Saturday, September 7

I’ve been reading Grudin’s Time and the Art of Living for a couple of days now. I came to it by way of a quote in the documentation for the GNU date utility, in the section on date formats. I’ve loved that bit for years, but for some reason it struck me that I ought to read the original.

It turns out to be a strange and sometimes wonderful book, if not without its discontents. It’s clearly a kind of conservative work, in the broadest sense of the term. At points it’s sort of right wing, or at least too mired in the American orthodoxies of the late 1970s. At others it’s clearly a form of the self-help thing, which always jars a little. There’s this odd section where the author drowns a spider which makes me, a habitual putter-outside-the-door of spiders, wonder if I’d get along with the guy.

Whatever its flaws, though, it’s a striking piece of writing, as thoughtfully constructed as anything I’ve read in years, and sympathetic in its concerns, which seem for the most part both universal and humane. It’s organized as a series of loosely chained passages, most not much more than extended paragraphs, a handful just sentences. These little essays shuffle around perspectives on a theme, contradict one another at times, and steadily reiterate a handful of metaphors. The structure of the writing itself reinforces and embodies the ideas it develops.

*

I was sitting in the Thai place in town the other day, waiting on a curry and scribbling some kind of nonsense in a notebook. The guy waiting tables asked if I was writing a book.

Not really, I told him. Just sort of a journal or something. But it got me thinking: If I’m not writing a book, I’m not exactly sure what else it is that I’m doing with my time.

For a while now I’ve been living in the strange mode that’s this century’s version of single, loosely grounded, generally irresponsible American middle-adulthood. You get older and the certainties of your early life evaporate, enough of them anyway to convince you of impermanence, of the surety of loss. A lot of people work at building other things to supplant what they lose and move on from. They forge relationships and join communities that might outlast themselves, make babies who stand a fair chance of outliving and outgrowing their parents. I haven’t done these things, for the most part, and feel increasingly unlikely to ever rejoin the stream of normal human experience that they seem to represent. For the tiny network of coworkers and fellow-drinkers I kill time with when I’m not just hiding out, the seeming impossibility of forming new human connections or putting down actual roots in the places we live is a routine subject of conversation. I dwell constantly in the tension between homesickness and the knowledge that returning to my home territory would be a kind of surrender.

And meanwhile the stream of events and the dislocations of history have rendered the now into a future of the kind I used to obsess over inhabiting. Half of the society I experience is contained in a steady trickle of conversation with people I know mostly as textual personae and image fragments on the internet. Computation is omnipresent and the network nearly so. The ecology of information grows ever more ramified as the ecology of nature becomes ever more brutalized, dessicated, poisoned and decayed. The preoccupations of a half century’s fiction and three decades' techno-political paranoia are suddenly the conditions of existence.

This is all pretty weird.

*

Grudin again:

X.5 To young writers, the bulk and variety of already-published work often produces the impression that everything has been done — that there is nothing left for them to do except imitate or qualify the past.

... Writers who suffer from this intimidating illusion would do well to remember the following:

The published writing of a given era, no matter how comprehensive it may seem to be, is generally based on shared assumptions, and therefore suffers from common weaknesses.

The surface of the human condition, vexed and driven by change, incessantly demands new patterns of art.

While the reading public and those who purvey to it may seem to dominate the present, the future is the domain of sincere and persistent individuals.