The Cosmic Pathway
The tony upper west side of Manhattan hosts a curious edifice known as the Rose Center for Earth and Space—a great glass cube within which enormous replicas of our solar system’s planets appear to levitate unassisted. The venue is arguably best known for its world-class Hayden Planetarium, but my favorite of its many mind-bending installations is something called “The Cosmic Pathway.” It’s a 360-foot trail that descends in a spiral and presents you with the 13-billion-year history of the universe. Its apex represents the Big Bang—the moment at which Nothing became Everything—and with each downward step you travel tens of millions of years through cosmological history toward our current position in space-time.
Placards along the railing illustrate your journey: here the first hydrogen atoms are born; here, millions of years later, the first stars explode into existence, spitting heavier elements into the void; here, billions of years later, the first planets form from fire and enter into precarious orbit. Down and down you go until finally, after taking over a hundred steps, you arrive at the bottom of the helix, where you find a small glass box displaying—on a canvas of white cotton—a single human hair. Beneath the box it says: The width of this hair represents how long humans have been here.
This is humbling, and also—for someone of my disposition—horrifying. We treat the width of that human hair as if it were something of great significance, but the human race just got here, and by all indications it will be gone before the universe can blink. Viral pandemics, food shortages, water shortages, fires so vast they are visible from space, wide-scale floods and wider-scale drought… humanity seems to be rushing toward its end at a visible clip, like one of those sped-up film-reels of flowers blooming (or, more appropriately, withering on the branch). But of course, we must manufacture—in order to live our lives—an illusion of stability and permanence. There’s no shame in that; making meaning from experience is a hardwired human trait. Objecting to it would be like asking bees to stop pollinating.
Nevertheless, from the time I was a child I’ve desperately wanted—or needed—to connect our species’ conventions and mores to something bigger, to feel like there was some eternal or cosmic truth to which we belonged. Otherwise, it seemed to me, our entire system of beliefs and the lives they informed unfolded in a tiny human vacuum; they were significant to us, but from the standpoint of the cosmos our ephemeral presence rounded to Zero. That human hair at the bottom of The Cosmic Pathway was like the single hair holding aloft the Sword of Damocles; one day soon it would snap, and our brief reign would end without ceremony.
In order for real meaning to emerge, we would have to have access to the cosmological truth, to the God’s-eye perspective. So, at least, has always run my despairing calculus.
This is meant to be, in its way, an essay about fiction writing, about why I am a writer and how fiction, in a very real sense, saved me from despair. But it may already be obvious that I came to fiction from an odd angle. I never, for instance, wanted to “tell stories,” as most writers did when they were kids. I didn’t grow up imagining that I would become a writer at all. Even when I was studying literature as an undergraduate, it never occurred to me that I might try to make the stuff.
Reading Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, what I felt was the kind of appreciation one feels for the ornate 19th-century stonework adorning Brooklyn brownstones: I knew I was in the presence of beautiful and baroque artifacts, but they did not feel relevant to the existential dread I spent my days managing, nor did they seem tied into the bewildering speed and excess of contemporary life.
The place where I did find an attempt to commune with Big Problems of Time and Space was not literature, but philosophy. I had hoped—like a lot of young people who study philosophy—to figure out how I should live, given my skepticism about the worth and validity of human systems. Philosophy was good for me in that it provided a more solid ground upon which I could tremble.
Immanuel Kant was especially instructive; he introduced to philosophy the idea that you could not talk about the world without talking about a subject through whom the world filtered. This limited our intuitions to the shape and form of a conceptual framework. When we talk about Truth and about Meaning, we are talking about Truth and Meaning for us, for human beings. Kant articulated my conundrum perfectly, but what was apparently a touchstone of philosophical progress was, for me, only a confirmation that I could never be whole.
The Austrian philosopher (and probably my biggest hero) Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that “language is a form of life,” and, relatedly, that “if a lion could speak you wouldn’t understand it.” After all, a lion’s world is vastly different from mine; its language would grow in accordance with the necessities of that lion-world, not this human one. Wittgenstein’s way of talking about language revealed that so many of the seemingly profound propositions that formed the philosophical canon were in fact mere nonsense. Philosophy, Wittgenstein said, was what happened when we became bewitched by language. It’s what happened when we tried to get language to do something it couldn’t do… to say something bigger than what it could say.
Wittgenstein cured me of the hope that philosophy could somehow expose the big, eternal truths that had otherwise eluded me. My jejune belief that I might somehow—through intellect or will—know the world as God might know it died its necessary death and left behind an emptiness, one that I would need to fill with something other than intellect. (And thank goodness, because I’m not a very smart person; whatever intelligence I possess is highly selective and finds a way to turn every problem into the Problematic this essay has thus far sought to articulate.) I may have been cured of a kind of wishful thinking, but I was still not okay with the fact that we had no access to “cosmic truth.” Our language was a form of life, sure, but it was also a cage from which we could never escape.
Wittgenstein famously suggested that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” It seemed that the objectivity (or “God-truth”) that I wanted so desperately to access wasn’t merely elusive; it was so far beyond our cage that we couldn’t even begin to speak about it. Be silent, W. said; there is nothing more to know.
But though I understood, in my bones, that Wittgenstein was right, I was unable to surrender the quest to express the truth that lay beyond his prescribed silence. Somewhere within those silent spaces lay God, and I wanted to scream bloody murder into them. And what I discovered—at least partly through my exposure to certain kinds of fiction I had not known, as a student of the 19th-century novel, existed—was that while philosophy could beautifully describe the shape and dimensions of our human cage, only art could rattle its bars.
This epiphany arrived in my final year as an undergraduate, when I took a class with the then relatively unknown writer Rick Moody, who was a fan of the experimental or postmodern school of literature—a thing I had not previously encountered. My experience of fiction had been confined to canonical college-level texts and escapist science-fiction novels (the latter of which helped me survive my awful adolescence). But what I found in the texts I was exposed to via Moody was a kind of meaning that wasn’t connected to storytelling. In the fictions of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme and Angela Carter I found a kind of narrative fracture or instability that had little to do with the actual content of the stories, and more to do with a kind of formal resistance to human systems.
In fact, one story from those days, Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter,” remains on my teaching syllabus 20 years later, and I am fond of telling students that it changed my life. It’s a cold story. There isn’t a verifiable character to be found in its pages, and the “plot” is ridiculous: a bunch of toxically masculine dudes are lusting after a babysitter. But the reason the story meant so much to me is that its self-devouring structure felt a lot like my own brain patterns. Every time a “truth” is arrived at in “The Babysitter,” it is immediately swapped out for a different truth, a different reality. There is no central or objective source of authority. The story, in other words, felt to me like the struggle I was going through to find or express something “universally verifiable.” It seemed to be aimed directly into those silent spaces that Wittgenstein had warned me against trying to infiltrate.
The quantum structure of “The Babysitter” didn’t resemble the organization or the logic of “real life.” That was the reason it could have its unsettling effect on me, an effect less connected to what the story said than to how it behaved. It felt (for lack of a better term) “God-sized” to me.
I’m not saying that Coover is some religious writer. He’s a postmodern trickster. He loves to play games, to mess with readerly expectations. But his method opened up a door that led to many rooms: to Beckett, to Borges, to Anne Carson and Italo Calvino, to Cormac McCarthy and John Hawkes and Clarice Lispector. Everything I have ever loved in literature has beat against the rim of our conceptual framework, trying desperately to cast a few syllables out into that space whereof we (supposedly) cannot speak.
Readers who have followed me this far might be glad to know that we have arrived at the portion of this essay where I talk about fiction writing, and more specifically, about how and why some writers and readers gravitate toward—or even need—unconventional and ambitious kinds of fiction. If you are suspicious of systems… if you feel as if every story you read is sort of missing the point… if fiction seems to you to be failing to register the problem suggested by the Cosmic Pathway’s human hair… then you begin seeking out a kind of fiction that has the capacity to howl. (I find myself thinking here of Bob Marley’s boast: I don’t come to beg, I come to conquer.)
Universality Over Individuality: Some Examples
I acknowledge that what I am searching for in literature bears little resemblance to what most people are searching for. I am not trying to prescribe how others should read, nor am I belittling the kinds of work that are most loved by the most people. Romance novels, detective novels, thrillers, big fantasy series… I am glad that people read these and derive joy and comfort from them. They may not satisfy my deepest needs as a reader, but then neither do the novels of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. I’m not saying that Austen wasn’t a great writer. Of course, she was! But her novels are written from within the deep interior of the cage I’ve been describing; she isn’t worried about Objective Truth or the unknowability of the “world as it is.” Why should she be? She’s actually interested in people’s lives, whereas I seem to be interested in what people are, in more universal terms, and how our limited faculties generate a matrix-like illusion. If anyone here suffers deformities of character and perspective, Dear Reader, c’est moi!
This isn’t an essay about how great fiction looks or behaves; it’s an essay about how a person like me—skeptical of systems and at risk of lapsing into dangerous nihilism—can be saved by texts that hint at something bigger than what we can know directly.
But so what do these texts look like? How do they behave? It’s easy to say (as I often have) that “I know it when I see it,” which while true is also lame and a failure of conviction. In the next section of this essay, I hope to give a few examples of works that seem to “refuse to serve,” and that howl out into the Wittgensteinian silence. This list will not be exhaustive but exemplary; there is no set of prerequisites for the appearance of this type of fiction, which floats above the identity-driven, socially-attuned method of fiction-making that tops most of the literary bestseller lists these days. I begin with a high-literary rendition of the Western.
In the following incantatory passage from Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece, Blood Meridian, I feel the thrill of divine disinterest:
That night they rode through a region electric and wild where strange shapes of soft blue fire ran over the metal of the horses’ trappings and the wagonwheels rolled in hoops of fire and little shapes of pale blue light came to perch in the ears of the horses and in the beards of the men. All night sheetlightning quaked sourceless to the west beyond the midnight thunderheads, making a bluish day of the distant desert, the mountains on the sudden skyline stark and black and livid like a land of some other order out there whose true geology was not stone but fear. The thunder moved up from the southwest and lightning lit the desert all about them, blue and barren, great clanging reaches ordered out of the absolute night like some demon kingdom summoned up or changeling land that come the day would leave them neither trace nor smoke nor ruin more than any troubling dream.
McCarthy here (and nearly everywhere) employs parataxis, a style in which clauses accumulate with speed and unpredictability. He eschews the subordinating conjunctions that define the opposing style, hypotaxis. McCarthy doesn’t say, “While riding through a region electric and wild, the men noticed lightning storms quaking in the western sky.” Rather, using the coordinating conjunction “and,” he stacks action and description with a rhapsodic relentlessness. (Sometimes when I read his work aloud I fear I may accidentally summon a demon.)
McCarthy’s relentless use of coordinating conjunctions and his lengthy rhythmic festoons have some deep roots. Here, for instance, is the opening of the First Book of Moses, Commonly Called Genesis (emphasis mine):
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good and God separated the light from the darkness and God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
Here we see the same comma-less, coordinating-conjunction heavy parataxis. One of the reasons McCarthy can seem to be creating a world from scratch on the page, is that he is echoing a text that claims to chronicle the literal creation of a world from scratch.
McCarthy’s work is about many things, but one of them is almost indisputably the universe’s hostility toward man. Blood Meridian explodes over and over with horrific violence, then returns to a meaningless trek on horseback across cracked desert landscapes. In applying Old Testament stylings to a message that is, at times, opposite the one Genesis aims to deliver, McCarthy is simultaneously glorifying our religious myths and suggesting their total inadequacy or incorrectness. It creates a global kind of dissonance, which may be why I can read his sentences, devoid of all surrounding context, and be chilled to the bone.
The feeling created by bringing these two unlike things into close contact is much more powerful than anything McCarthy is actually saying. His profound dissonance vibrates out into those spaces that Wittgenstein warned us against trying to penetrate. But of course, McCarthy’s hyper-masculine (and often brutal) writing has no aesthetic or philosophical monopoly on this effect. He’s not the only one aware of that hair at the bottom of the Cosmic Pathway.
Autobiography of Red
The sui generis Anne Carson’s “novel-in-verse,” Autobiography of Red, is a miniature masterpiece of both language and form—a bizarre re-conceptualization of a story attributed to Stesichoros, an obscure ancient Greek poet who chronicled Herakles’s slaughter of a red monster named Geryon, who lived on a red island, accompanied by his red dog and the “corresponding red breezes.”
The book’s deeply strange front matter includes an essay identifying adjectives as the lynchpin between the novel and the epic, and a flow chart inviting you to decode the attitude of the Greek Gods toward Stesichoros’s writing. More remarkably, a series of fragments from Stesichoros’s original text are translated here, in these early appendices, by Carson herself (who is a classical Greek scholar). Here’s one:
XV. TOTAL THINGS KNOWN ABOUT GERYON
He loved lightning He lived on an island His mother was a
Nymph of a river that ran to the sea His father was a gold
Cutting tool Old scholia say that Stesichoros says that
Geryon had six hands and six feet and wings He was red and
His strange cattle excited envy Herakles came and
Killed him for his cattle
The dog too
Eventually Carson descends into the novel proper, where she imagines a modern version of Stesichoros’ Geryon, a boy growing up somewhere in Canada with a sexually abusive brother and a loving, but ultimately ineffectual, mother. Carson’s Geryon is somehow both a little red monster with wings, and an artistically-tempered adolescent who ultimately falls in love with a young man named—naturally—Herakles. He is both the subject of a novel (and thus possessed of free will), and the death-object in an unchanging epic (and thus destined to be destroyed in perpetuity). The strangest part is that Geryon knows about this conflation. He is haunted by the epic poem from which he’s been airlifted, and by Stesichoros’ rendition of his death.
Early in the text—about 25 pages removed from the above-excerpted fragment—Geryon accompanies his mother to an elementary school parent/teacher conference, at which the teacher shares some of Geryon’s writing (which you see here):
Total Facts Known About Geryon
Geryon was a monster everything about him was red. Geryon lived
on an island in the Atlantic called The Red Place. Geryon’s mother
was a river that runs to the sea the Red Joy River Geryon’s father
was gold. Some say Geryon had six hands six feet some say wings.
Geryon was red so were his strange red cattle. Herakles came one
day killed Geryon got the cattle.
(The teacher goes on to ask, “Does he ever write anything with a happy ending?”)
I’ve intentionally chosen the least subtle example of a structural mirroring that occurs constantly and stirs powerful crosscurrents: between the ancient and the modern; between the mundane and the grotesque; between deadly knowledge and blissful ignorance; between the mortality of living things and the immortality of literary characters.
The book is finely crafted (Carson is a master of “white space,” and while her miniature chapters tend to take in fewer than five minutes of experience, months and years will often pass between chapters; Wittgensteinian silence is built into the very structure of her book), but craft alone could not engineer a book that vibrates so violently. In suggesting that time is both already written and finished, AND always unfolding and subject to our decisions, Carson has created something new and startling, a text both assonant in its plot structure and dissonant in its meaning. Its vibration hums out into the silence like the rumblings of a just-awakening volcano.
A Poetics for Bullies
It would be difficult to find a narrator more determined to rail against his own cage than Push the Bully, in Stanley Elkin’s miraculous story, “A Poetics for Bullies.” Elkin employs the word “poetics” in its Aristotelian form, to mean the art or the essence of something. Here is the story’s opening:
I’m Push the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys and kids who pass pencils and water the plants—and cripples, especially cripples. I love nobody loved.
One time I was pushing this red-haired kid (I’m a pusher, no hitter, no belter; an aggressor of marginal violence, I hate real force) and his mother stuck her head out the window and shouted something I’ve never forgotten. “Push,” she yelled. “You, Push. You pick on him because you wish you had his red hair!” It’s true; I did wish I had his red hair. I wish I were tall, or fat, or thin. I wish I had different eyes, different hands, a mother in the supermarket. I wish I were a man, a small boy, a girl in the choir. I’m a coveter, a Boston Blackie of the heart, casing the world. Endlessly I covet and case. (Do you know what makes me cry? The Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal.” That’s beautiful.)
The story ends up being “about” a battle between Push the Bully, “God of the neighborhood,” and a new kid at school, John Williams, who is the ultimate do-gooder and seems determined to rid the world of all the same flaws that Push the Bully has made it his life’s work to exploit. On the one hand, it’s a highly approachable story about two kids who hate each other and must eventually fight. On the other hand, it is about the decision Lucifer makes in Paradise Lost: “It is better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven.”
During the story’s final scene, as Push and John Williams finally engage each other on the schoolyard blacktop, Push spits out the words: “Indulger. Dispense me no dispensations! Push the Bully hates your heart!” He is talking to John Williams, sure, but he also seems to be speaking to the God whose own perfection is nowhere to be found in the creatures he has sadistically animated.
When I share this story with students, I have to lead them past their initial observation that “no bully would really talk like this.” Of course, the friction in the piece derives from this obvious, almost mathematical given. No bully would talk like this, but Push does. He becomes both a character who you desperately root for, and the embodiment of human resistance to an oppressive divine homogeneity. And he will not be silenced.
I began this essay by talking about my journey from philosophy to fiction. One writer who was with me during the most important part of this trip was the Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges. The stories in his famous collection, Labyrinths, are so perfectly executed that they feel like mathematical formulations. They play with ideas of time, infinity, and repetition, and drive the human mind right up against the limits of what it can hold. Every story in the collection challenges our assumptions about what literature is and can be, as Borges dismantles the idea that individuals are special, that selfhood is inviolable.
In “The Circular Ruins” a man attempts to dream another man into existence; he succeeds, but the price he pays is the discovery that he himself was so dreamed. In “Funes the Memorius,” Borges imagines a man whose eidetic memory contains everything he has ever seen and experienced in minute detail; the story reveals to us that memory cannot work this way and does not provide a safe hideout for the self. But the piece that perhaps meant the most to me in Labyrinths is the short parable at its end, titled “Borges and I,” which begins like so:
The other one, the one called Borges, is the one things happen to. I walk through the streets of Buenos Aires and stop for a moment, perhaps mechanically now, to look at the arch of entrance hall and the grillwork on the gate; I know of Borges from the mail and see his name on a list of professors or in a biographical dictionary. I like hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typography, the taste of coffee and the prose of Stevenson; he shares these preferences, but in a vain way that turns them into the attributes of an actor.
This little parable has the feeling of a confessional, even as it systematically dissolves its author, reduces him to a set of perceived qualities. What are we, beyond these perceptions? Can we claim our own individuality, or is selfhood an illusion sustained by language and convention? Schopenhauer once tried to formulate an answer to this question. He said, “An infinite time has passed before my birth. What was I during this time? Metaphysically, it might be answered, ‘I was always I’; that is, all who during that time said ‘I’ were just ‘I.’”
“Borges and I” ends with these chilling lines:
Years ago I tried to free myself from him and went from the mythologies of the suburbs to the games with time and infinity, but those games belong to Borges now and I shall have to imagine other things. Thus my life is a flight and I lose everything and everything belongs to oblivion, or to him.
I do not know which of us has written this page.
Borges’s fiction is completely unconcerned with any of the things that much of contemporary literary fiction obsesses over. Social justice, intersectionality, individuality, the “stay in your lane” nature of identity-driven thought and writing… these become ridiculous in the Borgesian paradigm. To many, his work seems cold, dusty, irrelevant. But for a few, it is a powerful howl into a void most humans aren’t aware exists.
The Terrifying Spaces of the Universe
These four examples—chosen after an enormous amount of equivocating—do not begin to exhaust the parameters for the kind of cage-defying fiction I’ve attempted to discuss here. The necessary shock to the system can occur via a presumably limitless number of formal or aesthetic approaches. A certain percentage of these might qualify as “experimental,” and might alienate many (or most) readers.The defining characteristic of the works that, for me, refuse Wittgenstein’s call for silence, is that they value mystery, dissonance, and universality over explanation, assonance, and individuality.
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, for instance—one of my favorite books—is… esoteric. Structured after a mathematical construct called the Fibonacci Sequence, the book features a running conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan; it is framed as Polo’s description of the myriad cities in Khan’s empire but is in fact a deep dive into the nature of language and the (un)knowability of the world. To me, it is sheer sorcery.
But I sometimes feel the same power coursing through books written for children. I remember, for instance, encountering as a precocious kindergartener a picture book narrated by Grover (of Sesame Street fame) called The Monster at the End of this Book. Grover attempts to convince you not to turn pages (so as to avoid confronting the titular monster), unaware that he is that monster. This, of course, is supposed to be a funny metafictional lark; it chilled me to the bone. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the witch is permitted to execute Aslan according to rules of magic that are as old as time. But Aslan is able to return because he has access to a magic even older than time. (!)
The defining characteristic of the works that, for me, refuse Wittgenstein’s call for silence, is that they value mystery, dissonance, and universality over explanation, assonance, and individuality. (Robert Smithson: “Establish enigmas, not explanations.”) These works do not come to serve our systems; they come to conquer, or at least resist, them.
This is what I search literature for. When I read (or write) fiction, it’s not to tell stories; it’s to try to get above stories, the way an extraterrestrial spacecraft might hover above human societies. I understand how strange a preoccupation this is. But I am unable to experience literature without knowledge of The Cosmic Pathway’s cosmic truth. I am unable to forget that the human world in its entirety exists beneath Damocles’ dangling sword.
I live my life within the circle of humanity; I am a father, a husband, a teacher. But I do so with a sense, as Pascal once said, “of the terrifying spaces of the universe hemming me in.” In acknowledging these spaces, there is the possibility of art, and of survival.