For the Pennance that Man Taketh of Himselfe Was Not Shewid Me—
To Calais, I thought, to Calais where I will eat chicken fricaseed So much in France that if I died my effects to the king and no one else— From the bedroom to the kitchen to the office and up stairs and down And the doorframe of the bathroom and in the tall ship from Dover… Oh how little I wanted to be there! Dover, Calais, a chicken waiting Fricaseed in the little parlour facing the king’s portrait, the king With his chickens, his tall men with chicken legs, they call this Calais, Calais, Calais, this feeling, these men, this steaming dinner If only I could turn this ship around scorn this scowling shore, forget Calais Forget this feeling, if I could bow before some one other than the king The king and myself and his portrait—
I am practicing eating less as a form of humanist discourse. If I can take in less, I say to myself, then perhaps there will be more room in me for other people. Or perhaps I will be more aware of my body and its needs and my status as animal. If I believe I am an animal rather than an “I,” I will be more patient and attentive to other human beings, because I will recognize that we are all animals and the shared vulnerability that this entails will make life seem more fragile and beautiful and worth sharing.
I feel like I want to be generous and hungry because I am reading Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, and that is a book about an individual human’s concerns and troubles. It is that book that makes me want to be more concerned and generous about other human beings, and not some other book, not for instance a “grander” book that wants to cast away the “I” and portray broadly the dignity and struggles of humanity, such as Camus’s The Plague, which I absolutely hated and couldn’t finish.
Another’s “I” makes me want to do away with my own “I.”
Books that want to portray the dignity and struggles of humanity make me want to puke. I like books that are intensely focussed on individual experience, such as Sheila Heti’s. These can be either realized simply or concretely or written with a sense of the absurd, such as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Southern Mail or Night Flight,in which moments of excess somehow illustrate the existential crisis at the centre of life, life which cannot ever be in any way satisfactorily related or circumscribed.
Nothing written is ever quite enough, as perhaps is demonstrated most notably by someone like David Foster Wallace—his excess functions like Xeno’s paradox, writing which constantly halves itself but never reaches the finish line, the finish line which is the ideal or dream or nightmare of completely translated human experience, or real psychic connection, as if that was at all desirable.
How could I write about fiction and Xeno’s paradox without mentioning Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen, in which Shandy the narrator repeatedly delays the story of Shandy’s birth and life? In that book human experience is a loud marbled shimmering clusterfuck and there is nothing more calming than reading through the heap of shit Shandy lays for us and realizing that the heap of shit is where we come from and where we go and what we swim in daily and what we might as well enjoy and share and revel (some might say wallow) in.