Impossibilities (Ars Prosaica) by Elizeya Quate

It is snowing just beyond the window upon the empty fields of Eastern Iowa.

The light is silvery ash upon my face, coating over the special time of day that unfeeling begins to grip me hard.

Soon the empty fields will all be dark.


I have my scratch-paper out, fiddled with words. I alternate monosyllables: prickle, lye, wilderness, cinch, plaster, vex, omen.

Now the light is gone. Now the time of ghosts is upon us.

Bukowski: The dog walked down the street.

My grandfather E.N. died some years ago. Recently I found his copy of Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude which involves a number of minute printing errors hand-corrected in the text — ar→ are, no → note, etc.

Then, for only a second I could feel him, his body just beneath the page, the parchment of his skin within the inframince — Duchamps’ wayward dimension folded back between the yellowed pages of an old beat-up paperback.

And too soon in the passing of a silent beat he was gone, my grandfather, gone and it was then my eyes began to burn, but only a little because… well, I have tried and failed too many times in repetition to look through the seams of all such books, their glue and binding and brittle coverings to detect some anything of the dead just and only just beyond; my inflammation, the inframation; spots of burn beyond the frame.

So I am conceiving of an abstract page here as a kind of screen for realtime memory where our ancestors move about in the shapes of language, come closer and further away. They costumed in the masks sewn by others: writing. Picture my grandfather with his white hair combed fine as the tail of an onagadori and movements of his eyes conveying the idea of a halo behind his pair of tortoiseshell sunglasses. He is sitting there, a thin smile playing just above his chin, sitting just behind the obversed smells of last century’s river mud, behind the pack of insomniacs scrivening purposes upon all the implements of Macondo, behind the gypsy who sought for himself a daguerreotype of God. And then, after you have pictured him, my grandfather sitting between such a sadsweet lusciousness of Márquez’s language, well, it’s as if you start to feel a bit jumbled, a bit spun, a bit lost yourself, undone against against the close-up shadows of this jungled world. There’s a macaw shriek. Ten zillion insects chirr. From somewhere you hear the beaks start clack-a-lacking, braying sadly against the dog-eared distances of the page. Then fall silent. Soon the world beneath your eyelids is sewn from only whiffs of dusky vellichor and the music of absent hands.


So I’m writing you (my futureself, this missive from your recent past) only to take a small break from writing poorly lit wormholes through these old and battered-feeling storyishes. Okay, well I guess they aren’t all that old but they have made me older — one of us has stayed still while the other has moved away, or else vice-versa. And truly, unless you have a vantage point from which to establish some kind of parallax then it is impossible to judge the case of me-still-they-moved vs. vice-versa.

So now I have been writing to you (you out there, out there in the future), to abscond just briefly from what feels like an endless game of trick-or-treat through a dense network of abandoned boulevards and alleyways, searching with the sound of my hands on the surface of strange doors. No one is ever home. And I trudge onwards, sweating beneath my safety-pinned costume— a ludicrous fur-covered egg, for whatever reason— until I reach the forest of half-dead words, a forest where the truth lays lush with silence.

The tricky bit (and never the treat) is that whatever the storyish ends up being is always 100% wrong-seeming until the exact moment of total release when it becomes 100% right. Or does it only seem that way? And, more troublingly, is there even a difference between ‘is’ and ‘seems’? Hence the tricky bit-ness. And this is only one of many half-plausible roadrules gleaned from our oft-thwarted efforts of word-to-papering the past many years — yes, you may assume a pose of devotional ecstasy, callous your fingers on a pack Bic pens, or spend weeks awaiting the propitiated arrival of your own furry-egg-in-half-dead-forest scenario, feel yourself breathless with an earnest attempt to shed your prolix ways for the voice of simplicity… and then… *gasp* … throw it all away! And then you’re out in front, brandishing that inkblooded machete to CUT CUT CUT (thwack!) because even a single word out of place, no matter how smal, even a single word that comes across as needless or show-offy or somehow smug, well, there goes the whole engulfing sense of storyishness, doesn’t it? So what was even the point of working all those fucking words, to begin with?

And while we’re on the subject, here’s another trite little observation — nothing’s ever really wasted —pumping gas, repairing an old widow’s walk, a long, odoriferous elevator ride, a gnarled hand sifting through a stranger’s purse to unearth a silver locket bearing the initials L.S.M., a drop of dried maroon still clinging to its edge … — and that is precisely why someone like H. Murakami can write 200 pages of basically nothing, of interlude, and it is perfectly readable, and regardless of his literary chutzpah in doing so it really does get the reader in there, into all those required places where fun collisions arrive ready to take place. Our $0.02 says that, regardless of how one feels about H. Murakami, that this tactic of writerly seduction works a helluva lot better than re-hashing various foibles of grand narrative, even if one doesn’t end up moving the eternal soul very far at all. New mask or a different mirror? Yet another judgment we lack sufficient parallax to execute.

D.F. Wallace was hardly the only one to personify a piece of writing inhumanly (a drooling, large-headed infant), whiny, smarmy and taunting. The whole ars sub-genre recognizes a full pantheon of daemonic creatures, from clocks to mail slots to computer screens. The storyish is the eternal it, the devilish object-come-alive — it has demands, set schedules, blocks out time, cancels plans, upsets tabletops, conceals smartphones, locks doors, hides keys, requires silence, becomes claustral, leaches stillness, runs away from itself. It is rude and raucous and fussy and sometimes weirdly manipulative. And then the tables turn and you are its lone object. It does things to you without you even asking, much like the force of an explosion blossoming within the contours of billowing, silent dream.

So it’s hardly surprising then, that when you woke up screaming last night your sex was covered in blood (you found out later that the blood was from scratches you had made in your palms using your fingernails and not from the inhuman personification with its little teeth, bright eyes, slow loris face). Naturally. You/I know this well. Because the inhuman personification of this storyish in various animal-headed hours does more than just fill my room with its crowd of uncanny shadows — it replaces me wholesale with an obscene and self-canceling nervousness. The year is 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and again I am you, I am never myself.

Sirus Fountain - Face

This I serial I end up thinking over while I watch your face disintegrate upon the snowfall’s eerie memory, bright dust falling upon their fallingness, still busy plumping up great iridescent mounds from raked piles of cedar leaves. Here’s what I get down on paper after jamming myself back down inside of myself again: Though language may support our souls through a catalogue of violence, this property only makes it the erotomaniacal arch-Faust of the storyish as a whole the two are always at each others’ throats, repulsive, obstreperous, gorging. One must read language from its uncouth hickeys, not from gestures of capture or conquest. Because I’m basically hoping that, if words fail to generally astound us it’s only because haven’t managed to place us beyond ourselves, rather than that today what we’re astounded by is only machines. Because beyond our snowfallen windows, beyond the wan reflection, beyond 2014 and our many-shaped shadows, beyond that place of disposable masks I want there to be something worthy of true devotion. Because I’m basically criss-crossing fingers here that what interests us isn’t merely the symbols, the strings, the characters, the sounds, no, what interests us is rather the ransacked shape all those bitty-bits leave our mind in, the messy, strewn-apart Rorschachts of desire’s decadent absences.

Consider for a moment the infamous Library of Babel, a nice little didactic tussle between the philosopher W.V.O Quine [1] and the writer J.L. Borges — one via philosophical argument, the other via literary speculation. The Library of Babel must be defined here as the Library that contains all books that have ever been written, that will ever be written, that are possible but not conceivable, that are conceivable but not possible. Picture a place with quite a lot of square footage. Basically, in the Library of Babel, N=all.

Quine defines the Library as the following problem: LoB contains all possible books, yet it is more than any human could possibly read in a lifetime, which means that the contents of the Library are structurally unreadable. So are they (the possible books) possible or not?

Since the possibilities of all the books in LoB are combinatorially daunting, the solution to this Quinean impracticality involves the cryptographic elimination of sets of possible books (think Alan Turing in Tyldum’s The Imitation Game), leaving those that satisfy minimum criteria of legibility, comprehensibility, readability. In other words, Quine’s going for a well-if-you-can’t-read-it-then-is-it-really-a-book?-style solution viz. hypothetical criteria posed upon a hypothetical set of symbol-strings. Via Quine the infinite glossolalia of Borges’ LoB gets quite reduced, first to the alphabet and then to two symbols of binary code (0/1, or viz. Quine’s quaint timeliness, Morse’s dot and dash). Which okay, even if that did work (hint: it doesn’t… or better hint: work for what…?) it totally misses the point of the LoB as a kind of ecstatic aporia on par with the puzzle-thorns of mortality itself (to literature, and to some extent to mathematics) about the nature of very finitude. So once you’ve realized that reductionism doesn’t even dent the universe of possibilities, where else is left to go from there?

Consider the following: If the LoB contains all of the possible books, then it necessarily contains the very same JL Borges book in which the LoB itself was initially proposed. Since LoB is contained within a book, we can draw the following conclusion: the LoB contains both itself and all possible versions of itself (let’s say there are versions in which the Idealists have assented to heptagonal rather than hexagonal rooms, rooms with an infinite number of increasing interior angles, and so on). Which is to say that in addition to an infinite number of books it also contains an infinite number of infinite libraries, each of which itself contains an infinite number of non-identical infinite libraries, each of which contains… [ad infinitum… infinitum…]

Now, here’s the tricky part: because LoB contains all possible books, it also contains all possible versions of any book in which LoB could make an appearance (let’s say, e.g. the very short nonfiction storyish that you are reading right now, a hypothetical edition of which is also squirreled away somewhere beneath the LoB’s eternally recrossed Rubicon), and because LoB could make an possible appearance in a potentially infinite number of books, therefore it holds that LoB contains an infinite number of self-containing LoBs! And when you start to notice that massively non-finite sets are beginning to contain infinite series of themselves, well, it’s may be time to bust out the old Serious Puzzling binocs. Because, what this really suggests is that, logically, the act of even conceiving of a single LoB is to conceive of a container for all possible LoBs and thereby brings into being the conditions of possibility for an infinite series of infinite series of infinite series, not merely of the same book (in which minor changes exist between each version/iteration) but all possible sets of sets of sets […] of all possible books. [2] e.g. if any N, then all possible Ns. As far as LoBs are concerned, you by definition cannot have just one — the singular is already plural.

So, if you’ve followed me so far e.g. managed to plough through what has no doubt become a fairly digressive tract, you may be thinking, like: that’s, medium neat-o or perhaps simply meta-for-its-own-metasake (hence, pointless) but when can we really boil the ocean on this Quine/Borges split past at least a series of extravagant non-sequitors? e.g. Are there at least a few squeezable drops of blood left in this fossilized ouroboros or what? And why, viz. quenching the many-shaped animal shadows of 2014 Eastern Iowa’s storyishnes is this Matryoshka-LoB even remotely satisfying?

The answer ends up being (hopefully) that the LoB demonstrates one key insight about inhumanly personified language-creatures, about the relationship of death and distance to the creation of literature: that literature itself logically entails the illegible/unintelligible existence not only of the possible but of the impossible, that it brings into conceivability things which logically cannot be conceived of and not only suggests their existence but requires it.

It is this paradox, in which sets of impossible unknowables and unknowable impossibles are logically entailed by their very enunciation as a symbolic dimension of our reality. Which is to say, for any X, where X is impossible, it is therefore necessary for the meaning of that impossibility to exist for the statement ‘X is impossible’ to have meaning. Therefore, in the act of declaring something impossible we have, in the same stroke, performed its possibility. Conclusion: all claims of impossibility are definitionally self-negating, redundant and/or tautological. Try it out for yourself! You’ll conceive of things larger than the largest-possible (e.g. LoB), smaller than the smallest-possible (e.g. LoB), cuter than the cutest-possible (e.g. your face) and you’ll do it all from the comfort of your bus commute or toilet seat or wherever it is that you do your less necessary reading. Hence, the impossible, far from not existing, is in fact revealed as a condition of the Absolute, the very spine of our very existential field.

So this I leave you now with, maybe: that the final possible version of the impossible writing that we’re both presently clumsying around in must, by definition, exist (in the same way that we’ve just established that all truly impossible things must exist), and that it is waiting, hulking, seething and lurking out beyond the edge of 2014’s falling, silvery snow. It has sharp teeth and coinbright eyes and playful jaws. It has a generous, happy wiggle to its umbrous body. This hypothetical impossible-version-of-the-writing lies at the end of what Quine’s postmodern disciples might call an NP complete problem, a deep entanglement only soluble through sideways intuitions and certain unglamorous styles of teeth-gritting. Here sits an inhuman personification, junior partner to the Librarian of Babel, a figure whose eyes contain the simultaneous doorway to all LoBs, to Macondo, to the smiling visions and stern faces of our ancestors. For these creatures, then, we must carve out some room inside of us, hoping that maybe, just maybe, they will stand still long enough for us to trace their shadows upon the passages of our page.

[1] Quine: I gather that there is not room in the present phase of our expanding universe, on present estimates, for more than a negligible fraction of the collection.

[2] There is the special case for the LoB of all non-LoBs which only contain books that do not contain Libraries of Babel, since they seem to superficially satisfy the conditions of the Russell-Zermelo paradox, e.g. if that LoB doesn’t contain itself, then it cannot be an LoB, yet if it does contain itself then it by definition cannot exist (Here, the notion of internally plural, non-duplicative and externally distinct infinities running up against a basic problem of monist self-definition, the property of self-belonging appearing as a kind of one-way street within the bracketing-power of naïve set theory). Quine, on this particular difficulty: “[It] packs a surprise that can be accommodated by nothing less than a repudiation of our conceptual heritage.” (See Quine, W.V.O., 1937. “New Foundations for Mathematical Logic,” American Mathematical Monthly, 44: 70–80; repr. in W.V.O. Quine, From a Logical Point of View, London: Harper & Row, 1953). Whereas, for example, Poincaré was more gleeful, seeing in the paradox a wound of great fecundity, “Logistic has finally proved that it is not sterile. At last it has given birth – to a contradiction.” (See Hersh, Reuben What is Mathematics, Really? Oxford University Press, 1997 and Rucker, Rudy Infinity and the Mind, Princeton University Press, 1955)

Elizeya Quate‘s work has appeared in Axolotl, Sleepingfish, Maudlin House and elsewhere.  Quate’s novelish-in-stories The Face of Our Town is forthcoming (Kernpunkt Press, 2016).