Written at the time he was in Germany, and perhaps inspired by the novels of David Markson, Olsen takes the aphorism as the implicit unit of narrative morphology.
Built from composites on his musings of history, other writers, his autobiography, Olsen, like many other post-structuralists, approaches the creation of [[there.]] as a place of pure presence, neither explicable nor eminently reachable. In other words, Olsen resists naming this reference point all the while he constructs it, calling it tongue-in-cheek as a kind of “trash diary”:
A week before you leave, you decide to keep a trash diary: a constellation of sense, thought, memory, observation, fast fact scraps.
Olsen insists on the event of being in Germany for a writing fellowship as the start of collecting this work together. So while the frame of the book subsists on this fellowship, the concept of a diary justifies the event by being a travelogue, a venture into another world.
The major trope of this work then, while often not explicitly stated (though stated often), hinges on being in another place. Olsen gives us vignettes, not just his musings on Germany.
A Polish saying: One German a beer, two Germans an organization, three Germans a war
In German, the noun gift means poison.
It shares the same Proto-Indo-European root as the English word gift–ghabh, meaning to receive–but German employs the origin meaning as a dark gesture: Gib ihm das Gift. Give him the poison.
The verb for to poison in German used to be vergeben, a word that now means to forgive.
(btw, here’s more Germany):
I’ve been practicing my German for three months–ever since I received the news–in an attempt to bring it back to a semblance of life after more than 30 years in the mnemonic deepfreeze.
The block bearded graduate student with the wire-rimmed glasses who could read and speak sentences I can no longer even tangentially understand:
Who was that guy?
but also musings on travel itself:
To walk is to lack a place, Michel de Certeau felt. It is the indefinite process of being absent
Traveling, I want to say, is like clicking a link on a website: a surge of disorientation followed almost immediately by a surge of reorientation.
Only in three dimensions.
Over and over again.
Traveling is a condition enabling recognition of the limits of human knowledge and mystery, inviting us to orient and re-orient ourselves to an existence that will always exceed our grasp
It wasn’t until decades later the reason for that atomic commotion hit me: in addition to the obvious, that perfect novella is an allegory about continuous change, which is to say an allegory about travel.
Travel then, or at least being in an Other situation that remains indefinite, allows Olsen to highlight indeterminacy itself. I don’t mean just the situation of being in Germany, but also the situation of Otherness…not just a specific there, but a definite indeterminate [[there.]]
Olsen, however, isn’t content to let us sit still in an unknown situation. He uses this unknown situation much as he uses the aphoristic structure of his narrative, to jump anywhere, connecting anything and everything.
(He didn’t know it would be his 9/11 novel. He’d been writing what he believed was a different book entirely when he looked up that glistening morning and saw the first plane explode into the World Trade Center.)
(The very next sentence he composed reconceived what he was doing and why.)
(His novel changed course in a breath of white space.)
Significant in this, is the use of the parenthetical, as if Olsen is filling in a gap, which would in some other case, may otherwise be left out. This corresponds to the metaphor of the journey, in which his trip to Germany—at first alien—slowly becomes familiar, blending in with what he knows until one day he isn’t there anymore, but here.
The here remains, however, an unspoken here, for one is always here. We may recall traveling as a series of high points, photographs, destinations, funny stories, but intruding onto these peaks we also experience the unexpected interruptions of how we get to there, blank spaces between the destinations of remarkable and unremarked experiences. Travel, like life, Olsen reminds us, is the encounter of what is both familiar and unfamiliar. To sum it up in one term, Freud’s term in German is Das Unheimliche. Although most contemporary commentators would jump on unheimliche to speak of the “uncanny valley,” Olsen supplies us with a critical framework in which to supply a name is to create a false completeness for the thing that is itself is also its other that is bracketed. He unpacks unheimliche for us, thusly:
a construction that goes nowhere, teaches zip, embodies the purest form of Freud’s unheimlich: a term that contains within itself heim (home), unheim (not home), and heimlich (hidden, secret).
The unheimlich signifies what we know, yet has been made unfamiliar, a forever being-at-home that is also a never-being-at-home.
Another way to put this is that change is the intrusion of familiarity and unfamiliarity together. For if we know something then it becomes something unknown. Or if we don’t know it then it has a chance to become something we do know. In both, we reach a border between home and not-home, a perfect analog of what travel does for us, in which the blend of hotel rooms becomes familiar and unfamiliar. Playing off this connection between novella and travelogue brings us back to the end of the opening vignette of [[there.]]:
Being-at-home, Heidegger says, is not the primordial phenomenon. Not-being-at-home is more fundamental. To be not-at-home may mean to be AT HOTEL.
[[there.]]’s aphorisms create a topography that often returns us to scattered to vignettes that we connect in surprising ways. We read a little about a subject before being reintroduced to it later on, so that a new thought is interjected within a recognizable context of [[there]]. Much as in travel, where when in a new place we are constantly reminded of the major tropes of a place (for instance, if we visit Virginia we may see Thomas Jefferson’s home, and then be reminded of Thomas Jefferson in a Jeffersonian café, and so on), Olsen uses the aphoristic structure to weave the familiar and the defamiliarized: home and not home. This placement of the (un)familiar, as a singularity, brings us to the limit of the recognizable, which is also a limit of the expressible, in which what is nameable is also unnamed. Olsen in his metacritical mode strikes upon the experimental in his experimental literature in which we border this transitional state on the twilight of nominalism:
The first definition of the word experimental is of a witness: having actual or personal experience of anything.
With this definite ambiguity, Olsen pulls us towards the creation of the subject from a situation in which we are the situation and the situation is us. The changing constant in travel becomes more than a metaphor for a novella, but also a metaphor for being human:
No wonder we cannot appreciate the really central Kafka joke, David Foster Wallace advanced: that the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from the horrific struggle.
Our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home.
So it should also come as no surprise that Olsen runs alongside many different aspects and anecdotes of Wittgenstein qua the historic figure, and Wittgenstein qua the situation created by his philosophy. This blend of situation and subject is another blurring of additional borders of what is nameable. Through this frame, [[there.]] is also, among other things, another commentary on Wittgenstein, who is German and not-German, Jew and not-Jew, Nazi and not-Nazi:
How the aim of Wittgenstein’s work is to show us–by making us aware of [the] inherent limitations into which we are forever bumping our foreheads–the means by which to get out, no matter what we do, because the top is sealed, because we can’t think beyond language’s glass grammars, because our perceptions are meditated by what we imagine verbs, nouns, and the rest do.
How one gets out (by not getting out), not through applying a single philosophical method to all the linguistic knottinesses but by moving from topic to topic every which way in an ongoing calisthenics of inquisitiveness and alertness.
In this quote, late in the work, we get a glimpse at the methodology of the aphorism. While gazing through the first ten pages, one may wonder, where is Olsen going with these quotes, these disparate angles, this decentralized narrative? Olsen definitely wants to say it all, to force together a completeness. His aphoristic process is a double articulation of brackets in which the first articulations are the aphorisms themselves while the second articulations carry the meaning from aphorism to aphorism, dissolving the formality of white space to force a singularity. Ending this tornado of thought may seem problematic but for the sake of completeness, Olsen forces us beyond the boundaries of language itself to confront the complete human experience. Thus the latter pages of [[there.]] reflect heavily on death, suicide by authors, writers, thinkers. Death here isn’t simply the ending of the text itself, where Olsen needs to find a resolution, but also a marked position within [[there.]], bracketed with the rest of life, travel, and the human condition so as to be within the same plane of what is remarkable. Said simply:
[[That is here (or there).]]
So what is constructed in [[there.]]? How do we get to an equilibrium, to understand what Olsen has made? By breaking such oppositions such as here and there, home and un-home where has Olsen taken us? In a way, Olsen is highlighting for us, a creation of logocentricism.
In the end of Of Grammatology, Derrida’s placement of logocentricism on the Western tradition is mostly hinged on through the central figure of Rousseau (where Rousseau stands-in-for the Enlightenment tradition). Logocentricism isn’t simply the practice of anchoring language in writing, Derrida names the essence of logocentricism as the pure presence that speech, writing and culture refer as the penultimate mark of orientation. In this way, all discourse circumambulates pure presence as the crowned position that creates the space for endless linguistic play to work, to be organized and to be sensible. Naming this pure presence as the supplement forced into metaphysics, Derrida writes in Of Grammatology:
[Rousseau] dreamed of the simple exteriority of death to life, evil to good, representation to presence, signifier to signified, representer to represented, mask to face, writing to speech. But all oppositions are irreducibly rooted in that metaphysics […].
But what does that mean? The opposition of dream to wakefulness, is not that a representation of metaphysics as well? […] At the bottom of a page of Emile, after having once more cautioned us against books, writing, signs […] Rousseau adds a note: “…the dreams of a bad night are given to us as philosophy. You will say too I am a dreamer; I admit it, but I do what others fail to do, I give my dreams as dreams, and leave the reader to discover whether there is anything in them which may prove useful to those who are awake.” (original italics)
Finding ourselves in our travel, in our life, in our home-not-at-home takes us to the middle way, in which oppositions of what we recognize are also in part what is unrecognizable in us, taking us beyond ourselves. Collapsing this difference leads us back to find each other and ourselves, to find the collective I, as a mediating play of Heideggerian Das Sein (in German) or being [[there.]], where our ontology is both bracketed and present, indefinite and home. We can read this bracketing of there as a confronting of ourselves in our unfamiliarity, where we are exposed to new aspects of what we know of ourselves, constantly shifting the ground from under us, as in travel or in a series of aphorisms that demand coherency and challenge us to come to coherency within ourselves.
And so, with self referentiality and meta-fictional play, Olsen brings in the history of the program founded at the American Academy which was meant to foster greater understanding between Americans and Germans after the horror of our shared experience in the two World Wars:
On 4 July 1945, less than a month after entering Berlin, US Forces requisitioned Arnhold’s villa as an Officer’s Club.
Forty-nine years later, as the last American troops departed the city, German ambassador Richard Holbrooke proposed the establishment of a research and cultural institution designed to foster a greater understanding and dialogue between the people of the United States and Germany.
In 1998 the first class of fellows walked through the Academy’s doors.
Since then, more than 300 writers, artists, musicians, and academics in literature, humanities, politics, economic, law and philosophy have worked here: a dozen each spring, a dozen each fall.
Look: there [[I]] am.
With this, we can now end on the note that writing is always collective, always collaboration, a point of spiritual (self) awareness. Travel is the meeting of the familiar in the unfamiliar, and the unfamiliar in our familiar selves, our being [[there.]]. Olsen’s ambitions for this trash diary, this “aesthetic wasteland” are actually quite high. Despite seemingly random, Olsen holds together a larger vision of our shared experience using the formalism of white space itself to articulate the layers of morphology upon which a narrative unity can ride. The role of white space is to mark pacing: where we would expect the next token so we can be less surprised with finding a word [[there,]] and more surprised as to what that collection as a vignette adds to the shifting entirety, helping those of us who are awake but also keeping the dream alive.
This is why critics write criticism, why philosophers write philosophy, why theorists write theory: every critical monograph, theoretical essay, philosophical tome is ultimately no more than no less than an act of spiritual autobiography.