I’ve been knocking this letter around in my head—and putting down partial starts to it on paper— for so long that it’s become almost impossible to imagine myself ever actually writing a full draft of it. In the past year or so I’ve been increasingly aware of this tendency of mine, which I guess you could call perfectionism: a feeling that I can’t start certain things, or can’t chip away at them, because I can’t imagine completing them to my satisfaction. This has been on my mind a lot in terms of my creative work; I realized recently and with horror that, aside from these Ear Mountain letters, I haven’t finished a full draft of anything for several years! It’s also manifested in more casual pursuits like letterwriting. Every time I start a letter—and so often they’re to people with whom, like you, I am always less in touch than I intend to be—I feel like I need to figure out how to say something holistic about what life has been like for me over the past few months. But how can I ever do that when everything is always changing? It feels like each week there is a new central pressing question or problem or excitement at the front of my mind, and given that any letter that says much in detail about anything takes me a few sittings to write, by the time I start explaining an event or experience it is often transformed, past, or no longer important-seeming. And then I get overwhelmed and the time since I began to write back stretches out… and then it all seems even more impossible!
Perhaps this is just a description of a kind of anxiety that has always been with me but has expanded out in the COVID era to be more damning. I’ve been putting off not only this Ear Mountain but also a “real” letter in response to one I received from you, which has been sitting on my desk for many months. Alas! This is something I would like to work on, something that I think is both a personal problem and perhaps a societal one. I just recently read an article that mentioned a heuristic I’ve seen before about the logic of white supremacy, and how perfectionism (along with urgency, individualism, and all sorts of other traits I recognize in myself and my relationship to achieving things) can be seen as a manifestation of that culture. I say all this at the start of this letter as a kind of admission and apology, but also because I’d like to commit (in writing!) to trying to work on my perfectionist-procrastinating, which I imagine will be a fits-and-starts-style process, as most changes are. But here’s one small attempt!
It’s been a while now since we last talked on the phone, but I’ve continued to think about something you said right at the end of our most recent conversation. It was a shortish-feeling chat, limited in part by timing: I was on my way back from stopping to say hi to Paul and Violet in Tacoma after my “yellow badge” training at the prison where I’m teaching, and I called you on my drive to Seattle. There were, as always feels like the case in catching up, lots of things we didn’t get to, and once I got back to my neighborhood I sat in my car a block away from my apartment to talk for a few minutes more. During this last part of the call we were chatting about reading, and I told you that in the book club I call the minibig we’d been reading Proust (and still are!). It’s felt very strange, I said to you, to reread the first couple volumes of In Search of Lost Time, because I love them, as I did when I read them the summer after our freshman year at Bard—it feels impossible to imagine not loving them, with their brilliant endless sentences and attention to the smallest sensory joys. But I’ve also felt, rereading this summer and fall, that my sensibilities chafe against some of the narrator and project’s assumptions about desire, which so much of the text is preoccupied with and which maps, despite the complexities of the novel and Proust’s own life, onto a very gendered and patriarchal subject-object relationship that drives me more than a little crazy. I said to you too that part of what I’ve struggled with during this rereading is that I not only feel challenged by the novel as I am experiencing it now, but by my remembrances of my own “things past” in terms of how I read these volumes as an 18-year-old girl. My recollection is that I had no problem with the parts of the novel focused on love and yearning; instead, I effortlessly identified with the pining male characters whose stories comprise the vast majority of the book—Swann and the narrator for these first two—and more or less ignored the women, whom I saw as uninteresting. I find that—what, oversight? misplaced allegiance?—really distressing to think about, both because I know it’s not unique to me and because from my vantage now, 15 years later, I very clearly see that as just one example among many of a larger trend in my thinking as a younger person, one that benefitted neither me nor anyone else, except maybe a few of the various men I idolized.
Anyway, I told you some version of all this, looking out my windshield at the trees on Alder Street. And you said you knew what I meant. For the past couple years, you said, you’d been feeling like all the writers who made you want to be one yourself were no longer viable role models, because it felt almost impossible to easily value them or their writing given all the various ways in which their work represents fucked-up ideology. (I am paraphrasing you here and hope I’m getting it rightish!)
I think in the moment—knowing I needed to get out of the car and go make dinner—I said only that I got that, and had been thinking about it too. And I had, and had actually been thinking of you in particular and wanting to talk to you about it, because it had come up for me recently with a couple of books that I associate strongly with you. This spring, as you know, I taught a “reading for writers” class on Moby-Dick (which I read first after you gave it to me as a gift sophomore year, and then read with you again two years later in our “Narratives of Suffering” class) and Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. I had seven weeks of conversation about Melville with a really great group of students, who were both falling in love with the book and quite skeptical of it in certain ways. At around the same time, the minibig book club read Absalom, Absalom!, which I first read in 2010—but which is emblazoned (maybe incorrectly) in my mind as a book that first came onto my radar when I saw you sitting on the swingset near our respective dorms during the first part of our first year at Bard, holding a paperback copy and talking with Alex W. Reading these two books again was, like rereading Proust, a challenge to some of my previous memories of them, and for that reason almost a kind of assessment. To use the language of that scrappy anthology I put together the year after we graduated, the books asked me where are we now?
I answered each one differently. With Moby-Dick I found, perhaps because I have read it many times, and mostly in the conversation of great interlocutors, that my relationship with it deepened without depreciating. I loved teaching this book! It was thrilling, in part because, as I think I said to you and Paul in a text message, I felt in the room alongside me all the people I love who also love this book, and with whom I’ve talked about it: you and Paul and Geoff Sanborn, Lizzy, Andrew, Bill. It was strange and cool to sit in a (virtual) classroom with this text and be the one who was, for many of my students, introducing it, and also to feel such vivid memories of being introduced to it myself and helped along in my understanding of it by teachers and friends (friends who are teachers, and teachers who are friends). And it was also amazing to teach it because my students asked such good questions! We spent lots of time thinking about the way that Melville handles (or sometimes doesn’t) the issues around race and gender that come up in the novel (I was really indebted to Geoff’s book The Value of Herman Melville and to some of his sources in there for help with this), and also just talking about what it means to decide to read a book like Moby-Dick—and to devote two months to it!—in 2021. Where I ended up landing with that myself, based on what my students said, my own reading experience, and again, Geoff’s critical writing on the book, is that Melville makes choices in that text to invite us into conversation, including invitations to question things like racism and how it manifests in casual relationships—and that one of the things that reading an older text can allow us to do is really ask those questions, provided that we can enter a state of both sincere engagement and rigorous inquiry. Obviously the book is not perfect, and certainly not totally PC! But I think Moby-Dick is a spacious enough text that we (or I at least) can love it and feel uncomfortable within it both.
Absalom, Absalom! felt a little harder to me to reenter. Like Melville (and Proust, too), the sentences themselves delight me, even as they’re also so wild and difficult! I described Faulkner’s writing to the minibig as reminding me of eating a brownie—really good, but so dense/rich that it can be overwhelming. But I also felt a lot of discomfort with the book as I slowly made my way back through it—the discomfort of seeing how Faulkner deals with race and racism, and also a kind of sister discomfort to the one I named with Proust that came in reseeing my first response to the book, which focused much less on that and more on my excitement about Faulkner’s way of telling his story. I emailed a bit with recent emeritus book club member Joel, who is a friend of Andrew’s from Carleton (and now a friend of mine, too!), about this, and eventually found myself pretty aligned with the following, which he said in that correspondence:
At the abstract/philosophical level, I was struck on this reading how much this novel (and really all his novels that I've read) is about white masculinity. Not about "race," which is what we like to say, because it's just about one race and also because it's not about white people in general but focused on men and maleness. This then raises the question to me: Do we -- we white people in this book club and white people who constitute most of my friends -- need to read about white masculinity? My instinct is yes, that this "disagreeable mirror," as Baldwin calls it, is essential to confront . . . But that we can't just gulp it down like the sweet aroma of wisteria either and our reading practices are often a little too undiscerning when it comes to whiteness. (I imagine you've reckoned with this while reading Moby-Dick too…)
The only thing I’d add to that is that although the novel is, as Joel says, really focused on whiteness, I think part of the discomfort I experienced has to do precisely with the fact that it does include a number of non-white characters without really being “about” those characters—they are for the most part denied the subjectivity of the Sutpens and the Compsons. What then becomes a question for me—and I hear this a lot from students, too!—is not so much whether Faulkner’s work has any value, because I think, as Joel articulates, it does, maybe especially for white readers if they’re being attentive to their own identity categories while reading—but rather whether, given that we all have such a finite amount of time and energy for reading, we should spend it on writers who only afford full depth and interiority to the most historically privileged category of people. This is, I guess, a long-winded way of asking whether writers like Faulkner should, figuratively speaking, “get out of the way” for us to read other people! We also talked about this in the minibig, and while I am obviously still reading lots of Canonical Men™, I was pretty convinced (again by something Joel said) that teachers, at least, do really need to take that into account. But more on that anon!
In looking back at Joel’s email, I’m especially struck by the term “disagreeable mirror,” which feels like it sums up much of what I’ve been talking about in terms of these rereading experiences. I feel a little uncomfortable appropriating that term from Baldwin, since in poking around to find its origins I see that the original use of it in “The White Man’s Guilt” posits Blackness itself as the mirror. It feels strange to take something referring to race and to people’s identity and broaden it out to just have to do with my general relationship to reading. But maybe I can proceed with a wider idea of reflection, and the ways it can startle and unsettle us. (I’m reminded here of one of my favorite lines from what I’ve read of Thoreau’s Journal, a kind of kaleidoscopic, difficult-to-settle-on sentence: “When I reflect, I find that there is other than me.”)
There is obviously a lot to “unpack,” to use a word that our old pal Robert Weston liked a lot, in what it means to have these sorts of encounters with texts you’ve known for a while, and how positionality plays into it. And I do want to come back to that, and will, I think! But for at least a second (or longer—you know me), I want to go somewhere else with this—because I want to return to what you said on the phone about feeling somehow distanced or less excited about the writers who originally inspired you. Part of the reason I kept thinking about that comment is just because I’m curious about it—I want to know more about where this has come up for you (or in relation to whom), and how it’s impacted your thinking about your own fiction, if it has at all. But I think also hearing you say that on the phone reminded me of something else I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, which is so basic that it feels kind of silly to say it out loud: a lot has changed for us as people (and in the world, too) since you and I first met in 2006! We’re different now than we were!
Obviously this is no surprise, but I guess to me it is a bit of a surprise to articulate that, in part because I have often thought to myself that I feel pretty much the same, personhood-wise, as I did at age 23, and even to some extent at age 16. (The other night I was at Anneka’s house, hanging out with her and Clay and some other friends, and we got to talking about the proto-blogging website Livejournal, which I bet you didn’t traffic in in high school—but I did, as did my friend Bei Hua, who was reading aloud a few choice entries from her high school chronicles. Last night I remembered that and went and looked at mine again, and found lots of things that made me wince both from embarrassment and from recognizing myself in them, still, quite clearly!)
I’ve talked a lot in other Ear Mountains about my skepticism re: a fixed and individual self, but I think that despite that, in a classic Liza paradox, I also tend to see myself as somehow essentially a pretty static person, relatively unchanging. But we’re at an age now where, both in terms of what life looks like and in terms of what we believe in, I can see major differences between “where I am now” and the self that, say, worked at the Tivoli bakery the summer after we graduated, or the self that sat and read The Waves for the first time in my modular home in Wyoming in 2012, which are both versions of myself that “feel like me” when I call those memories up. Maybe it’s been a little easier for me to stick to the sense that I’m still my young adult self because my life has yet to change in some of the most visible ways that people’s lives do. Thus far I’ve eschewed lots of the 30s milestones, which the part of me that my therapist and I have deemed my “informed rebel” self takes pleasure in! (I originally called this my 16-year-old self, so it makes sense that it doesn’t want to have kids or buy a house. It wants to drive around in a dilapidated car listening to sad music and to write about unrequited love on Livejournal!)
But even with a paucity of recent milestones and my continued sense of scrappy, piecemeal living, I see plenty of things that are different for me, or things that I just didn’t know about myself 10 or 15 or—ugh!—almost 20 years back. One obvious one is a parallel to yours—my own “invisible republic” of writers (to use a phrase from one of my very first favorites as a teen, Ed Abbey, now quite questionable on many fronts) has changed a lot, though it feels like it’s capacious enough to include some of my old favorites, too. The beginnings of my life as a serious reader (unfortunately a distinction that I did consciously mark at age 15, and even wrote about in the aforementioned Livejournal!) were so focused on reading what it seemed like everyone else smarter than I was had read; and Bard, though such a good place for me reading-wise and otherwise, was also very canon-focused. It took a few different things—starting Big Big Wednesday, a really rough period of community conflict around how people of color were treated in my MFA, and maybe most of all starting to teach—to force me to stop assuming that the most important people to read were dead men from Europe or America. I still don’t do the best on all these fronts; now, I often find that the canon I reflexively refer to in my own teaching or writing is predominantly comprised of white women, Woolf and Chris Kraus and Annie Dillard, Lydia Davis and Eula Biss and Deborah Levy. It feels frustrating that I am still where I am with this, and embarrassing to even admit it, though I know it’s nobody’s fault but mine—I am frustrated with myself. And I’m also really grateful for teaching, which asks me to be constantly aware of these failures to read and foreground writers from various identity matrices and eras and styles, and to try to change that by reading more widely always.
There are other things I could list, too, that have changed for me, though it’s hard to articulate them very well. An attempt: I am more aware of my flaws, or am aware of different ones (anxiousness and rigidity and a tendency to put obligations above all); I’m a little less shy, better at asking questions; I have more specific desires and priorities (I know I want to teach, for instance, versus having a million different ideas of what I wanted to do for work; I know I want to live really close to friends and commit to a community); I’m more scared of writing and find it harder! I feel intense distaste for certain things that used to charm me—cocky men, for instance. These are not huge shifts—I can see my younger self in them—but I can also feel a gap. I am not the same as I used to be.
Like my rereading experiences, this idea can unsettle me. One constant in my personality, a trait my mom relishes mentioning, is that I do not like change. (I think here of two great songs that align with my feelings on the subject—one is Charles Bradley’s cover of the Black Sabbath song “Changes,” which I heard first warbling out of a tape player in Molly’s Portland backyard and have used as a moping-around soundtrack ever since; the other, closer to home and to now, is Leslie’s amazing “Change,” which I sometimes sing to myself for inspiration in the house.) Even thinking too much about getting older and farther from myself can scare me! Perhaps you are more advanced and wise on this front than I am; I remember getting a letter from you at some point way back in 2014 or 2015 saying something to the effect that you knew your current self might not be entirely recognizable to people who had known you well before, but that you understood that as inevitable to some degree. I remember that remark because the idea of that transformation happening to me seemed terrifying—but I think that in some sense it has! And maybe some small part of my desire to keep my friends close is to make sure that those changes don’t surprise them too much, and thus don’t surprise me, either, the way that you’re not shocked by the appearance of new wrinkles or crow’s feet on the face of someone you spend your life alongside.
Proust, obsessed as he is with (yep!) time passing, has stuff to say about this, of course! And (again of course) for him it is linked to love/desire. While working on the first draft of this letter I read this part of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower where the narrator is trying to settle into life in Balbec:
The trepidation that overwhelmed me at the prospect of sleeping in an unfamiliar bedroom—which is felt by many—may be nothing more than the lowliest, most obscure, organic, and all-but-unconscious mode of the supreme and desperate refusal, by the things that make up the best of our present life, to countenance even our theoretical acceptance of a possible future without them: a refusal which was the core of the horror I had so often felt at the thought that my parents would one day be dead, that the requirements of life might force me to live apart from Gilberte or just make me settle for good in a country where I would never see my friends again…
One day in Paris, when I had been feeling particularly unwell, Swann had said, “What you should do is be off to the South Seas, the islands… You’d very likely never come back.” I almost answered, “But that would mean I’d never see your daughter again—I would live among things and people she would have never set eyes on!” But at the same moment, reason was murmuring, “Well, what difference would that make, since I won’t be upset about it? When M. Swann says I very likely won’t come back, what he means is that I won’t want to come back, and if I don’t want to come back, that will be because I’ll be perfectly happy to stay there.”
The narrator goes on to say that what would make this possible—and what will make it possible for him to forget his preference for his room at home and adjust to this new one—is “the analgesia of habit.” But what especially interested me in this part of the novel is the way that the narrator then links this anxiety about what getting used to something new/forgetting old preferences might mean to a larger anxiety:
The fear of a future deprived of the faces and voices of those we love, those who today give us our dearest happiness, rather than diminishing, may in fact be made worse by the thought that the pain of this deprivation is to be compounded by something which at the moment seems even more unbearable—our no longer being affected by it as a pain, but being indifferent to it—for that would mean our actual self had changed, and not just that we had lost the delight in our parents’ presence, the charm of a mistress, the warmth of a friend… [I]t would amount to the death of our self, albeit followed by a resurrection, but a resurrection of in the form of a different self, whose love will remain forever beyond the reach of those parts of the former self that have gone down to death. It is those parts of us, even the most insubstantial and obscure of them, such as our attachment to the dimensions or the atmosphere of a particular room, which take fright, withhold consent, and engage in rebellions that must be seen as a covert and partial yet tangible and true resistance to death, that lengthy, desperate, daily resistance to the sporadic but nonstop dying which attends us throughout our lives, stripping off bits of us at every moment, which have no sooner mortified than new cells begin to grow.
This passage felt piercing to me; it seems true and comforting and troubling all at once to think that resistance to change is linked to a fear of death—and linked too to the desire to preserve one’s love! I can’t reread this without thinking—because of his relationship to Proust, because of Proust’s relationship to love—of Bill, and of his letter to Hannah from the year before he died. Its message is a little different than what I just typed out from good old Marcel, but the lines that read
But I would at least like you to know that this astonishment I feel at finding that time was moving on without me is born from love. It is that shameful part of love where you have to watch yourself constantly if you want to avoid completely conflating yourself and it, collapsing the two into one. Well, maybe when I’ve been thinking back on the good old days, the people and the places, I haven’t been quite vigilant enough. But now I see that the leaves are changing without me, and as jealous as I may be to find that time has its own existence, independent of my own, it’s something that I have to come to terms with.
—it’s impossible for me not to see these ideas in conversation with Proust’s passage, and with what I have been writing about more generally. And it makes me miss Bill and wish so much that I could talk to him about all of this.
And/but so: how to come to terms with it, to echo Bill’s words? I feel like I have been talking round and round in circles in this letter (as I maybe always do). But I also wonder if that kind of thinking out loud—which I have always felt privileged to be inspired to do with you, in writing and in your real-life company when we cross paths—is actually in some ways the answer to that question about reconciling oneself to change. A couple months ago Geoff sent me an essay he’d written about Moby-Dick for some sort of anthology. I just this week got around to reading it, and I was so excited and moved by his ideas, as always. In particular I keep thinking about this part early on where he defines a kind of reading that he spends the rest of the essay exploring:
When people say that there is nothing left to say about Moby-Dick, they are saying that there are no new meanings to be found in it, no fresh conceptual vantage-points to be discovered. But reading for meaning—seeking the meaning of certain ambiguous passages, seeking the mega-meaning of the work as a whole—has never been the only kind of reading that is available to us. One of our most important alternatives to it is immersive reading—reading that continuously gathers new and heterogenous elements into itself, that keeps arriving at and departing from a state of relative comprehension. Immersive reading can turn not-yet-knowing into a fruitful condition; it can make it possible to sense things that cannot be sensed by other means.
Later on in the essay Geoff uses this kind of reading to think in particular about how race and racism are represented in the novel. Describing Ishmael’s first encounter with Queequeg in “The Spouter-Inn” chapter, in which we watch Ishmael’s shifting reactions to being in proximity to a person of color, he writes:
Potential racial difference leads to rapid, unwilled thinking that draws on the mental contents that are most ready-to-hand, that have the strongest cultural ratification, which is why encounters of this kind so often stimulate racist thoughts. But it also leads, in this case, to a curiosity, a desire to construe, that continues to operate even after a conclusion has been reached. What Melville invites us to be interested in here is not any one racist or anti-racist thought in particular, but the uncertainty-generating movement of a white American’s consciousness in the midst of a racially charged encounter.
To restate what I already said w/r/t Faulkner: obviously books shouldn’t focus exclusively on white people’s consciousnesses! But I don’t think that’s what Geoff is saying here, and in other spots in Moby-Dick we also see Queequeg puzzling over Ishmael’s difference. To leap out to a larger view: when I read this, I recognize the kind of ideas that I often discuss with students in class (which are, to be clear, heavily influenced by Geoff and my time as his student!)—so often I find myself trying to encourage them to be most excited about the moments of “not-yet-knowing,” places where a text seems weird or mysterious but also inviting, at least in terms of making them curious. And yet I know this to be really challenging! I feel that difficulty strongly in my reencounter with Proust. Because what is my frustration with feeling complexity around reading him but a kind of rejection of “uncertainty-generating movement”? What I am desiring when I wish for a simpler experience is, in a sense, just certainty—which is also what I want when I cling stubbornly to whatever I have or whoever I imagine myself to be, resisting change in myself or my situation. It’s an understandable desire. But I think in my better moments I actually do really want to throw myself in with the kinds of experiences Geoff describes, the ones that “[keep] arriving and departing from a state of relative comprehension,” whether those experiences are reading or writing or just being in the swells of all the hours and days. It’s easier for me to remember that when I’m reading Moby-Dick, or even when I’m in the midst of Proust’s long sentences, which ask your understanding to twist and turn along with them—because I’d way rather be with them, in energetic motion, than in something fixed but simpler. I feel this nudge in other moments, too, even when they’re trying: when I’m striving to facilitate good conversation about race and class and gender and more as a teacher, and sometimes wondering if I’ve fucked it up, or waffling as I revise this about how I am still so often thinking alongside white men (as I have almost exclusively done in this letter). These experiences aren’t steadying! But they’re lively, maybe “green, life-restless,” to quote Geoff quoting Melville.
I wonder what you will make of all this! As has been the case since the very beginning of our correspondence, which you commenced by imagining what it might be like for us both to be very old and to be looking back on our letters, I’m eager to hear what all these words make you think of. And I hope all’s well in Boise. Looking at Bill’s letter made me wonder what fall is like for you there. Are there leaves in flaming color around you right now? Andrew and I spent the weekend on the east side of the Cascades two weeks back to go see the larches—that special Western tree that looks like a pine but turns electric yellow in autumn! They were amazing. But we also have red and orange foliage on our block, including a spectacular maple around the corner that’s dropping bright leaves everywhere right now. Every time I see them piled on the ground, or falling, I think ahead to when they’ll all be gone, and I feel sad. But—but! I also love to see them. I hope you’re seeing something like this too, your own Idaho equivalent.
(The above is from a letter from Sam, dated May 23, 2007. The goofy picture of me with a larch was taken by Andrew. Hi everyone!)