by Tom Jacobs
How on earth did anyone get the idea that people can communicate with one another by letter! Of a distant person one can think, and of a person who is near one can catch hold – all else goes beyond human strength. Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and fights against it in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create natural communication, the peace of souls; it has invented the railway, the motorcar, the aeroplane. But it’s no longer any good, these are evidently inventions made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the radiograph. The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish (226).
~ Franz Kafka, “Letters to Felice”
I happened once, one fine summer afternoon several years ago, to be standing on a street corner in downtown Chicago, waiting for the light to change. I had taken a late lunch from my crappy temp job, and I usually bought a sandwich and then sought refuge from work in the Cultural Center, where daily lectures on a range of topics were given by graduate students from the University of Chicago. I had just listened to one of these as I gnawed on a turkey sandwich and was walking back to work through clouds of muddled thoughts about (in this case) ancient Greece and the use of masks in theater. This all had the effect of abstracting me from the modern realities of the skyscrapers that towered vaguely menacingly above me.
It was just then that I happened to look up and see a school bus slowly roll through the intersection before me. Perhaps it was on its way to a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. I saw a little boy, perhaps eight years old, sitting in the very last seat of the bus and looking directly at me. We held each other’s gaze for perhaps two seconds, and then, just as the bus lurched forward, and just as I was about to smile and return to mundane day, he put his hand up and gave me the finger.
An old joke: Socrates, after he’s been given the hemlock, asks, “excuse me, but I drank what!?
I giggled for quite some time about this moment, of this kid giving me the finger, and then when I stopped giggling, I began to think about what made me giggle. Whatever motivated him to flip me off, it somehow didn’t resolve itself into anything in particular. It didn’t, for instance, seem mean spirited or angry. It seemed to come from nowhere, really, which is what made and continues to make that remembered moment so powerfully interesting to me. Perhaps it was meant as some private expression of resentment toward one individual in the larger tides of tourists, workers in suits and ties that wash backwards and forwards through Chicago’s loop. Perhaps I reminded him of his hated brother, or father, or uncle. I will never know. Still, there’s the kid’s finger, and a bucketful of unanswered and unanswerable questions. And, ultimately, I’m less interested in figuring out his motivations than I am with figuring out what it means to me.
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worthwhile
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all. That is not what I meant, at all.
~T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
I once wrote a series of love letters to an old girlfriend. They were full of intimacies and private languages and things that I would never be able to admit to anyone else. I don’t know that they ever reached their recipient. Of course they did—they were emails—but still, I don’t know if they ever got there. Something was stolen. I was here and she was there. Ghosts stole something important along the way. There are even hungry ghosts on skype. Kafka would have understood this.
Love letters, or maybe any letters written when one is not in one’s “right” mind, when one is unsettled and ableboodled in the keepy, inevitably lose something on their way. When you escape the language of bureaucracy, nothing is certain. Perhaps all of these residues that have fallen away wind up in the dead letter office. Perhaps there is some Bartleby who sifts through these and throws them into the fire of forgotten history. There must be. Whoever it is, I pity him. And here’s poor Bartleby:
Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness. Can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.
This is extraordinarily sad. Somewhere there is a Bartleby, a fella who handles our dead letters, the ghost who reads all the undelivered letters and messages. The saddest job in the world. But someone has to do it, and thank god it’s not me.
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
~ Stevie Smith
I have recently been fascinated by a blog that collects people’s responses to what they would retrieve if their house were burning down. What would be that one thing that you would go back to get? A six year old whom was asked responded that he would retrieve his “Garfield mug.” An old friend understands the way signification and value (and the two are not so different) are profoundly related to the very specific and current moment in which one exists. Maybe that kid who gave me the finger, for instance, had just been humiliated and wanted to take it out on some stranger on the street. Anyway, my friend responded as follows:
Until you have kids when you realize that they are mostly spitting out whatever comes to their mind at any given time. For instance I will bet you that kid said, “Garfield mug” because he happened to be holding it at the time not for any sentimental reasons we would like to ascribe to it. It's their way of saying, “Are you talking because I would sure like to watch this TV program about a pirate and a talking pig without being interrupted by your nonsense questions.” Or is that just my kids?…
When you point to something in the presence of an infant, do they see the thing you are pointing at, or do they just see your pointy finger (as David Foster Wallace once noted, much more eloquently)?
This kid, giving me the finger, it was like a gift, this unbidden gesture he bequeathed to me to work through and consider for, well, the rest of my life, actually, (however overblown that might seem. For me, at least, many of these strange little gestures haunt me for years, decades, even. I assume it’s the same for all of us). I wasn’t fast enough to reciprocate (not that I wanted to, really), so it was a one-way exchange, and I was left to figure out how to live with the obligation to understand, or at least to entertain the possibility of understanding.
I saw into a small window into this stranger’s life, which he made infinitely more interesting than he might otherwise have, and now I feel obliged to care for it, to think about how to integrate the ghost of that moment into the machine of my understanding. It is no unlike those moments when you are walking down a street at night and happened to catch an Edward Hopper painting in progress through the window…a couple, maybe; maybe a family, each involved in their own worlds, and each signaling to the universe something of their own loneliness. It happens all the time, it’s just that we don’t see or notice it very often. It helps when it’s framed.
And what I think it means is that In that moment I came face to face with the very scene and the most basic choreography required for a signal to be sent. Usually a sign doesn’t come from nowhere; it is produced in response to a prior stimulus (“hello.” “hey, hello,” type of thing).
But it does seem to me to be possible that signification or communication can emerge with no prior engagement. The cave drawings in France, for instance. These seem to me to just be a pure effluence of the desire to express, to sign, regardless of whether they mean anything to anyone or whether they will ever be seen. It’s incredibly hard to imagine these cave paintings as not speaking to us, in some profound way. But of course they aren’t. Although it is virtually impossible to see them in any other way today, the dude/lady who painted them was not, obviously, thinking about us. S/he was just expressing. There was no goal or audience in mind. Something needed to be said. That’s why, I like to think, that kids give fingers to strangers.
This puts me in the mind of the reviewers of Terence Malick’s most recent film, The Tree of Life. Many of these critics are put into a kind of manic thrall of Malick’s vision and his ability to find extraordinary beauty in ocean waves, or the way the light comes in through a window in the early evening, or the way the wind ripples through grass. For Malick, nature seems to have less to do with meaning that with a sincere and sacred acknowledgment of its mysterious beauty. It is not malefic; it is beautiful. And we have a choice to view it one way or the other.
Why, it has often occurred to me, are clouds so lovely? Why is snow so unimaginably beautiful to watch fall, drift, whisper against the windowpane, and land on the hand of a child stunned by the intricacy of the individual snowflake? It all seems so unlikely. Snow isn’t black or green. Clouds aren’t rectilinear. They are gorgeously puffy and cottony. And I know, I know, this is a stupid thing to say…our sense of beauty is predicated on physical phenomena. If clouds were black and gooey, and if the physical laws of the universe produced pellets that smelled like balls instead of delicate white snowflakes, we would privilege those and that. It’s probably true. But before Shelley, no one found Mount Blanc anything to write home about. So it goes both ways, I think. We are lucky and we have been blessed. When the snow falls as it does from time to time, one can’t help but feel rejuvenated. I pity countries with no snow; it’s a ridiculously beautiful thing.
Why do we sign in the presence of no one? Why is there something rather than nothing? This little boy’s middle finger gives me a clue. It presents a challenge to my interpretive abilities, to the conventional ways through which I understand communication. Both cognition and affect are involved—both thought and feeling—but they don’t cohere or match. There’s a story there somewhere, a story about why entities or individuals produce signs or signals, and about what they mean, and about how they are understood. None of these things are available to me except the last—it’s like a shard of a story. We have to reverse engineer it.
There is the well-known distinction between natural signs and conventional signs (which is something that has intrigued poets ever since: viz. the pleasures to be found in conflating the two). If there is a difference between a sign that is created specifically for the purposes of communication (i.e., a conventional sign) and a sign that is just sort of there because it’s just an unintended side-effect of natural processes (i.e., a natural sign), which of the two is more interesting?
I think signs become interesting when we take them. In the same way that money or gold becomes ours when we take it. Not from the underprivileged or from the poor or anything like that, but rather from nature, and not in the Chevron sense of the thought. No, it’s not about “taking” resources from the earth, it’s about making the earth (or what Heidegger would call the “world”), signify in ways that we can understand. We have to, lest we languish in linguistic or semiotic prisons of our own making. The difference between taking and making is large, but it’s not so large that we can’t figure it out. The world gives us signs and symptoms, and we refuse them at our peril. Here’s H.D. Thoreau, examining a banked scar cut through the land by human hands for the sake of a railway. Nature and culture coalesce, and you figure out what’s bidden, what’s unbidden, what’s natural, and what’s not. And keep in mind that somewhere there is a child in the back of the train who will give you the finger.
The whole bank, which is from twenty to forty feet high, is sometimes overlaid with a mass of this kind of foliage, or sandy rupture, for a quarter of mile on one or both sides, the produce of one spring day. What makes this sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly. When I see on the one side the inert bank,—for the sun acts on one side first,—and on the other this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,—had come to where he was still at work, sorting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. […] Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf. What Champollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us, that we may turn over a new leaf at last?
The leaf, I think, is right there before us. Who has the balls to turn it over and explain?