The Courage of Those Born to be Defeated

First post: June 20, 2014.



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Last year in which this was still a cool thing to do: 2006, when Twitter began.


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Times I’ve abandoned Traces, supposedly for good: three (3), so far.




Then Dolly began to see on each side of her, among the thronging stems of the birch trees, what looked like human hands, moving to touch each other across the whiteness and blackness.


“Lisa,” she called out, “I can see hands.”


Lisa stood still again. They were in a clearing into which the moon shone. Dolly saw that by every birch tree, close among the trunks, stood a man or a woman. They stood separately pressing themselves, each to their own tree. Then they turned their faces toward Lisa, patches of white against the whitish bark. Dolly saw now that there were many more of them, deep into the thickness of the wood.


“I have come, but I can’t stay,” said Lisa. “You came, all of you, as far as this on my account. I know that, but I can’t stay. As you see, I’ve had to bring this child with me. If she speaks about this, she won’t be believed. If she remembers it, she’ll understand in time what she’s seen.”


No one answered her, no one spoke. No one left the protection of the trees, or moved towards them.


~ Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring (1988)

At seven, Penelope was sent away to boarding school. When she was 18 and about to enroll at her mother’s alma mater, she lost her to colon cancer. Penelope’s father forbade anyone to speak of her ever again. He and his brothers were all brilliant and accomplished, one of them a classics scholar and cryptanalyst crucially important in the breaking of the Enigma ciphers during World War II. As for Penelope, a finals examiner at Somerville College Oxford “was so astounded by her papers,” writes novelist Julian Barnes, “that he asked his fellow dons if he could keep them, and later, apparently, had them bound in vellum.”


Penelope married a war hero who happened to be an alcoholic. They had three children. Her flailing husband, a barrister, forged signatures on his colleagues’ checks. They were kicked out of their house. For a time they lived on a dilapidated barge in the Thames, but it sank — twice. They were homeless for four months. Penelope took the children to London restaurants where they ate free bread and olive oil, only to pretend to dislike the menu and leave. Then it was public housing. During all this time she was teaching at a “crammer” for rich kids (e.g., Anna Wintour, Helena Bonham Carter, Tilda Swinton) in the last two years of secondary school, which she would continue doing for 26 years. She shopped with green stamps and used tea to color her hair. Her first novel she wrote at the age of 60 as a yarn to entertain her dying husband.


In a letter from 1967 to her daughter Tina, she shared this anecdote about Tina’s sister Maria:

Maria has much depressed me by 1. Looking at Daddy and me and saying: “What a funny old couple you are!” and 2. Telling me that studying art and literature is only a personal indulgence and doesn’t really help humanity or lead to anything, and, I suppose, really, that is quite true: she said it very kindly. My life seemed to be crumbling into dust.

(Today Maria Fitzgerald is a neuroscientist who does pioneering work in the basic developmental neurobiology of pain.)


Two years before she died, Penelope Fitzgerald said to an interviewer:

I have remained true to my deepest convictions. I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities, which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?

And to be sure, in her novel Bookshop (1978), we find this:

She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.

Now back to those birch trees for a moment.


I have no idea what is happening in that scene. No, that’s not true: I have one or two vague ideas. In any case, the image of that moonlit forest and its ghostly people and that little girl will, I hope, never leave me. It has joined other such images, tales, memories, which I have stored up and rummage through at this or that moment during all the days of my life. In time, I hope I’ll understand what I’ve seen, even if, whenever I do choose to speak of it, no one may believe me.



Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash


Some Questions and Answers


Q: Why?


A: No one knows. Roughly two trillion galaxies in our universe, we guess, most of it mysterious dark matter. One hundred thousand million blazing hot stars in the Milky Way alone. After 13.8 billion years, our cosmos is still swelling, redshifting. Why? No one knows, not really.


Q: What, then?


A: Just that: we know almost nothing. Start with that. Let’s say that you — you personally — come into possession of everything that human beings have learned over the past 200,000 years. All the science, all the philosophy, every tool and technique that human beings have ever devised. Measured against what you don’t know, it’s a mere thimbleful of water dipped from one out of a million million oceans.


We know almost nothing, okay?


Q: So how … ?


A: I don’t know, of course, but here’s a thought. We could choose to see it as liberating. Imagine, after all, the crushing weight of omniscience. Being in possession of perfect knowledge, we would always know the full consequences of our every action. Do you really want to be able to trace the causal connection between your joy and another person’s despair, between your pleasure and another person’s agony? Honestly, we should be relieved to let it go, this delusion that we know anything much about anything at all.


Q: But what … ?


A: I’m not convinced that anything needs to take its place. We know only that we know nothing, as Socrates used to say. And if that’s not enough for you, think of it this way. Suppose you dedicate your life to increasing by an infinitesimal amount the ludicrously small store of human knowledge. Let’s say you discover something about the microbiota of the human gut. More than 10,000 microbial species inhabit the human body, after all, and they comprise more than half of its total number of cells. Let’s say you learn something new and important about, oh, Streptococcus thermophilus. Well done, you! Only 9,999 bacteria, archaea, fungi, protists, and viruses, comprising 10-100 trillion symbiotic cells in every person’s body, to go! Not to mention the immensely complex interaction both among all these microbial organisms and between those microbiota and the rest of the human ecosystem.


Q: Are you … ?


A: Of course not. May your achievement be celebrated! May it be heralded by one and all! Still, let’s not get carried away. Let’s strive for a proper perspective, shall we?


Q: I …


A: Sure, sure. But stop and think.


Q: Okay …


A: You see where I’m going with this.


Q: Well, actually …


A: It’s not so much what we know that gets us into trouble, but what we think we know.


Q: You …


A: No, not really. I’m as admiring of human ingenuity as the next person. I’d certainly rather have air conditioning, antibiotics, and Netflix than not have them. And if evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker is right that we’re less murderous than we used to be, I’m happy about that, too. Well done, us.


No, what I’m getting at is something different. Here, let’s try a parable.


On a desert island is a lone castaway. He stands at the edge of the surf, shades his eyes, and looks out, out past the glassy breakers, past the spumous reef to the distant horizon, where a tiny cloud bank marks the location of another such island. That island, though he can’t know this, is home to its own castaway, and when she stands at the edge of the surf and looks out, she too sees a tiny cloud bank, below which paces yet another unseen castaway. For upon this shining sea there is a far-flung archipelago of isles, atolls, cays, all of them ringed with the whitest sand, and on them are solitary individuals living out the days of their lives. Day after day after day after day. For the castaways, these individual islands are worlds unto themselves — every square inch of each one intimately familiar to its inhabitant, its secrets long since revealed. See those little birds flitting from branch to rock and back again? Their beaks shaped just so? They are simply those little birds, the way those little birds look, right down to the precise curve of their beaks. Each island a world unto itself: bounded, complete, graspable.

The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of “Writer’s Block”


It was now that I began sensibly to feel how much more happy this life I now led was, with all its miserable circumstances, than the wicked, cursed, abominable life I led all the past part of my days; and now I changed both my sorrows and my joys; my very desires altered, my affections changed their gusts, and my delights were perfectly new from what they were at my first coming, or, indeed, for the two years past.


~ Daniel Defoe, The Life and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (London, 1719)


[Alexander Selkirk] diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the first eight months had much ado to bear up against Melancholy, and the terror of being left alone in such a desolate place … After he had conquer’d his Melancholy, he diverted himself sometimes by cutting his Name on the Trees, and the Time of his being Left and Continuance there … By this one may see that Solitude and Retirement from the World is not such an insufferable State of Life as most Men imagine, especially when People are fairly call’d or thrown into it, unavoidably, as this Man was.


Captain Woodes Rogers, A cruising voyage round the world (London, 1712)



The fictional castaway and the real one traveled halfway around the world and endured years of danger, privation, and isolation, only to discover a kind of contentment, even happiness.


Meanwhile, there are people I love who are unhappy in the midst of safety, material comfort, and almost daily contact with people who care deeply about them.


In ancient times, followers of the philosopher Epicurus sought a life free of any and all pain, and their symbol for that kind of life became their teacher’s own cloistered garden, where they gathered to dine, converse, and enjoy each other’s company. In contrast, Zeno’s followers, the Stoics, believed that if tranquillity is to be thought of as a lovely and peaceful garden, that garden lies within each of us, because while we obviously can’t control the external circumstances of our lives, we can and should choose how to react to them.


I like thinking about the trees on which the castaway sailor, during his more than four years on that otherwise uninhabited island in the South Pacific, had incised his name. I can see the calluses that were quick to fill the cuts. I can count the years during which the trees were still faithfully displaying ‘A. Selkirk,’ long after the man himself had been rescued, even after he had died in a later voyage along the coast of Africa. It amuses me that there were birds perched on the limbs who took no notice of those letters, and goats earmarked by Selkirk who sauntered past the trees without a glance in the direction of his name. Until one by one by one, inevitably, the trees themselves died, fell, rotted, and surrendered their molecules for the making of a new tree, or seawater, or a cloud.


N. C. Wyeth (1920)



Words are stupid. “Words,” “are,” and “stupid” — singly dumb and dumb in combination. Dumb as in a waste of time. A waist of thyme. Away stuff tie ’em. Aweigh stove dime. A whey’s toughed I’m.


Not to put too fine a point on it, words are mostly pointless. Without a point. Unpointed. Missing the point. Beside the point. I mean, what’s the point?

Person 1: Blah blah blah.

Person 2: Yadda yadda.

Me: (*crickets*)

Scrawling and screeching. Bleating and tweeting.


A fellow named Marcus Terentius Varro, long dead and writing in a language also now dead, spent the precious years of his earthly existence writing 74 works comprising roughly 620 books — we would call them parts or sections — of which only one work is fully extant (which is a stupid word for “still in existence”). Evidently, Varro liked to write about language. Here are some of the titles: De antiquitate litterarum, De origine linguae Latinae, De sermo Latino, De similitudine verborum, De utilitate sermonis, Epitoma linguae Latinae. Just think: all those hundreds of thousands of words, and what’s left is not much more than these three or four words in the titles.


What a waste.


Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu totals 1,267,069 words. It took him 14 years to choose the ones he wanted and put them in the desired order. Almost all of that time he spent in bed, sleeping and writing, writing and sleeping. In fact, he had the walls of his bedroom covered in cork so that he could concentrate. On what, pray tell? On the childhood and adolescence of a character named — wait for it — “Marcel.” Here’s a typical paragraph from Swann’s Way, in which I’ve highlighted the French word for “I”:



Suppose instead he’d written a novel titled Moi. One chapter, one page, one sentence, one word: “Moi.” That would have left him plenty of time to get out of bed and, say, take a walk. Talk to someone.


Yet even Proust’s doorstop is humbled before the massive, 1,954,300-word Artamène ou le Grand Cyrus, a novel from the mid-17th century and a work which I feel confident in saying no one has read, no single person out of the 7,530,000,000 people alive today. I’ll go further: the number of fictional characters (about 400) in Artamène is undoubtedly much larger than the number of people who have even heard of it


So, what is a word? There’s this cat, see. Then at one remove from this actual cat, there’s your perception of it (sight, smell, etc.). Then at another remove there’s the idea of what your senses perceive of this actual cat. Then at yet another remove there’s a symbol for the idea of what your senses perceive of this actual cat.


That’s what a word is.


An actual cat can sharpen its claws on your bare leg, pee on the rug in your bedroom, and terrorize the songbirds in your yard. Can a word do all that?


Carol Shields wrote ten novels, five collections of short stories, three books of poetry, eight plays, and two books of nonfiction. Shortly before she died of breast cancer at 68, an interviewer asked Shields whether, having written all those books, she found it somewhat easier to accept her imminent death. Her answer was, more or less, “Are you out of your freaking mind?”


John Koethe admits that even poems — which fellow poet Billy Collins describes as “interruptions of silence,” where prose works are a “continuation of noise” — succeed in being only “small, disappointing things.” It’s the poet’s “way of life” that is worth something, but even it manages to leave “only the lovely story / Of a bright presence hanging in the air.” It’s no true respite from disquietude and care.


So a poem ≠ a life. And if a poem is not a life, what can be said for a memo? An email? An Instagram post?


We’re frittering our lives away.


On the other hand, the hand I’ve had behind my back from the word go, there’s this:




I hide myself behind simple objects so you may find me,
if you do not find me, you will find the objects,
you will touch those objects my hand has touched
the traces of our hands will mingle.


The August moon gleams like a tin kitchen kettle
(what I am telling you becomes like that),
it lights the empty table and silence kneeling in the house
silence is always kneeling.


Every single word is an exodus
for a meeting, cancelled many times,
it is a true word when it insists on the meeting.


~ Yannis Ritsos (1970, Rae Dalvin, tr.)

So here’s our advice, mine and the poet’s:


If you ever have to use a word (and of course you do), make it true.




The Proximate Shore
by John Koethe


It starts in sadness and bewilderment,
The self-reflexive iconography
Of late adolescence, and a moment


When the world dissolves into a fable
Of an alternative geography
Beyond the threshold of the visible.


And the heart is a kind of mute witness,
Abandoning everything for the sake
Of an unimaginable goodness


Making its way across the crowded stage
Of what might have been, leaving in its wake
The anxiety of an empty page.


Thought abhors a vacuum. Out of it came
A partially recognizable shape
Stumbling across a wilderness, whose name,


Obscure at first, was sooner or later
Sure to be revealed, and a landscape
Of imaginary rocks and water


And the dull pastels of the dimly lit
Interior of a gymnasium.
Is art the mirror of its opposite,


Or is the world itself a mimesis?
This afternoon at the symposium
Someone tried to resurrect the thesis


That a poem is a deflected sigh.
And I remembered a day on a beach
Thirty-five years ago, in mid-July,


The summer before I left for college,
With the future hanging just out of reach
And constantly receding, like the edge


Of the water floating across the sand.
Poems are the fruit of the evasions
Of a life spent trying to understand


The vacuum at the center of the heart,
And for all the intricate persuasions
They enlist in the service of their art,


Are finally small, disappointing things.
Yet from them there materializes
A way of life, a way of life that brings


The fleeting pleasures of a vocation
Made up of these constant exercises
In what still passes for celebration,


That began in a mood of hopelessness
On an evening in a dormitory
Years and years ago, and seemed to promise


A respite from disquietude and care,
But that left only the lovely story
Of a bright presence hanging in the air.


Source: North Point North: New and Selected Poems (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 2002)


Clyfford Still, PH-891 (1972)


alarmshrill in the inkblack

ironsharp on the tongue

stepcreak, stepcreak


under the elms, plumshadow

and frostcrack

and earthdank


now barnward stumbleboot

then rumbledoor

and haydust


here is ticktick dimhush

and embereyes

and dungwarmth


the wordless prophet


the smoldering stars


the undying glory of the day