I went to the market this morning and came home to a warm kitchen, which, considering the temperature outside and the lack of insulation in my house, was quite remarkable. My wife was baking her favourite cold-rise sweet dinner rolls for the dinner we are attending tonight, and she was preparing our bread for the week also, a Swedish rye bread that she was trying for the first time. My mother-in-law was in the kitchen too, simmering the stock for a chicken soup intended for our church’s soup luncheon tomorrow, so I put the groceries away amid the smells of rising dough and soup stock, and then I had the chance to add to them, beginning my own soup for tomorrow, potato and bacon and green onion and parmesan and cream cheese, and I put the pear pies in to bake, and I remembered, once again, that there is nothing like a warm kitchen in winter.
One of the hazards in being an English literature teacher and a reader and a writer, of being self-professedly a person interested in words and language, is that I am constantly having people ask me to edit their work, everything from resumes to entire novels. This sometimes makes for quite interesting reading (like the novels of my friend John) and sometimes quite tedious reading (like the paper in business administration that I recently edited for a former student), but more and more frequently, it seems, it makes for very awkward reading, because so much of what comes across my desk now fails entirely to account for its audience.
Now, I am not claiming that this inability to write for an audience is a recent development, that writers are worse at writing to an audience now than they have been historically, though I really do suspect that this is the case. I am merely observing that, at this point in time at least, much of the writing that I edit is written without any consideration at all for the sort of people who will be reading it or for the social roles that those people occupy. I get essays that ignore any kind of academic formating, use the grossest slang and colloquialism, and appeal to ridiculously popular sources to support their arguments. I get resumes that offer deeply personal information and that read like a twitter feed. I get children’s stories that use vocabulary and sentence structure far above the ability of any children that I have ever encountered. I get poetry so self-involved that it is meaningless to anyone but its author. In short, I get writing that has no idea of what its audience might want, need, expect, or understand.
Even more troublesome, when I critique writing on this basis, these writers are almost always resistant to changing their work to accommodate their readers, and they do so more or less explicitly on the basis that it is the audience who should accommodate the author. The assumption is that a failure in communication is always a failure on the part of the reader, never on the part of the writer, that the audience should just accept what the author writes and be happy with it, and it is very difficult to convince these writers that most readers will not actually be happy with it, that their professors will just give a poor grade, that their employers will merely throw away their resumes, that children will not be interested in their stories, and that readers will make polite conversation about their poetry and then promptly forget that it ever existed.
The fact is, however cliche it might be to say so, that as long as a piece of writing has any audience at all beyond its author, so long as it is intended to achieve any kind of effective communication, whether it be informational, persuasive, or artistic, the onus is on the author to write in ways that the audience can understand, to adhere to the conventions insofar as they are useful and necessary, to choose a tone and style that will be appealing and comprehensible, to include information that is accurate and persuasive, to maintain the appropriate distance between the author and the audience. An author is by no means compelled to do this, of course, and may willfully choose to do otherwise for one reason or another, even at times for artistic effect, but let there be no question as to where the fault lies when the audience is confused, offended, or otherwise uninterested in reading what has been addressed to it.
I wrote a post about Manitoulin Island a few years ago, mentioning how I had been picking sandcherries and making syrup with them. Since then I have made several attempts to grow some sandcherries from seed, with almost no success. One batch of seeds, which I cleaned individually as I ate the cherries, were mistakenly left in the zipper pocket of my swimsuit and put through both the washer and the dryer, so I did not even bother stratifying them. Another batch, also individually cleaned, went through both stratification and planting, but not a single seed germinated. I tried to find other people who had successfully germinated them, but without success, so I was forced to work by trial and error.
When seeds do not germinate, there are several possible explanations. First, the seeds may not be viable, which may be caused by the seeds being harvested too soon; by the parent plant not being properly pollinated; by exposure to environmental factors, like growing too near a juglone producing plant; or by some idiot sending them through the laundry. Second, the seeds may not be stratified properly, which is to say that they may not have been exposed to the proper cycles of cold and heat that are required for the seed to trigger germination. Third, they may not have undergone the right environmental factors to break down the seed shell, a process that might involve sitting in moisture for a certain time, going through the digestive system of a certain animal, or even, in some cases, being exposed to forest fire. These environmental factors can often be approximated, by subjecting the seeds to acids or scarification or heat, but determining which techniques to use is not always easy.
Now, I was pretty sure that at least some of the seeds were viable, because I had taken them from a number of plants in a number of locations, all of which showed seedling growth in subsequent years, and because I was collecting seeds at various stages of maturity, all the way from relatively young fruit to the fruit that had ripened fully and fallen to the ground. I was also pretty certain that I had stratified them correctly, since I have stratified other varieties of cherries very successfully, and it would be strange for such a similar species to require a double-stratification or something of that nature. I was left with the probability that the seeds needed additional environmental factors to germinate, and I could count out fire fairly safely. The plants do, however, grow right on the beach, so it was entirely possible that they needed to be soaked for a good period of time, and many kinds of seeds need to pass through an animal’s digestive system, so I determined to watch carefully this past summer, to see how the seeds were being spread naturally.
My first discovery was that a tremendous number of the cherries were being consumed by the gulls. The gull droppings were full of seeds, and I was mentally preparing myself for the unpleasant task of digging through bird waste for them, when I made a second discovery, that the gulls often voided over the water, leaving the shallows full of partly digested but washed and soaking seeds. I gathered several hundred of them, stratified them for four months in a soil mixture that was more sandy and moist than I normally use, and yesterday I planted them. I have high hopes .
It was Malcolm Lowry, with his impossible, perfect sentence, that started me on this strange business of collecting long and masterful sentences in the first place, and now here is another from Lowry, and entirely against all my expectations, since I had been told that he wrote only the one novel, Under the Volcano, and so never suspected that I would read anything more of him until I discovered a collection of his stories, Hear Us O Lord From Thy Dwelling Place, in a used bookstore the other day. I have not read very far in my new treasure, and I have already run across several examples of sentences that I could add to my collection, but I will only share one. Let it be read in the spirit that I am sharing it, both in honour of Lowry’s role in creating this strange obsession of mine, and also in celebration of discovering more of his beautiful writing:
“Ah, its absolute loneliness amid those wastes, those wildernesses, of rough rainy seas bereft even of sea birds, between contrary winds, or in the great dead windless swell that comes following a gale; and then with the wind springing up and blowing the spray across the sea like rain, like a vision of creation, blowing the little boat as it climbed the highlands into the skies, from which sizzled cobalt lightnings, and then sank down into the abyss, but already was climbing again, while the whole sea crested with foam like lambs’ wool went furling off to leeward, the whole vast moon-driven expanse like the pastures and valleys and snow-capped ranges of a Sierra Madre in delirium, in ceaseless motion, rising and falling, and the little boat rising, and falling into a paralyzing sea of white drifting fire and smoking spume by which it seemed overwhelmed: and all this time a sound, like a high sound of singing, yet as sustained in harmony as telegraph wires, or like the unbelievably high perpetual sound of the wind where there is nobody to listen, which perhaps does not exist, or the ghost of the wind in the rigging of ships long lost, and perhaps it was the sound of the wind in its toy rigging, as again the boat slanted onward: but even then what further unfathomed deeps had it oversailed, until what birds of ill omen turned heavenly for it at last, what iron birds with saber wings skimming forever through the murk above the gray immeasurable swells, imparted mysteriously their own homing knowledge to it, the lonely buoyant little craft, nudging it with their beaks under golden sunsets in a blue sky, as it sailed close in to mountainous coasts of clouds with stars over them, or burning coasts at sunset once more, as it rounded not only the terrible spume-drenched rocks, like incinerators in sawmills, but other capes unknown, those twelve years, of giant pinnacles, images of barrenness and desolation, upon which the heart is thrown and impaled eternally.”
Our family has had a difficult last few months. A few weeks before Christmas, we learned that we will not be able to adopt the baby girl we have been fostering, and though she will be going home to a good situation, we are all very saddened that she will not be a part of our family. Then, just after Christmas, my wife’s grandfather passed away, expectedly, but still painfully, and our home was saddened once again.
Because of these and other things, my wife and I have decided that our family needs to take a break from some of our activities so that we can have a chance to take care of each other and to recover ourselves a little. So, at least for a few months, we will not be holding our Dinner and a Doc events. Hopefully, at some point, we will resume them, or something like them, but for now we feel that it is best for us to have our attention on more important things.
We really appreciate all those who have attended the events over the years. We have fond memories of sharing those times with you. And, of course, if any of you need your documentary fix, feel free to drop by any time.
In The Transparency of Evil, Jean Baudrillard insists that for hospitality to remain hospitality it must give up every attempt to understand the other, every attempt to reduce the other’s foreignness. We exist, he says, “not to be known or recognized,” but “solely to be received and to receive,” and so we must “seek the other’s cruelty, the other’s intelligibility, the other as spectre; constrain the other to foreignnness; violate the other in his foreignness.” The task of hospitality then is not to reduce the other’s foreigness through understanding, but to maintain the other’s foreignness, to receive the other precisely as the entirely foreign, apart from any knowledge.
Yet, I wonder how this hospitality of pure reception might actually appear in the world, since every reception of the other, even the purest reception of the other as entirely and in every way foreign, would immediately become the occasion of a kind of knowledge, however illusory this knowledge might be, and the act of hospitality would come to know despite itself, falling irresistibly into inhospitality.
Baudrillard seems to account for this problem by suggesting that the other’s foreignness must be continually maintained over against any understanding of the other that we might obtain, that we must continually set aside whatever knowledge we have of the other and receive the other only as foreigner, as stranger, as unknown. In this sense, we may certainly relate to the other with respect to our knowledge of the other, must in fact relate to the other in this respect, but this relation is not hospitality as such. Rather, we are hospitable only to the degree that we are able to set aside our knowledge of the other, with all the relations that attend it, and receive the other apart from this understanding, receive the other simply as other, beyond all understanding, knowledge, and relation. Hospitality, then, becomes defined, perhaps, as a relation without relation, as a relational gesture that precedes relation as such, that precedes even the possibility of relation, that appears in advance of relation.
The ethical imperative to hospitality, therefore, in the most practical terms, becomes an imperative for me to recall at all costs the insufficiency of my knowledge to account for the other’s foreignness, and to receive continually the foreignness of the other, the incomprehensibility of the other, despite whatever understanding that I might think I have.
She was beautiful once. I can tell by the way she holds herself, as if eyes are always on her, as if everyone is watching her, straight and tall, posing, even here at the laundromat, loading the dryers one armful at a time. There is still something pretty in the way she wears her blond hair high in a ponytail, in her slimness, but there is a tiredness about her also, as if she no longer has the energy to keep her beauty wrapped around her, to keep it against all the things that would pull it away from her. Her cotton skirt is faded, blue, with a pattern of white dots, and her flip-flops are worn almost to nothing, the thongs frayed and near to breaking, so that she drags them with her feet, with her painted toes, a sliding and awkward walk. She does not sit as she waits, neither to read nor to talk, just shuffles back and forth down the rows of machines, her arms wrapped around her slender ribs, her head bowed onto her chest. She seems to move in order not to stop once and for all, as if to stop, even for a moment, would be to stop forever.