Zuckman the Chinese

“This disputatious stance, the aggressively marginal sensibility, the disavowal of community ties, the taste for scrutinizing a social event as though it were a dream or a work of art — to Zuckerman this was the very mark of the intellectual Jews in their thirties and forties on whom he was modeling his own style of thought.”

– “The Anatomy Lesson”

Maybe it’s pure jealousy that prevents me from appreciating the Ghost Writer. I’m basically Alvin Pepler minus the graphic memory, of course it would be harder to witness his confidence and certainty of his own literary talent at the beginning of his inevitable ascendance, than to entertain his newly acquired swagger at the peak of his sudden fame at mid-age in the second book. But it’s no accident he would be so successful in his lifetime. His writing appeals to (this is not to suggest in any way opportunistic exploit) certain WASP fantasy of being alienated as an alternated ego, like how the life of a vagabond would appear full of excitement to middle class home owners, with the added flavor of a misunderstood sage. “Stand alone. Like Swift and Dostoevsky and Joyce and Flaubert. Obstinate independence. Unshakable defiance. Perilous Freedom. No. in thunder.” Saying the same thing five different ways to exhausted all nuisances, and then, a punch line for good measures. His mastery of the English language is of the populist kind too, “one-liners” readily made to entice a knowing smile for the average Joe. And I do mean that as a compliment. Joyce requires total submission on page 1 and punishing endurance for each page after in exchange for just a glimpse of his dominance of the English language. I cannot count how many times I’ve put down Ulysses in utter exasperation, together with the other three books of annotation and explanatory notes. It’s purely because of my OCD, which prevents me from leaving an unfinished book weighing on my conscience, that I’m now on page 650, a year and a half after I picked it up for the first time. But when I do understand a paragraph, after rereading it for the fifth time, my God I’m always in awe that this kind of erudite is possible to a human being. It’s a miracle, i.e. a genetic abnormality, cause it’s not otherwise achievable by aspiration and hard work. A graphic memory for words and the even greater power of association. Isn’t it said that talent in any field is just the ability to making connections? I was smitten by Beckett’s innovative approach to words when I read his trilogy. Looking back he was to a large extend paying homage (I don’t want to say imitate) to his master. In a sense they both mock their own talents by exposing the inadequacy of words. Beckett’s approach I want to say (risking casting stones on things I didn’t even begin to understand) is of a destructive nature. Each sentence is masterly constructed but putting together it becomes this shapeless, monstrous thing that you see in a low budget horror movie. In comparison Joyce’s is deeply rooted in the literature legacies (see the Oxen Sun) and thus of a more constructive kind. Maybe it’s because my meager comprehension power, when I read a passage in Ulysses that mimics a certain literature style, I often cannot be sure if he intended to be satirical or he just writes like that cause he can. And on a whole it does have a disciplined structure, it does not have to make conventional sense but it’s a highly elaborated system with rigid rules. They might be equally outlandish, the difference is everyone knows what a monster is when seeing one, but it takes educated guess to figure out what a complicated machine is intended for. Back to Philip Roth. He pegged himself, every other page, as the Jew universally hated by all other Jews, you can’t get More alienated than a man outcasted by his own alienated tribe, the only other man boasted an equal status is Jesus Christ the Word. “A Jew set free even from Jews — yet only by maintaining self-consciousness as a Jew.” Like every “Who am I” in the book has an underlying “I’m Zuckerman the Writer” (both direct quotes), the apparent mud-sling in Carnovsky has an underlying “Only I can say this because it’s part of me” (not a quote). Self-mockery is a show of strength, and add the sense of representation you have Carnovsky, or really, Zuckerman. But isn’t that a bit like Ryan Gosling in The Believer? Or, if we really want to be cynical, Tim the Dentist in Jerry Seinfeld (played by the then young Bryan Cranston with wavy hairs nonetheless) who converted to Judaism solely to tell Jewish jokes? The appeal of alienation though, as said earlier, is universal. So it’s probably no wonder that I came to “identify” with him, of course in my smallish, secret way. Swap every word of “Jew” with “Chinese” and it’s a book I wish to write, I would have written if I have not lost my ability to write in, well, Chinese.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

When the music stops

On the first day of the Chinese New Year holiday I picked up Zackerman again. I prodded through the Ghost Writer back in October, but didn’t warm up to Roth until midway through the second story. “It’s the talentlessness that’s driving him nuts.” But Alvin Pepler, whether real or not, has no doubt now had his name marked permanently on the 20th century literature landscape, like he so desperately wanted to in the story.

In the third story Roth spent the first 15 pages writing almost obsessively about his neck pain, how a seemingly trivial inconvenience has completely immobilized him and derailed his whole life. A “causeless, nameless, untreatable phantom disease.” It makes me think of my tinnitus, another incurable disease. Probably not as bad as a chronicle pain — it is largely drown in the white noise during the day and I don’t usually hear it. But it’s the many nights as I lie in the darkness listening to its incessant humming, steady like a second heartbeat (or a flatline that runs parallel with it), that I have to come to term with its finality. It’s an irradicable systematic error that shifts the whole spectrum a few centimeters off the center, makes everything slightly off key if I really listen to it. Lately with all the allnighters and chain smoking I feel the noise is getting louder, and it’s only going to get worse as I age: the doctors I saw told me the higher frequencies would be the first to go, strings quartet will be a thing of past for me; and the band of silence will expand and encroach what’s left, as sure as the night coming. And, as the audible range narrows, the deviation caused by the humming will become more prominent, until it meets the widening silence somewhere on the spectrum and my world will consists but two sounds, the sound I cannot hear anymore and the sound that wouldn’t stop. I wonder what then will happen to all the pieces of music in which I wallow everyday now. Will they be, in a way, like relatives now passed away, high school classmates with whom I’ve lost contact, and others who probably wouldn’t acknowledge me even if they were sitting right next to me? People that populate a past life on a daily basis but now irreversibly gone. The memories of them will fade away, first their voices, then gradually their faces, finally their words and expressions, until they reached the baseline state of vague concepts in the cloudy memories. But the Concept of them, their Name, the knowledge of their being, once formed, can never be undone. Will I also then try to relive the pieces of music, motif by motif, in my long silent future days? At least with music I don’t have to wonder whether I would be haunting their memories like they still linger in mine. But maybe like spirit, music has a conscience too? In more whimsical moments I fancies that by obsessively listening to him I had made Shafran somehow aware of me, and when he plays his Chopin concerto with Gingsberg again, there will now be sentiment that is addressed only to me, hidden meanings that only I deciphered, or even, muted messages planted in it by me now forever there? At least the LPs I used to play, as they lie in the attic after I have no use of them anymore, will still faithfully bear some imprint of mine between their grooves, the scratches and stains I so carelessly left, in addition to grains of dust, accumulating like deposit of Alzheimer residues that eat away their existence a little bit more everyday. And Mahler will be like a girl who shared the same bus route to school with me, whom I remember from the many mornings when I sat two rows behind trying to guess her name or class year, someone whose beauty I admired and longed for but never did understand the least.

So this morning I circled back and listened to Kleiber’s Brahms No.4 again. Generally in the last few years I’ve been, maybe only subconsciously, avoiding it. Every time I listen to it, it feels like an relapsing addict going for a quick fix. Now I feel I’ve outlived the necessity to save things for later. I came to realize that in a little over 10 mins the first movement more or less summarizes my whole life, and the days yet to come, or at least so I hope. It opens with serenity and quickly blooms into such exuberance for which the only apt analogy is a happy childhood under the protecting veil of family. The woodwinds constantly reaffirm the marching of the strings, laying the ground, urging them on, but reigning them in just when they are about to run out of breath. In its spiral ascendance the opening theme is enriched by a second motif, gaining experience and depth, spreading, growing, aspiring for a pair of full-fledged wings. But we inevitably come to realize later on that the moment we saw the farest into the future we were already standing at the zenith of life. On solitary wings we could glide for a while, riding the wind of change to indefinite distance, but imperceivably we were losing altitude all the time. Thus comes a stretch where the mood turns pensive. The main theme persists, but its pace is laden with the weight of silence between the now sparse notes. The bright buoyancy of the opening moment is diluted, softened. Is this it? Like in more bleak moments of my current nebulous being I often wonder. But in music I can always count on the triumph notes to come, in the end of the chapter. In music you can always conjure up renewed strength, clarinets and cymbals. In music the Second Coming is not that far-fetched an idea.

But in life? Why do we dwell on things irreversibly lost to us? I often think of the scene in Six Feet Under where Nathaniel, having recently lost his infant son, stood at the seaside with his brother under the down-cast sky. His brother tried to console him and hint that maybe he was being too harsh on his wife by pushing her to try to get pregnant again right away. That was when he turned around, eyes burning with rage that was fueled by the hurting he did not know how to cope with, but his voice eerily calm and resolute, “Cause move the Fuck on, you know?”

Posted in Music | Leave a comment

D.E.

June. The time of the year for which there is no proper literature reference. I can not think of anyone who wrote anything convincingly about June. So I put my days on cruise control and set them adrift for a while, before I’m obliged to put both hands on the wheel and shift into a higher gear. I raced through the Campus Trilogy in a month, smiling thinly and nodding imperceivably along the way, but somehow it does not stir anything inside of me.

Somehow I started to listen to Oscar Peterson under broad daylight. Monday morning I stood outside the office building, lit a cigarette, put on the earphones, and drew a blank: nothing seemed to go with a morning that was already late and slimy due to oversleep and erratic rains. So I put the playlist on shuffle and hit play. A bass line came out, rather matter-of-factly, and then the keyboard joined, somewhat hesitantly, dwelled on a simple 4-bar motif for a while and then gingerly moved up and down around it. The drum was there, if you listen for it, but just hanging back and watching. But the soloist gradually asserted himself, strung along slightly varied sentences together like reciting a well-rhymed poem, kicked up mild felicity and held on to it, until he slid off the slowly-built momentum and twisted the long-wound sentence in the end ever so slightly and unexpectedly into an absolute delight. I took a big swing of the cup in secret excitement. It was decidedly a strange sensation, washing down a passage of improvisation on piano with coffee. I can’t help cracking a smile when I realized I was instinctively chewing the coffee as I daydreamed for a few seconds in the afterglow of that small dose of pleasant surprise. And it has been a while since I did something to amuse myself: like a dog salivates over a bell, I was performing this little routine subconsciously over a jazz beat. But of course it didn’t do anything, there are no different layers of flavors to be brought out. Ella Fitzgerald sang about “coffee that is perking”, and that’s probably all you can say about it. It occurred to me how blunt coffee really is, aromatic, yes, but it has but one taste and one act: shooting up your blood stream and hit the center of nerves directly. Of course there are roughly 102 different kinds of coffee you can order at a Starbuck, all with names coined in half-hearted Italian, but no matter how many gradients are added, once the coffee is drained into a cup it’s framed into one dimension, the taste may be complicated but it does not change anymore, except for getting cold. At that moment I pined for a shot of malted whisky, never mind it’s 9 o’clock in the morning: it’s more inappropriate to twirl hot coffee on your tongue trying to work something out of nothing.

Nevertheless, Oscar Peterson in the morning is the new-found frolics of my own. Unlike Bill Evans, who forever carried the necessary ambiguity and sadness of a wounded genius like a cross on his conscience, Peterson’s strokes are crispy and clean, something fitting for a morning, and the freshness and possibility contained in it, no matter how soiled the air already is. So I just loaded the 10-CD collection of his onto my iPad and stream it through my waking hours.

Posted in Music | Leave a comment

Res Gestae

It is always when I am totally underwater with multiple matters racing along parallel, equally impossible timelines that I find time to contemplate most intensely upon the (in)validity of my existence. To rise from the desk and go downstairs for a quick smoke is like sticking my head out to gasp for air, knowing the weight of emails that come crushing in during the five minutes I am away from the computer will drag me deeper down when the light burns out on the end of a cigarette. On a Friday morning last month I was standing outside the building lighting up the third cigarette with the butt end of the second, when I saw this guy across the street in spiffy suit and tie, with a mixed expression of despondency and arrogance to match. He was holding a venti Starbucks cup in his right hand, although it didn’t seem he drank from it, just a necessary prop to finish up the full get-up. At that moment I had a distinct epiphany of an Energized bunny carrying an extra set of battery just in case: any self-respected people pleaser has to be at least a little bit skittish? I put out the cigarette and hurried back upstairs. At the home stretch the faster you push things out of your plate the more inadequate you start to feel, the mounting comprehension that there has to be some sort of error that is now irreversibly out there, and catching one in the nick of time only confirms the suspicion more are buried somewhere.

Two weeks later yet another Friday morning, a banker, an accountant and me sat at the cafeteria in the hotel lobby, watching in silence the Chairman being ushered to the limo by an army of his managers, each of them trying hard to beeline to the door, an heroic effort given the debilitating hangover that must make each step as light as a walk on the moon and as heavy as taking a hammer to the knee. Among the three of us I was the only one who can still bare to drink coffee in small dosage, the two of them grimaced in pain each time they took a sip of their hot milk. At dinner the night before when someone stumbled towards me with murder in their eyes and “bottom up” on their lips, my trick was to say “let’s wait till you come to Beijing next time so we can sit down and have some heart-to-heart, just the two of us.” In an endless stream of indiscriminating toasting the promise of personal attention, however unfounded, gave most people sufficient an excuse to walk away, not before they wrapped their arms around my waist to break the fall but I found it a small price to pay. But with the few drunk and thus honest enough to confess there was no particular need or desire to ever see me again, the score had to be settled then and there.

Meanwhile the commotion in the lobby settled and the three of us continued to sit there waiting for departure to airport for our respective flight. Outside the gigantic window pane it was still drizzling, although somewhat hesitantly. It was as if after two days the clouds were now empty of rain, but the sun was running late so they had to improvise for the moment to hold the stage. Inside, the half cup of coffee sat quietly in a corner of the lobby, like a relic of dubious value tucked away in an immensely empty exhibition hall, but it was still a while before the time of my pickup. None of us said anything, or rather had anything more to say, as a feeling of finality gradually settled in: this was the closing that really would end it all. “Still raining in Beijing?” The banker inquired, without shifting his gaze into the distance. “Stopped this morning.” I said, on the off chance it was not a rhetoric question. “How about Shanghai then?” The auditor just smiled feebly and shaked his head. “It’s just me then. Have to be here for another week for another deal.” At the moment the rain picked up and the light grew dimmer outside, and the banker was now looking into the ghostly reflection of himself in the window pane. “6/30 is coming up for me.” Then as usual nobody quite knew how to safely respond after an auditor made an announcement. So we resumed sipping our respective beverage, now cold and tasteless.

Posted in Legally Insane | Leave a comment

“All Concerned were nearer thus”

Rilke is often ridiculed for leading a less than “honorable” life. There is probably no worse stigma than “social climbing” that a critic can slap on a poet, who was supposed to aspire to the noble status of an “unacknowledged legislator of the world.” But to rise above the fodders of the days was his mandate, it’s a testament of his prophecy, not a blemish. How much would he have to struggle on a daily basis, to fight off the memories of shadow dealings he had to commit just to stay alive through his dry spells, to wait for a calling he was never sure would come until it did?

But after two months of Rilke, accumulated in the Elegies, I found myself going back to Larkin for a dose of, sanity,  or maybe just comfort? Rereading the lines I highlighted before, and coming upon lines I missed, I found in the bleak picture of life he painted a different kind of courage: under skin, quiet, and most importantly, comforting. When I was lifted for a moment by Rilke’s gusto, I nonetheless could not embrace the freedom in the fresh air wholeheartedly: I could not just enjoy the unhindered view expanding in front of me, in the back of my mind there always lurked the worry how much it would hurt when I finally come down on a crash landing. I’m too jaded to believe otherwise. Or maybe I have simply aged to a point where a sustained rush of blood to the head is just not healthy anymore. Larkin, on the other hand, nurtures me. His flash of genius might be dimmer, but it’s also closer, right here in the gutter where I skulk. In the darkness I can see where his light is flickering, I know it’s a place he has been, it is safe over there, I can head in that direction.

Larkin’s power lies in a great deal in his ability to state the obvious and made them into poetry. The disillusion of childhood dream is a theme he comes back to repeatedly. “This is the future furthest childhood saw… An air lambent with adult enterprise” but “it has not done so then, and could not now”, so “only a numbness registered the shock, Of finding out how much had gone of life”. Quoting these lines out of context does not do him justice, as standing alone they sound colloquial, almost cliché.  In his poems, he surrounds these lines with convincing presentations of mosaics of a disappointed life, almost always a snap shot of a particular mundane moment, when his flight took off the ground, when he went apartment hunting, or when a woman saw a collection of her old LP in the attic. He was the master of what Eminem claimed in his song,  i.e. to “seize the moment, try to freeze it and own it, squeeze it and hold it.”  Speaking of Eminem, it’s funny how certain Larkin lines remind me of punch lines of some of my favorite stand-up comedians:

“Oh, no one can deny
That Arnold is less selfish than I.
He married a woman to stop her getting away
Now she’s there all day,”

is enough to bring a smile to any man’s eyes. And I remember thinking of C.K. Louie saying, “When I just got married, I thought to myself, ‘shit, I can’t leave now.’ Then I had a child and I was thinking to myself, ‘shit, I could have left!’” And “Going, Going” would be a perfect footnote to the great late George Carlin‘s line: “Plastic, assholes!” Being a bachelor his whole life, Larkin also spent visible efforts to defend his life choice.

“how
Convinced he was he should be added to!
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution. Where do these
Innate assumptions come from?”

 This again, is not what we usually call “poetic language”, rather, it reads like a direct appeal, a cry of “no fair!” by a deeply wronged soul. But the defiance itself is what’s touching, its futility adds to its power. While Rilke tries painstakingly not to betray any trace of the sordid paths he had to wade through to get to the point high enough where he can finally make his leap of faith, Larkin lays bare on his sleeve every pain that tugs his soul, repeatedly, when he took a walk in the park, when his train ran through the country side, when he visited a deserted church.

It’s probably true that while Rilke makes you feel a part of the collective soul reaching for the star, Larkin makes you aware of your own efforts to hold up the boundary that defines and shapes the “I”, in the sea of gray that threatens to wash away any color of individuality. Larkin warns, “The endless altered people came, Washing at their identity.” When I was reading Rilke I thought Rilke is apparently at a totally different level of greatness than Larkin: Rilke speaks on behalf of the whole human being, the best we can aspire to be, essentially a literature connotation to Nietzsche’s Overman; Larkin, on the other hand, writes primarily for Larkin, a British librarian at an old private college, an almost too-obvious profile of an English poet. On rereading Larkin I found this initial assessment  to be lazy, and presumptuous. Larkin does speak for all, and when I read him a mix of sympathy and comfort arises in me, and I find myself saying not “this is Ours” but “this is mine too.” In a particularly lucid poem, he declared,

“While other people wore like clothes
The human beings in their days
I set myself to bring to those
Who thought I could the lost displays;
It didn’t work for them or me,
But all concerned were nearer thus
(Or so we thought) to all the fuss
Than if we’d missed it separately.”

This is nothing short of a proclaim of a destiny, but there is no hyperboles, no highly-wrung rhetoric, just a “private pledge”, a toast, preceded by a detailed description of how he prepared the said drink himself. But it is so true that the invisibles (e.g. yours truly) are concerned about the same fuss separately, when I read,

“It used to make me throw up,
          These mawkish nursery games:
O when will England grow up?”

It sends an electric current of warmth through my spine: it echoes all the disappointments and exasperation I have been feeling towards my own country since my return, and it makes me realize that, despite all these I still love it and am waiting patiently for it to “grow up”, if not for me, for my children.

Of course he would not be the poet he is if he simply just said what everyone wants to say but can’t. When the occasion calls for it, Larkin displays his mastery of the English language in no ambiguous terms. In the poem about his visit to an old schoolmate’s empty apartment in his hometown, he delivered an uncanny combination of emotion and imagery with a mere four words: “A known bell chimes.” On a highland morning following a girl’s wedding night: “All is the wind/Hunting through clouds and forests, thrashing/My apron and the hanging cloths on the line.” About Here, he observed: “Loneliness clarifies. Here silence stands/Like heat.”And in here above the sea on “the yet more shoreless day”,  a “cut-price crowd” lives in a “married village”. And there is of course “All the unhurried day/Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.”

Posted in Books | Leave a comment

“We can go this far. This is Ours.”

(I)

So I finally read “Duino Elegies”, in one sitting, on the tail end of the long holiday, a sunny afternoon in a random cafeteria.  I have been reading Rilke for nearly two months now, on and off, reading different versions of translation, critics on him and on the translations, and tidbits  of his life stories, mostly told in a rather unflattering light, but l’d been saving the Elegies for the last, patiently working my way up to the climax, sort of like Rilke himself waiting for the Elegies to come to him in his wandering years.  Waiting, in silent repose.

I remember, as I sat there over a cup of Americano gone cold, of having this distinct sensation that rather than progressing briskly through the pages, I was sitting still, completely opening myself up and let the poem gush through me, washing away years of dust and crust, and when the bare core breathed the wintry air, I felt a shiver.  A friend of mine said once that when he came to the last line of the Apollo poem for the first time, he had almost a physical reaction to it. Now I can attest to that power of Rilke’s, the power of delivering words with such intensity and directness he transformed them in something almost concrete, physical. The sensation (I don’t know if there is another less dubious word for it), more than its intensity, was surprising because of its sustainability. It’s as if your heart was all of a sudden lifted in mid-air by a big wave, and you got a glimpse of the horizon in the distance and for a moment felt the breeze on your face, the freshness and chilliness that only belong to a higher altitude, and then instead of coming down naturally with a crush you were carried higher and further away by another wave, an “uproar”. On and on it kept going, and finally when it came to the quiet proclamation: “We can go this far, this is ours…” I lifted my eyes for a moment because I felt my heart had soared to an altitude where the air was so thin, it beat like a drum but was still not drawing in enough air. I thought I’d be instantly safe again falling back into reality, but strangely what’s around me seemed so distant, so unreal. The chatter around me sounded indistinct, muted and remote, as if from the surface of the water. And the afternoon seemed empty of all meanings, people moving around in it as if floating in a timeless pit carved out from space.  The reality, being there, being real, was pale in comparison. So I plunged back in, and turned the page, and realized I was only one fifth through the journey.

Later that afternoon I walked around in the shopping area as if possessed. I was not even thinking about the Elegies anymore, just bathed in the warmth of its afterglow. I had this strange sensation (again) that my senses were augmented a hundred folds, and time had slowed down to a crawl, a second was a minute long, so I could take in and examine every single detail around me: in that moment, I finally understood, became, a person on whom “nothing is lost”. I saw an unperceivable smile flickered across a girl’s face as she passed by, looking into the distance, apparently suddenly thought of something mildly funny. I saw a man across the street smoking while examining a stem of rose he was holding in his hand, hesitantly, as if trying to decide if it’s made of silk or plastic. I saw cars inched along the single lane and I saw the invisible faces inside frowning slightly. And I saw every light on the street, behind the windows, in people’s hands, light, in all their shapes and colors, flowing into the air and mixing into a winter night intimately lit.

(II)

And lights came on. Along the street there were young men and women selling roses, their faces growing faintly red from the cold, like a scene from a movie loosely based on a Dickens novel. It occurred to me that it was February the 14th. This being a hub for bars and restaurants of the city, the street lights were doing their best for the occasion. The trees that sandwich the sidewalk were each wrapped up by decorative lights, so meticulously going up and down the trunks and branches to preserve their individual shape and stance, and underneath them the young vendors looked angelic, with roses and smiles both of which I wanted to believe were genuine.

It was then the curious wintry hour when it was completely dark but still a bit early for dinner, so I walked into a Page One store. On the promotional desk near the entrance I saw a new edition of “On the Road”, on the sleeve it says “NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE”. I pondered over this a bit. I understood that yet another book was made into a movie, but who made the call of it being major? Given my meager literature talent, maybe one day I’ll finally write a book that says “NOW A B-MOVIE”. And really that is what separates us, the magnitude. And the sensation of being wrapped in a protecting veil, if it can be called that, eventually started to wear off as I moved around the mountains of obscure books. So I stepped out into the street again, I sensed time flowing at a normal speed again, and I heard the the clatter at its due decibels. In the festively-lit street I felt the imminent darkness expanding inside of me as the ember died down. I knew it would hit me, and I was just grateful it lasted this long. Yes, I had gone this far, from the coffee shop to the book store, a whole three blocks of blissful half-awareness, and internally, a light year. In this late afternoon/early evening of winter, I had made a giant leap into the air, and after I gradually came down by gravity, my existence had already been expanded by an amazing extent. I sensed the distance, I Knew. Isn’t “not knowing” the major bane of existence? “I don’t know my destination,” Tennessee Williams said, “but I’m trying to follow the right direction. I’m more faithful than I intended to be.” Like fireflies we dash in total darkness, but every now and then, when we mustered enough warmth and there comes a sparkle, being a song, a poem or a pretty face, we light up from inside and for a short moment we ourselves become a source of illumination, people around us see it, or not, but it attests the moments we experience of our beings. Even after the light burns out, for a while the trace of light path lingers,  evidencing the short distance of past where we came from. Then we turn around and brace the cloaking darkness again, trying to continue on the direction the best we can. Along the way we chance upon other sources of light, for the whole last month I saw Larkin flickering alongside of me like a will-o’-the-wisp, “an indigestible sterility”. It’s beautiful in its own way, eerie, ethereal, giving me the comforting thoughts that I am not the only one heading in that direction. But too many, too many, I’ve seen too many of these phosphorescent lights they start to creep me out. Everywhere you look there they are, Raymond Carver, Charlie Kaufman, Paris Review, New Yorker, I begin to feel I’m flying in a vast cemetery among insatiable ghosts.  And of course there are Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, and even Emily Dickinson, who like aurora hanging at the far end of the boundless pit, far and away from the maddening crowd. Their lights are grand and strong, blue and green and ever shifting; but they are also cold and distant, the closest thing to the terrible angels Rilke envisioned: even though they forever beckon you near like sirens, you know going that direction is terminal. They are departed prophets, whose voices still remained with the human race they have already abandoned. Your own existence screams “away, away” as you fight the innate urge to turn your head for another fatal look.

But suddenly there is the Elegies, a bonfire that burns unyielding in the distance, just the sight of it promises unbounded warmth. You look at the faint light you harbor inside yourself and wonder who it is so: that kind of intensity and sustainability has to be divine.  But he promises, “We can go this far. This is Ours.” Even when he talks about our failure, his voice is filled with bravery:

“We are not in harmony, our blood does not forewarn us
like migratory birds’. Late, overtaken,
we force ourselves abruptly onto the wind
and fall to earth at some iced-over lake.”

This aimless flight in the darkness, felt forced upon us all along, is out of our own volition after all. In the end, we still might not have a choice, but it is because we have to force ourselves onto the wind, not because we have to negotiate the wind whichever way it blows since we are already in it. What is our real nature? When Larkin ruefully states “those [spring] has least use for see her best”, Rilke claims “Yes—the springtimes needed you.” When Larkin looks out from the shore and sees a “proud unfruitful sea”, Rilke see “a wave rolled toward you out of the distant past.” In the end, I might take my dwelling in this endless darkness besides Larkin, but I would rest with the thoughts that somewhere down the line, it’s time for “this most ancient of sufferings finally grow more fruitful for us.”

Posted in Books | Leave a comment

On the road

So I had a two-week vacation, during which I spent three days in 阳朔, and twice as much time afterwards in my apartment in front of the prison-size window processing the reminiscence of the trip: pictures, videos, and random moments on the road. I took the book on Rilke translation with me but never bothered to open it. For two days I just spent the afternoons sitting in a cafe playing crossword puzzles. Playing crossword puzzles while listening to the song “不要怕” by 瓦其依合 over and over again. It’s a relatively simple song, the singer basically just repeatedly preaches “don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid don’t…” But it brought a kind of warmth on so many levels that I couldn’t quite understand it. I guess it’s comforting and relaxing to be simply lulled into, if not a momentary tabula rasa at least a blissful stupor, in that tuck-away corner shrouded by mountains and January rain. It rained continuously the three days my colleague and I were there. We sat in the drizzling at length, chain smoking, on the rooftop over coffee in the afternoon and on the patio by the river with beer at night. In the afternoon we would not talk much. I sat there watching the steam of the coffee rising and uncoiling, releasing itself into the gray mountain hours, and mused over how quickly the coffee was turning cold.  At night the patio was unlit, but out on the river there were muted gas lights on the tugboats, and their unsure reflections into the water. The chatter of the fishermen, when it reached us every now and then, was muffled by the sound of rain that hit the wooden floor, the beer glass, and our puffed winter clothes. And the darkness was complete, the only thing visible was the tip of his cigaratte, breathing in and out of the rain-drenched air as he took another draw. We of course talked about work. I mentioned how I was “in the zone” the many nights when I rode adrenaline rushes into the wee hours, only to wonder, as soon as I stepped out into the dawn, that it might not even be the right zone, so to speak.  It was of course nothing but cheap sentiment in that context. I remember what Emerson said on the “superstition” of traveling:

“In manly hours, we feel that duty is our place. The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet…

 Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.”

This is no doubt a perspective worth pondering upon but for the moment maybe a little too sober for my taste. I’m not sure I’m trying to flee from myself when I go on a trip; rather,  when I travel, especially when traveling alone, which, unfortunately I just don’t do anymore, I always feel this peculiar self-awareness that is enhanced but at the same time self-obliterating.  When I went on a bike ride alone in the remote countryside the afternoon we first arrived,  I had a strange sensation that I could see myself through the mind’s eye, from the point of view of an uninterested bystander. All the knowledge that made me know me as me was stripped away, the vague existence of “I” was hovering in mid air, watching this mid-age guy struggling on a rusty bike on a rather gentle slope, around him was an expanding emptiness filled with towering mountains, deserted rice fields and vast silence. Except the heavy panting and the wind.  Or when I took a raft the next day drifting along an otherwise deserted river, I could sense every fiber of my being exhaling and at the same time feel it being dissolved by the immensely pleasant sensation of gliding along a wintery river, beautiful and receiving, lonely but serene. The feeling of happiness flowed so steadily through me, and was amazingly sustainable, it washed away any other reality of my being for that brief an hour and half.

 

Posted in Travel | 1 Comment