Saturday, June 17, 2017

In Quotes: Talking Turkey After Four Years

"Twas just this time, last year, I died," quoth the bird, accusatorially (citing Dickinson -- more on this practice below) -- for indeed, the third anniversary of Six Foot Turkey came the previous June and went, I fear, unremarked by me, such that it feels almost as if it might never have happened. And it seems in some way that its spirit did evacuate this mortal realm on that occasion, and hasn't been with us since. The blog has ceased, especially in recent months, to be the primary creative outlet in my life and has become a kind of mausoleum of poems and repostings that didn't have a logical -- or decorous -- home in the pulpit but that I wanted to stick somewhere, since I'd gone to the trouble to write them.

But seeing as last week marked the end of a two-year congregational internship -- two years during which I have been at work at one site or another pretty much every day of the week -- I suddenly find myself in the presence of habits and rituals that I had been forced to lay aside all that time by sheer necessity. I notice myself picking up lines of thought that I had abandoned back in the summer of 2015, as if my brain were a fat book in which I had left a dog-ear twenty-four months ago that I am now turning up again. I've heard tell from people who have just ended fifty-year careers of a similar sensation upon new retirement, as if their life has been a process of going into the other room for a little while and they have now returned to their chairs to say "ahem-- where was I?"

Granted, I still work nine-to-five at another job, but today I am enjoying day one of that long-since forgotten social institution, the two-day weekend, in the contours of which the original project of this blog -- which, as you may recall, was supposed to involve at least one post per week -- was originally designed. And with this new excess of temps libre on my hands, pieces of the old self begin to revive -- as if there were a free-time version of Josh and a not-free time one and both cannot be present at once.

I won't say that the free time Josh is better in any way than the other, by the way. In fact, I think I like him less. He is the one who writes these blogs, and if I had to come up with a mental image of him based on what he produces he seems to be some sort of affected British fancy person, or perhaps -- a twenty-something American who wishes to imitate one -- who says things like "temps libre" that no one could have wished him to say, least of all himself.

(This problem of inserting unwilled Britishisms into any sort of unstructured writing, by the way, is not a new disorder. I first noticed it in myself in high school, when, after we'd been assigned to complete an end-of-year course evaluation for one class or another, I looked down at what I'd just drafted and found that it began: "It was really quite excellent."

"Dude," I said to a friend next to me, "why do I sound British?" It's a mystery I have never solved.)

But so long as free-time Josh keeps within his appropriate preserve and doesn't monopolize other parts of my life, I'm happy to let him out on the weekends to play around in this blog and be, in short, a free-range Turkey.

In light of all that, and given that it's almost Father's Day, it seems right to me not to let another birthday of the bird to whom I (in part) gave being go unacknowledged. So here it is, the four-year anniversary post of Six Foot Turkey.


It is traditional in these posts (the two other times I've done them) to give some review of the year and its best and most memorable posts, but I think I'm not alone in not particularly wanting to think much about this past year, and not feeling like it is calling out for remembering, when it is still so searing fresh (It's not like anything important happened, right?), so I'd rather emphasize here the other core function of the traditional anniversary post -- namely, that it is a chance to get meta about the blog. Therefore I will take this opportunity to explore a particular technical question about the blog's construction that was recently raised to me -- namely, where do the literary quotes come from, and why, and what purpose do they serve?

This particular question was posed to be by my own, actual father, and it was a totally fair and innocent one. After reading the last post, the final newsletter column, about "Memory," he wanted to know how I had found the Akhmatova and Nabokov lines-- the ones that fit pretty well, we agreed, into the logical procession of the argument -- at least this time. Did I research them in advance, he wondered? Or did I just remember them at the right moment?

Again, a totally reasonable thing to ask. What he couldn't have known was that it touched unwittingly on one of my deepest secret fears about living in the digital age. Suddenly, I was looking back over "Memory" with a skeptic's eyes. I, of course, who had written it, knew that the Nabokov quote had come to mind because I had actually read the book in which it first appeared. Systematic excavators of this blog will have encountered mineral deposits and ores from Ada, or Ardor before, which I had carefully read and sliced and marked over the summer after div school. I certainly hadn't recalled the line about time being memory's accumulation or whatever it is word-for-word at the time I started in on my "memory" post, but I knew the idea and knew that it came as the concluding thesis of Van Veen's lecture on the nature of Time, which makes up the penultimate section of the book. So I went back to that portion of Nabokov's novel and retrieved it. (A similar process underlay the finding of the Akhmatova poem, although in that case I had the experience of transcribing the videos first that are described in the post, then happening to read this poem in her selected works later the same month and found it resonating with the sentiments I had just experienced.)

Yet eyeing my post, and trying to imagine reading it without this knowledge in hand, I realized that from all outwardly-discernable signs the quote might just as well have been something I found through an online search. Horrors! "Literary quotes about memory" or some such bit of googling. I would never do that, of course, because according to the private rules that I at some point developed for myself (more on those below), it would be "cheating." But for those unversed in the private rules, there would be no way to tell me -- the genuine article, who had bothered to plow all the way through Nabokov's most intentionally difficult late work -- from a googling poseur who might not even know who Nabokov or Ada or Van Veen was!

Ah, what pain! Oh, my soul! To have my art mistaken for that of an imposter! Except it hadn't been, since my dad had just asked, but such is the nature of the artistic temperament. Literary quotes are, for whatever reason, the thing in which I ground an inordinate sense of pride (more on that too, below). They are not the most important skill in the world. They are not particularly helpful, and no truly rational society would cultivate them at all. They would have no place in the worker's paradise. But they are a thing that, somehow, I seem to be able to do. I can remember words and ideas. I would have made a passable griot or bard if I lived in a land that rewarded the talent. In another time or place I might have memorized the King James Bible or the Qur'an. As it is, I seem to have applied this gift of the muses mostly to learning every line of the original Star Wars Trilogy (a friend calls me the Star Wars hafiz.) I know every syllable and their cadence, and have repeated them so many times I have no idea if they are actually as hokey as people say. There's Grand Moff Tarkin now. "We will then crr-ush the rebellion with one /swíft stróke./," complete with the slight roll of the "r" and the closing spondee, to hammer the point home. It is the same gift that, applied in a more highbrow venue, permits me to keep storehouses in my head full of Hazlitt and Orwell.

And now, to spoil this one talent that I had to my name, of course, could come along any fool with a search engine...

It is a fear that an ever greater number of us will have to contend with, of course, in this age of creeping artificial intelligence. The historian Keith Thomas, whose immortal Religion and the Decline of Magic was amassed in the late 1960s through reading just about every book that had ever been printed in early modern England, seeking out references to the occult, remarked ruefully in an interview with Alan Macfarlane that: "somehow the passages that relate to my interests come out at me [from this voluminous reading]; now this skill has been made totally obsolete by the 'Early English Printed Books' and the eighteenth-century collections online; anyone now can type in 'witchcraft' and get all the references to it in the English printed literature[.]"

He then follows this admission up with a John Henry-esque defense of human over machine intelligence that I have also tried out for myself: "of course search engines only pick up words [...] oblique references are impossible to find online." But that is the sort of claim that is likely to become less and less true as the technology advances -- or as we regress. For now, I can tell myself that I am able to detect hidden undercurrents of connections between apparently disparate thoughts -- the inability of the damned to perceive their own damnation in Anatole France's Thaïs is related, say, to the inability of ignorance to appreciate the fact that it is ignorant that is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect (thanks again, This American Life!))-- which no scan through "Brainy Quotes dot com" could possibly unearth. That is what I tell myself. But again, only for now...

When the computers have truly caught up to us, there will be no defense left us -- no means of telling the difference between a googling cheat and a systematic reader -- unless, of course, you are simply willing to take my word for it that I am one and not the other. So I thought it might be a good idea now to pull back the curtain a bit on my methods of quotation, so that I will have some testimony for the record about the pains and labors that have gone into this blog when future generations will have lost all sense of admiration for the mere fact of literary citation (because, say, everyone's brain will be directly wired into some mainframe).

First off, then, let me confess that my dad was quite right to suspect that the synchrony of thought and quote in the "Memory" piece was a little too perfect to have just been thought up while writing, although it also didn't happen over Google. The truth is that frequently on this blog, the quotes precede the matter. In the shower, or on a drive (that's usually where it happens), my brain suddenly perceives a thread that connects three or four or five different things I have read or seen or heard somewhere -- home videos, plus Akhmatova, plus Nabokov, plus This American Life, plus an obnoxious article I once read about Peter Thiel's megalomaniac ambitions, in this case -- and voilà, a post!

Once the connection is perceived-- a stroke of good luck that comes through nothing more definable than any other inspiration -- I then start spinning out the webs of substance and argumentation that will lead the reader from one of them, to the next, to the other, through the path that was just illumined before me but that I have not fully traveled myself as yet. This blog often functions, then, as a kind of commonplace book, in which I store various interesting gleanings from diverse reading and NPR listening and conversations with friends that seem somehow grouped as to theme. The Ariadne string that links one gleaning to another (i.e., my prose) is often not really the point (though sometimes in the process of crafting it it becomes more of the point than it was at the start).

You might well ask, in that case, why I don't just keep a commonplace book of citations arranged by topic, and cut out the work of writing, but I suppose I fear that the connections that seem so plain in the moment of heat will be lost if I don't draw them out fully -- even to myself -- like a dream upon waking. I also know myself well enough by now to say that there are certain modes of gratifying my obsessions that simply have to be ruled out. Once launched onto a commonplace book, I strongly expect that almost everything I ever read would start to seem significant, and I'd devote all my hours to re-tracing the words of other people into a notebook like some Medieval scribe. Far better to just buy the original book, and maybe underline it!

I did, for what it's worth, have one brief foray into the anthologist's approach to life and reading. This was when I briefly led a small group ministry at church that had a weekly set theme, and I was supposed to come prepared with a sheaf of quotes and brief passages that related to it. Oh, you can imagine how I savored that sweet assignment! But I quickly found that no one read the quotes, and people wanted anyways to talk about other things, as I would too in their position. The amassing of quotation was to please myself.

And that really is the crucial point in all of this. I am not writing this blog or including these quotations to impress anyone, except for myself. And that is a big "except," because I am trying, always, every day, to impress myself. There is therefore nothing to be gained by cheating. No one reads this blog, or very few, so who exactly would I be convincing of anything if I googled up some quotes and served them in a post. I, for one, would always know it, if I had cheated, and so would not be impressed. I am my own chief audience for which I perform. I am trying to win some hard-won praise from that inner spectator, who knows and perceives all my tricks in advance and can't be fooled.

Hence my set of private rules, which were developed to ensure I do not fail to earn the acclaim of that taskmaster, myself. The first and least negotiable rule is that I have to have always actually read something, before I can quote from it. It can't just find the quote somewhere else (unless I have read the whole work in which the quote appears, and can cite the former accordingly). Why? To offer a quotation is still, even in these times, some sort of a claim to expertise. You cite an author in order to give the impression you have taken the time to become familiar with that author's works -- or at least -- with the specific work from which you are quoting. (Short poems, then, are mana from heaven to such as me -- you can polish them off quickly, and ever later can cite them in good conscience, since you have now read the whole thing, even if the whole thing is brief -- though really, of course, you are supposed to have read the whole collected poems in which they appear, though this is more a counsel than a commandment, according to the private rules). Impressions of expertise may be worth faking on a term paper. Perhaps you include items, say, on the bibliography of your thesis that you are, ahem, at most familiar with, and haven't actually read, per se. But in that case there is an external authority to please. When your only audience is yourself, this is the only person you are aiming to amaze, then that impression of expertise needs to be true, since he'll be able to see at once behind any obstacles of deceit one throws in his way.

So I do need to have actually read the books from which I quote, before I will allow myself the pleasure of extracting any passage or insight. If I do find something that I absolutely cannot pass up for its relevance, but which appears in a work I have not yet finished-- or worse, in some totally ignominious source as an online Bartlett's, say -- then I will be sure to confess this fact openly while citing it, and hedge the passage round with barbed and self-abasing jokes, so that there can be no doubt of whence I retrieved it and of my sense of shame at the temporary lapse from my private rules.


I subject myself to these self-wrought chains, but the way, not because I enjoy making myself miserable, but because I enjoy making myself happy. The moment of inspiration in which I perceive a connection between things I've read before is a moment of joy. It is a source of pride. It is something I can do well. There are many, oh so many, things that I cannot do well. Math, for instance. Or bowling. Or anything that involves any of the same cluster of skills that are involved in either of those two. But this capacity for seeing the relations between ideas from disparate sources -- this is one thing that I can do. I am a strange and lopsided person, bicycling through life at an awkward tilt. The side toward which I lean is this one. I don't know the reason, I don't always like it, but it is the field I happen to have been given to till, to the best of my ability. This blog is the record I am leaving of my toils within it. In other words:

This is the testament of a man who has had
The supreme good luck ever since he was a lad
To find in himself and foster a vast will 
To devote himself to Arts and Letters, and still --
 [...] is insatiable yet."
(Hugh MacDiarmid -- haven't read the original source in full but I read the Alan Bold biography that cites it, so I figure it's fair game -- do you see how this works?)

Seeing the connections between different writers. It's the reason why I would make such a lousy philosopher, but I can pass fair muster as a historian of ideas. I'm no good at coming up with new and innovative arguments. But I can tell right quick where an old idea has come from, regardless of the language that may have been used to dress it in new garments. I can say, swishing it around in my mouth, "Ah! This one has an ounce of Kant, a measure of Mill, a jot of James!" I can spot Richard Spencer and say, "here is the full list of the fascist cretins and stooges from which all of his pseudo-illectual maunderings were lifted without acknowledgment," and thereby hopefully do my piece toward making the alt-right appear in its true light as ridiculous, as well as dangerous.

Within the ever-pleasurable process of retrieving quotes one didn't realize one had stored away in one's mind, of course, there is a hierarchy of enjoyments. It is a fine enough thing, for sure, to remember something you had just been reading earlier that week and find a good place to fit it in. It is as nothing, however, to the ecstasy of suddenly recalling a passage you had read carelessly years ago, never trying or expecting to have it memorized, and find it fits just perfectly into what you meant to say. Now that is something to sing about!

There is also a distinct pleasure to be had, however, from obsessing over a theme or idea for weeks -- or years -- which one really wishes to blog about -- and then discovering in one's reading exactly the passage or phrase that sums it up. At once, one is released! The curse is lifted! Now one can write the post, because one has found the anchoring quote! Now you just have to lead the reader to it, over thickets and brambles.

The obverse of this joy is of course the hellish frustration that comes when one has already written and posted an essay on a given theme, and then discovers long after the fact something that would have served as the perfect literary confirmation of it, if only one had known about it at the time -- the quote that would have buttressed the whole structure.

I recall writing last spring, for instance, that I had never been able to read much Shakespeare, because, as I said then, the plays "have been ruined for me by the terrible sense of 'obligation' that hangs over them in our thoroughly bardolatrous society." What I meant was that any work of literature that one has known primarily from school starts to seem insipid and boring and unreadable for that very reason, even if by rights it is none of those things.

But simply to make this confession and leave it dangling out there unaided was a discomfiting experience. This admission of partial illiteracy with regard to Shakespeare would have gone down easier if I could have included a garnish of some other literary reference to back it up -- in much the same way that certain awful young people will say things like "I'm so dumb, I don't know how I ever got into Harvard."

And lo, last December, I found just the passage that would have done it! From reading Byron's Childe Harold -- there, in Canto IV, Harold admits his loathing of Horace for just the same reason that explains my aversion to the bard:

"I abhorred
   Too much, to conquer for the poet's sake,
   The drilled dull lesson, forced down word by word
In my repugnant youth,
   Then farewell, Horace; whom I hated so,
   Not for thy faults, but mine; it is a curse
   To understand, not feel, thy lyric flow,
   To comprehend, but never love thy verse,
   Although no deeper moralist rehearse
   Our little life, nor bard prescribe his art,
   Nor livelier satirist the conscience pierce[.]

But blast it! The verse was found too late! Of course, I could have gone back and wedged it into the original Shakespeare post -- but that somehow felt, again, like it would be cheating. My inner critic would not allow it. But why? I protest to that shade. I read it (the Byron), didn't I? I wrote it (the post), didn't I? Is it not mine to alter later on as I see fit? But he just shakes his head. He rarely explains the rules, just enforces them, and mine is not to reason why.


You will perhaps perceive, by now, that the pleasure at the root of identifying the right literary quote is really no more sophisticated or metaphysical than any other form of idle self-congratulation. The brain shoots reward chemicals in the direction of one's psyche upon realizing that it contains such unsuspected treasures. That is the thrill one is after. As long-time Jeopardy! champ and hero of my own Quiz-Bowling youth Ken Jennings writes in Brainiac (*never entirely finished the book, just to be transparent and in keeping with the rules): “The little ego-boost from a correct answer explains the whole human love for trivia. We love the endorphin rush, the I’m-smart feeling we get from unexpectedly producing an answer we had no idea we knew.”

There's nothing very inspirational about that. It is a wholly selfish pleasure that Jennings describes. It serves nothing and no one other than oneself. If anything, it harms them, by encouraging the Trivia or quotation champ to put on airs. It is a momentary illusion of superiority-- it is Hobbesian "sudden glory." It is depressing if examined for what it truly is, and Jennings' summation of the lessons learned from a life spent dredging up obscure knowledge is an oddly bleak and Nietzschean one. I feel about as down on life and art after pondering it as I did after reading an article that made a convincing case that the chief reason we enjoy a piece of music is because we've heard it -- or something like it -- before, and feel pleased with ourselves for being able to recognize the pattern. An image from Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms comes to mind (read last summer -- never expecting to quote it for anything -- do you see how this works?): that of the protagonist's loathsome Aunt Amy "sitting on the pianola stool, studiously working an ivory fan, tiresomely tapping her foot, and Randolph, bored to limpness [...] staring." We seem like very petty and self-absorbed bourgeois creatures in this light.

There are also those moments, however, when the joys of recollecting the apt quotation do seem to approach something closer to the spiritual -- when having the store of poems and phrases in one's skull is good for something other than the brute struggle. There are times in matters of literary quotation when the higher-order reward of catharsis and consolation are involved, and the correct quotes come to you from on high as a sort of divinely-extended handkerchief, in which to weep.

Example. Starting awake in the middle of the night last Sunday, I realized that a two-year internship was now over and -- far from feeling relieved about it as I thought I might -- I was struck by total grief. That was the end! It wouldn't and couldn't come back! One is not allowed to return to one's internship site, at least not for the next few years, or maintain contact with the people there -- a sentence imposed on all ministers for the good of the profession. I knew that rule would be rough, but man, I didn't foresee this feeling -- my God!

And all at once, to comfort me, came my pals. At the inward sound of that phrase "My God," there appeared Edna St. Vincent Millay, in "Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies," describing how you: wake up a month from then, two months
[...] in the middle of the night
And weep, with your knuckles in your mouth, and say Oh, God! Oh, God!

And there was A.E. Housman next, saying: That is the land of lost content,
  I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
  And cannot come again.

Dreadfully soapy stuff -- but exactly the thing I needed just then. Into my heart an air that kills, and into my head -- a verse that heals!

One will notice -- and this is key -- that neither the Millay nor the Housman is the least bit "comforting," in the stale sense of the word. Neither of them offers "hope" at all -- a concept still staler. (Millay is still waking up in this same spell, two years later. Housman cannot come again to the land of lost content -- it's lost!) They would be of no use at all in these moments if they did. They offer instead the yelp of psychic pain -- exactly the same one that I happened to be feeling.

And in that moment, the grief is not ended or forgotten. But it is assimilated to something universal. It is elevated beyond the experience of the lone ego. It joins the company of the human tragedy and comedy that is everywhere and is eternal.

And in case you thought I came up with that myself and had done with quoting, I close with Richard Rorty:
"I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse. This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts — just as I would have if I had made more close friends. [... I]ndividual men and women are more fully human when their memories are amply stocked with verses."

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