Note to self

The blogosphere, the noosphere, the world-wide web. The labyrinth, the Matrix. The garden of the text. All variations on an age-old gnostic dream that we must finally repudiate, lest it become the altar on which the dismembered corpse of the real world is offered up. Within the world of literature, readers and scholars must remember that all the texts ever committed to writing – let alone those that have survived to the present – represent a tiny fraction of the total body of songs and stories ever created.

If the term texts seems biased, what shall we call them? The critic George Steiner writes about art in general as counter-creation. So for works of language, I am thinking of something like answers to Creation, in the sense of both response and explication. What the world calls up within us.

But we must remember too that words are made by spelling; speech can be charming. The world can still be enchanted, could still be spell-bound. Words are as alive as that other invisible thing, the wind or breath (pneuma, ru’ah, anima): in fact, they are almost the same phenomenon. For the right words can penetrate to the farthest corners of the cosmos, can reach to the very beginning of thought. Like breath they can create and destroy in their own right, and they animate every element of creation: earth and sky, water and especially fire.

These originary sparks of meaning may once have been more concentrated, true, but their scattering throughout the visible world does not make them any less real.

Nor does that scattering challenge the facticity of matter: the maternal, the universal matrix or womb/network that is still essential to survival, even (or especially) for us arrogant moderns, who have devised so many devilishly clever ways to deaden our senses.

Presence and prescience

To follow up on the topic of history and freedom, check out Octavio Paz’s Nobel Acceptance Speech. A typically brilliant, brief overview of the history of the idea of history, with some of the implications for politics and literature spelled out in a fairly prescient manner (as it now appears 14 years later). He says, among things,

“Ours is the first age that is ready to live without a metahistorical doctrine; whether they be religious or philosophical, moral or aesthetic, our absolutes are not collective but private. It is a dangerous experience. It is also impossible to know whether the tensions and conflicts unleashed in this privatization of ideas, practices and beliefs that belonged traditionally to the public domain will not end up by destroying the social fabric. Men could then become possessed once more by ancient religious fury or by fanatical nationalism. It would be terrible if the fall of the abstract idol of ideology were to foreshadow the resurrection of the buried passions of tribes, sects and churches. The signs, unfortunately, are disturbing.”

And here’s an excerpt from the concluding paragraphs:

“Reflecting on the now does not imply relinquishing the future or forgetting the past: the present is the meeting place for the three directions of time. Neither can it be confused with facile hedonism. The tree of pleasure does not grow in the past or in the future but at this very moment. Yet death is also a fruit of the present. It cannot be rejected, for it is part of life. Living well implies dying well. We have to learn how to look death in the face. The present is alternatively luminous and sombre, like a sphere that unites the two halves of action and contemplation. Thus, just as we have had philosophies of the past and of the future, of eternity and of the void, tomorrow we shall have a philosophy of the present. The poetic experience could be one of its foundations. What do we know about the present? Nothing or almost nothing. Yet the poets do know one thing: the present is the source of presences.”

– Octavio Paz, “In Search of the Present,” 1990 Nobel Acceptance Speech

(N.B: I found the link while roaming through the Borgesian labyrinth of Stephen Cullinane’s blog,

Afterthought: Reading this over from the top down, I see that I have allowed Paz to steal my thunder. By the time readers slog through to the end of my own disquisition on time and narrative, they’re likely to feel an acute sense of deja vu warmed over! But so what? The synchronicity of discovering Paz’s thoughts on this subject (on a site devoted in part to the celebration of synchronicity) right after fleshing out my own sends a shiver down my spine. Maybe there really is something to this “whole lotta nothin’!” Words aren’t just words, words have something to say. (Quoting someone here, can’t remember who.)

Vox populi: dichos!

Spanish speakers are especially handy with proverbs. There are several websites that compile dichos (sayings). Folk Wisdom of Mexico, by Jeff Sellers (Chronicle Books, 1994), is a beautifully illustrated little volume with pretty good translations – the emphasis is on making the translation sound proverbial, too.

Here’s a selection of some of the most Sufi-like, with apologies for the lack of diacritical marks (I’ll use “ny” for the enye). My few comments are in parentheses. The translations are by Sellers, except when starred.

Como dijo la mosca, “Andamos arrando!”
The fly atop the ox declares: “We are plowing this field!”

Hay mas tiempo que vida.
There is more time than life.

El valiente vive hasta que el cobarde quiere.
The brave one lives as long as the coward lets him.

Hay que aprender a perder antes de saber jugar.
One must learn how to lose before learning how to play.

La amistad sincera es un alma repartida en dos cuerpos.
True friendship is one soul shared by two bodies.
(Wonderful people, that have this as a common saying!)

La conversacion es el plasto del alma.
Conversation is food for the soul.

Con paciencia y salivita un elefante se coge a una hormiguita.
*With patience and a bit of spit, an elephant can pick up an ant.

El que mucha abarca, poco aprieta.
He who grabs much grasps little.
(There is a profusion of Mexican dichos about the folly of greed and the importance of being satisfied with little. Do we have ANY sayings like that in Gringolandia?)

No da el que puede, sino el que quiere.
It’s not the able who give, but the desirous.

Cada quien puede hacer de sus calzones un palote.
*Anyone is entitled to make a kite out of his pants.
(This is my favorite!)

Ganar un pleito es adquirir un pollo y perder una vaca.
To win a dispute is to gain a chicken and lose a cow.

Mata mas una esperanza que un desenganyo.
*More people are killed by hope than disenchantment.

La malicia va mas alla de la realidad.
*Malice leaves reality in the dust.

Cada quien es duenyo de su miedo.
*Everyone is a master of their own fear.

El muchacho malcriado dondequiera encuentra padre.
*The spoiled child finds a father wherever he goes.

Quien mas mira menos ve.
The more one looks, the less one sees.

El tiempo cura y nos mata.
*Time is a doctor: it cures and then it kills.

Poem # 910

We can’t let things get too far along without quoting Dickinson. From R.W. Franklin’s Reading Edition (as opposed to the Variorum), The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press/Harvard, 1999), p. 392:

Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for the “Golden Fleece”

Fourth, no Discovery –
Fifth, no Crew –
Finally, no Golden Fleece –
Jason, sham, too –


Here’s one more by Celan. I hope this qualifies as “fair use.” I give it in its entirety because it may well serve as the motto for this whole exercise, and because I am hoping that maybe one or two people who are NOT lit-crit types or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E school elitists will feel inspired to seek out Celan’s work.

Speak, You Also

Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.

Speak —
But keep yes and no unsplit.
And give your say this meaning:
give it the shade.

Give it shade enough,
give it as much
as you know has been dealt out between
midnight and midday and midnight.

Look around:
look how it all leaps alive —
where death is! Alive!
He speaks truly who speaks the shade.

But now shrinks the place where you stand:
Where now, stripped by shade, will you go?
Upward. Grope your way up.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer.
Finer: a thread by which
it wants to be lowered, the star:
to float farther down, down below
where it sees itself gleam: in the swell
of wandering words.

(Hamburger, Poems of Paul Celan, 101.)