Saturday, December 6, 2014

How We Might Think, and How We Do

A Different Bed Every Time: Stories

by Jac Jemc


Here's a little story about the History of Thinking. I'm pretty sure it's false, or at best partly true. But, as the madmen say these days, this story has heuristic value.

Imagine the first idea ever--an odd popping into consciousness of an image or of uninvited words. What to make of this phenomenon? The Greeks, who mostly set the terms of all our arguments (sidebar: imagine how different the world might be if instead of Greek rationality the West had been defined under the influence of the multi-layered animism of India or the pure dualism of Persia), decided that these ideas had to come from someplace else, had to be eternal, and had to reflect a permanent dichotomy between this world and another that was "more real." Plato worked all of this out in a way that was, if not plausible, at least comprehensible, and Aristotle tidied things up by diminishing the distance between what clearly is and what really is (a worry which paints one into a tight epistemological corner, for how is one to know how things really are except by using the very tools whose reliably we are trying to check in the first place? This is where mathematics came in handy, for only math could--it was claimed--attain a level of abstraction that would definitively show HTRA without the mess and fuss of the things themselves, and thereby dispense with the problem of using the exact same set of ideas to define those ideas; but then it turned out that math and its cousin logic were trapped in the same epistemological corner, as Godel showed, so that the very notion of "certainty" had to be thrown out, and irony, the knowing wink-wink of Western culture, was invited to sit on the throne once occupied by Truth, now as decapitated as the Kings and Queens who relished Reason for its perennial support of the status quo). Hegel finished off philosophy with a bang about as loud as Napoleon's cannons at Jena. It turned out, Herr Hegel argued, that there's no need to worry about where ideas come from or what role reason plays in our lives, or even to worry about how we think. Reason is all that exists. But not Plato's creative reason or Aristotle's analytical reason--no, Hegel's Reason is Consciousness Itself, the final irreducibility. We're bits of it, embodiments, coming slowly to self-recognition, creating reality rather than struggling to make it out....What Hegel did for us was--at long last--to finish off objectivity, to destroy the privileged position of the so-called "real world," and to make way for the individual human consciousness to become the orbit around which everything else rotated. Wordsworth's Prelude, Nietzsche's Will to Power, Proust's discovery that memory is meaning, Woolf's real-time substitution of impressions for the sort of coherence worshiped by "realists." After all, the great secret of Western thought, the elephant in the room, has been subjectivity; 2000 years of fiddle-faddle about "reason" was only a way to insure that power would lie with reason's guardians, the self-appointed truth-tellers, the dudes in bad suits with the little black box that somehow puts them in charge (they still are in charge, and they still tell us to "be reasonable"). Nietzsche, with his paradoxical and hyperbolic brilliance gave poetic voice to Hegel's turgid discoveries when Nietzsche revealed that Socrates, far from being the hero of the story (as Alan Bloom and the Canonists would have it), was actually the villain.  By substituting empty arguments for social truth, Socrates shifted Reason from the command of anyone willing to think and put it in the hands of the elite, the Guardians, and left the rest of us to wonder how we had become so confused by what is really so simple. I mean, honestly, does one need a thousand scholarly books to reveal the nature of justice? Or ten thousand to explain why human beings are moved by what is beautiful? Reason relishes the meta-; the thing to make us better and happier would be to put away abstractions for a while so that real live human beings can once again occupy history (thanks Herr Hegel). You can drop bombs on "terrorists" without a second thought--but what about dropping them on a person who has a family and a history, who has hopes and dreams in just the way that you, the drone operator, has a family and a history? Reason destroys context--that's what it's best at. But life is all context.

With philosophy relegated to the task of sifting through ironies for the prettiest flowers (Richard Rorty was better at this than anyone: a Rorty essay leaves you shaking your head in wonder at the fact that not having a clue about anything could feel so satisfying), it has been left to poets and novelists to work out the meaning of subjectivity for those of us--a shrinking few!--who wouldn't mind having a glimpse if not of Truth, at least of someone's version of it, a version not narcissistically our own.

The empty boat on an endless sea.

So we come at last to the point, to Jac Jemc, who is a fine writer and who, like others written about in this blog, has heroically attempted, in a culture that has largely been willing to trade meaning for amusement, literature for commerce--in a culture where the newspaper of record and the New York Review of Books (how far we have fallen!) waste column inches on what can only be described as trash that panders to our worst instincts (no names!)--to tell us some truth. 

Here's a significant portion of the short-short story, "Roundabout the Bottom:"

Until now I have been desperate and young all my life. A whirlpool's spider webbing a ship, and I am on duty, receiving the distress signals. They light up in my brain with their ciphered knocking. I can only guess at what they're saying. I cheated on my Morse code tests. The water hikes itself up around them. Their noses goggle, filling with sea. The crumple deeper. The sunken six hundred struggle inside the ocean. I stay up all night thinking of ways to retrieve a ship from roundabout the bottom of the sea.....The possibilities keep splintering. My mind turns over and over like a weak ankle. The waves violin above them; a telescope can give me that sight. My marrow curdles with ignorance. I recognize my lack of reason, and the purge my apologies into the night air. I offer only my grief as recompense.

The Jemc story has as its center a consciousness, a first-person voice, and what this "I" most often notices are the incongruities of the world, its unpredictability, how you can occupy "a different bed every time." Let's say you trade places with your identical-twin--why not? She's married to a "rube with a medical degree." Various events lead to your being chopped into pieces by your sister's husband--the wrong sister!--but you're still alive enough to tell the story, and, here's the kicker, "you never cared about anything," even being drugged and dismembered, hell, you're bored by the whole thing. There's a joke here, a "No Exit" sort of joke about being in Limbo, but the real point has to do with there not being a point. It's the way life is: things happen to us, we can't help them happening, or prevent them from happening, or even say much of the time what we feel about them. Caring also can be a problem. It's what we've come to.  Everyday someone says to me, roughly, "I don't like the way things are going, but what can I do about it?" Jemc says something like this in many of her stories. We're not victims. Like the wrong sister, we made choices, and this different bed is where we've gotten as a result.

Jemc's prose is spare to be sure, but elegant: "When I was a child, people told me I had pearl eyes. I'd rub my sandy fingers in them, sure that was the only way to keep them smooth and beautiful." ("Marbles Loosed"). Or this from "Configuration," a story that feels like opening a door that might best have been left closed: "Lory has crinkled all of the wire hangers into a meaningless Venn diagram on the wall. Lory tries to wink and tit in some sort of meaningful way, but she is covered in flowers and downy hair, and it all feels like to much to be honest." That last clause clears up a lot about Jemc's writing: here, she seems to say, is what we see, and here is what we think about it, but something is not quite right. For so very long we were told that if things didn't feel quite right we had only to realign our reason, our "natural faculties" and we'd be okay. And if we had trouble doing this realigning, there was always a priest to prescribe prayer or a doctor to prescribe drugs. Some people could never get it, but we weren't obliged to take them seriously. But it's looking increasingly like none of us are getting it any longer, and though the priests and shrinks are doing their best, and the guys in the suits are bucking us up with the old lies (it was reason, of course, that made lying necessary and an art), we're more likely to figure things out by meditating on Jemc's story, and my favorite, "Half," a brilliant send-up of Solomonic wisdom.

We've a bit off-kilter, and where it was once possible to lay claim to reason as arbiter of the inscrutable, it has transpired that not only is reason likely to let us down, it may even have been the culprit, source of all confusion.  "We stick out like sore thumbs, or the old people do. Whichever it is, someone doesn't fit in." Lovely, especially since Jemc makes it clear that there is no "in" to fit into. The "in" has evaporated, along with good manners, literacy, and affordable coffee.

No need to be dour about it. We can still read.

George Ovitt (12/6/14)

A Different Bed Every Time is available from Dzanc Books. Jemc is also the author of My Only Wife.

Jemc has an amusing web site where she chronicles her rejections, here:

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