Saturday, April 24, 2010

Never Not To Say

"Now what kind of sentence is 'Nothing in the world'?" (Wittgenstein)
"Thus we expunge the sentences that don't get us any further." (Same guy)
"A doubt without an end is not even a doubt." (Again, same guy)

Seriously, some nights Wittgenstein is even funnier than Beckett or Flann O'Brien.

Tonight I spent watching baseball and looking through war photographs. A strange experience on any number of levels. I would be trying to look hard into a photograph by, say, Larry Burrows, some unimaginable horror from Vietnam, and Jim Thome would hit a homerun, or Gil Meche would walk another batter, and I kept looking up from the world of suffering contained in the photograph to see what was going on in the game. Or, even worse, I would be distracted for some moments by the chatter of the television announcers or by the inane challenge of a trivia question that had appeared on the screen.

I eventually muted the TV and managed to lock in on the photographs.

And looking through (literally, in most cases) those photos, my thoughts were a stream of heartbreaking speculation that went something like this: Imagine that is your life. Everything you know is burning and you are walking away with a battered suitcase in your hands. It might not even be a suitcase; it could just be a box. Or you are standing in a dirty river up to your neck clutching something tiny and still breathing in your arms, raising it, in fact, like an offering, and it is raining and growing darker. A boat passes slowly in the murk, carrying a pile of gray bundles that only yesterday might have been sitting around a benign fire playing cards and maybe even laughing. Or: you are a dazed young man on your belly in the mud, surrounded by other young men who appear to be dead or so exhausted they might as well be dead. There is yet more smoke in the distance, and a helicopter is hovering above you, from which a body is dangling from a rope. The posture of this body, the way in which it is folded almost exactly into two halves, is not encouraging.

Nothing, in fact, about the photographs was encouraging, and I was unable to see them as history, let alone ancient history or something anyone has survived, or could survive. I was also bothered by their silence, by the absence of what I felt certain was a ferocious soundtrack, as well as by the cropping involved, a cropping that seemed to excise the panoramic violence and suffering of which the images I was looking at were but one small, harrowing detail.

I was struck, finally, by my utter inability to imagine any of the scenarios I've described, and felt like a schmuck for closing the book and concluding nothing more than that what I had been looking at was simply --or not so simply-- the world as it then was, as it still is, and as it ever will be, which is not something (at least constitutionally) I want to believe.

As is generally my habit, as I was looking at these photographs I was taking notes, but this process is still a mystery to me, because it seems to tap into a different stream in my brain, and often as not these "notes" end up having no relation that I can understand to the material supposedly under consideration.

After I close whatever book I'm looking at or reading I am almost always struck by the ridiculousness of the things I've written. What follows are the notes I scribbled while I was simultaneously looking at those photos, occasionally turning my attention to the baseball game on TV, and entertaining the above thoughts and speculations (none of which appeared on the pile on index cards in my lap):

A city is not a dog. A dog is not a shopping mall. A shopping mall is not a flag. A flag is not a caterpillar. But why the hell not?
Earnest goes to camp.
I can't make sense of these operating instructions.

I thought I was eavesdropping on someone at dinner, and it turned out to be my dining companion.
A fellow can get lost in the old words and never find his way out.
How much confusion can exist in one room, in one house, in one family? Turn that confusion out-of-doors, let it run up against other people, against walls and barricades, real and imagined, literal and metaphorical; let it tell stories whose points elude me, jokes whose meanings are lost or misunderstood; have it toss in references to television and film and cheap popular culture and I find myself drowning in even the most casual conversation. Perhaps a casual conversation is no longer possible. Means, even, who knows what that means? All the millions upon millions of agreements and auto-pilot incidents of shared comprehension, and yet still some of us are left out of the loop, and increasingly so. What is Bedlam? What do we agree that means? Could we somehow reach an agreement --if only among ourselves-- that it means this?

It's all nonsense, it seems, all that wasted, mysterious ink, which so often feels like it was spilled by a stoned 15-year-old. Still, there's no stopping it now, the endless staggering of the tongue upon its torturous treadmill, the idiot, freelance rambles of the pen, looking for something to say, even if the spastic pursuit increasingly resembles the way a dog goes looking for a whiff of a phantom squirrel.

Take away the dog's miraculous nose, and I think you've got a reasonably accurate picture of how I spend my nights.

I'm just happy these days if something in all this cross-wired cogitation [sic, I suppose] eventually sends me down some dark little dead-end spur that recalls to me (for reasons I couldn't begin to understand or trace) an Undertones or Webb Pierce album that I haven't heard in years, and I put aside whatever I'm doing, manage to dig out the desired record from somewhere (a minor miracle, this), and put it on the turntable.

Because I long ago discovered that only music can mostly make the words go away.


  1. Definitely not nonsense. Non sense. Sense=feel. And you feel big-time.

  2. Even for profound philosophers, literacy has its limitations...
    Read "If Wittgenstein Had Been an Eskimo"
    an essay by EDMUND CARPENTER