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My Arcadia

30 Mar

Noah had grandiose plans to save the world.  Noah, it should be remembered, was a disreputable man who heard a voice.  The villagers, his neighbors, laughed.  Noah, a bit of a drunk, was not taken seriously.  The voice said, By what you make you will save the world.  And so, reluctantly at first, Noah began his life’s work, an impossible project, something much larger than himself.  But at night Noah was again filled with doubt, and he drank to quiet the voices.  The people in his village spoke behind their hands as he passed, touched their caps, smiled.  The village was miles from the ocean and Noah was spending his days building a boat. . . .


Noah needed to gather nails, to sort the animals, to convince his sons.  He planed the timber and laid out the ribs.  His ark would be bigger than the temple.  We all need to create the story that will make sense of our lives, to make sense of the daily tasks.  Yet each night the doubts returned, howling through him.  Noah looked to the darkening sky and vowed to work faster. . . .


The rains, as we all know, did come.  The boat lifted above the drowned world, and the disbelievers perished, and no one was more surprised than Noah.  The first right thing he’d done, and it came from obeying a voice only he could hear, which others took as proof of his madness.



– Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

From the chapter titled, “Ham” (pp. 233-237)



These words – an amplifier echoing my own thoughts?  How many nights had the doubts returned?  How many nights required silencing sedatives?  How great the terror of being found out, ratted out, and finally blotted out by “the disbelievers”?

I have concluded something: it is not addiction.  It is obsession.  Perhaps a madness of sorts.  Perhaps a fanaticism.

Perhaps obsession dwells in the same neighborhood as addiction, madness, and obscure absurdity, but sometimes we have no say in where we spend the night.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City resembles the mythic story of Moby Dick in some respects.  It is the tale of a madman with an impossible goal and, simultaneously, the tale of a slightly less mad madman and his living to tell the tale(s).

In this story, the madman is Jonathan Flynn, the narrator’s father, and Jonathan’s impossible goal is to write the great American novel – the torch bearer of Twain, Hemingway, and Salinger.  But, being more than “touched” by dementia, demons, and drink, Jonathan doesn’t get much beyond a few promising chapters and a plethora of incoherent notes, scribbles, and cryptic signs.

The deferred dream of the father is realized by the son, but not without the danger of delving into the devilish depths of madness, the heart of darkness from which few return.  Yes, Nick is like Marlow going after Kurtz – risking losing himself in the process.

Like Marlow and Ishmael – and even like his namesake Nick Carraway – this Nick barely eludes the pitfalls and self-sabotage that threaten each return (key-stroke).  But the gnawing feeling that stuck with me for days after concluding my reading was: Did Nick lose something in the accomplishment?

I don’t quite know how to put this into words, but the unrealized potential of Jonathan – with all the scribbles and scrawls – forever dangles before the mind’s eye, tantalizing us with what might be but what is forever like a Rorschach test of our own imaginings seems more enticing than the accomplishment of the completed work.  At least to me, that is.

From Plato’s “Unwritten Doctrines,” to the dialogues of Aristotle that have been lost to the sands of Time, to Aquinas’ ecstatic vision, in comparison to which he declared all his written work to be merely “straw,” to the rumored storehouse of unpublished notes found in J.D. Salinger’s workshop, it is always the promise of what may be that holds my captive attention more than the realized accomplishment of what is.

Perhaps it is my own propensity for the nobility of failure that propels me to herald fuck-ups over the favorites.  Or, perhaps it is my own workshop of detritus and drafts – unpublished, unread, unorganized, unedited, unending, unforgiving.

“We all need to create the story that will make sense of our lives.”  When I see that workshop – taking in the mountains of papers like an explorer looking over the topography of the undiscovered country – I see that my life is the tale told by an idiot.  The words – the words I wrote, I gave birth to, I conceived – those very words accuse me: “Truant!  Deadbeat Dad!  Abandoner!  Sloth!”

What do you call Attention Deficit Disorder when one can maintain attention, dedication, and focus for pages on end (hundreds upon hundreds of pages) but can’t seem to finish a project before moving on to the next big thing?  Macro Attention Deficit Disorder?  I don’t know.  But I have books upon books of incomplete thoughts waiting for my return.  They are in exile, not their author.  The author is AWOL.

When will my rains come?

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