Thursday, July 10, 2008


The first time I read any Robbe-Grillet was, like many other firsts, in Richard Stern’s writing class at the University of Chicago. This was a blessedly small class in which I was twice the age of the other students. The bit of R-G was simply a description of a room in Paris but so menacing that one expected a gunshot or blood seeping under the door at any moment. Nothing happened. Somehow the accumulation of small signs (a crack in the glass, the image of a staring owl, a slanted shadow, etc.) was scarier than if something HAD happened.

Now I’m reading Stephen Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” about how human minds (which seem to include more than just brains) work to make us feel we have identity, community, and the ability to sort out what’s happening. This research is too recent for Robbe-Grillet to have read it, but it confirms the idea that we pick up a lot of small clues, interpret them according to our experience (which creates templates and “story-lines”), and -- if we can’t figure out what’s happening, usually project something from our psychological makeup onto the incomplete facts.

Yesterday I watched “In the Winter Dark,” an Aussie film that capitalizes on all this. A series of livestock deaths in a rural place kicks off paranoia in four people, two men and two women, and pushes up to the surface their guilts and preoccupations, ending in an “accidental” death -- a woman, of course. Australia is already a little weird when seen with Euro eyes: primeval geology, fire-ecology vegetation, peculiarly evolved animals. Add to that displacements of urban to rural, hippie to country, educated to ignorant, and one has a fertile situation for misunderstanding, near-psychosis, drunkenness, and accidental death.

For a week or so I’ve been feeling sad, anxious, displaced, and trying to find a cause -- physical? My mother always thought such moods meant one was catching a bug or cycling through hormones. But today’s horoscope had a different suggestion: “After a major project you should be idle for a while.” Let the dust settle, so to speak. Forget the small oversights and betrayals and thoughts of what “could have been.”

We are in an historical time when one hardly dares let dust settle! I wrote a letter to the editor yesterday challenging predatory energy costs -- need I even point out that the shadowy causes of these practices go right to the top of the nation, of the global governments? At the town council meeting last night we were told that the disaster debriefing of the propane truck accident that caused Valier to be evacuated (and ONLY that, rather than an explosion) was due to economizing on the edge of the highway pavement so that there is a dropped edge that grabs wheels. Corky Evans, who was present at both the council meeting and at the accident -- nearly being hit by the rolling truck -- and who broke out the truck window and pulled out the driver, was not noted. All attention went to the wickedness of the highway department. How we love to blame authorities. How reluctant we are to thank those who take action.

The majority of the time at the meeting was devoted to figuring out the problem of a woman who wants to build a house on an empty lot up the street from me. A $750 survey finds that her neighbor’s shed is half on her property. This means she cannot “drive through” her lot to the alley unless she has a very skinny house. Is the survey wrong? Should her neighbor be compelled to pull down the shed? Are all the lots on the block displaced? Is the street too wide? (125 feet in the “business district” dwindling to 80 feet when the street is “residential.”) Who made these decisions? Where are the original surveying pins? Where is the key monument from which all the other measurements are derived? And one colorful character insisted that it all went back to the original system of claiming land by driving four stakes into the open prairie (“one over there by that dead cow”) and patenting it to establish its measurements. Ownership demands boundaries as the condition of possession. We impose our arbitrary measurements on grasslands that were once the bottom of a sea, were once scraped by glaciers, were once roamed by bison, and hope the markers last long enough for us to see out our lifetimes. Or at least our financial interest in the place.

We know more small bits of information than we ever have before. In fact, “The Edge” -- an ongoing and online discussion about the “boundary” which is really an interaction between science and humanities -- has been talking about a new book, Chris Anderson’s “The End of Theory,” which joins books like “The Long Tail” or “The Black Swan” that reflect on ways of knowing and how they mislead us. Anderson’s idea is that computers give us huge hoards of data which we cannot understand but from which we can derive algorhythms that make us able to predict stuff like the effects of medicine, or weather, or economic phenomena. The effect is a strange knowing-too-much while knowing-too little. So my cousin’s husband is undergoing arduous and unpleasant chemotherapy for cancer without knowing whether it will cure him, because statistically the procedure is associated with cures -- mostly. And I insist on writing though the statistical likelihood of making money is dim to none.

Is faith only the ability to withstand ambiguity without becoming paranoid? Well, then I am of little faith. Or is faith the ability to confront ambiguity without trying to impose control and order -- ANY order -- instead of just waiting for more information, for the situation to unfold? If so, then I’m pretty faithful, though it’s an effort. I do best if there’s a promise in the future: the national elections, another good book idea, the prospect of my new niece coming to visit.

Sometimes one just cannot wait. Then strategies vary according to experience and biology: some roll up like armadillos, armored and withdrawn. Others strike out or take some other action -- maybe jump and run like rabbits -- in the combat belief that doing something is better than just sitting there like a duck. Hard to know what will work until interpreting in retrospect. Of course, if you didn’t survive, that’s not an option.

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