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A Facebook friend left a challenge for her followers: 

“In a text post, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take but a few minutes, and don’t think too hard — they don’t have to be the “right” or “great” works, just the ones that have touched you. Tag ten friends, including me, so I’ll see your list.”

Church Iceberg flotante, 1859

There are so many books I have overlooked. There is no way to tally up the consequence of reading most of them: Such cumulation is like measuring the rain that fills the sea bed.

But I want to pick out several of the idiosyncratic ones, outside the usual suspects (Camus, Dostoevsky, Lawrence, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, et al.), which can be assumed. My taste has always gravitated to the forgotten, abused and out-of-fashion. There is something in my sensibility that just flat-out enjoys complex, baroque sentences and the kind of observational intensity that you find most developed in those authors hovering on the edge of custom or sanity.

Part of this preference comes from a desire for transcendence, and transcendence never comes in conventional form.

Longinus explains why my tastes may run to the extravagant.

“The startling and amazing is more powerful than the charming and persuasive,” he writes.

His On the Sublime is a sometimes numbing description of rhetorical tropes, but several times in their midst, he breaks free and discusses the big issues. In the climactic 35th chapter, he breaks out:

etna erupting“What was it they saw, those godlike writers who in their work aim at what is greatest and overlook precision in every detail? … (W)e are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, or the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean.  … nor do we consider out little hearthfire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and boulders or at times pour forth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth.

“We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

It is that great writing that attracts me to Henry Thoreau and Herman Melville. Both have a foundation in a kind of biblical tone, a King James timbre, full of striking metaphor and cosmic awareness.

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”

Or: Herman Melville 1885

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

That ain’t Hemingway.

But it isn’t only Walden and Moby Dick; I have spent many hours in happy lucubration over the pages of Thoreau’s Journals, collected in two giant volumes by my favorite publishing house, Dover Books. And I can hardly pass up re-reading most of Melville’s short stories, I and My Chimney, The Apple-Tree Table and Piazza. I read them over the way one listens to a favorite tune, waiting for your favorite chorus to set your toe tapping.let us now praise cover

But for intense unreadability married to heartbreaking self-flagellation and obsessive observational skill, you cannot beat James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a volume of such personal journalism that it makes Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson look like disinterested sub-sub-librarians.

The book is an investigation of tenant farmers in Alabama during the Depression and Agee spends a portion of his life living with one of the families he reports on. And he spends an entire chapter describing the shanty room he is sitting in late in the night under a kerosene lamp as the family sleeps in the other room. He describes, it seems, every knot in the wood of the walls he stares at, every hook holding up every potholder or towel. It approaches the insane, but in the same way the fevered eyes of Vincent Van Gogh looked at the wheatfield and crows. Every bush is the burning bush.

The intensity, the engagement is the thing. 2006.13.1.8 002

“Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or as religion, or as authority in one form or another,” he writes. “The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor … Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation is beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding…”

Perhaps Agee attempts more than is possible in sewn signatures and binding, and maybe he is a fool for even trying, but I am his target and he hits me in the quick.

Official acceptance means becoming part of an unexamined and cataloged orthodoxy: Things settled so you don’t have to parse them out all over again. The problem with that is:

“The way that can be named is not the constant way.”tao te ching

The Tao Te Ching can be read as an ambiguous and mystical series of woo-woo New-Age aphorisms, or it can be taken as precise and direct in meaning. Most of its readers, and many of its more recent translators opt for the former, turning it into a kind of text to daze its readers and perhaps sell them a regimen of dietary supplements.

I take the latter view, that it means what it says and means it directly.

If there is one thing at the core of my intellectual being, as a dense molten iron core of the planet, it is a recognition — I cannot call it a belief, because it is too obvious — a recognition of the primacy of diversity and fecundity in the cosmos. A sense that existence is too complex ever to be summed up in a political philosophy, theology or epistemology. Every esthetic and intellectual movement comes a cropper against the largeness and variety of the universe. As the Tao puts it, any time you name something, you have lied.

The way that can be named is not the constant way: Our cultural world view and our personal understanding of the structure and meaning of the world — our umwelt — changes over time, and changes in ways that are largely predictable, at least in wider outline, even if details surprise us.

These are the waves hitting the shores that we see over and over — a pendulum swinging back and forth — over the centuries, and embodied in cultures we name as pairs: Hellenic and Hellenistic, Romanesque and Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, Neoclassical and Romantic. It is the same pendulum slowly rocking.

Most people take sides, like T.S. Eliot’s angry brief against John Milton, but some of us step back and observe them as two sides of the same coin. Taking sides is self-limiting: “mind-forged manacles.”

“It is the way of heaven to show no favoritism.”

For me, the most interesting times are those on the cusp of one or the other named moments: the change itself, rather than the brief second when the pendulum stills on one end of the arc or the other.

maistre book 2And it leads me to such peculiar books as Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage Around My Room, a travel book — or a parody of a travel book — about the room de Maistre is trapped in during a house arrest in 1790, at just the point that the classicism of the 18th century was melting into the weirdness of the coming age. But it also takes seriously — if that is the word — the possibility that one might invest a description of one’s daily surroundings with the same majesty one might use to describe, say, Goethe’s journey over the Alps. Every bush, again.

Oh, I wish I could go on. I have left out Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy; I have left out the Mahabharata and its Bhagavad Gita; I have snubbed Yeats’ A Vision. Villon’s Testament; the Daybooks of Edward Weston — I have inherited for the meat of my bones the DNA from my parents, for better or worse, but I have inherited my intellectual genes from all the books I have had the happiness to encounter.

NEXT: The books age with their reader

blake dante

I love language; I hate language. It is how I made my living, but it always feels like cheating. It feels heartfelt, but dishonest. Odi et amo.

Do you remember the first time you were in love, or thought you were, as a teenager? The longing, the rapture. There is an almost universal response that “Love” is not an adequate word to describe the emotion. You feel as if your love is special, better, more aware, alert and awake than everybody else’s, especially  your parents’. And you say, “I wish there were another word to describe how I feel.”

That is the first awareness most of us have of the difference between authentic and inauthentic existence. It is the first, and most universal — at least in our culture — awareness that our lives are divided into separate portions, one of them alive and burning and dangerous, and the other ordinary, safe and comforting.

Heidegger

Heidegger

German philosopher and godawful writer Martin Heidegger gave us the verbal formulation for this distinction when he named the “authentic” and “inauthentic” existence.

Authentic existence: An individual’s conscious response to his existence; i.e., his “being-in-the-world,” which inescapably associates life with death. Authentic existence is thus opposed to everyday (inauthentic) existence.

Heidegger is nearly impossible to read, in part because he invents words to express his ideas rather than relying on the old, well-understood words. He has more than 200 words alone created with the suffix that means “being.”

But it couldn’t have been any other way. Heidegger felt toward the ordinary vocabulary just as the teenager does toward the word “love,” that it is worn out and sounds trite and phony on the tongue that doesn’t truly understand, or rather live through, the experience — and specifically MY experience.

That is because language is by its essence inauthentic.

Language always takes us a step away from our “being-in-the-world.” It is a way of softening the experience, a way of taming it.

In this sense, I take as a central dichotomy the opposition of language and love.

An awareness of death, says Heidegger, is what wakes us up to the here-and-now, keeps us focused on the experience of being alive. And a desire to transcend death is the ultimate goal of both language and love.

The analogy of love and language is nothing new.

When Shakespeare wrote his sonnet, “Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day,” he ends it with the telling couplet, “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.’’

In that, he is mixing the two: the words are immortal, and therefore, so is his love.

But the actual love is an experience and at its fullest transcends words more certainly than it transcends death. We love, have children and HOPE that the love will live past death. But there is no question that the experience of love can never be adequately expressed in words: They are too small, too conventional, too ordinary.

Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing with his wife, Marie Luise

Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing with his wife, Marie Luise

The sliver of experience in the condition of love IS the authenticity. It is the experience of life. The words are only ABOUT the experience of life. After all, would you rather make love or read Krafft-Ebing?

Now, certainly Heidegger wasn’t the first to recognize the distinction. He is merely the philosopher who fixes the meaning of the distinction like an entomologist pinning a butterfly. Heidegger gives us the vocabulary — now necessarily inauthentic — to describe the reality. We use his words, and as a consequence, fall (another of his words) into inauthencity.

The writer Henry Miller expresses it another way in his book Black Spring:

“What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say literature.”

Henry Thoreau’s whole book, Walden, is essentially about living an authentic life.

“To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?”

“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity,” he writes in another place.

Yeats called inauthentic living “automatonism.”

For William Blake, what made Christ different from the rest of us was his ability to live authentically at every moment.

“Now hear how he has given his sanction to the law of ten commandments: Did he not mock at the sabbath, and so mock the sabbath’s God? Murder those who were murder’d because of him? Turn away the law from the woman taken in adultery? Steal the labor of others to support him? Bear false witness when he omitted making a defence before Pilate? Covet when he pray’d for his disciples, and when he bid them shake off the dust of their feet against such as refused to lodge them? I tell you, no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments. Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

And in another place: “Know that after Christ’s death, he became Jehovah.” Know that for Blake, Jehovah wasn’t a good thing. Jehovah is all rules: “One God, One Law, One King.”

Or perhaps we could go all the way back to Lao-Tse, who wrote the Tao-Te-Ching and said, “The way that can be named is not the constant way, the name that can be given is not the constant name.”

The best popular discussion of authenticity comes in Robert Pirsig’s book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which has absolutely nothing to do with zen, even in its pop forms, and only a little to do with motorcycle maintenance.

The book is an investigation of what Pirsig calls “quality,” which, it turns out, is much the same as Heidegger calls “authenticity.”

Pirsig writes:

“You can’t be aware that you’ve seen a tree until after  you’ve seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness, there must be a time lag.”

Any intellectually conceived object is always in the past and therefore, unreal. Reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality. This pre-intellectual reality is what [I] felt [I] had properly identified as Quality. Since all intellectually identifiable things must emerge from this pre-intellectual reality, Quality is the parent, the source of all subjects and objects.”

And authenticity, rather than being a result, is likewise a source. Authenticity is a relation you have with being alive that allows you to see, feel, and experience without the intervention of word or symbol.

All art, or all worthwhile art, exists to reawaken in us this often closed-off authenticity.

Art cannot itself embody authenticity: It is, after all, words or symbols — even music is an analog of the experience.

But the best art gives us an experience in itself and demonstrates, or forces us to become aware, of how to experience the rest of our lives — that portion we live with our mates, children, parents, that portion that is our careers, that portion that gives rise to spiritual awareness.

Of course, all art is, in this sense, inauthentic.

But just as a metaphor is never the thing, but points the way to the thing, so art points the way to the authentic.