Friday, March 27, 2009

`To Help Others, Write for Others'

I meditated on Mark Van Doren’s “Dr. Johnson” for much of the day, in the company of an autistic third grader:

“Monster of learning, master judge
Of poems and philosophies,
Of good and bad, of great and small
Men who prowled Fleet Street with him,
And Cheapside, and the Strand –
Within that huge, that blinking
Frightener of babies,
Nevertheless mice played: delights
In miniature – shy loves, true servants,
Friends, and taste of tea –
And nibbling fears, as now,
As now, of horrible death, oh, on hot feet
Presentiments of blank, of worms, of fire;
Of dissolution, Bozzy,

The boy had spoken a dozen words to me when, at recess, he began scratching marks on the bare ground with a stick. He would scratch, walk 10 or 15 paces and scratch again. After three or four marks I understood he was writing the alphabet, something like the chicken in Finnegans Wake scratching “litterish fragments.” Kids who know him started following his circuitous abecedary. They were flabbergasted he knew the alphabet and could write perfect upper-case letters, and cheered when he reached “Z.” He wrote the digits from “1” to “10” and the 26 letters again, this time in a straight line. Then he broke the stick into five equal lengths, formed a square with four of them next to the “Z” and stuck the fifth in the middle, upright. I sensed he was conjuring something with the ritual. He took no notice of the attention he received and wouldn’t talk about it.

In A Dictionary of the English Language, after dispensing with chemistry, Johnson defines “dissolution” as “destruction of anything by separation of parts; the substance formed by dissolving any body; death; destruction; breach or ruin of anything compacted or united; the act of breaking up an assembly.” Johnson associated physical death with the human propensity for riot and ruin – in a word, madness, and his “nibbling fears” of it. In his Life, Boswell (“Bozzy”) reports Johnson saying, “Without truth there must be a dissolution of society.” I suspect in autistic kids and others among us a “separation of parts.” Some of us seek unity, others fail to recognize our dissolution. We drift apart, only to focus for an isolated task – writing a poem, a blog, letters in the dirt. When I read Van Doren’s “master judge / Of poems and philosophies,” I think of Johnson’s refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s radical idealism, which resembles the autistic worldview: Johnson kicked a stone, and has been mocked for missing the point. On the contrary, he got the point precisely and could have scratched Q.E.D. in the dirt beside the stone. In the journal excerpts he collected in The Hunter Gracchus, Guy Davenport writes:

“The hope of philosophy was to create a tranquility so stable that the world could not assail it. This stability will always turn out to be a madness or obsession or brutal indifference to the world. Philosophy is rather the self-mastery that frees one enough – of laziness, selfishness, rage, jealousy, and such failures of spirit – to help others, write for others, draw for others, be friends.”

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