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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Morning thoughts on creation

A good image for a flourishing mind...
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Maze of Blood

One of the stranger things about Genesis is that God is shown making the universe, and at its end the universe is good. In fact, very good. But it's not faultless. Genesis never claims such a thing. The universe is order drawn out of chaos. But it's not order drawn all the way out of chaos.

Without some chaos and change, new things would not rise up as time passes. Evolution would never happen. Some elements of perfection sound very attractive. Volcanoes would not erupt, tsunamis not spill over the earth. We wouldn't have to write books about why bad things happen to good people. Perhaps little would happen to anybody, but the world would be tidy and orderly and safe.

Or perhaps the world would be fully anti-narrative and nothing at all would ever occur. Perfection is static. The order of made things grows out of the soil and ferment of chaos.

A book or a poem (not Creation with a big C but a little-c sub-creation) aspires to perfection, aspires to bring order out of chaos. No one can create perfection, and I imagine a writer might just stop if he or she reached perfection in a work. A book or poem also aspires to do something new in the world, though most stories and poems do not.

And who are the best poems and books for? (Here I am skipping the au courant, the trendy, the passing fancies, the bestseller rages--they have their reward!) Are they written for readers? Not exactly, though words are a siren call sent out to readers who bob by in their little ships. At its best, a poem is made from a springing desire that is beyond words but becomes incarnate in words. A novel or other long work is a mixture of conscious decision and labor and that same springing desire which comes and goes like a will o' the wisp.

The new small-c creation may find readers if the work is good or very good but also if the work has luck and a push toward visibility. Then reader and the writer may at last unite, the reader creating in mind a singular, personal version of the work...


  1. Just as order if not perfection comes from preexisting chaos in Genesis, so do writers attempt to render the ineffable chaos of the human marination into the order if not perfection of language. Tis a process not an end. Keep writing.

  2. Oops... imagination not marination

  3. Perfection in art is a chimera. Even if the artist was fool enough to believe he'd achieved it the first art-consumer down the pike would have a different view (however slight the difference) and, as Pudd'nhead Wilson says, "It is difference of opinion that makes horse races."

    Certain works of art are said to be perfect (The David is a regular candidate) but it's a nonsense. Perfection is close kin to definitive; to claim that anything - from the Gosse Fuge to a non-stick frying pan - is definitive one would have to know the begetter's exact intentions. Even LvB could hardly have known them though perhaps the frying-pan man may have got a little closer. With the pan, that is.

    It makes you wonder whether the superlative form of the adjective has any relevance outside the quantitative: the fastest tortoise could be established with a stopwatch, the best (or better) actor is a purely subjective judgment debased even further by over-usage.

    As to the almost-perfect post-Genesis world (OK, the very good world) I think we should look for agreement from an antelope which has recently submitted to the lion's claws.

    Am I even allowed to say - with any degree of philosophical rectitude - I have improved the original draft of my MS. Who says?

    Freedom of speech? It's another chimera.

    1. Yes, I agree--no maker of any sense is without understanding that we can never catch and hold that glimmering beauty (thinking of "The Song of Wandering Aengus.")

      Exactly. Good and very good order still have to include generative chaos. And the lion eating the antelope is a piece of news about chaos.

      A poem is an even trickier thing--so easy to ruin. And who doesn't know a painter who complains now and then that a piece was overworked, that it was better at an earlier point?

    2. p. s. I know you won't think we're talking about the same thing with Creation and the antelope. But to me, many symbols and symbolic depictions are embodiments of various sorts of truth/meaning and so help us grasp reality. You prefer to treat symbolic passages (as here) as a journalist looking at facts, and so you are forced to see them as ridiculous. I don't look at ancient symbolic passages that way but as incarnations of cosmic-metaphysical, social, personal, etc. truths and wisdom. The facts contain and support higher, metaphysical meaning, rather like (to use a lowly metaphor) a walnut shell protecting and walnut meat. The account in Genesis was compressed into a bouillon cube of meaning over millennia. We don't rightly talk about such things in the way a modern, scientific/materialist journalist talks about something factual today--as absolute material fact on the level of what designer Kate Middleton wore home from the hospital or the reason why North Korea is shutting down its mountainous nuclear test site.

    3. Ships returning from delivering their cargo would be empty and thus skittish. Hence ballast, an inert valueleless substance (eg, gravel) down in the hold to make them more controllable.

      My eyes lit up at your re-comment; yes, from now on I would be a materialist journalist, the phrase had technoid charm. Caution took me wikiwards and, alas, both meanings of materialist were for me inappropriate. A more honest role beckoned. I would become ballast for The Palace at 2 AM. In musical terms others would sing the highly-paid, highly demanding soprano line while I provided the much duller bass continuo. I would stabilise flights of fancy, I would give deeper but obviously invisible roots to invention. Finally unnecessary I would become part of someone's driveway. I would however require a bigger than usual tombstone to accommodate this from Hilaire Belloc:

      The Dear Old Butler thought - but there!
      I really neither know nor care
      For what the Dear Old Butler thought!
      In my opinion butlers ought
      To know their place, and not to play
      The Old Retainer night and day.

    4. Hah, I don't think that's appropriate for you tombstone--though I would expect something witty, for sure! But it was amusing. Is Belloc still read and re-printed, I wonder?

      Nor do I think you deserving of mere ballast or driveway gravel! (Though perhaps the ballast is the most important thing of all when it comes to a ship, metaphorical or not.)

      I tend to think we're all materialists now. We've to some degree divorced things from their ancient meanings, events from their tradition. You might call that by some other label, but it's a severing of meaning, whatever you call it...

    5. The Cautionary Tales will eventually outlast White's History of Selborne, recently revealed to be No. 4 on the all-time most printed list.

  4. I'm coming out of a three-week frenzy of work and am enjoying these two recent blog posts, especially since I'm plugging away at three different books and wondering who will read them and what those readers will think.

    One thing I've noticed, from reading and blogging about some mediocre 19th-century Maryland writers over the past few years, is that a book doesn't have to be good for the reader to feel a connection with the author across time. Nothing changes the minimal impact of a forgotten book, but there's something beguiling about summoning an obscure shade for a day or two and acknowledging his or her humanity.

    1. Three? Now I don't know about three! Tell!

      I think so too; I have sometimes found it curious and interesting to see another age through a forgotten book. And often what appeared racy and earth-shaking ("Charlotte Temple," say) is so remarkably mild compared to our own day, when transgression appears to have become impossible, even as critics are always talking about the transgressive as if it still were possible.

      Once I found a handwritten poem in a book--probably late nineteenth century--and somehow felt so touched and sorrowful, thinking of that unknown person who had either written or copied out a poem. It was a rather pedestrian poem, but that didn't make any difference to how I felt.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.