There is a coziness in listening to sirens drone warmly in the distance, their cries decreasing in volume with each breathless mile they cover, as the Friday night traffic slows to the side of the road and the crickets white-noise with a comforting consistency outside my open window. My dog, who aches for the coyote kinship of the huddled canyon walls under our house, bristles hotly at sirens. She matches them with perfect pitch, howling her own sad notes to match their mournful saddle and sway, as they race down the PCH towards the day’s most recent catastrophe: a tourist steps on one of the broken Heineken bottles littering the caves up at El Matador, a dad can’t read the rip tides right and ends up coughing up prescription pills on the dark sand near the lifeguard tower, a seventeen-year-old with a saint’s last name swerves high on E through the tunnel where PCH becomes the 10, misjudges the curb as he turns the radio up, and flips and kills his passenger at eleven A.M on a Monday. Through and over it all the sun spreads its weary light. My dog doesn’t know about the lacerations and the tetanus and the spinal cords and the juvenile great white sightings, the falls from rock faces, the drunk British girls crossing PCH on a blind curve to get to the barefoot bar; my dog doesn’t know about the rattlesnakes in the dry brush, or the cigarettes in the dry brush, or the seven-foot fiberglass surfboard that escapes its owner to come with full force down on a bodysurfer’s back. She doesn’t know about the woman who falls asleep in the sun and wakes up green and puking, or the young couple who had the distinct misfortune of being on the wrong side of the road, where there isn’t much of a sidewalk, just in time for someone to wake up at the wheel, overcorrect, and slam into them. My dog doesn’t know about death or injury or their accompanying dirges. She knows about howling, though, and what it’s useful for.
One of my writing professors in college told me not to rely on epigraphs to begin every story, a habit I was consistently abusing at the time. This was one of the soundest pieces of advice I could have received; I was addicted to the things, possibly because I didn't feel as though I could convey anything remarkable or even comprehensible without first referencing an authority with a far better command of the language. But I love epigraphs. I get a thrill-kick out of them, probably for the aforementioned reasons: if I put a James Joyce quote, or a Soul Coughing lyric, before my own feeble attempts at communication, maybe some of that grandeur and eloquence will rub off. Probably not. Probably it just makes the contrast that much more obvious. But when they work, they work: the three-word epigraph "Hush! Caution! Echoland!" that opens David Lodge's novel Small World, or this, from Philip Roths Indignation:
Actually, almost every epigraph strikes me as perfectly chosen for the book it prefaces, and rarely do I ever find them superfluous. They are simultaneously homage and root and unabashed theft; they allow the reader to enter the work with an image or a sentiment already in mind, which will (hopefully) extend to their enjoyment of the work itself. I like epigraphs the same way I like clichés, sound bites, memes. Communication as hat rack: something to hang something else on. It is helpful to tear the citation pages from David Shields' Reality Hunger, so the book achieves the effect he wants it to: an amalgam of thoughts and ideas, hammering away at some central theme, all unattributed, some his own work and most not: but working in concert because of the way he assembled them.
It's sculpting around an absence, the way I always misunderstood Keats' negative sensibility; I probably mixed the term up with a similar one, but what it represents for me is this. I picture a sculptor chipping away patiently (or furiously, I have no idea) at a block of marble, making a painstaking etch here, paring a membrane-thin slice here, in an effort to uncover the shape he sees hiding within it. I think the writer's job is similar but almost the opposite. The writer sees not the shape itself but its absence; he wants to give it structure, so he throws a bunch of words at it to see what sticks. He starts with a lack and gives it body with a presence, uncovering whatever he uncovers almost as an afterthought.
Because a large chunk of my (not large) monthly income comes from tutoring high school students for the SAT and ACT, I find myself coming back to certain terms pretty frequently. The word cliché comes up a lot, although the test developers rarely use it; generally, I find myself using it to help explain its many, many synonyms/related words: banality, platitude, trope, trite, hackneyed (a personal favorite, because in my head it's forever a portmanteau of hack and Cockney, conjuring up a cartoonish Jack the Ripper dispensing his own muttered platitudes in charming rhyming slang in between bouts of slaughter)*.
The students are pretty good about coming up with their own examples of cliché. Usually we end up talking about movies, specifically genre flicks: horror, romantic comedy, musical. "Love at first sight" is a cliché they come up with a lot, often paired with derisive commentary on Romeo & Juliet or Titanic that grows increasingly more derisive as they test the waters with regard to just how much derision about Shakespeare I, as a Teacher and Authority Figure, will allow spoken in my presence (answer: do what you want, but don't ever talk shit about Mercutio).
And there's always the meta-cliché: clichés are truisms and truisms are true. So we are trying, with epigraph, idiom, cliché, to distill a common experience into something immediately recognizable, to make the alien familiar. Of course this can contribute to a loss of meaning, the way a song you know all the words to can come on the radio and you can sing it in its entirety and it'll be over before you realize it began. So there is a numbness that comes from cliché, certainly, which makes it a bad thing. But I think maybe almost everything is, at some level, done-to-death. If you repeat a thing often enough, it becomes a quote; if you repeat a quote often enough, it becomes gospel.
So about that epigraph up there. I guess a long time ago I arbitrarily decided that all art is about love, or trying to describe or prove or show it, trying to give a universal, indefinable feeling a pulse. I don't know if i think all art is about love. I think it's more likely all about death. But regardless, the concept could use some refining. We need different words for it. Like ol' Chabon up there says. We need distinct levels, maybe, new clichés that don't ring so hollow. Right now, used in life or art, "love" is a quote, a gospel, and a cliché. The inherent lack of meaning accompanying the word itself, and the discourse surrounding and examining this meaninglessness, has become a cliché. And I love that. I "love" that. The word literally represents nothing. It straight up lacks meaning. It is empty and banal and hollowed-out by the probably millions of attempts, straddling media and millennia, to define and categorize it. This is maybe why we strain so regularly to feel it.
Another cliché: a picture is worth a thousand words. A thousand words isn't actually that many. It's probably the length of one "wish I hadn't sent that" 3a.m. explanatory email to the One That Got Away (I wish there were just a typographical symbol for cliché at this point; we should agree on one. An equal sign? A slanty-mouth smiley face?), or a cover letter for your Dream Job, or a Wikipedia article about a madly loved record from the 80s written by a slew of international fans transcending timestamp, language and auditory comprehension.** Pictures can absolutely transcend language.
And maybe the purest form of art is visual art. Or music. I'm using pure, here, to mean the most essential distillation of a feeling into something recognizable, because Art with a capital A, in all its dimensions and through all its media, has to give us something recognizable, has to strike a chord buried somewhere in us, a chord we didn't know we had before and can only get to know once it starts humming. Visual art and music cut through language barriers to strike that chord more immediately than written art, because written art, for all its virtues, still has the difficulty of using language, and therefore excludes a vast audience by its nature.
But obviously there's something to it. We keep trying to pin things down with language. And that's a good thing. A thousand words isn't that much for a picture to contain. That car picture probably says more than I could in ten thousand words. This blog post is probably two thousand words too long. And I still feel only half done, even though I'm just talking to myself. I'm throwing things at the lack and trying to figure out what I'm trying to say: throwing wet papier-mache at the space left behind by a popped balloon.
OK, so screw "a thousand." Let's use an arbitrary term for "a lot." There have been a flood, a deluge, an onslaught of words, from Gilgamesh to Heiko Julien, concerned almost exclusively with Love and Death (although, for variation's sake, they often appear in different guises, such as Sex and Animals and Politics and Food). All media, not just literature, has been more or less constantly hammering away at the notion of L-O-V-E, trying to shape it into something quick and concrete. Something caught, blinking and petrified, in the penetrating headlights of culture and its critics. Something, in other words, we can slot into its proper place in our dictionaries, sleep well with at night as it wriggles on the proverbial pin. But no such luck. This discrepancy between meaning and description is why, after all, we need synonyms and shades: we're caught up in their promise of specificity, their sexy whispers of truth. Who was it said as soon as you name something, it disappears? Probably a lot of people. Probably Shakespeare, God, Joni Mitchell. The fun, as always, is in the pursuit.
If I could have one object from any book I would without hesitation choose the Alethiometer from Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials. His protagonist Lyra uses this weird device to travel down through the many layers of the truth, working vertically to get from surface to substance, and navigating deftly among the countless metaphors it invokes. Lyra had the gift of being able to read it. Most people in her world (in what she would later come to recognize as her multiverse) didn't. Most people can read the first level, or the first few, but after that it dissolves into a muddy soup of symbols and half-understood meanings. I doubt I'd be able to read it either.
The reason I'd want it, though, is as a reminder that there is a truth out there, even if it's impossible to understand. The tool comes to represent not just a Truth Meter but a tool that lets its bearer, if they can only read it correctly, learn how to operate the universe. Or at least how to understand their place within it. Or at the very least learn how to begin to think about understanding their place at any given moment of any given day, even when the rest of it was hovering just slightly out of reach: as if underwater, or behind a gate of fog, very real, very imminent, but very hard to make out.
*Portmanteaus appear in other areas of my life with alarming regularity, often to the detriment of my reputation as a person with a claim to any type of knowledge. I fervently believed Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Walken were the same person (or at any event found it damn near impossible to distinguish among the trio) for more years than I would like to admit. I still have to Google "who's the actor with the weird eyes" a lot, which is the only way I actually just arrived at Christopher Walken's name. I don't know if you'd call this a portmanteau or just facial recognition ignorance. Facial recognignorance.
**The Wikipedia article for New Order's seminal 1983 album Power, Corruption and Lies is 1302 words long. The cover art, while certainly a beautiful picture, would probably not be able to convey the same information as the Wikipedia article, including these interesting factoids: "On the opening night of the [1981 Cologne art exhibition] the artist Gerhard Richter vandalized the exterior of the Kunsthalle by spray painting the text, "Power, Corruption, and Lies" and "Peter Saville's design for the album had a colour-based code to represent the band's name and the title of the album" (that's what the little color blocks in the top right corner represent, apparently). As for the image itself, it is a reproduction of the painting "A Basket of Roses" by French artist Henri Fantin-Latour, and became the album cover only after the initial concept of using some dark Machiavellian prince was discarded in favor of these seductive, powdery, quite possible fake/dying but nonetheless lovely flowers, meant to symbolize the sweet, slow way in which the three titular elements creep insidiously into our lives, masked in cloying perfume. But just from seeing the picture, how would you know that? ALSO, before I forget, and this may be a further indication of my ignorance but is something I think worth noting, the album art for Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures (also designed by Saville), although I always believed it a stylized topographical map or maybe a heart rate chart or seismograph readout, is in fact based on an image of radio waves from pulsar CP 1919. The very very much unknown pleasures.