Friday, October 8, 2010

Greetings from "Asbury" Mark

As I mentioned to you in my post on Wednesday, we will be having guest contributors to the blog going forward. One of those guest contributors will be giving you a column every Friday (or at least that's how we have it planned). This contributor is the one and only Mark Jack, formerly of Forest City, Boogie Boarder and the Huxtables fame. So, I will stand aside and let Mr. Jack take center stage:

Lydia Davis Eyes

Mark Richard Jack

Just as an introduction, I’ve always considered myself more of a metonymic kinda guy, but well, sometimes...

Or maybe sometimes..

Now that we have gotten that out of the way, let's move on.

It’s been cloudy like it normally is a month from now. It’s been cloudy but you can still see the planes. The big passenger jets are low flying enough over this flight mad city and the clouds high floating enough that the two just coincide at the fringes of each; and one can see the dual clouds of jet passing as either newly created by a plane (undisturbed) or as the marker of the plane’s cloud disturbance. Regardless, one day as I was walking, I noticed these twin streams were far less perfectly parallel than I had previously, and distantly, thought, and were particularly so given the seeming stability of the clean-cut shape of the plane that preceded them. The thin twin clouds looked like the tracks of a drunk trying heroically to maintain balance, yet the plane was as steady as my over-sober mother. I sat back and resisted the urge to find a metaphor, which is (the resisting, that is) too much like some mental flirtation that is both exciting and obnoxious.

Well, I resisted then, but later that day I was surrounded by news of and opinions on Lydia Davis. I  found myself once more struggling against a sense of metaphoric wonder and again trying to (not) find some metaphor. Honestly, there isn’t one to be had at all in this instance, but what is this drive we all seem to have to greater and lesser degrees to find meaning in the little happenstances of our lives or our books? I am referring less to grandiose statements or poor teleology but to the ability, for instance, of an author like Lydia Davis to write something like:

“Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging”
   -- "Idea for a Short Documentary Film"

That is the entirety of a story, or (I don’t know) piece, by Lydia Davis. It’s just one sentence. The large fonted title takes up the majority of space on the page and yet everything we are confronted with in the "story" itself seems to explode with possible meaning...maybe. Much of Davis’s work seems to rely on the reader's desire to read beyond the page, but much of her work is also just a little too strange to allow an easy leap of interpretation from the mark she leaves there. Here’s another sweet short piece:

“Oh, poor Dad. I’m sorry I made fun of you. Now I’m spelling Nietszche wrong, too.”

There is so much more here than on the page concretely, but what is it? I don’t think of Davis’s short pieces as poems but rather as truncated prose. She is wittier, maybe, just suggesting a (dis)continuity between her prose and a set of received assumptions than she could ever be if she actually intoned them both together. What we should question is not her intention - which is dangerous and can lead to our forgetting the words written and lead us to some ill-conceived pondering of whole chapters we’ve supposed the words are pointing to, though not to themselves - and instead we should confront our desire to read the world around us like Puritans operating some strange machine of circuitous understanding in which signs were imbedded everywhere as to God’s pleasure/displeasure; a means of navigating the world that we are integral in creating (e.g. crop health).

Why this strange mental leaping about?

The structuralist thinker Roman Jakobson defines metonymy and metaphor, in his piece, Two Aspects of Language, as separate tropes but quickly gets bogged down in their almost fundamental inseparability, writing, I think suggestively, “manipulating these two kinds of connection . . . an individual exhibits his personal style, his verbal predilections and preferences.” I see this point as describing a perpetual confluence or intermingling of the two tropes, which causes me to ask again, though without hope of answer, almost but not quite rhetorically, why are we eager to see a work such as that often created by Lydia Davis, a work which in its brevity and grammatically appropriate - yet still adventurous - language  as necessarily pointing to that which it is not necessarily pointing? Why is there a habit to read the world as metaphor instead of using a metaphor to help us read the world? And what place does contiguous metonymy have in a world not here but there?

For instance:

In the last five years, progressing over the last five years, I have been concerned with a number of things. The number of things has progressed, though not in quantity, in quality. Tree branches as metaphor is one of a number of things. How is this possibly a good way of illustrating thought, and when do we create a metaphor out of thought to foster understanding of tree branches? Anyway, Lydia Davis recently translated Madame Bovary. That is why I encountered her on the radio. Also, in the last year or so, a nice peach/pink-ish hued hardcover collection of her stories was published and I’ve seen it around more than I ever saw her smaller collections, her uncollected collections. I have one of the latter, so I can only speak for that book. It’s called Varieties of Disturbance and it is beautiful writing. My only advice regarding it and somehow, then, also regarding life - as if I’m in anyway qualified to give any advice whatsoever, let alone life advice - is to read and reside in the language itself and if you feel transported by the language, do not attempt to transport yourself somewhere specific less you risk leaving the work altogether. ‘Cause if that happens then ya might as well stare at low flying planes and high-ish-ly floating clouds and think to yourself—keep it to yourself—metaphors of coherence that can only lead to an almost arrogant befuddlement. I think Davis wants us to point our brains away from the words but not away from the language, and not, in pointing, stray away from the work.

Thank you to those who have been curious enough to follow me to this point and I’m sorry.

As for myself, as for describing my self . . . well . . . more to come.

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