Interpretation and Personhood

What interpretation hopes to extract from phenomenal encounter is knowledge. In her famous essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag argues not so much against knowing as against the wrong spirit or use of knowing––knowing that purchases its claim by the diminishment of presence and possibility, the kind of knowing that supplants Hamlet by The Meaning of Hamlet.

Much of the essay, which is directed at our relation to art, could be adapted to our relation to ourselves. Artworks are objects to which we’re never sure we stand in the right relation. We hope that in us, too, inheres meaning, that we are threaded through with some essential purpose, though it’s difficult to see these plainly. We cycle through interpretive or explanatory formulae, and an honest assessment of the process proves only that the formulae are optional. It seems an unavoidable business, and not obviously errant, though it nourishes less than we were lead to hope. But just as one value of art is that it will not obey our ideas about it, so might we be less eager to be reduced to our ideas about ourselves, and less impressed by them. As Sontag enjoins: “Away with interpretation until we experience more fully what we have.”

The Author

In the theoretical literature there’s a returning character called “the author.” The character is differently played depending on the era and fashion: she is variously dead, all-too-human, cyborg, helplessly sentimental, an aggregation of reading run through the variable processor of a given mind. She’s been cast, anti-humanistically, as a “function” and, heroically, as an emblem of human capacity. Each of these descriptions is probably correct on a given plane––correct, but of what consequence to literary practice?

Plagiarism, translation, influence––ultimately these are differently shaded metaphors for writing itself and are variously responsive to the wants or worries one finds attached to the act. There’s still to ask whether in writing by any method or conception we’re not again thrown back on the old thing––individuation through and against the inherent resistance of a linguistic vehicle thoroughly contaminated by precedence, made of it. Nothing we handle is our own; we can’t but be ourselves (whatever that is).

Persist, Endure, Follow, Watch

To be recognized and accepted by the peregrine you must wear the same clothes, travel by the same way, perform actions in the same order. Like all birds, it fears the unpredictable. Enter and leave the same fields at the same time each day, sooth the hawk from its wildness by a ritual of behavior as invariable as its own. Hood the glare of the eyes, hide the white tremor of the hands, shade the stark reflecting face, assume the stillness of a tree. A peregrine fears nothing he can see clearly and far off. Approach him across open ground with a steady unfaltering movement. Let your shape grow in size but do not alter its outline. Never hide yourself unless concealment is complete. Be alone. Shun the furtive oddity of man, cringe from the hostile eyes of farms. Learn to fear. To share fear is the greatest bond of all. The hunter must become the thing he hunts. What is, is now, must have the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree. Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week ago you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch.

[JA Baker, The Peregrine]

Sarah Schweig on Truth

It is said that the Hellenistic philosopher Pyrrho became so skeptical of the world that he couldn’t commit to believing even in the ground he walked on. He became unable to act, unable to speak. His students had to carry him through the streets.

I started to study philosophy because I reached a point in my writing when I couldn’t understand what I was writing or why I was writing it. I got tired of thinking about my stupid little life. I had in me some idea of a larger, necessary truth that I couldn’t reach.

By this time, I had achieved many of the goals I’d moved to New York City to achieve. I had a job. I had publications. By many accounts, I was a writer, the ultimate dream around which I’d structured everything. From my studio apartment, I could see the iconic skyline of lower Manhattan. It started to look like any other object.

One day I went to a talk at my local bookstore. Later, I wrote an overly personal email about my problem to one of the speakers, and then, based on his advice, I wrote another email to another stranger asking if I could sit in on the evening class he was teaching. It was on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

“Human reason has this particular fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.” That is just the beginning of the first Critique. I went to every class that fall. I hardly spoke.

This was years ago, and I have been studying philosophy ever since. I went looking for that larger-than-life, non-contingent truth. There is, it turns out, little agreement on what exactly this might be. Instead, I gained ways of thinking about truth. I wrote many things, including a slew of poems called “Contingencies.” I met someone in that first course on Kant and started speaking. I moved out of my studio and we made a home together. We got married so we could devote an actual lifetime to arguing about truth. We will need several lifetimes.

Long ago, before I moved to the city, a mentor told me, “Poetry comes out of life.” It’s a lesson I’m still learning. I’m still writing, and occasionally about my little life (as evidenced here). But I see my life and what I write about it differently now, as something that could gesture toward the universal, even if it never reaches it. This hope keeps me going when I’m writing, and also during those long empty periods when I’m not, when I need something or someone to carry me.

[Sarah’s first book is Take Nothing with You]

An Allegory

I remember reading an article about starfish. They were thought to have no eyes. Then it was discovered they were all eyes.

[Marilynne Robinson, “Experience”]

On Eclipse

At the back of us were great blue spaces in the cloud. But now the colour was going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour. Down in the valley it was an extraordinary scrumble of red & black; there was the one light burning; all was cloud down there, & very beautiful, so delicately tinted. The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue: & rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker & darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank & sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; & we thought now it is over — this is the shadow when suddenly the light went out. We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment: & the next when as if a ball had rebounded, the cloud took colour on itself again, only a spooky aetherial colour & so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down, & low & suddenly raised up, when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly & quickly & beautifully in the valley & over the hills — at first with a miraculous glittering & aetheriality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. The colour for some moments was of the most lovely kind — fresh, various — here blue, & there brown: all new colours, as if washed over & repainted. It was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. That was within the power of nature…. Then — it was all over till 1999.”

[Virginia Woolf, diary of June 30, 1927]

(See also: Annie Dillard’s “Total Eclipse”)

Soul as Words

When I say “soul,” you need not take me in the ontological sense unless you prefer to; for although ontological language is instinctive in such matters, yet Buddhists and Humians can perfectly well describe the facts in the phenomenal terms which are their favorites. For them the soul is a succession of fields of consciousness: yet there is found in each field a part, or sub-field, which figures as focal and contains the excitement, and from which, as from a center, the aim seems to be taken. Talking of this part, we involuntarily apply words of perspective to distinguish it from the rest, words like “here,” “this,” “now,” “mine,” or “me”; and we ascribe to the other parts the positions “there,” “then,” “that,” “his” or “thine,” “it,” “not me.” But a “here” can change to a “there,” and a “there” become a “here,” and what was “mine” and what was “not mine” change their places.

[William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience]

The Variable Session

It occurred to Lacan that to be too “good” at free association could mean the patient was too defended against the analysis (it also tended to suggest a greater degree of rehearsal––not freedom––in the speech). Week after week the analytic hour might be filled with resourceful verbal performance, and the analysis would lead nowhere and do nothing. This insight inspired what Lacan called the “variable session,” in which analysands who spoke too easily of themselves were simply cut off, sometimes within moments of lying on the couch, and the analyst announced, without explanation or apology, that the session was over. The intervention meant to ruin (maybe cruelly) the speaker’s fantasy of self-possession and return what had hitherto seemed the truth of his or her life to mere talking, talking found suddenly wanting. Something called “self- knowledge” is usually understood to be a central attainment of enlightened life, but sometimes it’s an impediment, something to be overcome.

[For more on Lacanian technique I recommend Bruce Fink’s Clinical Introduction. My own essay on the uses and misuses of self-knowledge, “On Not Knowing Yourself,” is newly up at LARB.]

Two Methods

Mark Greif’s wonderfully lucid essay “The Concept of Experience” outlines two practical attitudes toward experience and its conversion to meaning: aestheticism and (the awkwardly named) perfectionism. Grief offers this evocative shorthand:


  • Regard all things as you would a work of art.
  • Understand that it is never wrong to seek in art the stimulation of desire, wonder, or lust, or to search for resemblance to things in the world. You encounter art, and the result is experience.
  • Apply this flexibility of experience, taught by art, back to all objects not considered art—practicing your skill especially on the trivial, the ugly, and the despised. You will find that your old assessment of experience as something rare and intermittent, or bought with wealth or physical effort, was too narrow. By setting an endlessly renewed horizon for experience, from the endless profusion of objects, the aesthete guarantees that life-as-experience can never be diminished—not by age, by sickness, by anything, short of death.


  • Regard all things as if they were examples, which state simply the way of life they incarnate.
  • Understand that each of these examples, when experienced, makes a summons to your self. Experience things in this way, always inquiring of them, “What way of life do you express? What do you say to me?” and you’ll learn what it is that lives in you.
  • If you are called to change your life by any example, and your self responds—you must change your life. And once you change, change again. Your next self, too, will be challenged by examples, to find a next self still waiting beyond. Thus there is no perfection in perfectionism; the process of experience and correspondence never stops. If there could be any end in view, it would only be this: that the circle of things corresponding to you grow not wider, but infinitely wide, touching everything that exists.

Are you attracted to either? Would you be tempted to revise these tenants, intuiting, perhaps, the challenge of implementing them? Absurd as so terse a model risks being, would you submit an alternative? Are these at least admirable in their aim to recuperate the significance of the ordinary?


Some history: The word prose came into English by way of the Latin prorsus, itself the contracted form of proversus, “to move forward,” as in Cicero’s prosa oratio, “speech going straight ahead without turn.” Notice, however, that this Latin root of prose has in it the root for verse. It comes from the Greek word verso, the little mechanism on a plow that allowed the farmer to turn a furrow––or, in terms of literature, a line. In Latin, verso became versus and its verb form vertere, meaning “to turn,” hence the English vertexvertigo, and even the word conversant (“one capable of spinning an interesting tale”). In other words, when a line of poetry bumps up against whatever it bumps up against––death, confusion, the other, unknowns, a rough and rooty patch of impenetrable earth––the line gets to turn around, start over, make as many running charges at its subject as it wants.

[John D’Agata, The Next American Essay]

What is Writing Like?

The culture tells a lot of stories about the inner lives of writers and perhaps not all these stories are wrong. Rarely depicted at near distance, however, are the movements of thought and attention from which writing actually emerges––the cognitive, affective, even physical experience of writing as lived in real time. This would be a harder story to tell, one lacking in apparent drama. Can we imagine a thick description of this situation? Do you know of any already existing? What kind of decisions do you understand yourself to be making as you write? I don’t mean on the level of craft or form (for which we have robust vocabulary already), but on the smaller scale of opening and closing the gates of focus, variously stage-managing or letting happen the thought-action, indulging some instincts and denying others as you work to find a next thing to put on the page. How would you narrate the tedium and thrill of this dynamic? What do you experience yourself to be actually doing as you sit there, suffering the self-inflicted wound of being sealed off from life, waiting for, well, what?

Dan Beachy-Quick on Constellations in the Concrete, Stars in the Grass

The shallowest still water is unfathomable. Wherever the trees and skies are reflected, there is more than Atlantic depth, and no danger of fancy running aground. We notice that it required a separate intention of the eye, a more free and abstracted vision, to see the reflected trees and the sky, than to see the river bottom merely; and so are there manifold visions in the direction of every object, and even the most opaque reflect the heavens from their surface.

—Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Connecticut and Merrimack Rivers, “Sunday”

There is a humility that is the threshold to ambitious vision that has, when I’ve glimpsed it, teased me out of my own arrogance and assumptions, granted me illuminated shards of the wholly/holy obvious, and even if I ended up bereft of vision complete, at least I had somewhere in the mind, through the eye, the proper distractions. Thoreau shows the way in his meandering on the “dead water” of the Connecticut River—to look up, you look down. I’m reminded of the old story about Thales, philosopher so intent on understanding the stars that, walking in the dark and looking up, he fell into a well, and the washer-girl who found him laughed at the genius, mocking him for studying the heavens when his concern should be on the ground. Thoreau manages to show us how those opposites reconcile, that to bend the head earthward is to study the stars and the forces and orders behind them, or is, as long as we can form within the eye “a separate intention” that both frees and abstracts our vision. This kind of seeing—in which the dullest surface reflects the stars, and in which the riverbank and trees in sky are seen at one and the same time—strikes me as the most necessary poetic advice I’ve been given in years. So now I stare down at the grass, at the concrete. I’m learning to read the constellations there; studying the stars.

[Dan’s Of Silence and Song will be published in December by Milkweed]

Lucy Ives on Aphorism

I think of the aphorism as a sympathetic form. The aphorism is succinct, correct. It slinks shut, sometimes with a little snap or tone. Its brevity is a performance and thus requires skill, also a source of its sympathy. Something (even a great deal of something) has been left out, but the aphorism is not merely or only a fragment or piece, something bit haphazardly off from something else. The aphorism is careful, rather than abrupt, and frequently warm. It is, as they say, lively. “I am dynamite,” says Nietzsche. “I’m like the animals in the forest. They don’t touch what they cannot eat,” says Karl Lagerfeld. “In love, he who heals first, heals best,” says La Rochefoucauld. “My vagina hurts when I watch gymnastics,” says Chrissy Teigen.

[from “Synthetics”]

A Sentence Whose Sweet Edge Divides You

It is through words that words are to be overcome. (Silence may only be a tying of the tongue, not relinquishing words, but gagging on them. True silence is the untying on the tongue, letting its words go.) To write standing face to face with a fact, as if it were a scimitar whose sweet edge divides you, is to seek not just a style of writing but a justness of it, its happy injuries, its ecstasies of exactness. The writer’s sentences must at each point come to an edge. He has at all times to know simultaneously the detail of what is happening, and what it means to him that it happens only so. A fact has two surfaces because a fact is not merely an event in the world but the assertion of an event, the wording of the world. You can no more tell beforehand whether a line of wording will cleave you than you can tell whether a line of argument will convince you, or an answer raise your laughter. But when it happens it will feel like the discovery of an a priori, a necessity of language, and of the world, coming to light. One had perhaps seen the first stalk of a returning plant asserting itself with patches of snow still holding their ground. Thoreau writes: “So our human life dies down to its root, and still puts forth its green blade to eternity.” That these words should lay aside their differences and join upon this ground of sense, proposes a world which mocks of cowardice of our imaginations. Nature, no more than words, will leave us alone. If we will not be rebuked by them, and instructed, we will be maddened by them, and turn upon them to make them stop.

[Stanley Cavell, Senses of Walden]

Kafka on a Hot Streak

January 20: The end of writing. When will it take me up again?

January 29: Again tried to write, virtually useless.

January 30: The old incapacity. Interrupted my writing for barely ten days and already cast out. Once again prodigious efforts stand before me. You have to dive down, as it were, and sink more rapidly than that which sinks in advance of you.

February 7: Complete standstill. Unending torments.

March 11: How time flies; another ten days and I have achieved nothing.

[from the Diaries]

Camus' Ethics

The clouds thicken over the cloister and night gradually darkens the ledger stones bearing the moral virtues attributed to the dead. If someone here told me to write a book on morality, it would have a hundred pages and ninety-nine would be blank. On the last page I should write: “I recognize only one duty, and that is to love.” And as far as everything else is concerned, I say no. I say no with all my strength. The ledger stones tell me that this is useless, that life is “col sol levante, col sol cadente.” But I cannot see what my revolt loses by being useless, and I can feel what it gains.

[from a notebook entry dated September 9, 1937]

Where the Stress Falls

Nothing new except language, the ever found. Cauterizing the torment of personal relations with hot lexical choices, jumpy punctuation, mercurial sentence rhythms. Devising more subtle, more engorged ways of knowing, of sympathizing, of keeping at bay. It’s a matter of adjectives. It’s where the stress falls.

[Susan Sontag, “Where the Stress Falls”]

Reading The Lice 50 Years Later

How does one write poems when the reveries of consciousness contemplating landscape or inner life can be cast as desperate flights from the derangements of social reality? I’ve been thinking about this question while rereading W.S. Merwin’s The Lice (just reissued by Copper Canyon on the occasion of its 50th anniversary). In The Lice the trace of history is rarely to be found and everywhere to be felt, as though Merwin writes about the social world by evacuating from it:

And at last I take up

My duty

Wheeling the president past banks of flowers

Past the feet of empty stairs

Hoping he’s dead

The voice speaking through these poems seems to suffer the distance by which the imagination’s potential exceeds what political rhetoric can accommodate, seems to sense flows of force at depths where the political and social registers don’t traffic. Maybe the task of poetry isn’t to function as politics voiced on a sonorous plane, as advocacy aping aesthetic prestige, but to rescue language from cheapening expediency, to preserve it as a proto-poltical resource that might expand rather than endorse our positions. The poet knows something too sad for the culture at large to take up; that as soon as you can say something it ceases to be all the way true. This sense is echoed in the Heraclitus fragment from which the book takes its title:

Men are deceived in their knowledge of things that are manifest, even as Homer was who was the wisest of all the Greeks. For he was even deceived by boys killing lice when they said to him: What we have hunt and caught, these we leave behind; whereas what we have not hunt and caught, these we carry away.

As much as the poems speak to their Vietnam-era context, reading them in the current dispensation they feel like resources rather than artifacts. The book is one kind of answer to question that, a half-century later, has lost no urgency. As ends “The River of Bees”: “On the door it says what to do to survive / But we were not born to survive / Only to live.”

Tolstoy Vacillates

These are fragments of three letters from Tolstoy to his friend Nicolay Starkhov. The novel he’s in panic about––and seemingly making consistent progress with––is Anna Karenina.

May 31, 1873

My novel is resting, too, and I’m already losing hope I will finish it by this fall.

August 24, 1873

…And I must confess, shamefully, that I am now correcting and trimming the novel about which I told you in my letter, giving it a more frivolous and less formal style. I wanted to be mischievous and now I can’t even finish it and I’m afraid it won’t turn out well, i.e., you won’t like it.

…I’m as healthy as an ox, and like a locked-up mill, I’ve collected water…

September 23 or 24, 1873

I have moved far ahead with my work, but I’ll hardly finish it before winter––maybe December or somewhere around that time. Like the painter needs light for his final touch-ups, I, too, need to have an inner light, which usually begins to fade in the fall.

(Thanks Xiao)