lit the ancient past

Learning how not to think

If you haven't read David Fos­ter Wallace's 2005 com­mence­ment address at Keny­on, you should. It's hum­ble and real and warm, and tru­ly great. It's also very dif­fi­cult to read. After his sui­cide, it's impos­si­ble not to hear the echoes of Wallace's inter­nal con­ver­sa­tion, the dark­ness and doubt and obses­sive thoughts that he clear­ly strug­gled to get a han­dle on.

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to stay alert and atten­tive, instead of get­ting hyp­no­tized by the con­stant mono­logue inside your own head (may be hap­pen­ing right now). Twen­ty years after my own grad­u­a­tion, I have come grad­u­al­ly to under­stand that the lib­er­al arts cliché about teach­ing you how to think is actu­al­ly short­hand for a much deep­er, more seri­ous idea: Learn­ing how to think real­ly means learn­ing how to exer­cise some con­trol over how and what you think. It means being con­scious and aware enough to choose what you pay atten­tion to and to choose how you con­struct mean­ing from expe­ri­ence. Because if you can­not exer­cise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be total­ly hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excel­lent ser­vant but a ter­ri­ble master.

It's not tech­ni­cal­ly avail­able online, but you might be able to stum­ble across it in the depths of the Inter­net archives. Thanks, Dave.

lit reviews

Haruki Murakami / The act of passing through

I've always loved Haru­ki Muraka­mi. I share his tastes in music — Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones — and I'm eas­i­ly tak­en in by his smoky bars, rainy nights, noir pac­ing, puz­zling plot twists, and spare, reserved prose. His books are filled with cool, crisply imag­ined sit­u­a­tions that are eeri­ly lay­ered with shad­ows and mys­tery, and that shift sub­tly between real­i­ty and sur­re­al­i­ty, between the nat­ur­al and the super­nat­ur­al. Recent­ly, it was revealed that he is a run­ner, like me, when he released a book of rumi­na­tions on run­ning and its effects on his life and writ­ing. It's called What I Talk About When I Talk About Run­ning, and it is eas­i­ly in my per­son­al tops of the pops for 2008.There was some­thing about his writ­ing that struck a deep chord with me, but the nature of it was not revealed until he described a spe­cif­ic moment of "pass­ing through" dur­ing an ultra-marathon. Peo­ple talk about "hit­ting the wall," but, in my expe­ri­ence, run­ning is about hit­ting many walls, and some­how emerg­ing on the oth­er side.

… Around the 47th mile I felt like I'd passed through some­thing. That's what it felt like. Passed through is the only way I can express it. Like my body has passed clean through a stone wall. At what exact point I felt like I'd made it through, I can't recall, but sud­den­ly I noticed I was on the oth­er side. I don't know about the log­ic or the process or the method involved — I was sim­ply con­vinced of the real­i­ty that I'd passed through.

Once I read that, I start­ed to remem­ber oth­er moments in Muraka­mi books, moments that all of a sud­den seemed to spring from his run­ning expe­ri­ence. For instance, there's a scene in The Wind-Up Bird Chron­i­cle when Boku descends into a well to try to pass through its stone wall to find his miss­ing wife, Kumiko, in a room on the oth­er side of the wall:

I try to sep­a­rate from myself … I try to get out of the clum­sy flesh of mine, which is crouch­ing here in the dark. Now I am noth­ing but a vacant house, an aban­doned well. I try to go out­side, to change vehi­cles, to leap from one real­i­ty to anoth­er that moves at a dif­fer­ent speed. Now a sin­gle wall is the only thing sep­a­rat­ing me from the strange room. I ought to be able to pass through that wall. I should be able to do that with my own strength and with the pow­er of deep dark­ness in here.

Lat­er, he breaks through.

All of a sud­den, I was asleep, as if I had been walk­ing down a cor­ri­dor with noth­ing par­tic­u­lar on my mind when, with­out warn­ing, I was dragged into an unknown room. How long this thick, mud­like stu­por enveloped me I had no idea. It couldn't have been very long. It might have been just a moment. But when some kind of pres­ence brought me back to con­scious­ness, I knew I was in anoth­er darkness.

That sense of being changed "with­out warn­ing" is so rec­og­niz­able; I feel like I've been on long runs in which I'm trans­port­ed sud­den­ly, through time, and dropped some­where else. And the part about "anoth­er dark­ness" remind­ed me of After Dark, when Eri Asai has some­how passed from an actu­al bed to a bed on a TV screen that faces the actu­al bed, a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion in which the rules were some­how total­ly different: 

In the bed in that oth­er world, Eri con­tin­ues sleep­ing sound­ly, as she did when she was in this room — just as beau­ti­ful­ly, just as deeply. She is not aware that some hand has car­ried her (or per­haps we should say her body) into the TV screen. The blind­ing glare of the ceiling's flu­o­res­cent lamps does not pen­e­trate to the bot­tom of the sea trench in which she sleeps.

All of these make more sense now. It's all about break­ing through, about tran­scend­ing some­thing that is both phys­i­cal and men­tal, even spir­i­tu­al. I also loved Murakami's run­ning mantra: "I'm not a human. I'm a piece of machin­ery. I don't need to feel a thing. Just forge on ahead." It remind­ed me of my own mantra, which is the final verse of John­ny Cash's Fol­som Prison Blues:

Well, if they freed me from this prison,If that rail­road train was mine,I bet I'd move it on a little,Farther down the line,Far from Fol­som Prison,That's where I want to stay,And I'd let that lone­some whistle,Blow my Blues away. 

Run­ning: It's all about pain, machines, escape, and break­ing through walls.