Saturday, May 7, 2011


I should preface this by saying none of what I discuss in this post is an issue right now (or, it is an issue for an entirely different reason...) given that my landlord decided that 6 am on a Saturday morning was a good time to continue the renovations he's been doing for TWO FULL WEEKS now. Today's task involved using a power drill on the other side of the wall against which my bed rests. Sleep? Who needs that? Certainly not the boy who loves sleep more than almost anything else and who is "enjoying" the last days of his one week of summer. Anyway, on to more important matters: a new blog post finally (I haven't had much to say or much time to say it recently. At least this is a nice long post).

I've been re-reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? over the past couple days. I think it's a great novel (though slightly overrated within PKD's body of work*) and it features some wonderfully evocative passages. I'm particularly struck by the descriptions of empty buildings and empty apartments (I have something of a minor obsession with both of these things. That obsession, coupled with my obsession with nuclear disasters, makes the Kidd of Speed website--hoax or not--like fetish porn for me). I generally don't consider myself despairing or lonely--I try and avoid both of those feelings as a rule--but I have to admit I don't know the city I live in that well and I don't know that many people in the city, so there are times (especially when I've spent a few days in a row in my apartment doing work and not speaking to anyone) when I feel both despair and loneliness. The passage I've been giving a lot of thought to recently is J. R. Isidore's description of the silence in his apartment:

Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn't worked in all the time Isidore had lived here. From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-speckled ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it--the silence--meant to supplant all things tangible. Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive. Alive! He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came, it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait. The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won.
The switch from silence-as-aural-experience to silence-as-aural-and-visual-experience is dead on. So too is the idea of silence as a living force that actively encroaches upon you. It gets to the point where I can see the quiet in the air. I seem to leave a trail in it when I walk from my bedroom to my kitchen and back. There are times I'm very sympathetic to the idea of bored housewives in the 1950s slowly going crazy in response to being trapped within a silent house for hours on end (and really, PKD is one of the underacknowledged masters of depicting suburban ennui. It is perpetually the 1950s in his fiction, even when the story is set hundreds of years in the future, and his characters are rarely happy). I suppose this is why some people have a TV, to be able to have another voice, another presence (even if only virtual) to combat the silence.** My mother has the radio on all the time. In fact, one of the things that's most likely to trigger an intense wave of nostalgia and longing for home in me is the theme music to CBC's As It Happens. I think this is one of the reason I like clocks. The steady tick of the second hand is at least one more noise--a noise I find comfortingly domestic--and it definitely helps at night.

The passage from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? reminds me of a similar one from DFW's essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again” (from the essay collection of the same name). In his discussion of a young man who had committed suicide on a cruise ship just before DFW had embarked on his own cruise, he touches on what the word “despair” means (and its relationship to the experience of taking a Caribbean cruise):
There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that's unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir--especially at night, when all the ship's structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased--I felt despair. The word's overused and banalified now, despair, but it's a serious word, and I'm using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture--a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It's maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it's not these things, quite. It's more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I'm small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It's wanting to jump overboard.***
I wouldn't say that my own experience of a silent apartment is quite this extreme, but I think sometimes--say when I've had a particularly bad day and I'm just not up to facing a night of quiet solitude, when even my bookshelves are no comfort--I understand a little bit of what both DFW and PKD are saying here. It has less to do with impending death, I think, than with that sense of smallness and futility as they become intertwined with silence (or maybe it has everything to do with a sense of impending death). I don't ever want to jump overboard, but I do sometimes have a desire to talk and talk, to never stop talking, so the silence never has a chance to come back.****

Maybe this is the source of my occasional resistance to poststructuralism: I can't stand the idea of my words leaving me and going to some nebulous world of text rather than to another human being. How would that ever be able to combat silence? It's one of the reasons that I like Stanley Fish's idea that the author provides “readers the opportunity to make meanings (and texts) by inviting them to put into execution a set of strategies.” Inviting someone to participate in an attempt at communication seems so nice, so essential, so human, somehow.

Anyway, enough gloomy thoughts. All in all, I can't really complain about anything right now (other than those renovations. I cannot complain enough about those). I just wanted to share/celebrate what I think is some great, truthful writing.

*I am a bigger fan of his short stories than his novels. One of my favourite stories by him (that would be a challenge, picking my top five PKD stories), “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” features one of the most beautiful conversations about love and regret I've ever read. A relevant passage: 
"Sit down," Martine said.
"Okay." Victor seated himself on the bed, beside her, but not too close to her.
"Won't you sit closer to me?" she said.
"It makes me too sad," he said. "Remembering you. I really loved you. I wish this was real."
Martine said, "I will sit with you until it is real for you."
**There's something to do with Baudrillard in here, I think. Silence as some kind of manifestation of the Real that must be evaded or contained by the imposition of the virtual (television) overtop of it in order to mask the horror we experience in the Real's presence. The idea of an action or event for which there are no words might be some kind of marker of an experience of the Real, an encounter with something that goes beyond what the Symbolic is capable of understanding and rendering into language (to switch over to Lacan). Baudrillard's discussion of terrorism would be interesting to think about in this sense.

***Even though several people have pointed out the folly of re-reading DFW's work as an extended suicide note following his death, it's hard not to read that paragraph as, in his words, unbearably sad. Indeed, the second-to-last sentence in that paragraph seems to me to be everything that his writing fought to overcome. The business of being a “fucking human being,” what he tried to figure out in his work, might be knowing that you are “small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die” and somehow turning that into a positive. Hence his emphasis (especially in “This is Water” and
The Pale King) on paying attention to your thoughts at all times and choosing to think your way out of that despair. The existentialist gambit as it manifests itself in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century United States or something.

****This can at times lead to horrifying and depressing moments. It can also be quite embarrassing.

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