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.

Melville, spring 1851

While those around him savored the renewed warmth and light of spring, Melville, unused to the sun and habituated to daytime reclusiveness, wrote to a friend that “like an owl I steal about my twilight.” During the days, he sat alone, as Hawthorne wrote of him, “shaping out the gigantic conception of his white whale, while the gigantic shape of Mount Greylock looms upon him from his study window.” The second-floor study of his house was Melville’s sanctuary, a bright corner room filled with morning light streaming through its eastern window and affording a view of Mount Greylock framed in a second window that looked north over an expanse of fields. Despite her best efforts, Melville’s wife later recalled, he sometimes worked on the book “at his desk all day not eating anything until four or five o’clock,” and then, according to his own account, retired for the evening “in a sort of mesmeric state.”

Delbanco, Andrew. Melville: His World and Work, Vintage, New York, 2005: 140.

letters to friends

Night is a ghost on wings. I write letters to myself and to friends who no longer exist, friends who are dead or friends with dead parents like me. I write letters from those friends to their dead parents and sometimes from the dead parents to their living children but I never send them, I keep the letters in a safe place to reread as I age. Aging is hard but not in ways my young self imagined. Aging is hard like remembering is hard, it is uncomfortable and strange, even as being in one’s body grows more familiar with time. Aging is the accrual of experience. I write letters to my future self about experience and accrual and pain. Perhaps one day I’ll read them. I write letters to my living friends and almost always send them. The letters contain recent anecdotes of irony, whimsy, severity. Perhaps someone should write me a letter, someone other than me. Write me in a language other than English. Write me a letter from my dead father, tell me about his recent bets, his meals, his whores. 

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.

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 Horse and Rider, Louise Glück

Once there was a horse, and on the horse there was a rider. How handsome they looked in the autumn sunlight, approaching a strange city! People thronged the streets or called from the high windows. Old women sat among flowerpots. But when you looked about for another horse or another rider, you looked in vain. My friend, said the animal, why not abandon me? Alone, you can find your way here. But to abandon you, said the other, would be to leave a part of myself behind, and how can I do that when I do not know which part you are?

 Glück, Louise. Faithful and Virtuous Night, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2014: 59.

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.