January 10, 2018

Cliff's Edge-A Slapdash of Sensation

When I was in my early 20s, an insane passion to create something beautiful with words raged within me. Though possessed of nothing in particular, metaphysical or practical, to say, I just wanted to say it beautifully, not with colorful paints on canvas, nor with musical notes editing the air. No, I would use only plain black English letters and punctuation marks on paper (this was more than 40 years ago). Because what I was physically creating was nothing attractive in itself (black letters and punctuation marks on a page), I would have to arrange those black letters and punctuation marks on the page in a way to create something beautiful in the minds of my readers. Unlike painting, sculpture, dance, music, which can be beautiful in and of themselves, with written words (except calligraphy) the beauty isn’t in the physical creation but in what that creation incites in others.

Now amid all this imaginative energy spontaneously combusting inside me, I got an idea for some experimental fiction. I would create with words a story in which the main characters appear only in the memory of acquaintances. The narration would never be directly about them. Instead, the main characters, and their stories, would unfold as the recollections of those who had previously met them, nothing more.

After all, isn’t life like that? Think about all the people whom you have met, either for a moment, a minute, an hour, a month, whatever, who then disappear. For you they have become nothing but a slapdash of sight, sound, touch, and smell that fades and confusedly conflates with other past sensations. Outside the immediate moments of contact, even those closest to you are, for you, memory as well.

"What impressions, what slapdash of sensation, do we leave on others?" 

What made me think of this now was my re-reading of American author David Foster Wallace’s famous 2005 Kenyon College Commencement speech. In it, he talked about our fleeting interactions with people who annoy us: the man driving the environmentally-unfriendly gas guzzler; the nasty woman in the grocery check-out line; the jerk who cut you off in traffic. We’ve all met them.

However, offered Wallace, maybe the guy tooling around in the gas guzzler had been in a serious car accident and his therapist insisted that he get a big car “so that he would feel safe to drive.” Maybe the nasty woman in the check-out line had been up three nights in a row “holding the hand of a husband dying of bone cancer.” Or perhaps the guy who cut you off was rushing “a kid who was sick or hurt” to the hospital.

Sure, Wallace admitted, none of these scenarios were likely, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that, like the main characters in my story, we get only snippets of other lives, slashes of existence that flash before us and then fade from us. Which means we experience mere slivers of a bigger picture that we know nothing about, but are often quick to assume the worst about people. No wonder Jesus Himself warned us: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt. 7:1).

Or what about those for whom your life is a snippet, those who know nothing about you—your hopes, dreams, struggles, fears, traumas—except the slapdash of sensation that your existence is to these people before even that slapdash vanishes from them? How much Jesus, if any, do they see? Sure, in most cases you’re there and gone. But what about when there’s a chance to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16)? How much light do they see?

Whether the subject, the one experiencing that slapdash of sensation, or the object, being that slapdash of sensation, we know about others, and are known by others, only dimly.

Anyway, that was my first foray into experimental fiction, characters who are portrayed only in memory, and I soon abandoned the project as too ambitious for such a young writer. (There must, however, be something in my blood-line for this genre because my late uncle, David Markson, years later published five books of experimental fiction, all to rave reviews. David Foster Wallace called him “pretty much the high point” of American experimental fiction. In fact, I read that part of the depression that led Wallace to commit suicide was frustration that he hadn’t achieved, literarily, what my uncle had.)

Yet, even if my project failed, the point remains (two, actually): What impressions, what slapdash of sensation, do we leave on others? Who, if anyone, ever benefitted by whatever interactions that they have with us, especially when the interactions last long enough for us to make a spiritual difference?

Perhaps the answer stems from the other side of the equation, in how we treat those whom we meet but always in segments, as if each life were a book and we know only the paragraph or two, or the page or two with which we interact, ignorant of all that came before or comes after. I think of T. S. Eliot’s line in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,” and how easily we fix others in a formulated phrase (“stupid jerk,” “nasty snob,” “low-life”), and how could that phrase not impact the impression that we, in response, leave on them?

Of the little we know about those who pop in and out of our experiences, this we do know: Christ died for each one, even the nastiest. If that thought could overwhelm everything else about them (even their nastiness), then the impressions we make on them, which then turn into the slapdash of sensation we leave in them, could perhaps be the difference between life and death.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide. His most recent book, Baptizing the Devil: Evolution and the Seduction of Christianity, is available from Pacific Press.