Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Swallowing the Surface

Before I had ever thought about going into advertising, I worked at a think tank. It was cool and everything, but I knew I wasn’t enough of a political junkie for it to work out for the long term. As my boss said to me, I appreciate “the surfaces of things.” I care more about choosing the right word than choosing the right side.

So now I work in advertising. But my old boss’s words never quite rang true. I do love the surface — in fact, one of my favorite pieces of prose is Edward Abbey’s celebration of the surface in the introduction to Desert Solitaire:
It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surfaces of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I.

For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces — in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of friend or lover, the silk of a girl’s thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind — what else is there? What else do we need?

What else is there, indeed. But as for the pages that follow, I’m lukewarm. So much description of rock and sand and long days where nothing much happens — I’m a little bored by a lot of it. Could it be that I like talking about the surface more than I like the surface itself? That’s a mouthful — and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If I truly love the surface, why is Desert Solitaire such a hard pill to swallow?

This thought crossed my mind again the other night, just as I was poised to give up on Nicholson Baker’s essay “Clip Art.” Two pages into his examination of fingernail clippers, I was longing for his festive backyard pornography, his meditations on women’s stockings, his tracing shower water into an open mouth. Not all surfaces are equal; I’d rather read about skin on skin than chrome on nail.

But I pushed on through the boredom, and I’m glad I did, because this silly little essay surfaces surprising meaning from a superfluous device. The fingernail clipper, it turns out, can be quite meaningful. It leaves behind a sharp edge that is perfectly suited to annotating texts when no pen is available. It’s not a practice I was familiar with, but according to Baker, it’s quite common:
Even with a closely clipped and manly thumbnail, the reader can and very often does, today in America, score a visible double line to mark an interesting passage, if it appears in a book that he is prevented for one reason or another from defacing.

And then I got to this, which changed everything:
Moreover, the pressure of the reader’s nail, deformed by its momentary trenchancy, against the tender hyponychial tissues it protects, creates a transient thumbwide pleasure that is, or can be, more than literary.

Talking about a thing has never seemed closer to the thing itself. Baker conjures the whole endeavor of reading in a gesture: the gentle, pleasing pressure of the surface of a text pressing up against the surface of a fingernail. And what a sensual pleasure it is, these two surfaces touching each other, imprinting each other. On the literal surface of the text, the literal and the figurative seem to collapse on one another. Baker isn’t talking about fingernails as a metaphor for something else — he’s talking about actual fingernails, and how physical pleasure commingles with literary pleasure to create meaning that is “more than literary.”

My middle school English teacher said that meaning isn’t in the reader or the text, but somewhere in between the two. I always pictured this “in-between” as a big empty space, a vacuum. But now I’m reimagining it as the collapsing of that space, as the place where two surfaces come together.


  1. Hello. Just a short note. I'm a college teacher at a major American university. I teach writing and rhetoric. Your writing is extraordinary as are your insights. I don't even know how I happened on your blog -- I'm not blog reader. Yours is exceptional and is now the only blog I'll ever subscribe to. Thank you for your writing, and I wish you all the best.

  2. Hey, wow, thanks for the kind words. Where do you teach?

  3. I enjoy your writing too. I am glad to have stumbled upon it.