Being citizens of the Extreme West, where nature is said to abhor a vacuum, the emptiness of the World Trade Center “bathtub,” the gigantic, subsurface foundation structure of the twin towers complex, began to drive us crazy.
Yet a host of tendencies, both manifest and unconscious, made filling the hole, for an excruciating half dozen years, nigh-on impossible.
However badly the collective psyche yearned, or thought it yearned, to see a herm rise out of the omphalos, more powerful countervailing forces disposed the hollow place to remain empty. All the while, the ever-shifting tidal flows of sea and estuary made clear their intention to fill this bathtub, which, without heroic efforts made to keep it dry, would one day become a lake of living water, drawing everything built near its perimeter into its depths.
The Dao, wrote Zhuangzi, not long after Herakles’ labors had been collected into written text, gathers in emptiness alone. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind, as the ebb and flow of the tides are an expression of earthly and heavenly breath.
Is the page disposed to be filled, or to remain empty? Is it possible to fill the page while conserving its emptiness? Is it possible to empty ourselves as the page fills? Reciprocally, can the page empty itself into us? Is there a difference between reading and writing? If so, what is this difference, and can it be compared to respiration?
What are the qualities of this textual breath? Does it penetrate deeply on inhalation, gather and diffuse within the body, then flow outward through the nose and likewise via every pore? Does this breath unite heaven and earth within it and then separate them again? How much does the diaphragm flatten on the inhale? Are we forcing the air – gulping it in? Or do we allow the breath to stream in like a ribbon and wind through our viscera, enliven our organs, perfuse our limbs, awaken our brain and finally pass out again, then, with infinite strength and gentleness, begin the cycle again?
Where does inhalation end and exhalation begin? Can we breathe without making a sound? Fill the lungs, kidneys, heart, the page, and then allow the return to emptiness?
But Joseph was right, and Fonny is radiant. On the days I do not see Hayward [Fonny’s attorney] I see Fonny twice a day. I am always there for the six o’clock visit. And Fonny knows that I will be there. It is very strange, and I now begin to learn a very strange thing. My presence, which is of no practical value whatever... is vastly more important than any practical thing I might be doing. Every day, when he sees my face, he knows, again, that I love him – and God knows I do, more and more, deeper with every hour. But it isn’t only that. It means that others love him, too, love him so much that they have set me free to be there. He is not alone; we are not alone. And if I am somewhat terrified by the fact that I no longer have anything which can be called a waistline, he is delighted. “Here she come! Big as two houses! You sure it ain’t twins? or triplets? Shit, we might make history.”
Throwing back his head, holding on to the telephone, looking me in the eye, laughing.
And I understand that the growth of the baby is connected with his determination to be free. So. I don’t care if I get to be as big as two houses. The baby wants out. Fonny wants out. And we are going to make it: in time.
—James Baldwin from If Beale Street Could Talk, (1974).
I live by the banks of the Hudson, the river that famously flows (as all rivers including the Styx do) two ways.
There is a water wheel set up at the end of what used to be a maritime pier. You can stand, cantilevered out a few hundred feet into the Muhheakantuck’s flow and observe the moment when the wheel ceases its clockwise turn, holds a moment, then reverses.
If you go to the Panthéon in Paris, you can see Foucault’s pendulum trace the path of the turning earth. The pendulum depends from the ceiling of a great void space. Years ago, when I visited, I was powerfully struck by some words written by Robert Desnos on a manuscript displayed in a side gallery. I must have been unusually moved, because when I looked through my notes later, I found I had written nothing down.
Unlike Rousseau, Hugo, Zola, Malraux, or many another grand homme de lettres, Desnos is not to be found interred in the crypt beneath the Panthéon. He is, instead, buried in Montparnasse cemetery, where his body came to rest after its repatriation from Theresienstadt. The cemetery, however, is only a twenty-minute walk along alternating streets and boulevards. If you walk by Le Sélect, you might glimpse Baldwin through the window. Is that Violette Leduc, hurrying to class at the Lycée Racine? Ah, there’s George Plimpton strolling to the offices of Merlin. What’s got his satchel bulging so? Manuscripts? CIA greenbacks? But time and light are tricky, so depending on the angle of the sun, you may see only reflections of yourself.
What was this place like when it was capital of Clovis the Frank’s domain? Countryside? Forest? Open field? Hah! Here’s the cemetery. To the left of the gate, some wag has written a message on the wall:
Contemplating the world incites our inner dispositions.
Because our inner dispositions are incited by the world,
The meaning expressed cannot be but brilliant;
And because the world is contemplated through this internal incitement,
The words used to evoke it cannot be but perfect.
Now did Robert exhume himself to write that? Or was it Jabès, reconstituted from ashes? Violette’s little fox fur, scrawling with its claws?
Or was it Liu Xie, Clovis’s contemporary dans l’extrême-orient concluding one of his fifty chapters on the way in which the world stirs consciousness and leads us to mark the page?
The first two sections of Book of the World Courant, Eric Darton’s ongoing meditation on language and power, appeared in previous issues of TQ. Further sections are posted weekly at Book of the World Courant.
Notes to the text above:
The fragment from Liu Xie (Wenxin diaolong – The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons) is adapted, with minor changes, from François Jullien’s Detour and Access: Strategies of Meaning in China and Greece. New York: Zone Books, 2000. Sophie Hawkes, trans.
Susan Griffin relates a remarkable story about Desnos. I will be happy to retell it to anyone writing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.