“I have cultivated in myself a sixth sense, an ‘Ararat’ sense: the sense of attraction to a mountain.”
“[I]t seems likely that the most enduring monuments that Western civilization will leave for future generations will not be Stonehenge, the Pyramids of Giza, or the cathedral of Chartres, but rather the hazardous remains of our industry and technology. Landscapes of failed desire, these sites become both arena and metaphor for the most constructive and destructive aspects of the American spirit. The photographs become, finally, meditations on a ravaged landscape.” – David Hanson
[I found the passage below in Jan Zwicky’s Wisdom & Metaphor. On the facing page, Zwicky writes: “Coming to experience the fit of human thought to the world is a way of finding ourselves at home.”]
The ferryboat smells of oil and something rattles all the time like an obsession. The spotlight’s turned on. We’re pulling into the jetty. I’m the only one who wants off here. “Need the gangway?” No. I take a long tottering stride right into the night and stand on the jetty, on the island. I feel wet and unwieldy, a butterfly just crept out of its cocoon, the plastic bags in each hand are misshapen wings. I turn round and see the boat gliding away with its shining windows, then grope my way towards the familiar house which has been empty for so long. There’s no one in any of the houses round about…. It’s good to fall asleep here. I lie on my back and don’t know if I’m asleep or awake. Some books I’ve read pass by like old sailing ships on their way to the Bermuda triangle to vanish without a trace…. I hear a hollow sound, an absentminded drumming. An object the wind keeps knocking against something the earth holds still. If the night is not just an absence of light, if the really is something, then it’s that sound. Stethoscope noises from a slow heart, it beats, goes silent for a time, comes back. As if the creature were moving in a zigzag across the Frontier. Or someone knocking in a wall, someone who belongs to the other world but was left behind here, knocking, wanting back. Too late. Couldn’t get down there, couldn’t get up there, couldn’t get aboard…. The other world is this world too. Next morning I see a golden-brown branch. A crawling stack of roots. Stones with faces. The forest is full of abandoned monsters which I love.
[Short Talks, inspired by Anne Carson’s collection of the same name, is a bi-monthly series held at Green Apple Books on the Park. On February 12, ten writers gathered to give their interpretations on The End of the World. Some were literal, some figurative, and some, as seen in my talk below below, were entirely tangential.]
In a letter to Oskar Pollak dated January 27, 1904, Franz Kafka wrote: “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like a being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us.”
In early spring 1923, while traveling along the coast of the Melville Peninsula, an inhospitable spit of land that rims the northwestern edge of the Hudson Bay, Lorenz Peter Elfred Freuchen, a six foot seven inch tall Danish explorer whose accomplishments included winning $64,000 on the 1950s television games how The $64,000 Question, found himself and his team of dogs separated from his Eskimo guides by severe weather. The wind, he wrote in his memoir Vagrant Viking, was so fierce that his whip could not reach the sled-pulling dogs; it was fifty-four degrees below zero; the snow blew so thick that it seemed as if a fog had descended. Unable to continue in these inhospitable conditions, which to a seasoned adventurer like Freuchen were familiar and, given his experience, bearable, he calmly looked for natural shelter, as his attempt at building an igloo had failed. He took cover against an outcropping of boulders, where he kept himself awake by counting as he paced ten steps in either direction, this being the extent he could walk while remaining sheltered. Falling asleep in the snow is certain death, he knew. He kept at this exercise until he was overcome with “an unbearable desire to lie down,” then determined he could improvise a small cave in which to escape the elements and get much-needed rest. Freuchen reports that this cramped shelter, fashioned of packed snow and roofed with his sled, reminded him of the berth of a ship, and proved sufficient for him to stretch out in. He slept.
When he awoke, he could not feel his feet, an imminent sign of frostbite. The cramped space had, in the time he slept, grown more cramped: his condensed breath froze to the walls of the shelter, which put him in danger of suffocating—from his very breath. Freuchen tried kicking away the snow that had piled up by his feet, but the exit was covered by an immovable snowdrift. He attempted to push upward on the ceiling but was too weak to crack the ice, let alone shift the two hundred pound sled. Desperate, he removed a glove off to claw his way out with his fingers, reasoning it was better to lose a hand than his life. After several unsuccessful attempts at freeing himself and after desperate, gloomy hours of lying immobile in complete darkness in his self-constructed burial chamber, Freuchen came upon an idea. Or perhaps this idea came upon him: “I had often seen dog dung in the sled track and had noticed that it would freeze solid as a rock,” he wrote. “Would not the cold have the same effect on human discharge? Repulsive as the thought was, I decided to try the experiment. I moved my bowels and from the excrement I managed to fashion a chisel-like instrument which I left to freeze.”
Freuchen then used this axe, created of his own shit, to free himself from what was nearly a self-made coffin.
There are people who think contraception is immoral because the object of copulation is procreation. In a similar way there are people who think the only reason to read a book is to write a book; people should call up books from the dust and the dark and write thousands of words to be sent down to the dust and the dark which can be called up so that other people can send further thousands of words to join them in the dust and the dark. Sometimes a book can be called from the dust and the dark to produce a book which can be bought in shops, and perhaps it is interesting, but the people who buy it and read it because it is interesting are not serious people, if they were serious they would not care about the interest they would be writing thousands of words to consign to the dust and the dark.
(Was there ever another writer as comprehensive as Tolstoy, who also wrote about the inner life of a dying tree?)