Monday, November 21, 2011

On Pike & Boren

Four pillars stand on the corner of Pike Street and Boren Avenue, on the Western edge of Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. In the summer, gutter punk kids hang out there, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, busking for quarters.

Until the '60s, these columns held up the entrance of Plymouth Congregational Church, demolished when I-5 was built  They have been left as remnants of an older, more innocent Seattle, a quiet Victorian seaside town that only exists today in faded photographs. Stripped of their Ionic capitals, they jut out of the Earth. It is a monument without memory, a footnote to a glittering young city.

The skyline has become the symbol of the American city, the Protestant work ethic translated into an image. It is the glossy picture on the cover of every tourist brochure, of every Chamber of Commerce booklet.

Approach closer. At night in downtown Seattle, you see empty office buildings glowing with cold fluorescent light, crackheads muttering to themselves on street corners, the homeless Indians, the secure entrances with triple-sheets of plate glass, rough concrete walls, loading docks. The contradictions of the city are made apparent.

In ancient ruins, the monuments have been cleansed of their contradictions. We only have sphinxes and palladia, the glories of the past. In the 19th Century, the Brits built fake Roman ruins on the manicured grounds of their estates, an attempt to transpose a nostalgia for the halcyon days of Greece and Rome to their own provincial, petty aristocracy.

At Sukhothai, I wandered among crumbling laterite stupas and elegantly carved Buddhas. On the bone-dry plains of Central Thailand, all that was left were pools and palaces, temples and throne halls. Gone were the ordinary rice farmers and laborers, the Lao slaves, the lepers, the broken backs and crushed arms, the purges and burnings. We have only traces of ancient majesty, the serenity of the dharma-king.

So much of the modern skyline is made of glass and steel. With North American weather, it seems likely that they will fold and crumble. All that will remain of Seattle's Washington Mutual Tower, Space Needle, and Columbia Center will be fragments. They will dissolve into silica and ferric oxide.

This isn't a bad thing. Albert Speer famously designed his Nazi halls to decay beautifully, to evoke the romantic sensibility of future poets. There's a sick fatalism in that, a sort of cultural refusal to consider present realities, a privileging of the mythic over the real.

I walk past the pillars again. The sun is setting behind the Olympic Mountains. What is beautiful and valuable about a city isn't the monuments it builds, the narratives it tells itself. It is transient moments like this, when light and color and shadow seem perfectly harmonized. The dark shape of a ship, loaded with cargo bound for Asia, cuts across the still water of the sound. I wait for a moment and stare, breathing in the cold air, before walking back up the hill to go have a slice of pizza and a drink.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Linguistic Reality

Maybe a year ago, I experienced a horror at what seemed to be a complete slippage between my language and my thoughts. I became convinced that my words for emotional states and abstract concepts were ultimately flawed. The way I used them seemed different than the way everyone else did. I felt, momentarily, that my voice had been stolen. When I rode the bus home every day, I floated, unsure of my own world, among strangers.

It's not like most of our words have a concrete, permanent meaning. There is at least some degree of arbitrariness in what we speak. It reminds me of that lovely quote by Wittgenstein:

"Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses."

For whatever reason, I've met a lot of linguists in the past couple years. And so many of them have this sort of autistic relationship to the world. It's as if linguistics is their own way of discovering human society. They take interpersonal communication-- something so subtle and difficult and loaded and impressionistic-- and change it into a precise scientific reduction. Everything is parsed into phonemes and morphemes, syntax and semantics. Positive science is the barrier they erect against the maelstrom of social reality.

When you're younger, language seems like a matter of precise terms. You're learning new words constantly, and they all have a meaning. In school, you learn the rules of grammar and spelling, synonyms and antonyms. But as you get older, that linguistic certainty is shaken. Suddenly, there is context, history, questionable definitions. There is the exhilaration and the terror of discovering one's own subjectivity.

I suppose I'm trying to determine my relationship to my words because I've been trying, over the past year or so, to make my living as a writer of some kind or another. And to a certain degree I've succeeded. I've had more or less steady writing work. But as my current contract draws to a close, I have to wonder "is everything going to turn out OK?"

For me, reading and writing is the nearest thing I've ever had to a religion. In school, the point of reading was, for the most part, a vital part of some quest for knowledge/truth/etc. But outside of a life as a student, I stopped reading books to learn more about the world. Instead it became, above all else, a form of therapy.

At the twilight of the Roman Empire, the fallen Senator Boethius sat in his jail cell, contemplating Aristotle and Cicero. The important thing wasn't the conveyed knowledge. It was that a great idea can ameliorate the boredom and the loneliness and the meaninglessness of day-to-day life.

My coffee is getting cold and it's starting to rain. But then, after five minutes in front of a Russian novel, I pass into a world mediated by someone else's language, and everything dissolves into light.