It’s Just An Object, It Doesn’t Mean What You Think

This post originally was published more than 10 years ago and might or might not reflect my current views.

While there have been many books which I have read but once, there has only ever been one book which, upon its completion, I knew I would never read again.

Not long after reading Richard Powers’ Operation Wandering Soul a decade ago (has it been that long?), I emailed the author—something I had done only once before, and that instance also had been to Powers.

Those emails are long lost to my personal history and years of moving on to new computers without bothering with the hassle of backing up the accumulated detritus of the old, but they can be nearly approximated.

The first time I had sent him email, it was in the wake of my having finished reading his Galatea 2.2, which I said had left me feeling exquisitely lost.

As near as recollection can serve, what I told the author about Operating Wandering Soul was something along the lines of the fact that I would never read it again.

It was a remark fully intended to be a great compliment—one I trusted the author would recognize as such, as indeed he did. He added to that recognition, not incidentally, that when it came to that particular book he frankly always was surprised that anyone could ever manage to bring themselves to read the entire thing even once.

All of which is the requisite background to the fact that I’ve reneged on my oath to the author and in fact am reading this book for a second time.

There is a brutishness and a barrenness to the world in this book, mostly for the simple reason that the world is our world, and in the end existence is not an especially timid or clean one.

An oddity here is that whatever it is that made me so certain that I never again would read this book likely is the same thing that in the end caused me to pick it up again. Much in the way that I once opted to live New York City precisely because I swore I never would.

Further oddity can be found in a strange parallel I find with Joss Whedon’s audio commentary track to the final episode of his aborted-by-network television series, Firefly. In that track, Whedon simple and clearly enunciates what invariably has been the philosophy to which I have myself regularly returned.

At one point during that commentary (one of the finest such tracks on any DVD), Whedon references an observation made by a character in another of his shows: That if nothing we do means anything, then the only thing that means anything is what we do—and this, Whedon says, is the moral implication of a universe that has no meaning.

I used to urge people to try a thought experiment wherein they were to pretend that we lived in a world in which everyone gets into Heaven.

To drive the point home in a particularly stark way, I made it clear that in that imagined world even Adolf Hitler gets into Heaven. The point of this experiment was to get people to ponder a world in which the only meaning which could arise is one which we derived and created from our own sheer and deliberate force of will.

(There are countless other ways in which this has been expressed, and while I’m quite certain that the many grand spheres of intellectualism likely have produced any number of those ways, my only real points of reference—in case the above Whedon doesn’t make it clear—tend towards the pop cultural. To wit, think of the end of Heathers, wherein J.D. offers this advice to Veronica: “Pretend I did blow up the school. All the schools. Now that you’re dead, what are you gonna do with your life?” Ultimately, this also is what the movie version of Fight Club seemed to me to be saying as well, although I can’t speak for the book because I’ve never read it.)

Once upon a time, I went through a Hakim Bey phase, although I’ve long since lost track of the whys and hows of it. But there’s a quote from T.A.Z. which makes clear for just what perception I was testing when I made people engage in that thought experiment.

“Existence itself may be considered an abyss possessed of no meaning,” Bey wrote. “I do not read this as a pessimistic statement. If it be true, then I can see in it nothing else but a declaration of autonomy for my imagination & will—& for the most beautiful act they can conceive with which to bestow meaning upon existence.”

All of which does (I swear) circle back into what I started with: Operation Wandering Soul, which as I said takes place in the same brutish and barren world as do our own lives.

If our own world possesses only whatever meaning we ascribe to it, and that world is the very one inhabited by the characters in that book, the very fact that those characters manage somehow to write their own way through that world is the meaning they give it. Which in the end more or less precisely mirrors the reasons I once swore to its author that I would never read the book again.

Which of course also are more or less precisely the reasons I’ve finally gone back on that promise and picked it up for a second time.

Referring posts