I read for knowledge, I read for clarity, and the perfect paragraph(s) has always had the same impact on me as the perfect song–keeping in mind that perfection is in the eye of the beholder. Often, I’ll select a volume to read from my stacks of dusty books that were purchased and then forgotten for months and years. Why that volume strikes me then, at that particular time, I do not know because it picks me, and then one or two or three chapters in I realize it is the precise book I needed at that moment. The words cut deeply, the plot lines are too relevant, and I leave the book behind a little more determined in my course of action, a bit more comfortable in my world view: an energized person. If music marks moments, then literature (fiction and non-fiction) makes them through contextualization.
This has the case with Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes and every poem I’ve ever read by Charles Bukowski (as messed up as that sounds), and has happened most recently with a book by Czeslaw Milosz titled Visions from San Francisco Bay. In the first chapter, Milosz outlines his intention for the book and it electrified me so I thought I’d share the lighting strike. Hopefully it hits home for you too.
I am here. Those three words contain all that can be said–you begin with those words and return to them. Here means on this earth, on this continent and no other, in this city and no other and in this epoch I call mine, this century, this year. I was given no other place, no other time, and I touch my desk to defend myself against the feeling that my own body is transient. This is all very fundamental, but, after all, the science of life depends on the gradual discovery of fundamental truths.
I have written on various subjects, and not, for the most part, as I would have wished. Nor will I realize my long standing intention this time. But I am always aware that what I want is impossible to achieve. I would need the ability to communicate my full amazement at ‘being here’ in one unattainable sentence which would simultaneously transmit the smell and texture of my skin, everything stored in my member, and all I now assent to, dissent from. However, in pursuing the impossible, I did learn something. Each of us is so ashamed of his own helplessness and ignorance that he considers it appropriate to communicate only what he thinks other will understand. There are, however, time when somehow we slowly divest ourselves of the shame and being to speak openly about all the things we do not understand. If I am no wise, then why must I pretend to be? If I am lost, why must I pretend to have ready counsel for my contemporaries? But perhaps the value of communication depends on the acknowledgement of one’s own limits, which, mysteriously, are also limits common to many others; and aren’t these the same limits of a hundred or a thousand years ago? And when the air is filled with the clamor of analysis and conclusion, would it be entirely useless to admit you do not understand?
I have read many books, but to place all those volumes on top of one another and stand on them would not add a cubit to my stature. Their learned terms are of little use when I attempt to seize naked experience, which eludes all accepted ideas. To borrow their language can be helpful in many ways, but it also leads imperceptibly into a self-contained labyrinth, leaving us in alien corridors which allow no exit. And so I must offer assistance, check every moment to be sure I am not departing from what I have actually experience on my own, what I myself have touched. I cannot invent a new language and I use the one I was first taught, but I can distinguish, I hope, between what is mine and what is merely fashionable. I cannot expel from memory the books I have read, their contending theories and philosophies, but I am free to be suspicious and to ask naive questions instead of joining the chorus which affirms and denies.
Intimidation. I am brave and undaunted in the certainty of having something important to say to the world, something no one else will be called to say. Then the feeling of individuality and a unique role begins to weaken and the thought of all people who ever were, are, and ever will be–aspiring, doubting, believing–people superior to me in strength of feeling and depth of mind, robs me of confidence in what I call me ‘I’. The words of a prayer two millennia old, the celestial music created by a composer in a wig and jabot make me ask why I, too, am here, why me? Shouldn’t one evaluate his changes beforehand–either equal the best or say nothing. Right at this moment, as I put these marks to paper, countless others are doing he same, and out books in their brightly colored jackets will be added to that mass of things in which names and titles sink and vanish. No doubt, also at this very moment, someone is standing in a bookstore, and faced with the sight of those splendid and vain ambitions, is making his decisions–silence is better. That single phrase which, were it truly weighed, would suffice as a life’s work. However, here, now, I have the courage to speak, a sort of secondary courage, not blind. Perhaps it is my stubbornness in pursuit of that single sentence. Or perhaps it is my old fearlessness, temperament, fate, a search for a new dodge. In any case, my consolation lies not so much in the role I have been called to play as in the great mosaic-like whole which is composed of fragments of various people’s efforts, whether successfully or not. I am here–and everyone is in some ‘here’–and the only thing we can do is try to communicate with one another.