Today it Rains, By Matthew Jordan
“Reading is a discontinuous and fragmentary operation. Or, rather, the object of reading is a punctiform and pulviscular material. (254)”
I would be hard- pressed to delineate a standard procedure of how pieces of a bookstore end up in my personal library. If I had to make a guess, aside from the aesthetic of the font and the dust jacket, my primary motivation for purchasing a book depends on it being at the right place at the right time. And so it came about that as I drove back east this May from my university that I glanced into the seat beside me to see Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, the product of a rare splurge on an adventure weeks before. As the San Gabriel mountains faded from view and the void of the desert greeted my steel- colored tahoe, I wondered what the book might bring me. On the shelf, the book would flaunt its perfect dimensions. At the public pool, it would elevate me with its nostalgic font. On my end table, the rich yellows and burgundies of the cover would provide a good contrast to the deep oak. Because my summer classes afforded me little leisure, my natural reaction was to be an accountant by day and a human by night. That is, I began reading this strange book.
If on a winter’s night a traveler is elusive fiction. The protagonist of the book battles frustration as he comes across a sequence of books that, for a variety of reasons, break off at their climax. A few chapters into the book, our reader discovers another reader, the attractive Ludmilla Vipiteno, who joins him on his journey of reading. Similar to the reader, I too was frustrated when ten different stories left me wondering what would happen next.
There is much to be learned from unfinished and arcane literature, so I have picked out some passages from the book which I think provoke the most thought.
From Cimmerian writer Ukko Ahti in the chapter Leaning from the steep slope:
“With a written language it is always possible to reconstruct a dictionary and a grammar, isolate sentences, transcribe them or paraphrase them in another language, whereas I am trying to read in the succession of things presented to me every day the world’s intentions toward me, and I grope my way, knowing that there can exist no dictionary that will translate into words the burden of obscure allusions that lurks in these things. I would like this hovering of presentiments and suspicions to reach the person who reads me and not as an accidental obstacle to understanding what I write, but as its very substance; and if the process of my thoughts seem elusive to him who, setting out from radically changed mental habits, will seek to follow it, the important thing is that I convey to him the effort I am making to read between the lines of things the evasive meaning of what is in store for me. (61)”
Writing in a dying language, Ahti reflects that other readers will have a more complete language, a written one. On the other hand, it is as if he is shouldering the intentions of the cosmos, with its obscure allusions and meanings between the lines, and attempting to write them down. Below is a passage from a professor of Cimmerian literature in the fourth chapter who reflects on the benefits and losses of Cimmerian authors:
“Books are the steps of the threshold… All Cimmerian authors have passed it… Then the wordless language of the dead begins, which says the things that only the language of the dead can say… Cimmerian books are all unfinished”, Uzzi-Tuzii sighs, “because they continue beyond… in the other language, in the silent language to which all the words we believe we read refer. (71)”
A transcendent language into which Cimmerian literature is a gateway. The possibility that no book is unfinished; that they only continue into the language of the dead. This is quite a bit to think about, but we move on.
Our reader makes a visit to a publishing company in an attempt to gain definitive knowledge on the authors and names of the books he has been reading. He finds the knowledgeable Mr. Cavedagna, who remarks:
“What does the name of an author on the jacket matter? Let us move forward in thought to three thousand years from now. Who knows which books from our period will be saved, and who knows which authors’ names will be remembered? Some books will remain famous but will be considered anonymous works, as for us the epic of Gilgamesh; other authors’ names will still be well-known, but none of their works will survive, as was the case with Socrates; or perhaps all the surviving books will be attributed to a single, mysterious author, like Homer. (101)”
The confusion the reader is experiencing is not new. Though it would seem that a reader is entitled to know who the writers are of the books he is reading, Cavedagna thinks the entitlement is simply a product of the enlightenment assurance that we can know and the categorization of the medieval. It begs the question: what have we lost by gaining knowledge of writers and their context? Does the ideal reader scorn history and read exclusively the ideal model- from the author “who produces books ‘as a pumpkin vine produces pumpkins’? (189)” These days, it would seem that people would want to know even the origin of the pumpkin they are carving. What details of nature can be enjoyed without peripheral knowledge?
From the journal of writer Silas Flannery in the eighth chapter:
“I see that one way or another I keep circling around the idea of an interdependence between the unwritten world and the book I should write. This is why writing presents itself to me as an operation of such weight that I remain crushed by it. (172)”
“I read in a book that the objectivity of thought can be expressed by using the verb ‘to think’ in the impersonal third person: saying not ‘I think’ but ‘it thinks’ as we say ‘it rains’. There is thought in the universe- this is the constant from which we must set out every time.
Will I ever be able to say, ‘today it writes,’ just like ‘today it rains,’ ‘Today it is windy’? Only when it will come natural to me to use the verb ‘write’ in the impersonal form will I be able to will I be able to hope that through me is expressed something less limited than the personality of an individual. (176)”
Here Flannery reflects on the possibility that writing can come from something more than a man. He wants to write the unwritten world, to be a scribe for the cosmos, but feels crushed by the weight of responsibility. He wants to inflate his personality beyond individuality, for writing to be as natural as the wind and the rain. At this point, we reflect on the existence of a transcendent language in the fourth chapter and a transcendent writer here. These are both traits of elusive literature. We continue with Silas Flannery’s Journal:
“It is only through the confining act of writing that the immensity of the non-written becomes legible, that is, through the uncertainties of spelling, the occasional lapses, oversights, unchecked leaps of the word and the pen. Otherwise what is outside of us should not insist on communicating through the word, spoken or written: let it send its messages by other paths. (183)”
Flannery suggests that the threshold from the written to the non-written is a barrier of medium- that it is simply impossible to communicate in writing the language of the dead. This begs one of many questions: should and how can one communicate with “what is outside us”? Never mind that question; we press on into the author’s journal:
“Apocrypha (from the Greek apokryphos, hidden, secret): (1) originally referring to the “secret books of religious sects; later to texts not recognized as canonical in those religions which have established a canon of revealed writings; (2) referring to texts falsely attributed to a period or to an author.
Thus the dictionaries. Perhaps my true vocation was that of author of apocrypha, in the several meanings of the term: because writing always means hiding something in such a way that then it is discovered; because the truth that can come from my pen is like a shard that has been chipped from a great boulder by a violent impact, then flung far away; because there is no certitude outside falsification. (193)”
Flannery’s use of the dictionary presents a haunting proximity between the secrecy and the falsehood of apocrypha when he accepts all meanings of the term. An important question to ask would be: to what extent should writers play with secrecy and falsehood?
And the ideal reader? An officer in literary censorship, who knows an astonishing amount about the protagonist, speaks to our reader about Ludmilla in the tenth chapter.
“For this woman,” Arkadian Porphyrich continues, seeing how intently you are drinking in his words, “reading means stripping herself of every purpose, every foregone conclusion, to be ready to catch a voice that makes itself heard when you least expect it, a voice that comes from an unknown source, from somewhere beyond the book, beyond the author, beyond the conventions of writing: from the unsaid, from what the world has not yet said of itself and does not have the words to say. As for him, he wanted, on the contrary, to show her that behind the written page is the void: the world only exists as artifice, pretense, misunderstanding, falsehood. (239)”
Miss Porphyrich is the transcendent reader, obviously corresponding to the transcendent language and writers mentioned above. On several occasions she refuses meeting writers and editors as to keep a distant and imaginary relationship with them. She reads as a child would pick the pumpkin from the vine, as a man would gaze into a cavity in the rocky shoreline after centuries of waves thrashing the pumice. Ludmilla listens for what is least expected, whether or not there exists a transcendent language or author. She is an ideal reader because she uses the chief tool of readers everywhere: attention. If there were a means to discovering the realm of the unwritten, to tiptoe across the Cimmerian threshold, the golden bough of entry would be nothing but attentiveness.