When novelist Karen Olsson was in high school in Washington, D.C., she checked The Simone Weil Reader out of the library and became obsessed by the French iconic thinker and activist. Later, after studying higher mathematics at Harvard and going on to become a writer, Olsson still found herself enthralled with the thoughts, ideas, and life of Simone Weil, as well as her older brother, André. In her third book, The Weil Conjectures, Olsson weaves together her fascination with the famous siblings and how her undergraduate studies in math eventually gave way to her own writing life. For math-minded and non-math-minded readers alike, Olsson presents a compelling series of questions about the brilliant siblings, and how math can shape and inspire one’s life.
Olsson—author of Waterloo (2005) and All the Houses (2015)—also has worked as a journalist and editor; her long-form articles have been published in The New York Times Magazine and Texas Monthly, and she is a former editor of The Texas Observer. Not surprisingly, Olsson’s journalistic curiosity melds perfectly with her novelistic precision for detail and language in this genre-defying book. Reminiscent of Jenny Offil’s The Department of Speculation, The Weil Conjectures offers a thought provoking portrait-in-pieces of what it means to be a writer and tell stories.
The Millions talked with Olsson via email about her preoccupation with the Weil siblings, mathematics, and the daily struggles at the desk.
The Millions: What drew you to write about André and Simone Weil?
Karen Olsson: I was fascinated by Simone Weil in high school: I was interested in the lives of brainy women, and here was this exotic, brilliant French intellectual in wire-rimmed glasses who could never really be a role model for a 1980s teenager in Washington, D.C.—yet I still found her inspiring in her integrity and purity. It was later that I realized her brother was a mathematician, another remarkable mind. Just the existence of these genius siblings is compelling in itself, but because one was a female public intellectual and one was a mathematician, they embody fascinations I had when I was younger, ones I could revisit through them.
TM: In reading and writing about Simone Weil for this book, did you gain further insight into your attraction to Simone—and her ideas and what she represented—when you were a teenager and first read The Simone Weil Reader?
KO: My early interest in Simone Weil was relatively superficial—I paid less attention to her work than to her biography. I was drawn to the figure of Simone Weil, to the saintly ghost of Simone Weil, who represented something like absolute attention, a pure life of the mind all but divorced from the body. So when I went back and read more about her and more of her writing, I didn’t see my youthful interest differently; I saw her differently. In particular, I saw how influenced she was by her brother the mathematician, how math informs her thinking. She also seems more eccentric, more self-punishing—it’s tempting to see her as crazy, because some of what she did seems nuts, but then again that seems to me a shortcut, avoiding the difficulty she presents. At times she’s been portrayed as crazy or as a kind of saint because she was living in a different register than the rest of us do. To the extent that her way of living demanded more discipline, more attention and engagement than most of us are in the habit of, we could all take a cue from her. But some of her ideas were quite extreme.
TM: How old were you when you discovered that you had “a head for numbers?” Did numbers and language always intermingle for you? Or was it only after college that you begin to understand the intersections?
KO: I wasn’t exceptionally talented in math, but I always liked it, and in junior high—we did a lot of rudimentary geometry in seventh grade and algebra in eighth grade—I realized that it came quickly to me. As the math on offer started to get more abstract, I started to like it more. Meanwhile I had a few teachers who commended my writing or told me I was a writer, and I took their word for it. Sometimes I wonder what would’ve happened if the praise had been more directed to my math side—I think I was pretty susceptible to that kind of encouragement.
TM: How was the writing of this book different from your first two novels (Waterloo and All the Houses)?
KO: I had more fun writing this book than writing a novel. I loved reading and thinking about math after so many years away, and I loved not having to tend to all the narrative machinery of a novel. There’s a way in which a novelist is a kind of beleaguered manager who has to deal with dissatisfied subordinates and equipment that’s not working and low inventory. This book gave me fewer headaches.
TM: Could you talk about the structure of The Weil Conjectures? Was it difficult to determine how the sections would answer each other? Or did it flow in an organic sort of a way as you began to write and revise the narrative?
KO: Because I wrote the book in fragments, and because I wanted to braid together certain subjects and themes, the structure arose naturally as I went along. Once I had a draft I started shifting pieces around, but the book didn’t change radically from one draft to the next.
TM: How do writing and mathematics inform each other in your own creative process now?
KO: For me the words “creative process” suggest something more sophisticated and effective than what actually goes down at my desk—and I wouldn’t say, in general, that those struggles at the desk are informed by math—but I think having studied math influenced me. Math can be difficult (that damn Barbie doll was right!) and I think when you spend time learning math or physics or philosophy or anything complex, you gain confidence that you can learn other difficult things, and that it’s worth trying to solve complicated problems. Also, for writers it can be tempting to let yourself be carried away by some nice-sounding turn of phrase, and while having studied math doesn’t make you immune to that, I do think it can make you more rigorous in your thinking. Then again I’ve wondered sometimes whether rigor is an unalloyed good for a writer, since sometimes it pays off artistically to be fanciful, to spin out notions that wouldn’t necessarily hold up in the face of logical analysis.
TM: Could you talk about how Anne Carson and David Markson inspired The Weil Conjectures? In a recent essay for Granta, you mentioned both of these inventive authors as varying influences for this narrative?
KO: It seems as if there are an increasing number of books now that mash up genres, works that combine elements of essay and memoir and historical narrative. There’s not really a name for this hybrid creature, though I’ve seen the term “lyric essay” used sometimes, in particular when the author is a poet, and Anne Carson is certainly one torchbearer when it comes to books in this vein. I wasn’t thinking of her directly when it came to figuring out the form of my book, but I was thinking about her ideas about the erotics of knowledge in Eros the Bittersweet. (I didn’t realize until after I’d finished the book that Carson wrote about Simone Weil in her book Decreation.) David Markson’s This Is Not a Novel was lurking in the back of my mind as I wrote, but it’s hard for me to articulate the way in which it was hovering—it’s as though there was a voice muttering things I couldn’t quite make out, and that voice was the voice of Markson’s book.
TM: In the Granta essay, you discussed how this hybrid form is a reflection of the Internet era, and how many readers are digesting different kinds of reading in fragmented ways but with hopes of gathering meaning. Could you expand on this?
KO: To the extent that the hybrid/collage assembled from short sections is becoming more popular, I think it reflects the way we read online—a little bit here, then jumping over there, and then on to the next thing—but at the same time makes that experience more satisfying, because there is an underlying design, and the sections are cumulative and reflective. Also there are no ads.
TM: Did you find it more challenging to find time to make the necessary deep dives into reading?
KO: It’s always challenging to make time to read, and when I look back I’m surprised I managed to read as much as I did and at the same time feel bad that I didn’t read much more, since there is always more.
TM: What did you think are the most common misconceptions about higher mathematics and the study of this subject area?
KO: There’s an image in our culture of the great mathematician as a lone (male) genius who is at a minimum autistic and/or very eccentric, or else mentally ill or a hermit—people at the edge of or outside of human society. And that’s an image that serves to reinforce an idea a lot of non-mathematicians have about math, i.e. that it is an occult subject that they’re not equipped to understand, because the people who understand it are crazy geniuses who aren’t like the rest of us. Any field will have its share of unstable or eccentric people, but many great mathematicians live conventional, community-minded lives.
TM: What book would you recommend to a reader who is interested in learning more about higher mathematics (without becoming too overwhelmed)?
KO: One that I like a lot is Remarkable Mathematicians: From Euler to von Neumann, by Ioan James, which is a series of 60 engaging short biographies of mathematicians, which need not be read in order—it’s a book you can dip in and out of. And How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, by Jordan Ellenberg, is the book equivalent of taking a class from a really great teacher, who drops all sorts of funny asides and draws excellent cartoons on the board while explaining why math matters to the world around us.
Beauty spins and the mind moves. To catch beauty would be to understand how that impertinent stability in vertigo is possible. But no, delight need not reach so far. To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope.
—Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet
I discovered boys at the height of my reading years. I was 12, in Copenhagen, and I read on the train to school, walking home from the station, on family holidays driving across Europe, at night in bed while my parents entertained guests around the dinner table on the other side of my bedroom wall.
We had left Turkey for my father’s work when I was in third grade. My parents worried that our language would deteriorate during our time abroad and strictly required that my brother and I read in Turkish. I did not care what language I read in, as long as the story was exciting. I read my parents’ childhood copies of Jules Verne; I read the books our grandparents sent us about children resolving blood feuds in Aegean villages; I read all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books that my American best friend, Theresa, gave me; I went through entire bookshelves at the school library on Egyptians, Vikings, paranormal activity, and exploration. I even read a book I had accidentally checked out about Mikhail Gorbachev and have had a strange friendship with the word glasnost ever since, as if it belonged to that golden Danish autumn when I first encountered it.
That year I won the school library contest having identified the most fictional characters and lines from books. It was Robert Louis Stevenson who established my victory against Theresa in the last round: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest/yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum.” (Theresa had won the bookmark contest some months earlier with her drawing of a man immersed in his book, sitting on top of Salvador Dali’s melting clock. The caption said: Read the Time Away.)
Even though my eyes and imagination were content to embark on whatever book came my way, I also read repetitively, going back to my friends Anne from Green Gables, Jo from Little Women, Lucy from Narnia, a villager girl Halime, and one German Gundula with a fiery temper. I followed them again and again into their worlds of boyishness and adventure, at a time when grandparents, uncles, and aunts were telling me that I was already a “young lady.”
When I walked our dog, Dost, in the forest, I cast myself in the role of my heroines, pretending that I lived another, carefree and adventurous life, far from the Copenhagen suburbs. Sometimes I thought of myself as an explorer walking for hours in the forest, familiar with every tree, bird, and flower, my schoolbag transformed to a satchel of tools and maps, my loyal dog following at my heel. (In truth, I was afraid to let Dost off the leash, because he would dart off immediately and I would have to search for him for hours.)
Even though I insisted that I was still a child, I secretly knew I was no longer so innocent. I made an effort to look disheveled, hid any evidence of breasts with oversized t-shirts, and tried my best to ignore my interest in boys beyond games of rounders and tag. That was the year I fell in love with David—a blond, freckled Italian who wore white polo shirts and was the star football player of our class. What I mean by falling in love is that I slowed my step when I saw David in my peripheral vision, memorized the names of Danish and Italian football players, and even allowed myself, several times, to write out his full name in my notebook, before hurriedly erasing it. Beyond this, I did not really interact with him, except for one memorable walk from the train station to school when I asked if he would be watching the Juventus game that evening. I thought, then, that I saw a glimmer of recognition in his eyes.
I had encountered David’s types in books, too. His free-spirited boyishness was not too different from Gilbert Blythe’s in Anne of Green Gables. His delicate, handsome features were just like Laurie’s in Little Women. He had dimples and talent for sport like the eldest brother Peter in The Chronicles of Narnia.
But I was not in love with David’s fictional counterparts. Instead, in my fifth, sixth, 1oth readings of these books, I would jump ahead to the scenes with Anne’s bashful adoptive uncle Matthew; the sloppy and clumsy Professor Bhaer; the soft-pawed lion Aslan.
I thought that all girls who read Narnia were in love with Aslan, until a friend recently burst out laughing at what she thought was a strange confession. “You were in love with the lion?” she said. “Sure, we all loved him, but like…a teddy bear, someone you’d like to hug.”
Of course, I was not really in love with the furry creature, nor with the farmer Matthew who was my grandfather’s age. It was what they represented—kindness, unconditional love, nobility—that made them superior to the handsome boys still battling with their temper and pride. Beneath their bodily disguises, my heroes embodied the perfect person whom I had never seen but felt certain was there, just out of sight. And even though I liked to attribute noble traits to David that were not visible to the eye—imagining, for example, when I saw him walking with his little sister that he would fight a battle for—I was old enough to know that the real world and its inhabitants would always be a bit disappointing compared to those of books.
During my younger years of reading, I believed like most children that the worlds of stories really existed. They were there—somewhere—even if I did not always see them, just like my grandparents’ yellow house which I only saw in the summers, but which continued to stand quietly behind the mulberry tree even when we were back in the city.
I particularly loved the worlds within worlds of The Secret Garden, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, or Enid Blyton’s adventure series, when I would first enter the lethargic lives of the characters (which were exciting to me nonetheless in their English quaintness) before embarking on an adventure. After spending several lazy afternoons in old relatives’ houses, the characters and I would all step into the magic kingdoms. I was proud to think that I had come the longest way of all, traversing not just one, but two worlds to enter the garden hidden behind a wall of ivy, jump aboard the Dawn Treader inside the painting, or discover the secret passage that led to the mines.
When I became aware that these places did not exist, I was neither disappointed nor disillusioned. I simply shifted my admiration from the characters and their hidden kingdoms to the very essence of their existence—to the minds that imagined them.
Anyone who knows me has heard that I am in love with Orhan Pamuk. I’ve allowed this one infatuation to become a joke—as ridiculous as falling in love with a lion—so that I may preserve my other authors in their sacred light. Even though I have never met him, I’ve written letters to Pamuk (which I’ve never sent) as well as stories where I go on walks with him around Istanbul.
On these walks I call him Orhan Abi, Brother Orhan, as I would a Turkish elder. Of course, there is preemptive protection in this familial address, turning my admiration to sibling love, so that we are on more equal footing and I expect nothing in return for my affection. On some walks, Orhan Abi is engaged in the conversation, on others he is lost in thought and restless to go back to his desk.
Though I certainly dramatize my love for this man (whose Istanbul has so infiltrated my imagination that I find it impossible to write about the city without his shadow), I’m always surprised when friends bring me news of the real Orhan Pamuk. “Did you hear who he’s dating now?” “The Nobel Prize brought out the arrogance in him!” I hear in their voices a determination to cure me of my obsession before I have my heart broken, because, they are telling me, Orhan Pamuk won’t make a worthy boyfriend.
My Orhan Pamuk is a man of my own making, fashioned from novels, imagining the type of person who would write them. While his tangible double gives lectures, has love affairs, signs books, and goes to airports, Orhan Abi is immersed in a Russian novel. He watches the Bosphorus from his desk and hopes in agony for a glimpse of a beautiful woman walking past his window each evening.
It is neither the lion with a furry mane, nor the sullen, spectacled man that I fell in love with. I am enchanted by words in the literal sense—I enter into chant, not by the tangible objects that words point to, but by the rhythms and harmonies arising from their spell. Perhaps I did not learn my lesson when I realized that books were the constructions of authors, because authors for me are just as much a construct of my imagination.
But if the worlds of books are separate from our own, it should also be said that they intersect with ours in mysterious ways. For me, the joy of reading is partly for the thrill of becoming aware of these collisions of worlds even if I don’t always know how to interpret them.
There is no clearer parallel to the sights of literature emerging in life than falling in love. Then, too, every street sign, shop front, and overheard conversation becomes part of a conspiracy. And just like love, which tunes the senses to invisible harmonies (otherwise called coincidence), literature reveals patterns that connect us to multiple worlds.
“What is the significance of these similarities, overlaps, and coincidences?” W.G. Sebald asks in his essay on Robert Walser, tracing the real and fictional paths they have both walked at different times. “Are they rebuses of memory, delusions of the self and of the senses, or rather the schemes and symptoms of an order underlying the chaos of human relationships, and applying equally to the living and the dead, which lies beyond our comprehension?” I can think of no truer way to express affection for a writer who has shaped our world than by simply listing the trivial encounters of our fates.
“I have slowly learned to grasp how everything is connected across space and time,” Sebald continues. “Walser’s long walks with my own travels, dates of birth with dates of death, happiness with misfortune […] On all these paths Walser has been my constant companion. I only need to look up for a moment in my daily work to see him standing somewhere a little apart, the unmistakable figure of the solitary walker just pausing to take in the surroundings.”
But I wonder if Sebald would have noticed Walser’s footsteps if he had really set off on a walk with him. Do our crossings with these companions not depend on their invisibility? Do the signs of a beloved not surround us only in his absence?
“The other whom I love and who fascinates me is atopos,” says Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse. “I cannot classify the other, for the other is precisely, Unique, the singular Image which has miraculously come to correspond to the specialty of my desire. The other is the figure of my truth, and cannot be imprisoned in any stereotype.”
I wonder if admiration does not build itself in the unique space of imagination, unencumbered by reality. I wonder this because I once had the misfortune of going on a real walk with one of my imagined writers.
I thought of this man as my writer, undiscovered by anyone else despite his fame. It does not matter who he is. There are many stories about him, just as there are about Orhan Pamuk that have nothing to do with my walking companion Orhan Abi.
During our walk, around a small town in Mexico, the writer observed many details that were invisible to me—the strange animals carved on a church door, the gaudy, imitation relics of saints inside the church that reminded him of his native parish, the lines of myth and history connecting the Virgin of Guadalupe, St. Brigid, and Diana of Ephesus.
Afterwards, we sat on the terrace of a monastery with our backs to the fading fresco of Dominican monks holding a map of the monastery (like a book within a book). In front of us, a vertiginous valley was reddening in the afternoon light.
I asked the writer what aspect of the monastery and landscape he found inspiring. He shrugged and said that all that surrounded us was built in vain, in the name of a god that didn’t exist.
(“Quite frequently,” Barthes writes, “it is by language that the other is altered; the other speaks a different word, and I hear rumbling menacingly a whole other world, which is the world of the other.”)
After I returned from Mexico, I sent the writer an essay I’d written about our walk. I also sent him a present to thank him. He did not respond. The same friends who told me to get over Orhan Pamuk also told me that I could not expect such a famous author to write back. Some friends said I should be grateful that he came on the walk in the first place; others said he sounded awful.
In reality, the writer was not to blame for my disappointment. He was not the person whom I’d known years prior to our meeting and I wonder if he could have acted in any way that resembled the writer of my own making. My heartbreak is akin to encountering a lion in a zoo, and waiting for him to walk up to me and offer the kind of guidance I’d expect from Aslan.
A few months later, I ran into the writer on the street during a visit to New York— another thread of chance without visible meaning. He was disheveled, out of breath, walking his dog. He did not mention the essay or my present. We chatted for a while about Mexico. “Well then,” the writer said after a few minutes, “you take care.”
“I suddenly see the other,” Barthes says, “abiding by, respecting, yielding to worldly rites […] For the bad Image is not a wicked image; it is a paltry image: it shows me the other caught up in the platitude of the social world—common place.”
But I don’t quite believe that my imaginary companions and their tangible counterparts are entirely separate. I’m sure that the sullen Orhan Pamuk whom I’ve never met is acquainted with my dreamy friend watching the street from his window, and that the dismissive writer is not entirely numb to the seductions of landscape. After all, both pairs of men take equal claim for the words committed to paper. Part of my heartbreak, then, was trying too hard to see the familiar person residing in the writer, of probing him for a glimpse of the poetic and mysterious.
When I encounter beauty, I have an urge to possess it, to take it apart and discover something within. In my naïve effort to see the writer’s imagination, I am reminded of coming upon a bird’s nest, no bigger than my palm, one afternoon when I was walking Dost in the forest. Dost spotted it first, prodding his nose inside a mound of leaves to drag out a concentrated mass. I could not immediately make out what it was, and even felt frightened by the intricate chaos. But once my sight adjusted to its shape, I was so amazed by the beauty and compactness of its architecture that I took a stick and poked at it, hoping to find something hidden inside that would explain its lovely, cupped sight. I poked deeper with my stick until the nest came apart in twigs, feathers, and mud, leaving me utterly disappointed.
Beauty avoids our grasp because it’s made of the same, ephemeral texture as imagination. It suggests that it is holding something we cannot see, like the evocative sight of a nest or seashell, like light faintly emanating from a lion’s skin. Like love, beauty tempts our imagination to walk down its path with the promise of revealing its golden forest, but turn after turn it spares us the sight, so splendid it would blind us if ever we were to see it.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
So much of what I read is for work (editing Dorothy, a publishing project, and teaching at Washington University in St. Louis), but I did manage some stellar outside reading in 2016. These were my favorites of the “freebies:”
1. Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book: smart, unpretentious, unclassifiable. With an obvious nod to Sei Shōnagon’s 10th-century The Pillow Book, Buffam’s is a fragmented essay-poem-meditation on insomnia, motherhood, marriage, and other “hateful” things. It’s littered with lists, delightfully funny (or just delightful), such as “Moustaches A-Z,” “Things That Give a Dirty Feeling,” or “Jobs from Hell.” Here’s one:
SOUNDS I DON’T EXPECT TO HEAR
A rose opening.
Silence on the 4th of July.
The mating cry of the King Island Emu.
Hecklers at the ballet.
Foghorns in the Mare Cognitum.
A rich man entering Heaven.
A poor man entering the Senate.
2. Renee Gladman’s Calamities: It would be hard to overstate my sense of Gladman’s importance to contemporary American letters. Calamities is a series of short linked essays (or, as I’ve heard her call them, ditties) most of which begin “I began the day …” It’s embodied, subtle, playful, rare.
3. & 4. Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoon’s Came from Woolworth and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman: The Comyns and the Townsend Warner are reprints somewhat recently published in the U.S. by NYRB. I loved both to an aggressive degree, especially Lolly Willowes, which sneaks up on you with its ferocity, so sharp and erotic and free.
This fall I taught a new graduate course on desire, so have been eyeball-deep in amorousness: Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter and Eros the Bittersweet; James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime; Maggie Nelson’s Bluets; Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text; T Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty; texts by Anaïs Nin, Roxane Gay, Joanna Walsh, Carl Phillips, William Gass, Catherine Belsey, and Marie Calloway; and, one of my all-time favorites, The Lover by Marguerite Duras.
Finally, my “year in reading” wouldn’t be complete without The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George and Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger (translated from the French by Cécile Menon & Natasha Lehrer). These are the books I spent the most time with, the ones I was able to get seriously and satisfyingly intimate with. Meanwhile, here at Dorothy we’ve begun putting together a book we’re nuts about for Fall 2017: the first ever Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington.
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It’s like a heartbeat, the opening bars of Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” – the first song in the Canadian band’s new project, the one that sets the tone and the refrain: “It’s a reflection.” It’s the thirteenth song if you count backwards, the bridge between the two halves of the double album. It’s the mirror. My pulse quickens. I am alive. “We fell in love, alone on a stage / In the reflective age.” I am not alone here. I wait for it, the rhyme in the second stanza between the French and the English. This is the sublime: “Entre la nuit, la nuit et l’aurore. / Entre les royaumes, des vivants et des morts. / If this is heaven / I don’t know what it’s for / If I can’t find you there / I don’t care” (Between the night, the night and the dawn. / Between the realms, of the living and the dead). I drink the pairing of “morts” and “for” – I am giddily outside myself and deep in the beauty of the bond, if for a moment, between the two languages, the dead (“morts”) and the preposition of the future (“for”) – which in the fifth stanza transforms into the exquisite almost overlap of “morts” and “more.” I am free of the anxiety of not writing.
I love that this song is about trying to find “a way to enter” – to find a portal, a connector – which one can read as the passage to the Underworld that Orpheus seeks in order to attempt his rescue of Eurydice (there are two tracks in Reflektor that make this theme clear, one named for each ancient Greek figure). I also read the song as seeking the throughway for creativity, for getting on with the act of making something. But “Reflektor” does not promise safe passage: “I thought, I found a way to enter/…I thought, I found the connector.” But I didn’t. Even the false promise is assuring. I want to look for my entry onto the page, into a line, an image, a something. I am afraid. I am in the middle of a rough descent, choppy in the air and in need of a pocket of smooth, a glide. The seven-plus-minute “Reflektor” has become a ritual these days. Blast it louder and maybe the portal will appear. Will I dive in?
I am dancing in the backyard under the Brazilian pepper tree, the almost full moon keeping me company. But my movements are small, so I go inside, into the room where I work at my computer, and I dance around the desk – I turn up the music and it pulses through the wires into my ears – I am still too timid to blast the notes into the nakedness of night, or morning, the way I did when I was a teenager in my attic bedroom, or in college away from family and anything familiar. My new roommates knew what the Bjork loop meant. A litany of song to lift another day. Then I moved onto Radiohead. Then the Chilean hip hop band Tiro de Gracia and their first album Ser Humano (human being/to be human).
Many writers, those attempting to write, like to talk about what helps them get in the mood, the zone. The organization of the objects on the desk, a particular pen or writing machine, the ritual reading of a specific text, a stack of books at the ready, music playing in the background. Maybe it’s not working and everything must be reversed: no music, no books, no wireless connection, no flesh and blood people nearby, no. I am pulled in by pairings, duets, correspondences. Elizabeth Bishop’s letters to Robert Lowell and his replies, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando doubled as male and female, Maria Bethânia’s covers of Vinicius de Moraes’s songs in the album Que falta você me faz (how I miss you, or, more literally, what an absence you do to me).
But beware! The guide to the portal of creativity could be unreliable, even dangerous. When I started to read the work of Clarice Lispector, I took in one book after another, after another – I became immersed in the modes of her tragic heroines, their epiphanies seismic, but rarely conduits to change. I needed an epiphany in my own life. Lispector, and Bishop, hurled me to Brazil – that was the portal, for a time. Then a Brazilian scholar of Fernando Pessoa warned me that those who study the Portuguese poet put themselves at risk of uncanny episodes, darkness that cannot be returned, not least of all in The Book of Disquiet. Home again, Wallace Stevens hypnotized me out of writing. James Merrill and his Ouija board made me nervous.
I mishear lyrics and when I realize that I am wrong, I keep singing them that way, an incantation gone slant, a twist that might do the trick. “Reflektor” begins: “Trapped in a prism, in a prism of light.” Over and over I sing: “Trapped in a prison, in a prison of love.” Is there a difference? My favorite misunderstanding lies in the middle of the song, the repeated refrain: “Just a reflection, of a reflection / Of a reflection, of a reflection, of a reflection / Will I see you on the other side? (Just a Reflektor) / We all got things to hide (Just a Reflektor).” And always, always, I sing in the spirit of how the phrase sounds when its iterations are layered on top of one another: “Just a reflection of of affection / of of affection / of of affection.” I am consistent, at least, in the theme of my misreading.
What kind of love is this? Who is the “you” sung to? “If this is heaven / I need something more / Just a place to be alone / ‘Cause you’re my home.” If it is Orpheus, then Eurydice is the recipient of song; or, vice versa. If I am the one to sing, then it’s the person or the thing, the book or the phrase, that will help me find the portal, dare me to dive in, to begin. In “Then Ends Where Now Begins” – an essay in the stunning collection Eros the Bittersweet – Anne Carson writes: “For Sokrates, the moment when eros begins is a glimpse of the immortal ‘beginning’ that is a soul.”
I am still here, now sitting at my desk, earbuds pressed into my ears. I have listened to the song too many times to say. Nothing yet. Let’s play again. I stand up to dance. I remember my Chinese teacher who made us do jumping jacks while counting to eight in unison. That’s what I remember, always eight, infinity: 一 二 三 四 五 六 七 八 She also told us that we had to be friends with our Chinese characters, spend time with them, talk to them, love them. Only then would they love us back, be there for us when we might need them instead of hiding in the silence. I begin a series of jumping jacks and they morph quickly, by number three, into something else all together. I shake my fists, I stretch my arms, I pull at the air above me. It seems that I am here now, I have fallen, I have entered. “Will I see you on the other side?”