August 22nd

On Eugene Thacker’s Infinite Resignation, Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road

As I grow more confident of the things I want to say, I find I have less and less to say. In light of this loss, the appeal of aphorisms—the pessimist’s genre of choice—is obvious. “Knowledge exists in inverse proportion to meaning,” Eugene Thacker writes in Infinite Resignation. The more Cioran one has dined on, the more Nietzsche and Schopenhauer one has imbibed, the less ontological weight one will lend to any given moment. For one who believes that we are truly trapped, that the human species is unable to remove itself from its hamster wheel of desire and spite, the efficacy of words is effectively nil. The best (if not only) option is to remain taciturn. 

There are other truths to excavate from Infinite Resignation, an abundance of older pessimists to joyfully uncover, but I’ve spoken of those in previous weeks. And of all my takeaways, this is the one that’s stuck with me the strongest. Part of this sticking can be chalked up to my recent writing, which has recently consisted mostly of rewriting, which itself consists mostly of culling. (Little that I say [at least unedited] is of note.) But a larger part can be pinned on the other two works I’ve read over the last week-and-a-half: Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Because both, contrary to Thacker, insist that life is meaningful, that meaning lies everywhere, that even the most diseased pigeon and degenerate peon signify. And both works do so in different ways: Sappho’s surviving poetry by stripping away, creating meaning with omission; Kerouac’s opus via effusiveness, championing language against the silence at the end of every night.

I think my favorite scrap of Sappho is her 69th surviving fragment, which simply reads: “sinful.” I like it so much precisely because it is so compact: one word, six letters, nothing else. Within it, though, with it—precisely because of the omissions around it—the reader can craft a world. One can only imagine the words that once surrounded it, the scene to which a poet of Sappho’s influence lent so much weight. One word—sinful—becomes supremely significant; so too the fact that the fragment is Sappho’s 69th. That the latter association is chronologically inappropriate doesn’t matter: once sinful’s importance is granted, it’s a short leap to assigning significance to all elements of a poem. The act of reading, the fact of this one word having been penned and then preserved and then alluded to in a tweet and then translated by Anne Carson and then delivered by Amazon, a globe-dominating corporation branded after fearsome female warriors—secondhand, not even a week ago—to me: all seems equally fated. And the same can be said of Sappho’s other fragments, as well as the scenes their absences create. Our world is charged with meaning. Life is easily, wildly meaningful. The charge of the poet, the charge of us all, is simply to be aware.

If Kerouac’s generation-defining On the Road has the same thesis as Sappho’s fragments—that every moment is meaningful, that every word gestures toward God—it goes about proving it through methods that are diametrically opposed. His novel, famously plotless, climaxes when one least expects: in a flashback to an earlier summer’s drunken dawns, in a memory of a conversation with Carlo Marx (Kerouac’s pseudonymous stand-in for Ginsberg). The passages one remembers have nothing to do with plot, only the beautiful chaos that’s taking place while one is otherwise occupied looking for arcs. Remembering another, similar night to the one taking place in the novel’s present, Kerouac speaks of “singing and moaning and eating the stars and dripping the juices of my heart drop by drop on the hot tar.” Speaking of the people of New York, or New Orleans, imagining their distant presence, Kerouac writes that “they stand uncertainly underneath immense skies, and everything about them is drowned. Where go? what do? what for?—sleep. But this foolish gang was bending onward.” The 1950’s America Kerouac conjures is one clotted with portent; as long as one is moving, forward-bound in their quest to devour every morsel of meaning the world has on offer, they can be said to have led a worthwhile life.

To be sure, neither work is without its suffering. Despair underpins much of Sappho’s pining; emptiness is the engine of Kerouac’s wandering. But both texts are full (of meaning, of hope) in a way that Thacker’s philosophy asserts is impossible, and which, for this reason, have proven sorely necessary for me over the course of these last ten days. In Infinite Resignation, Thacker writes, “The aphorism: abyss without precipice.” To him, to the pessimistic tradition as a whole, we exist in a pit; all light can only be grasped at, merely glimpsed. For novelists, for poets, suffering is contingent: if we act with grace, if we are here and open and fully, drunkenly aware, we might avoid it. It is possible to speak of a thing like love and not laugh. It is possible to attempt to climb, to believe in a higher rung that one might grip. I find, after breezing through Sappho, after finally finishing Kerouac’s most famous work, that I still prefer Thacker and the pessimistic history he inherits. But my reverence is no longer total. I am aware that there is a counterpoint, a lighter tradition balancing nihilism’s lack. And although I’ll never (I don’t think) fully convert to Kerouac’s and Sappho’s headier beliefs, I do think I might be swayed.

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