The Short Version: An ABC Book|
by Stan Persky
Post Your Opinion
by John Harris
In "ABC Books", which is the preface and "conveniently" (since Persky is not interested in ABBA) the first entry of this book, Persky mentions a friend who questions the idea of writing a book in imitation of and homage to Czeslaw Milosz's ABC's. To credibly write such a book of aphorisms, sketches, essays, and stories that are all intended to rescue an older person's private world from immanent death, the friend asks, "Wouldn't you have to be as famous as Milosz?"
What's being suggested in other words, is that a personal world is capable of being rescued from obscurity only if the person in question is famous. Fame draws that person's otherwise obscure parents, friends, comrades, colleagues, lovers, haunts, etc., into the limelight, and a set of otherwise random circumstances-even one presented in alphabetical sequence rather than a narrative, and in assorted marginal genres rather than autobiographically-comes together like destiny, has a point, becomes a story. Only a story or a point can be memorable enough to protest what Milosz calls "the insult of death", which, as he says in his own book, under "Adam and Eve", is the original curse, the expulsion from the paradise of immortality.
The unnamed friend's question is a touch stupid- naturally Persky is going to try with this book, as he has with all of his other books, to make himself famous. And, naturally, the successful completion of the book is essential to this purpose. The question is also a touch insulting. Persky is famous, at least in B.C. (where I live), so that his reclamation of personal history will have a point for many; it will be interesting as an elucidation and further manifestation of his role as B.C.'s affable, egg-shaped-and-headed, big-eared, bald (see "Bald"), social democratic (see "Dave Barrett") and Jewish (see "Birth" and, for the downside, "Buchenwald" and "Budapest/Bucharest") Socrates (see "Capilano College").
Strangely (unless you know that Persky is Socrates), Persky pronounces that his friend's question is "astute". He humbly notes that, to make up for his own obscurity and to account for a choice of persons, places, and topics that would ordinarily seem "idiosyncratic" and therefore not memorable, "the writing would have to be 'interesting'."
Again, unless you're thinking of Socrates, Persky's response seems dumber than the question. Isn't it a tautology, something that Persky, a professor of philosophy, should be astute enough to avoid? Isn't it like saying, "To make up for my lack of fame and thus succeed in giving my past a point, I would have to get famous?" And if the word "writing" is taken in its narrower sense to mean "style" as opposed to "something written" (Webster's), Persky's remark begins to sound bizarre-as if he's declaring, "My startling metaphors, apt words, and well-constructed sentences will be the point of this necessarily idiosyncratic sequence of topics."
And what of the quote marks around "interesting", which indicate that Persky's aware that the word, like "precious" (see "Roland Barthes"), does double duty? Persky likes such words (Barthes calls them "amphibologies") and often draws attention to them. But why would he do so in this instance?
Read on. "Aboutism", the next entry, chronologically as well as alphabetically as it turns out (see "Out of Order"-between "Berg" and "Berger"), contains the answers. Aboutism is a movement started by Persky's poet friend George Stanley, the "undeniable star" of Persky's Buddies, the friend who hurtfully and helpfully accuses Persky of devotion to the "cult of the phallus" as opposed to "activities of general social significance". Stanley is good at shocking and/or enticing people back to reality.
Aboutists, or Aboutistas in their more radical manifestations, hold that a literary work, and therefore an author's life, should have a point. "Aboutism" takes on, for example, Language Poetry because such poetry, in trying to eliminate "the authorial voice" with its presumptuous inclination to seek truth in the purely personal, ends up eliminating the world, becoming irreferential and so incomprehensible and therefore marginal. Omit the "I" and its focused (however badly) view of "World" and "World" disappears entirely. All you have left to communicate is style.
Aboutism reveals that the "antinomies" expressed in Persky's statement about his planned book, as stupid as they seem to be on their own, are together essential to any writing, whether interesting or "interesting". Indeed, the entry on Aboutism explains that the same antinomies go into every act of creation, including (in this entry) lecturing, the presumptuous act that Persky and Stanley do for a living. The lecturer, like Socrates, treats every question as astute, and pleads his own ignorance, thankful to have educed any response that can serve to budge the student towards learning that appears self-activated rather than imposed.
Persky cautions, though, that Aboutism has not entirely swept the intellectual and cultural worlds off their feet, and has been weakened by acrimonious internal debate respecting what the movement is about. In fact, Stanley has announced that Aboutism is over, and has proposed an academic conference (as yet unscheduled) on the topic "Aboutism: What Was It All About?"
To sum up, in his preface Persky vows that The Short Version, even if it is truncated at the entry "Continued" ("conveniently," Persky doesn't visit Copenhagen), will be "complete" and "interesting". That is, successful or not, it will take the chance of making a point about things, including itself. In fact, its success will be the point of its account of Persky's personal life.
But maybe you are not entirely comforted by Persky's evident commitment to Aboutism. Maybe you suspect him of favouring the French version, pronounced "a-boo-tisme", with its idea that a text can be about itself. He's too fond of name-dropping, for one thing. And the names have funny letters in them (see "Alphabet") that Persky just loves to roll around in his mouth. Also, he likes Barthes. Further on, there's an entry "Bibliography", that suggests we would perhaps be better people if we read all these books that Persky loves, many of them by the people with hard-to-pronounce names. Still later, at entry, "Out of Order", Persky tells us that the inner anarchist in him, though he hates political anarchists, just has to subvert his "system" when something true to life demands inclusion. (This something turns out to be a bird that flies into Persky's study, projecting him into a "spot of time". The entry could go under "Bird", since it's irrelevant for us to know that it happened while Persky was pondering "Berg" and "Berger". It seems that Persky doesn't think we can appreciate his spot of time if we don't have our noses shoved into it.)
Maybe these things feel like the scalding breath of ego in your face. Maybe you fear pomo texts that "make the 'I' into a contested site" and, not just incidentally, an object of attention. Maybe you find the "pleasures of the text" equivalent to those of enduring dental surgery.
Fear not. Persky's preface, acknowledgements, bibliography, leading questions, and pointedly illustrative narratives are teacherly, not postmodern, and this ABC book is not just Vol. I of an encyclopaedia but also a teacher's aid, like Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading. While he loves Barthes for his contrarian intelligence (Socrates again), he is not interested in writing a tour de force or in introducing complexities. He is discursive, even rambling. He wants to make a point by involving the reader, which means he has to step out of the reader's way, not into it. His style draws no attention to itself, unless one stops to reflect on the amazing clarity with which it illustrates a point.
Persky, like his editor and partner (in dooneyscafe), Brian Fawcett (see "Acknowledgements"), regards writing not exactly as liberating but as "morally redemptive": "I have the odd notion," Persky writes, "that writing redeems some of whatever it is we do in the world that might otherwise be seen as private, idiosyncratic, or merely self-serving . . . I'm frankly puzzled by people who don't 'double' their lives, as I call it, by writing about them." "Double" in the sense of extend and in the sense of intensify. Writing helps both Persky and Fawcett figure things out, and it communicates that redemptive and memorable view of the world to readers.
Persky's Socratic inclination (Fawcett's is more polemical) is illustrated in "Bangkok". The faith in the morally redemptive qualities of writing is stated while Persky portrays himself at the Malaysia Hotel in Bangkok's Twilight Alley. There, with the other sex tourists, he buys boys. Talk about antinomies! Talk about contrarian intelligence! This essay, when it first appeared in Geist, elicited, as Persky no doubt hoped it would, a vehement response from his audience.
Some readers cried out for Persky to say whether or not he experienced any moral quandaries about buying sex from young, poor, foreign men. Others objected to his treating sex as a consumer product. Persky "glibly" (see "Chicago") responded that their concerns were merely puritanical in that the circumstances of male homosexuality are different. The debate raged on. Different from what? How different?
This is what Persky is famous for in B.C., and crucial fragments of this part of his life are in this book dragged back from obscurity-from his work as a columnist in Georgia Straight, Voice, the Grape, the Sun, and Geist (to name only a few of his regular venues), to his activities on the Gay Liberation Front and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, to his part in establishing a college in Terrace, to his relationships with George Stanley, George Bowering, and Robin Blaser (see "Bowering" and "Blaser").
The second last entry and real conclusion of the book is "Contingency", an account of Richard Rorty's philosophy which, Persky says, is pretty well his philosophy. Here Persky cuts to the chase and gives us the ABC of Truth as he sees it.
Rorty is Kant with modern illustrations; Persky has said, in one of his Sun articles, that Kant is the greatest of modern philosophers. Persky chides Rorty for breaking with Kant and claiming that scientific propositions convey no more certainty than moral or aesthetic ones. Persky points out that the order that science confirms and puts into mathematical and geometrical terms, while it doesn't tell us anything about God, does pull us away from a "god-dunnit" approach to nature and morality. This is the approach, Persky says, that America is taking; it's moving from Benjamin Franklin to Billy Graham. The Yankees-like Rorty-are losing the Civil War, possibly because they are pulling back from science, from reality.
And science anticipates-as does our sense of the beauty of the world and the art we make-a moral order that we can as yet generate only contextually and moment by moment. Science and art are not antagonists.
Otherwise, Rorty, like Kant and Socrates, is a great admirer of democracy, which embodies the antinomies of self and other in political systems that feature forums of debate, methods of achieving consensus, and the rule of law. Persky believes, above all, in democracy.
This book is a contribution to progress and sanity. It goes well beyond "interesting". It is, to continue with the amphibologies, "engaging".