shot in the back-shot in the arm


Not quite an Alpine vista, the world of rural western Sweden in mid-March was this time mostly sun-filled, a shot in the arm for getting things done. Pleasurable things. Okay, maybe hauling recyclables to the recycle station doesn’t count. Must be done, and there is some pleasure to be found in accomplishing the must-do stuff, too.

Conversation (so much laughing). Walking. Writing. Films, thanks to MUBI (Fogo – what a weird accent these islanders have, such breathtaking scenery; I’m All Yours – an unusual French film that had the makings of a really good story but was not sure what it wanted to be and suffered from trying to clumsily weave too many narrative threads into it; Catch Me Daddy – quite a grim and disturbing picture, mostly filmed in West Yorkshire with a bunch of foul-mouthed Scots in the mix). Music (mostly Elena Frolova – various things from her, inspired by digging out my CD of Frolova setting Marina Tsvetaeva poetry to music, but also Nippon Girls volumes 1 and 2).

Reading (First, I quickly devoured a basic and silly book on developing ‘psychic abilities’. Not because I think it will work or because I want to develop clairvoyance. I thought it might give more insight into developing deeper intuition.

The rest of my reading time was devoured – and I mean devoured; time is devoured by the book, not the other way around – by David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest. I’m still only halfway through. For a month I sat at about 2% completion, according to my Kindle, but in the last two days, I managed to chip away at it to reach the halfway mark. (It is, after all, well over 1,000 pages.) I don’t necessarily like it, but I marvel at it. I really like select parts of it, and others I can take or leave. I suppose this is symptomatic of the ‘bigger is better’ credo that seems to have propelled the book forward, which  Michiko Kakutani referred to in her original review:

“Perfect, however, “Infinite Jest” is not: this 1,079-page novel is a “loose baggy monster,” to use Henry James’s words, a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr. Wallace’s mind.”

“The book seems to have been written and edited (or not edited) on the principle that bigger is better, more means more important, and this results in a big psychedelic jumble of characters, anecdotes, jokes, soliloquies, reminiscences and footnotes, uproarious and mind-boggling, but also arbitrary and self-indulgent.”

Sometimes that “encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr. Wallace’s mind” is fascinating; sometimes it’s pages of mind-numbing, sleep-inducing quicksand. As a whole, the concept is fascinating but digging into the details isn’t always.

The language – both its volume and particular use – can be overwhelming – the breadth, depth, randomness – lack of narrative or plot-driven clarity while still somehow offering some other kind of clarity – is not something I can really explain or describe or review. It is exactly what it is unapologetically, with its sudden, pages-long description of the terror of suddenly moving from aural telephone to videophony or little statements like, “Son, you’re ten, and this is hard news for somebody ten, even if you’re almost five-eleven, a possible pituitary freak.” Haha. You never know whether to laugh, cry, be puzzled. Less story or narrative than a radical transformation of language and form that feels that it inadvertently (though this is quite deliberate) ends up telling many stories anyway.

It’s just so much, so complex, so full of digressions, but the kind you can get engrossed in, not distracted by. Random but not.

Long passages about addiction and AA “sobriety in Boston is regarded as less a gift than a sort of cosmic loan. You can’t pay the loan back but you can pay it forward, by spreading the message that despite all appearances AA works…” “The only way to hang onto sobriety is to give it away and even just 24 hours of sobriety is worth doing anything for, a sober day being nothing short of a daily miracle if you’ve got the Disease like he’s got the Disease…”.

Relatable, but at the same time so far out there, it’s not. You have to sit and wonder about the writer with the kind of mind who produced this tome much more than the content of the final product itself in some ways (and he was clearly tortured enough to take his own life).)

Safe in Sweden: Intent versus content


Nothing at all has happened in Sweden – nothing out of the ordinary.

Various disciplines focus on the form versus content debate. I’m not going to get into the philosophical or artistic underpinnings of this discussion.

I will only make two points/observations.

First, we live in a time when the content of news does not matter because, according to the current US president, it’s all fake (at least, that is, if he doesn’t like it). Form still matters because of course the loudest, widest platform is going to carry the “fake news” (the facts) out to broader audiences – as well as the fairground funhouse that is the Trump administration and its lies. This past weekend, Trump invented an incident in Sweden – bloviating as usual – decrying how Sweden has basically gone to hell in a hand basket due to its welcoming refugees into the country. The ‘incident’ he cites, of course, never happened. All of Sweden is wondering what the hell he is talking about. (But then, who doesn’t wonder what he is talking about most of the time?)

My second thought, by extension, is about intent. Maybe the content (or the veracity of it) does not matter; maybe even the form is secondary. But what about intent? Trump may well know that nothing happened in Sweden – but his intent with virtually everything he says and does is to obfuscate fact, plant seeds of doubt and confuse people (there are apparently people out there who take the things he says at face value, believe them, pass them on; some even believe that some event did occur in Sweden, and that the entire world, Sweden included, is conspiring to cover it up?!). We will all busy ourselves making fun of this blunder to the degree that we will (continue to) be distracted from whatever shady and nefarious dealings are actually happening right under our noses.

I had a discussion with someone the other day about conversations and letters we exchanged early in our acquaintance. He asked me what I feel about them now that many years have passed. I laughed and said, “I can’t believe how full of shit they are.” He was pretty offended, even hurt (misinterpreting what I said, taking it personally). He explained that he had remembered the flow, the feeling and sense of possibility – and moreover, the intent – much more than he remembered the actual content. It made a lot of sense – he has always been more of a feeling and intent person. I, on the other hand, always hang onto the content itself (another dear friend said the other day, and I loved this: “as a person who values words so very very much, how when I am misled by words it’s not the words themselves but the complete lack of value that the speaker puts in them”. As always she hit the nail on the head; another great example of her eloquence and wisdom). It was perhaps the first time I really thought somewhat academically about content versus intent (even though I write all the time about people’s words versus actions, which is essentially the same debate). We cannot always know intent but as a part of analysis and “reading” people and moderating our own expectations, inferring/predicting intent may be our saving grace. Or at least save us a whole lot of trouble.

On the other hand, acting on what you imagine someone’s intent may be is dangerous. It’s like arresting someone before they commit a crime or, like Trump, deciding that every Muslim or every refugee is some kind of terrorist sleeper agent. He “infers intent” – but based on nothing. That is the difference. You don’t assume someone’s intent without taking in the content and context in which it lives.

Photo (c) SDH Photography/Sebastian Davenport-Handley