Tuesday, September 12, 2023

My Poor Bookshelves - an ode to Annie Dillard - an Apology

Oppenheimer's quote - I am become death - is become really well-known now. And I suppose we all know how he was crowded out by the burgeoning military industrial complex, which desperately needed its mitts on the formula. We are become wealth. And what's a little red-baiting up against our power now, eh? We have been mindlessly strategic with our oil. We keep the nuclear energy in check.

When she was very young, my daughter claims to have counted the books on my shelves, and they were legion. Over ten thousand, she told me. They lined the walls of the hyper-economical apartment they grew up in, the girls and the books, on my side of the family. It was a large and super airy flat - meaning that it cost more to heat in Buffalo's winters than mansions did. Like heating a tent. Maybe it helped, maybe it hurt, that every wall was lined with books.

They were mostly stackable legal bookshelves, salvaged from the fire which drowned Dad's leather-bound legal volumes, up near the top of the Prudential building. JFK-like, conspiracy theories suggest the burning was meant for the top floor, where Attica papers were housed. Where did I read that? Whatever. I was horrified by the news, riding a subway in New York.

There were also bookshelves that I'd made, up from New Haven probably, or maybe custom made for the apartment. Can't remember, I don't remember them in my marriage house. Not sure. I know they were post-boat because I remember using left-over silicon bronze ring nails for the Philipine mahogany back panel. Back when wood and books both were cheap, and I could fill and build and fill my shelves.

The great culling happened when I drove my little over-driven VW Passat wagon out to California, leaving my ghost behind in that apartment. A shell of nearly all the books I'd read to date, which included the cliched and the insipid from high-school through itinerant department hopping in college. But also various computers and electronics paraphernalia, three electric hair clippers, including the one my Dad had used on all of us, I think. No need for those ever since. Pots and pans and silverware. All the furniture I had up to then. Some of it very nice. Books carted out and back to the middle of nowhere, which was my home-base for driving a couple thousand miles a week to do a one-man minstrel show with computers for 80+ Catholic Charities addresses across fifteen counties. Blah blah.

I culled my shelves just twice. Once for carload. Once over a Christmas visit, to be sent by Greyhound which was by far the cheapest way to ship so many heavy boxes, still costing more than it would to ship myself - about the same weight. Who can understand our economy? They made it, the books did, and probably busted the relationship which took me there and overstuffed her house with Ikea shelves. Which had names, the shelves did. Marketing names.

Mostly, I left behind the easily replaced pulpy school-time books. I kept those I thought that I could never replace. But lost forever were that stamp collection, the comic book collection that I'd told my daughter would pay for her college. And maybe they would have. Oh, what a person will do for love!

So many books I miss, because my memory can't know what I ever did with them. And so many books that I never did read, which followed me around. Dead weight. The detritus of those rare moments in a bookstore while actually earning money up against the mountains of love-debt I kept piling up; those moments when I talked myself into actually buying books. Randomly, really. It was like a chocoholic buying top-shelf and regretting it. 

Well just the other day, after passing through a dry spell with reading 'cause of a new/old sailboat. Hatches all around, deck balsa, crampy engine work, cranky rig, all good now she sails wonderfully and I have sudden time to read but don't know what to read and I see a clutch of books from and by Annie Dillard which I've towed around the country and have never read.

They have insect droppings or mold spots on the page's edges, and so I open A Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek which is not the sort of chocolate that I typically indulge, in borrowings from the library. Surrounded still by unread books, I'm never ready for the burden of the ones I'd bought indulgently. And true to form, this book reads so very beautifully I put it down by page 6, vaguely wondering did I have Encounters with Chinese Writers on my shelves as well?

I did!

All these years I'd thought - vaguely, because I'd never opened the book - that this book would describe Dillard's encounters with the Chinese classical poets whose study I'd abandoned. Unread volumes of classical Chinese lit I have, to, excel most American college libraries. All that indulgence weighed me down. Inhibited my reading. Dillard was weighty, somehow, maybe Pulitzer-related, in my mind, and that had inhibited me.

Somehow all the unread books that I spent real money on feel like a burden. Something I always should but never quite want to do. Still, I have experienced unnatural joy on those occasions that I get desperate. Homo Ludens. Stephen Owen's poetics. A bit of Virginia Woolf. Even Foucault v. Chomsky.

No, anyhow, the Encounters book was a breezy journalistic read about her travels in China and in the US as a cross-cultural delegate meeting with Chinese counterparts, along with OMG Allen Ginsburg, who, thanks to Joe Gould's Teeth I finally think I might know. Go figure! I saw him with squeeze box in Boulder once, hamming as a Buddhist.

But Dillard's journalism is peer with Jill Lepore. It was that brilliant, and so easily recognized from and by my own encounters with Chinese writers of whatever kind from whatever century up unto the very present where we all now are become death, destroyer of worlds.

Is the New Yorker really that good? That Ivy League? Hey, I'm Ivy League, though not the native son. Oh wait, I am! Genetic drift toward degeneracy, I suppose. No, I am rescued. Dillard has no connection to the New Yorker at all. Phew.

May it be that I shall reopen Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek. May not be. I've waited this long. But maybe.

My trouble is simple. 

I started life as an engineer. And then I lost faith. Faith in all dimensions. And then, to my surprise and astonishment, I found faith. But I never learned to write. 'Cause of laziness, I think. I've travelled the world some, and this nation a lot, but I never learned to translate any of what I've learned and what I know into writing. I lack the magic of that particular transmutation of mind to matter.

So I spout love this and love that because that's how lazy I am. And when you do that - spout love, unless you're Nicholas Sparks maybe, people just simply turn off. Like you're another religious spiritualist here's how we save mankind altogether now sort of person. They turn you off in an instant, people do. 

It turns out that I've restarted my boat life, and also that I've restarted my bookshelf building life. I don't have any photos that I know of for the original 'hang-your-shelf' in New Haven, so called by my bike-mechanic colleague there. It was plain pine planks with holes drilled through which hemp rope was strung. Hung from the hanger molding that all transient student housing has in college towns and in dormitories. 

Those shelves astonishingly held the bulk of my lightweight paperback literature. Nowadays I'd probably lose sleep expecting something to give suddenly in dark of night, but it never did. 

I have been that graced by luck. Even when my old wooden sailboat blew or cracked apart it never seemed disastrous. Now I know too much. Like, I know that love is a cosmic force. But I can't live to tell about it because it's too complicated and too simple both. Like you need to understand and then move beyond a certain grade of particle physics. You have to do a little bit of DNA and accept that maybe the religious and psychologic proponents of a kind of magic synchronicity aren't all wrong. 

And then all questions are answered. And then you're just plain all alone with the knowledge if you aren't a self-promoter and you can't write. This, the pain of living. 

So here I am building a better mousetrap and there is no beaten path to my door. Thoreau was so wrong in the first place! And way better at self-promotion. (I know this guy in China who calls himself Thoreau, so very much does he love him) You have to want people to read you, and I just don't care if people read me. I just want them to know. I want you to know. Love is all there is.

Click! Move on.

But wait. Please wait. Yes sure, this all has some commonality with religion, but still more with science. And for either as for all one needs a level of self-promotion. I'm an abnegator of myself. I want only to hide. 

And every single time I make a post I feel like I'm walking out of the house naked. It's hard. 

But you know in your very soul that life, the universe and everything is not reducible to cause and effect. You know that your entire life is a complex web of synchronicities, which is, of course, easy to say if you're as loaded with social capital as I am. Mostly fate feels lousy for most of us. 

Do I believe that you can make your own luck? Nope, no way no how. If you're a devoted capitalist though, you're pretty much required to believe that you can. You call it merit, you call it hard work, but whatever you call it boils down basically to luck.

Me, I've squandered my luck. I don't make any hay with what I've got. I think I'd feel guilty if I did, although I have pandered love into something kind of if not quite prosperity exactly, which makes a prosperity look-alike.

And I'm not really a hater of capitalism any more than I'm a hater of nature in nature's tooth and claw. But it is barbaric, capitalism is. Looking around the world these days, I don't see that civilization, especially what we call "modern" civilization has moved very far at all from basic barbarism. So very few live by love and give back their luck.

Or maybe I'm wrong. Googoo Doll Robby Takac here in Buffalo runs this massive Music is Art festival, which I always go to for just a hot minute so I can be reminded of my fundamental aloneness. All one in the world. It's just not seemly to dance alone, and so I leave as expeditiously as I arrive. Quick tour and out. Like life, right?

Nick Sparks gives out money in New Bern, which I spent some time in without knowing he lived there. You can find these things out in Wikipedia whenever you want to. But nobody gives out so much money that they won't or don't keep living the life you wished that you could live. Not really ever.

But we're in a bind. We're played out as a species, having fouled our nest big time. We're being called on to display a kind of anti-capitalistic love. Meaning give up our cars, gas or electric. Give up planes. Give up plastic packaging of almost any sort. Get rid of privatized medicine and healthcare of every sort as well, and private transport of any sort, and private utilities, and give up private yachts bigger than you can maintain yourself (I have to exempt myself from some loss of privilege, right?).

None of these things is hard, meaning none creates hardship. Maybe we worry that it would tank the economy, but as with Covid we'll be doing it when the emergency becomes obvious. Why not do it ahead of time to mitigate the inevitable emergency?

Well, because it's really really hard to believe that we have no choice in the matter. And guess what? We have no choice in the matter. Collectively, I mean. We don't. Talk about making your own fate!

Now if only people would read the important stuff, or learn the important stuff. Like wouldn't people change if they scientifically knew that love is a cosmic force? Well, have I changed? Nope. I'm still compelled to display my intelligence and tell people where they're wrong about stuff, always hoping that I'll find the one who really understands and always convincing myself that I'm the only one who understands, but not being able to convince a single other soul. 

Crank! The very definition of sick crank. 

If I'm not going to write it I should at least live it. I won't find it in any book, though I've tried and tried. It's just not there. Or it's all there in all of them, which reduces all the worth of writing to one Big Theme which would be a simple shame.

But it should make a difference to know that love is truly a cosmic "force." It makes a difference to true believers in, say, Christ, to the extent that they devote themselves to doing what some man tells them to do, which ends up as often as not in doing really hateful things. Like banning womens' ownership of themselves. Sheesh.

Most of my reading though is toward the goal of proving myself wrong. It isn't working. I'm not wrong. And so I think this reading is a kind of noble activity because, who knows, I might actually change a few minds.

So let's go down a different rabbit hole for a minute. I read today that Google and Facebook have held back on the kind of facial recognition software which China's party statle deploys willy nillly to tell you "hey Joe, you just jaywalked and we're dinging your social goodness score" for all the world to see. 

But you know, Facebook and Google know that to out you all the time and everywhere in public would utterly undermine the economic sea whose climate they control. They and all of us depend on a fabulously elaborate mythology of hyper individualism. It is practically a state religion here, that we can't have some kind of government ownership of citizen identities, even though we already have it. We already use it to catch a thief. But wouldn't it be nice if all email were properly identified.

Like I get endless emails now, originating in China for certain, where they have decoded my cookie trail such that if I even breath an interest or a shopping destination I get an email which is so good a spoof that both Google and Microsoft in their AI brilliance, think the email belongs in my priority inbox. They fake some kind of personal connection. It's getting so I waste as much time as spam filters save me just deleting the stuff before opening it.

I know it's illegal over her to use the identity of actual people in targeting them, but it's a matter of anti-Western civic pride over there. Just like it's illegal to ban firearms, because to do so, maybe, would be to compromise our hyper individualistic ability to defend ourselves, our families and our country from those whose manifests we hate.

But hey, the junk is out in the open and your nuts if you don't think some dickhead is going to profit from it. I mean the entire AI shebang. 

There is a different possibility though. We could wake up and realize that we are not so very individual. That our failings belong to a whole community, as does their remedy. No self, no matter how branded by quirky tatoos (which I think are pretty cool too, which is why I'll never have one), is all that different from every other selfie self. No matter how much I read, I still must swim in the same social waters that we all do. I was so disappointed in the Bills last night. I so regret my lost sleep!

Any more than Cherry 2000 AI will not replicate human love. We may finally realize that our mind is not described or describable by our brain. That our emotions don't distinguish us from all the other beasts. That consciousness already exists in a reptile but never in a zero/one logic machine. It's our definitions have to change, stupid!

As refined by art and literature and music, we do embody a very advanced capacity for love. The now universal quest for recognition (Sorry Bill Gaddis, I'll never be able to read your Recognitions, though I'll keep trying), fueled as it is by the way that money works in this economy, is as effective as Oppenheimer's Trinity test as a prototype for world destruction. 

Back when I was trotting around Yale, trying to find someone open-minded enough to test my theories for themselves, a kindly young physics professor pointed to where John Wheeler was then working. I hadn't known who Wheeler was, or that he was visiting Yale. I thought he was some august professor who would be unapproachable. Little did I know that he floated a theoretical approach which includes all conscious observers in the structure of physical reality. An elegant resolution of certain puzzles of quantum physics as I might imagine.

All that I have done, through no agency on my part, is to realize one very early morning in the process of writing that nothing about our knowledge of the physical world need change if we were to adapt our models to accept that emotion is as primordial as are physical forces. My analogy was the absence of substantial change by knowledge of relativity. Except that more time has passed by now since my discovery as compared to the time between Einstein's reformulation and the development of the bomb. 

I think there simply is no interest among the powers that be in talking about love. I define "concepts" on a par with "percepts." By definition, percepts are subject to forces, which means that they participate in the exchange of force-bearing "particles." Without such participation, they would not be perceptible. They could not be measured, and predictions could not be made. Proof is in the energy equations. 

Concepts define a kind of structure of mind. It's a narrative structure, which I try and try again to define on these "pages," but it's not directly measurable, since concepts don't participate in forceful interactions. 

Without narrative, mind has no inclination. Composed physically, as words are, DNA has a narrative structure. When it defines an arrangement of otherwise inert matter such that the narrative structure endures, there is a move in the direction of love, which is the direction of life away from universal entropy and decay. A dance of love and hate defines the All. 

The hope here is that this particular realization is what can and will change the world. It won't be our technological advances. It won't be our astounding and brave new understandings of how physical life and matter are constructed. It will be our collective awakening to a kind of responsibility to love that will enable a transformation at least as spectacular as what an H-Bomb can do on its own. 

There is no art in Trump or Putin or Jong-un. These are avatars of what we all become when we realize our defunct desire for recognition. Embodiments of hate, of decay of entropy of dissolution of global warming meltdown, which isn't a necessary condition of our survival.

They and all masters of the universe are become death. Be not proud.

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