April 2012

Elizabeth Bachner


Old Hat: Reading Toward a Philosophy of the Act

It’s strange too-hot weather for the end of winter. I walk the thirty blocks north to Bryant Park. The books I want to read, according to the New York Public Library website, are kept in a “locked cage.” I wonder what that might mean. Maybe someone with hollow eyes will take me down into a basement crypt, maybe there will be a dog with three heads, and since I can’t cut off all three of its heads, I’ll have to trick it into going to some other part of the library. The books are about how I can connect my pituitary gland to my pineal gland with a thread of golden light and experience bliss and the end of the illusion of separation from infinity, all without any LSD or any real effort, and really fast. It turns out no one takes me to a special basement, the books just come out like the other non-circulating books, I sit in the Rose Reading Room staring at the beautiful ceiling until my number comes up, and then the books come out with slips of paper in them saying I’m not allowed to look at them unsupervised, and a bored attendant acting like he’s working at an airport Sbarro’s hands them all over and lets me take them away. The pages are so fragile and brittle it’s clear I shouldn’t be touching them.

On another floor of the library there’s an exhibit of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s manuscripts, pages he actually touched and created, they’re a few inches away from me under glass, I want to get my fingers on them. Now I know how to rewire my own nervous system and live in ecstasy, but whatever. Yesterday a soldier from my country shot sixteen people, mostly through their skulls, he burned some of their bodies, some of them were children. In a city near there, U.S. soldiers have been burning piles of sacred books, what is it with book burning? People are starving and murdering, raping and being raped and getting murdered, dying of painful illnesses, and I can find manuals everywhere for free explaining the mysteries of existence, so shouldn’t I be getting some perspective someday, ever? From books, or from life, or from somewhere?  

For some reason the Shelley exhibit makes me think of an old hat I’ve kept for twenty-one years now, worn by a boy I loved when I was sixteen. For years it smelled like his head, and now it doesn’t. Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, was sixteen when he married her. She was twenty-one when she committed suicide, after he’d abandoned her. She drowned herself in the Serpentine lake, in a park where once I broke in at night and made out with that boy.

Across the street in the circulating library, I pick up a Mikhail Bakhtin book. The manuscript was uncovered in a basement somewhere, eaten away by water damage and rats, so there are only fragments left, but I’m allowed to bring them home because this is just a reproduction, not something Mikhail Bakhtin touched with his body, with his real fingers that will never exist again, except that physics tells us that particles from his fingers are floating around in my fingers. The editor’s introduction to the volume explains how, in all the laws of physics that we’ve found so far, there doesn’t seem to be a distinction between past and future. The laws of gravitation, electricity, magnetism, nuclear interaction, and beta-decay all behave indifferently to time -- their processes remain the same, even when the order is reversed -- but when a glass falls off the table and breaks, “none of us expect the drops to reconstitute themselves, the shattered shards to fly together into their previous shape, or the whole complex then to jump off the floor back onto the table.” Poignantly, we understand that one day we’ll die -- “and yet the glass -- and our bodies -- are made at the most basic level out of atoms, molecules, and quarks, all of which behave, literally, as if there was no tomorrow -- or yesterday.”    

We don’t know what Bakhtin meant to call this early manuscript. His rescuers and translators titled it Toward a Philosophy of the Act, but I wonder if he might have put something in his own title about uniqueness or existence or impossibility or possibility. Our uniqueness is a given, but it has to be represented, performed, enacted to show itself. We exist, and this is the whole story but not even the beginning of the story.

There was always more than one Percy Bysshe Shelley. After he drowned, people would see him walking along underneath the window, not wearing any coat or hat. And a month or so before that, Shelley had nightmares about their house collapsing and flooding -- and in waking life, not in his dream, he encountered himself on the terrace. “How long do you mean to be content.” Shelley asked Shelley.

“This world,” wrote Bakhtin -- the young, new Bakhtin, before his exile in Kazakhstan, before he had his leg amputated -- “…this world is fundamentally and essentially indeterminable either in theoretical categories or in categories of historical cognition or through aesthetic intuition.” I’m reading philosophy and physics lately, from this idea that you have to understand the laws of the universe or the multiverse before you can break them. It’s hopeless, I’m hopeless, I can’t figure anything out. I’m made entirely of quanta and atoms but I don’t at all behave like quanta or atoms, and then there is no “I” differentiated from the quanta or the atoms? I’m starting to feel like, before I solve the problems I actually want to solve, I’ll be levitating and bending forks just by looking at them.  I’ll be meeting myself outside the window.

A book came in the mail -- The Unfinished Revolution: Voices from the Global Fight for Women’s Rights -- and it’s full of stories about girls who are bought and sold, brutally gang-raped and beaten every day, punished for crimes they didn’t commit by having their ears and noses cut off, burned to death or with no choice but to set themselves on fire, a girl who has sex for the first time and then gives birth to a stillborn baby, then finds she can’t control the flow of her pee and poop, so she’s disowned by her family and society, alone on the edge of town, in acute agony and smelling awful, ashamed. And my own problems still feel painful.

I go to the library to get a junk novel to cheer myself up, but I can’t find anything, I pick up a book where I’ve heard that the main character is based on someone I love in real life, I’d planned not to read it but there’s really nothing, a bunch of books by wide-faced American authors about suburban families and people with Alzheimer’s, so I bring it home with me. I read it, and then on page 60 someone has written, in tight, stiff cursive in blue ink, “Pray; shower; breakfast: toast, tea, juice, egg; antidep.; groom; clean clothes; walk one mile; work; pray; Lunch -- salad; work; dinner -- full; bath; pray.” It’s not related to anything that happens on page 60 or anywhere in the real book.

My own problems still feel painful, but I wish I could change this person’s schedule -- maybe s/he just left some things off? A swim in the ocean, a movie? Maybe “pray” is code for “experience the mind-blowing bliss of oneness with infinity” -- maybe the walk is someplace beautiful -- maybe “work” means choreographing some dance that will make people cry -- maybe the “full” dinner is with adored friends at a favorite café -- maybe “sex so amazing it makes you fall in love (again?)” is left off the list for the sake of discretion, although why would you write this list on page 60 of a library book? I’ve been obsessing, recently, about the difference between books and life, and I can’t get any perspective at all, and for some reason -- even with my problems, which are small but dearly painful to me, and even with reading about torture and exile -- I have the secret feeling that this person, this person on page 60, has one of the saddest lives in the history of the world, if you could line up all of our lives and look. But maybe this person just isn’t a writer, maybe somehow his/her life has wonder, and it just isn’t recorded on page 60 of my friend-of-friend’s book.

“The world shows up for us,” writes Alva Noe in his new book Varieties of Presence, “But it doesn’t show up for free. We achieve access to the world around us through skillful engagement; we acquire and deploy the skills needed to bring the world into focus. Presence is manifestly fragile.” And this is the same problem Bakhtin was struggling with, in his own handwriting, in the pile of school-notebooks rescued decades later from the wet basement and turned into a fragment for me to read and reread -- we are unique beings, but our uniqueness has to be enacted, except that it doesn’t, because here we are in the world. Here we are in our bodies, which have to be fed and exercised and cleaned, which can be tortured and imprisoned, which I am increasingly certain can levitate with practice. We have tiny cells that end up all over other people’s library books, we have a skull-bone that lets light filter through into our brains, we leave manuscripts that will be kept under glass in dusty rooms, or reproduced or burned. Bakhtin, being young and Russian, of course ends up talking about love -- in between all of his impossible philosophy and semiotics and physics, around all of his figuring, he puts in a really sad, needy Pushkin poem, “Parting,” written eight years after Shelley drowned.

“Only love is capable of being aesthetically productive,” Bakhtin writes, “only in correlation with the loved is the manifold possible,” but when he says, “love,” he means the opposite of blandness and indifference, he means passion, he means something which I think can include grief and despair. The thing is, here we are in the world when we love, and then here we are in the world when we’re indifferent. Presence is fragile, but sturdy. Later, in other books, books about Dostoevsky and Rabelais and not Pushkin, books about the poisonous edge of where existence meets language, Bakhtin will grow up and explain how authorship is brilliantly self-undermining, how not a single one of us can be fully known or seen in the world. Also, how we can never see ourselves from the outside. But then, I’m thinking about Shelley running into Shelley on the terrace.

I wish I could get Bakhtin’s lost manuscripts from some library basement -- and we know from letters that some are lost forever -- and I wish I could get closer to understanding Kant or physics, and I wish I was loved back, and I wish I understood why I would hold onto a hat instead of just writing about the hat, the differences and similarities between a hat and a boy and a cursive list and a mass-marketed novel about someone I know, and my neurons and everyone else’s neurons, and how my quanta are everyone else’s quanta too, and I wish wishing did something, did anything, did more than just getting a person’s butt a few inches off the floor or bending some spoons. And I have to decide what I’ll say if -- when -- I run into my hatless self walking underneath the window.

In a note to himself written just before his death in 1975, Bakhtin wrote that he had a “love for variation and for a diversity of terms in dealing with the same phenomenon.” But, there is a “well-known internal unconsummatedness of many of my thoughts [because my ideas have always been] in a state of becoming… it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between one kind of unconsummatedness and the other.” Each of us can only see uniquely, we can’t see what anybody else sees, this is a problem of space and existence, it becomes impossible then, and essential, to become, to finish ourselves off.

I love Michael Holquist’s writings on Bakhtin. In his introduction to Art and Answerability, early essays that came out before the Toward a Philsophy of the Act fragment was published in English, he asks: Why are these essays important, and to whom? To find out why, he suggests we read the texts. As for the second question, “the material in this volume was first of all important for Bakhtin himself. It is the precondition for his later work… it contains many, if not most, of the ideas he would spend the rest of his life exploring, revising, or even contradicting.” And it makes me think about works or acts or days or loves that are lost, even to ourselves. Things we don’t have, or remember, or do. When we look into each other’s eyes, young Bakhtin explains, each of us sees things about the other that they can’t see about themselves, and the other sees things about us that we can’t ever see or know, it’s an excess of vision actually, more than a limit of vision. When we look into each other’s eyes but, what about when we read each other’s essays and each other’s private lists and each other’s books? What about when we read our own books or essays or lists? It’s like coming upon ourselves, body to body, when we’re still alive (scary), or coming across ourselves after we’ve died (scarier?). “How long do you mean to be content.”

Bakhtin, in his twenties, hung out with lots of mathematicians. He was fascinated by new advances in physics -- the thinking of Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and also by physiology, especially innovations in the study of the central nervous system. It’s kind of no wonder that he got exhilarated and flummoxed, trapped and intrigued by the problem of what can’t be finished, “consummated,” or fully seen, and also the problem of simultaneity -- how we’re unique, but we’re each other. Is this a scarier problem for physicists than for philosophers or poets? I can’t know, and of course, sometimes philosophers and physicists and poets are the same people. Holquist points out that Rimbaud was not the first person to run into the “I am the other” problem -- we all have it.

(There’s another line of Rimbaud’s that I like even better on this theme: “Sometimes when I’m sad, and sometimes just for spite, I’ll say to him, ‘I understand you.’ He shrugs his shoulders.”)   

I want perspective, or maybe I don’t even care if I have perspective. I want love. I would rather have (be?) love than bliss, I think, unless they’re the same thing. I’m not a person anymore, I’m a manuscript -- typed now, so it makes the language wrong, manu-script. I like the Russian word for “act” -- postupka -- it sounds like something you do, or actually something you did, something you did before, something you did afterwards, something you are or became. The world of event -- mir sobytiia. The world of the performed act -- mir postupka. Answerability -- otvetstvennost. Bakhtin, according to Holquist, began his career by announcing that life is not art, art is not life, but the two are inseparable. Although, we can’t ever know what Bakhtin said in the first few pages of the earliest surviving fragment of that earliest surviving schoolboy notebook, it’s rat poop now, it’s parts of stars, its wee quanta have done everything other than shape themselves into a half-full, unbroken glass again.

I write a list of books to find in the unsecret rooms of the New York Public Library, books without guard dogs or monsters between them and me, uncaged books -- books about physics and math, books explaining the universe, books about voids and anti-voids and infinity, books of poems, books of letters, a book proving that Ingeborg Bachmann once was nineteen and completely happy, sitting in a summer garden talking about literature as a British-Jewish soldier kissed her hands for the first time -- she wrote in her diary that even if she lived to be one-hundred, she knew this would be the happiest summer of her life. She didn’t live to be one-hundred. A book written by Mark Twain called In Defense of Harriet Shelley. Aristophanes’s plays, not in translation.  A memoir -- written by a grown-up version of a boy who once wrote me a poem with the line “All I care about is you” -- that doesn’t mention me at all. Books by Rimbaud and Rabelais. Books by Dostoevsky about writing Dostoevsky books. Books that were once banned or burned, but then rescued. Books picked unrandomly from the collection of 53 million books, all of them written by authors who have died or who will end up dying.

I write a list, in my illegible scrawl, and then I wonder how the list is different at all from a list of activities, from Pray; shower; breakfast. I’ll think about my small, painful problems, and the huge, fiery problems of the rest of the human world, looming under my window, and I’ll go outside into the too-early summer and run into myself, bare-headed, on a New York street. She’ll say, I understand you. I’ll shrug.