THE BEGINNING OF THE SHORT VERSION: AN ABC’S BOOK
…Perhaps my ABC’s are instead of: instead of a novel, instead of an essay on the twentieth century, instead of a memoir. Each of the individuals [and places] remembered here sets into motion a network of mutual allusions and interdependencies linked to the facts of my century. In the final analysis, I do not regret that I have dropped names so cavalierly (or so it must seem), or that I have made a virtue of my casual way.
–Czeslaw Milosz, Milosz’s ABC’s
One feature, and difficulty, of an alphabetically-organized book is that it will inevitably be "the short version," so to speak, of everything it treats. Every entry in it could be, if not a book in itself, at least a full-fledged essay or story. But given the ever more limited horizon afforded to me by the approach of old age and death, the short version may be the best I can do, other than to die with a host of imaginary, unwritten books extinguished along with me.
No sooner is the notion of "the short version" invoked–it’s a phrase I often use in conversation, my version of "to make a long story short"–than it occurs to me that The Short Version is the right title. A hazy outline of the contents of such a book begins to form, like a small but persistent cloud. The Short Version is an abridgement, something that lies between "the whole story" and all the possible people, cities, and themes I could write about. At the same time, The Short Version suggests an infinite, ideal text: I can write about anything at all, and therefore about everything.
In addition to its textual opportunities and constraints, The Short Version is perforce the short version of another, conceptually amorphous, entity, just as life itself is the short version of the dream of immortality. That entity is one that includes both a "data base"–the sum of all my vocabularies–and the events of "my life"; together, they provide the locus in which I experience the world. I sometimes see my life as an obscurely-connected continuum in which I can never consistently locate the narrative. Remembering the etymology of "narrative" in the Greek word for "knowing," what I mean is that it is now our epistemological condition to be on uncertain ground, to not be able to know for sure what and where we are.
That condition is pretty much what we mean by the contemporary term "postmodernism." Nor is it the first time in history that human beings have found themselves in such circumstances, although each particular historical conjuncture of "the cloud of unknowing" is unique.
The uncertain grounding of what I know is itself a primary subject matter, rather than something to be overcome by a declaration of will. It almost goes without saying–but I’ll say it anyway because this point is frequently misunderstood–that the recognition of epistemological uncertainty is not an assertion of relativism or skepticism, moral or otherwise. That is, I’m prepared to make judgments, and justificatory arguments for those judgments, even though the justifications themselves are ungrounded. There is groundwork, but no absolute ground. Finally, the arbitrary order imposed by an alphabet book conveniently stands in for the obscurity of the connections in the continuum.
Probably no one is able to tell the whole story, but even in the short version one inflexible rule of art obtains: I’m not permitted to hold anything back. Some things may drop out of the text, more or less naturally in the course of composition, but I can’t save anything for later. Ideas, aphorisms, stories, entire imaginary books, whatever I have must be surrendered to the work at hand. I can’t say, Oh, I’ll hang on to this neat little idea, or grand thesis, for my next book, for my comfortable old age.
I began writing The Short Version in imitation of, and as homage to, Czeslaw Milosz’s book, Milosz’s ABC’s (2000). The Polish poet–winner of the Nobel prize in 1980, born in 1911, and thus almost in his nineties when he published his ABC’s book–simply wanted to recoup something of a world he’d once known that had by the end of the 20th century almost completely disappeared. As soon as I was partway into reading it, I conceived the notion that any writer so inclined might do something similar, since all of our worlds inevitably disappear. This, then, is the record of what I think about certain people, places and ideas that I want to leave to posterity, for its use and to prevent forgetting. It is, as well, although this is less important, integral to the life-long creation of my self. By self-creation, I mean–rather than its usage as a term in therapy–the development of private autonomy, as distinguished from our social hopes. Both motives obtain: The Short Version is a civilly-impelled, self-absorbed project.
Once, at dinner, when I mentioned my effort to imitate Milosz’s ABC’s, one of my table companions astutely and reasonably asked, "But wouldn’t you have to be as famous as Milosz?" I got his point. If you weren’t Milosz, wouldn’t your choice of persons, places and topics to write about merely be idiosyncratic? I saw that to make up for the author’s obscurity, the writing would have to be "interesting." I’ll do my best.
Sometime around the beginning of what we call "the third millennium" (the year 2000 in the Western system of dating years), my long-time friend, the San Francisco-born, Vancouver poet George Stanley half-jokingly invented the idea of "aboutism." Among other things, aboutism proposes that a poem–or any other literary work–should be, after all, about something, as contrasted to the contemporary poetries of linguistic abstractionism or anecdotal significances framed in verse. And underlying that dictum about poetry is the suggestion that life, too, should be about something.
In his book At Andy’s (New Star, Vancouver, 2000), Stanley’s poems are described (in a back cover blurb) as being "about movies, ballparks, hockey, dogs, sex, aging" and various trips Stanley had made "to Calgary and Veracruz, Ireland and Scotland, his return to Terrace, B.C., where he lived for fifteen years…"
And so they are. But when you read one of his poems, one, say, ostensibly about a few half-stoned men watching hockey on TV, or the comings-and-goings of a small town in northwestern British Columbia, Canada, it turns out that the poem is also about capitalism, television, the phenomenological events in the poet’s mind, advertising ("the car drives into your head & is wedged there, & the beer pours through your veins–"), the nature of language, one’s decentered location in the cosmos, the problems of writing, ruthless mortality and "the huge surrounding fucked reality." (I especially like that last, big, fuzzy, concept, "the huge surrounding fucked reality.") The poems are not only about something, they’re also almost always about everything.
Aboutism is George Stanley’s reminder–to himself and others– that art is, finally, about the world. A related but slightly different idea appears in contemporary philosophy in one of Richard Rorty’s essays, when he says, "Certainly we should not think of our [philosophical] claims answering to how anyone or everyone takes things to be, but neither should we take them to answer to how things really are. The alternative is to take them as about things, but not as answering to anything, either objects or opinions… Aboutness, like truth, is indefinable, and none the worse for that. But ‘answering’ and ‘representing’ are metaphors that cry out for further definition, for literalization." (Rorty, Truth and Progress, Cambridge, 1998.)
In relation to art, aboutism is a game, but within it is a fairly serious parody of contemporary literary movements. In fact, were it not saved by its playful aspects, aboutism would be a slightly reactionary doctrine–though not actively retrograde, like the so-called New Formalism in poetry (or, the "New Formaldahyde," as Stanley calls it). But aboutism is reactive in the sense that it rejects a lot of the outcomes, if not the intent, of the late 20th century literary movement known as Language Poetry. That is, aboutism doesn’t object to Language Poetry’s proposal for "a self-critical poetry, minus the short-circuiting rhetoric of vatic privilege" that "might dissolve the antinomies of marginality," but rather to the often irreferential results of its program to break "the automatism of the poetic ‘I’." (See Bob Perelman’s The Marginalization of Poetry, Princeton, 1996).
In the mornings, at the college just outside of Vancouver where I work, before we go off to teach our 8:30 classes to sleepy-headed students, Ryan Knighton, Reg Johanson, and I imagine aboutism. Ryan and Reg are the next generation of writers and teachers at the college, while George Stanley and I, in our sixties, are just about to be put out to pasture. Reg, though not an Aboutist, is willing to humour Ryan and me. He or Ryan, conjuring up the yet-to-be-written Aboutist Manifesto, cites the movement’s first axiom: "Theory guards us from error. We are for error." I.e., art wants to risk making mistakes.
Ryan insists that the name of the doctrine be pronounced in the French manner–"a-boo-tisme." Its practitioners can then be known as "Abootistas," he says (the quirky shift from French to Spanish is a comical way of celebrating the current Mexican Zapatista political movement). Ten years from now, I think, this semantic fooling around, which enlivened a few of our mornings (and thus gave us courage to talk to the students), will no doubt be inscrutible to readers. I imagine a project to recover–from the secret crannies and undervalued protocols of literary production–a history of lost literary jokes, and the pleasures they invoke.
Just before we leave for class, I suddenly cry out from my flimsy-walled office cubicle, imitating the strangled voices of dinosaurs I heard in "prehistoric" movie melodramas when I was a teenager. The movies had names like 100 Million B.C., and though they were far less "realistic" than contemporary digitalized dinosaur movies, they were much more scary. My high-pitched wail–a sort of "Wrrraghurrooaa"–echoes down the fibreboard corridor of the Humanities Division to Ryan’s office at the far end. Though my unpremeditated outburst is just a goofy, anti-professorial mockery of us academics studiously preparing our lesson plans before class, there’s something curiously authentic from my childhood under its surface. Maybe those movies gave me my first sense that, as George Stanley puts it in another poem, "Things cry out against each other– / the world, the image / I have of it, whirled back / in time, into nothing–" ("Things Cry Out," Opening Day, Oolichan, 1983.)
The sounds of professors in their cages, I say, but think: "We cry out." I can hear Reg, in a similar cubbyhole across the hall, chuckling at my send-up of classroom "preparation" (an activity solemnly invoked in union contracts between the college and the teachers). Perhaps I’m hinting that these days professors have been reduced to the evolutionary obsolescence of dinosaurs, but the immediate point of making fun of preparation is that there’s no way to be prepared for anything. Then we head off to our classes, perfectly unprepared Aboutistas, energetically ready to talk about the world.
P.S.: Predictably, as soon as a few people started taking Aboutism half-seriously, Stanley announced that Aboutism was over. He proposed an academic conference: "Aboutism: What Was It All About?"
In Jan van Eyck’s "Ghent Alterpiece" (c. 1432)–which I saw in St. Bavo’s Church in Ghent, Belgium–in the upper left-hand panel of the triptych, there’s a portrait of a naked Adam, driven from Paradise, taking the first irreversible step out of the Garden of Eden. What I notice are the sole and carefully rendered toes of Adam’s right foot, lifted in a step that, through an optical trick of van Eyck’s art, steps out of the narrow frame of the picture. I think of the old saw: The most difficult step of any journey is the first one. To which George Stanley tartly added: And every step is the first one.
While I was an adolescent, everything that is crucial to my identity happened. Because those adolescent experiences were so vivid, I could never accept the notions of the determining impact of the unconscious or the affective power of early childhood traumas with any enthusiasm. So, I’m not a Freudian even though it was the reigning psychological ideology during the 1950s when I was growing up. The general ideas of Freud are plausible in the abstract if not in the specifics, but I remain deeply resistant to the concept that we are primarily shaped by our infantile experiences.
Adolescence as the determining period of the creation of the self seems more common-sensically true. As an adolescent, my relationships with the boys with whom I played sandlot baseball and went to Marshall, and then Austin High School in Chicago–the Murphy brothers, Eddie Lacy, Bob Greenspan, Abe Dorevich, Nick Kinnis, Elliot Goldman, Mel Weisberg–set the parameters of my notions of friendship, loyalty, physical beauty and desire. Adolescence is when I first contemplated the nature of the starry universe; became engrossed in politics (the McCarthy-Army U.S. Senate hearings on communism were on TV and I watched them after school); and acquired a taste for "bohemian" company–in drama class with Sandra S., "Bunny," Chuck Harris. Adolescence is also when I began to write.
One day, age thirteen or so, around the onset of adolescence, I was working–inkily and ineptly–in the school mimeograph room (Sumner Elementary School) with Bob Perna, a local "tough" of Mediterranean lineage. He told me about an uncle of his who was an artist. I looked up blankly from the clicking drum of the mimeo and registered his disappointment that I failed to recognize the name of his relative, Salvador Dali, or the remarkableness of being so related. After all, I was supposed to be a "brain." I was awed by Perna’s sophistication, his assumption that one should surely know who Dali was, by the intimation that a larger world existed and could be the concern of people like me. Much later, coincidentally, I became particularly fond of Dali’s paintings, notwithstanding the contempt in which he’s held by the official art world, which regards him as something of a fraud.
There’s another part of this recollection that I’ve been–in the Freudian sense–suppressing while writing this. In the same conversation, Perna asked me if I got erections yet. I did, but he used the term "hardlock," which I’d never heard before–or since–and again I disappointed him with my blank look.
What surprises me, much later in life, is how often I still encounter situations through the experiential grid built when I was a teenager. If this is "arrested development," as the Freudians of my youth would have had it, then so be it.