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Sven Birkerts and Christopher Benfey in Conversation

My friend the writer Chris Benfey and I have for many years had conversations about chance, coincidence, and serendipity. Last summer we decided to have a correspondence on those themes. What started as a casual private back-and-forth soon enough found momentum and led to 100 exchanges (we agreed to that number as a cap). What follows are several excerpts from the opening volleys, here on influences of James Joyce, Seamus Heaney, and Wittgenstein on our thinking.

—Sven Birkerts

CHRISTOPHER BENFEY: You asked about loading the dice to encourage serendipity. As you know, in preparation to our trip to Ireland I’ve been reading about Wittgenstein’s time there. I found out in some article that Wittgenstein read Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man there, and that he particularly admired the long section on the Jesuit retreat. But what really moved me, in my haphazard research, was discovering Wittgenstein’s passion for the birds of Ireland—especially once he’d shifted his base of operations to the West of Ireland, and the coastal region around Killary Harbor, which he called, fondly, one of the last “pools of darkness” in Europe. I was delighted to find that my wife Mickey had booked a couple of nights within a half hour’s drive from Killary, so I might be able to visit the remote cottage where Wittgenstein lived and take a look at those birds myself.

Last night, I picked up Portrait, which I haven’t read since college, hence haven’t read, and patiently worked my way through the retreat section before flipping through the back pages. My eyes alighted on a passage I’d marked, as an undergraduate, “birds.” Stephen Dedalus, named for the craftsman of artificial wings, is thinking of leaving Ireland and the church, and he is fixated on a flock of birds, a dozen or so, shrill (the word is used four times in a couple of pages) and dipping here and there. He thinks of augury, divination via bird flight, and identifies his own trajectory with the birds for leaving their temporary nests, as he will soon leave his. Joyce specifies that Dedalus witnesses these swallows on Molesworth Street. The name rings a bell. I ask Mickey if that’s where our Dublin hotel, Buswells, is. She confirms that it is.

Loading the dice here entails something like this. I do some scattershot research on Wittgenstein in Ireland, inviting his sojourns there to haunt my own. “Nature is a haunted house,” writes Emily Dickinson. “Art is a house that tries to be haunted.” The main move, or throw of the dice, on my part is to follow Wittgenstein’s lead into Joyce’s Portrait, with some vague hope or trust that this venture will be repaid with some happy find. The find in this case is Dedalus’s visionary encounter with the birds on Molesworth Street. One might even come up with a name for the work that Joyce’s Portrait is doing here. Maybe it is the vehicle of serendipity.

But I hesitate to be too mindful, too analytical, about the mysterious process, since it is a key to serendipity’s success, its playing out, that the seeker is only half-conscious of what he or she might be looking for. One has to be a little stupid to do creative work. This necessary stupidity probably can’t be taught. You just have to know when and how to de-activate that analytical part of your brain, to trust in—well—serendipity. I seem to remember, dimly, that the three princes of Serendip, in the original Indian folktale, weren’t particularly bright. This collective dimness is part of the search.

What this process might have to do with beauty is mostly beyond me. I could imagine that a trust in serendipity is a trust that the (resistant) world might from time to time meet or match, in unexpected ways, our expectations. There might be a momentary fit—birds, Molesworth Street—between our heightened awareness, our receptive mood, and the world that suddenly meets us halfway. We might call this a justness, and just possibly a justice.

SVEN BIRKERTS: I see what good sport you’re having with your Irish avian echoings. That Wittgenstein and the imminent trip to Ireland sent you to your old copy of Portrait, and voila! there were the birds. I wonder if it occurred to you that you were sending me those Joycean thoughts on Bloomsday?

You might guess, having a sense of how my mind works, that I might soon enough flash on Joyce’s idea of the epiphany. The half-remembered quote is trying to surface: “Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?” I looked it up, of course. What it signifies I don’t quite know, but the music of the sentence has haunted me for years.

But really it’s the Joycean idea of the epiphany that I want to hover over now. His fascination with capturing moments within the seeming ordinary that carried some deeper intimation. Tugging at the protruding part of the root, I find the word is identified as Middle English, from the Greek epiphainein, meaning “reveal.” I think of it as a kind of lower-case revelation, a spark, an “aha,” something very much in key with everything we’re talking about here.

As for birds—auspices—what a nest of connections there. On a personal note, I remember that I had “Auspices” as the working title for my first book of essays until very late in the game. It was finally scotched by my editor for being too obscure. Why had I chosen it in the first place? I know I had some idea in those days that reading—and by extension criticism—was a kind of divining of the culture at large. After all, the flights of birds and the entrails of animals were being “read.” Surely my notions were more developed than that, but I can’t quite bring them back. But I do now make a stop at the word “divining,” wondering how it came to mean scrying.

Another search. It’s from the Latin “divinare,” to predict. But what’s the relation of that to the ‘divine’?  I find the root of divine, not surprisingly, to be “divus,” the Latin word for God. And I guess is doesn’t take much to make those links. But at this point I find myself wondering whether one can’t get as muddled by etymology as enlightened. So many times when words get entwined with one another, when almost every word in the line-up starts to look like a suspect (which itself comes, I find, from the Latin for “look from below”—and doesn’t that make a nice complement to the “standing over” of superstition?)

But “moving on”—as they say on all the news channels these days—I could not think about Ireland and birds without thinking of Seamus Heaney’s late poem, “The Blackbird of Glanmore,”which is all about omens, but, read after his death, is also itself ominous.  Here’s part of the poem. He is, you remember, referring to the loss of his younger brother, which he has also written about elsewhere:

And I think of one gone to him,
A little stillness dancer—
Haunter-son, lost brother –
Cavorting through the yard,
So glad to see me home,
My homesick first term over.

And think of a neighbour’s words
Long after the accident:
“Yon bird on the shed roof,
Up on the ridge for weeks—
I said nothing at the time
But I never liked yon bird.”

The automatic lock
Clunks shut, the blackbird’s panic
Is shortlived, for a second
I’ve a bird’s eye view of myself,
A shadow on raked gravel
In front of my house of life.

Hedge-hop, I am absolute
For you, your ready talkback,
Your each stand-offish comeback,
Your picky, nervy goldbeak—
On the grass when I arrive,
In the ivy when I leave.

We move from the memory of his brother and his tragic early death, to the neighbor later invoking the bird, this followed  by his self-imagining through  the bird’s eye, “a shadow on the raked gravel.” It gives me the shivers, I have to say.  But prophetic intimations aside, I also have to remark the associative track that gives the poem its structure. We are watching the poet’s mind in motion. More than that, the transitions give us a glimpse of his soul.  I think Heaney would have favored these lines from Stevens:

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

CB: Bloomsday! Epiphany! Those electric notions strike at my—and maybe also your—earliest commitments to literature. For me, they seem almost the primal scene itself. That green copy of Portrait of the Artist among the half-forbidden paperbacks (along with Naked Lunch and The Doors of Perception) in my brother’s bedroom. I can remember my first cautious sneak glimpse at the opening lines about the moocow and baby tuckoo. It seemed—still seems—a magic spell. Totally incomprehensible and totally significant. As Joyce still feels to me.

For just a moment, as I homed in on Stephen Dadelus and his flock of swallows on Molesworth Street, I thought, is this an epiphany? Meaning, is this one of the passages that Joyce scholars identify as an epiphany? And then, lost in my own sense of a small epiphany exploding in my Wittgenstein-Joyce-birds world, I dropped any curiosity about which passages were epiphanies in the novel and which were not. Anyway, who gets to say?

Of course, I’m also greatly moved, overwhelmed even, by Heaney’s poem on the blackbird and its association with accidents. The brother’s accidental death foreshadowing, for us, Heaney’s own death, which, since I knew him some, shadows my own impending trip to Ireland. It will be our first when he’s not there, not there, I mean, to be visited. Actually visited. How haunted it all feels.

What you say about etymology—our fascination with it and our slight resistance to it—reminded me of one of Stanley Cavell’s pronouncements. He said (and his formulations often took this form) that there are two kinds of philosophers of language, those who believe in the deep significance of etymology and those who don’t. Heidegger was the supreme example of a believer, always delving deeply into the dark origins of a word to discern and reveal its true and hidden meaning. Then Heidegger would say, with that (lovely) dark and deep confidence of his, “what this word speaks is this.” Thinking means thanking.

Wittgenstein was the other kind of philosopher. No less knowledgeable about word origins, he was interested instead in how words are used today, right now, in their “ordinary” uses. A word for Wittgenstein doesn’t mean what it originally meant, what its roots might mean, but what it means NOW, how it’s currently used in our daily exchanges.

When I asked Cavell to speak about Stevens at Mount Holyoke, for our symposium on Pontigny during World War II, he quoted the fifth section of “Thirteen Ways”:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

From this little puzzle, Cavell drew the theme of earliness, of being present to the world before our various prejudices, foreknowledge, biases, assumptions, and so on are frozen in place, dividing us from a primary or primal relation to the world. What we want instead, according to Cavell, is what Stevens called in section 22 of “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” an “original earliness.” This entails, as Cavell expressed it in his Mount Holyoke talk, finding ways “to get to objects, to get before objects, before they are given to us or dictated to us.”

I’m reminded that Cavell began his adult life as a jazz musician, committed to improvisation. Aren’t jazz musician always trying to get there early, just before the beat, before the given or the dictated (except by other musicians, in the moment) gets in the way?

SB: I’m so glad you threw the idea of earliness into the mix. It connects with so many of the things we’re circling around, some of them right there in what you wrote. The etymology question, for one. It seems to me (non-philosopher that I am) that a huge part of Heidegger’s enterprise was about getting back, going up the language stream to locate the founding vocabulary, and with it, the yet uncorrupted encounter. (“Every word was once a poem,” right?). The poet gets in closest to language, and therefore is closer to being.

In my younger and more hubristically optimistic days I thought that I would spend my later years learning ancient Greek, as if the real stuff—the true perception—was going to be found there, in the successive epiphanies that would mark the path to mastery. I see now that such study will probably remain another of those fantasies we generate in our youth.

After reading your comments on Joyce’s Portrait, on the spell thrown by those opening “tuckoo” sentences—which I, too, carried as a mostly meaningless singsong in my head ever after—I found myself wondering if part of what Joyce was doing there was using language to found Stephen’s story in origins, so that successive chapters could show him shedding that primary consciousness and letting the shades of the prison house (the nets) close around the young man—until he realized that to become an artist he would have to fly the nets. Interesting, too, how the verbal feel of those words echoes the “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s…” language of Finnegans Wake, the reading of which counts as another of those aforementioned fantasies.

I wonder if part of our pull toward these ideas of earliness doesn’t have to do with the fact that we are living in late-ness, post-modern and post- much else— all of us wrestling collectively with the sense that so much has been done and said, and the artistic question of “What can I add?  What has not been said?” How not be dreaming of—well, you brought up Gatsby earlier—the “fresh, green breast of the New World” that the Dutch sailors first encountered.

I often try to imagine how the world might have felt in former times. To do this I first go back to my own younger days and try to get back inside some of those mentalities. Of course, how the world seems is not to be separated from one’s own psychological stage in life. To a child so many things are unknown and mysterious. With time many of the mysteries begin to recede and by mid-life routine has bleared and smeared so many things. The days move forward in lock-step. Some of this has to do with just being older, but I also think it’s because the world has become so very rationalized. All those systems and grids and inescapable repetitions.

I’m trying here to get to another slant on these events, these serendipities. Maybe they resonate because they’re anomalies, because they stand out. Surprise crossings and echoings, little twinges that let us imagine a way of things outside the tyranny of patterns—reminding us, figuratively speaking, of a world as glimpsed by Dutch sailors.

I think I told you that I went back and re-read your “Apart Together,” that wonderful musing on distance that was at the same time an anthology of some of my favorite quotes—from Rilke, Karl Kraus, and Benjamin—all in some way expressing the idea of unattainability as a source of power. Missing from that list was Simone Weil’s  “Distance is the soul of beauty,” which would also fit the case you were making.

The piece sent me back to your early-on saying that resistance was integral to your sense of the serendipitous. That idea has chafed at me ever since, keeping its distance. I feel a big truth there, but I can’t quite work it out. And maybe it’s just not to be gotten at via the logical path. After all, as you wrote in “Apart Together”—the wise last line: “the shortest path between two points is serpentine.”

Still, I keep working the knot. Do you maybe mean that to be experienced as surprises these occasions need to stand out, they need to flash their exceptionality? What are they exceptions to? Maybe those systems, grids and repetitions I was just talking about. They would constitute the resistance. You’ll tell me if I’m barking up the wrong tree. I’m still thinking. Cogito ergo sum.

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