One afternoon I couldn’t think straight. I’d just come home and dropped my valise on the hardwood floor when I realized that I’d forgotten to wipe my snowy, muddy shoes on the rough rug in the kitchen. I thought of the rug in that way: “rough.” In what way could a rug be “rough,” I wondered, and I considered bending down to touch it—but that would be an odd thing to do, even though I lived alone, and so I stopped myself. My thoughts drifted to the sounds of my apartment—the hum of the refrigerator, a fan which I left on to circulate the air, the clanking of my dog’s tags as she trotted up to me—and I continued to stare at the rug as words rushed by in my head.
I managed to hook my dog to her lead, and she hopped down the stoop and onto the snow-dusted strip of grass which ran behind the four apartments in the building. The sunlight was austere, the way it is only in the late winter. That February morning I had taken my anti-depressant, a chalky little pill to which I’d become accustomed. But this ongoing rush of words had been happening all day; for lost time I heard only the chattering of my thoughts, some internal voice rambling on and on, most of it nonsense, some it memory, until, like the detritus of logs and leaves in even a fast-flowing river, the words piled up, begging for release.
I considered what would happen if I took another pill. Maybe cut one in half. And what would happen if I didn’t take another pill?
“Or maybe I should take a bottle of pills,” I said aloud.
The words continued to rush past, like a ticker-tape machine reporting the stocks, which I might have been able to read if I could’ve just listened long enough instead of watching the reel spool into a tangle of guts. And so I sat down at the dinner table and reached for a piece of shorn scrap paper. I stared at the paper and finally wrote the following:
I AM JUST WRITING TO SAY WHAT
IN SINGLE SINGULARS:
I L Y A B W C Y O U T M?
After a moment, I crossed out some words, which I have indicated above. An hour might have passed. My ears felt warm, as if they’d been pricked, and I put the pen to the paper and scribbled again.
There is a double awareness to depression, as William Styron once noted, and I have often, since I was a boy, ‘seen’ myself from a minor distance, not unlike an out-of-body experience. (Doctors, who prefer not to depend on the miraculous but instead the mundane, would call this a Locale 1, or etheric, projection.) That day I could see the comic image of me, Benjamin Dodd, from an angle just over my left shoulder as I sat hunched over the dining room table, furiously writing out garbled nonsense, a rooster’s plume of hair falling forward, my white button-down shirt loose and wrinkled, my temple resting against my left fist. What was he doing? Certainly he looked to be working. Good for him! Work had not come easily the past year; he would hardly begin a project or sit down to some grading before finding himself staring abjectly at the table or the desk or the dog. Look, he could hardly pry himself away!
I wrote a few more words and crossed a few more of them out:
BE SAID. THE FARMER’S WIFE FARMER,
THEIR HANDS SOILED—
Anyone watching might have thought the words were flowing steadily; I didn’t thrash about, exhale loudly, and only began to quiver when it became obvious that I was getting nowhere, actually getting worse, since each word and strikethrough only made clear to me the mania I was experiencing, which made it even more important to write the mysterious this down, which only made it more impossible.
Perhaps it was at this moment that I decided a letter to Anya would better coax out the secret I wished to say. At least this is my theory now. I had Anya to thank, in some twisted ways, for this place I’d arrived at; less than a year before, I had a breakdown, baying at my distance from and rejection by this red-haired, evangelical Christian beauty much younger than me, a former student who frequently dissected the words I used, words like “honesty” and “love,” in the manner I’d encouraged her to when she was in my first-year writing class. Anya had dropped out, gone home—how idiotic the whole thing had been! Such a cliché! She looking for her father figure—or, more precisely, the brother who had grown cold to her as he’d become a teenager—and I afraid to be alone, afraid to age, pleased at the first sign of affection from a young woman. And yet I’d howled at her absence, and my absence from the God who was her true lover, and the utter failure of what I’d believed to be the orderly and progressive path of my life.
Let me tell you: that’s when I began to suspect something was wrong.
Life was supposed to be good now. I’d gone to the shrink, faced my depression, gotten my pills, conquered mountaintops, etc., and Anya and I were talking again. She had, in fact, just been to visit me in January. We were calmer, our idiocy replaced by the barely rational decision to take a chance on the heedless attraction we felt for each other, and though she’d been a little skittish lately because we’d taken that chance without protection and she’d gone home and still hadn’t bled yet, I wanted very much to call her.
But I thought I might babble at her. Knew, in fact, that I would.
Reaching for another scrap of paper, torn at one edge in a snaking curve, I wrote:
NO WORDS, DEAREST, NO EXPRESSION, NEED BE SAID?
BY WHOM? AND WHO WILL SIT IN THE EVENING CHAIR SLOW ROCKING?
My bottom lip tensed. I removed my glasses and wiped away the slickness on my cheeks and tried again. The same meandering results, worse because the words were meant for someone I loved, someone who said she loved me, which meant she ought to understand me and I ought to be able to speak to her in words that could be understood. I sobbed for a moment or two, then hacked away at the slip of paper, digging in with the tip of the pen, destroying every word with its own black blood, until I’d dug grooves into the paper and my wrists and knuckles hurt, and I’d ruined the roller-ball.
An exegetical sermon is one based on a Biblical passage. The passage serves as an anchor for the benefit of the pastor and his or her flock; the pastor may veer off in a few directions, but the goal is always to explain the passage, its message, to interpret the word of God—which to me sounds like a pretty tall order, though I have heard some do it beautifully. Which is not to say clearly. I wonder, too, if it’s impossible to perform an exegesis without veering off in a slightly different direction, without, say, introducing a contemporary allusion or metaphor which the flock will understand. Wal-Mart, for instance, or email, or the act of stitching together a torn shirt.
The fragmented document I was creating that day was, in fact, a kind of secular exegesis, or notes for the purpose of creating one. It took me a moment to see the parallel, there at the table, but some time after I had written this—
STRIKETHROUGHS. MOUNTAINS AND STRIKETHROUGHS.
—it became clear to me that I was trying to craft some explanatory and sympathetic sermon about Lucky’s soliloquy in Act I of Waiting for Godot. Far worse, as I am perhaps greatly inclined to lamentation and despair with or without my chalky white pills in the mornings, my mind had sympathized with and thus been opened up to and infected by the spiritual ‘thing’ of his speech. Lucky’s mania had waited two days after I’d shown my students the videotaped performance by the San Quentin Theatre Workshop, but it was his.
Lucky peers aghast at the horror of the past-written sky. Snatches of words he used to know speed across that grey slate above the two thieves’ terminus, and he returns in white flashes to a primer, to the oak halls of an institution of higher learning, to Plato and to the peep show, and to the ceaseless, vaporous prattling of the drunk on the patched barstool, the carnival barker and the priest, Shakespeare, the Irish boys and their dirty jokes, the promises of miracle elixirs, law firms, dieticians and professors, translators and revelators, until these memories are white-hot and melt into a molten language, no one word meaningful, no word without meaning.
Because zeitgeist is an idea which has fallen out of favor, and less so, the collective unconscious, I had no interest in discovering if I was not alone in my affliction. Besides, it’s not like everyone else was walking around tongue-tied and furiously spitting up a language of gibberish.
Scanning what I had written, I noticed that the patterns of my sentences—if I could call them that—were less jagged than Lucky’s outburst, more ponderous. But still of him. Woven also into the bric-a-brac was a fragment of a song lyric I’d overheard, perhaps, and the beginning of a famous poem by William Carlos Williams. Rip-offs. Even my aphasia was second-rate! And to plagiarize Beckett? Contemptible! What belonged to me?
I dialed the number, then, that I shouldn’t have.
“Hello?” said Anya as if she’d just stopped jogging.
Informing her of my malady, I left out no detail, and naturally the sludgy incoherence of my writing filled my voice.
“I don’t even know if they’re my crazy thoughts or someone else’s.”
“Hmm,” she said.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.”
She was silent. Thoughtful. Ah, those silent and thoughtful moments we each cherished, waiting patiently until one or the other asked what the other was thinking, and the put-upon would reveal something brilliant and sweet, which only confirmed how much we loved each other.
“It sounds like you’re…pretending,” she said. “Like this isn’t really you.”
The hand which held the phone shook. I didn’t know whether to scream or sob. And so I told her she was probably right, that I was probably play-acting, and that I would go lay down to get rid of my urge to pretend, and before she could say more than “Acting isn’t exactly the right word,” I hung up.
This is the end of the story—I did what I told her I would do, except that I took another of my Lexapro pills before I went to sleep, wishing that I wouldn’t wake up, and then I woke up as if from a stiff hangover. Within the month, Anya again broke off our long-distance affair, now that she was certain her delayed period was just delayed and not the result of a pregnancy that would have ruined both of us. Maybe that was the stress which afflicted me that day—which is to say, not so much stress. Which explains why I fear going off again. I’ll go on, to paraphrase Beckett, but to go on means to risk going off. On/off.
But another brief and possibly more coherent exegetical reading seems in order, so that you walk away feeling as though you’ve gotten what you came for. Our text comes from an unpublished and unperformed one-act play which may or may not have been written by Mr. Beckett; I have had the pleasure of reading it in the Beckett collection held in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Division of The Ohio State University Library, where it was placed upon agreement by various Beckett scholars, despite their uncertainty about its authorship. Wrote one, brilliantly, “Our inclusion of the manuscript may in fact capture Beckett’s belief in not-knowing, but, of course, we can’t be sure.”
The succinct piece—untitled, one page long, but longer in its execution than “Breath”—consists of a man in a prison uniform onstage as the lights rise to a level which Beckett (or not-Beckett) describes as “dull.” The man in the prison uniform stands motionless for “a very long time” until he finally says, “Home.” After another very long period of silence and inertia, the lights fade.
What we might first notice: that Beckett, capable of writing Lucky’s soliloquy in Godot, and wordy pieces like “Not I” and “A Piece of Monologue”, here risks the utterance of a single word. Secondly, perhaps, we note that again Beckett trumps the pallid writings of all of those pesky deconstructionists, who would have run from the theatre like rats from a listing but still-floating ship if they’d seen this play. Why? Because, in its staging, the untitled work embodies the conflict in a living human being. Which the decons have no interest in, or are simply not good at. The head is their domain, and if yours is not so good all the time, screw you Mary Lou. Beckett was secretly compassionate; deconstructionists forget that we have sex organs. (The first time I heard someone describe deconstruction, it sounded to me like bi-polar disorder. But the more I thought about it – I thought about it a lot—I know, it’s sad—the more I thought about it, the more it, deconstruction, sounded like depression instead. Sounded like me. The only project is to tear down, to doubt. In every way you can think of. You don’t want to doubt, but you can’t help it, and then, sidling up to you like the sighted Pozzo about to go blind, they tell you that you should doubt. It is indeed appalling. Of course, when it’s purely theoretical, no one gets hurt. But if I spend every day like that, I am going to hurt myself.)
Perhaps most pertinent to my discussion of that day in 2008 is the importance of the prisoner’s apparel. We begin by assuming he is a prisoner. Thus the word “home” immediately goes in two directions: the hopeful yet melancholy invocation of the place he wishes to be, may still yet get to; and, on the other hand, the resigned defeatism of equating this prison with “home.” (It’s vital to note Beckett’s stage direction, that this single word be read “evenly,” so as to remain ambiguous.) But we must step back: even if he is not a prisoner, we apprehend that either he has been forced to wear the garb, or that he has chosen it for some symbolic purpose. Thus we still arrive at the same conclusion: the man is not where he would like to be, and his discontent only emerges by the utterance of the word. As our friend Lucky demonstrated also, many winters ago on the Drumcree Summit, to think is to speak and to speak is to think, but we are trapped by both.