I just spent ten days marveling at Asia. But, despite the magic of travel, no trip I’ve taken has ever been tinged with such sorrow.
Every morning for the past ten days, I read an entire physical, newspaper. Could the news be sadder than it is now? Gay men shocked to death in Chechnya, one hundred thousand people detained in Turkey, another blasphemy killing in Pakistan, another Russian journalist beaten dead, millions of refugees swallowed by the muds and sands of Bangladesh, Lebanon, Jordan, Sudan, a river disappears in Canada, one hundred young recruits blown up in Afghanistan, the total collapse of Venezuela, the sixth year of holocaust in Syria.
Putin, Assad and his pretty-faced wife, Maduro, Kony. The extermination wrought by this short list of names is too much to bear.When asked by a television reporter about the reports of gay men disappearing, dying, Chechen leader Kadyrov responded that the reports were false because there were no gay men in Chechnya, no people “oriented in the wrong way.”
And then there’s Trump, whose full frontal attack on Planned Parenthood and climate change may be the greatest crime against humanity in the news today. No lush diplomatic cake with China can sweeten the smog away.
When you do the math, there is no addition, only subtraction, division. Poverty and violence swallow entire countries whole. To write, and read, “Without Fear or Favor,” as The Japan Times proudly claims to do, is a privilege of the insufficient few.
Apart from donating, voting and speaking out, staying informed is its own form of protest, of empathy. But serious newspapers are suffering as free (often fake) news gains traction. So, today, I decided to subscribe to a few major national newspapers. The New York Times, for example, is on sale. For $1.50 a week you can read every article on their site. The Washington Post gives you unlimited access for $99 a year. A small price to pay to make sure someone is watching.
“The Time when Bookstores Went Out of Business” is a label that fits the first few decades of this century. I’ve encountered more closing book shops than I care to count. Yet, as dispiriting as it is to do so, treasures can be found amidst the fallout.
Liberty Books on Clematis in West Palm Beach went out of business this past March, after faithfully serving the haphazard public on that haphazard street for many years.
Days before it closed, I entered its doomed space and purchased a few children’s books and George Perec’s “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.” Perec, an established novelist writing in 1975, sets out to descriptively exhaust a single spot in the French capital without the use of narrative, history, metaphor, as he puts forth in the introduction:
“My intention in the pages that follow was to describe the rest instead: that which is not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.”
The short book is structured as a list of random, apparently disconnected events that happen at place Saint Suplice over a period of three days. Coffee, buses, church goings, church comings. Perec tells no story. But, precisely because there is no narrative, no point, the narrator becomes all important. What goes into the book is what he sucks out from the scenes about him. The Place Saint Suplice of three days in 1975 exists today because of Perec, the collector who itemizes its images.
A mere fifty pages in, Perec realizes that no place can become “exhausted,” only the observer. Nothing changes when everything changes. Cake boxes. Strollers. Rain. Without added meaning, life is a list that is ordered according to time, to the weather, to the writer and his way. Once Perec realizes this, the exercise is complete:
It is the mind of the viewer/writer/viewer that summons meaning from the procession of life.
The mind is the oyster is the world. Perec presents this and invites the reader to suck the oyster whole, be present to the taste of the texture that surrounds. In a few, few days, everything contained.
The buses, the Citroens, the Cambembert. The kids, the clouds, the suddenness of crowd. A quote:
“A bus, empty
Some Japanese, in another bus
The 86 goes to Saint-Germain des Pres
Braun art reproductions
Japanese on a bus. Lull. Lassitude. Wherever you go, there you are. On Clematis Street, anther bookstore closed. Pause? Lassitude.
O, the list goes on.
This week’s “Economist” magazine includes a review of a new biography on one of America’s greatest poets ever: Elizabeth Bishop.
Highlighted above is one of my favorite Bishop quotes, from her poem “One Art”:
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things feel filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster”
This for me has proven to be a year of magical thinking, a year of metamorphosing concrete barricades into trampolines via transformative thought.
Magical thinking works. Didion said it first. I look forward to going through her words.