This morning I pulled down from my bookshelf a cardboard box that contains a hundred or more index cards on which I had written in the 1980s and 1990s when I was a student, and before computers, quotations, drawn from my reading. This old habit is like gathering flowers for the mind, and the sewing together of wisdom or insight or simply perceptive observations from writers of the canon has long been a foundation of the essay genre.
Montaigne’s essays after all are patchworks of the classical authors. I open the complete essays at a random page, and there in the first two paragraphs of “Of not communicating one’s glory,” I see Montaigne quoting a verse by Tasso, who I confess I do not know, and writing, “For as Cicero says, even those who combat it [the concern for reputation and glory] still want the books that they write about it to bear their name on the title page, and want to become glorious for having despised glory.”
These cards remind me of what I have strived to be, a custodian of a cultural inheritance, a poet in destitute times, a prophet of the banished. I shuffle through the names – Arendt, Adorno, Heidegger, Rene Char, Foucault, Derrida, Benjamin, Beckett, Norman Brown, Barthes, Wallace Stevens, Weber, Schiller, Kafka and more. For years I reached for the titans in my mind; I sought to scale my mind’s mountains, “cliffs of fall/ Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. (Hopkins)” Did it bring me anything but knowing I had sought the summit? These cards are my souvenirs, my pressed wildflowers of those long hours of walking into maelstroms of black thoughts and lightless uncertainty.
I find from Schiller’s Letters on Aesthetic Education (letter 6):
“Everlastingly chained to a single little fragment of the whole, man himself develops into nothing but a fragment; everlastingly in his ear the monotonous sound of the wheel he turns, he never develops the harmony of his being, and instead of putting the stamp of his humanity upon his own nature, he becomes nothing more than the imprint of his occupation or of his knowledge.”
So long I have sought transcendence of that petty imprint, the husk I have known I have lived in, with the disappointment of not finding a way to make a living in accordance with my deepest humanity, in this infinite conversation, whose ghosts and night whispers I have recorded on these cards.
And this curse of being adrift in the world of work in a way that wars with my spirit I find annotated from Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:
The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilised coal is burned. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the saint like a “light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become a housing as hard as steel [or an iron cage]”
There I find myself and my struggles again in the summoning of the irresistible force that took me far from the life of the mind and the way of life I most love. There in the hint of dark prophecy – when the last ton of fossilised coal is burned – I see my own troubled relationship with our times, driven by both an ethic of responsibility to act in the world, not merely to paint word pictures of it, and a deep unease with the people and preoccupations of corporations and contemporary governments.
I read Arendt’s musing on whether political traditions exert their force most powerfully on human minds when the living force of the tradition has died, and people can no longer even think to rebel against it. And I wonder how I can be a vessel for a more vital tradition, a tradition of political thought that honours the ordinary virtues of governing well, if only I allow all that I have been to flow through me and become all that I might be.
And then, at last, I remember Mikhail Bakhtin, and his sense of the carnivalesque and the dialogic, and his words, from Speech Genres and other essays, may best complete this glimpse of recovery of the imagination and of the narrative of my life:
There is neither a first word nor a last word. The contexts of dialogue are without limit. They extend into the deepest past and the most distant future. Even meanings born in dialogues of the remotest past will never be finally grasped once and for all, for they will always be renewed in later dialogue. At any present moment of the dialogue there are great masses of forgotten meanings, but these will be recalled again at a given moment in the dialogue’s later course when it will be given new life. For nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will someday have its homecoming festival.
When, beyond the flames and ash of the burning archive, will be my homecoming festival?