I once read a short story in David Foster Wallace's The Pale King about a little boy who makes it his personal project in life to press his lips against every square inch of his skin. He begins with the toes. Within a year or two he’s managed every part of his feet and shins. And he keeps travelling upward. Obviously this involves contorting his body and lips in strange ways and becoming progressively more flexible. By the end of the story he’s reached roughly his nipples, I believe, and he is totally confident that he will make it all the way to the top of his head.
The experience of reading the story is very different from the experience of reading a brief summary of the story. Not that anything else happens—but that’s just the point: pages and pages plot the lips’ journey along the body. Pages and pages of body parts I’ve never heard of: the thoracolumbar fascia, the patella, the levator scapulae. A different Latin name for each tiny piece of anatomy on the human surface. No change occurs. No tension builds.
II. “SHE’S NOT INTERESTED IN ANYTHING OUTSIDE HERSELF.”
There are two ways for a boy to critique a girl for not participating in conversations that get started by boys. At least two ways. I mean certain conversations about science or politics, I guess.
One: she’s not interested in anything that’s heavy or important. The things that hold her attention are more trivial. Fixing her hair, getting the right color tablecloth, reminding you to apologize to your friend for not showing up yesterday.
Two: she’s not interested in anything technical. This is very different from the first critique. A girl may be interested in heavy things—I don’t know what, human rights, authentic living—but when it comes to the nitty-gritty details, when it comes to putting aside these highest of concerns and making the effort to learn something specific, that’s when she lacks something: the patience, or the intelligence, or—the pure curiosity.
Both critiques are damning in a total way, pointing not just to a moral deficiency but also to a more basic incapacity.
III. THE TREES FORGIVE ME, THE PEBBLES FORGIVE ME
This piece is about self-involvement and about a reaction against self-involvement. Clearly, then, I should have started by putting on show, exhibiting myself at my most masturbatory. Somewhere in my old notes there must be something especially disgusting, some strained piece of armchair intellectualizing about intellectualizing which devolves into a long self-critiquing rant, one where I tell myself to stop thinking about thinking so much, and to stop critiquing myself so much, and that I should really use the word “should” less often, and I should just expand outward from a center of actually having something I want to think about, but I shouldn’t write about how I should do that I should just already be doing it. But the entire content of this rant is so thoroughly lodged in my intestine that I can’t imagine I’ve ever had the goodwill to actually write it out from beginning to end, much though it comes up almost every time I put a pencil to paper. I catch whiffs of it and feel immediately nauseous; I try to change the subject but find that I’ve already spoiled any possibility. I write a sentence that’s the opposite of whatever’s in my head; I make a line break and write something completely different; I look for surprises out the window; I draw a non-representational picture; I add to the picture by crossing it out. What comes onto the page is as erratic and incomprehensible to me as it would be to a reader, the spasms of an invalid who grasps in all directions for anything, anything that exists and is not able to be sick. The best thing I can find myself doing in these circumstances is transcribing: transcribing the conversation at a neighboring table, or the high-pitched voice crooning from the cafe speakers,
The meteorite is the source of the light
And the meteor’s just what we see;
And the meteoroid is a stone that’s devoid of the fire that propelled it to thee.
Praised be the healthless: the stones, the skies, the oceans. Let me make these, not my own tortured thoughts, the objects of my study. Let me fill myself with them; let me put them to verse, with no further goal in mind; let me clear away the smog of ambition. Let me open the dictionaries and the maps and the encyclopedias and drink of them, drink with abandon.
Wikipedia: “A meteorite is a natural object originating in outer space that survives impact with the Earth’s surface.” Joanna Newsom had the right pieces but she sang them backward; the meteorite, not the meteoroid, is the one you can hold in your hand, the one that survived. Survived what? The fire, the fire that propelled it to thee. But the fire did not propel it, of course. Gravity propelled it: by the time the object hits the ground, it has typically reached terminal velocity, meaning it’s moving exactly as fast as gravity can make it move given the upward drag exerted by the atmosphere. Or sometimes cosmic inertia propelled it: very large objects can blaze through the atmosphere without slowing down to terminal velocity. In the latter case, if the object survives, it can leave a crater.
But usually there is no meteorite; most objects that enter the atmosphere do not survive. “Even relatively large stony or icy bodies like small comets or asteroids, up to millions of tons, are disrupted in the atmosphere, and do not make impact craters.” Your average shooting star, much smaller than a comet or an asteroid, typically the size of a pebble in fact, will most likely burn up in fire. What fire? Not fire from friction, Wikipedia insists. “When an object (or disturbance) moves faster than the information about it can be propagated into the surrounding fluid, fluid near the disturbance cannot react or ‘get out of the way’ before the disturbance arrives.” The shock wave from the near-instantaneous compression of the air in front of the object releases the heat energy that destroys it.
The meteor’s just what we see, the visible path, the shooting star. And the meteoroid? “Most meteorites derive from small astronomical objects called meteoroids, but they are also sometimes produced by impacts of asteroids.” An asteroid differs from a meteoroid only in that it is bigger. At some point a meteoroid was said to be between 100 micrometers and 10 meters in diameter (anything smaller is a micrometeoroid, also known as interplanetary dust), but, “following the discovery and naming of asteroids below 10 meters in size,” this definition has become controversial.
V. PLOT (2)
“....there is an ending as far as I’m concerned. Certain kinds of parallel lines are supposed to start converging in such a way that an ‘end’ can be projected by the reader somewhere beyond the right frame. If no such convergence or projection occurred to you, then the book’s failed for you.” —David Foster Wallace on Infinite Jest
My friend Phil carries this quote up his sleeve and it wows amateur readers of Infinite Jest. If normally plot is the thing that carries the reader along, and foreshadows, and creates and relieves suspense, here it gets completely reconceptualized. Here the plot is severed from the reader; it might even be (usually is, in fact) missed entirely. It happens on a different time scale than the reader’s experience and it even has an objective climax which can only be reconstructed by means of a clever combination of clues. (Another friend, Paul, likes to laugh about a J. K. Rowling interview in which she announced that her character Dumbledore is “actually” gay.)I haven’t read Infinite Jest myself. I’ve read Lolita. Or maybe I haven’t. Someone once told me (unless I’m misremembering) that Nabokov said you haven’t really read Lolita unless you’ve paid close attention to the American map, to every single place name visited by Humbert Humbert and his little ladylove. The idea is not that some secret would be revealed by tracing the route, only that the beauty of the novel lies in simple geographical details. Well, the truth is, I haven’t been able to find this quote, and Nabokov probably didn’t say it. But the book is so suspiciously replete with obnoxious details that I’m having trouble convincing myself he didn’t at least think it.
If it’s evidenced right there in the pages of the book, this emphasis, then perhaps I could have noticed it without hearing the quote, I mean perhaps I should have noticed it. Now that I’ve heard it I can’t help feeling embarrassed—as though my failure to notice was indicative of something shameful, something like a willful blindness, a rejection of everything that is not already obvious to me. Maybe with a certain orientation to the world, one where I’m looking specifically for things I can’t relate to; maybe if I cultivated an eye for what is not myself—then could these lessons make it to me? Could they reach all the way through my seemingly all-consuming exterior—my prior understandings, and tendency to repeat, and habits of self-gratification, and delay tactics, and a hundred thousand ever-malleable ever-resourceful excuses—without going up in flames?
Okay, I thought I was really “hammering” things out. But everybody misread my first draft. So here’s the part where I’m going to just be absolutely clear.
YES, you’re right:
that Latin body parts = technical things = meteoroid science = meteoroids themselves = plot devoid of reader subjectivity = map devoid of narrative interest; and that all of these = things outside oneself.
But NO, I AM NOT NECESSARILY SAYING:
that solipsism is bad and escaping is good and the above ways are some really great ways to do it, and look, watch me do it, and you should too. This is not my “point.” To the extent that I have any “point” at all, it would have to be something more like,
“It seems like everyone has a way out of narcissism these days!”
Phil has his David Foster Wallace quote. His friends, who attach too much value to intellectualizing the books they read, who incorporate everything they encounter into their usual game of “saying interesting things,” who find themselves rehashing their ideas again and again until they’re bored by the sounds of their own voices, who have “forgotten” how to exist in any other way—these friends need to be stopped in their tracks. His eyes malevolently gleaming, Phil presents them with “the plot,” the simple storyline; or rather, complicated, but complicated for its own reasons which have nothing to do with them.
I have my short-lived Wikipedia-based research projects. Michael has his “truth,” italicized, as in “that’s just true, is what that is.” Brandon has industrial wasteland. No need to visit a neighborhood that’s attractive and will provide for all of your demographic’s well-established needs when you could learn so much more by exploring an area that’s ugly and unwelcoming.
These things have started to run together for me. These “ways out” all seem to play the same role in our emotional economy. They all have the same reductive, contrarian, human flavor.
This does not make them “good,” right? Not at all. We get sick of being one thing, we reach out for plurality, but we do it the same way each time—what kind of plurality is that?
Am I wrong to think that an emphasis on “the plot” can only be a re-emphasis? It is made possible by a very specific historical moment, one that treats itself as seated upon historical baggage, and wants to go back to what came before the baggage, the simple way of interacting with the story, the plot. Simplicity reified. By “reified” I just mean: it is not as pure and plain the second time around, much though we might want it to be.
And may I embarrass us by placing us within an age? We live in an age that’s very aware of post-. I don’t mean to say we live in an age that’s very aware of history. Specifically we emphasize post-. We are all trying to one-up each other by being post-post-post-post-each other.
We live in an age where simplicity gets “returned” to and thus reified. Obviously we the enlightened scorn “living in the moment,” but certain other instances of reification, less hokey ones, slip through the cracks. Nabokov’s “the map” is different from “the moment” because it does not sound rich and rewarding but rather blank and foreboding, like a boulder that you’re supposed to willingly let fall on your head. That is the feeling of it. That is the aesthetic architecture. “The very reason you don’t like it is the reason you should.” There. BAM. Boulder. Now where do I go? I cannot make use of the lesson, as I cannot relate to it. It is an alien upon me. I push it away, or I fall in love with it. Stockholm syndrome. Post-narcissism is a masochism.
VII. AD HOMINEM
But that’s not the point, either.
Doesn’t it seem like every time we detect a habit of thought in ourselves, we’ve already critiqued that habit, because we’ve already critiqued ourselves, simply for having a habit?
And a habit of opposing all habits is no less a habit.
VIII. THE ELEMENTS
Oh right, this magazine has a theme.
As far as composition goes, there are three big groups of meteorites: stony, iron, and stony-iron. 94% of the meteoroids we see in the air are stony. (Even as shooting stars, we can tell what they’re made of by using a spectograph, which disperses the light emitted according to its wavelength; different chemical compositions yield different gaps in the bands of color on a spectrum.) But 90% of the meteorites we find on the ground are iron—the stony ones break up in the atmosphere, or get weathered over time, or camouflage with Earth-stuff. Meteoric iron, actually an alloy with about 7.5% nickel, was the earliest source of elemental iron available to humans. The Hittites exchanged it for forty times its weight in Assyrian silver long before the Iron Age.
“Native” iron is very rare on the Earth’s surface, so the Iron Age began when humans learned to extract workable metallic iron (Fe) from iron ore (any mineral made of oxidized iron, such as hematite, Fe2O3). This requires, among other things, temperatures of about 1250°C; cf. the melting point of granite, 1215 to 1260°C. (Take a minute to think about how difficult it would be to produce that temperature in a controlled way. Hint: you can’t do it in a cast iron pan. You can stir your mixture with iron rods, but don’t expect to keep them.)
Meanwhile, irony of ironies, there’s a moon-sized ball of iron beneath our feet. Being dense, it slid down four billion years ago when the Earth was molten. No one has ever been to the Earth’s core, of course. We know what it’s made of much the same way we know what meteors are made of—except that instead of looking at light waves (which can’t travel through the ground) we look at seismic waves, i.e. earthquakes. At the center of the Earth we find the same iron-nickel alloy that we find in iron meteorites. The latter almost certainly come from the center of large bodies as well—from asteroids that were broken up in collision with other asteroids.
IX. WHO IS AND WHO ISN’T SUSCEPTIBLE TO AD HOMINEM ATTACKS?
Mathematicians: not susceptible. Even if they should happen to suffer from an ascetic intellectual process, even if their procedures should prove repetitive or otherwise ignoble, if they’ve discovered things, and their math is right, it can’t be rendered invalid. They are said to be doing good work.
Poets: susceptible. Poets are the closest opposite of mathematicians that comes to mind. If we despise the process, we despise the poem. In other words, a poet’s attitude and work are close to the same thing.
Historians: depends on the critic’s view of history. If we think it’s important to have someone record everything that can be known—then, not susceptible. And we shouldn’t forget that there’s some extent to which that’s still true, that we still need records. But if we’re of a more postmodern persuasion and history is an active process, then: susceptible; a historian gets critiqued on the basis of her attitude. Halfway to postmodernism, she gets critiqued just for having an attitude. Three-quarters of the way to postmodernism, we critique her for having an attitude but only if she’s trying not to have an attitude; we say, she should have owned her attitude.
Buddhists: even more so than the poet’s, the Buddhist’s work is to have a certain attitude. Self-emptying; “all is one”; but isn’t this just the sort of mental habit I would oppose, for shouldn’t there be many, shouldn’t we seek to see the manifold nature of everything? And yet, I feel dissuaded from criticizing. Because he owns his habit so fully. If I can’t find a hint of a contradiction within him—well, then I can’t attack, I can’t find a way in...
The meteorite is what causes the light
And the meteor’s how it’s perceived;
And the meteoroid’s a bone thrown from the void that lies quiet in offering to thee.