Lock 18, The C&O Canal

Lock 18, the C&O Canal at Great Falls, 27 April 2013

Lock 18, the C&O Canal at Great Falls, 27 April 2013

One of the most beautiful artifacts of old D.C. is the C&O Canal (National Park Service | Wikipedia). I spent the afternoon with S. walking along the stretch of it adjacent to Great Falls. Every time I visit it, I think of this, one of my favorite poems.

Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin
Patrick Kavanagh

O commemorate me where there is water,
Canal water, preferably, so stilly
Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagarously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose
Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
A swan goes by head low with many apologies,
Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges —
And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
And other far-flung towns mythologies.
O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
Tomb — just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.

Two Recluses on Cosmos and Psyche

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and reverence, the more often and more steadily one reflects on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within.

~ Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788)

The Brain — is wider than the Sky—
For — put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease — and You — beside—

~ Emily Dickinson, 632

How Time Narrows Life’s Sumptuous Branching Complexity

David Foster Wallace with bare lamp

Read on it’s own, the following passage from David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” may sound pessimistic, fatalistic, oppressive. Read in context, I laughed so long and so hard that my face began to hurt. It is, nonetheless, a painful truth:

I am now 33 years old, and it feels like much time has passed and is passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun, and then I have to live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful. But since it’s my own choices that’ll lock me in, it seems unavoidable — If I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them.

For a sense of how funny this essay is, Mr. Wallace reads an excerpt here starting at 10:00 minutes in (the preceding story about the baton twirlers at the Illinois State Fair is better read here at the Harper’s Magazine 150th Anniversary on 25 May 2000).

Infinite Summer Informal-Irregular Get-Together IV

Infinite Summer Informal-Irregular Get-Together IV, Mr. Henry's, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., 6 August 2009

6 August 2009, Mr. Henry’s, Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: Infinite Summer Informal-Irregular Get-Together IV to discuss David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Clockwise from 12:00: typicalsquirrel, Miruna Stanica / Rrose Selavy, Daniel Ginsberg / NemaVeze, the photographer (off frame), Sarah Webster, Quinn Norton (blog | twitter | Wikipedia), Matt Dickerson / piscivorous. Oh, that’s right, piscivorous, you weren’t there.

Our Odyssey

Countdown to launch of Apollo 11, Firing Room 1, Kennedy Space Flight Center, 16 July 1969

NASA is currently streaming the complete mission recording of Apollo 11 in real time in recognition of the 40th anniversary of the first manned Moon landing.

It feels appropriate to listen to an Apollo 11 cycle, so to speak. This is a performance of an incredible history and a true adventure. This is our Odyssey. The Iliad and the Odyssey were typically performed over three nights. Apollo 11 was four days from launch to touchdown on the Moon (16-20 July 1969; splashdown back on Earth 24 July). John F. Kennedy, Wernher von Braun, Neil Armstrong are our Homer, Agamemnon, Akhilleus and Priam.

I have heard it explained that part of the reason that Joyce’s Ulysses is such a pastiche is that he was trying to cram all the language of Dublin into a single work. Similarly, this week I was talking with some people about the way that David Foster Wallace appropriated the languages of commercial communication, technical writing, bureaucratic memoranda or the casual writing of e-mail to the purpose of literature. The language of our Odyssey is not Dublin bar talk, lyrical poetry or bard’s tale, but bureaucratese, engineering-speak: gage readings, mission book codes, equipment test reports, pre-burn checklists. Instead of the lyre and drum, we have the harmonics of white noise — a combination of the cosmic background radiation and electromagnetic interference of the communication and recording gear itself — and the synthetic electronic beeps of computers.

David Foster Wallace and Allen Ginsberg

There’s this big challenge amid Infinite Summer to try to characterize David Foster Wallace by ostension, or to try to best capture his project comparatively, preferably in twos. For instance, Paul Melancon tweets (1 July 2009), rather cleverly, I think, that David Foster Wallace is “like Proust and Philip K. Dick’s love-child.” The thing that I keep on thinking about as I read Infinite Jest is stanzas 14-19 from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl:

who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them down shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light of Zoo,

who sank all night in submarine light of Bickford’s floated out and sat through the stale beer after noon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox,

who talked continuously seventy hours from park to pad to bar to Bellevue to museum to the Brooklyn Bridge,

lost battalion of platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills off Empire State out of the moon,

yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars,

whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with brilliant eyes, meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement,

Of course Ginsberg is about as New York as they come (come on, make Newark and other territories west of the Hudson boroughs already), whereas David Foster Wallace is Illinois corn fields. Still, the whole passage is all David Foster Wallace: the madness, the drugs, the intellectual nomadism, the schizoid schemata, the words, words, words. But the line that describes Infinite Jest to me more than any other is “whole intellects disgorged in total recall.” So far I am reading Infinite Jest after Annie Lowrey (“Inaugural Infinite Post,” A Supposedly Fun Blog, 29 June 2009): “It reads a bit like novel-as-mental-upload.” Infinite Jest is a 1,000-page brain dump of a man deeply in the throes of depression.

Ultimately the best comparison is that the first line of the poem is “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness …” Could there be anything more fitting to David Foster Wallace? I stopped at “destroyed by madness”, but the temptation to continue quoting (“starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters …”) is hard to resist.

The thing about Ginsberg is that he’s telling a gigantic inside joke of a grand circle — the Beats — comparable to earlier such groups: the Vienna Circle, Bloomsbury, the Algonquin Roundtable, Partisan Review, et cetera. For all of its counter-culture, there’s still something — or maybe only something in retrospect — élite about Howl. Infinite Jest is very inside-jokey too, or “highly colloquial,” as David Foster characterizes the Wallace family penchant for language in footnote three of “Tense Present” (“Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage,” Harper’s, April 2001, pp. 39-58). Infinite Jest may be formally avant garde, but its content is a bunch of anonymous nobodies. There’s a proletariat spirit to David Foster Wallace that Ginsberg aimed for, and perhaps hit in his time, but that has since rubbed off.

Update, 15 July 2009: Compare:

‘E.T.A.’s best minds on the problem. Whole thesauruses digested, analyzed.’ (Infinite Jest, p. 101)

It’s also worth nothing that after the sections waxing fantastic about tennis, Infinite Jest seems a lot less proletariat. But maybe that’s just me: I almost can’t walk past a tennis court without making a snide remark.

My Unconscious is Earnest; It’s Only My Ego That’s Nihilist

David Foster Wallace is already starting to get inside my head (I’m reading Infinite Jest as part of the Infinite Summer project). Last night I had a dream that S. and I were moving to a new place, an old facility building that had been converted into residential dwelling, located on a sparsely built, wooded former campus of some sort (E.T.A.?) on Lake Washington in Seattle. The current resident of the unit was David Foster Wallace and according to whatever dream logic was in effect, we were moving in a few days before he was moving out (it was revealed later in the dream — because you discover your dream personae as you discover those of other people — that the occupant prior to us of the place from which we were moving was also David Foster Wallace). We engaged in a series of joint activities in the period of our overlap, one of which included sitting together around a large table with a lot of simply cut, craftsman-type ornamentation as we painted it. Mr. Wallace was telling us how good these sorts of communal art works are when in a moment of cynical snark, of which I am want — at least dreamworld Donald is accurate in this respect — I insisted, “Yeah, but this sort of artistic self-indulgence is just a few steps removed from scrawling inscrutable messages on the wall in your own feces.” At which Mr. Wallace treated me to a considerable upbraiding regarding the failings of my detached, ironic stance. I struggled to defend my position of cynicism, but only flailed rather impishly in the face of his well reasoned criticisms. The argument, and my failings, continued through an afternoon’s shoreline scrub brush walk.

I know, I know, blogging your dreams! Is there anything more boring than other peoples’ dreams? It’s bad enough to have to hear about them while struggling for bathroom sink time in the morning; then to go and blog about them! I’ve tried to keep it brief, only to serve as an example of how quickly (I’m only on like page 50) and in what ways David Foster Wallace is getting in my head in a way that no novel has in a long time.


When I was in college and struggling to get postmodernism in philosophy, I asked a friend who was a writing student what postmodernism in literature meant. His very brief description — he was dismissive like that — was that in modernist literature, ordinary, every-day occurrences drove the drama of the story. In postmodernist literature, extraordinary events drove the plot of the story. The example that he made was that a story might start one morning when a man realizes that there’s a tree growing out of his leg.

Today, Komsomolskaya Pravda Daily reports that Artyom Sidorkin of Izhevsk, in the Ural Mountain region of the Russian Federation, went for surgery to remove what doctors had believed to be a tumor, but in fact turned out to be a five centimeter tall spruce tree growing in Mr. Sidorkin’s lung (“5 cm. Fir Tree Removed from Patient’s Lung,” MosNews.com, 13 April 2009 [Warning: Images Not Safe For Dinner]).

Two observations:

  1. Life imitates art — and vice versa. It’s not just philosophy and literature that are post-modern. They are merely middling indicators. They have become so only to the extent that actual lived life has become post-modern. Trees are actually growing out of people. I’m concerned that tomorrow I might read news of a man who woke up to find that he had turned into a giant beetle, or that the latest trend among young people was to turn into a rhinoceros.

  2. Life is fucking relentless. I used to find it bizarre that a mile out into Lake Washington on the 520 floating bridge, weeds grew in the automobile soot that had accumulated in the crevices in the asphalt and spiders had spun webs amidst their stems and apparently caught enough food to survive. Here you have a tree that actually tried to make a feeder-log of a man.

Update, 2 May 2009: On Monday, Steven Colbert picked up the story for his segment, Craziest Fucking Thing I’ve Ever Heard. He offered that that’s why he uses Roundup Nasal Spray.

A System of Negativity

Consider nihilism as a system of negativity. Rather than no system or anti-system, or the standard sort of system of theorem built upon axiom, et cetera, it is a system of contradiction, where each principle is canceled out by another, every theory perfectly balanced by another opposing until there is nothing left, or that the web of confusion grows so tangled that one is driven to the nihilistic act, where one has nothing left but to obliterate and wipe away the whole lot of ideas. Now consider the following two passages from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground:

… on coming home on one of the foulest nights in Petersburg, I used to realize intensely that again I had been guilty of some particularly dastardly action that day, and that once more it was no earthly use crying over spilt milk; and inwardly, secretly, I used to go on nagging myself, worrying myself, accusing myself, till at last the bitterness I felt turned into a sort of shameful, damnable sweetness and finally, into real, positive delight!

Well, let us now have a look at this mouse inaction. Let us suppose, for instance, that its feelings are hurt (and its feelings are almost always hurt), and that it also wants to avenge itself. There will perhaps be a greater accumulation of spite in it than in l’homme de la nature et de la vérité. A nasty, mean little desire to repay whoever has ofended it in his own coin stirs within it more nasty perhaps than in l’homme de la nature et de la vérité; for because of his inborn stupidity l’homme de la nature et de la vérité looks upon his revenge merely as a matter of justice whereas because of its intense sensibility the mouse denies that there is any question of justice here. At last we come to the business itself, to the act of revenge. The unhappy mouse has already succeeded in piling up — in the form of questions and doubts — a large number of dirty tricks in addition to its original dirty trick; it has accumulated such a large number of insoluble questions round every one question that it is drowned in a sort of deadly brew, a stinking puddle made up of doubts, its flurries of emotion, and lastly, the contempt with which the plain men of action cover it from head to foot while they stand solemnly round as judges and dictators and split their sides with laughter at it. Well, of course, all that is left for it to do is to dismiss it with a disdainful wave of its little paw and with a smile of simulated contempt, in which it does not believe itself, and to scurry back ingloriously into its hole.

After reading Notes from the Underground it is hard not to see Nietzsche as at least partially derivative. Nietzsche was reading Dostoevsky in the years 1886-1887, including Notes from the Underground. Nietzsche wrote On the Genealogy of Morals during 1887 and it is Dostoevsky’s narrator from Notes from the Underground who is the patient that Nietzsche has on he sofa in On the Genealogy of Morals. The difference is that while Nietzsche shares Dostoevsky’s diagnosis of the sickness of the West, Dostoevsky is nostalgic for Christianity and nationalism, whereas Nietzsche advocates an experimentalism and futurism of pressing boldly on.