Either I’m noting and observing happenings and surroundings, exercising awareness, asking questions, entertaining thoughts — or what? Gardening, cooking, napping, hugging my daughter, texting with friends, reading, traveling, collaborating and conversing with others. The work of each day is to write and do all of the above. According to Black Herman, though, or the Black Herman who appears in Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo, “Doing The Work is not like taking inventory” (130). To PaPa LaBas, he says, “You ought to relax. […]. Improvise some. Open up, PaPa. Stretch on out with It” (130). Perhaps I should heed his advice.
“Chapter XI,” the final chapter of Douglass’s Narrative but for a brief appendix, is where the author describes how he “planned and finally succeeded in making” his escape from slavery (94). How does Douglass escape, and what role does literacy play in his plan? Does he, in effect, write his way to freedom? Or is writing but a small part? One arrives to the chapter excited to read further. But Douglass tells us immediately that he’ll have to withhold some of the facts of the escape. Too much of the particular, and others might come to harm. Because of slavery’s persistence as a system, he must deprive himself of the pleasure to speak freely the facts of the matter; otherwise, he would run the hazard of closing doors of use to those still enslaved. Means of flight must be kept secret. At most, no more than hinted at. Of the slaveholder, from whom knowledge of this sort must be kept, Douglass says, “Let him be left to feel his way in the dark; let darkness commensurate with his crime hover over him” (95).
Every book is a monument of sorts. Which ones do we want on our shelves? Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave appears on mine — or in my hands, rather. Acquisition of language — or more accurately, the acquisition not just of orality but also of literacy, learning to read and write: this is a major event in Douglass’s Narrative, as it is in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. For the creature in Shelley’s book, this event is a tragic one. It’s that for Douglass, too, in that it brings him great sorrow. “It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things,” he writes, “with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man.” But for Douglass, this understanding brings with it a thing to be prized. “From that moment,” he tells us, “I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom” (44).
It’s a daunting task: trying to talk to one’s colleagues about consciousness. Is it a quality? Is it a substance? Do we wield it — or is it the nature and seat of our being? And what is its relationship to this sphere of action known as language? Consciousness trance-scribing itself for others. I want to say thought, consciousness, language, narrative: all are simultaneous, intermixed. I walk around, stare at three orange and white daffodils beside a small creek. Water runs across rock as a runner runs past as cars drive past, the world a series of concentric rings through which consciousness vibrates, even as with a body, with fingers typing on technology, words are produced. It all happens temporally and simultaneously. Consciousness is what allows us to perform these tasks. We move among sights, sounds, movements, actions, words, interactions with other beings. But then I also wish to say that consciousness is an awareness, a state into which one awakens gradually and intermittently amid cycles of sleep. We can put ourselves into better states through achievement of consciousness. Lukács uses the term in this sense in his book History and Class Consciousness. And for many Marxists, this achievement is to be sought against a backdrop of “false” consciousness. In a racist society it can transform into what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” And of course it’s what second-wave feminists addressed when they organized themselves in the early 1970s into consciousness-raising groups. How does one say this for friends and colleagues? I practice the yoga of baby-holding while simultaneously listening to birds and crows, contemplating a solution. A way of saying, so as to facilitate shared awareness. What is this thing, this abstraction, this manifestation of mind that persists amid disruptions?
Evenings are sometimes emotionally exhausting, baby crying, wordless work. Hardly an opportune moment for spontaneous prose. The sight of the ceiling fan calms and consoles her. Perhaps the fan functions as an ideogram representing person as many-membered being, poised in the middle of the ceiling, floating there like a lotus-flower atop an upside-down pond. When she falls asleep, I sit around wondering about Hell’s Angels and their place in the counterculture of the 1960s. I scan my shelves for books by Hunter S. Thompson, his book Hell’s Angels somewhere out of reach. Charles Olson interrupts with his essay “Projective Verse.”
From there the cameras lead us, unless we use language otherwise. Don’t just aim for the middle of the box. See inside it. Aim for somewhere beyond it. A utopian poetics found in old books, old journals, old trance-scripts. “The gift is to the giver,” noted Whitman, “and comes back most to him — it cannot fail.” “In circling twice in this way,” adds Lewis Hyde, “the gift itself increases from bread to the water of life, from carnal food to spiritual food. At which point the circle expands” (The Gift, p. 11). In an anonymous scrap heap of Things, our lives are finally joined.
Birds and squirrels play outdoors, the world outside the window an infinite cosmology, plural worlds within worlds. Sarah sings to me from the next room about the ideas of Margaret Cavendish. World-building. Radical occult ontology. Can these be the way individuals imagine themselves in relation to a cosmos of many beings and worlds? By such means, we could design our own cognitive maps, could we not? Think of these latter as structures similar in scale to Giulio Camillo’s Memory Theatre or Shakespeare’s Globe. Only they’re not grasped as structures. We learn our cognitive maps, we study them as they unfold all around us: the great Happenings of the Multitude. The “cognitive map” is a Utopian object proposed by Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson — a “spur,” we might say, an aesthetic riddle, a challenge issued to artists of the future. The purpose of this object that doesn’t yet exist, Jameson says, is to represent the unrepresentable, so that individual subjects can once again find their way in a global totality that at present “transcends all individual thinking or experience” (“Cognitive Mapping,” p. 353). When I return to André Breton’s “Manifesto of Surrealism,” I encounter aesthetic interventions of a different sort, ones that place their trust in “the inexhaustible nature of the murmur.” Allow language to air what needs airing, urge the Surrealists. Allow the unconscious to speak, no more cross-outs, just flow. To produce a “Surrealist composition,” one enters a receptive state of mind, allowing sentences to come either spontaneously or through games involving arbitrary constraints. Get weird, bring back the arbitrary, “so compelling is the truth that with every second there is a sentence unknown to our consciousness which is only crying out to be heard” (Breton 30). Breton’s movement was a response to world war. Reason had led humanity toward destruction and tragedy; perhaps we should live in accord, then, with our imaginations and our dreams. It’s a shocking, scandalous proposal, as Breton the former Dadaist intended. This is, after all, an anti-art. Yet its results are sometimes marvelous and strange. “The words, the images,” as Breton wrote, “are only so many springboards for the mind of the listener” (35) — and each of us, of course, when creating and dialoguing through Surrealist art, gets to play the listener, “reason’s role being,” in this art, “limited to taking note of, and appreciating, the luminous phenomenon” (37).
The verb I’m searching for to name the act I wish to practice is close to, but not quite synonymous with, “to occupy” or “to establish,” but it entails as well something like “settling in,” allowing oneself time to sit, lean back, hold space, find comfort. Of course, even this is sometimes more than our powers permit — in which case, look around, take note. Writing can occur anywhere, as long as we relax and let it. Close eyes, listen. Where do we go: figures stretching? Lying on one’s back watching TV as a child? Or maybe sitting at a computer playing a videogame, one’s avatar moving through an imaginary neighborhood on one’s Commodore 64. Computers entered my life offering generationally-novel, semi-private play space: bulletin boards, text adventures, programs stored on floppy disks. My parents weren’t able to keep up with my forays into virtual environments; they were busy working, cooking, cleaning. I could wander off unsupervised, sometimes for several hours at a time, playing peculiarities like Ghetto Blaster, where I’d speed along a maze of streets collecting cassette tapes while dodging psycho killers and junkies.
(It’s a remarkable game, well worth a walkthrough, even if just to hear chiptune originals like “Macrobiotic Brown Rice Lentil Blues,” or the moment when, like a forlorn Werner Herzog, the player narrating the walkthrough mutters, “Don’t know where to go. Ah, that’s the trouble with time. Give 25 years and you don’t remember what you’re supposed to be doing.”) Why do moments of uncensored thought lead me here? Why do images of this sort arise into consciousness when I seek to enter an enlightened state? Perhaps these images are ones I need to consult when learning to face my shadows. Simons and Chabris awaken me with their Selective Attention Test. Back to the task at hand.
I re-read a friend’s novel, preparing to discuss it again with students. It’s weird and wonderful, terrifying and funny, the fictional consensus realities of Norman Rockwell paintings and Nancy Drew novels turned askew. The small town after which the book is named operates as a microcosm, patriarchy ensnaring the novel’s female protagonist, interrupting her attempts to see beyond her surroundings. Mansplaining townsfolk infantilize her, stripping her of self-confidence to the point where she doubts her own existence. All of this occurs in a limbo-like bizarro-world, some liminal Nowheresville halfway between Twin Peaks and Bikini Bottom. The book is a dystopian fabulation in some sense, its grammar taken from capitalist realism; but it leavens this weight with its slapstick and the joy it takes in language as a site of play — its reminder, in all of these ways, that Utopia is right there for the taking. Despite our society’s sometimes horrifying resemblance to the world of the novel, the book’s delight in the craft of writing shows that it needn’t be that way. The book ventriloquizes and caricatures ruling rhetorics. Institutions are made to speak: landlords wax eloquent about landlordism, mothers extol the virtues of shopping. All of these rhetorics in their recitation are shown to be evasions and denials, self-propagating fictions, avoidances of past and ongoing abuse. Against these rhetorics, the book celebrates and revels in the imaginative flights and associative leaps of its protagonist, whose mind races, a part of it still attentive, still wanting to know, still curious and free despite circumstance.
The moment I lift the blinds from my office windows, my body longs to go outside. I imagine myself in a speculative, future sense, standing in the sun, wind on my cheeks, enjoying myself despite the heat. Choices absorb energy. I find myself wishing to write, walk, and swim, all in equal measure: but then find myself wondering, in what order? Don’t get trapped between window and screen vis-à-vis doors of perception, says a bee in that condition. Let it be, let it be. Allow writing to occur, I tell myself, as it will as one walks. And so it happens. I explore communities that have begun to assemble in cities of late: psychedelic societies. I sit at a picnic table in a park. A millipede peeks out from between the boards of the table, causing an initial jolt from which I quickly recover. I eventually greet the creature and learn to abide. A small bee flies over. Is it related to the one I saw earlier, I wonder as it explores the edge of my notebook. A butterfly approaches soon thereafter. I confess: scientific names for flora and fauna have never been my forte. I’ve never been a He-Man; I’ve never wished after “mastery” of that sort. Does that limit my appreciation of biodiversity? Sarah brings word of sudden drops in global financial markets — signs, perhaps, of a crisis.