Every day, even when he has a bad hangover or even when he is weak and listless from hunger, he spends at least a couple of hours working on a formless, rather mysterious book that he calls "An Oral History of Our Time." He began this project twenty six years ago, and it is nowhere near finished. His preoccupation with it seems to be principally responsible for the way he lives; a steady job of any kind, he says, would interfere with his thinking.
- Joseph Mitchell, "Professor Sea Gull."
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My son asked me the other day what was at the edge of the universe. I replied there was no edge, no border, no boundary. Word is that the universe is ever expanding. He asked, into what, where? My answer was, into itself, it invented space as it went along. He shook his head and said I can't think about that. It makes me crazy to try and imagine it.
Welcome to the world, boy-o.
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The preoccupations of our lives can become the sum of our lives: worry over love and money and safety and belonging and work and purpose and God and no-God and politics, fucking politics and the sports teams and fashions and entertainments and so on and on. We trap our identities in the accouterments we gather to us as a shield and defense against the prospect that the universe doesn't have an edge. It makes us crazy to consider it, so we don't and instead fill our days with the passing pleasures of worrying about more immediate things. This is how roads are built and wars inflicted. This is the welter we wade into each day and try to find our way.
And you know, right on.
The universe is set in motion and couldn't give a fiddler's fart for me, or you, or anyone of us. It simply is. We, on the other hand, we do care about things like justice and equity and love and compassion. We are the makers of these things and we rightly work those fields and the edge of the universe can take care of itself, thank you very much. A few among us dare to imagine something a bit more, to imagine they can imagine totalities and truths: The Domesday Book, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, An Oral History of Our Time.
William The Conqueror wanted to know how much the people of England and Wales owned so he could tax them to their grave. Italo Calvino tried to capture every sort of story and Joe Gould sought to tell the history of the "shirt-sleeved multitude." Impossible each and every one, but that has never stopped anyone who needed to sort something out.
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The way you get fucked and stuck and going nowhere is when your preoccupations make you small, make you cautious, make you unwilling to risk an ounce of your life because of the systems you have bought into (religion, commerce, politics - the American Dream) keep telling you to hedge your bets, to not ask for too much on this side of history. To follow the path. To read sign. When we lose the thread of the life that animates us, that was there in us before we arrived, that somehow was always present as we learned to make our way in society, when we lose that spark we are fucked. Now, don't think that this means all hippie ass motherfuckers are free and you are not. They may very well be fucked by taking on that role. No, don't look to the outward signs of what anyone is wearing or where they are living or how they earn their daily bread.
Look to what they do with the time they have to do.
Even when nursing a bad hangover, or listless and hungry.
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Joe Gould attended Harvard, lived in Greenwich Village bumming drinks, was pals with e.e. cummings and wrote this sprawling tale of the stiffs he met along the way. It was estimated that the book had over 9 million words and he'd stash his notebooks at friends' homes all over New York. He was never seen without a notebook on him. Joe was fucked every which way. He'd be invited to swanky parties as the sideshow drunk and he always obliged. He had no family, just the damn notebooks and he was even written up in Collier's Magazine once for his bohemian ways.
Except there was no book, no Oral History of Our Time. For over 30 years Joe Gould wrote and re-wrote the same few opening chapters of an autobiographical novel. It was the tale of his childhood and he could not get past it. Make no mistake, he wrote everyday to his exhaustion, just not the story he said he was. The fact that he could not get past those chapters, that the whole of his life was taken up with just those chapters and nothing else, does nothing to diminish the audacity of the attempt.
Joseph Ferdinand Gould was broken by something early on - just like the rest of us. That something was to him the edge of the universe - it made him crazy to think of it. So, he dared to wrestle it under his control. He didn't get far and his life was a ruin, but I would never say he was fucked. He had a mission and that mission propelled his wild and unkempt life.
So, what is your mission, my friend? What is that thing you do even with a hangover, even when hungry? What do you devote a couple of hours to each day around the daily obligations you have taken on? What is it that helps you live with an ever expanding universe that doesn't know you exist? What is it you need to say so that someone will know you came this way and that your life may have been a ruin in parts - just like the rest of us - but you had a mission, a story to tell and you, goddammit, told it and/or died trying?
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