Sunday, March 24, 2013

accidental deaths, acts of God, and so on

As I was reading the book One Human Minute by Stanislaw Lem (translated by Catherine M. Leach) I believed I was perceiving the same thought pass through two minds, his and Gertrude Stein's.

Then I had dim ideas about the distance between those two minds and decided that this same current of thought must probably run through all people because it is only a small idea, which these two have made visible by describing it, throwing ink on a ghost, voila, the invisible one appears -- it is not an amazing thought -- but it is an expressed thought, that is the noteworthy part, and the manner of expression is noteworthy -- in fact it's an ordinary thought, a boring thought, a banal thought -- why did they bother dedicating books to this, why not go on a hike instead, or learn Chinese, which would put them ahead of the curve and give them an unmistakeable advantage whenever the opportunity to communicate with a Chinese person occurred, as well it might, at any second, making the urgency a very pressing thing if it had ever struck them what was at stake, instant communication with someone who might have read The Story of the Stone in its original language, a book I have not been able to get hold of yet in all of its five volumes -- and the thought they were expressing was this: "That it is impossible to describe everything about anything," an idea that Stein approaches by trying to describe "the history of every body," starting with one family and reaching nearly a thousand pages without leaving that one family, most of the book taken up by the in-laws, her prose getting more computerised and itemising as it goes (more desperate, less ordinarily human as it struggles after this superhuman, super-generous or despotic, goal), which is the point that Lem starts from, pretending to be a reviewer or critic who has been asked to read a book called One Human Minute, a compilation of statistics, each statistic representing an activity that human beings are performing during any given minute: forty-three tonnes of semen are ejaculated, a number of people die by hanging themselves, an amount of electrical energy is used, and so on, through different areas of endeavour sifted smaller and smaller, first Death, then suffocation, then kinds of suffocation (a parent rolling over on a baby).

First come the data summaries, then the breakdown into specifics. In this way you look first at the whole subject of death as through the weak lens of a microscope, then you examine sections in ever-increasing closeness as if using stronger and stronger lenses. First come natural deaths in one category, then those caused by other people in a separate category, then accidental deaths, acts of God, and so on.

In the second edition of this book the authors add facts about "the earth as mankind's habitation," clouds and lightning also represented by statistics, but (writes the narrator at one point, mentioning another imaginary reviewer) all of these statistics make you think of the parts of human life that can't be represented by statistics, and I came from One Human Minute with the impression that this comprehensive book (the imaginary one being reviewed I mean, not Lem's book, which is too short even to be a novella, it's more like a long short story) would seem negligent if I had it in my hands (though it is not negligent, it is only paying attention to volumes outside the normal range of human comprehension, it is microscopically and telescopically detailed, the numerical proof of mountains' worth of meat chewed and swallowed in one minute is "like images from Gulliver's travels to Brobdingnag", those masses of teeth removed from the subtlety of their servant minds, the proportions of their eating-action not the human-scaled proportions that we usually see the eating-action from, not our own gentle enamel rabbits intimately at graze, or our teeth plus the teeth of only a few other people around us making their knobbling noise behind the rotting curtains of the cheeks (removing the rest of us to the theatre-wings of their mouths, overhearing the action being muffled on the stage), but they have the proportions of the planet, as if the world is covered, for the length of time it takes you to read that statistic, with mechanical teeth remorselessly mashing animals apart; the statistics are diabolically correct, leaving the imaginary reader helplessly confronted with this knowledge, so that the book is not in fact skimpy, it is skimpy in one area and hypertrophically proportioned in another) but if I had it in front of me I would think that the actually-nonexistent Human Minute in its lopsidedness only covered very little like a raincoat that shelters the head but not the legs, and the same with Stein's nine hundred plus pages, which confess that they cover almost nothing.

I think the literary answer to this problem is sentences, by which I mean compression and crushing-in, each word in a sentence signalling to the other words and structures that have invisibly surrounded it (and the reader's reading-experience allows them to see or intuit those structures, mental architectures being built and illuminated by the dove-grey sponge in its cathedral), so that human experience is not itemised but hinted-at, with the tauntness of the one ball of matter that before the big bang hinted at the universe. Though I do not know physics I do see, when I glance at it, some attempt to express complicated systems with equations, not pages and pages of answer-numbers, but equations that hint at all permutations of the answer-numbers; say then that each prose sentence is an equation with the equals sign implied. The burning world and universe (which churn their own dissolving ashes) could be represented by an equation. That seems to be one goal of people who make equations, and who believe or hope that one day they will write the perfect sentence in their numerical way, which may be possible, say Stein and Lem (without actually saying it), because this spelling-out solution of theirs is not possible so bring on the absolute compressive act, one very short statement that represses nothing. Everything would be uttered simultaneously without being said. Then what, I don't know.

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