I've never read a novel about the internet. I've read novels that involve aspects of the internet, but none about the internet itself1. This is of particular interest to me, because I judge art and society through the lens of the novel. I believe the novel is the highest artistic expression - you may disagree. In the January issue of Esquire Tom Junod writes an article about an interview he did with Norman Mailer. Describing Mailer, Junod writes:
"He's always stood for the novel as the main event, the test of courage, the test of manliness... Partly it was an existential thing, because the novel is a heroic go at the void..."
That struck me at the time as being utterly, utterly true.
The novel is our attempt at putting a period at the end of existence. This is how big a life is; here is its shape, its depth, and its size. Some novels discuss one life with excruciating depth; others tout a cast of characters that numbers into the dozens. The worst thing a novel can be is about plot. The best thing it can be is a faithful record of people.
I once tried to write a novel without any characters2, just descriptions of empty fields and the history of streams and mountains. Deadly boring stuff, and a cautionary tale. There is no novel without life. Hence, no novels about the internet.
Last month, I suggested something be done to record the history of everything2. The editors debated, took it into consideration, and decided that nothing official would be done, but if something was done by a volunteer, it would not be looked down upon. I can understand their trepidation. Some of us are more vocal than others; the writing of a history is volatile stuff.
Other equally good arguments were made. One was that this project would make newer users feel marginalized. I disagree. I believe that it is important for collaborative efforts to have a history. Having a sense of our place in the larger scheme of things is comforting. When you get here, it is a bit like entering a smoky men’s club, a second after someone has told a fantastic knee-slapper. The whole room roars with laughter; the laughter dies down as you walk in, hat in hand. Everyone stares at you.
“I hear you fellas do a little writin’ here.”
They stare at you, cigars clenched between middle and index finger, ready to toss you out.
“I know a little bit about guns, and sloppin’ hogs; I got a degree in forest science and a right funny story about the time I woke up naked in a cornfield.”
They go right back to their fun, and you stand there, waiting. It’s intimidating, and what’s more, it has to be like that. Too many noders leave forever the same day that they join, and the ones that continue with the site do so for a reason. It might help if they had a place to go to read about the legacy of those before them, and why they should stay, even though no one talks to them except momomom or Wiccanpiper, and their first writeup is nuked. With penalty.
What’s more, it has to be oral histories. In The E2 Backstory clampe writes: “this is not a virtual community. It's simply a community.” And that is true. But communities record the past, and call it history, instead of being honest and calling it factual mythology.
If you left E2 today, how would you measure the time you spent here? By nodes, by words, by time spent at your computer? Does any of this mean anything? Could we make a novel out of E2?
Here is what I suggest:
Everyone and their mother e-mail me3, msg me, IM me, what have you. Give me a list of turning points, important events in E2’s history. Because I enjoy symmetry, we will do this like the stations of the cross. Each station will be a melding of oral histories, to be collected after the stations have been set. The histories will contradict themselves. They will not be conclusive. They will reflect the prejudices of their authors.
Nevertheless, they will be true.
It probably goes without saying that some of you will think of better ways to collect this information. You will have opinions, and you may refuse to participate in what I’m trying to do. That is fine. But don’t msg me with aimless bitching unless you have a better idea.
My second point is about poetry.
My favorite poet is Anna Akhmatova and my favorite poem of hers is as follows:
He Did Love
He did love three things in this world:
Choir chants at vespers, albino peacocks,
And worn, weathered maps of America.
And he did not love children crying,
Or tea served with raspberries,
Or woman's hysteria.
...And I was his wife.
Akhmatova, besides being a beautiful wordsmith and perpetrator of samizdat literature (She memorized many of Osip Mandelshtam’s poems to prevent them from being wiped out; the surviving portion of his work is in no small part due to her efforts), was an acmeist. She stood with Flaubert; she was looking for the mot juste.
I found a collection of her poems in a bookstore a few months ago, and my body sang with the discovery. Inside, like an overturned ash tray, was a translation of my favorite poem that is nowhere near as lyrical or vivid as the one above.
This is the nature of poetry. Jorge Luis Borges, in his lecture “Poetry”, said:
“The aesthetic event is something as evident, as immediate, as indefinable as love, the taste of fruit, or water.”4 Else where he asserts: “…and even for the same reader the same book changes, for we change; we are the river of Heraclitus, who said that the man of yesterday is not the man of today, who will not be the man of tomorrow. We change incessantly, and each reading of a book, each rereading, each memory of that rereading, reinvents the text. The text too is the changing river of Heraclitus.”
This seems to echo Jacques Derrida
, who likens a text to a web:
“a web that envelops a web, undoing the web for centuries; reconstituting it too as an organism… there is always a surprise in store for the anatomy or physiology of any criticism that might think it has mastered the game…”5
In summary: poetry is a big wriggly fish that forever threatens to flop out of the boat. In terms of interpretation, of course. The reading of the poem depends on the person, that person at that moment. And because of this, the poem as the author’s intention begins to die the instant it is finished. Translation invariably eviscerates this original organism, and sets a dummy in it’s place.
Because the defining character of poetry is not in form, but in import. Poetry is about the relationship of words. Their sound, the interplay between their connotation and their denotation, and the rhythm of speech. As soon as the words start to change, are translated, begin to fall to the wayside or increase in circulation, that initial snapshot of linguistic relativity is changed, stretched, and modified.
The best poetry dashes its brains out in a short amount of time, and is constantly revived to play a part it wasn’t born into.
The point I am laboring to make is, poetry is meringue, it is Francium, it is vastly unstable and we cannot expect it to last forever. Some of it falls out of the author already dead, already irrelevant, already boring as hell. That is why poetry is and should always be held to a higher standard than anything else in the database. It just expires too fast.
Each piece will live and die on its own terms. Every writer has things that will last years in the database; other pieces won’t last the season. That is the pact you enter into when you join, that you are riding on a self-correcting machine, and not all of your contributions will survive. I put all of my poetry in daylogs; partly because I don’t have the courage of my convictions. But mostly because that is where I think it belongs.
If there is something worth fighting for, it is the writing. But there is no one here worth fighting with or over, capisce?
1. Criterion: Takes place entirely within the sphere of the internet, and is not Tron.
2. In my defense, the prose was gorgeous. It just didn't go anywhere.
3. My E-mail
4. Seven Nights "Poetry". New Directions, 1984.
5. Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism "Dissemination" Norton and Co. 2001