Friday, January 6, 2017


“Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone.”—Rebecca Solnit

Writing should be that, at least. The idea I find in Solnit’s statement is the one that has been the driving force behind all the journal writing I have ever done. It’s saying to no one and, I would say, “anyone” things not meant for any particular someone. Not that I’m writing suppressed secrets or anything like that. For me, at the start, it was a case of needing writing to say anything at all. Most conversations aren’t aimed for much purpose apart from exercising the vocal chords or simply making time with some particular person. Argument is generally an airing of griefs rather than of views. Conversation has its place, but rare are its occasions, in my experience. Chat is much more prevalent and, in my youth, I had a knack for that only in very limited contexts. And I wasn’t particularly skilled at introducing a topic and developing it. That came much later, with teaching. In the days when I first began keeping a journal—19—I wrote because no one was listening and, even if they were, I didn’t have much to say, aloud.

It’s that “not possible” that we might spend some time discussing. What makes saying something “possible” or “not possible”? Some might think: censors, internal or external. But censors insist that something is forbidden to be said or maybe, in a sense, unthinkable and thus unsayable. But “not possible to say to someone” is the full phrase. The key idea it seems to me is that there is no “someone” poised to receive these intelligences. It’s “not possible” to think of a single individual. No valued listener or friend. More, perhaps: what one wants to write, needs to write, doesn’t necessarily need to be heard. It must be read, or forget it. This is what I took Solnit to mean because it addresses my own quandary about writing to be read. I have no problem with writing something I’m expected to write—the terms are, as it were, provided by the occasion. But writing what no one asked one to write, writing that isn’t simply—as in a notebook—for one’s eyes only or primarily, such writing demands a reader who is not oneself, and yet who could that person be? All “someones” in one’s life are foreclosed by that phrase “not possible to say to someone.” If there were someone one could address, one would write a personal letter, pick up the phone, send an email or text.

Perhaps tweets function in the way Solnit means. They certainly have a gang’s-all-here quality that means they’re for everyone, whoever, wherever. And they seem to be, rhetorically, a gesture more than anything, something that, if addressed to only one someone, would have personal meaning, but when flung into the internet become bits of observable phenomena, to be made of as who so will. But I don’t have much to say about that. Though, arguably, a blog post, and I’ve written a few of those, is just an overly long tweet. If so, then, yes, let’s just say that in this online format one is speaking to no one and anyone all the time. But is that what one is always doing in writing anyway? Perhaps, but to me the difference between online writing and a journal is that “anyone” factor. In time, should a notebook survive, anyone might come across it and read it, true, but it wasn’t written for that eventuality. A post already presumes an environment in which, potentially, anyone’s eyes might fall upon something, for reasons which remain obscure. So, while I feel that journal writing is for “no one” (except me), blog posts are for “anyone,” deliberately.

Then again, I think of Nietzsche’s subtitle for Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “a book for everyone and no one.” If Solnit is correct, every book could bear that subtitle, as any act of writing could. But Nietzsche meant it in a particular way, as though the contents of the book, while there for everyone to glean, had no immediate audience. No one was quite ready to receive it or read it. And yet it was written for them, for us, all.

That aspect of Nietzsche’s writing appealed to me greatly in my teens. That sense that “no one,” perhaps, had ever quite gotten it, so that “everyone” was missing the point. I have that sensation a lot. Most things I read, however perspicacious they may be, usually suggest to me some aspect of the question that the writer is not addressing, is missing. It was Nietzsche who first exposed me, repeatedly, to how prevalent is the fact that, in making a point, one misses a point. It’s not simply that there are two sides to the point and one is stressing one and ignoring the other, no, it’s more dialectical than that. It’s the fact that, in saying something, one creates a shadowy negative of what one is saying in the reader’s mind. A reader well-informed on the topic will have other facts and points already raised, mentally. But even someone just reading along will see the gaps in the logic and, sometimes fatally, the rhetorical sleights that create a sense of authority where there is only opinion or, worse, received opinion. We all drop the ball in writing and even more so in speaking. In fact, a lot of writing seems to exist for no other purpose than to sound the horn, saying “look out, I’m speaking here.” Some people have so much to say.

In our Trumped-up times, speech, as any kind of measured rhetoric, has taken a big hit. Public discourse may not survive the blow. Already it was weak in the knees. Obama, who speaks with a judicious weighing easy to parody, was a true anomaly in U.S. politics. It’s all banter, bluster and balderdash now, and one tweets to everyone and anyone what may not be reasonable to say to “someone.”

Which, I suppose, might be a way of saying—to anyone!—that one reason to keep writing, much as I hate to say it, is to stop one’s ears to all the worthless verbiage. If I’m writing I can’t be listening, or reading. And there’s only so much of the latter two acts I feel willing to engage in, at this time. Sure, it’s always possible to read writing from some other time, to engage the mind with more knowledge that, while not strictly useful, helps to offset the sense of wallowing in the worst excesses of the American public so far endured. To the extent that we Americans are all some portion of the body politic, we are all now numbered among the Unfortunate Stooges of America, played for patsies by a Clown Prince of Crime, à la The Joker.

During the election, I happened to see episodes of the old TV series Batman, starring Adam West, in which The Penguin runs for mayor and he’s kicking the incumbent’s ass, so they ask Batman to run, and he does, much in the measured tones of our outgoing Prez, which gets him nowhere in the climate of the Penguin’s sideshow razzle-dazzle. The Penguin’s rhetoric’s resemblance to Trump’s empty promises is uncanny, or would be except that the blueprint for how to say nothing and mean it has long been engraved into the national psyche, so much so that Trump on the stump was always the bad Reality TV version of what a scripted bullshit-slinger would sound like, trumpeting the message that the only people stupider than his listeners are the people who have been elected or hired to do the jobs they do. I’ve heard this “everyone’s an idiot but me” line my entire life, and it usually comes from someone who hates the higher-ups but who doesn’t want their tasks. Wants to snipe, not lead. Trumpy, however, sniped his way into a job. It’s a job he doesn’t really want—in the sense of its job description—unless he can do it his way. He was elected president, but he ran for monarch. So I guess we’ll see how that plays out. What else is there to watch?

Meanwhile, it’s a new year. I’d like to say it’s time, for me, for a return to writing, the kind of writing I don’t engage in often enough, to go back to whatever it was that got me interested in doing it and to find out if it’s possible to say what I wanted to say. I never had enough faith in big abstract things like “the American people” or “God” or “my fellow man” to be bitterly disappointed by the crap that comes down. In the Batman episode, ultimately, the people don’t elect The Penguin, showing that there was still an electorate capable of distinguishing between a snake-oil salesman and a person with at least a few commitments to something other than himself and his own will to power. But that was in 1968, which is when everything got broken and pretty much stayed that way. When I was in high school, in the mid-Seventies, I read this passage by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. It seemed to say it all then.

I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, "What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?"
It doesn't take long to read
The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period.
This is it:

At the time, that suited my view, as a teen without much connection to my times or my contemporaries. Later, when I was much better educated, I would try to qualify that passage. The “past million years” is too sweeping a generality. I still think so, but I would apply the formula to “the past 50 years,” easily. So it goes.

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