17 MAY UPDATE — Yesterday afternoon I finished writing the first draft of the book.
Almost as soon as I began walking I realized that yesterday I’d gone too fast. I’d been rushing into the Apocalypse, fourteen catastrophes strung end to end: global warming, a massive meteor strike event, zones of zero gravity, the Yankees winning their sixteenth consecutive World Series… There is nothing left to be done: that was the last bead on the string. But I was going too fast, trying to finish by Thursday, behind a bit now because last Friday’s task had extended through the weekend all the way till noon yesterday. Afterward I’d had lunch, dawdled awhile trying to clear my head, gone for a run along the trail, watching the prairie dogs watching me, weaving through the cattle to the creek and back again. Then I had tried to do a whole day’s work starting at three in the afternoon. I didn’t give myself time to sink into it, just hurtled into the Apocalypse like there was no tomorrow. Or actually, like tomorrow I had to do tomorrow’s work, not the rest of today’s, if I was going to finish the whole project by Thursday.
I woke up at two this morning, something that doesn’t happen very often any more. Maybe it was the heat, the first really warm night of the spring. Maybe the afternoon’s rushed Apocalypse was coming back at me, letting me know that I’d cheated it. In that day, the prophet would warn, craggy finger pointing toward the end. And who are you, O son of man, to give it a scant three hours, just because you had to drink your glass of beer, had to fry the porterhouse and the potatoes and make the salad, just because you were fully booked for each of the three post-Apocalyptic days?
What did I read when I got up at two? The chapter in the brain science book just didn’t register. A chapter of DeLillo: I felt like I’d been there too recently, or no: that I was there most of the day every day. In Pynchon the brigadier was subjecting himself to the dominatrix: that proved best for a hot mid-May four in the morning; I could go back to sleep after that. I wrote something too, between the brain science and the DeLillo. As an ordinary Joe I don’t harbor ambitions to become something other than human — not posthuman, or transhuman, or post-traumatic zombie, or non-conscious swarm drive, or schizophrenic rhizome, or theotic transcender. I think that ordinary language does describe real things in the world rather than separating humans from the Real. I don’t see any point in accelerating into sociopathy as the expression of a protean will to power. I don’t believe that bioengineering merged with AI will spawn a new hybrid post-human species. That’s what I wrote at three a.m.
At seven I woke up for real, the Tuesday before the Thursday. While drinking my first coffee and eating a donut I came across a video of a debate between Foucault and Chomsky. This must have been in the seventies: Chomsky looked like a prototypical seventies MIT prof, a slightly nerdy corporate engineer type, while Foucault, with his shaved head and stern disposition, appeared menacing and severe. This was no debate: the headliners were talking past each other, addressing the audience in different languages about different topics, barely grazing each other. I wondered, not for the first time, if Foucault’s and Deleuze’s and Lacan’s paranoia about being boxed in by language was an artifact of being French, having been taught to write French by French teachers in French schools. In her early American years our daughter had attended what might be deemed a Chomskyan school: express yourself creatively, and the rules of grammar and spelling will take care of themselves. In France we immersed her in structure: formal instruction in parts of speech and conjugations, recitation of poems par cœur, get creative once you’ve grown accustomed to the apparatus. Some of the American parents couldn’t stand it: they had to take their kids back home, or enroll them in American international schools. Happily for our daughter the French primaire proved to be good cross-training. Now she writes Paradise Lost fan fiction.
That’s one reason why I want to be finished by Thursday: we leave on Friday to pick her up from school for the summer. Last week my wife found a poem called “Iowa City to Boulder,” by William Matthews. With that poem Matthews marked off the route, 80 to 76, as a pilgrimage trail for his readers to follow. But of course Kerouac had already made that run years before. I take most of the drive by night, Matthews wrote: I wonder if it’s true, or if the poem is a kind of short story, a flash fiction they might call it these days, semi-constrained in the poetic structure. Maybe he drove it in the daytime but decided that night driving would be more poetic. It’s free verse as far as I can tell, no predefined rhyme or meter or line length to constrain the drive. A Chomskyan poem.
But now it’s eight o’clock Tuesday morning and I’m walking past the upper pasture, watching the bull as he begins his workday, paying his morning visits to the ladies, and I’m thinking post-Apocalyptically. If I go back in time can I stage it differently? The Book of Revelation is a kind of linguistic apocalypse, a description of something that’s beyond description, signifiers flying off the signifieds, the whole structure of the language being pulled apart in the cosmic upheaval. In his ecstasy John points his craggy finger beyond that day, past the end to the new heavens and new earth. He’s left his body, left the earth, surging beyond structural constraints, embarking upon a visitation to a Deleuzian linguistic afterlife, one among perhaps a multitude of afterlives, where language is free to do whatever on earth or in heaven it desires.
So I’m thinking about going back to yesterday and sketching out an alternative end of the world. a linguistic Apocalypse that does not point beyond itself to the linguistic Millennium. A report comes in from one of the time-traveling reconnaissance agents: there’s been a catastrophic and widespread rupture between signifiers and signifieds. Now – that is in the Apocalyptic future – whenever anyone tells you anything, you have no idea what the speaker intends to convey. You can no longer assume that what people are saying corresponds in any way to events in the world, or even in the imagination – events that they’re purporting to describe in language. Plus you, the listener – you too have lost the connections. You hear the words and you understand them, but you can’t find the correspondences anymore between the nouns and the things to which they point with their craggy fingers, between the verbs and the actions. And of course in that day the recon report too becomes suspect.
But now it’s Tuesday and I’m on the clock. Yesterday was the Apocalypse, and the Friday drive to Iowa is only three days off. No looking back; let today take care of itself. I can smell the barn and I’m heading straight for it, no more distractions.
I’ve made the turn, crossing the little bridge over the drainage ditch. The electrical control box beside the bridge has been encased inside a hollow plastic boulder: is it for aesthetic purposes, or to thwart terrorists using satellite surveillance to identify targets for knocking us off the grid? There’s water flowing in the ditch for a change: snowmelt, followed by two days of rain. The grass is green and dandelions are everywhere. In a month all of this would be brown and crisp if the terrorists blew up the electrical and the sprinkler system wouldn’t run.
Next to the fake boulder a block of glass about two feet square is embedded in the ground. I don’t remember seeing it before: probably it’s part of the electrical system. There seems to be a yellowish-orange light flickering down there below the glass. I can’t make it out though, because the glass is thick, uneven in consistency, and partially opaque. Maybe it’s just a reflection from the morning sun. Walking on, I greet the old Central European man who walks his Chow Chow along this path every morning around this time, a dog that, cliché be damned, does in fact bear a striking facial resemblance to the man holding the leash.
Here’s the poem:
Iowa City to Boulder, by William Matthews
I take most of the drive by night.
It’s cool and in the dark my lapsed
inspection can’t be seen.
I sing and make myself promises.
By dawn on the high plains
I’m driving tired and cagey.
on the mileposts, like candle flames,
flare their wings for balance
in the blasts of truck wakes.
The dust of not sleeping
drifts in my mouth, and five or six
miles slur by uncounted.
I say I hate long-distance
drives but I love them.
The flat light stains the foothills
pale and I speed up the canyon
to sleep until the little lull
the insects take at dusk before
they say their names all night in the loud field.
And here’s the Deleuze-Chomsky debate, trilingual with English subtitles, courtesy of dmfant in a comment on the most recent Noir Realism thread: