Mmm, home alone. Just me, coffee, cats, and a corgi. I like it. It felt so good to get out of the house last night and go to Melissa’s, I could hardly wait. I was all dressed up at least an hour before I needed to leave, waiting with only my pie, my present, and the beer for Andy to get home. He was late, so I had another half-hour where I was just waiting in the quiet house, thinking. Add that to the half-hour I spent in the dentist’s chair after my teeth had been cleaned, waiting for the dentist to come in and tell me about my cracked filling. Sitting in the dentist’s chair for a half-hour with no magazine, nothing to look at but scary plaque posters, dental machinery (equally scary), dentist’s lamp (eeeew, creepy), or out the window, which from that chair-tilted angle revealed not a single tree branch, rooftop, or chimney, but just an expanse of wispy-clouded sky, you just relax. When she finally came in, she practically had to wake me up, I was so drowsy and vegged out. So all-told I had about two hours, two whole hours, of quiet solitude in which to ponder. Even though I said I wouldn’t think anymore. (I am stopping after this, seriously.)
I went to the library on Wednesday to get the essay I mentioned, Gary Saul Morson’s "Prosaics: An Approach to the Humanities" from volume 57 (1988) of American Scholar. This is an essay that’s available on-line as long as your local library subscribes to a periodical data-base and makes it available to you as a library card holder — Multnomah County library does, which is pretty cool; you enter your library card number on their web site and then have access to the stuff. (Don’t write and ask me how to do it, though — just be brave and give it a try, and if you can’t figure it out call them and ask, because they get paid to answer.) But otherwise you can walk right up to your local librarian who is just waiting for you to say, "Hi, I'm a taxpayer and I need to read this, please." And then in about two seconds she will print it out for you. And you will say, "My God, why do I never come here??? This place is awesome!!!"
Anyway, that is how you can read the article, which is well worth doing because I find its implications for novel-readers totally fascinating, and its insights for us crafty bloggers weirdly prescient. This will, of course, be a shallow interpretation of an exponentially much-better-thinker-than-I-am’s idea. As I mentioned, this essay is just one of two I’ve carried around with me from town to town over the past fifteen years (the other is Jonathan Franzen’s manifesto "Perchance to Dream: In an Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels" from Harper’s, April 1996 — you could get that one while you’re at the library, too). I was sort of right, when I was remembering it here, though I barely scratched the surface and am about to barely scratch it again (go read it, seriously). But anyway, Prosaics, says Morson, is "a way of thinking about human events that focuses on the ordinary, messy, quotidian facts of daily life — in short, on the prosaic."
But the idea is that it’s not just about having mess, it’s not that having things messy makes you a better person or something, as I hope I didn’t imply. It’s that the natural state of the world is mess (both literal and theoretical, I think) and what is interesting about it — what is, in fact, profound about it — are the efforts we make to tidy it, continuously, in a million little ways resulting in a million "tiny alterations of consciousness." It’s the fabric — the background — created by the result of those efforts that, although not necessarily dramatic, is important, and maybe even the whole point.
I wrote a while ago that I hadn’t "seen" things this way before my accident, but clearly I had at least read of them being so, in this essay, years before. I guess what I meant was that I hadn't "known" them this way, before. Though the moment of the accident was a major event, it was a random disaster, tinged with the regret of negligence, but with its own vaguely inevitable bearing. The cleanup, however, was comprised of a hundred million intentional gestures, from scalpel-wielding to tear-drying to "get-well-Alicia"-letter-writing, made in effort to close the wound. I saw the janitor’s efforts and the surgeon’s, then. It all seemed the same, and equally neccessary, to me. My desperation required every form of effort — janitorial, social, medical — in order for it to be salved. I remember once after I had returned home but was still in bed, I had a visiting nurse coming to change the dressings twice a day, and one morning when she was there a bird flew into the kitchen. Panicked, it flapped through the apartment. I became hysterical, from my bed, and bawled, "Oh no! Oh no!" She left my foot to catch the bird and throw it back out the window as I cried. I don’t even know why I was crying; she came back in (after having washed her hands of course), shaken, then continued to dab away at my poor, shredded foot. One thing at a time. It could be no other way. The bird was free. My foot looked good that day. Dab dab dab, smile. Those moments are the things I remember and, at the end of the day, the things that changed me more than the truck itself. Morson says:
"Most historians and philosophers tend to focus on the big events — on wars, revolutions, dramatic incidents, critical choices, and decisive encounters. Individual people, too, tend to tell themselves the story of their lives in terms of exceptional events and big decisions. But what if the important events are not the great ones, but the infinitely numerous and apparently inconsequential ordinary ones, which, taken together, are far more effective and significant? . . ."
"It is often the small items in the background of old photographs that most powerfully evoke elusive memories of the past. The things barely noticed at the time and included only by chance may best preserve the feeling of life as it was lived. The furniture long ago discarded, a spot on the wall, a picture we had long ignored but that now suggests the habitual life we lived beneath it — these small items remind us of how it felt to live in a room. The intended subject of a photograph can seem much less important in comparison with its background; and perhaps that is one reason why professional photos without a background so often seem to miss the very point of photography."
The characters of Leo Tolstoy (who Morson considers to be perhaps the greatest prosaic thinker) "achieve wisdom when they learn not to seek the great and poetic but to appreciate the small and prosaic," when they learn that the truths they seek are "hidden in plain view" like a picture on a wall we fail to notice though we "see" it every day. They learn that meaning is not "deep and distant, but here and everywhere." Selfhood is not something to be discovered but made, "an aggregate of habits, contingent facts, and clusters of order that continually interact with one another and with the hundred million diverse facts of daily life. . . . Our choices are shaped by the whole climate of our minds, which themselves result from countless small decisions at ordinary moments."
In participating in each "ordinary moment" we develop the habit of evaluating and correcting our thoughts in small, undramatic ways. Nevertheless, the moment — and the cumulative effect of these moments — matters. Chekhov, he says, always attributes ruined lives to daily pettiness and "petty squabbles." A reason, perhaps, to always let in someone trying to merge, to smile at the person who rings up your Big Gulp, to treat telemarketers with cheer instead of contempt? Countless small decisions at ordinary moments. You can change who you are with every one.
Morson says that of all literary forms, novels are best able to capture the messiness of the world, and in the great ones, "the texture of daily life is described with a richness, depth, and attention to contingent particulars that no other form of thought or literary genre offers. In novels we see moral decisions made moment to moment by inexhaustible complex characters in unrepeatable social situations at particular historical times; and we see that the value of these decisions cannot be abstracted from these specifics." Novels provide the details of peoples’ thought processes and experiences "thickly," and as we read them, we practice our reactions to particular kinds of people and situations. "Practice," says Morson, "produces habits that may precede, preclude, or preform conscious moral judgments in daily life." Novels for me, at least, have always been my religion.
It’s always been a curious phenomenon to me why certain books speak so strongly to certain people, and not at all to others. Apparently, there are a million infinitesimal reasons, specific and particular to each of us. (It also helps explain why it’s so impossible to tell someone else "what the book’s about," or why you liked it — only the process of reading it can really serve to say "why," and therein lies the paradox, no? Book reviewers and dust-jacket-copy writers would be unemployed.) Someone in the comments mentioned recently that they always watch movies to see what’s going on in the background. I do this too, and it’s why I almost never, ever remember the "plot" of anything, and I can almost never tell you "whodunit," though I can probably tell you what her wallpaper looked like, and if I liked her clothes, and whether the tone of her voice pleased me or put me off, or whether I thought she should’ve apologized, or been kinder there, whether she tried and failed — and all of those things are different than the things that you’d notice (and they are always different than the things Andy notices, and yet we are perfect for each other, etc., and how strange! and yet how not!) — but we each, we all, have our own things. (You see here, Jane, that I really do still love you even if you hated Prep!)
I don’t know exactly how blogs are like novels in all of this — I wouldn’t presume to know and I’m getting tired now and I bet you are too, but it’s somehow. I just know I’m happy to write mine, and happy to read others’, eager to see what’s in the corners of your homes, willing to show you mine, and I expect that the reasons why have everything to do with Prosaics, and my sincere attempts to be someone, however flawed and spastic, who seeks to improve, who starts with and believes in the small — and I bet you are, too, though our "smalls" are similar yet as varied as snowflakes. Morson says:
"Of course it is easier to remember the conclusion, summary, or interpretation of a work than the whole process of reading it. But if prosaics is right, then the process itself affects us as least as much, for good or ill. When Tolstoy wrote that the only way he could tell what Anna Karenina was about would be to rewrite it, he was, I think, stressing not the intricacy of his text as purely formal artifact, but rather the complexity of reading as a series of small decisions and moment-to-moment judgments. This process is not just indispensable to the point of the book; it is the point of the book. Like true life, art begins where the tiny bit begins."
Now, let's all go outside!