Back to the world of things – like, actual things – I’ve been invited to read at Maisonneuve Magazine’s 10th anniversary party. I like this magazine a lot, and it’s pretty cool that I’ll be reading with people like Kathleen Winter, Jacob Wren, and Melissa Bull. I don’t know what I’m going to read yet – probably something from my collection of short stories, though if I’m feeling ballsy maybe I’ll pick something from the novel. The widdle baby novel. Nope, probably not. Anyway, come!
There’s a line somewhere in The Corrections where a character, an older man losing control of his abilities, thinks to himself that he will “require some cooperation from the world of objects.” This line has been ringing in my head ever since, partly because I feel that way myself and partly because I spend a lot of time thinking about the materiality of writing. Like, if words are things, if they have weight. I don’t mean weight figuratively, or in the sense of the weight of the ink on the paper or the screen. If I write the word “table” it’s not the same as an actual table. But I think it’s more than a representation of a table, or the suggestion of a table.
My people have some things to say about the materiality of words – according to mystic Judaism, god created the entire world from the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This is the kind of idea that gives writers a boner, but it’s not just a metaphor, I think. Or it is a metaphor, if we assume that metaphors imply actual transformation and not just symbolic. So when Michael Ondaatje says “My father’s body was a town of fear” he doesn’t mean “My father’s body is like/similar to a town of fear” but actually for real my father’s body is a town of fear. What are we meant to do with that information? Can we envision a body that’s also a town? Maybe not with our visual imagination, but maybe with our literary imagination. This is another sense, a sixth or seventh or whatever you want – the sense that allows us to perceive metaphor.
Words are to an extent just recollections of things, but they are also those things themselves, in the sense that they call things into existence rather than suggest them. I can’t put a book on a written table, but then again – I just did. I put a book on the table. In your head, that’s what I just did. This is the same mode in which the world is actually created out of letters. Of course, in the Franzen quote, the world of things is distinct from the world of letters – it’s an unwieldy world, resistant, unfriendly, ultimately uncooperative. But also a world that seems to have its own will.
Sumerian cuneiform writing was done with pointed reeds in soft clay. The words were negative space – they held shadows instead of casting them. I like this. I wonder what it would mean to write this way. But ancient Sumerian was pictographic – according to the internet, it was easy to talk about a fish or a broom, but more difficult to describe abstract concepts ‘like liberty or justice.’ It’s almost like the negative space of the pictographs fits around the positive space of the world of things. But for a writing that deals with abstraction, we need positive-space letters – black on white, foregrounded.
Also it’s come to my attention that I need more gifs on this blog.
I had a conversation with my father once about what his life as a painter was like, and he said he could never truly be an artist because he has a family. The idea being that art requires a true sacrifice, “often of sanity,” as he put it. I wanted to call bullshit on him, not just because I’m implicated. The idea of the ivory tower artist, of Jackson Pollock or Van Gogh vibing out on colour in his studio while his life falls to pieces outside, is pretty stale these days (also pretty sexist if you consider its history of valuing works by “intense” “genius” dudes, who were supported mainly by women). But I feel like I can’t dismiss this idea of worldly rejection the way I once did. I don’t deny that artists live in the world, and need it – “he fits himself to the paint”- but at what point does the world – the worldly world – become the only domain in which you exist?
I write this at a period in my life where I am considering what it would mean to relinquish “the world” in order to be a writer. I find myself preoccupied with things that feel at the moment like schoolyard concerns – love, relationships, self-worth, jealousy, getting laid. Of course, these are the very concerns of literature. I think, in fact, that the original jacket copy of Anna Karenina read “A Tale of Love, Relationships, Self-Worth, Jealousy, and Getting Laid.” I wonder if perhaps I have enough of this raw material – what I called at another point attar – to sustain another fifty years of writing without having to engage in any more of it.