The Runner's Anxiety Arthur Saltzman Essay

person_pin The Runner’s Anxiety

by Arthur Saltzman

Published in Issue No. 109 ~ June, 2006

The Runner’s Anxiety at the Finish Line

. . . the world which could be you but isn’t,

ever quite .

– Brian Swann, “The Shield of Achilles”

Like the fellow who makes a living selling women’s lingerie, an English

professor must make a conscious effort to ensure that the pleasures that
inspired him to choose his career do not decline into mere duties. Woe to the

teacher who discovers that the novels and poems that once aroused his passions

now wait for him like so much laundry to be folded.
For the chief feature of recreation is that it is not required — a mandatory

vacation from work is a lay-off by that or any other name. I have cosigned
favorite books to syllabai and seen them suffer the strain of obligation. I

have read them with a teacher’s priorities and predilections, identifying
passages around which I might shape remarks for the sake of so many intimate

relationships is true of textual ones as well: what begins in love surrenders

to use. Finding them guilty of the crime of viability, I have sentenced
beloved books to hard labor.

The advantage that comes from deforming pleasure into necessity is that

every work I rework for lessons gets comprehensive treatment. In order to
guarantee my facility with its details, nuances, and insights, along with my

tenuous ascendancy among the students in my charge, I make a point of reading

every line on every page, paying my regards down to the most negligible speck

of punctuation. I do so not only to practice what I preach about readerly
diligence but also to protect myself from any suspicion that my hold on the
podium is undeserved. Thus the books I bring to class are amply branded,
scored, filigreed, and tattooed by my private associations and sage asides for

the sharing. They are flocked and fledged with Post-It Notes like the
primaries and secondaries of exotic birds; “Hope is that thing with features,”

wrote Emily Dickinson, and my books are positively downy with it. So while the

poet might rightly protest that hired melodies are sweet, but those unhired are

sweeter, I maintain that the reader who is assigned a delight, like the inmate

given a lavish dinner on death row, while he may not find the dish delectable,

can nevertheless be depended upon not to leave anything on his plate.

As for the books I exclusively reserve for my own diversion and my night

stand, however, the ones I deduct from time spent on my courses if not my
taxes, these face the risk of desertion. For while I’ll slog through every
book I mean to teach even when the plot thickens to tar and the print runs to

tundra, I will occasionally cut bait on a book that I’ve begun simply for my

own amusement when it no longer amuses. I can afford to be bored, in other
words — I can dump its words for other words at my whim. In fact, ditching an

unassigned book can be as liberating an experience as determining to read a la

carte in the first place, Liberating, but also empowering: not every
petitioner to the king earns an audience, nor every case brought to the Supreme

Court a hearing, which is in large part what makes the king regal and the court

supreme. That I can have a story that doesn’t send me rescinded, that I can

return a book uncompleted to the library like a steak to the chef without any

justification other than that I found it undercooked instead of having to force

down every unwelcome bite like a child wishing to be released from the table to

play, can be
so enticing that I might deliberately pick up a discreditable text just for the

satisfaction of disposing of it as casually as I opened it.

So I have buried whole plots with impunity and entire casts cast aside
without troubling to learn the fates ascribed to them. I have traded novels to

the local book store just for a
buck or two to defray the cost of lunch, having scaled less than halfway up
Freitag’s Pyramid
before rolling back down the slope, leaving strangers to make the ascent
instead. I might
feel a twinge of guilt when the book I abandon is an established classic or one

that’s been urged upon me by a friend, so that rejecting it mid-read makes me

feel cousin to Flannery
O’Connor’s Shiftlet in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” when, having
wheedled a few dollars and a broken-down car from her mother, he runs out on

the retarded Lucynell. (Either the strength of O’Connor’s talent or the
pressure of an impending test gets most readers all the way through that
story.) But I bear up despite my moral lapse, figuring that there’s no reason

to let a bad date become a bad marriage just for the sake of propriety. My
commitment is over, whatever evidence to the contrary the bookmark I leave
behind may betray.

While I am unceremoniously showing an author the door, in the other room

Joy is preparing for the end of a novel, an event that she greets with as much

ceremony as she would any Thanksgiving. It is as if, by plumping her pillow,

situating her coffee, adjusting her lamp, and propping her feet just so, she

means to reciprocate the author for having captivated her over the course of

days and pages. When she’s down to a chapter
or so to go, she girds herself for the final push as if it were a birth instead

of an ending that awaited her. but it is when she sees that she’s arrived at

the final pinch of pages before the approaching back cover that she hesitates.

Indeed, she will sometimes stop herself like
a lover postponing orgasm or a surfer squeezing another moment of buoyancy out

of a great wave, hoping to extend the gratification for as long as possible.

(Consummation needn’t be the only purpose; by no means should it be the first.)

Thus each of us, reading in our respective rooms in our respective ways, avoids

conclusive behavior. I balk at the
prospect of the long haul when it appears that I’ll end up doing most of the

pulling myself; she, meanwhile, turns a parting embrace into a revived passion

and what were supposed to be finishing touches into a revived passion and what

were supposed to be finishing touches unto renewed fondling.

This reluctance to culminate, this inability to put the period to
declaration rather than insulate oneself from an ending with draft after draft

or repeated delay, may account in part for the slacker’s slackness and the
ABD’s Zeno-like failure to home in on his doctorate a dozen years after setting

out after it. “Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly
finished,” he might announce along with Samuel Beckett’s Clov, his confidence

diminishing with each disclaimed phrase, as it grows ever clearer that the
endgame can go on infinitely, so that his penance implies a purgatory after
all. (Clov echoes Christ, of course, whose ability to quit the world with
relatively little flinching might have been the godliest thing about Him.) The

end is inevitable, the player’s, the reader’s, or the author’s stalling
notwithstanding, yet in Beckett it keeps its niggling distance even beyond the

at the purported close. (I went to a performance of Endgame at which the
audience was confused as to whether or not it was time to get up from their
seats, so obscurely did the performance dwindle away. Ultimately, it was not

an on-stage climax but consensus among those in attendance that these meager

“revels” were at an end, coupled with the discreet entrance of the ushers,
which dispersed us.) Elsewhere Beckett writes that “things limp forward to the

only possible,” offering the floor to another stagnant, ineradicable voice,
which can fizzle but not cease, seeing as it can constantly pronounce its dying

but never its death.

I do realize that despite the association with Beckett’s specters, not

everyone and everything that fails to achieve fruition should be indicted.
True enough, the permanently undecided majors on college campuses, who stick

like grit deep in the curricular gears and who’ll never claim a yearbook though

they may make cameo appearances in ten, could use counseling or, arguably, a

session of electroshock. Both Borges’s “Garden of Forking Paths” and Frost’s

“pathless wood” equally threaten; the hypertext and the blank screen alike,
keep us from getting on with it: the one because there too many “its” nipping

at our aims, the other because there is no “it” in evidence to aim at. And so

I sympathize with the
non-finishers — the dilettantes, the recidivists, the pitchers who cannot
sustain themselves for more than six or seven innings without needing relief —

because I suspect that it’s been dumb luck as much as any diligence or destiny

of mine that is enabling me to last out my contract and my mortgage where
others accept rental after rental and a series of so-called “McJobs.” And even

this is too presumptuous: who knows that the economy won’t street me or that

one of my organs won’t suddenly go out before I’m through using it? John Doone

spoke of “the profuse and wasteful dilapidations of the body,” by which he
implied that until we are finished here, solely spirit, indivisible, and
heaven bent, we are built for deviation, so we shouldn’t pat ourselves too
heartily on our fragile backs when we do reach an achievement.

When our monitors bother us about being productive, it’s an
incontrovertible purpose they have in mind. All of the bosses we’ll ever have

will demand it. It’s what our president expects although we’d much rather
sleep in on a Saturday and what our grandfathers geeze about while we’re trying

to concentrate on the TV. Every arrow assumes a target, they tell us, and our

own lives are best lived with the same single, straightforward intention. Grow

up to home in. You see their emerging success stories in the girls who hurtle

down the street with their strollers scudding, their embedded babies
uncomplaining as they jounce nearly out of their care. You see them in the
boys who dive at the goal line at the alley’s end, never minding the gravel and

the glass. You’d think they were oriented in utero to have become so ruthless

so fast. No hesitation deflects them, no trope. Compared to them, we’re
advised the goaless inhabit the inertial circumstance of those drumming monkeys

in antique toyshops, listless tin hitting tin. Still, whenever I hear about

the virtues of finishing school, I can’t help but think of those unveering
birds that fly headlong into skyscraper windows and get smacked by their own

vectors coming back at them. Likely as not, comeuppance or letdown lurks
around the next corner no matter how exacting the maps we’ve made. Our
beginnings never know our ends, Eliot said, who didn’t know for sure that when

he embarked on that quartet he’d endure long enough to finish four. For if
every capital letter one puts down represents a covenant, it represents an
impertinence, too. Our sentences are that indefinite.

One obvious upside to open-endedness is that no options are subject to
review and revision; our mission may have been framed and bolted to the wall of

every building on campus to remind us that fixity is a myth and that nothing

about the institution is carved in stone. I live in a country whose currency

likewise attests to inherently unfinished business. The incomplete pyramid on

the back of any dollar bill implies that America itself, or at least its
capital, is an enterprise designed to be eternally under construction.
“There’s a hell/ of a good universe next door; let’s go,” proclaimed E.E.
Cummings, mimicking the inconstancy of the “busy monster” mankind had become,

but there are times when forsaking a sinking ship is solid strategy, no matter

who happens to be responsible for putting the hole in the boat.

Granted, I can admire the guy who does not simply dispose of a crossword

puzzle when he comes to the impasse of 62 Down-oasis in southern Africa, Shona

var. — but spends a Sunday on-line dowsing for that hidden water. I respect

the fellow who memorizes passages out of Sun-tzu’s The Art of War in order to

increase his sales of term insurance or to help his tennis game. Spouses who

cling to the flotsam of an exploded relationship, who believe that it’s more

virtuous to go down together clawing than to betray their misgivings by
treading water; investors who prefer to go bankrupt rather than try to escape

their bonds; smokers who suck down to the nub of the butt and the lung — I
appreciate them and the rest of life’s closers, the getters of last outs and

goers all the way.

Nonetheless, there is something to be said on behalf of irresolution.

Perseverance has its place, but so might polytropism. That term serves
literary critics when they champion Huck Finn, whose ever-ready trump is to
“light out for the territory” whenever civilization threatens to let down the

promise of its name. Victory for him is the going, not the goal, which would

feel as fatal as the fall of an ax. As Millicent Bell explains, “The act of

fabricating the self seems finally, Twain seems to be saying, only an aspect of

storytelling, an act of the mind analogous to the writing of fiction. The idea

of goal, the telic tendency of plot, is rejected in favor of the idea that play

is the essence of art; by implication, life, as illustrated by Huck’s
adventures, cannot be said to have goal either.” And doesn’t Twain preface the

narrative by threatening to prosecute any person who attempts to find motive

in it? In Huck Finn we meet the young Buddhist of the Mississippi, who extols

the going over the getting there. What are his adventures and his raft-spun

analyses but manifestations of his own Incompleteness Theorem? Improvisation,

diversion, contradiction, infidelity — these strategies enable Huck to keep

moving towards without attaining a final arrest. Accordingly, Huck is
continually seduced, and seduces us, by refusing to let anyone have the last

word on him.

“What mind of any strength — beginning with Homer — has ever come to a

conclusion?” asks Flaubert, Recognizing years in advance of his death that he

would never complete Boulevard and Pecuchet, he finessed the inevitable by
treating its interminability as sign of intelligence. And that logic is
seconded by literary critics who champion that talent for perpetuation.
Addressing the tendency of many great novels to peter out unconvincingly, James

Wood suggests that this may be a natural consequence of successful imitation of

life. The author who has achieved that effect in his work “cannot really
wrench it away from that continuity by bringing it to a close.” Wood
speculates that “there is an interesting analogy with psychoanalysis, which
`slows down’ the treatment of the analysand so that analysis often takes years

and years; but then, after so many years, the analysand often finds the
termination of treatment a bruising affront to continuity.” If Wood is right,

Joy’s rituals for savoring the end of a book by stretching it out for as long

as possible could be called novelistic or neurotic. I think it sensible not to

mention either connection — certainly not while she’s reading.

Back when I was an undergraduate, I ran into Rodney, a classmate from my

European novel course, excoriating Kafka on the Quad. He was frustrated by
several of the authors we were studying because of the number and
impenetrability of the pages they’d amassed for our torment, but Kafka tapped a

special well of vitriol because, as Rodney
learned only on the last page of The Trial, we’ d been finagled by claims of

Kafka’s greatness to spend two weeks plowing through an unfinished manuscript.

Rodney and the rest of us had been railroaded. Who knew that a fragment could

loom so large and last so long! (How did Australians stand the discovery that

their country was just an island for all its size?) At least War and Peace had

the decency to cease fire after fifteen hundred pages; after enduring eight
hundred pages of Crime and Punishment, you get parole. But reaching what
purported to be the last page of The Trial was like coming home with dessert

and learning only then that there were only eleven doughnuts in the box. Kafka

was the canon’s example of a shaggy dog story writ large: all fancy protraction

and no punch line. “If I put in the time, I expect the payoff,” Rodney raged.

“Where’s the friggin ` decorum, you know? Where’s the justice? If Kafka
himself wasn’t done with the damn thing, how the hell am I supposed to be?” In

defending the craft of the novel, Howard Jacobson writes that narrative “mean

to liberate us from the debilitating certainties” that constitute so much of

extra-textural life. But for readers like Rodney, a dependable destination is

not a constraint to wish to be freed from; it is a contract, pure and simple.

The only thing worse for him than being let down by a required writer was being

let down part way.

Flash-forward to the present day, to a site miles away from where we
struggled with the esteemed Europeans. There what looks like wreckage is
actually all of the construction a town could accomplish of its proposed
upgrade of a community playground before the
city council, strapped as city councils always are, decided to cut the budget

line. Building was begun with an eye toward funding “on the come,” but the
come never came. You
can see a scatter of rebar like dinosaur spines, which concerned parents have

piled beyond the sand pit where their toddlers dig in. There are bricks wired

tight and stacks of lumber waiting where they have waited for over a year, much

like the wood-pile that Robert Frost happened upon in one of his poems: “I
thought that only/Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks/Could so forget

his handiwork on which/He spent himself . . . . ” Like a makeshift Christo
installation, a large tarpaulin battened down by cinder blocks shields the
children from some of the more hazardous (and more tempting) debris. The
monkey bars and
the plastic climbing apparatus, which look like scaffolding anyway, are
serviceable, but
the promised multi-color tunnel complex is absent, the circular base of the
Tilt-a-Whirl contraption lies like a spent discus in the grass, and from the

high bar that presides over
the park, no swings swing.

A savvy mayor might encourage voters to view what there is of the
playground as an emblem of the children who preserve there. Like them, it is a

design in progress. Architect Robert Venturi maintains that “in the validity

complex building or cityscape, the eye does not want to be too easily or too

quickly satisfied in its search for unity within a whole,” and although he was

not commissioned on this instance, his argument might not have been adduced to

describe both the playground and the kids who frequent it. One day, they will

participate in graduation exercises that, despite their apocalyptic
intimations, will be called commencement instead of termination. Ideally, all

growth, whether physical, intellectual. or spiritual, is a race that the winner

finishes last, if at all. That is the kind of homily he might offer against

the gouged acre that from season to season fills with pop cans and cigarette

butts, grackles amd snow.

Even if he could convince that Rodney who found Kafka unjustifiable to
visit the playground, I doubt that the mayor would have had much luck
convincing him that it is viable as it now stands, much less a monument to
ongoingness. The Rodney that I remember would easily resist the lure of
deferral. He would not be the sort to stick around to watch a performance in

which something nearly happens; on the contrary, realizing that the other shoe

was not going to fall, he’d bolt to beat the traffic.

But it is interesting to see that the kids themselves don’t seem to care.

Nothing stints their ingenuity or negates their play. They scramble and
compete and scuttle and venture and invent as dependably as other kids on
playgrounds founded upon a stronger tax base do. They adapt the ground rules

of their games to permanently incipient circumstances that truncated funding

created. Yes, it’s a mongrel operation altogether that they have accustomed

themselves to. Their parents regularly complain on the editorial page of the

newspaper that their representatives have reneged on their most vulnerable
citizen — by failing them now, bruising their future. Yet even the parents

would have to admit that, from all appeases, their fun hasn’t suffered much.

Legislative Rodneys to the contrary, the kids do more than manage, clambering

over what there is to clamber over, demonstrating the genius of making do.
Dismissive Rodneys notwithstanding, they incorporate incompletion, and the
games go on. On their disappointed playground, the dauntless children content

themselves with what’s available: the evidently ample consolation of the here

and now.

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Arthur Saltzman's most recent book of essays, Nearer, was published by Parlor Press this year. His previous books include the collection of essays Objects and Empathy (2001), winner of the First Series Creative Nonfiction Award) and six critical studies of literature and writing. He is currently a Professor of English at Missouri Southern State University.