A Kind of Puzzle

I am almost always working on a story in my head; eventually it gets down on paper. Somewhere along the way, I run into the story’s puzzle. When it’s in its beginning stages, I know where it’s going, more or less, but don’t know what it’s about, until something clicks, a piece that fits right in the middle, or a little off to the side. One of these years, I will have a story collection out, even though publishers, I hear, avoid story collections like grilled dill pickles with chilled vanilla filling. It has been a long-term dream; years ago, I intrigued an agent slightly with my collection-in-progress The Dog Park, and Other Tales of a Wounded Ego. The title will be different, but the collection will come.

I was recently reading Tad Friend’s great, long piece in The New Yorker on Bill Hader, which mentions that Hader met with George Saunders and Tobias Wolff for dinner at one point. I had a flash of jealousy: why did he get to have dinner with them, two of my favorite story writers? Why did they get to have dinner with him, one of my favorite actors, screenwriters, comedians, interviewees, lovers of literature? (Here he is on SNL with one of his classic Keith Morrison impressions.) Why do celebrities float around in a world where they need only utter a wish, a dinner invitation, and it’s “Open Sesame”? Not that that’s really how it is. But then I felt better when I learned that Saunders and Wolff would be speaking over Zoom at the Bay Area Book Festival–about Russian literature, no less! (The event, “Writing, Reading, and Being All Too Gloriously Human: George Saunders with Tobias Wolff on the Storytelling Greats,” takes place today at 7 p.m.—so, 4 a.m. tomorrow my time.) I signed up and paid the registration fee, only to be informed that the event was only for people in the U.S., according to the terms of a contract. My registration fee was refunded, but the excitement was not. Oh well. (Update: The Bay Area Book Festival kindly sent me the link to the video they made of the talk, so I will be able to hear it after all.)

I had been thinking about parallels among three of my favorite stories: George Saunders’s “Winky,” to which I have returned again and again, Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs,” and Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat”; also, in a way, “Fat Phils Day” by Hubert Selby Jr. These stories all end with a swift motion into some kind of revenge, retribution, or release–except that in the case of “The Overcoat,” it’s a bit of an oddity, a coda in the form of a ghost story, which seems disconnected from the main story but also not. And in the case of “Winky,” the ending seems both a victory and a defeat at the same time: Yaniky’s victory over the cult nonsense he has been fed, a gut inability to carry it through, but also, in his mind at the time, a terrible failure, because he will never be able to liberate himself from plain old life. But what I find in common is not the message of these endings, nor even the particular quality, but the motion itself, the way it brings everything together.

A great thing about writing is that you don’t have to meet other writers in person. In fact, if I did, I probably woudn’t know what to say, or even want to say much. Just by virtue of reading and writing, you are part of that world, and your work will speak for itself, as theirs does to you. I’m not saying this to console myself. It’s true: I would feel awkward at a party with writers I admire, though I’d happily take their classes or attend their readings. The work is the thing I am drawn to, though once in a while in my life, the writer has also become a friend. Some of this is set up in advance, by others; we know only of work that we have access to. Some writers’ work never makes it into print, unless they self-publish; some gets published here and there, and some takes off. There’s both justice and injustice to it all; lots of good work gets published, lots of mediocre stuff does too, but somewhere along the way, sooner or later, writers and readers find each other.

Therefore reading is part of the puzzle. If there weren’t readers, there would be no reason to write in the first place, and so reading completes the act, or maybe just continues it, since the things worth reading are worth reading again and again. I don’t read nearly as much or as quickly as I would like–but the reading that does take place is a kind of participation in the work itself. Today the Orwell project begins; a few of my students and I will join Columbia Secondary School students on Zoom to discuss the first few chapters of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Over the next two weeks, we will read the entire novel together. And because this first joint class is happening in just a few hours, and I have some errands to run beforhand, I must leave off here.

I took these pictures yesterday.

“Such Things Do Happen in the World”: The Story of a Nose

the nose

An extraordinarily strange thing happened in St. Petersburg on 25 March. Ivan Yakovlevich, a barber who lived on Voznesensky Avenue (his surname has got lost and all that his shop-front signboard shows is a gentleman with a lathered cheek and the inscription ‘We alse let blood’), woke up rather early one morning and smelt hot bread. As he sat up in bed he saw his wife, who was a quite respectable lady and a great coffee-drinker, taking some freshly baked rolls out of the oven.

–Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose,” tr. Ronald Wilks

Long ago, in September 1992, I got myself a bass and joined a band, the Dogsmen. I was studying Russian literature in grad school at Yale, but this particular year I was on leave, since I had received a fellowship to teach Russian part-time at Trinity College in Hartford. I had written some songs previously for guitar and voice, but my newer songs began with a bass line. The first of these was “The Nose,” based on Nikolai Gogol’s story, one of my favorite stories in the world. I wrote the song one afternoon, recorded it with a boombox, and sent the tape to the Breeders, a band I loved and still love. I explained in my letter that the song was a tribute to them.

What was it about the Breeders? I was thinking today about how rock bands tend toward one of two attitudes: “Rock is God” and “Rock is all of us.” Most have a mixture of the two, but you can usually sense a leaning. The “Rock is God” musicians create music that is larger than life–big, dramatic, overpowering. They wear makeup, have stage effects, jump from heights. The “Rock is all of us” musicians may also believe that rock is God, but they understate the matter. They perform in everyday clothes, sing about everyday things (with a twist or two), and hint that you could do this too–after all, they themselves just learned to play last week.

All of this requires illusion. Rock isn’t God; rock musicians are not priests of God. They’re extremely fallible and often messed up. Nor is rock all of us; the understated musicians are still doing something that few others could do. So it was with the Breeders. There was something tantalizingly close about their music, dangling just barely out of reach. It touched my soul in a down-to-earth and just-over-the-buildings way. Also, while their music seems technically simple, it’s ridiculously hard to emulate. Kim Deal and her bandmates know what sound they are going for and how to achieve it. It is not easy to create that sound. That, and their songs mix sarcasm and sweetness, sanity and weirdness, tune and distortion, tightness and mess, all-out joy and pain.

But I wasn’t thinking of any of this when I wrote “The Nose.” I thought of it as a tribute not because it sounded like them, not because the lyrics were at all like theirs, but because it expressed in some way how I understood them. I also thought they’d appreciate Gogol’s story; at one point I gave them the book.

The song translates Gogol’s story into a few frames, and the frames into simple, silly music. The lyrics go (I have omitted most of the repetitions here),

Verse 1
“You’re my nose, you belong right on my face, so don’t be such a such a such a fake!”

Verse 2
“You’ve got it wrong”–he said right back to me. “I’m not your nose”–he said it so smugly. “I’m on my own, and in good company, so get out of this church and let me pray!”

Verse 3 (the Nose speaking)
“I can’t go on in this hostile city, I need a home, your face looks good to me, so I’ll climb on, and live there comfortably, and shake and shake and shake and shake all day….”

Coda (the Narrator speaking)
“Who knows who knows you might be someone’s nose….”

One of the song’s greatest glories came when my band performed a full show at my mom and Stan’s place, during a family reunion (in November 1992, I think). For this song, my sister, Jenna, my aunts Norma (R.I.P.) and Jeanne, and my cousins Ruth and Ben joined as backup singers and dancers. Thanks to my uncle Dan for the video. The Dogsmen were Jon Holland (vocals, guitar), Fabian Esponda (drums), and me (vocals, bass).

Some months later (in December 1993, I think), I was visiting my mother and Stan. I checked my New Haven messages remotely (we used answering machines back then) and heard, to my astonishment, a message from Kelley Deal of the Breeders. She said she had a very important question for me. I didn’t have her number, so I rerecorded my answering machine message with the number where I could be reached, hoping she would try again. She heard the message and called me at my mom’s.

It turned out that they had really liked my song; their bassist, Josephine Wiggs, especially liked it and wanted to use some of the lyrics in a song of her own (that they would record and perform). Kelley wanted to know if I gave permission for this; if so, the record company’s legal representative would send me forms to sign. They would credit me and everything. (They were true to their word; I received and signed the forms, the EP has the credit, and they announced it at lots of shows as well.)

How Nose-like is that? In Gogol’s story, a nose appears in Ivan Yakovlevich’s breakfast roll (and disappears from Major Kovalev’s face); here, a few lyrics migrated from “The Nose” to the Breeders’ song “Head to Toe.” Specifically, some of the words from the third verse, “Your face looks good to me, so I’ll climb on [and live there] comfortably” became the refrain of “Head to Toe.” And what a song!

Josephine Wiggs’s own version is hauntingly lovely.

Gogol’s story ends (in Ronald Wilks’s translation):

But the strangest, most incredible thing of all is that authors should write about such things. That, I confess, is beyond my comprehension. It’s just…no, no, I don’t understand it at all! Firstly, it’s no use to the country whatsoever; secondly, it’s no use…I simply don’t know what one can make of it…However, when all is said and done, one can concede this point or the other and perhaps you can even find…well then you won’t find much that isn’t on the absurd side, will you?

And yet, if you stop to think for a moment, there’s a grain of truth in it. Whatever you may say, these things do happen—rarely, I admit, but they do happen.

I would translate the last sentence as “Whatever anyone may say, such things do happen in the world–rarely, but they happen.”

Yes, they happen! They’re staggeringly unlikely, yet they makes sense. The worlds of a Russian lit grad student and a rock band came together through a song, a story, and a few words that hit home. And the nose ran off and turned up again. And I reread the story many, many times, and eventually finished my Ph.D. dissertation, which was on Gogol.

But if you think this was the end of it, no, the nose keeps coming back. Years later, Shostakovich’s opera “The Nose” was performed at the Met, and my mom gave me a ticket for my birthday. I loved the performance and bought a little souvenir, a nose pencil sharpener. This was my favorite desk adornment when I taught at Columbia Secondary School.

But one day that nose went missing, along with an “art eraser.” A fitting occurrence–another nose-flight–but I determined, like Kovalev, to track my nose down. I sent out an email to students, asking whether they had seen these valuable items. I got a reply from a parent. I didn’t save it, but it read approximately, “Incredibly, we happen to have a nose pencil sharpener. Will you accept it from us?” This nose (unlike mine) was slightly caked with some gunky stuff; I decided to keep it that way, for the memory. I even brought it to Hungary. In case it has any plans to run away again, I reminded it sternly just now, “You’re my nose!”

IMG_0840

The quotes from Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose” are courtesy of Gogol, Diary of a Madman, and Other Stories, translated by Ronald Wilks (New York: Penguin, 1987).

I made a few edits and corrections to this piece after posting it.

“How Was It?”

When I come back from a trip–or anything, really–and people ask, “How was it?” I don’t know what to say. “Rich, beautiful, fantastic,” etc.–those are generic words, but if I go into too much detail, I might try anyone’s patience, including my own. Moreover, the most important parts are often the most difficult to sum up. So I put together a slideshow–just a fraction of the photos I took, but a hint of the three weeks. To avoid big downloads and crashes, I put it on YouTube. (I adjusted and re-uploaded it several times; this is the final version.)

Also, I made a short video playlist of musicians I heard on Istiklal Avenue in Istanbul. I find myself listening to these songs again and again.

Speaking of “How was it?” yesterday I saw a delightful performance of The Government Inspector, Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s play. The acting, stage set, directing, and the text itself combined into a performance that was part social satire, part panorama of human vice, and part utter silliness and play. I was grateful that that last part, the silliness and play, did not get short shrift; to me, it was the greatest part of all. Afterward there was a discussion with the director, Jesse Berger; the Russian scholar and author Emil A. Draitser; and several members of the cast.

Gogol’s play and the adaptation have the same basic plot: Residents of a small provincial town learn of the imminent arrival of a revizor, or government inspector. They scramble to cover up the town’s far-reaching corruption. In the meantime, Khlestakov, a self-indulgent, imaginative, unsuspecting dandy, has been staying at the inn for a week; once his presence is noted, people assume he is the revizor himself. This plays out hilariously–and in this production, everyone is having fun. But there’s also a sad irony: while believing they are covering up their foibles, the townspeople actually reveal one vice after another, particularly obsequiousness. What seems like concealment unravels into disclosure.

But this does not sum up the play, the adaptation, or the performance; as I was watching, I noticed that each scene, and many moments within the scenes, come across as pictures, po-gogolevski. The wordless scene at the end–the famous “nemaia stsena”–still shifts and staggers in my mind.

This actually brings me back to my trip. The four lessons I taught in Istanbul (to four sections of eleventh-graders) were about the relation between concealment and disclosure in specific works of art, music, and literature: a Degas painting, a Verlaine poem, the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7, a passage from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and Chekhov’s story “Home.” This play would have been a great addition to that syllabus, had there been time for it. In that sense, the study continues.

So my reply to “How was it?” is “Was? No, is.”

Literature Conference in DC!

cuaOnce upon a time, I would not have ended such a heading with an exclamation point. I was weary and wary of literature conferences that focused on newfangled theories and sidestepped the literature. Even at the best conferences, this happened a lot, or so it seemed to me.

I remember listening to someone apply Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope” to Anton Chekhov’s work. There didn’t seem to be much Chekhov there, or even much Bakhtin.  The speaker’s voice would rise in pitch on the last syllable of “khronotop” (Russian). After a while,  all I could hear was “khronoTOP, khronoTOP, khronoTOP.” I held myself together, but as soon as the session was over, I rushed out of the hall and burst out laughing. (I admire Bakhtin but am sometimes giggly about dogmatic Bakhtinians. I have a Bakhtinian parody published on Pindeldyboz.)

Anyway, this conference is about literature. It’s the Twentieth Annual Conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), to be held from October 27-30 at the Catholic University of America. Panel and seminar topics include Milton, Dante and Augustine, humor, poetry translation, Irish poetry, American literature across borders, and David Bromwich’s much-anticipated keynote address, “The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power.” There will be a poetry reading by Rosanna Warren and Brad Leithauser, a musical performance, and much more.

I will be presenting two papers, reading a poem or two, and leading a seminar (in which I will present a third paper). One paper is on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” another on my translation of Tomas Venclova’s poem “Pestel Street,” and a third on Julio Cortázar’s story “End of the Game.” The seminar, “‘You Must Change Your Life’: The Gesture of Opening in Literature,” features papers by E. Thomas Finan (on Woolf), Ann Marie Klein (on the Iliad), William Waters (on Rilke), and myself.

This should be a great four days. Registration is still open; for details, see the ALSCW website.

“But that was the thing that I was born for.”

marlinWhen I taught English as a Second Language at a middle school in Brooklyn (from 2005 to 2008), I had my students read The Old Man and the Sea, which they adored. One of our liveliest debates was about whether the old man enjoyed being alone; they found that a single textual passage could serve as evidence for either side. Moreover, they found it possible that he could like being alone and not like it at the same time.

For a side project, I had students select and illustrate a favorite quote. This illustration (pictured here) moved me; the student told me I could keep it. The quote reads, “Perhaps I should not have been a fisherman, he thought. But that was the thing that I was born for.” Here, in the drawing, you see the skeleton of the marlin against a desolate beach, with driftwood and a restaurant table and chair. The scene looks desolate and broken, but there’s something grand about it too. The marlin’s skeleton looms much larger than the furniture; there’s something beyond what humans know and see. The juxtaposition, too, is interesting: the quote occurs well before this near-final scene. (The final scene, if one can call it that, is of the old man dreaming about the lions as the boy watches him.)

As I looked at this picture again, I began thinking about my students’ work over the years. They have made some remarkable things. I mention here the few that have links.

There was my students’ production of The Wizard of Oz in 2006.

One student wrote a terse, gorgeous poem that I quoted in full (with her permission and her mother’s) in my book, Republic of Noise.

When I began teaching philosophy at Columbia Secondary School, I found myself learning from (and sometimes roaring over) my students’ work. One line I recall often: “What have we here? It appears that I have arrived at exactly the perfect time. For the perfect time is always now.” (Context: the hermit from Tolstoy’s story “Three Questions” walks into a scene based on Gogol’s story “The Nose”; Epictetus and Erasmus’s Folly are also involved.)

Most recently, as readers of this blog know, my students created a philosophy journal, CONTRARIWISE, and had a great celebration in May. We look forward to an exciting second issue; in early fall, the editors-in-chief will call for submissions and announce contests.

These are all published things, known things, or soon-to-be-revealed things. Much more happens every day–in discussions, on homework assignments, on tests–that goes back into the mind, where it becomes part of other shapes and thoughts.

Why does the approaching new year bring up memories? I think a new year has a way of doing that–especially when it comes at this time of year. I remember my teachers too.

 

Note: I made an addition to this piece after posting it.

Accuracy of Imagination: Part 2

seizethedayYesterday I examined William Duff’s Essay on Original Genius (1767), with particular attention to the phrase “accuracy of imagination,” which I first encountered in David Bromwich’s A Choice of Inheritance. Today I will consider how “accuracy of imagination” plays out in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. My students finished reading it last week; we had memorable discussions of the ending.

The briliance of this novel has to do with the elusive Dr. Tamkin (among other things). There are plenty of ways for a writer to get Tamkin wrong; Bellow somehow got him right. But whom did he get right, and how did he do this? I will attempt an approximation of an answer.

As I stated yesterday, Duff perceives “accuracy of imagination” as a requirement of philosophical science, where “allocations of ideas will be perfectly just and exact” and “no extraneous ones will be admitted; it will assemble all that are necessary to a distinct conception and illustration of the subject it contemplates, and discard such as are no way conducive to those purposes.” Extending this to literature, I see it as a quality of inevitability—the sense, as one reads, that there is nothing makeshift, extraneous, or compromised.

Seize the Day is the story of a pivotal day in the life of Tommy Wilhelm, a middle-aged man who has lost almost everything, or so it seems—family, dreams, job, money, and pride. He has moved into the Hotel Gloriana on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the same hotel where his father lives. In this same hotel resides the psychologist Dr. Tamkin, who has convinced Wilhelm to speculate in lard with him—and to hand over his remaining seven hundred dollars. Unlike Wilhelm’s father, who has no sympathy for him, Tamkin claims to understand what’s wrong with him and to know how to set things right. Wilhelm doesn’t trust him, doesn’t believe his stories, yet can’t resist placing faith in him. He loses, of course, and this loss propels him to the beautiful and surprising ending.

Who is this Tamkin? He is neither this nor that. He has tinges of Nikolai Gogol’s Chichikov and Vladimir Nabokov’s Quilty but is distinct from them, insofar as he can be distinct at all. Enthusiastic, optimistic, involved in everything, a shrewd wheeler and dealer, yet somehow removed from everyday urgencies, somehow out of reach; full of ludicrous stories and warm understanding, of lies mixed with truth; preposterous, infuriating, endearing, yet vague and easy to lose, this Tamkin could be the stretch of sordid hope—the hope that we know we shouldn’t have but have anyway—yet is too lively to be reduced to that. He is America itself, one might say, but there’s also something Russian and Jewish about him. A “tamkin” is a tampion (a wooden stopper for the muzzle of a gun, or a plug for the top of an organ pipe), but it also suggests the Russian word “tam,” “over there.” (This is morphologically improbable—“tamkin” would not be formed from “tam” in Russian—but the suggestion is still there, as I hear it.)

What is the effect, then, of Tamkin’s disappearance, just when the stocks have fallen and Wilhelm has lost all his money? My students spent some time discussing this. (I just realized, to my dismay, that I left my copy of Seize the Day at school—so I will have to go with memory and whatever quotations I can find.) When Tamkin and Wilhelm leave the brokerage office for lunch, the rye has risen and the lard is holding steady. Of course, Tamkin takes much longer with lunch than Wilhelm would like. When they return to the office building, they see the blind Mr. Rappaport coming out. Rappaport asks Wilhelm to take him across the street to the cigar store. Dismayed, Wilhelm assents. When they return, the lard and rye have fallen, and Tamkin is nowhere to be found.

Wilhelm tries to control himself, to keep from showing tears. He hears someone ask him, “…going away?” Apparently Tamkin had told the man that he (Tamkin) was going to Maine for  summer vacation; the man thought Wilhelm might be going too. Wilhelm enters the restroom and sees a grey straw hat with a cocoa-colored band; he thinks it might be Tamkin’s. (It isn’t.) He returns to the hotel and manages to enter Tamkin’s room; Tamkin is gone, but his pills and books are there. In all of this, Tamkin is still there and not there; there are hints of a physical presence, but he is gone from the hints.

Wilhelm approaches his father for help; his father wants nothing of it. He calls his wife; his wife wants nothing from him but money, and finally hangs up on him. He heads out into the street again and sees a large funeral at a chapel. There, in the pressing crowd, it seems to be Tamkin who is “speaking so earnestly, with pointed shoulders, to someone under the canopy of the funeral parlor.” Then he thinks he spots him at the canopy-pole, “that damned Tamkin talking away with a solemn face, gesticulating with an open hand.” Wilhelm tries to follow him, but he gets pushed and drawn into the crowd, into the chapel, where he forgets Tamkin and instead gets swept into something that I won’t reveal here, since it would be ruined out of context. Several of my students approached me to tell me how moved they were by the ending; one student was disappointed in it. But the ending would be nothing without Tamkin.

It is “that damned Tamkin” who led him there, in more ways than one. My students recalled Tamkin’s earlier words about the “true soul” and “pretender soul”: “In here, the human bosom—mine, yours, everybody’s—there isn’t just one soul. There’s a lot of souls. But there are two main ones, the real soul and a pretender soul. Now! Every man realizes that he has to love something or somebody. He feels that he must go outward. ‘If thou canst not love, what art thou?’ Are you with me?” He goes on to say, “The true soul is the one that pays the price. It suffers and gets sick, and it realizes that the pretender can’t be loved. Because the pretender is a lie. The true soul loves the truth.” All of these truisms spiral down the drain to nothing—or almost nothing. There’s a sliver of substance here, enough to entice Wilhelm.

There is also the eclectic diction. Tamkin’s elusiveness lies not only in his disappearances, not only in his combination of nonsense and wisdom, but also in the strange concoction that is his speech. This is especially clear in the poem he gives Wilhelm—a dreadful four-stanza jingle that is just peculiar enough to be interesting. I will quote the first two stanzas:

If thee thyself couldst only see
Thy greatness that is and yet to be,
Thou would feel joy-beauty-what ecstasy.
They are at thy feet, earth-moon-sea, the trinity.

Why-forth then dost thou tarry
And partake thee only of the crust
And skim the earth’s surface narry
When all creations art thy just?

My students did a good job of pointing out the bad grammar and false archaisms. (They didn’t notice the false archaisms right away, but slowly they caught on.) Beyond the grammar, the bad rhymes and rhythms, and the absurd “Why-forth,” there’s the carelessness with meaning. If it is wrong to “tarry” and “partake thee only of the crust,” what is one to do, then? Hurry up and eat it all? (That’s precisely what Tamkin has been refusing to do.) How does one “tarry” and “skim the earth’s surface” at the same time? But the most perplexing question is: why do I come back again and again to this terrible poem? I come to laugh, yes; I come for the sheer perplexity of it; but I also come to figure out what on earth it is.

The paradox of Bellow’s “accuracy of imagination” is that it has captured a supremely vague entity—or rather, something in between the vague and the specific. I don’t trust Tamkin one bit, but like Wilhelm, I think I glimpse him in a crowd. For reasons I can’t explain, I draw closer to find out; I do not find out, but in all of this I have been interested, even seduced. Despite Tamkin’s garish presence and maudlin meanings, despite my loss of an imaginary seven hundred dollars, there’s a blessing in this seduction.

Wieseltier’s “Going to Melody” and the Language of Lament

We aren’t expected to lament much today. If we have a complaint about the state of things, we’re supposed to back it with data. It will not do, for instance, to say that children don’t have enough time to roam. We must argue, instead, that research has shown that the lack of roaming affects a particular area of children’s brains.

This puts us in a bind. Research has its place, but if it replaces lamentation, we lose something of humanity (and I won’t provide brain data for that). Lamentation has thousands of known years beneath it, and even more unknown years. It has the toughness  of memory and treasure. It is about those things that we will not give up even when the world says we must. It is David weeping for Absalom; it is Jean Passerat’s “J’ay perdu ma tourterelle”; it is the narrator in a Gogol story who exclaims, “It’s dreary in this world, gentlemen!” Its privacy taunts us like water. We thirst for those quirky cries so close to our own.

So it was with thirst that I read Leon Wieseltier’s piece “Going to Melody” (The New Republic, February 2, 2012). It’s about the uninspired greed of large businesses such as Amazon—how their “hunger for profit exploits a hunger for meaning.” As they drive bookstores and record stores to the ground, they kill the activities that take place in those stores, particularly browsing. Browsing is the opposite of searching, writes Wieseltier: “Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for.”

Granted, there is browsing within searching and vice versa. But the distinction stands—and there’s still more too it. Browsing makes room for uncertainty and serendipity, for those books we didn’t expect to find, let alone continue reading. Amazon doesn’t have room for serendipity. “After all,” Wieseltier explains, “serendipity is a poor business model. But serendipity is how the spirit is renewed; and a record store, like a bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual renewal.”

Where’s his evidence? The memories of Melody Records, for instance, which for thirty years stimulated him and “provided a sanctuary from sadness and sterility.” Or his father’s furniture store, where Wieseltier as a boy sold sofas to U.N. people who lived nearby—by talking to them about the crises in Iran and Cyprus. He knows the foe, too; he describes Amazon’s Price Check, the app that allows customers in a bookstore to scan an item’s bar code and transmit the information back to the behemoth, which then offers a discount if the store’s price stands to compete with its own.

The evidence lies not only in these memories and details, but in the language of the piece, its amblings and rhythms and visions. As I read it, I too experienced a “sanctuary from sadness and sterility.” I found myself in the record store, listening to the advice of the staff, enjoying this song, or at the bookstore, picking up a book and reading it without rush. I came in with worries and sadness, which loosened and fell away, and with petty complaints, which fizzled in their silliness. I was not loftier than before, but somehow the piece lifted me a little, the way a parent lifts a child up to the window.

Kudos to Wieseltier for not citing brain research here (or any research, for that matter). It would have taken something away from this piece. Yes, there may be research indicating that our loss of real-life interactions has correlated with an increase in stress. Yes, it may be interesting and important. But the point of such a piece is to say, with full risk of disapproval, that I have lost something dear to me, be it a surprising piece of music or a store my friend owned or a place where I can be renewed and revived.

At least we have not yet lost the language for robust lamentation. Let us take care not to lose it. Let us not ask it to be anything else.

 

I made a few edits to this piece long after posting it.