nick deforest — ex opere operato: anonymous review of an unnamed book
There comes a point in your life, around the early to mid thirties, when you realize you have already forgotten far more than you will ever know. There comes a time for a decision: either you give up or you don’t. Either you find another way or you don’t.
You publish enough to understand that being published, in the most humble or most prestigious journals, doesn’t make you any happier. You start wonder what it was you were expecting.
The only way to be successful is to already be successful. There are no ladders to climb, there is no path forward; there are only solitary points you can plot on a literary matrix, a map to nowhere which might be interpreted, one day, by people smarter than we are.
After you have forgotten them (and how many are really worth remembering?) all books become anonymous.
Is it just a force of habit, then? Stress relief, muscle memory. The feel of pen against the paper, the white sheen that shines on the black ink for the second before it dries. For some reason. There must be a reason. Once we leave aside adolescent fantasy, vainglory, petty revenge ideation. None of that was ever real anyway. So what was ever real, and when?
No one has a trust fund, no one has an MFA. We don’t apply for grants, we don’t do workshops or residencies. Writing that develops under the pressure of long stretches of silence, the type of writing wrought by all the time we can’t devote to writing.
Maybe it’s good we have nothing to be nostalgic for. Maybe it’s good that the next big thing never happened. Maybe art is what occurs when nothing else is occurring. Maybe art is what occurs after we have reached the acceptance stage of grief.
Sometime in my thirties I began to see the names of friends or friends-of-friends in internet bylines. All the people I met before I dropped out of college now writing for respectable outlets and all the people I met after dropping out writing for underground literary journals. Just some small gesture towards what the point might have been.
You can neither dream or think a book into existence. The path lies always in-between. But after we have done with writing, what will we do with this faculty of inner vision that we have cultivated?
I have a friend who spends his life going to parties and taking polaroid pictures and giving them out like candy. He tells people to hold onto them because they might be worth money one day – at least that’s what he used to say. I still don’t know how much he believed or still believes it. But maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe not believing it, but wanting to believe it. That is, aware of the salutary effects, upon him and everyone else, of saying he believes it and acting as though he believes it.
I read books and then I give them away. I never want to see them again. I see people I know at parties and weddings and out of habit I say “see you later” when we part but they are married and live out of state and there is actually a good chance I will never see them again.
It would be melodramatic and conventional to say my friends have been dying lately. Also untrue, thank God. But that doesn’t mean I don’t worry. The guy with a heart condition who can’t stop smoking and can’t stop drinking and can’t stop sweating and can’t stop staying out all night. Trying to spend as much time as I can with them while we still have time. They never read what I write, but they’re the ones I write for.
Friends of friends dropping dead from fentanyl-laced coke in boring Ridgewood bars for geriatric millennials on bright sunny Saturday afternoons. You realize that you might have already known and lost touch with more people than you will ever meet and hold on to.
The concept of canonicity, while essential to the study of literature, is still inherently melancholy, defeatist, retroactive. Judging the present in terms of the past and not with a view to the future; the desperate struggle to preserve that which you love; a futile struggle, since everything, after all, has turned to dust, is turning to dust, will turn to dust.
There is another canon floating somewhere out there – an invisible canon, yet at all times silently at work upon us, like radiation poisoning. A song half-overheard at a party and forgotten immediately after which has greater power over your life than all the world's greatest symphonies. Like the affection given to an infant, remembered in an inarticulate way in the most enduring and most important part of yourself.
This is not to say that art is matter for geological strata, material support for that which comes after, spiritual fertilizer to feed the future. Rather that insofar as it succeeds it is already complete and outside of time, impervious to decay; a participation, however momentary or fragmentary, in beauty fully formed and flowered.
"To return to art and formal causality for the moment: a formal cause exerts its pressure non-verbally and non-conservatively. Any substantial form impresses itself upon you without benefit of awareness or conscious attention on your part. You can be conscious about it if you like, but a tree, grass, stones, the world of forms in which we live impresses us steadily and constantly without intermission, without benefit of words or thoughts. They are total in their action upon us. It doesn't matter what theory we may have about them: their effect upon us is quite independent of any thought we have about them.
"It is the same with a work of art. The meaning of a work of art, as the artists of past centuries can tell us, has nothing to do with what you think about it. It has to do with its action upon you. It is a form: it acts upon you. It invades your senses. It re-structures your outlook. It completely changes your attitudes, your wave-lengths. So our attitudes, our sensibilities, are completely altered by new forms, regardless of what we think about them. This is not an irrational statement, or a philosophical notion. It is a simple fact of experience."
–Marshall McLuhan, "Communication Media: Makers of the Modern World"
"A thought, a harmony, the achievement of a perfection in material things, some special nuance in human love, the exquisite complexity of a smile or a glance, every new embodiment of beauty appearing in me or around me on the human face of the earth: I cherish them all like children whose flesh I cannot believe destined to complete extinction. If I believed that these things were to perish for ever, would I have given them life? The deeper I look into myself the more clearly I become aware of this psychological truth: that no man would lift his little finger to attempt the smallest task unless he were spurred on by a more or less obscure conviction that in some infinitesimally tiny way he is contributing, at least indirectly, to the building up of something permanent."
–Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu
In other words: why has no one, in the history of literary criticism or aesthetic philosophy, ever tried to seriously make the case that it is better to be read by 20,000 people than 2,000? 200? 20? A race to the bottom, but the lower you get, the better off you are.
I gave away my record collection when I was 23 and thought I would never want to see it again. For the most part, I was right. Even the out-of-print 90s emocore LPs and the rare early 00s picture disc screamo split 7”s. Whatever. I went to Academy Records on West 17th St. after work and spent my paycheck on Schumann violin sonatas and Mass settings by William Byrd. I thought I was over it.
But a funny thing happened a few years later. Like repressed memories, atavistic influence of a past life. I really wished I had held onto some of my records. Only the best: the type of stuff you couldn’t get on Spotify, the type of DIY production that sounds so much better on vinyl than it does through headphones on YouTube. A part of myself I had unsuccessfully tried to bury.
It was never about the fashion. American Apparel hoodies, gratuitous patches sewn to my cut-off jeans, beanie permanently fixed on my head as soon as the weather dropped below 70 degrees. It wasn’t about the parties – I hardly ever knew anyone in the scene, I just rolled up with a couple friends and a six pack of supermarket beer in my Jansport. It wasn’t about the brunette girl with a ring through the middle of her bottom lip who I used to see at every Brooklyn punk show I went to, who I used to have a huge crush on, even though I never knew her name.
So what was it about then? No one remembers these bands but me, and after I die or shut up there won’t be anyone left to remember them.
“What are you reading?”
“XXXXXXXX by XXXXXXX.”
“Never heard of it. Who recommended it to you?”
“The person who wrote it.”
I can’t name the book I’m reviewing because I still don’t know how to compliment living writers. They don’t know me well enough to know that I don’t kiss ass, I don’t ask favors, I’m not a social climber. I’m only comfortable in interactions where no one has anything at all to offer the other. Those are the only interactions you can trust.
I sleep through every movie I see unless it is about an armed robbery. This is the only subject matter that will keep my attention. I have come to hate any art which invites discussion or contemplation. I have forgotten the plots of more movies than I will ever remember. When the lights come up there should be absolutely nothing to say. Art that burns like a fire so hot it sucks all the air out of the room.
I had an undergraduate metaphysics professor who said it was impossible for him to listen to the homily at Mass anymore. Most of the time, he said, it wasn’t worth listening to. Instead he had developed a means of listening past the words, foregoing the words completely and working instead on cultivating an immediate experience of what the words were supposed to be signifying.
Maybe that’s how literature is supposed to work too. Like living under high voltage power lines. It’s not supposed to be interpreted. It’s not supposed to be remembered. It’s just supposed to change you. Somehow. Invisibly but indelibly. And maybe you won’t even notice the change until years later, long after you’ve forgotten the book that caused the change in you.
"The labour of seaweed as it concentrates in its tissues the substances dispersed, in infinitesimal quantities, throughout the vast layers of the ocean; the industry of bees as they make honey from the juices scattered in so many flowers – these are but pale images of the continuous process of elaboration which all the forces of the universe undergo in us in order to become spirit."
–Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu
"The divinisation of our endeavour by the value of the intention put into it infuses a precious soul into all our actions; but it does not confer the hope of resurrection upon their bodies. Yet that hope is what we need if our joy is to be complete. It is certainly a very great thing to be able to think that, if we love God, something of our inner activity, of our operatio, will never be lost. But will not the work itself of our minds, of our hearts and of our hands – that is to say, our achievements, our products, our opus – will not this, too, in some sense be 'eternalised' and saved?"
NICK DEFOREST is a writer living in New York City.