<= 2020.01.20

Two Finite Automata

1

Monday morning sprint planning. The scrum master has opened up Jira and is paging through issues. “We don’t need to look at that one, that’s a prior issue. That one’s also prior… that’s prior… prior… prior….” I draw breath and turn over in bed. A crow is calling outside, “Pra… pra… pra….”

2

What’s on the homepage of The New York Times today? What else but a data visualization: “Unlocking the Genius of Mozart Through Data!” We’ve rearranged Mozart’s scores to play every note he ever wrote—in pitch order. First come all the Cs. It takes an incredibly long time to get through them. Eventually we switch to C♯, which we don’t expect to be quite so thick on the ground, but it’s still going to be a good long while before we get to D.

In the Yogachara reading group I’m attending on Zoom, a list is passed around of the fifty-one factors of the mind. “It’s a bad English translation,” says the vice-abbot. The factors are divided into categories—virtuous, neutral, afflictions, secondary afflictions—and at the very end come four “Uncategorized Factors (non-karmic).” These are: drowsiness, regret, discovery, scrutiny.

With regard to that momentous point—M. Paul’s fate—in case any one in future should request to be enlightened thereon—they may be told that it was designed that every reader should settle the catastrophe for himself, according to the quality of his disposition, the tender or remorseless impulse of his nature—Drowning and Matrimony are the fearful alternatives. The merciful—like Miss Mulock, Mr Williams, Lady Harriet St Clair and Mr Alexander Frazer—will of course choose the former and milder doom—drown him to put him out of pain. The cruel-hearted will on the contrary pitilessly impale him on the second horn of the dilemma—marrying him without ruth or compunction to that—person—that—that—individual— “Lucy Snowe.”

—Charlotte Brontë toying with her publisher, 26 March 1853

The uncanny still sun whenever the wind pauses. Everyone’s gone to the moon… what will happen now?

Next to the church, along the woody eminence from which you can watch fireworks, five or six pines stand tall, half covered in ivy. A pair of hawks live here. They have red shoulders and tails both, and seem to be different sizes at different times, so we’ve been unsure about species, but lately we think they must be Buteo jamaicensis. Their wings from below have that black-rimmed white look, and they’re just such tough customers. They keen like the possessed; when crows mob them, a half dozen at a time, they shrug it off. “Just another day being a hawk on Twitter,” we say. There was a nest where hungry hawklets seemed likely, but it was far out of view, and being still doubtful on telling one hawk from another we’re not sure if any fledged this year.

For my hungry progeny I make a burrito. The beans are gin and the rice is vermouth; you need both, but there’s no mistaking which one gets top billing. Yet it’s the rice that takes longer to cook. So this tends to be one of the dozen small still spots in my day: it bubbles, I putter, it bubbles, I putter.

Under the hawks we garden, or try to garden. It’s tough interpretive work, sorting out the plants that want to be hot and dry from those that are simply putting up with it. But the work never stops, which must be the definition of a garden as opposed to a monument. A garden could only become a monument by chance: that is, if someone happened to notice it after it was dead.

Our city blew up last night, same as all the other cities, I’m told. The parking lot of the disused church next door gives a good vantage over our local sweep of the flats; an hour before sunset scattered rockets were already going up, but with real dark it became continuous, like an ocean striking shore and cresting everywhere in bright spray, from Point Pinole down to the Bay Bridge and Oakland container yards.

R., high on gunpowder, ran in circles in the dark, wearing the orange kimono that I bought her secondhand in Kyoto. She was bummed because the city had canceled the usual park festival where she gets painted with henna every year. So far this is her America.

“Technically,” she said, “the Fourth of July is also a holiday for peace, because isn’t it the end of a war?”

No, no, we said, it was the start of a war.

“Oh.” We watched the explosions a while longer. 花火 (flower-fire). Fuegos artificiales.

Cable from Elsewhere

The highway cutting up into the mountains of Fukui Prefecture brought no spring flowers, but the season’s weather was still with us, blotched clouds scudding low and fast, and gray rain starting up and halting over patches of open field. The slopes, covered in close-packed, shaggy, slender conifers, were held back at the most precipitous points by retaining walls draped as square lattices against the earth’s contours, like huge concrete nets.

Hence that typical sequence of the nineteenth-century novel, where the protagonist, more or less willingly, betrays his closest friends (and if this is not so for Stendhal’s heroes, it is only because they do not have any friends).

—Franco Moretti, The Way of the World: the Bildungsroman in European Culture

I finished a trek through Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre and some associated criticism right around the time that, by coincidence, Ray posted some Bildung of his own; and because I’m the sort of mockingbird who makes every song about himself, all that potential and actualization, all those schemes and misfires, encounters at crossroads, deferred recognitions and disguised influences have summed up to leave me with a weird, achy nostalgia for, let’s say, right around 2005.

Why then? The world can’t have been much better off. I certainly had far less leverage on it. I had no presentiment of the vocational dumb luck that would end up buying me a box seat in the American theatre of cruelty; nor had I figured out how to write novels, and if I had it to do over again, making different mistakes, it would have been easy to miss that mark as well.

And yet. I was enjoying school the only way I ever enjoyed institutions, by keeping one foot on the outside, and where that other foot was planted was the 2005 internet, and without that decade’s internet there would have been nothing at all. I had hit one sort of bottom a couple of years before; now I was waking up, learning to think, constantly discovering new islands, and always in such good company.

Then, bit by bit, came the darkening. And that feeling of doors closing, halls standing empty, FOR RENT signs going up in well-loved windows must be what anyone feels at the end of youth; but it can’t be only an artifact of who I was then, because I know so many people who did the same things around the same time—chose career paths just as dull as mine, gave themselves to the very same normative family structure—and yet did not drop off the internet, in fact came alive on the new internet as never before. I’ve tried to follow, many times, but every single sally into “social” media has taken the same quick trajectory into shame and silence. The mask doesn’t work; it fits the wrong parts of the face too well. Even around here, in recent years, I’ve become a very occasional guest in my own home.

That’s Stendhal for you, arrived just in time for the end of the party. Young Julien, born too late to fight for Napoleon, is old Stendhal (about 25 years older than his protagonist), who did fight for Napoleon but still feels life has passed him by. The presiding spirits who assign Wilhelm Meister his worldly place can do nothing for Julien. But if Julien goes to the scaffold, at least he stays young, that’s some rhetoric….

To go back to 2005. To try more doors, find a passage you missed the first time. The absurdly imagined Noah’s Ark scene that follows, bringing everyone after you.

If I could write novels, I wouldn't write on the internet either.

Your implicit ranking of genres is flattering enough that I’m now properly embarrassed to have vaunted what I’ve brought to print. But that aside, what then is up with all those novelists who do write on the internet, and are good and fluent at it? J. has told me more than once that just dropping it might be preferable to all the agonizing; but I never did make a clean break, and I’m not the only one. Isn’t there some vitamin still here with no other dietary source, that we can’t synthesize on our own?

Mortal June

This resurrection happened at the tomb, where the various kits and jars containing the organs of the dead man where collected together beneath the funeral couch…. At some time in this period of mourning at the tomb, apparently, just as the funeral ceremony properly began, the inert soul in Amenti stirred dimly, assumed a spectre’s consciousness, and began to move, Osiris-like, towards resurrection. In Joyce’s book of the dead, much the same kind of feeble stirring occurs to the man “tropped head” in the night’s “seemetery” just after the Wake, and his wake, begin:

So may the priest of seven worms and scalding tayboil, Papa Vestray, come never anear you as your hair grows wheater beside the Liffey that’s in Heaven! Hep, hep, hurrah there! Hero! Seven times thereto we salute you! The whole bag of kits, falconplumes and jackboots incloted, is where you flung them that time. Your heart is in the system of the Shewolf and your crested head is in the tropic of Copricapron. Your feet are in the cloister of Virgo. Your olala is in the region of sahuls. And that’s ashore as you were born. Your shuck tick’s swell. And that there texas is tow linen. The loamsome roam to Laffayette is ended. Drop in your tracks, babe! Be not unrested! The headboddylwatcher of the chempel of Isid, Totumcalmum, saith: I know thee, metherjar, I know thee, salvation boat. For we have performed upon thee, thou abramanation, who comest ever without being invoked, whose coming is unknown, all the things… concerning thee in the matter of the work of thy tombing. Howe of the shipmen, steep wall! (26.6-24)

As always at the Wake, it is worth asking whose “eyewitness foggus” we share here: that of a body at its wake, or that of a body not awake? Every element in this passage helps to locate us at the unconscious interior of a corpse drifting darkly toward its resurrection in each of those three distinct regions of space that the Egyptians topologically equated: within the scattered ruins of its own body, within the next world, and within the world-encompassing body of Osiris….

This evocation of American idiom seems to have been Joyce's way of reinforcing the understanding that his hero, at this point in the Wake, has indeed passed into the next world, the other world, the “New World”… the Book of the Dead enables us to see how little contrivance there is in the imaginative transaction by which Joyce transforms America and comparable ends of the earth into ciphers representative of an other or “New World” like Amenti in the Wake. In the Irish experience of the last two centuries, as millions of countrymen left their loved ones and emigrated from their native earth, these places were regions into which neighbors and relatives disappeared forever. Many of Ireland’s emigrants, never again seen alive by their relatives of friends, may just as well have been dead…. Many of those people left behind on their native earth—no less than those who bemoaned the passage of the scribe Ani or the steward Nu into Amenti—must have found the passage of loved ones into the New World of “Amiracles” heartbreaking—as the self-exiled Joyce would well have known.

—John Bishop, Joyce’s Book of the Dark

I said, Rev. Bliss, brothers and sisters, that they snatched us out of the loins of Africa. I said that they took us from our mammies and pappies and from our sisters and brothers. I said that they scattered us around this land …

… And we, let’s count it again, brothers and sisters; let’s add it up. Eyeless, tongueless, drumless, danceless, songless, hornless, soundless, sightless, dayless, nightless, wrongless, rightless, motherless, fatherless—scattered.

Yes, Rev. Bliss, they scattered us around like seed …

… Like seed …

… Like seed, that’s been flung broadcast on unplowed ground …

Ho, chant it with me, my young brothers and sisters! Eyeless, tongueless, drumless, danceless, songless, hornless, soundless, sightless, wrongless, rightless, motherless, fatherless, brotherless, sisterless, powerless …

Amen! But though they took us like a great black giant that had been chopped up into little pieces and the pieces buried; though they deprived us of our heritage among strange scenes in strange weather; divided and divided and divided us again like a gambler shuffling and cutting a deck of cards; although we were ground down, smashed into little pieces, spat upon, stamped upon, cursed and buried, and our memory of Africa ground down into powder and blown on the winds of foggy forgetfulness …

… Amen, Daddy Hickman! Abused and without shoes, pounded down and ground like grains of sand on the shores of the sea …

… Amen! And God—Count it, Rev. Bliss …

… Left eyeless, earless, noseless, throatless, teethless, tongueless, handless, feetless, armless, wrongless, rightless, harmless, drumless, danceless, songless, hornless, soundless, sightless, wrongless, rightless, motherless, fatherless, sisterless, brotherless, plowless, muleless, foodless, mindless—and Godless, Rev. Hickman, did you say Godless?

… At first, Rev. Bliss, he said, his trombone entering his voice, broad, somber and noble. At first. Ah, but though divided and scattered, ground down and battered into the earth like a spike being pounded by a ten-pound sledge, we were on the ground and in the earth and the earth was red and black like the earth of Africa. And as we moldered underground we were mixed with this land. We liked it. It fitted us fine. It was in us and we were in it. And then—praise God—deep in the ground, deep in the womb of this land, we began to stir!

Praise God!

At last, Lord, at last.

Amen!

Oh the truth, Lord, it tastes so sweet!

What was it like then, Rev. Bliss? You read the scriptures, so tell us. Give us a word.

WE WERE LIKE THE VALLEY OF DRY BONES!

Amen. Like the Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel’s dream. Hoooh! We lay scattered in the ground for a long dry season. And the winds blew and the sun blazed down and the rains came and went and we were dead. Lord, we were dead! Except … Except …

… Except what, Rev. Hickman?

Except for one nerve left from our ear …

Listen to him!

And one nerve in the soles of our feet …

… Just watch me point it out, brothers and sisters …

Amen, Bliss, you point it out … and one nerve left from the throat …

… From our throat—right here!

… Teeth …

… From our teeth, one from all thirty-two of them …

… Tongue …

… Tongueless …

… And another nerve left from our heart…

… Yes, from our heart …

… And another left from our eyes and one from our hands and arms and legs and another from our stones …

Amen, hold it right there, Rev. Bliss …

… All stirring in the ground …

… Amen, stirring, and right there in the midst of all our death and buriedness, the voice of God spoke down the Word …

… Crying Do! I said, Do! Crying Doooo—

—these dry bones live?

He said: Son of Man … under the ground, ha! Heatless beneath the roots of plants and trees … Son of Man, do …

I said, Do …

… I said Do, Son of Man, Doooooo!—

—these dry bones live?

—Ralph Ellison, Juneteenth

Two of my high school acquaintances are secret police and have come to arrest me for mean songs I wrote about people decades ago. The taller one is playing it stern. The shorter, still blond and baby-faced, keeps glancing at me and chuckling, “You know, that was a funny song,” until a look from his partner shuts him up.

<= 2020.01.20

The Warm South
The Roof Rat Review