Feb 282010


Robin Oliveira is one of my former students at VCFA. She won a $10,000 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, edits fiction for upstreet, and has a new novel My Name is Mary Sutter about to roll off the presses. Watch for it. You will be tempted to read the following as a thinly disguised version of student life at Vermont College, but for the most part I think this would be misleading. For the most part…(I keep reminding myself this is the Internet. Do I have to explain irony here?)




When I call my writing instructor for a conference, he complains about how much hand-holding I need.

I remind him that I already warned him how much trouble I am and besides, he was the one who established the telephone conferences in the first place.  If he is living such a busy life, I say, why doesn’t he just hang up now?

And he says, Oh, shut up.  Then he talks to me for an hour about a problematic story I am writing.  Before he rings off, he says, meet me at that bar in Bonner at six.

I seem both to exasperate and intrigue him.

His name is James Pierce.  He lives on the edge of campus, on tree-lined University Avenue in an old Missoula house with a sagging porch that has definitely seen better times.  It needs a good coat of paint if it’s going to make it through the winter that is rapidly sweeping a particularly blistering variety of cold through the Hell’s Gate Canyon into the glacial slice of valley where William Clark—yes, that Clark, of the Lewis and Clark—floated his canoe down the River that Runs Through It, which, if you know your literature, was a rhapsodic hymn to beauty and the fucked-up-edness of life.  (The river he is referring to in his little tome is actually the Bitteroot, another river that runs through the Missoula Valley, but here begins the lie that makes up a story, which is nothing but pseudo facts rearranged into fiction.)  Seduced by the lushness of a Missoula summer fragrant with lilacs, Clark was caught, like James Pierce is now, in a long winter that sapped strength and discouraged the soul.  I believe that one of the reasons James Pierce’s heart heaves in a stutter-step of desolation is because he is on tenure track at a university located far from anything that resembles actual culture.  (A culture, that is, that does not include a requisite gun rack in the back of a pickup truck, a cliché I had a hard time coming to terms with again when I returned to Montana from Connecticut after my most recent disaster.)  I think this is one of the reasons why James Pierce is so damned grumpy.  Why he hunches around campus, student papers clutched in his arms and flapping in the bitter wind, refusing, like the rest of the professors, to use a backpack, thinking it somehow less dignified, less professorial, less East Coast.

At six, the November wind funnels a steely blast through the rocky canyon walls of Hell’s Gate.  I always feel as if I am on an epic quest in search of a ring when I drive through the canyon into Bonner, a town of limited housing but abundant saloons. James Pierce is waiting at the booth where we always sit—scarred, curved wooden benches and a low-hanging stained glass lamp—a sweating tankard of beer cupped in one hand, his sad, droopy face, untrimmed moustache and dark, green eyes vacant and staring, even when I sit opposite him and order my usual, Shirley Temples.  Over his beer, he tells me again that he was raised in Connecticut, too, and, I wonder if this is what my appeal is, except that there is no real appeal, not in the traditional professor-bonks-the-student way.  I am too standoffish for one; I had heard stories, for two; and I don’t like lonely men except as drinking companions.  I am morose enough on my own, and except on the rare occasions when I do drink, I prefer not to wallow.  Too painful. I can be a professional wallower, so recently I have trained myself not to do it too much.  Professional wallowing can lead to bankruptcy, insanity, and the worst, suicide.

Been there already.  (I hope you are thinking, Of course, because if I have done my job as a writer, I have already established that I am needy in a rescuer kind of way: hint, hint, meeting my writing instructor in a bar outside of Missoula on a night that is telegraphing blizzard-on-the-way; the sharp knife of serious cold is, of course, your other clue that cold and its corollary, death, will have something to do with this story.)  Anyway, back to me.  Yes, suicide.  Two recent, neat slices across my wrists.  The wimp’s way, of course.  If you are really serious, you have to dig deep along the radial artery, tearing an irreparable, vertical cut that will empty you of a good liter in a minute.  My cuts, however, were so shallow that no doctor or nurse scurried when my parents brought me into the emergency room, despite the crimson-soaked towels which resembled handcuffs of despair.

But these medical people had seen such obvious, shallow cries for help before.  Medicine is a profession sated with drama; you have to really do it up right to get much of a rise out of them.  Even my parents took on the nurses’ blasé affect and drove me home after the mere dozen stitches I required, no psychiatric visits arranged, no doting how are you’s, just the smear of defeat across their shoulders.  Such a disappointment, their 23-year-old daughter.  So lost, so infinitely fucked-up.  I left for my alma mater the University of Montana and the MFA program where I had been admitted by some miracle three months later.  And fell into the company of this fellow Connecticut Yankee and drinker and writer who appears to like my companionship for reasons I have yet to ascertain.  Because I am not beautiful, though, if I want, I can project a kind of shimmer that can reel a man in across a barroom.  It is this trick I rely on when I venture out alone.  The bars along the railroad tracks near Frenchtown always provide the shade of anonymity I require when I do not wish to sleep unaccompanied.  Indians, pulp mill workers, loggers in from the sticks thinking they’ve found heaven when I shimmy in.  It’s too easy, I think, but a girl has needs.  And a reputation to protect, at least in the world of the university, where sex is free like water, but tallied, discussed, dismissed and its participants ultimately resented for a coupling that was so easily abandoned.

Sorry for the digression, but every story needs a little sex.  This will be important later, as you will see.  Besides.  Two single adults?  In a bar?  It’s got to have crossed your mind already, especially after the earlier bonking reference.  If I didn’t mention it, you would think I was being disingenuous.

Anyway, back to the story issues at hand: how is it, I wonder, that two such morose and needy souls as James and I have found one another?  Is there a musk of despair, a heat of magnetic need, a black hole of gravity that draws unstable souls together?

James leaves off talking about Connecticut and begins to stare off into space.  This requires drastic measures.  I signal the bar maid for a second Shirley Temple, and say out loud that life can be hell, I know, a non-sequitor from the Connecticut theme, and James begins to show signs of the aforementioned exasperation.  His face has a pale, distant aura, slightly yellowed, giving the impression of a slow decay, a general fatigue with life, absolute anguish that his life has distilled to listening to his young, female student make statements about life in this pseudo-meaningful way.  I talk on despite his depressed affect, because he is not talking and because he asked me to come and I simply will not stare off into space with him.  And the story has to go somewhere.  It simply cannot be about me thinking in a Montana bar on the eve of winter; this would be writer’s suicide and would also bore the reader to tears.  Far too many students, like I have done countless times, forget that there has to be action in a story.  Desire and resistance.  James Pierce rails on and on about it  in the hallowed halls of the Liberal Arts building that story is action is life is Everything, damn it.  A bit of an exaggeration, but he can get away with it, because he loves teaching and gets carried away, which is endearing and might be the reason I am at the bar with him. It’s hard to say.

James is unwilling to engage me in conversation on this new subject, so I ask him another rhetorical question.  Where are all the happy people?  Where are the people who ponder bright, shiny thoughts like what color to paint the new baby’s room, or what kind of invitations to send for the baby shower, which, if I were to attend would soon curdle into something along the lines of the Mad Hatter’s bash, dash upon excess upon garish distortion of out-of-hand exuberance that would eventually tip all the other guests towards fear.  Where are the people for whom life is a perpetual fest?  Are they all stupid?  Do they never attend MFA programs to colonize and infect the minds of the budding, fearful student writers?  I want to find these happy people, become one of them.  I want to be a woman in pedal pushers and red shoes carrying flowers in one hand and a baby in another, reasonably assured that life will never spring surprises of infinite sadness upon her.

Sometimes I see women like this whizzing past in their minivans, not completely Stepfordized, but comfortably placid, worried about mundanities like juice box stains on the family room carpet. (They have family rooms! With the inherent implication of an actual, cozy room where family interactions take place!  I imagine not the suburban Sodom and Gomorrah of John Updike—sex with the neighbors—nor John Irving’s tweaked universe of wounded, tattered souls—instead, I imagine Iowa in the mountains (Missoula), where mothers with love on their minds rear children who wear reasonable clothes for the weather and eat protein without protest.) Anyway, sometimes I see these women and their single overriding worry is whether or not the kids will insist on McDonald’s when they pass it up ahead. These are minor, plastic, enviable worries. I want these worries.

James Pierce begins to gulp his beer while I complain that the only thing aspiring writers ever worry about are all the possible ways a character might resolve a painful made-up situation in a manner that will satisfy a reader.  Ergo, we are worrying about things we have made up.  We are seeking resolution and satisfaction for ink on paper.  The irony of it hits me in the face, and I shout,  I want to satisfy ME! pounding on the thick, Formica slab for dramatic emphasis (dramatic emphasis is important in a story, it goes back to all that business about stuff happening), rousing the bar patrons with a transitory hope that perhaps there is the possibility of sex involved, making them glance my way, but upon seeing James, resume staring at the liquor bottles.  But this mention of satisfaction makes me think of Mick Jagger, who might be the answer.  I can’t get no…oo— pause—sat-is-fac-tion. Famous, pouty lips, a reputation for dalliances with tall, leggy models, crooning about satisfaction in a way that surely has gotten him some over the years. I can’t get no…. good sex, peace of mind…what?  What do I really want?

I am fairly certain it no longer involves torturing myself.

I should know what I want, of course.  I am the writer, the one who is supposed to know what the character wants.  Rule one.  Make sure you know what the character wants.  Make sure.  (James Pierce’s eyes are glazing over at this point, because he has been saying this for a long time, it is his liturgy, his pedagogy, his didactism, his fetishistic Sermon on the Mount.)  But he is right.  You have to know what your characters want, because otherwise you end up in the wilderness of vagueness.  The wilds of non-specificity, the sinkhole of imprecision.  A farcical, sophomorish penitentiary of non-talent and despair.  A hideous place into which I wander with some regularity.  Funny how you can know something and not know it. For instance, I know all these rules, but following them?  In the heat of creative fervor?  How is a student supposed to translate them effortlessly onto the page?  Besides, I think I mightknow what I want.

What I want, I think, is James Pierce.

Of course, this is an idiotic, stupid idea which I dismiss immediately.  The man can’t even walk across campus without depressing the hell out of everyone around him.  He is damned good company in a bar, though.  Damned good.  He projects a sufficiency of weary generosity.  Sit with me, his silence says.  I will listen.  Sigh.  I don’t even like the way he looks.  He’s too….ragged.  He looks as if he requires much shoring up and after all, I’m the one who needs shoring up, if anyone does.

I actually have very little sanity to spare.  In fact, spare is the word.  I have a spare amount to spare.  Don’t you just love words?  They are all little cousins of one another.  For instance, earlier in the story I wrote that I shimmer and then that I shimmy.  They are not quite the same are they?  No.  (Don’t worry if you didn’t notice this detail before.  You have to be a writer to notice and then appreciate these things, a skill spawned solely from hours upon hours of staring at a computer screen, your mind in a veritable pretzel of determination to be original.  Another rule.  Be original!  But don’t forget to emulate Chekhov, either!  However do not write in his outdated style!  Make a new style!  And also, Make it a story and not a story!)

Do you see the impossibility of this, James Pierce?  (He doesn’t even respond.  He is listening like we listen to him, without awareness.)  The antitheses that slither through a writer’s mind?  Why, for instance, suicide seems like such a handy dandy option?  I mean, because if you are trying to divine the nature of life by sitting alone in a room making your fingers hit buttons on a board that are emblazoned with symbols that mean things when they are strung together, and then you affix little pinheads and half-moons at various points, and then you print them out, and pray that some editor sitting somewhere scanning an endless river of symbols will deem yours important enough to reproduce on paper, bind, and truck to a big building to be placed on shelves so that people can spend their hard-earned money on this river of symbols, and it is this that will mean you are a success, an interpreter of life, a great thinker, someone who should be paid attention to, then the objective, futile nature of this activity might just might induce a character to slit her wrists.

You see? Suicide.  I wrote that before, remember?  In fact, I have mentioned it a lot.  It is a little theme, maybe even a major one, you don’t know yet because you haven’t read the entire story yet, and me, I don’t know because I haven’t written the end yet.  What’s really going to cook your noodle later on (this phrase is blatantly stolen from The Matrix, a stream of consciousness, highly crafted, musing on the nature of life) is whether or not I knew the ending when I started.  Plagiarism aside, this final objective is important for a writer, the highly technical rule being something like, Know the fuck where you are going.  Anyway.  Writing is little circles of meaning that reflect the circle of our lives.

The circle of life!!!!  Pardon moi, James Pierce, but I think Mr. Disney was on to something, don’t you?  (I am not sure James is following my drift.  He is on his third ale, and has slid into a hunched bullfrog position with his head resting at a tilted angle.)  Even though Walt, Jr. presented it in a commercial, nifty, humorous way, that lion story definitely had a thematic point.  Circles.  I need more circles in my life.  In my fiction.  This supplants what I stated before, about wanting James Pierce, and before that about wanting to be a placid, suburban mom.  You have to catch these little transitions that writers put in.  What I, the writer, am telling you, the reader, is that something matters more to me than the superficial, stated want.  An undercurrent, either a sewer or a bubbling spring—sometimes it’s hard to tell which—that drives the character.  Joy or despair?  What does that character want underneath?  People hide things, so characters have to, too.  So rarely do people understand their own psyches that a writer has to be a psychiatrist, a diviner of need, a wise, empathic soul who reveals the workings of human desire so that the reader understands something big about his own life.  This is the way to build a readership.  Because basically, what people want is to know what life is all about, because mostly, they don’t have a clue.

Another rule: make it big. (The wilderness of non-specific words; you are wondering what I mean when I say it.  Does she mean theme, plot, image?  By it, I mean action.)  Don’t make the action small.  Small is boring, dull.  Every day.  Old shoes.  Old hat.  Old, old, old, slit your wrists don’t make me read this stuff.  In real life, people go to the grocery store enough.  You put that in a story and it’s gonna be snooze-fest city.  Or, for instance, laundry.  Or how about mopping the floor, which I recently put into a story because the character is about ready to leave one life behind and move into another, more exciting life, so I could use mopping, but hoo boy, for a second here I get nervous and almost abandon this short story I am writing now—it seems like a conversation in a bar, but it’s not that, it’s just those symbols all strung together.  Literature is magic on so many levels—anyway, I almost abandon this story to rewrite my entire novel.  Beginning writers like me can panic about the littlest things.  It takes wisdom and sometimes marijuana to calm them down.  This is why MFA programs hiss along on a percolating bed of tentative attack and hasty retreat, because beginning writers are trying to demonstrate they belong in the program, but for the most part, they are simply scared, earnest beings who only want to know if this pursuit of writing is going to matter.  At all.  Ever.

Basically, they just want to know the Meaning Of Life.

Now, James Pierce, I know that if I could just see the connection between my life now as a budding writer and my life before, when I was troubled by David’s disdain…  (Oops.  I have to pause at this point because I have done a terrible thing writer-wise.  I have introduced too late a VIP of a character, one on whom the story hinges.  This was quite clumsy in a crafting matter.  No doubt you, the reader, are disoriented.  You are thinking, who is David?  Why does he matter?  You thought this story was about James Pierce and this narrator who hasn’t even revealed her name.  I apologize.  There is just so much to learn and to try to jimmy all the important elements into a story at the proper time sometimes takes so much more brain energy than a girl possesses so that she just gives up, just flat out abandons the story, but I won’t do, because I know you are engaged, I can tell, it’s like that shimmying thing, a girl just knows.  And you will be pleased to know that even though I have made a mistake, I will press on.  Tenacity is the secret to being a writer, even though most people will tell you that it is talent.)

I wish I had been able to slice right through that little charade David was playing with me and my sister Susan.  David, I mean, make up your mind, have a clue, do not exhibit such weakness of character!  Honestly, in what lifetime is it not clear that sisters are not interchangeable?  Maybe in the Middle Ages when the bubonic plague ravaged civilization and courting both sisters, (ie, playing the odds on which sister might survive) was a necessary ploy that was admirable, if you think about it in a sperm-banking kind of way.  But that is the only time in the history of civilization that sister-switching was acceptable.

Sperm. Yes.  Sperm was the issue, I remember now.  I wanted David’s sperm.  That was when I really knew what I wanted.  (I feel compelled to point out that this want is a past want, not a future or a current want, deftly handled when I slipped into past tense.  It is important to note this if you are paying attention to the way I am writing the story.)  I wanted David’s sperm, not in a catch-the-man way, but in an I-really-want-to-be-a-mother way.  I did, too.  Babies.  The soft, brilliant shine of them, the smell, like the sweet insides of you.  You, David.  Isn’t that what this is all about?  You and me David, making out in the front seat of your car on the back road near the airport where girls got pregnant all the time.  The baby, conceived on a glacial night in November just after the policemen made their rounds with their heavy searchlight and their polite, Do you wish to be here young lady? questions, so damned considerate, though they could have been more to the point, as in, Is he raping you and keeping you against your will?, but even policemen can be delicate.  A delicate policeman, as in the one my parents called the night I first went deep into bloody hell after the abortion I needed because David, the dread pirate David—no, wait, that’s The Princess Bride, (except in that book it was the dread pirate Roberts) that would be plagiarism again, but damn, it works so well here, I wish I could use it—stole my confidence, my joy, my belief that I deserved his child after he found Susan more to his liking.

Now, that’s an unsolvable pickle.  How do you keep loving a sister after a betrayal like that?  My older, delicate sister Susan.  Love and hate, attraction and anger.  They are the same little bundle, I think, like the little bundle of love I wanted.  I was so far gone that I needed three blood transfusions.  And Susan?  I haven’t spoken to her since I learned she eloped with David soon after he impregnated me.  And David?  I’m thinking of changing his name to Robert, because maybe the memory of him will hurt less.  They moved to upstate New York, to the Loudonville Road, to live near an elementary school, which I hear is the best school, if you can’t afford private.  The suicide attempt happened years later, of course, after I first graduated undergrad from UM, and returned home.  It happened, of course, because of the lingering, unresolved pain stemming from the Series of Unfortunate Events.  (It’s such a shame that so many good phrases are already taken.  It’s getting harder and harder to be a writer.)

I think James Pierce needs a rest.  The fifth beer has made him nearly comatose, but he is still upright, so I talk on.  But you should know that I have broken rule number four.  (Have I skipped some?  No.  I have artfully dropped them into the manuscript without your seeing), Rule Number Four is Do Not Cluster Tragedies.  Suicide and abortion together creates just a big, black hole that tires and confuses the reader.  I mean, real life can be hellish, yes, and unfair and piling on in a rugby sort of way, and certainly has been for me, but the reader wants one thing to worry about.  One need.  What is the one thing this character wants/needs?  Back to Rule Number One.  Writers are always going back to Rule Number One.

Am I boring you, James Pierce?  I mean, you’ve taught me some of these rules yourself.  They’re not exactly mine.  Well, they are now, because I’ve earned them by repeating them over and over to myself in a desperate attempt to infuse them into my consciousness.

I know them so well that I could teach a course now.  Teaching assistant!  This might distract me from my difficulties.  And I could use my near suicide as a cautionary tale.  Never ever make love to hot high school boyfriend anywhere near airports in hopes of having baby.  It tends to have a bad effect on the future.  But it’s good for the writing stuff.  Despair is, anyway.  It’s like, AMAZING.  No better news for a writer than upcoming or preceding hell.  It’s a heady, glowing aphrodisiac that seduces the writer to wait at the computer screen, breath-bated, to see if her little life anecdote, so painful, so soulful, so life-changing when lived, proves to contain good fictional bones that can be manipulated, rearranged, taffy-pulled into some kind of recognizable form that will not get you kicked out of the MFA program, because I tell you, what with rampant worry over well-meant criticism, a girl could just kill herself, I mean DO AWAY with herself if she believed half the stuff she heard in workshop.

You know what that is, don’t you?  An all out free-for-all located in Hades, better known as the Liberal Arts building on the second floor where I used to take Russian as an undergraduate but where I sit and have to keep my lips zipped while my classmates—hungover or caffeinated or sometimes both (the worst)—get to fire vicious bon mots of esoteric disdain over some piece of writing that that very morning I thought was brilliant, I mean publishable, we are talking Pulitzer!  Won as a student!  Oh, the awards, the acclaim, the glory, but of course, the truth, the absolute truth is that they are justified in their criticism because the piece of writing I have submitted is absolute trash.

Have you ever noticed this phenomenon, James Pierce?  I mean, how long have you been doing this, twenty, thirty years?  I take a deep breath and wait for him to answer, but his head has fallen forward onto the table.  Sometimes I fancy myself a nurse, I mean, after all, two emergency room visits under twenty-three years of age for very serious bleeding episodes, that’s a record right?  So I reach over to take James Pierce’s pulse to see if he is still alive, because it would be quite a shame to lose the man over beer in a Bonner bar.

But then I think, Alliteration!  A device much admired in the past but severely maligned now, but, still, I abandon my Florence Nightingale-like intention and write beer in a Bonner bar as well as Pierce’s pulse on a napkin stained with maraschino cherry juice to take home and use in some future piece of writing, picturing in my mind the absolute glow of praise I will receive in workshop for resurrecting a little-used, ancient literary device.  (By the way, in case you didn’t notice, I commandeered the whole jar of cherries from the waitress and have been eating them non-stop while I’ve been talking, abandoning the pretense of the Shirley Temples and mainlining the sugared cherries, in an honest, though embarrassing strip-tease to show James Pierce that I am really a kid at heart and this sophisticated, worldly, oh-so-tired air I have affected is nothing more than a charade, not unlike the charade of listening that he is pulling off.)  Of course, of more import in a literary way, the cherry juice is a nice echo back to the previous bleeding scenes, and thereby reiterates the life and death nature, of, well, life.  Which it is important to emphasize in stories.

And it is especially important for a writer to repeat things, because repetition, also known as image patterning, is the soul of fiction, I tell you, its very soul, though I was once ridiculed for even thinking that fiction had a soul, way, way too much perversion of pathetic fallacy which is another old-fashioned device that a Canadian writer named Alice Munro—the high priestess of short stories, the goddess of psychological acuity—uses all the time and which she can get away with because she is Alice blank (I don’t like too much swearing in a story) Munro, someone James just loves, and oh, yes, that’s right, I was supposed to be checking James’s pulse.  I touch my fingers to his limp wrist.  A slow, rhythmic surge bulges under the cool skin.  He’s alive!  James Pierce is alive!  (Mary Shelley I am certain wouldn’t mind this oh-so-homage-filled reference to Frankenstein, since we just passed Halloween.)

I hold his hand for awhile, because life is lonely, it is definitely lonely.  Especially for a writer  in his fifties with it all behind him and a girl in her mid-twenties with it all before her, a girl whose only friend is a semi-comatose—he is now snoring—drunk who does not freak out when his student confesses all manner of personal and private things in the name of holy friendship.  I check my watch.  Whoa, five hours, how the fuck did I talk for five fucking hours?  (Although, as you see, sometimes swearing is effective.  Think pepper, not salt, just a taste, here and there.  Besides, if my mother were to ever read this story I wouldn’t want her to think I had lost all my breeding.) It is late late late and James Pierce is in no shape to drive.  I perch on the bench next to him, put my arm around his waist and slide him toward me.  Then I alley-oop him and stumble with him out of the smoky bar and into the blizzard, which has arrived like news of a suicide, to my little beat-up Honda, flop him into the seat, buckle him in, scrape the ice crystals and snow from the windshield and drive the man home, holding his hand all the way, even though this is a dangerous and near-suicidal act, because one wrong move and we are floating down the Clark Fork, and then I haul him up the sagging steps into his ill-painted house and tuck him into bed, of course, first removing his shoes and belt, because, as I’ve told you, I have nurse-like tendencies.

Here, of course,  is the part where you, the reader, and me, the character, think about sex again.  Here, too, is the part where the character has to sort out what it is she really wants.  She thinks, here is a man, not too shabby (raggedy appearance aside) and here is a woman.  She thinks, what man isn’t willing to engage if a woman should give him a shimmy?  She thinks, I could climb into bed, warming both him and me, because winter is barreling down like death, and life is a brief shot through hell, and heaven can sometimes be just this: two people in a bed with the wolves at the door.  (When I first came to Missoula as an undergrad my father warned me about the wolves that would howl at night, but the only animals doing the howling were the wildlife majors who bent double laughing when I asked them how close the wolves got to campus.)  I could climb in, wrap my soul around this man, give him my young body, my confused heart, my pain and my adoration.  In his drunken sleep, James Pierce breathes as if he is on the verge of the wilderness, animated and excited.   He is dreaming.

But he is not dreaming of me.

I make certain the comforter is piled high on his bed and shut the door to his room.  Then I feed his cat and wash his dishes and mop the kitchen floor—the man can make a mess—and lay down to sleep on his couch with only a throw blanket as cover.  Tomorrow I will rise early and make him coffee and then I will sit at his kitchen table and talk with him about who needs to hold whose hand, no more resisting my caring efforts with feinted drunkenness and resulting unconsciousness, because I noticed when I was mopping the floor that no message light was blinking on his answering machine.

And I know one other thing, too.

I know for a fact that his wife, a writer too, committed suicide last year, lost in dismay that her fiction was not true enough, or maybe it was the vision of all those symbols strung together, a hallucination of Tolstoyan objectivity that drove her to slit her wrists this very night one year ago.  This is the real reason he is so grumpy.  The reason he has let me into his life.  The reason he endured my insufferable soliloquy at the bar tonight.  He needed to make it though the night.  And so did I.  Because November is a hell of an anniversary month for me, too: the six-year anniversary of my less-than-immaculate conception, the second anniversary of my suicide attempt.

I apologize, for I withheld this bit of information from you, the reader, letting you think this was a simple story impressed with its own playful irony.  I enacted a deception, building this story brick by brick, installing each essential element with care, letting you think the story was going one way, which was writing-teacher-beset-by-slightly-crazy-but-earnest-student-who-might-or-might-not-sleep-with-him, when I fully intended it to take another path at the end.

The stated desire has changed a lot, hasn’t it, which may cause you to accuse me of being unreliable, though I have tried to direct you through the story as best I could, but, I confess, subterfuge was my intention all along.  I did it in order to tell you what the story is about.  It is a little known rule that sometimes you have to tell the reader what the story is about.  So, here it is: this story is about the fact that only one thing matters in life and one thing alone: Generosity of spirit and helping people through the tough times in their lives.  This is it.  The secret of life.  The reason I write.  The reason anyone writes.

While I was making you think that I bored poor James Pierce to tears in that bar in Bonner, in fact, I was writing myself right into your hearts.  Why?  Because now you know that James Pierce was grateful to me for droning on and on about my woes and fiction and psychology and desires and wants and literary devices and Alice Munro because if anyone’s hand ever needed to be held, it is his.  He is lost.

So, what I really want, despite all those shifting statements of desire, what I want, and this is the truth, you can trust this, is to guide James Pierce through the thicket of pain that I myself know something about: the rough country of suicide as literary nightmare as tenure-track hell as bloody mess as lost baby as lost wife as parental disappointment as sisterly betrayal as unfaithful boyfriend as wintry night as wolf-inhabited wilderness of desolation.

Perhaps, however, I want one thing more, which you as the reader may have picked up.  Writers are sometimes unaware of what they are trying to communicate.  Sometimes, it just unfolds, or if you are fortunate, a reader finds it for you and points it out. The one thing more that I want is to be a writer.  That singular desire is both my sewer and my bubbling spring, my unconscious and conscious aspiration.

Writing shapes your mind.  It forces it into a disciplined, critical cipher of the lives lived around you, makes you think about your own life and what you want and what is most important.  And if I, the student writer, am attentive enough, tenacious enough, deluded enough, persistent enough, stubborn enough and crazy enough, I might just achieve my goal.  No one knows who will succeed.  It is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a puzzle.  That, I know I stole from someone, but I am too tired to get up and reference it.  Besides, it is a truth apparent enough to anyone who even attempts this sorcery of word on page.  Writing matters because writing is about life and it is life and somehow this Bermuda Triangle of ink on papyrus makes a difference and shapes the Mind of the World.  But even more important than this truth is that there is a man I admire asleep in the next room, a dear, wreck of a man, and he needs me.  And I need him.  And somehow, we found each other.

—Robin Oliveira


Feb 242010


Jacob Glover1Jacob Glover


In Proposition 15 in Part One of his Ethics Spinoza declares, “Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God.” For Spinoza, everything that exists is in God. Spinoza’s use of the preposition “in” is ambiguous because it doesn’t clarify whether he means physically encapsulated within God or metaphysically in God as a non-physical something pervasive in existence. Nonetheless the second half of Spinoza’s proposition implies that, though he used “in,” which implies an “out,” nothing can exist in the “out,” because everything that exists, exists in this relationship to God described by the word “in.”  Spinoza proposes a monistic, as opposed to a dualistic, universe[1]. Instead of the universe existing with a transcendent God outside of it; God, according to Spinoza, must be present in existence because “nothing can be or be conceived” without Him. This brings the argument once again back to the word “in” which seems to mean that somehow all things exist within God and simultaneously there is some part or element of God in all things that exist. In Proposition 15 Spinoza describes an immanent universe where God both contains and flows throughout all things, the world of existence. There are three fundamental parts to Spinoza’s universal structure: substance, attributes, and modes.

Substance “is in itself and is conceived through itself”(1).  In other words substance is an ethereal material; it is somehow imperceptible as itself, perhaps as the idea of substance, but perceptible by means of what it contains which also happens to be itself. To Spinoza substance and God are synonymous. He writes, “There can be, or be conceived, no other substance but God.”  Substance or God is a singular immaterial material that is wholly containing and wholly invasive throughout the universe, according to Proposition 15. Substance or God is eternal, an uncaused cause of everything. Spinoza writes, “if anyone asserts that substance is created, he at the same time asserts that a false idea has become true.” There is no separation between existence and God for Spinoza and that is what makes his universe monistic.

Humans do not perceive substance or God directly, rather they perceive an aspect or part, for want of a better word, of God—what Spinoza calls an attribute. (Of course to say “part” is ambiguous because it suggests divisibility in God, however the ambiguity exists in that substance, to Spinoza, must exist indivisibly but at the same time exist within even the smallest “part” of the universe.)   Attributes are not the particular things perceived but the property of perceptibility. They are “that which the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence” and furthermore  “each entity must be conceived under some attribute.” It seems that attributes work in two ways. In one way they are what appear to be the essences, basics, or fundamentals of substance. But in the same way they are property of perceptibility in particular instances of existence within substance. Although, I suppose, to Spinoza those are not two separate qualities because substance is all things. In other words, according to Spinoza, it would be enough to simply state that attributes make substance perceptible i.e. attributes make all things perceptible.

Humans have access to only two attributes of God or substance; objects of thought and objects of solid matter with dimensionality or extension (takes up space). But the attributes are distinct, that is they exist “one without the help of the other.” According to Spinoza the attribute of thought has no effect on the attribute of extension; they exist wholly separate as themselves but nonetheless they are both the essence of substance or God. Like the active intellects of the Neo-Platonists, attributes are intermediary properties between substance (God) and humans, but attributes are not like active intellects of the Neo-Platonists in the sense that they are passive properties of substance, which human intellect or the senses can act upon. To Spinoza the attribute of thought can only be perceived by thinking. And the attribute of extension, physical matter, can only be perceived by the senses. He writes that an attribute “must be conceived through itself.” The attributes exist within substance (God) but only as a means to perceive or intellectualize the universe.

The third part of Spinoza’s system is the mode. Modes are actually in the mind of the experiencing person or subject. The perception or thought within the mind of a human. But what exactly is a mode? There are two kinds of modes: modes of thought or ideas and modes of extension or physical objects. Speaking of physical matter Spinoza writes, “matter is everywhere the same and there are no distinct parts in it except in so far as we conceive matter as modified in various ways.” Spinoza here stresses the point that the attribute of extension exists the same and indivisibly throughout the universe, but for humans to sense it or conceptualize it the attribute must be modified; it must be a particularized instance of extension. A particular book is a mode of extension, but the ability of that book to take up space and be sensed is the attribute of extension. In another passage Spinoza writes: “we conceive water to be divisible and to have separate parts in so far as it is water, but not in so far as it is a corporeal substance.”  In other words water is like the attribute of extension. As matter, or a mode, water can be divided, as a concept, or for lack of a better term, “waterness” it is indivisible. As a mode the attribute of extension exists as an individual thing but as the attribute proper it exists in its entirety indivisible. Modes are particular; they involve substance but are not directly it.

The universe Spinoza describes in Proposition 15 is made of three parts: substance, attributes and modes. The major problem then is that Spinoza appears to want this system to be immanent, yet at the same time exist as somehow divided in these three parts. It seems as if there is some sort of understood cohesiveness that contradicts this division. To me the best way to conceptualize this cohesive force is to me, is to think of substance as the text of a story. The actual physical text, alone, is not perceivable. But with, the property of readability, analogous to Spinoza’s attributes, the text becomes readable. But this property of readability works in two ways like the attributes. It not only makes the physical text legible and not gibberish, but also gives the story continuity which allows the reader to experience the smallest details and episodes within the story. These small details, therefore, are analogous to what Spinoza would call modes. To me, it seems that the organic evolving continuity that makes a story understandable is analogous to the cohesion that counter acts the apparent division within Spinoza’s monistic universe.

Spinoza’s system revolves around the ideas that substance is the basic ethereal material; substance and God are the same thing; all natural objects and thoughts “come” from, and inhere in, substance; substance has attributes (properties of perceptibility) of extension and thoughts; particular instances of substance are perceivable or intelligible because of the attributes and these instances are modes. Of course what’s truly crucial to Spinoza’s philosophy is its monism. That is to say that there is no second world, or realm, or transcendence, all things exist within existence and are part of substance (God). Spinoza writes, “For in the universe there exists nothing but substances and their affectations.” In other words nothing is but that which exists within substance. To Spinoza all these parts (substance, attributes and modes) are separate only in their accessibility by the intellect. There is no separation of levels or realms for Spinoza, but a constant existence of substance or God, attributes, and modes simultaneously, inherently and infinitely.

Jacob Glover



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought
Feb 152010


Cupertino is about process.

The process is about—

The process is—


The town, when I moved there, was a quiet, somewhat pleasant place at the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, with rather basic homes and cherry orchards here and there, half bedroom community, half unresolved. Most I ran into, like me, were starting out in life, on their way up and out. I largely knew Cupertino by the streets that led to the highways of my commute, 35 miles north to Hayward State on 280 and 30 miles south on 17 to UC Santa Cruz. I was a part-time college English instructor.

That was twenty-four years ago.

Marriage, a job in town at the community college, later a son—it was time to come to terms with what it was like where I lived. But also writing. Memories of other places had decayed, and those places had changed, perhaps beyond recognition. Writing, like life, is a matter of taking what you have before you and seeing what you can figure out. So I tried to discover the world I had bypassed.

I couldn’t find it.


Cupertino now, above. Of course it looks like a blowup of an integrated circuit. Cupertino is in the heart of Silicon Valley, which is more a concept than a precise physical area, extending roughly from Stanford University down to San Jose. During the boom years the tech firms screamed for more green cards, and programmers and would-be entrepreneurs and still others poured in. Ranch houses started going for a million or were leveled and replaced with huge, stucco palaces on small lots. It amazed me anyone had that kind of money. The orchards are gone, and there is housing all the way up into the hills.

Apple has its corporate headquarters here, and other firms have main offices, large complexes they call campuses, worlds unto themselves. Employees refer to themselves collectively as families, as communities, who work together long, long hours to make deadlines and beat the competition as they rush to bring out a new program, the next release, the next bump in processor speed. It is easy to get caught up in their tempo. You become aware of the time it takes your screen to refresh, for numbers to crunch. Fractions of seconds begin to matter, you think about your pulse.

But those worlds are closed off from me. You need a badge.

Also scattered throughout the town, an orchard of small buildings with Apple logos out front, some of them places for special projects, so I’ve heard, where small teams work together, away from the fold. Along with these, other small, faceless buildings of other tech concerns, whose names on their signs out front, many with an x or two, give no indication of what is being done inside.


Once, on the Apple main building, visible from 280, a huge picture of Einstein appeared, who exhorted us to Think Different.

It is unlikely you would ever see Steve Jobs on the street, but he makes iconic appearances in newspapers, online, elsewhere, everywhere it seems.


Saint Joseph of Cupertino, the Italian saint after whom the town was named, could spontaneously rise in miraculous levitation or fall into trancelike states.


So I started reading—overviews, basic guides, books on the industry, inside looks. I even learned a little programming, Pascal, C, and C++. Ethnogenesis is the process of creating a new culture, and in Cultures@Silicon Valley J. A. English-Lueck, an anthropologist at San Jose State, studies ours. Our dominant institutions, she tells us, are the corporations and networks; our heroes, the technological wizards; our chief values, efficiency, innovation, and entrepreneurship. She interviewed one former employee at Apple, who said:

Being in Silicon Valley, it’s part of a culture of people who put their heart and soul into their jobs. . . . [It] seems to be more socially conscious. . . . [Y]ou think about how the place you work affects the community or affects the world. . . . When I first [worked at] Apple, we felt we were changing the world. At Apple you definitely have the feeling that you impact people’s lives.


The bookstore is gone. The stationery store is gone. If I need envelopes to mail manuscripts, I have to drive five miles one way; Christmas cards, five miles another. I buy books online. The story of a Friday night often is that I decide to go to a small restaurant I once knew only to find it gone as well. My supermarket of some seven years has closed down, and last week I found my gas station being demolished. The WaMu branch bank around the corner, needless to say, is gone. All that is constant about Cupertino is the rate at which it disappears. I take my words from Joan Didion’s essay on what it was like where she once lived, Sacramento.

McDonald’s, Target, Home Depot, etc. don’t count..


The Apple headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop, just off De Anza Boulevard and before 280. I used to go to the Apple Store there to see the latest. It reminds me of the sparse, modern architecture you see in sci-fi movies where it appears the future has brought peace and order but something is not quite right.


During the dot-com boom, everyone seemed to have a plan for something, even those of us who weren’t in the trade, and throughout the Valley there was a lightness in the air—an uplifting, a looking up—that didn’t come entirely from the desire for cash. You could see someone with hopeful eyes walking down the street carrying a portable whiteboard. Other hopefuls met in empty offices and sat on folding chairs. The community college offered courses on how to program and manage stock options.

At one of my son’s Little League games, I started talking to a father who had a project in mind and was looking for someone to write the proposal. I met several times at his house, in his living room, which had been cleared to make space for a whiteboard and a large slab table where we sat. I read a few books and realized his project wouldn’t work. I’d like to tell you about it, but I signed a nondisclosure agreement. He was a nice guy, and I liked him. I don’t know what happened to him, though.

With the dot-com bust, startups went under and large firms grew larger, those that survived. Programmers started showing up in my classes, bright, optimistic guys looking to start new careers. I liked them, too, and got some ideas for my novel.

I don’t know what happened to them either.

Latinos gather early morning in front of the Home Depot looking for day work, the look on their faces menacing and expectant.


We have been through one major earthquake—our chimney snapped—and numerous others I don’t always feel. The state has gone through a series of tremors itself, budget crises of varying degrees. I’ve forgotten how many. As goes the state, so goes my school. For us, hiring freezes, course cancellations, pay freezes, program cancellations, benefits put on hold, even during the boom—the money didn’t reach us.

A classroom at my school.

But during downtimes, more students come to school and its energy rises. There is a renewal of purpose, at least for a while. A degree is their best shot at a better life, perhaps their only one.

I’m still a part-time instructor.


Within a ten minute walk from where I live, there are a half dozen title companies and just as many after-school enterprises—”Little Genius” comes to mind. The two are related. Our schools are good, everyone says, and our school district borders are known around the world and in every real estate office and apartment complex in town. So property values have held, the population keeps growing.

I once had an absentee neighbor whose parents rented the apartment for their daughter so she could have a Cupertino address. It amazed me anyone had that kind of money. But also small apartments are crowded with whole families so their kids can get a shot at our schools as well.

My son’s high school, where math and the sciences are pushed, boasts of its placement into Stanford, into Harvard, into the increasingly competitive UC’s, students on the way up and elsewhere.

In a survey taken there 80% of the students admitted to cheating.

A colleague of mine, now at Stanford, started a program called SOS—Stressed Out Students.

My dominant impression of my son’s years in the public schools is of paper—green sheets, assignments, worksheets, fill-in-the-blanks, study guides, outlines, exercises, packets, folders, schedules, and planners—an unending stream. Paper found its way all over our place. I did my best to help him but got headaches trying to keep track of all the procedures.



The town does have history. For example:




Monday, March 25. I said Mass. We set out from Arroyo de las Llagas at quarter to eight in the morning, and at four in the afternoon halted at the Arroyo of San Joseph Cupertino. . . . Along the way many Indians came out to us. On seeing us they shouted amongst the oaks and then came out naked like fawns, running and shouting and making many gestures, as if they wished to stop us, and signaling to us that we must not go forward.

From Petrus Font’s diary of Don Juan Bautista de Anza’s second expedition, March 1776.

But almost nowhere in Cupertino can you find a structure, a visible sign, that remains from its past.


The center of Cupertino is defined by the crossing of Stevens Creek and De Anza Boulevards. On opposite corners, two gas stations. Behind the Chevron, a shopping center where the stationery store once was, that space and others still unlet.

On another corner, East West Bank; across from it, Cupertino City Center. I had heard about Cupertino City Center before and certainly driven by, but knew nothing about it and had never walked around. But I did that recently one Saturday, walk around the center, trying once more to find out something about what it’s like where I live.

More sparse, modern architecture, a complex of more office space and apartments and a hotel and a few restaurants, maybe something else. I wanted to find out more, but the Center was deserted. The one guy I saw and stopped couldn’t answer much.

There is nothing to do in the center of Cupertino at night.

I do not know the name of our mayor.

I almost never run into anyone I know anywhere, especially students or colleagues. Not many of them can afford to live here. (After the divorce, my son and I moved through a series of apartments.)

My most frequent and most intimate connection with the town and its people still is on the major streets, Stevens Creek and De Anza, six lanes each, usually crowded, and with all the stoplights, stop and go. Quite crowded after work, and driving then is edgy, a little risky.

People are generally friendly, though, once you get out of the car.


There are neighborhoods in Cupertino, many, though they are always quiet when I bike around. You have to search to find life, and for me it was Cupertino Hoops, a basketball league for grade-school kids. That’s my son with the ball, left and right. Saturdays they would run two games in a high school gym side by side, all day, both courts filled with ten kids running up and down, shooting, missing, hitting, following imperfectly, with hesitation, with abandon the coaches’ plans, and there would be more kids on the benches, waiting, and parents in the stands, watching, everyone shouting, a daylong release for all of us from what the past week contained, a release for me into a rare joy. . . .


In my novel, the narrator, a programmer, lands a job at Summit, a large outfit in a fictional town that, not surprisingly, resembles Cupertino. He works all hours at breakneck speed on a botchy network system, also called Summit, coding quick fixes as Summit tries to steal the march on their rival. The campus, as I say, is charged with wonder and the tension from all that is left unsaid. Then he goes off campus with a dozen others to a small office on Bubb Road where they write a new system called Summix, which they build on Unix, this time getting it right.

I’d like to tell you more about his life there, but Summit went under a year later.


Steve Jobs on Kindle:

It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.

But then we got the iPad.


It is difficult to get my students to move to abstractions or talk about values and ideals. Their working definition of ideals, from what I can gather, is that they are notions that might be desirable but also are flakey, thus are suspect, at any rate are unattainable. Reality is whatever the world throws them at the present moment. There doesn’t appear to be any connection between the two.


This is a program I wrote in C language designed to create heavenly objects—stars (asterisks)—in a void. The program, in fact, contains an infinite loop, code that asks the program to repeat a process but doesn’t call for an end to that process, so it creates stars, theoretically, endlessly. When the output screen fills with stars, the screen refreshes and causes the stars to *blink*. I have received various interpretations as to what would happen if the program were allowed to run long enough, how long it would take the system to crash.


Cupertino does have parks, though they are lightly used, but almost no other open spaces. So it is surprising to still see a field at the corner of Stevens Creek and Tantau, with tall weeds and strewn trash, with No Trespassing signs and signs prohibiting dumping in four languages, that has been vacant all the years I have lived here. It is a toxic superfund site, whose soil was contaminated by leakage from two semiconductor plants, both long gone, of organic solvents includ­ing trichloroethylene, trichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, trichloro­fluoro­ethane, and dichloroethylene.

It may prove to be our most enduring landmark.


Actually I live in San Jose now, about 50 feet away from Cupertino and not much further from Saratoga. It’s hard to know where you are in Silicon Valley by sight because the towns run together and there’s little visible difference. I moved to my current apartment because it was quieter and cheaper. I had to go to a special meeting at the school district office, however, and make an appeal to let Christopher finish at the same high school.

But I feel fortunate because a creek runs behind my place, and outside my windows I see mostly trees. The creek and land around it are owned by the city, thus the trees are protected. Not many have this view.

One spring, after a winter of especially heavy winter rains, there was an explosion in the frog population around the creek, tiny tree frogs, I think. At night the sound of their collective croaking—there must have been hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands—was loud, incessant. . . .

—Gary Garvin



Satellite photos from Google Maps.

“Think Different” picture from Noah Price, http://www.theprices.net/apple/think.html

Steve Jobs picture from Computer History Museum, http://www.computerhistory.org/atchm/steve-jobs/

San Giuseppe da Copertino si eleva in volo alla vista della Basilica di Loreto from Wikipedia Commons.

J. A. English-Lueck, Cultures@Silicon Valley. Stanford University Press.

Joan Didion, “Notes from a Native Daughter,” Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Pictures of Lincoln School, the Kings Daughters Society, IOOF, and excerpt of Petrus Font’s diary from Cupertino Chronicle, published by the California History Center, De Anza College, 1975.

Steve Jobs on Kindle: from “The Passion of Steve Jobs,” The New York Times, January 15, 2008 (http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/15/the-passion-of-steve-jobs/).

All other photos by the author.


Gary Garvin lives in San Jose, California, where he writes and teaches English. He has written two novels, and his short stories have appeared in Numéro Cinqthe minnesota review, New Novel Review, Confrontation, The New Review, The Santa Clara Review, The South Carolina Review, The Berkeley Graduate, and The Crescent Review. He is currently at work on a collection of essays and another novel.



Feb 082010

Karen Mulhallen

This is a poem by Karen Mulhallen whose book of selected poems Acquainted With Absence came out in 2009 (I selected the poems and wrote the introduction). Karen is an old friend, publisher of Descant, the venerable Toronto magazine, a Blake scholar and a poet (look her up) who also had a dog named Lucy once upon a time. Karen and I both come from southwestern Ontario. We both know the Halton Sand Hills and the definition of a turtleback. For years we’ve met for lunch at Southside Louie’s on College Street, a favourite haunt of my boys.



Solomon’s Judgement

Start, don’t arrive
Give, don’t receive
Sow, sow, never harvest
Burn, don’t be consumed.

To be impoverished, but not to cheat
To be disappointed, and again to trust
To be thirsty, yet not to drink
To live once,
and still die a hundred times.

Have faith, live in sin
Hurt, ask no forgiveness
Break, do not bend.
Frozen veins
the summer’s heat

Waiting for the one who never comes
Still among lightning

—Karen Mulhallen, from Acquainted With Absence


Feb 062010


Jacob Glover1Jacob Glover/


In the essay “On Experience” Michel de Montaigne writes, “I study myself more than any other subject. That is my metaphysics[1]; that is my physics.”  At first glance this statement seems generally narcissistic, even flamboyantly so. Essentially, Montaigne disregards the entire study of philosophy up until his own time and replaces it with his own idea of philosophy. He uses the word “me” to both express the idea of ownership of the philosophy but also to emphasize his philosophy is based on examination of the self. It is obvious that Montaigne studied many others, in addition to himself, and clearly understood their importance because he quotes them throughout the essay. Montaigne’s words, therefore, are not narcissistic: he is not saying he is self-obsessed. Rather Montaigne is trying to emphasize the human, not as a thinking animal, nor as a philosopher, but as someone who, while thinking and reasoning also lives in and is affected by the world. A human who, to borrow a term from Montaigne, “shits.” I will argue, in other words, that what Montaigne emphasizes is that humans are a composite and it is our full composition that makes us human; to deny our sensuousness is to deny our humanity, but at the same time to deny our rationality is also to deny our humanity. Montaigne’s essay is about how these two halves of the human must be used in conjunction to gain knowledge, understanding, or truth.

Montaigne begins the essay with a line borrowed from Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “No desire is more natural than the desire for knowledge.” The quote announces that the essay is going to be about the acquisition of knowledge. It is as if Montaigne is pointing out that he is doing the same thing Aristotle tried to; starting from the same basic platform of thought, how to gain knowledge and understanding, and writing about it in a new way. The interesting thing about Montaigne opening “On Experience” with a quote by an ancient is that it seems to both mimic the ancients and to name the people who will be the opponents in the essay. The ancients believed that the pathway to knowledge was in the mind alone, and that is what Montaigne would like to refute. In the body of his essay he discusses by way of implicative and digressive examples the importance of a composite human (both thinking and experiencing). First he points out failings in reason and then points out failings in experience. Montaigne comes to the conclusion that the only way to acquire knowledge, truth or understanding lies within the composite human — a thinking, and sensuous being.

First Montaigne discusses the failures of reason or contemplative thinking-a thing implied to be purely of the mind, and to have direct connection to the senses. What’s crucially different about Montaigne’s thinking, and what distinguishes him from the ancients, is that first reason is not perfect and second that senses can help to make up for reason’s imperfections. Montaigne writes, “We assay all the means that can lead us to [knowledge]. When reason fails us we make use of experience.” These lines can be read on two levels. On one level, they suggest that humans will naturally try to contemplate things first to gain knowledge. But on a second level, the line seems to claim that “we”, meaning epistemological theorists, have tried everything possible to find knowledge and now it seems that just thinking about forms or God is not enough: “we” now need to examine our own experiences. Montaigne’s gives examples of reason failing during his discussion on laws. He declares that “the most desirable laws are those which are fewest, simplest and most general.”  This line describes a desire to reduce the number of laws, in order to find a more general set. The law makers “have so weighed down every syllable and every species of conjunction that they end up entangled and bogged down in an infinitude of grammatical functions and tiny sub-clauses which defy all rule and order and any definite interpretation.” Montaigne thinks that laws are a demonstrative example of reason failing because the amount, complexity, and particularization are all due to an over thinking by the law makers. To Montaigne the laws are a downfall of reason because they move away from a general interpretation of, in this case, justice to multiple interpretations. And “you can feel from experience that so many interpretations dissipate the truth and break it up.” This quote is crucial to Montaigne’s argument because he is pointing out that where reason fails experience points to the mistake. So to Montaigne laws are best made by someone who uses reason to create the law but experience to measure its applicability. And that is to say that a composite human is best suited for making laws, understanding justice, or more generally, grasping the truth.

Montaigne’s emphasis on a new composite human thinking process is, it seems, developed from the skeptical viewpoint that “reason has so many forms that we do not know which to resort to: [and] experience has no fewer.”  In other words, there are so many ways to experience that “induction which we wish to draw from the likeness between events is unsure since they all show unlikeness.” And that is to say that in any similarity we can find between two forms of experience, any “likeness”, there is inherently difference because according to Montaigne “Nature has bound herself to make nothing “other” which is not unlike.” In other words nothing can be a separate thing and be completely identical to another thing. This pervasive difference makes experience an inherently faulty way of examining the world. As an example of experience failing Montaigne writes, “Scientific investigations and inquiries serve merely to feed our curiosity. They have nothing to do with knowledge so sublime.” Here where experience, in this case scientific observation, fails to gather the deepest truth; reason can provide support. The crucial idea to understand is that to Montaigne truth cannot be grasped by experience alone. Experience needs to be filtered by the mind in order for it to elucidate any truths or knowledge. This filtering process is what a composite human, both a thinking and sensing, would intuitively do, and which is what Montaigne believes is the way to truth, knowledge or understanding.

Montaigne concludes “On Experience” with a description of himself. The point of this section is to demonstrate the human as a composite. What Montaigne does here is take something he calls his metaphysics, thereby comparing it with The Metaphysics, and then writes about his “mortal fear of smells.” Montaigne wants to show the examination of the self can be a philosophical act. That is to say that experience can be a philosophical act. And this emphasis on self-examination is another example of Montaigne’s argument to find certainty within a world saturated with difference. Montaigne brings together the two halves of the composite human with the sentence “things are sensed through the understanding [and] understood through the senses.” In other words the halves are dependent upon the other to function. For someone to sense something he needs to know they are sensing it; for someone to understand something it must pass first through the senses. To Montaigne the human is body and mind and for a human to have understanding, or know truth he must use both parts of his duality.

To Montaigne difference and uncertainty pervade the world and make it impossible to glean any knowledge through the application of either reason or experience alone. But, as I have argued, these two tools used in conjunction are the key to understanding the world and gathering any truth. Montaigne writes, “All things are connected by some similarity; yet every example limps and any correspondence which we draw from experience is feeble and imperfect; we can nevertheless find some corner or other by which to link our comparisons.” That is to say that there are indeed similarities or certainties in the world, but we cannot purely sense them nor purely contemplate upon them. To Montaigne we can examine ourselves and therefore our sensual experience with, and along side of, our reason to find that subtle certainty and similarity in the very difference that subsists throughout the world. Montaigne finds a most basic certainty in the embrace of our composite selves as a necessity to glean knowledge, truth or understanding.

— Jacob Glover


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought