The plagiarist

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Antiphony: Daodejing


Credible words are not eloquent,
Eloquent words are not credible.

– Daodejing Chapter 81 (Ames and Hall, tr.)


One line a day, he thinks, just like Dylan Thomas. But his project differs radically from the old drunk wordsmith’s, who hammered out each word in the forge of whatever. He has no use for such self-conscious perfection – in fact, he’s not sure he wants to write anything particularly memorable at all. He aspires instead to the perfection of the found object, whose charm would consist solely in being removed from its originating context and placed in another. Each line like a grain of sand struck from some granite headland, rolled in the waves until smooth, and deposited on a beach. Perhaps it is true that a visionary might see the universe in a grain of sand. But most people just want to walk along the edge of the ocean in their bare feet, letting the waves curl around their ankles. And certain ankles are worth dying for, he thinks – far more so than any art. Just ask Proust.

There’s no first line. How can there be? He starts at random and works in both directions, and after a while he sees that new lines can be inserted at various points in the growing text. Not that they’re interchangeable, of course. His poor memory works for him as often as it works against him, because he finds himself returning often to the same or similar themes – just as an elderly person will retell the same story over and over. But it’s not the same story, if you listen. And poetry is nothing if not a supreme effort at listening, on the part of author and audience alike. Repetition in a poem is one of several tried-and-true methods for seducing the ear.

Seduction: that’s the goal. To charm, to re-enchant. Without some kind of poetry in our lives, is true love even possible? Without persuasion, the lonely soul can only connect with others through brutality, through hatred. Get that down, he says to himself. Child soldiers in a guerrilla army he’s read about, who chop the hands off other children for no reason. Someday, perhaps, a look or touch of wholly undeserved compassion (is there any other kind?) will shatter them. Put that in.

Time is on his side, because that’s where he likes it – close enough to keep an eye on. His theme, to the extent that he can be said to have one, is simply: things happen. Not shit, never. Sometimes he does feel that way, but those lines never see daylight. Line by line he comes to feel – not merely to understand, but to know in his bones – how much of a role time plays in everything. It’s the ultimate context, from which no escape is possible or even desirable. What makes the ordinary seem extraordinary is just this consciousness of the extreme unlikelihood of its ever coming to be. One line at a time.

Then one day, out of the blue, he hears a whisper in his ear and feels a warm breath on the back of his neck. Thank you for writing my poem, the voice says. In a flash, he sees that every single line he thought he had written had in fact been borrowed, and that now it’s time to return them to their rightful owner. He turns slowly around. I thought you’d never find me, he says.

The smoker

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Antiphony: Daodejing


In concentrating your qi and making it pliant,
Are you able to become the newborn babe?
In scrubbing and cleansing your profound mirror,
Are you able to rid it of all imperfections?
In loving the common people and breathing life into the state,
Are you able to do it without recourse to wisdom?
With nature’s gates swinging open and closed,
Are you able to remain the female?

– Daodejing Chapter 10 (Ames and Hall, tr.)


The mother crouches, bears down. Focuses all her energy on her abdomen, where her body’s snake lies coiled. The baby slips down the birth canal and out. It glistens; it glows. Buzzed on adrenaline, it is more fully awake now than it will ever be again, with a few possible exceptions.

The mother cleans this new creature, suddenly not-her but not yet a wholly distinct presence in the world. She eats the umbilicus and the neither/nor substance that follows the birth, returning them to her abdomen. The infant’s initial luster fades a bit, and the flame-like pattern of its pelt blends with the splashes of sunlight in this forest clearing. Choosing her steps cautiously – a leap here, a circling dance step there – the mother moves off.

Lying in a bed of ferns, the newborn knows nothing of fear or danger. The stimuli entering its ears, eyes and nostrils are all equally strange and wonderful. A few of the sounds seem familiar, though this side of the womb they are much more distinct. Weeks will pass before it begins to discriminate, to learn which things are the most desirable. But in just a few days, it will learn to flee from anything out of the ordinary. Excitement will become linked with fear; good things are bland and filling, like mother’s milk.

Flies don’t land on it yet. As the day warms up, hornets begin exiting their underground hive through a hole just inches away from its rear end, but there’s nothing to excite them about this new warm object. The mother stands a hundred feet away on high alert. Any predator that might happen to wander into the vicinity will smell only her, and with luck, can be coaxed into giving chase.

The human being who has been watching all this through binoculars from a nearby blind is astonished. She is on assignment from Conservation International and the Bronx Zoo to track down rumors of a deer-like animal unknown to Western science, deep in the forested headwaters of three great rivers. Now she debates whether she should report this discovery at all. The publicity might attract poachers, and who knows what else.

All around the birthing area, the air shimmers, like the air above a lake on a sunny day. I wonder if it’s true, what they say – that it can walk on grass without bending a blade, even walk on water? Because the Han Chinese villagers who farm upland rice in this region call the creature by its ancient name Qilin. They want so badly to believe that a new era of peace and prosperity is on its way!

But what could be more natural than to accept that it might be true? Here in these mountains, where nation-states are a far-off rumor and the global market a semi-legendary beast, anything seems possible.

She wouldn’t realize for several hours yet that her craving for nicotine has suddenly, finally evaporated – or, more likely, returned to whatever creative nothingness it had originated in, years before. How can one notice something no longer present? But as she watched the birth unfold, she had felt something loosening in her own abdomen and sat up straighter, breathing all the way from her heels. It smelled like spring.

The forger

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Antiphony: Daodejing


Radiant way-making (dao) seems obscured,
Advancing way-making seems to be receding,
Smooth way-making seems to have bumps,
The highest character
(de) seems like a deep gorge,
The most brilliant white seems sullied . . .
The most pristine and authentic seems defiled.
The greatest square has no corners,
The greatest vessel is last to be attended to,
The greatest sound is ever so faint,
The greatest image has no shape.

Daodejing Chapter 41 (Ames and Hall version)


Picture an artist’s studio in Montreal. The middle-aged, male artist is chatting with a new female model a few years younger than himself. Many artists he knows prefer to sketch or paint in silence. But how can you paint somebody you don’t know?

“I’m through with slogans and campaigns,” he says when the subject of politics comes up. The causes of his parents’ generation strike him as sad and futile. “‘Never forget?’ As if memory could forestall the ultimate dissolution of all things! Sure, collective memory is a powerful thing. But humanity won’t last forever. Even this planet will be swallowed up by the sun someday.”

“But you do seem to have quite an appetite for the news,” says the model.

As usual, he has the shortwave radio on in the studio. It’s tuned to the BBC World Service, and he keeps it at a fairly low volume so it won’t dominate the conversation – or the play of his own thoughts when he’s alone. Mostly, it’s the sound of the voices that appeals to him, that ceaseless murmur.

“They call it news, but by the time it hits the wires it’s already a little old, you know? The bluebirds continue to perch out there on the electric line as if nothing were happening, even on the coldest days. Now that’s news!”

“What I don’t like,” she says, “is the way different stories of hugely different magnitudes are made to seem like they’re equivalent, just by the way they’re placed side by side in a newspaper, or one after another on the radio or TV.”

“Mmm,” he says. And after a moment: “But that’s not exactly new, is it? And I wonder what the alternative would be? Just yesterday I went for a walk in the country, and was puzzling over the odd conjunctions of animal tracks in the snow. A coyote accompanying three unhurried deer? Raccoon and fox in a pas de deux? Careful, now! This isn’t some tawdry scandal sheet! But when you see a line of small rodent tracks suddenly cease in the middle of a pair of wing prints – well, that’s clearly genuine Page 1 material. Or so I would like to think.”

“You have to be true to your own vision, I guess,” the model says vaguely. But the artist is still warming to his theme.

“My vision? Who says it’s mine? How do I know that? Turn back this way please – right there. Great!”

An hour later, they continue the conversation at a cafe down the street. “I just don’t understand how you can so dismissive of the power of memory,” she says. “Don’t you want to be remembered?”

“Part of me does, yes. But when I paint, I have to put that part aside. I have to forget.”

This is something she hasn’t heard before in all her years of working with Tormented Artists, and it goes very much against the grain of her Jewish upbringing. Which may be why she finds herself wondering whether it’s time to rethink that rule about never sleeping with her clients. The problem with artists, though, is that they’re always so distracted.

“So you think it’s better to forget?”

“No, I never said that! It’s not a question of one or the other. Let the “t” off and what do you get? A forge! In here” – he taps his chest – “or here” – his head – “or maybe – I don’t know. Maybe nowhere!”

“So it’s forgeries you’re after, then!” she exclaims, laughing. “Forgetting does entail a kind of forgery, doesn’t it?”

“No, I think it’s the other way around,” says the painter – who, it might be worth pointing out, gathers a substantial income from the sale of perfect reproductions of the Old Masters, many of which now hang in place of the originals in museums around the world. She doesn’t know this yet, of course. But her interest in the argument intrigues him. He could use an assistant.

“Because, look, at any given moment, the snow is mute. To forge a story from its maze of tracks, you have to forget the present, calculate melt time at various temperatures in the last 24 hours, and weigh the likely scenarios. Even if you set up cameras to record everything as it takes place, whatever narrative you derive from that is still a condensation, an imposition – a forgery.

“But! The patterns visible in the present do have something to say in their own right, I think. And that something changes from one moment to the next, as the sun beats down or more snow falls or another creature forges through the snow.”

“And what if that creature is you?”

“Or you! Imagine this: Imagine if every time you looked at a painting, everywhere your gaze tracked it would leave an impression in indelible paint. Imagine if we couldn’t look at anything without overwriting it, without leaving our own tracks. Not only would paintings become wholly transient things – or happenings, really – but the distinction between artist and non-artist would largely disappear. Museums would lose their separation from the rest of the world.”

“But surely you can’t want that!”

He smiles. “What makes you think it isn’t already true? Every time we look at something, we’re changed in some way ourselves, yes? And as we change, from one moment to the next, our perception changes. We do leave tracks, even if they are visible only to ourselves.”

“Okay. But something tells me that if seeing were as physically consequential as you seem to wish, that things would develop very thick layers of paint in some areas, and thin to nonexistent layers in others. Any artistry a painting might have at first – or, I mean, right after someone with real artistic vision interacted with it – would quickly be overwhelmed by the untrained gaze of the mob.”

“Would it? I don’t know. I have a hunch that those unpainted areas would quickly develop their own charism, so to speak, and that the feedback loops formed by such interactive gazing, in combination with an ordinary intelligence, would eventually lead almost everyone to become expert in the art of forgery.”

She laughs. “So you would save nothing – no artifact of anyone’s private vision?”

“Oh, I would! But paintings age just as we do. The colors fade. Grime collects. The paint cracks. They change, and our collective evaluations – our memories – change with them. I mean, the act of restoration can be highly controversial. Restore it to what?

“Oh c’mon. It’s not that bad!”

“It can be. Think of how the great cave paintings in France and Spain were threatened by the mere presence of visitors: not only the molds and spores we carry with us, but the very carbon dioxide we exhale was profoundly damaging to them. In order to preserve anything at all, they had to be completely sealed away again. Faithful reproductions were created with the help of digital imaging so visitors would have something to look at in their stead.”

“If you don’t want immortality, what do you want?” she asks softly.

“I want to immerse myself in that forging,” he says, his eyes flashing. “That’s all! Not to be an artist. Not to be anything! Simply to become a part of everything that is beautiful, spontaneous, original!”

He touches her hand. “You and I – we’re nothing. Mayflies. Soap bubbles. There’s no great Artist in the sky. There’s only . . . ”

She places a sudden finger across his lips. They slowly get to their feet, put their coats on and pay the bill without another word. Outside, the streets are glistening with melting snow.


Thanks to Susan, whose typo in a recent comment thread prompted this little exercise in philosophical fakery.
UPDATE (Feb. 4): Thanks to Siona for suggesting some additional insights.