How to Dream Well, by Fernando Pessoa (1913)

Postpone everything. Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow. You don’t have to do anything today or tomorrow. 

Never think about what you’re going to do. Simply don’t do it. 

Live your life. Do not be lived by it. In truth and in error, in sickness and in health, be your own self. You can only achieve this by dreaming, because your real life, your human life, does not belong to you, but to others. Therefore, replace life with dreaming and take care to dream perfectly. In all your real-life actions, from the day you are born until the day you die, it is not you performing those actions; you do not live, you are merely lived.

Become an absurd sphinx in the eyes of others. Shut yourself up in your ivory tower, but without slamming the door, for your ivory tower is you. 

And if anyone tells you this is false and absurd, don’t believe him. But don’t believe what I’m telling you either, because you shouldn’t believe anything. 

Despise everything, but in such a way that despising feels quite normal. Do not think you’re superior when you despise others. Therein lies the noble art of despising.

Pessoa, Fernando. The Book of Disquiet, New Directions, New York, 2017: 46.

Emerson’s watershed moment

On March 29,1832, 28-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the tomb of his young wife, Ellen, who had been buried a year and two months earlier. He was in the habit of walking from Boston out to her grave in Roxbury every day, but on this particular day he did more than commune with the spirit of the departed Ellen: he opened the coffin. Ellen had been young and pretty. She was 17 when they were engaged, 18 when married, and barely 20 when she died of advanced tuberculosis. They had made frantic efforts at a cure, including long open-air carriage rides and massive doses of country air. Their life together had been stained almost from the start by the bright blood of Ellen’s coughing.

Opening the coffin was not a grisly gothic gesture, not the wild aberration of an unhinged lover. What Emerson was doing was not unheard of. At least two of Emerson’s contemporaries did the same thing. […] Emerson opened not only the tomb or family vault but the coffin itself. The act was essential Emerson. He had to see for himself. Some part of him was not able to believe she was dead. He was still writing to her in his journals as though she was alive. Perhaps the very deadness of the body would help a belief in the life of the spirit. […] We do not know exactly what moved Emerson on this occasion, but we do know that he had a powerful craving for direct, personal, unmediated experience. This is what he meant when he insisted that one should strive for an original relation to the universe. Not a novel relation, just one’s own. […]

Emerson’s own journal entry from this March day was terse: “I visited Ellen’s tomb and opened the coffin.” They had been utterly in love, and for a moment, on September 30, 1829, their wedding day, the future had seemed clear. Notes and letters flew back and forth. They traveled and wrote verses together and laughed at the Shakers who tried to woo them to celibacy. She intended to be a poet, he a preacher. He had accepted a pulpit in Boston and they set up a home that became at once the center of the Emerson family, as both his mother and younger brother came to live with them. Now, a little more than a year after Ellen’s death, Emerson’s life was unraveling fast. Though he was a much-loved minister in an important Boston church, he was having trouble believing in personal immortality, trouble believing in the sacrament of communion, and trouble accepting the authority and historical accuracy of the Bible. The truth was that Emerson was in a fast-deepening crisis of vocation. He could not accept his ministerial role, he was unsure of his faith, and he felt bereft and empty. He was directionless.

At Ellen’s grave that day in Roxbury in 1832 Emerson was standing amidst the ruins of his own life. More than 10 years had passed since he left college. Love had died and his career was falling apart. He was not sure what he really believed, who he really was, or what he should be doing. […]

In the months immediately ahead he continued to walk to Ellen’s grave every day but now his concentration on death was broken and he reached a major watershed in his long struggle with religion. He would live no longer with the dead. “Let us express our astonishment,” he wrote in his journal in May, “before we are swallowed up in the yeast of the abyss.”

Before the year was out, Emerson had resigned his pulpit, moved his mother, sold his household furniture, and taken ship for Europe. He set out on Christmas Day, 1832. A northeast storm was on its way as the ship sailed from Boston, plunging into the grey expanse of the North Atlantic.

Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Richardson, Robert D. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1995: 3-5.

Married, by Jack Gilbert

I came back from the funeral and crawled

around the apartment, crying hard, 

searching for my wife’s hair.

For two months got them from the drain,

from the vacuum cleaner, under the refrigerator,

and off the clothes in the closet.

But after other Japanese women came, 

there was no way to be sure which were

hers, and I stopped. A year later, 

repotting Michiko’s avocado, I find

a long black hair tangled in the dirt.

Gilbert, Jack. Collected Poems, Knopf, New York, 2012: 139.

The novelist

* The critics thought and wrote about him even through the years he wasn’t publishing his work. There was a fascination with him, an infatuation among his contemporaries. It wasn’t just the work they were interested in. They wanted to know about him, what he was thinking, what he was doing, what he was working on. He released nothing, but no one knew he was writing like always, tucked in his basement office as the seasons changed. Not even his editor knew. The dog lay there, her warmth curled around his feet as he sat writing away the time. His body did not change but the mind whirred, carving passages into realms present and distant. He disappeared from public following his wife’s death, gracious for the consolations but evasive, in retreat.

* He wrote his first story at age nine. The process electrified and elevated him, separated and dissociated him from himself. His identity shattered into pieces—a rivulet bubbled up, flowed, accelerated, eroded importance in everything else. 

* When she presented the novelist with a local award, the mayor smiled for the cameras and shook the novelist’s hand without having read his work. She did not say from her prepared statement that the novelist had meandered into middle age healthy and productive, his name gathering readership worldwide. A drug habit sustained him when his work and marriage weren’t enough.

* He was born into a segmented world: subdivisions, suburbs, siblings. His parents had their lives and he had his. They left the novelist home with the other children to watch television but he read prodigiously and one day discovered his true self in the words he composed.

* His death occurred swiftly and without warning. Early on a Sunday with daylight breaking at his window, he lay listening to birdsong and thinking about his latest work, almost completed. His heart beat three times in rapid succession and then burst, a cataclysm in his chest. The thoughts about his unfinished work were his last in this world. 

* Night provided his greatest inspiration. He climbed from his office to the backyard for stillness and quiet and to admire the sky. His wife often joined those midnight excursions when healthy. They held hands with the Earth churning beneath them, eyes fixed starward.

* He never had children of his own. He loved kids and made them laugh but secretly was terrified of them stealing time and focus from his work. His wife had interest in motherhood early in their marriage but the interest tapered with age. Before her death she regretted to the novelist that she’d never be a grandmother.

* All dreams point downward, he once wrote. They keep our bodies moored to the Earth. We would levitate and float away if we lay there dreaming our dreams up into the air.

* Public readings were a necessary evil, though he did enjoy traveling the world to greet his readers. They were passionate and dedicated. The majority of of them resided in his home country of the United States but his work was admired the world over, translated into 20 languages. His first trip to China felt to him like a journey on another planet and inspired his novel Red Sea Sleeping, a tale of conspiracy and psychosis written in the novelist’s signature style and use of language but set in Beijing.

* The first novel he wrote (An Unstable Game) became the third he published. His publisher asked him to revisit that first manuscript and add more to the story, clarify items and explain some of the novel’s mystery. The writer nearly re-wrote the entire manuscript in two months and returned it to the publisher, who, upon reading the new work, shivered and emailed the author immediately.

* Marriage isn’t for everyone but the novelist truly loved and admired his wife. They met in college, when the novelist was 30 and she 24. She played cello and sewed her own clothes. Her widowed mother invited him for Christmas and he accepted, telling jokes all weekend to counter the woman’s devastating sadness. The old lady’s misery extended to everyone in her presence, including her daughter. The malaise evaporated once back at college, and the novelist’s future wife returned to her customary easiness. The novelist proposed marriage as spring blossomed on campus and his time there ended. He wrote two unpublished novels while at school. His editor discovered the manuscripts on the novelist’s hard drive and published them to wide acclaim two years after the writer’s death.

* Cold Moon Below, the novelist’s fourth published work, won him the National Book Award and carried him to the highest levels of American literary prestige. The night he received the congratulatory call, he repeated to himself that he would only ever be as good as the last thing he wrote. He spent the remainder of the weekend in his basement, writing without sleep. He emerged from that chrysalis having finished a rough draft of The Magnificent Gaucho, which would later be published on three continents and catapult the novelist into international discussions. 

* His editor worked alongside attorneys and against the wishes of publishers and others vying for the writer’s library and estate of papers. The editor fiercely protected the novelist’s works and honored his own arbitrary estimation as to what the novelist may have wanted. He quickly became overwhelmed with mounds of rewardless work and grew disgruntled with the late novelist for not properly securing his estate during his lifetime.

* Our time here, the novelist once wrote, referring to our time on Earth, is limited only by our flesh and bone, our blood. What we create between the bookends of birth and death immortalizes us. 

* The editor secured the novelist’s library of work at a nearby university, thereby absolving himself of most of his responsibilities. He shrugged away the burden with relief but also regret, for it was his last lifeline to the dead writer, whom the editor admired, loved like a brother. He cried in his car in the university parking lot, having never truly mourned the novelist’s untimely death. The vast majority of deaths are untimely, he thought, and he started his vehicle and drove into another sunlit afternoon.

The Great Wall, by Eliot Weinberger

Richard Nixon, visiting the Great Wall of China in 1972, said: “I think you would have to conclude that this is a great wall.”

Ronald Reagan, visiting the Wall in 1984, said: “What can you say, except it’s awe-inspiring? It is one of the great wonders of the world.” Asked if he would like to build his own Great Wall, Reagan drew a circle in the air and replied: “Around the White House.”

Bill Clinton, visiting the Wall in 1998, said: “So if we had a couple of hours, we could walk ten kilometers, and we’d hit the steepest incline, and we’d all be in very good shape when we finished. Or we’d be finished. It was a great workout. It was great.”

George W. Bush, visiting the Wall in 2002, signed the guest book and said: “Let’s go home.” He made no other comments. 

Barack Obama, visiting the Wall in 2009, said: “It’s majestic. It’s magical. It reminds you of the sweep of history, and that our time here on Earth is not that long, so we better make the best of it.” During his visit, the Starbucks and KFC at the base of the Wall were closed.

Weinberger, Eliot. The Ghosts of Birds, New Directions Books, New York, 2016: 91.

the poet, pt. I

The poet is born in a house on a mountain. His father built the house just as his father built his house on the mountain, and his father built his, and so on. The poet’s young parents have two concerns: their community of like-minded people on the mountain and their only child, the poet. Neither parent knows their child is a poet.

The boy’s father is paid meagerly to dig graves for those who have died on the mountain. The mother looks after the house and watches over her son, the poet, though he doesn’t yet know he is a poet.

The poet lives on the mountain all his life but decides for his 18th year to live completely at sea, with just a few scattered days ashore for essentials. He vows this as a personal challenge despite his mother’s horror. She watches and waves from the dock as the small watercraft disappears from her.

Several times during the journey he considers abandoning it, returning to the mountain to forget the whole thing. Nausea, illness, cold, boredom—until he discovers he’s a poet.

He returns home forever changed. He carries a notebook and no longer wants to live on the mountain. He yearns to be close to the water. His mother watches and waves as her only child disappears from her again toward something unknown to her.

Apartments are expensive near the water. The poet quickly finds work but hates it, changes jobs, adds another. Soon another. It’s worth all the work to live here, he writes. He often falls asleep writing.

He refines the poems he’s written and sends them to an editor, who tells him to send them to an agent. Quickly and to the poet’s surprise a large collection is published (titled Announcement). It receives excellent reviews and three award nominations. The poet is suddenly attractive. He retreats to the water in a rented dinghy to disappear from himself, from the world. He writes his best work the further he travels from shore. 

He works three jobs and scribbles in his notebook. The poems are as scattered as the poet himself, who is compelled, after an indiscriminate period of time, to take the poems in the notebook and unify them, liquefy them, position and reposition them into a complete manuscript that will ultimately be published into a collection (titled Ascension), earning him accolades and the much-coveted assurance that his craft can now financially support him. The poet publishes two more collections in the next 18 months (Atlantis, Carnival), vaulting him to literary fame and prestige. On a private jet one afternoon from Europe to Manhattan he meets a famous Canadian actress and the two connect immediately. She’s read his poems, she says. I’ve seen your movies, he tell her. 

They marry within the year, an extravagant event in the Maldives in which global celebrities mingle with intellectuals and politicians. Everyone wants something from the poet. 

His sudden rise to fame leads him inland to readings and signings and speaking engagements across the globe but he yearns to be close to the water, on the water. He sells his beach house for a houseboat, a vessel for he and his wife to live on.

She is gone after just six months at sea, having disembarked in haste at San Francisco and looking like a madwoman in her tattered dress and swollen luggage. The poet tends to the boat by moonlight, he prepares food beneath the relentless sun, he fills notebooks with ease—flooded with inspiration. He regrets the wife’s departure, their sudden inexplicable violence toward one another. She’s gone and he’s never felt more alive. He returns ashore once again a man forever changed.

The next day his doctor finds a troubling mass on the poet’s neck during a routine appointment. More tests reveal a cancerous growth. The poet is told he has one year to live, his final year on Earth, in which he will visit the mountain of his youth one final time to say goodbye before living the remainder of his days and nights writing poems on an ocean of oblivion.

Gamboa on democracy

Why are the votes of those who don’t have standards or education or culture worth the same as the votes of people who do have them? Why is a vote obtained with a revolver to the head or by brainwashing people with advertising or buying them off with fifty thousand pesos worth the same as a vote expressed freely? Ask the defenders of democracy. That’s the great perversity, but we’re not allowed to say that. If everybody had education and the variations between high and low, in terms of culture, democracy would be universal and we’d be in Sweden, but that’s not the way it is. In Africa people vote for those in their own tribe and that’s why the party of the biggest tribe always wins, and you know the only way a tribe has to reduce the number of voters for another tribe? The machete. In many countries in Africa, it isn’t dictatorship that’s led to civil war, but democracy. The small tribes hate the system that gives power to the biggest clan, and what is power? The right to take control of a country. Here, it’s different because there are no tribes, but there are clans, and lately, tyrants. […] The [candidate] who wins has the most money, or the one who has the most arms and is stronger. The alpha male wins, because democracy, in terms of sexuality, is a masochistic relationship: power is given to the strong man so that he can exercise it over the weak man, who adopts an attitude of submission that consists of turning his back, lifting his hip, and offering his anus in order to avoid confrontation. 

Gamboa, Santiago. Night Prayersa novel. Translated by Howard Curtis, Europa Editions, 2016: 222–223.

Bolaño on working writers

No one forces you to write. The writer enters the labyrinth voluntarily—for many reasons, of course: because he doesn’t want to die, because he wants to be loved, etc.—but he isn’t forced into it. He’s no more forced than a politician is forced into politics or a lawyer is forced into law school. The great advantage for the writer is that the lawyer or the politician, outside his country of origin, tends to flounder like a fish out of water, at least for a while—whereas a writer outside his native country seems to grow wings. The same thing applies to other situations. What does a politician do in prison? What does a lawyer do in the hospital? Anything but work. What, on the other hand, does a writer do in prison or in the hospital? He works. Sometimes he works a lot (not to mention poets). Of course the claim can be made that in prison the libraries are no good and that in hospitals there often are no libraries. It can be argued that in most cases exile means the loss of the writer’s books, among other material losses, and in some cases even the loss of his papers, his unfinished manuscripts, projects, letters. It doesn’t matter. Better to lose manuscripts than lose your life. The point is that the writer works wherever he is, even while he sleeps, which isn’t true of those in other professions. Actors, it can be said, are always working, but it isn’t the same: the writer writes and is conscious of writing, whereas the actor, under great duress, only howls. Policemen are always policemen, but that isn’t the same either, because it’s one thing to be and another to work. The writer is and works in any situation. The policeman only is. And the same is true of the professional assassin, the soldier, the banker. Whores, perhaps, come closest in the exercise of their profession to the practice of literature.

Bolaño, Roberto. Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998–2003. Translated by Natasha Wimmer, New Directions Books, 2011: 57.