be learnt’. […] Wickedness and knowledge have a long association, of course, in Judaeo-Christian mythological traditions. It was eating of the Tree of Knowledge that began all our troubles. There is a special sort of wickedness that comes from travelling, though. It is the wickedness of knowing that things can be otherwise. (‘Fetching Facts’)
I have only begun to read it tonight, and already such encounters.
Adrienne Rich’s Arts of the Possible
This book, secondhand, newly given to me, tied up in green string, another that I have started only tonight.
In its foreword: ‘This book is for people who want to imagine and claim wider horizons and carry on about them into the night, rather than rehearse the landlocked details of personal quandaries or the price for which the house next door just sold’.
Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table
The following is from ‘Carbon’, a perfect blend of playful and profound, all delivered with such lightness of touch.
The carbon atom described has already been part of limestone, heated in a kiln, issued through a chimney, caught by the wind, breathed in by a falcon, dissolved in sea water, borne by the wind along a row of vines, nailed to a leaf by the rays of the sun, turned into wine, drunk, dragged by the bloodstream to a muscle fiber in the thigh, released, trapped in a cedar, eaten by a woodworm that transforms into a moth and dies, carried by the wind three times around the world.
Some gems from this part: ‘In this downward course, which leads to equilibrium and thus death, life draws a bend and nests in it’. And, ‘the small cadaver lies in the undergrowth of the woods, it is emptied of its fluids, but the chitin carapace resists for a long time, almost indestructible. The snow and sun return above it without injuring it: it is buried by the dead leaves and the loam, it has become a slough, a ‘thing’, but the death of atoms, unlike ours, is never irrevocable. Here are at work the omnipresent, untiring and invisible gravediggers of the undergrowth, the microorganisms of the humus. The carapace, with its eyes by now blind, has slowly disintegrated, and the ex-drinker, ex-cedar, ex-wood worm has once again taken wing.’
But what I keep returning to is the end — of the essay, but also of the essay collection:
It is possible to demonstrate that this completely arbitrary story is nevertheless true. I could tell innumerable other stories, and they would all be true: all literally true, in the nature of the transitions, in their order and data. The number of atoms is so great that one could always be found whose story coincides with any capriciously invented story. I could recount an endless number of stories about carbon atoms that become colors or perfumes in flowers; of others which, from tiny algae to small crustaceans to fish, gradually return as carbon dioxide to the waters of the sea, in a perpetual, frightening round-dance of life and death, in which every devourer is immediately devoured; of others which instead attain a decorous semi-entity in the yellowed pages of some archival document, or the canvas of a famous painter; or those to which fell the privilege of forming part of a grain of pollen and left their fossil imprint in the rocks for our curiosity; of others still that descended to become part of the mysterious shape-messengers of the human seed, and participated in the subtle process of division, duplication, and fusion from which each of us is born. Instead, I will tell you just one more story, the most secret, and I will tell it with the humility and restraint of him who knows from the start that his theme is desperate, his means feeble, and the trade of clothing facts in words is bound by its very nature to fail.
It is again among us, in a glass of milk. It is inserted in a very complex, long chain, yet such that almost all of its links are acceptable to the human body. It is swallowed, and since every living structure harbors a savage distrust towards every contribution of any material of living origin, the chain is meticulously broken apart and the fragments, one by one, are accepted or rejected. One, the one that concerns us, crosses the intestinal threshold and enters the bloodstream: it migrates, knocks at the door of a nerve cell, enters, and supplants the carbon which was part of it. This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain, the brain of the me who is writing; and the cell in question, and within it the atom in question, is in charge of my writing, in a gigantic minuscule game which nobody has yet described. It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper, mark it with these volutes that are signs: a double snap, up and down, between two levels of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.
And one more essay that I must point you to, if you haven’t already seen it: ‘The Boat‘.
Update 03/02/15 4 pm: Just wanted to add this essaying with light: ‘Sleep because‘ — glorious.