✨✅ VIBE CHECK: obviously a metaphor
new moonboard - on structure, "nightwood" & yiddish jazz
Four years ago, I climbed the steps of an apartment building in East London every Wednesday afternoon. And every Wednesday afternoon, I would sit in a small, white room across from a man named Lucas for 50 minutes. Lucas was my therapist and, based on the fact that all my friends quickly knew his name and his thoughts about life, he was a damn good one.
One day, in the late spring when I felt I had nothing to bring to the session and the sun was shining bright through the courtyard window, I took the opportunity to ramble to Lucas about my problems with the writing course I’d been taking. I complained to him about the distinctly writerly problems of:
trying to find a cohesive through-line in the plot
trying to find some long-running, meaningful symbol for the story
being concerned with what people would think of the “narrator”
(trying to ignore the moment in workshop when a classmate said they found the narrator entirely unlikable!)
finding myself, as a writer, paralyzingly incapable of structure.
We talked about this piece of writing for at least five minutes until Lucas said, “So, obviously, this is a metaphor for life that we’re talking about.”
Reader, it had absolutely not been a metaphor in my head. Blood rushed to my cheeks and the room began to spin. But I nodded to confirm oh yes yes, of course. Obviously a metaphor.
It was one of several instances when Lucas assumed that I possessed a level of self-awareness that, to be frank, I lacked. As I came to discover: self-analytical is not the same as self-aware.
I think about this moment often but it’s come rushing back into mind this week as I’ve become completely absorbed by Djuna Barnes’ “Nightwood” (pub. 1937). It’s 180 pages of pure poetry that rewards constant re-reading. (A friend recently mentioned that she’s read it at least nine times in the last five years.)
There’s one section of the book called “Watchman, What of the Night?” that is particularly stunning. I’ve already re-read it several times. And recently, I stumbled onto Google and discovered that the title of this section comes from the bible, specifically the book of Isaiah.
While the standard translation has been “Watchman, what of the night?” some newer translations clarify the question. See the New International Version:
Someone calls to me from Seir,
“Watchman, what is left of the night?
Watchman, what is left of the night?”
The watchman replies,
“Morning is coming, but also the night.
If you would ask, then ask;
and come back yet again.”
Of course, the context of this passage is some extremely biblical shit. Old Testament. Black and white morals. There’s a bloodbath in Babylon, blah blah blah.
So how compelling that this line was taken for one of the most philosophical chapters of a modernist lesbian novel.
In the chapter, a jilted lover goes to seek the advice of the neighborhood doctor (a man who tends to expound upon any topic posed to him) and he asks, “Have you ever thought of the night?”
The doctor spends the next 25 pages talking about night until, by the end of the chapter, night is everything real and the day is what’s irrelevant. I’ll spare you a recap of the night speech, however I do want to paste one quote here because it keeps ringing through my head:
“We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality. We sleep in a long reproachful dust against ourselves. We are full to the gorge with our own names for misery. Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death. We were created that the earth might be made sensible of her inhuman taste; and love that the body might be so dear that even the earth should roar with it. Yes, we who are full to the gorge with misery should look well around, doubting everything seen, done, spoken, precisely because we have a word for it and not its alchemy.”
So, obviously, night is a metaphor — in both “Nightwood” and, I would venture to say, the Book of Isaiah. (Even Lucas, he’d talk about “the dark night of the soul” in our sessions. Although, to be fair, he was a transpersonal psychologist.)
But what is night a metaphor for?
I’ve been trying, lately, to give myself permission to analyze not for truth but for possibility — by which I mean, opening to the idea that there are many more meanings for symbols than the first one I feel.
If you would ask, then ask;
and come back yet again.
I think this is the only level of self-awareness to which I can honestly aspire: becoming more aware of my tendency to close off to possibility. I tend to go through the days, analyzing for the perfect (read: right) interpretations of what I see, hear, do, and feel. Then, quickly, move onto the next subject. But I don’t think that’s the right way to approach metaphor, by which I obviously mean life.
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