Thursday, March 3, 2011

Immortal For Quite Some Time and A Reasonable Dictionary: Avoidance as Anti-Teleology?

A thoughtful email today from college roommate and friend Chuck Hamaker that points out a pattern in a couple of things I've written:


I just read your piece on your brother John from "Immortal For Quite Some Time," the one posted in BEPRESS as "Our Feet Are the Same"[]. I was struck by how similar what you wrote then was to what you wrote when you reported on your and Zarko's trip with Peter Handke [] -- the full account is here under the title "A Reasonable Dictionary": [].

In both instances, though it seemed you started with a goal of uncovering something about your subject, you consistently chose not to pursue the person of interest, through declining to meet or even to talk with anyone who actually knew them. You were an accidental tourist in an intentional location.

The places you go give a structure but the content is hardly circumstantial and hardly even tangential to the ostensible subject. I don't know if that's truly what happened or what you invented, it doesn't matter.

I am struck by the similarity of the modus operandi and the extreme "staying away" from the supposed subjects of your attention.

You mention in the Handke piece that you're worried about being a sycophant. I think it's something else, but not that.

In the piece supposedly on John, but not about him in reality, you encounter and interact with people, seem to stumble through, stay out of the way or don't really look, i.e. do not intentionally interact with anyone who really might have had some history of him. Ditto for Handke.

Anyway, for what its worth.


It's worth a lot Chuck, especially now that you connect the two and give me a chance to think about the similarities and the reasons. Let me add a couple of lines from the opening section of Immortal For Quite Some Time that was published last week in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought:

I look back at “Autopsy,” at my first attempt to tell this story. When I described the visit to the T&A Café I said that “we” went in, that “we” spoke with the owner. But the truth is: I remained in the car while Christy and Mom went inside. I didn’t want to talk with anyone about John. I didn’t want to talk period. Still, I wrote “we” and reported what my mother and sister told me. Caveat lector.

And here are some of the lines I think you were referring to:

11 p.m. Sitting in my motel room, I decide not to call, not to try to talk with Van. It’s a feeling that grew in me while I ate dinner. It became a conscious thought just minutes ago.
Van’s accounts would divert me from the faint traces I’m following. Life moves on. The immutably described, the absolutely defined is fixed like the butterflies I pinned to felt in a cigar box, wrong even when it’s right.

As you suggest, my reason for writing has mostly to do with a wish to understand myself in order to figure out how to live a decent and productive life. While I would like to know my brother in ways his early death made impossible, and while traveling with Peter Handke was memorable in part because of who he is, I have been using those trips, those investigations as a kind of scaffolding for my own discoveries. I'm the kind of detective who will never solve the crime because the facts of the crime remind him of other things.

Which gets me to the anti-teleology of the title of this post. In my experience, it is the people who claim to know the most who know the least. And claiming to know the most often has to do with claiming to know the pattern of history, to know how things will end. As I see it, our understanding is so full of holes that our only hope for understanding is to have a sense for how little we understand. Thus my distaste for straightforward biography.

No new thought that. It's been around since the pre-Socratics in many forms, some of my favorites in the German Romantics' penchant for fragments in lieu of systematic thought, and more recently in the work of Brian Evenson (Evenson’s recent story “Knowledge,” by the way, is a description of “precisely why I have still not written my detective novel”: “attempts to substitute another way of thinking about knowledge always end up derailing the genre").  But it guides me in a lot of ways, at least one of which you've discovered here.

The sketch is one I made of the statue "Victoire de Samothrace" in the Louvre. Looking at the support structures that keep it standing despite its frailty, I was struck by how this perfect and powerful statue is subject to entropy like everything we create. Our thoughts and our works are contingent and ephemeral. And that's to be celebrated, not papered over with lies.

thanks, my friend.


michael morrow said...

if it's of any consolation, scott...your writing gets more and more accessible for me with time...especially when your buddies chime in.....thank you all for bare naked honesty...

cahamake said...

I don't know if you are still picking them up, but in some ways the texts suggest the found objects you used to have in your office.
Chuck Hamaker

Scott Abbott said...

That's how I see these fragments as well, as found objects -- with which my office is still full.

"Those who want to approach their own buried pasts must . . . not be afraid to return again and again to the same facts; to strew them about as one strews earth, to root around in them as one roots around in earth. . . . Broken loose from all earlier associations, the images stand as precious objects in . . . our later insight." (Walter Benjamin)