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Tuesday, February 2, 1999
By Paul Ford
A few absolutely shitty literary thoughts.
I have great plans for Ftrain, but of course they take too long to execute, and in the meantime, there's a muddle of text, disorganized "books," ideas all over the place. I am trying to focus, but my desires get in the way.
I suffer from many small fixations, and I feel that they all fit together--but I don't know how. I have a fantasy that when I find that convergence, I become real. Here are some of the things I do: I cut up sounds and paste them back together. I write stories. I study branding and advertising. I don't believe in God. I can't control my weight. I am scared of my family. I am numb. I love my girlfriend, but feel afraid of her power over me. I talk too much.
I used to think that my life was about text, the pure and abstract construction of letters into words and words into thoughts. It's not. I think the theme, the real basis for me and my acts is trying to figure out what people are really saying, what they feel, so that I can make sense of it. I want to resolve ambiguity, to make the connection between what people say and what they mean. I am always amazed at my own capacity to lie, to fabricate a truth based on my emotions and lusts, devoid of empirical study.
I dwell on this topic, and a few months ago a small insight came out of that dwelling: our culture, any culture, is just people talking. Absolutely everything we believe in and hold true can be traced back to a conversation between individuals, or an inner discussion, people talking things over in market squares and on stone walls. Maybe this is why the classic philosophical form is the dialogue, the revelatory chat; the ancient philosophers admitted that the source of knowledge was simply discourse.
Write down the cream of the chatter on paper or stone and it becomes real. It becomes a book, no longer ephemeral, easier to trust. Now that it is pinned down, it can be spread to the masses, and then freely interpreted, correlated, and placed into new contexts, yielding new conversations, some of which are in turn written down. As a result we can have 10,000 kinds of Christianity and as many kinds of soda. The old words become the foundation of our new conversations; we identify them as dogma through the lens of our present vision, so that there 10,000 different dogmas, each one as real as the next.
Why are we willing to give mere words such weight? Maybe because human culture waits packaged for you when you're born, so it's easy to assume that the world is right, that the faith you were born into is the correct one, that the ideas your parents gave you were correct. Or you might reject those ideas, and look for others which offer an appealing contrast. Either way, it's all arrived from people talking. Shakespeare competes and is merged with email; the Bible belongs to both Jerry Falwell and Martin Luther King.
What this means, to me, is that human culture doesn't mean anything more than humans. There is no Star Trek manifest destiny other than the one we make, no heavenly father other than the one we imagined. There is no definition of art other than the one individuals choose to accept. There is nothing new under the stars.
I know these are not new ideas, but they're mine, and I write from them, so I'm dumping them into my phosphorus screen. What 's more, I can't offer a resolution; this essay has no end. I'm an atheist and sad about it. It is wildly painful to see my frail grandfather on morphine, realizing that he's destined for decomposition, not transcendence. There is no soul, just a body. I have a religion, I suppose, in literature, in reading, in believing that words can heal, that they can be used to arrive not at truth, which is always so relative, but at something between truth that allows people to see themselves, a mirror out of the alphabet.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan....you know the rest.
The important thing, for me, is to track my progress, so that I do not repeat myself, so that I know where I came from. At home I stole pictures of myself from my mother's photo albums, because I don't have any of my own, after leaving home at 16 as the ward of a philanthropic boarding school. I don't know where I came from--not just genealogy, but personal history. Whole months and years are gray already, disappearing.
Ftrain is a tracking tool, my way to learn about what I believe, to discover my own territories. My manifest destiny is inward. This does not mean I'll tell the truth, but rather that I'll try not to repeat myself, to keep learning. I want to keep a record of each idea as it appears, so tonight, I entered all of Ftrain into CVS, the Concurrent Versions System program that comes with most Unix systems. As entries are edited, documents edited, changes made, CVS will mark the arrival every new character and idea. I'll have a large, mappable statement of each day's additions and deletions, annotated with my motives and moods.
CVS is intended for computer programs, so Ftrain becomes ftrain-1.1, the very first version. Eventually the progress will branch; new characters will appear, old ideas will be edited away. I will want to erase whole entries, smudging out that part of my life. But the text will remain embedded firmly into its timeline, immutable, immune to the gray patches currently in my head. The computer will file my ideas, good and bad, old and new, into a kind of database. By carefully crafting queries for myself, as time goes on and I continue to write, I'll be able to search for my own past, despite any creases in my skin or dead nerves in my folded brain.