February 2011

Elizabeth Bachner


Four Times: Reading Prose

I don’t know. I don’t know. 2011 started, and it’s so much faster than all the years before it. It seems to be a series of storms: snow flurries, arguments on icy corners, piles of new books showing up on the doorstep -- poems by brilliant Polish poets, crazy-whirlwind Greenwich Village novels, Prose by Thomas Bernhard, The Collected Prose 1948-1998 by Zbigniew Herbert, love stories with too much death in them. I’ve been trudging across the city for Veselka borscht and hot Killer XX juice with double ginger and cayenne from Liquiteria. I’ve been watching old episodes of Felicity. I’ve been reading Rebecca Goldstein’s Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, and everything else I can find about this genius who revolutionized mathematics, but couldn’t manage the basics of ordinary life. When Kurt was a toddler, his nickname was “Mister Why.” He had to know the answers to everything, he would never shut up about it. In his twenties, he exposed paradoxes in formal theory from within their own systems, which shook the world, including the universes beyond math, if those exist.

“Whatever inspiration is,” said Wislawa Szymobrska in her Nobel Prize speech, “it's born from a continuous ‘I don't know’…Had my compatriot Marie Sklodowska-Curie never said to herself ‘I don't know,’ she probably would have wound up teaching chemistry at some private high school for young ladies from good families.”


Before Gödel’s discoveries in the early 1930s, writes Jeremy Bernstein, “it was generally assumed that mathematical systems… rested solidly on a foundation of extremely plausible axioms and definitions… What was true was provable. Gödel showed almost the exact opposite… You could never prove that your axioms would not lead to a logical catastrophe. You might find one day that the axioms implied both the truth and the falsity of the same proposition. The castle you thought you were living in might turn out to be a house of cards.” Among the undecidable propositions was the consistency of the system itself.

Gödel thought that the implications of his work were self-evident, that everyone would understand them from the proofs themselves, but it didn’t work that way. He died with unpublished work -- work that he didn’t want to sully by exposing it to a hostile audience -- and unsent, angry letters of explanation to his admirers, who were missing or misinterpreting his points. He was in an acutely paranoid state -- he died of self-starvation, thinking that all of his food was poisoned. Einstein loved Gödel. The two men would take daily walks together in Princeton, talking about things.


“Jean Cocteau wrote in 1926 that ‘The worst tragedy for a poet is to be admired through being misunderstood,’” says Goldstein. “For a logician, especially one with Gödel’s delicate psychology, the tragedy is perhaps even greater.”

Since I started reading about Gödel, all I can see are paradoxes everywhere. Every line in Thomas Bernhard’s story “The Carpenter” -- the final section of Prose -- is a knotted series of paradoxes, paradoxes snapping inside the reader’s stomach and spine, starting with a character whose release from prison with a “shocking suddenness” makes him “impossible to help.” “The whole world was a world of the excluded, society as such did not exist, each person was alone… Crimes were symptoms of illness; nature unceasingly produced every possible kind of crime, including human crimes… Because he made such a wretched impression, I asked him, whether he did not at the moment, as was possible, have the strength to take a look at his life with the whole world behind him and then before him, to examine his after all incredible development…The world was not only dreadful. Matter was tremendously precise and full of beauty. Irrespective of place and time, the individual was all the time capable of the most astonishing discoveries for the sake of which life was worth living... How weak the big man was, the giant!... The thugs and killers jump up abruptly out of their terrible weakness. Winkler reminded me of an animal, existing in several animals simultaneously, both wild and tame… I was startled when Winkler came to his senses and, without saying a word, and at first going backwards, went out of the room; abruptly, it seemed to me.”

There is no prose in Prose, unless prose is simply the opposite of rhyme, which it can’t be, really, or there is only lyric poetry, never any other kind of poetry. I’m also not sure how much prose there is in Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Prose, if prose is direct speech, words that move forward, words that move straight ahead, the horse before the cart. The book is a storm of universe-disturbances, of reversals of time, revisionings of the life of Hamlet or the death of Hebuca: “Time -- in every decent epic story it stands aside like a valet, beyond people and beyond objects. Only catastrophes make it leap up from a place, then all of a sudden it forces its way inside with all its destructive power -- it breaks, tramples, changes everything to ruins… In a moment the slaughterers will come to Hecuba and remove her toy from her hands. Then the kind-hearted gods will transform her into a dog, a bitch, because only the great heart of an animal can contain so much misfortune. Then to find consolation she will throw herself into the sea.” Prose?   

“It is an old dream of poets,” writes Herbert, “that their work may become a concrete object like a stone or a tree, that what they make from the material of language -- itself subject to constant change -- may acquire a lasting existence. One of the ways to achieve this, it seems to me, is to cast it far away from oneself, to erase the ties that connect it to its creator.”

But paradoxically -- paradoxically, shouldn’t you protect a poem from being torn apart? It’s not that poets understand their own work, always, just as physicists, mystics, and metamathematicians might not fully comprehend the twisted journeys their ideas will take as history unfolds and retracts, designs and erases itself. But even from the inside of a human life, it’s possible to see when you’ve made a baby seal out of thin air, and someone is coming along to bash its head in with a club, because its coat is silky, and because you have the awesomely exploitable ability to rearrange matter, to have creatures explode from your skull, to utter inutterable things. So maybe this is what prose should be -- writing as unimpeachable as logic. Writing so straightforward that the people out there can’t misunderstand you, that the “greatest tragedy,” according to Cocteau, can’t ever happen to you. Except that it turns out that logic, too, is hardly solid or straightforward. It turns out that even prose stylists and math people can only create animals that exist in several animals simultaneously, animals that have hearts huge enough to contain time’s catastrophes. It turns out that no one can create anything as solid as a rock, because rocks aren’t actually solid.

I love Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka by Rodger Kamenetz. Both the Hasidic mystic (1772-1810) and the novelist (1883-1924) died of tuberculosis. Both men used parables to expose paradoxes, and to explore complicated questions about the unknown and the unknowable. Sometimes, Kamenetz suggests, Kafka asks a question that Rabbi Nachman seems to answer. It is even possible, preposterously, that Kafka’s work was a huge influence on Rabbi Nachman’s. (In the most literal sense of the word preposterous -- the cart before the horse, topsy-turvy, before-behind.) The most interesting similarity is that each writer asked a friend to burn all of his books after he died. Gödel’s work has been compared to Kafka’s, and in fact, Gödel loved Kafka -- it would be so easy to call Gödel’s revelations “Kafkaesque,” but I’m not sure that’s accurate. It’s more like Kafka’s work is Gödelian. Nachman and Kafka, like Gödel, would starve themselves for long periods of time. Why would you want your books burned? I don’t know. I don’t know. Kamenetz thinks that Kafka is a reincarnation of Rabbi Nachman, or maybe Rabbi Nachman is a reincarnation of Franz Kafka.

“The more I think about language,” said Gödel, “the more it amazes me that people understand each other at all.”  

In a 1956 interview in New York City, seven years after his Nobel Prize, William Faulkner tells Jean Stein that he considers himself a “failed poet.” “I rate us,” he says, “on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible… Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. An artist is a creature driven by demons. He doesn’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why.”

“Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they have read it two or three times,” says Jean Stein. “What approach would you suggest for them?”

“Read it four times,” answers Faulkner.

That makes me think of something I read about the Zohar, maybe in the great Kafka/Rabbi Nachman book, maybe in something by Rebecca Goldstein, maybe somewhere else in my strange storm of new-decade reading: that the Zohar says there are four levels of interpretation for sacred texts, and their first letters spell out the letters of paradise (pardes). There’s peshat, direct, straightforward meanings, then remez, allegorical meanings, then derash, deep study, interpretation, and comparison with other verses or texts in the midrashic tradition -- a practice of tireless textual analysis and commentary. Then, finally, sod, the secret or esoteric level. I think of poetry as whatever plunges us directly into the sod part, whatever injects us, undiluted, into the horrors of paradise. But sometimes work that’s labeled “prose” can do that, too.       

Faulkner says that if he hadn’t existed, someone else would have written him. But also, that his only obligation is to get the work done, as best as he can -- he’s too busy working to care what “John Doe” or anyone else thinks of the results. “Mine is the standard which has to be met, which is when the work makes me feel the way I do when I read La Tentation de Saint Antoine or the Old Testament. They make me feel good. So does watching a bird make me feel good. You know that if I were reincarnated, I’d want to come back a buzzard. Nothing hates him or envies him or wants him or needs him. He’s never bothered or in danger, and he can eat anything.”

What do you do when you believe your work, but you can’t get anyone to read it four times? Do you hoard it under the bed and leave it to be burned? Do you write crazed letters trying to explain yourself? Do you let somebody hack it up and reconfigure it? Does it turn your stomach, do you lose your appetite, do you go mad? In the fifty-five years since that Faulkner interview, we have lost several species of birds. The world is not safe, even for buzzards.

I have a new volume of Tadeusz Rozewicz poems, Sobbing Superpower, that I plan to reread for years. I’ve read the selections from “On the Surface and Inside a Poem” four or five times today:

a poet is a beast
immersed in the world
that’s why he’s so uncertain
about the world

Radioactive: A Tale of Love and Fallout, the new book about Marie and Pierre Curie that everyone wants, has landed on my doorstep. It’s beautiful like a Helen Frankenthaler painting. Its cover glows in the dark, eerily, beside the bed. It has inside it, among other wonderful things, a bestiary of famous Polish people, flora, and fauna. Several of my favorite Poles are in there: Wislawa Szymborska, Czeslaw Milosz, Zygmunt Bauman, Isaac Beshevas Singer, Leszek Kolakowski. Some of my favorites are missing. Repeating I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know is not exactly a fast track to happiness or glory. It’s more of an offering. Sometimes it puts you in Stockholm, uncomfortably giving a speech to an adoring crowd. Sometimes it puts you in the loony bin. Sometimes it has you spending the ordinary days of your ordinary life teaching chemistry to young ladies, or writing nothing, or proving things, or writing prose. But can you be certain that your prose or your proof isn’t just a poem in disguise? A rearrangement of the same twenty-six letters, or twenty-two letters, or 47,035 characters, or infinite numbers? A Gordian knot, a saboteur of itself, a thing that unlocks itself, or unlocks you, from within?

Szymborska imagines that she can travel back in time and confront Ecclesiastes. “I would bow very deeply before him, because he is, after all, one of the greatest poets, for me at least. That done, I would grab his hand. 'There's nothing new under the sun': that's what you wrote, Ecclesiastes. But you yourself were born new under the sun. And the poem you created is also new under the sun, since no one wrote it down before you. And all your readers are also new under the sun, since those who lived before you couldn't read your poem. And that cypress that you're sitting under hasn't been growing since the dawn of time. It came into being by way of another cypress similar to yours, but not exactly the same. And Ecclesiastes, I'd also like to ask you what new thing under the sun you're planning to work on now? A further supplement to the thoughts you've already expressed? Or maybe you're tempted to contradict some of them now?... In daily speech, where we don't stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like ‘the ordinary world,’ ‘ordinary life,’ ‘the ordinary course of events’... But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone's existence in this world.”

Prosaic. Ordinary. Of prose. Nothing new under the sun, so you’re supposed to somehow get above the sun. Zbigniew Herbert writes: “In spite of everything, poetry exists.” But also, you could say, Because of everything, poetry exists. Is "No" the answer to this question?

Ludwig Wittgenstein misunderstood Gödel’s proofs, dismissing them as “logical conjuring tricks.” He saw paradoxes, Goldstein writes, as “trivial epiphenomena of the ways in which language works.” Is it the same issue, this distinction between poetry and prose? Is it a problem of wordplay alone? Some people would argue that words on paper are not at all like live animals, and reading them is not at all like watching a bird. But Gödel viewed his results themselves as conclusive evidence against Wittgenstein’s interpretation. And any real poem, any of the best work of Kafka or Faulkner, will show you its feet and teeth and breathing lungs and warm pulse, it will prove what it is, it will prove what it isn’t. It will astonish someone, leave them thunderstruck.

Except, sometimes nobody gets it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t hear all of these stories of literary flat-earthers, some apocryphal and some true -- the journal that declined The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The publisher who didn’t like In Search of Lost Time, and later wrote Proust an apology letter. These stories tend to end with "everybody" suddenly getting it, everyone all at once suddenly enjoying the work or at least being cowed into accepting it, as if there’s progress, as if history moves straight forward like a line of clear prose. Sometimes it does seem to work that way, though. Nobody could beat the four-minute mile record for decades -- as soon as Roger Bannister did it, someone else managed forty-six days later. As Ernest Nagel and James Newman write in Gödel’s Proof, “Repeated failure to construct a proof does not mean that none can be found, any more than repeated failure to find a cure for the common cold establishes beyond doubt that humanity will forever suffer from running noses.” Human intuition, say Nagel and Newman, is elastic. What is counterintuitive to one generation, like relativity or chaos, will feel right to the next generation. Back at the time of that Faulkner interview, his Hollywood writing was collaborative, compromised, but he got to keep his novels the way he wanted them. When Jean Stein asked if it hurt his writing to do the Hollywood parts, Faulkner said, “Nothing can injure a man’s writing if he’s a first-rate writer. If a man is not a first-rate writer, there’s not anything can help it much.”

Rabbi Nachman thought that the mere act of writing was chiddush miflah, a wondrous event, even if it was burned, even if no one ever read it, even if the world was not ready for the teachings it contained. Kafka, just after he’d finished The Judgment, wrote to Max Brod that “staying alive interrupts my writing… less than death would…” (Not coincidentally, this was at a time when Kafka’s dad was heavily pressuring him to ramp up his involvement in the family asbestos business.) Kafka, like Faulkner, felt possessed by a demon, made of literature, unable to do anything but write his work. He wanted to be liberated from the work. That desire for liberation made Faulkner finish his writing, get it out of his system, but Kafka took it farther, to the point of burning. He feared his work might harm readers. “Hamlet is a tragic artist,” decides Zbigniew Herbert, “an artist who discovers that his art won’t save the world.” But what happens to an artist who discovers that the world won’t save his art?

2011 started, and I’m reading prose, and poetry too, and proofs, and paradoxes, and I’m not sure which is which. It feels like time isn’t standing aside, like a valet, anymore. It’s moving everything straight forward, directly, un-preposterously, inconsolably, through some series of storms. Sometimes when you ask, "I don’t know, I don’t know" over and over again, you realize with shocking suddenness that it was never a question.