(an essay on the nature of coincidence)
Originally posted on joshrutner.com (in slightly altered form) on 10/13/08.
Sylvère Lotringer: When Patrice Chéreau staged Quartet at Nanterre in 1985, he said: "It's such an intelligent reading of Les Liaisons dangereuses. It's as it Müller had recomposed the novel from memory." He should have said, decomposed…
Heiner Müller: I rather like the "from memory," because I never read the book! I mean I read it, but in zig-zag fashion. If I had read it in detail, I would have lost the impact, the power of the text…
Lotringer: Understanding a text the way a reader or a critic would is not really what you're after.
Müller: No. First I eat it then I understand.
Lotringer: Reading is a luxury.
Müller: Yeah, an absolute luxury. Eating literature is faster.
—West Berlin, 1988 (from Germania)
Though I've long loved to comb through and pore over books, it is certainly the case that I don't retain things "the way a reader or a critic would." I've never been very able to communicate plots or scenes—even from stories I know well—and certainly not in any way that would let me pass as a storyteller. This was an issue for me throughout my school years, where comprehension was often measured by one's ability to recount a story's shape and theme.
What I do remember from books are snippets, quotes, phrases, and, more than anything, a fuzzy emotional glow: the feel of reading Stegner's Angle of Repose while sitting on a cold Oregon beach, chatting with a friend about our own family histories; the urban brutality in Buford's Among the Thugs, read on the subway while listening to Stevie Wonder's Sunshine In Their Eyes; the strange connection I felt reading Bloom's Jesus and Yaweh during one Passover holiday; the rush of reading Pushkin's Eugene Onegin before a close friend's wedding.
I finish only a modest percentage of the books that I read. It's not unusual for me to be "in the middle of" 10 to 15 books at once. My method of hopping from book to book is haphazard but perhaps not totally without reason: it often starts with a recommendation by a friend (so began my love of Donald Barthelme's writing) or a friendly bibliography (I discovered G. K. Chesterton by way of a footnote) or a mention within another book (I learned of Boccaccio's Decameron from Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium). From there, the book suggests its own links. Sometimes a chain is begun by chance: I picked up the hilarious Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow because I thought Jerome K. Jerome was a funny name; my love for Giacomo Leopardi's writing began by judging a book by its cover.
One of my favorite books that I discovered by chance—while browsing the shelves back when I worked at Barnes & Noble—was The Unquiet Grave by Cyril Connolly (written under the pseudonym Palinurus). The book seemed written especially for me. No plot, no characters as such—just a collection of musings, aphorisms, and quotes. Connolly, like Leopardi, had a most blindingly acute way of expressing the sadness of the world. One quotation, in particular, has always been for me a source of hope and an ultimate expression of my feelings toward reading:
"Like the glow-worm; dowdy, minute, passive, yet full of mystery to the poet, and passionate significance to its fellows; so everything and everybody eternally radiates their dim light for those who care to seek. The strawberry cries, 'Pick me'; the forgotten book, in the forgotten bookshop, screams to be discovered. The old house hidden in the hollow agitates itself violently at the approach of its pre-destined admirer. Dead authors cry "Read me"; dead friends cry, "Remember me"; dead ancestors cry, "Unearth me"; dead places, "Revisit me"; and sympathetic spirits, living and dead, are trying continually to enter into communion. Physical or intellectual attraction between two people is a constant communication. Underneath the rational and voluntary world is the involuntary, impulsive, integrated world, the world of Relation in which everything is one; where sympathy and antipathy are engrossed in their selective tug-of-war. We learn a new word for the first time. Then we meet it again in a few hours. Why? Because words are living organisms impelled to a crystallizing process, to mysterious agglutinative matings at which the word-fancier is sometimes privileged to assist. The glow-worms light up....The individual also is a moving mirror or screen which reflects in its motion an everchanging panorama of thoughts, sensations, faces and places, and yet the screen is always being guided to reflect one film rather than another, always seeking a chosen querencia. In the warm sea of experience we blob around like plankton, we love-absorb or hate-avoid each other, or are avoided, or are absorbed, devoured and devouring. Yet we are no more free than the cells in a plant or the microbes in a drop of water, but are held firmly in tension by the pull of the future and the stress of the past."
I remember a funny instance of being misled by those living word-organisms: I was reading Julian Barnes' Flaubert's Parrot, an intensely beautiful vision of Gustave Flaubert, revolving around a fight for authenticity between two stuffed parrots. Toward the end of the book, I found a sentence—one which Barnes lifts from Flaubert's Madame Bovary—that struck me as particularly poignant:
"Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity."
I knew I'd read that phrase before. I knew it.
I hadn't—and still haven't—read Madame Bovary, so it wasn't that. It's true that at the time I'd been listening incessantly to Randy Newman's album Sail Away, and perhaps I'd imagined hearing that line within the song Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear—but no such luck. I was for a moment convinced it had been quoted in the book I'd just finished—Peter Handke's The Left-Handed Woman. I went through every page trying to locate this little nugget. I was so convinced, that after finding nary a bear reference in my first flip-through, I re-read the book. Again. And again. No bear, no kettle, no stars.
Finally, I was distraught enough to imagine that perhaps I'd read the quote earlier in the same book. I began again at page one, hunting for bears. Turns out I had seen it earlier in the book—twice, in fact. In Barnes's multifaceted look at Flaubert's life and work, he used this same quotation in three places, each as if for the first time. It had become lodged in my mind the first two times, and only the third time did it appear before me as a friend, waiting to be unveiled.
Words came easily to Flaubert; but he also saw the underlying inadequacy of the Word. Remember his sad definition from Madame Bovary: “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.” (page 19)
He flirts occasionally with the rhinoceros and the camel as self-images, but mainly, secretly, essentially, he is the Bear… “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity" (page 51)
Other people think you want to talk…hinting that they won't be embarrassed if you break down. Sometimes you talk, sometimes you don't; it makes little difference. The words aren't the right one; or rather, the right words don't exist. “Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity" (page 161)
This past week I experienced an extremely powerful incident that again reminded me how alive words can be.
I had just recently finished Alberto Manguel's (then) newest book, The Library at Night—a stunning book about book collections of all types (from National Libraries down to mobile "donkey libraries" in rural Colombia) from an array of perspectives: space, chance, order, shape, myth, etc. When I finished it, I picked up a book by Rabelais, which I'd begun two years earlier but put it down about halfway through. The book is Gargantua & Pantagruel, an epic (and funny!) tale written in the 1500s, which I'd discovered partly through Milan Kundera's writings and partly because it was a seminal influence on Donald Barthelme's work.
So: these were the two things on my mind.
Cut to a synagogue in Brooklyn on Yom Kippur. I was early for the final service of the day and struck up a conversation with the Rabbi. We got onto the subject of God, and he was telling me about some old texts that, in a very direct manner, discussed the physical dimensions of God. I replied that I'd recently read a description of God's size that went something like, "God is a circle, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere." I couldn't tell him where I'd read it or what the source was, but I did promise to get back to him. In doing so, I came upon some beautiful connections.
I knew, as the quote was so fresh in my mind, that I'd read it in either the Manguel book or the Rabelais. After a little bit of hunting in Gargantua, I remembered that in fact I'd read it in The Library at Night. Without too much trouble, I found the quotation, taken from Manguel's concluding chapter:
If the Library of Alexandria was the emblem of our ambition of omniscience, the Web is the emblem of our ambition of omnipresence; the library that contained everything has become the library that contains anything. Alexandria modestly saw itself as the centre of a circle bound by the knowable world; the Web, like the definition of God first imagined in the twelfth century, sees itself as a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
Luckily for me there was a footnote to give me the source of Manguel's claim; unluckily for me, the footnote read as follows:
El libro de los veinticuatro filósofos, ed. Paolo Lucentini, trans. Cristina Serna and Jaume Pòrtulas (Madrid: Siruela, 2000)
Unable to speak Spanish, I turned to that very thing Manguel blesses with that infinite metaphor: the Web. A Google Books search led me to various sources. One, which seemed a likely candidate, was Alain of Lille, a twelfth-century French theologian and poet. But another source that that the search had turned up caught my eye: Jorges Luis Borges's Labyrinths. In it, there is a short essay called The Fearful Sphere of Pascal, wherein Borges takes this very metaphor and traces it through the ages. From my late-night skim, I notice that Borges does indeed attribute the quote to Alain of Lille, though he notes that AoL probably got the idea from Hermes Trismegistus. He also traces the metaphor outward to the work of Pascal, who wrote, "Nature is an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere."
I went to sleep that night thinking about the incredible connection between Borges and Manguel: when Manguel was a teenager working in a bookshop in Buenos Aires, the by-then-blind Borges had hired him to read books aloud to him in his library.
It wasn't, however, until the next day that the ultimate connection was uncovered.
That morning I'd packed two books into my work bag: Gargantua & Pantagruel and Labyrinths (to read Borges's Pascal essay in greater detail). It was on the subway ride home that evening that I cracked open Labyrinths to confirm, in the fluorescent train light, the discoveries from the night before. In the essay's third paragraph (which I'd only skimmed previously), I came upon the following:
In the thirteenth century, the image reappeared in the symbolic Roman de la Rose, where it is given as a citation from Plato, and in the encyclopedia Speculum Triplex; in the sixteenth century, the last chapter of the last book of Pantagruel…
My jaw went slack and I grinned one of the widest grins the New York subway system had ever seen. As the packed train shook forward, I reached into my bag and flipped to the last chapter of Pantagruel to find this:
Go, my friends, under the protection of this intellectual sphere, the centre of which is at all points and the circumference at none, and which we call God; and when you come to your country bear testimony that great treasures and wonderful things are hidden beneath the earth.