This will sound weird but I want to talk to you directly, across time and space, conjure a kind of immediacy. This is words moving from my mind through my fingers onto the page. To your mind. The idea is, see if you can notice what’s happening while you read, in your brain.
By the way, thanks for opening this email. Thanks for being a “subscriber” even if technically maybe you never consciously decided to be one, never sought this out at all, have only the most vague and sketchy attachment to any of it.
Thanks for not being an unsubscriber, is what I mean to say. I love you for that.
Do you notice how the words I’m writing, even as you’re reading them, acting on them with cognitive intent, doing something of your own free will, are at the same time acting on you, acting in you? These “words” have a kind of power over you. They’re holding your face between two hands, tugging at your consciousness, leading it along. It’s sort of amazing. Letters in groups. Black shapes on a field of white. An old technology, hardly characterized as a technology at all, now tethered to more modern inventions—converted to numbers (more unheraleded technology), pushed through servers and switches, translated back again, undergoing a series of complicated processes bleep blorp—but at root still just an array of agreed-on shapes, shuffled into words, vessels of meaning.
Black figures crawling across a field of pure white.
I have recently become hyper aware of this, examining the function even as it’s happening, toggling between the meanings, and the means, of words. One doesn’t often notice it, the uncanny power of these shapes on this blank expanse, the distant influence they can exercise over your mind. Telekenisis maybe. Say I click over to some different words, a tab open to the news. I am reading an article in the New York Times. An essay somewhere. A tweet. The undertow of those words. The meaning of them, in sequence, overtaking me, bringing annoyance (usually), delight (rarely), distraction (God, yes), acting on my brain, altering the state of my internal chemistry, producing feelings. A laugh. A tension. Rage. Anxiety.
Black figures crawling
Stochastic terrorism is a concept developed by a risk management consultant named Gordon Woo, whom Newsweek dubbed the “world’s leading catastrophist.” (Settle down, Newsweek.) Writing in the wake of 9/11, Woo noted that terrorists were evolving away from hierarchical organizations into looser affiliate networks, for which a bit of violent rhetoric was sometimes enough to inspire an adherent somewhere to carry out a bloody assault on their own initiative. In that sense, seemingly random “lone wolf attacks” were less random than we like to think; rather they were caused, however indirectly, by a drumbeat of violent messages relentlessly served up and broadcast far and wide. Social media boosted the process, perfected it through speedy iteration, brought us stochastic terror 2.0. These days the concept is more often linked to far-right domestic attacks than the old-school slaughter of al-Qaeda, et al. Americans have easier access to firearms, speeedier wi-fi and more nutcases per capita than Ayman al-Zawahiri ever dreamed of.
Woo is a mathematician. He thinks about statistics, chance, likelihoods. More interesting to me is the way words work across distance and time. How they can make us feel things. Not always a murderous rage, either. Other, fuzzier things. Sometimes you can read a sentence and just start sobbing. Markings on a page, crawling left to right, left to right. Stochastic outrage, stochastic whimsy, grief, absurdity, horniness, cringe, longing. Stochastic hunger for a handful of Peanut M&Ms, a pink lady apple, a nice, ooey, gooey pizza pie with mushrooms and onions.
Look at the word, anxiety. Or, let’s not complicate it with italics.
What is that particular grouping of shapes doing, to you? Can you feel it, notice it, even as the act of reading keeps pulling, pulling you along? Slow down a bit. Back up. Let your eyes rest on the word. I’ll wait. Scroll back up for a second, really do it.
This is a kind of a miracle, I think. Totally routine but also unbelievable. Or maybe it’s no great revelation, not worth saying at all. But then, hardly anything’s worth saying and yet we always do. In this case, I think the reminder, the underlining of something completely obvious and self-evident might not be such a bad thing. Examining the process of writing and reading—dragging the weirdness of that out into the light and watching it squirm there a bit, I mean, why not?
Personally, I had never made note of this dynamic, given real thought to the mechanism itself, until recently. I guess it’s possible I understood it for a short interval in childhood, when I first learned the shapes and started spotting them everywhere, words suddenly emerging from the otherwise indifferent suburban landscape. Then I forgot. Meaning took over from means. But over the past few months I began noticing this again. It happened that I was reading Don DeLillo in the middle of a pandemic. Before the mop-up period we’re now apparently entering. Before omicron started petering out, burning off. How better to innoculate myself?
I started with The Names. Then Libra. Both nominally about killing. The sacrifice of victims to a higher alignment, a plan. Both about the CIA. About mysteries and codes and how history is laid down. About men, mostly, daring to act on the world, to act through killing. Also underneath that about words and arrangements of letters. Arrangements of letters about arrangements of letters.
Marguerite Oswald, Lee Harvey’s mother, in Libra, is given the most amazing voice, one of the greatest in fiction (that I know of ᵀᴹ). Or perhaps the author’s pulling from FBI transcripts, channeling a whole person from these redacted pages. DeLillo has deep affection for Marguerite. He loves her like a favored child. Here she is, in words that connect her with him, him with us: “Your honor, I cannot state the truth of this case with simple yes and no,” she explains. “I have to tell a story.”
I have to tell a story. Marguerite whispers these words in DeLillo’s ear. He turns around and, ventriloquizing, offers the reader the same admission. Now I push it onward. This is what I’m saying, your honor. You, the reader, the judge. Yes, tell it to the judge. But understand, please. I cannot state the truth of this case with a simple yes and no. I have to tell a story.
I read in the morning now, first thing. I am intermittently employed, or semi-retired, or antiwork. Which is to say I have great privilege. Monstrous. I’m classed as a preferred customer. I can read novels in the morning now, which is something I have never been able to do in my entire life. (Commuting in the pre-cell phone era, I mastered the famed broadsheet origami of the devoted straphanger. My fold was fine art.)
Black figures crawling.
I recommend staying off Twitter in the morning. When you probably crave it the most. Believe me. The morning is actually a very good time to read a novel, or a weird newsletter. Or something else that might make you, randomly, stochasticly, fall in love with your fellow humans instead of shooting them down in a nightclub, a synogogue, a Wal-Mart. If I send this out again, I’ll send it in the morning. Click it then, if you can spare the time. It will go down better.
Nick Cave is good for mornings (the newsletter, that is; his music is generally better for nighttime). He answers questions sent in by his fans with a depth of feeling that he has earned, practiced for a long time, an emotional clarity that, following the death of his teenage son, came to resemble a kind of superpower. I save those emails for the morning. For me, they help set the tone, bring me to a new level of attention, summon a breadth of understanding, an attachment to eternal things. It steels the nerves for what’s to come when I glance at the news, as I inevitably will. Not that the effect lasts very long. A few minutes is all I get.
I want to write like that. Not a newsletter. A letter, to an actual person on the other side. The kind of writing that isn’t complete without a reader, scanning along, acting and being acted upon, moving their eyes and letting their brain do whatever the hell it does, when black figures crawl across an empty field.