For several days now I have felt an odd mixture of compulsion and revulsion with regard to writing about Shellie Ross, mother and blogger, who ignited a firestorm (chiefly on Twitter) in the aftermath of reports, including her own updates, that she was tweeting shortly before, and shortly after, her two-year-old son fell in their swimming pool and drowned. The stark juxtaposition of a medium that is already contested (cf. my recent post on George Packer and David Carr) with a life-and-death situation that ends so unequivocally seems to cry out for commentary, critique – some discursive response from those who know and use Twitter and have a passing acquaintance with loss. The journalistic accounts (e.g. from HuffPo, WaPo and the NYT) cite tweets that alternately attack and defend Ms. Ross. Few if any manage to rise above the quagmire of opinion to attain anything resembling judgment.
So I’m taking a pass for the moment, and will confine myself to passing along material on this case as I encounter it, and perhaps return to it after greater distance and more reflection.
Reflection, in my own case, is sorely needed at this juncture. In times like this (though there has never been a time quite like this), there are a handful of writers to whom I return as instinctively as I might reach for an arm or a wall to steady myself and avoid falling down the stairs (I’ve broken enough bones for one lifetime). Chief among these is Walter Benjamin, whom I have invoked and cited more than once (just check my tag cloud) both on my startup blog, fledgling, and here on Makurrah’s Blog. Last night, as I sought to fend off the great waves of sorrow that crash over me and recede leaving me directionless, I left the house with a volume of Benjamin’s work and my notebook, without a clue where I was headed. I wound up at a cafe, where I copied out the following (in longhand) with a salutary sense that, if nothing else, I would be able to transcribe it again here today.
From “One-Way Street” in Selected Writings, vol. 1, 447-8, under the heading “Chinese Curios”:
The power of a country road when one is walking along it is different from the power it has when one is flying over it by airplane. In the same way, the power of a text when it is read is different from the power it has when it is copied out. The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscape, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it. Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands, and of how, from the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of its turns like a commander deploying soldiers at a front. Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of daydreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command. The Chinese practice of copying books was thus an incomparable guarantee of literary culture, and the transcript a key to China’s enigmas.
Copying, submitting the mind to command – perhaps that’s the way to proceed for now.