I borrowed this book from my friend Erin. She read it when we were still co-workers and as she read it she’d underline passages or draw shapes in the margins and take pictures of the passages she liked and send them to me in text messages. The first text had a picture of the first page of the book and she said I’d probably like to read this book because the first paragraph mentions weird sex and Wittgenstein. I’d made it clear to her these were among my interests.
So in the copy of the book that I read were many asterisks, check-marks, and smiley-faces. I don’t have a fully satisfactory model of what features in the text predict which of the shapes. I think smiley faces are for passages that are funny or charming. Asterisks and check-marks belong to more serious passages that I assume are more personally resonant. I can’t discern a systematic difference in the text corresponding to each of these symbols. Maybe sometimes she felt like asterisks and sometimes she felt like check-marks and just sampled randomly from the two. Maybe the passages that would have provided the crucial data for understanding her generative model were left unmarked because she read it when she was on the train and she’d left her pen at work, introducing bias. I’d rather have a little bit of noisy data than a lot of biased data, my PhD advisor once said. Hell I’m the same way. Anyway I liked the check-marks because it made it seem like Erin had graded the book and Maggie Nelson got a very high score.
This year I intend to read Ulysses. But you have to do things in the right order. I read the Odyssey a long time ago, in high school. I’m pretty sure I stole a copy from the library and read it in the woods by our house so that I could dip or smoke and because there was just a certain romance about reading in the woods. Sometimes I’d read it in the woods above my grandma’s house and I’d see her come out on the porch and walk around. I know the dogs were barking out behind her house but I don’t remember what their barks sounded like, probably because it’s too painful to allow my consciousness anywhere near it. Anyway I don’t remember much beyond the basic images of the story that have in any case become sort of part of the cultural common ground. John Francis told me one time while we were in college that he planned to make the bed that he and his future wife slept in with his own two hands, in homage to Odysseus. He seemed to believe at the time that it’d be egregious corner-cutting to not make your own bed like that. As far as I know he didn’t do that but I appreciate how simultaneously neurotic and romantic the idea is. I also remember a painting in our 9th-grade literature textbook, “Ulysses and the Sirens”. Odysseus has his guys cover their ears somehow, so they can’t hear the sirens’ song. He instructs them to tie him to the mast so he’ll be able to hear the song but unable to re-direct the ship.
I started reading Portrait of the Artist when I was living in Germany but didn’t make it very far in the book because I was distracted. I also knew it was one of these books–and that James Joyce was one of these authors–that people who describe themselves as writers are into. There was even a guy, another American, I used to see everywhere during that period of time who said he wanted to be a writer and I was dimly suspicious that he was probably enthusiastic about this book. I’m almost certain his name was James. But I used to see him in the languages building at Tuebingen in what I imagined was completely affected contemplation, writing in a little notebook. I also saw him drinking with some people in the student bar and he was, I believed, very obviously trying to get this Polish girl drunk. At the time I felt indignant about this but I’ve done worse, later. And in retrospect I knew nothing at all about this person. Maybe he knew the Polish girl really well and they’re still great friends. In other words pretty much everything I hated about this guy was actually some characteristic present in me to some degree. In any case he was wearing a blazer nearly every time I saw him. So that was distracting and I think I gave the book away when I moved back to the US, unread.
Anyway I’ve been to therapy and had a lot of painful encounters with people and now I try not to let these projected nightmares stop me from reading books or doing other things I might enjoy. I liked Dubliners, even if I eventually got tired of referring to the endnotes to decode the numerous allusions to statues and streets in Dublin, obscure Roman Catholic holidays, Irish expressions, as well as the impressively rich variety of euphemisms and slang for drinking and extra-marital sex. There’s one story in particular about two boys who cut class one day and go on an adventure, out beyond the edge of the city, where they play some make-believe game in a pasture. They encounter an old man who engages in some vaguely specified and presumably lewd act. He scares the kids but they pretend not to be scared, they pretend to play until they’re a safe distance away, then run. I think they’re not really sure what the man did. I think I felt that way a few times as a kid. I wasn’t sure what people were doing, but I knew it was weird. I didn’t want them to know I was scared. I didn’t want anyone to know I was scared.
There were no dogs in this book.
Bash, like milk, is something that can become dangerous if you ignore it for too long. Put together the pieces, keep the chaos away.