The conversion of nothing into something is the task of criticism. Literature is the storehouse of these rescued somethings. In discussing literature one has to use, unfortunately, the same language that one uses in discussing experience. But even so, literature is preferable to experience, since it is for the most part the closest one can get to nothing.
—Laura (Riding) Jackson (‘A Complicated Problem’, Anarchism Is Not Enough, p. 18)
The land alongside the highway has changed in the past year. Some would say that it is developing, and it is certainly a development, but whether it is good or bad remains to be seen. I miss the landmarks, most noticeable on walks, but also apparent while driving. The path to the grocery store used to fall into an easy rhythm of shade and light, respite from sun or rain, depending: the forest path, then across an undeveloped gravel lot (which we called ‘the moon’), then through the grounds of the local school, then along another forest path beside the highway, past a large anthill itchy with life, past the storage center where the path is briefly paved, then a short jaunt unshielded by trees to the grocery store parking lot. Now the path is jagged: the moon paved over for a convenience store and bordered by a sidewalk to nowhere, as mandated by local building codes; the school plastered with arrowed signs directing parents and drivers to uncertain destinations; the second path broken by a gravel ramp just next to the anthill, which is silent now and partially crushed by a modest boulder; half the trees next to the highway have been cut down and a large swath has been cleared for some unstated purpose – perhaps another trailer park. In the clearcut, two circles of cinders mark the remains of the trees. Along the path, a lost house key has been hooked onto a branch and glints in the sunlight.
What even is one supposed to call her? Born Laura Reichenthal, she took the name Riding with her appearance as a poet (by way of being Riding Gottschalk after an early marriage); when she renounced poetry, she became (Riding) Jackson. To assign her early work to the later name would seem to go against her intentions; to call her by anything other than her chosen name would disrespectful. One makes one’s choices.
And speaking of calling, why, I wondered, did Laura so emphatically call Ma Katharine when everyone else called her Kit or Kitty and always had? There was an unpleasant ring to the way Laura said Ma’s name.
—Griselda Jackson Ohannessian (Once As It Was, p. 134)
What one reads of Laura (Riding) Jackson tends to disconcert, so she is not read as widely as she might be, were either her words or her character more palatable. This is not meant to discount (Riding) as an author, or any reader as an interpretant. She disconcerts. She aims to disconcert. She makes one uneasy, and it is difficult – as it often is with, say, Heidegger – to determine how far this uneasiness is the result of the ideas or the authorial personality.
In the case of (Riding), her writing lets the reader escape neither, as in the case of the prose work Experts Are Puzzled, which is neither criticism nor fiction nor prose poetry, but all and none of these at once. As one narrator observes: ‘But my manner here, as you must be beginning again to notice, is beginning again to get a little out of hand, that is cruel. And while I do not wish to put any restraint upon my self, I do wish to be as pleasant as possible without doing so’ (‘An Account of the Matter’, p. 37). This captures, in a sense, the (Riding) project, at least in prose: there is manner – that is, pose or performance, a thing put on to create an effect; there is cruelty – that is, a self-indulgent (narratorial or authorial, it is not clear) habit of insulting the interlocutor (or reader); and there is the knife between the ribs – that is, the desire to be as ‘pleasant’ as possible without submitting to any restraint. That the ‘pleasantness’ appears in the form of neologistic obfuscation which has the effect of putting the interlocutor (or reader) more firmly in their (lower) place is (not) beside the point. That she is always talking down perhaps indicates that she has no one to look up to – an unenviable state of affairs, a fall from a great height. In her introduction to Anarchism Is Not Enough, Lisa Samuels laments that (Riding) Jackson does not engage with more serious thinkers who were working along a similar intellectual trajectory (p. li): but that misses the point – one cannot talk down to equals and remain in the conversation. Or continue to receive invitations. Not everyone is a glutton for punishment.
In another story, the narrator Laura (not Riding) addresses Robert (not Graves) at once belittling his lack of understanding and asserting her own perception of reality: ‘Madness, it is agreed, is when a person loses her nature. But it is clear that I have not lost my nature: it is clear that my nature is even more certain than yours. I think you had better give in and agree as well that death is my nature’ (‘Obsession’, Experts Are Puzzled, p. 92). Is it clear? Why had one better give in? Better for whom? Why shouldn’t one fight? Why must one agree? These questions are not answered, though there is the strong suspicion that perhaps only ‘I’, only Laura, will get what she wants. As with so much of (Riding) Jackson’s prose, the shying away from genre – is it fiction or is it not? – becomes coercive, corrosive: it was (only) a story, wasn’t it? Was it? I am not certain, and it is not clear whether one, as a reader, is meant to be certain: ‘In the art of not living one is not ephemerally permanent but permanently ephemeral’ (‘The Myth’, Anarchism Is Not Enough, p. 11). Indeed, the sort of thing one could renounce – one didn’t mean it, after all.
After (Riding) Jackson jumped out of an upper story window because the sexual liaisons in her then ménage were not falling out the way she wished, she wrote to Gertrude Stein and asked Stein to come visit and take care of her. Stein very prettily declined this opportunity (see also). I read this in a footnote to an essay in a book on women bookbinders. It was unexpected, but not unsurprising.
It was my original intention to include more from Griselda Jackson Ohannessian’s charming memoir Once As It Was, which recounts the meeting of Laura Riding (as was) and Schuyler Jackson – the origin story of (Riding) Jackson. In thinking it over I realized that the uncanny, witchlike, artificial, phony, out-of-the-ordinary simulacrum (that tattled and scolded and fainted when crossed) was just another wicked stepmother from a fairy tale and could have only a tenuous relationship with the non-reality in which I was interested. It is no surprise, given the provocation (and the provocation did seem quite real, as real as any Dictionary of Rational Meaning or orange groves in Florida), that the author should be a less-than-patient Griselda, but that is not what we are talking about.
The world of Self is not to be deduced from the world of Nature; there is but one world, and the self is in this, a like fact with other facts, not a subjective fact in a shadowy world of analogy.
—Laura (Riding) Jackson (‘Jocasta’, Anarchism Is Not Enough, p. 77).
The first word that springs to mind when I think of her is ‘babyhood’ – based on Four Unposted Letters to Catherine (‘praise be to babyhood!’) – and the second is ‘կռիվ’, a word always accompanied in my mind with the motion of making a fist – in rage or fear or petulance or solidarity or katalepsis – and also a false echo of grief and grieve and grievance: the cause of the quarrel. These are not the words I would choose, but the words that are. I did not choose them: they appeared. In denying myself this choice, I impose this choice. It is not what I would choose. Yet here it is.
Crambe repetita (50)
Ibn Wahshiyya said, of the generation of cabbage: ‘If you would like to grow cabbage, take four goat hooves and soak them in lard three times, then put them in the ground. Cover them with the hair from a billy goat’s beard, then bury everything in sand and throw some soil on top. Cabbage will grow from it.’
Avicenna said: ‘The root of a cabbage is moister in nature than its leaves, and wild cabbage is more warming and drying [than garden cabbage], but all cabbage is warming in the first degree and drying in the second. There are different species of cabbage including orchard cabbage, sea cabbage, and wild cabbage.… Wild cabbage is more bitter and sharper in taste and less suitable to serve as a source of nourishment. Cooking cabbage hearts in pomegranate juice is delicious.’
—Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri (The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition,
trans. Elias Muhanna, pp. 189f.)
It is a foolish question – what book is the most formally perfect? – because it assumes, first, that there is an ideal form for a book, and second, that perfection is attainable.1 The only perfection possible is the heat death of the universe – frozen droplets of iron suspended, isolated, in a deafening void, endless, boundless, complete – and to pretend that something a person could make (and especially the creation of one person filtered through the labor of another, a translator) could be ‘perfect’ in any way that would be universally acceptable is, well, if not the mark of an idiōtēs (viz., someone not given to showing their thinking in public), then certainly short-sighted. Setting aside works of formal cleverness, which may or may not be perfect but are often messy – one thinks of Tristram Shandy or Ulysses or La Vie mode d’emploi – how is one to say that a book of apparently imperfect form, one that appears to be a chimerical bumble broth, is not in fact perfect for what it is trying to accomplish?2 One must always allow the possibility that one has not sounded the depths – indeed, I wonder whether The Making of Americans might not be the ‘formally’ perfect novel desired, save that its form (and therefore its perfection) is so apparently baggy that one does not (or cannot) notice the perfection. But that is mere speculation, and I will let it rest.
- One can tell it is a silly question because people were tempted to answer Madame Bovary, which is a fine novel and well-structured, but is by no means perfect in any way – nor even close; it does, however, have a sort of prissy sterility and contempt for its characters (so far as I can recall – it has been a while since I read it) that might appear to augur formal mastery: it is tidy, although on a messy subject, and perhaps the contrast of that formal tidiness and its psychological messiness (not the right word, but I am not finding a way to articulate what I mean, which is unfortunate) makes it appear more perfect (can this be a comparative? I think it shouldn’t) than it is. A formal rose garden (canker’d tho’ it be) is very pretty, but I prefer a forest. [↩]
- I should give an example; unfortunately, the example I would have chosen did in fact happen to be a pair of novels published together as one, so the fact that it seems like two distinct novels stuck together is merely accurate rather than structurally unsound – I was very ready to make a pretense of cleverness about it, though! [↩]
Awake at ten past four with the clear impression, through earplugs, that someone has spoken my name. Light of the lamp slowly dawning. The dog nudges the rattling doorknob, then click-click-click away down the hall. A trip to the necessary reveals nothing new, and a short doze passes the time before the alarum. One stares at the phone with a sort of awe in the morning: thank heavens for no real news. Up to face coffee and dumbbells and the morning’s journal. Set a pot of beans on to simmer. Open the balcony door to let in a breeze, despite the pollen tickling every surface in the house. Chilly outside. Not so cold as winter, but noticeable. The dog declines to go out.
Alone for a walk, crossing streets to avoid passers-by. Intend to go through the cemetery and take a turn, but the gates are locked, so continue east by an indirect route for another ten blocks and remember the beans. Return home directly. The dog’s greeting enthusiastic, frantic, tied in knots, a tattoo of claws on hardwood. No damage done, less pungent than liquid smoke. Indeed, an atypical saltiness more noticeable. Vexed at own carelessness, at not mentioning the beans before leaving.
Read something the other day about spring cleaning which mentioned cleaning the insides of closets and armoires. Hint of beeswax and cedar. Clean out the dresser drawers in consolation: check for moth and refold and tuck in more lavender. Less satisfying than anticipated, like most virtuous behavior. Knit two rounds of a colorwork hat. Need to observe tension: floats too short because of concern for tangles. Yarn dominance. Counterintuitive the dominant color should be held below. A curb rein. It will be an ugly hat.
Set aside huswifery for toils. Promised yesterday to turn in four pattern edits this morning (nearly a week ahead of deadline, but as a courtesy – always an eye to future work) and now scrambling to finish them: Pythagoras and row gauge. Manage to send them off before ten, and start editing two papers on the unpromising topic of business ethics and healthcare expenditure. The dog has found a dappled patch of sunshine and sprawls dozily, ankles neatly crossed, after stretching. Always a mark of punctuation: square brackets now and later an integral sign. When she stretches less, a section sign. Finished the day’s second cup of coffee and a lingering bitterness and a tension of fuzziness suggest that a third cup would not be beneficial at the moment – unfortunate. The sky very blue after the morning’s hazy oceanic clouds.
Nearly finished the shorter of the two papers by lunchtime. Cooked up some beans and rice, using up the last of the fading cilantro from the fridge, as well as a packet of sweet corn on the brink of freezer burn. The beans better than expected, despite a few patches with a flavor echoing ash. Considered reading after lunch, but thought it better to get back to work. Looked at the whimsy of interest rates. Nonsensical.
Finished the shorter paper. An awkward squirrel attempts, unsuccessfully, to travel between two trees in the backyard – or perhaps from the neighbor’s gutter to the flimsier of the two trees, recently over-pruned. The untidy rustle of gravity. Another neighbor is having a tree removed – or perhaps the city is involved – and the street is blocked by a large truck and drills and saws. A clatter of lumber, a rattle of leaves. Workers disassemble a balcony upstairs, shatters and drifts of debris falling, followed by the planks for discard. Such a noise, especially now that a leaf blower is agitating in the middle of the street. Taking too long considering possible spendthrifting – books and books and books – and return to the longer paper bemused by the untidiness of the references. The wood chipper revs up and consumes the branches from just down the way.