Sunday, December 2, 2012

Aimless Reading: The W's, Part 25 (Walt Whitman)

Specimen Days & Collect
Whitman, Walt
Specimen Days & Collect

Purchased online.

When I was planning my dissertation, which was to have been on the subject of poets writing prose about history, I intended to write a chapter on Specimen Days. I never got around to it.

Yesterday was quite a day for me on this blog. The book I opened in the morning turned out to be something of a Pandora's box. I hadn't thought about R., the person who gave me that book, in quite some time. We were very close in college and after, and our relationship bordered on the romantic without ever quite stepping over the line.

It all ended badly, and I don't feel like recounting it again here. I know I wrote about it someplace else, but I can't tell you for sure which book it is under. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann might be a good place to look, if you are interested.

What was unique about yesterday was the unexpected force with which the memories came surging back to the surface. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I am feeling a little displaced right now, having just moved -- and to a cul de sac in the suburbs, no less! -- for the fifth time in four years. Maybe I am just having one of those middle-aged reassessments, asking myself what I have done with life, what I am doing with it, if I have lived up to my ambitions, etc.

There's no answer to these questions, of course.

Maybe it was the way the inscription was worded in the present tense of a relationship that no longer exists. It was startling to read a twenty-year old admonition to hold on to my sense of the accidental. This was compounded by the fact that I had no recollection at all of the conversation referred to. This didn't matter so much, as I could remember how it felt to be in that conversation, or at least that kind of conversation.

Strange also to think of a time in my life when I was so heavily invested in my friendships, that I once depended on my friend as if they were family or lovers or some combination thereof. I can't remember the last time someone lectured me on my behavior or attitudes, or vice versa, something I recall happening a lot at a certain age.

Maybe it's just the insecurity of being young. Everyone is running around feeling displaced and alienated and alone and part of the importance of those youthful friendships is that they help set you in place for a moment, to see yourself in the world as others see you, a sort of pause before you become something neither you nor your friends had ever imagined.

from Specimen Days & Collect

Thus I went on, years following, various seasons and areas, spinning forth my thought beneath the night and stars, (or as I was confined to my room by half-sickness,) or at midday looking out upon the sea, or far north steaming over the Saguenay's black breast, jotting all down in the loosest sort of chronological order, and here printing from my impromptu notes, hardly even the seasons group'd together, or anything corrected -- so afraid of dropping what smack of outdoors or sun or starlight might cling to the lines, I dared not try to meddle with or smooth them. Every now and then, (not often, but for a foil,) I carried a book in my pocket -- or perhaps tore out from some broken or cheap edition a bunch of loose leaves; most always had something of the sort ready, but only took it out when the mood demanded. In that way, utterly out of reach of literary conventions, I re-read many authors.

I cannot divest my appetite of literature, yet I find myself eventually trying it all by Nature -- first premises many call it, but really the crowning results of all, laws, tallies and proofs. (Has it never occurr'd to any one how the last deciding tests applicable to a book are entirely outside of technical and grammatical ones, and that any truly first-class production has little or nothing to do with the rules and calibres of ordinary critics? or the bloodless chalk of Allibone's Dictionary? I have fancied the ocean and the daylight, the mountain and the forest, putting their spirit in a judgment on our books. I have fancied some disembodied human soul giving its verdict.)


mongibeddu said...

Went back to your Death in Venice entry. What a great essay! Or do I mean story? Anyway, narrative art.

Michael Kelleher, New Haven, CT said...

Thanks, Ben! I am looking for something to call this whole project -- 'memoir' seems limited somehow.