In the forests of Thailand, the “zombie fungus,” scientifically known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, infects and controls the behavior of carpenter ants. Once its spores attach to an ant, the fungus manipulates its host, causing it to leave its nest in search of an environment sufficiently humid and temperate enough to nurture its growth. A mere host at this point, the ant latches onto the underside of a tall leaf, and locks down, unable to move. Then, the fungus’s fruiting bodies fracture the ant’s head, sprouting more spores onto the air in search of other hosts. Thus, the cycle of control and replication continues. While most people would argue that the fungus pilots the ant’s body, fewer scholars and scientists are as certain of applying a similar argument to language and ideas – that ideas replicate themselves and contain the elements necessary to nurture their own replication.
However, recent studies prove that cultural ideas are contagious. In the article “Contagion in Mass Killings and Schools Shootings,” Towers et al. demonstrates that media coverage about massacres of four people or more in a school setting temporarily incite similar instances for up to 13 days afterwards (1). Likewise, Gould, Jamieson and Romer argue that mass media coverage of suicides can incite suicide in teens (qtd. in Towers et al 2). Moreover, the spread of YouTube videos, as demonstrated by Mitchell and Cates, can also be partially explained through contagion models (qtd. in Towers et al 3). These ideas act like a virus, spreading among people, affecting their behavior.
Similar to the infectious mold spores and the contiguous nature of cultural ideas, the main argument in Peter Streckfus’s book of poems, Errings, is that literary and cultural fictions have the ability to grasp hold of a mind and become real in the reader’s enactment of its ideas. Streckfus is a Brodsky Rome Prize Fellow in Literature and has received grants from the Peter S. Reed Foundation and the Bread Load Writer’s conference. More importantly, though, his work is critical to the modern conversation about poetics and consciousness. While Streckfus’s first book, the Yale Younger Award winner, Cuckoo, similarly dealt with replication of language, his second book, Errings, argues that replication is a critical function of consciousness. Moreover, in Errings, three transmissions occur that are comparable to the zombie fungus manipulating the ant. First, a father gives a copy of his pirate novel to his son to finish for him. Second, a set of rules for writing poems in the style of renga are passed down and adapted in later writings. Lastly, these rules of language land in the consciousness of two characters, affecting their behavior. All of these transmissions establish the act of replication as a crucial factor in the act of thinking.
Like the themes of Errings, a person’s interactions in any given culture follow these six tenets, which I will demonstrate throughout the essay: 1. The world we inhabit is an enactment of fictions; 2. We are characters in any given fiction, and therefore our actions are restricted by the rules of the fiction and its language; 3. Each person’s fiction is comprised of her personal and cultural identity; 4. These fictions only become real through our behavioral enactment of them; 5. Fictions will inherently clash with other, competing fictions; 6. Explanations for personal and cultural fictions cannot be explained by physical models alone because something else is at work, i.e. “memes.” These six tenets shape modern consciousness.
Going forward, the fictions people enact through behavior are referred to by these terms: “fiction,” both literary and social fictions. The outdated idea that the earth was flat, for example, was a fiction, as is the currently held belief that race is a genetic reality. Other terms employed for fictions are “ideas” and “concepts,” since fictions are built of these, and also “texts,” since all literary and some social fictions are formed in texts and likewise replicated by them. Lastly, they are referred to as “memes,” a term coined by Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene. “Meme” acts as a label for the smallest unit of an idea that can be successfully replicated, or as Pascal Boyer defines the term: “Units of culture: notions, values, stories, etc. that get people to speak or act in certain ways that make other people store a replicated version of these mental units” (Boyer 35). Critical to this definition is the notion that people “store” these “mental units.” Memes have to be passed on, otherwise they die out, just as genes do. Finally, the term “the reader” is used in both its common form, but also to represent a person interpreting and enacting cultural fictions.
In this way, Errings argues for a reality built of fictions. Its people enact the ideas of the fiction, even as they are aware of the ambiguity between the real and the mirage. This idea is set up in the poem “Transmigration.” In this poem, the characters are conscious of the fictions they inhabit. While the speaker and his lover are bird watching, a view of the shorebird digging into the mud seems “a film/ a silent television” and all the noises around them—noises of the breathing and of the waters—are a “displaced, incongruous soundtrack” (68). The words “displaced” and “incongruous” highlight the turbulence between reality and fiction, and emphasize that the experiences of the speaker and lover may be more of a living-out of an idea rather than any experience we might call physically real. For instance, there is no need to note that the sounds of water, the characters’ voices, and their breaths are “displaced” beside the bird. They are, in fact, sounds expected in this aquatic scene. What is actually incongruous is the speaker’s interpretation of the event and the notion that any real sense can be made of an experience outside of a fictional reading of that experience. Through our interpretations, we are laying the soundtracks.
The speaker notes the ambiguity of sensory experience through his investigation of the lover’s note. He says, “‘How real a proximity that cannot be/ accompanied by touch, how real the mud/ “at a distance”?’ you wrote,/ having lost sight of it, as it flew/ out over the lake of your own illusion”(69). The speaker, through the lover’s note, questions whether our experience of the world is accurate or whether it’s partially created in the mind, a sort of chimera. The speaker investigates this illusion further as he addresses his lover again: “Love, some of our movements could be explained/ by natural laws, but some cannot be” (70). The speaker is telling his lover to locate experience in not only immediate sensory phenomenon, such as touching the mud, but also in memes and cultural fictions.
To understand language and human behavior in this way suggests a non-traditional theory of consciousness. Accordingly, “Transmigration,” in the “movements” section quoted above, represents this theory by aligning this section of the poem to the right, rather than to the left of the margin. As a result, the poem has shifted our traditional ordering. If one attempts the difficult tasks of arguing such nonconventional ideas, that person must start in the most common place: the text.
Text as Water: Our Encounters Inside a Fiction
Every fiction must have a text. In Errings, the text is initially symbolized as water in which the readers, as fish, swim. Not only does this symbolism place the reader within a fiction, it also gives the abstract concept of that fiction a physical presence. The first example of this symbolism is in the poem “Videos of Fish.” It starts by referencing Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying with a quote of its most absurd line: “My mother is a fish.” The poem moves on to say, “All things, at their base, are water,/ Thales, the first Western philosopher, tells me.” Finally, the speaker references his own father, saying, “In life, my author, you chose birds to speak to” (4). The reader knows this is the father because he whistles at these birds while sitting in the same wheelchair he will sit in later in the book. Through the first seven lines of this poem the speaker provides the initial cues needed to understand that the reader is a character within a fiction. First, he sets up the text as water, which is a symbol that will be needed to understand, later, how our consciousness dips in and out of a fiction. He also references literary fictions through Falkner. Second, there is an overlapping and imitation of voices, as the “all things” line is first read as the poet’s words before we realize he is replicating another person’s ideas. Lastly, the father, the birthplace of ourselves, the storer of the information that realizes us, emerges. After noting these elements, the poem immediately goes on to say, “I make now this poem, luminous,/ hollow channels, to give you a place to occupy—/ I give you water now”(4). From these three elements (fictions, layering and replication of ideas, and the possibility of a father/author), the poet creates a fiction that the reader can inhabit both figuratively and literally. As a result, a person’s “occupation,” i.e. existence in consciousness, depends on a fiction, a replication of ideas, and a father/author from whom those ideas can be passed on.
With the text now symbolized by water, the reader can begin to understand the text’s role in a cultural fiction. The section “Body of Fish,” which comes from the larger poem, “Videos of Fish,” starts, “Come to the surface of the screen with your light/ and oxygen holes and press them for moments/ against the page” (11). The screen is both the surface of water and the fiction we inhabit. It is the boundary between the text and our lives, a boundary described later in Errings as a “bardo”. The poet commands the readers to turn our bodies into a “C” shape, bending first one way, then the other, so that they flop and curve like a fish. Through this movement, the reader bends on and “off the screen” (11). This movement symbolizes the reader fluctuating in and out of the fiction. The C-shape of this movement itself is also important. “C” is, of course, the first letter in both civilization and consciousness, which the poet emphasizes later in this poem.
Many readers, not just one, fluctuate a fiction. The poem continues to direct us: “this movement follow with movement of more bodies,/ simultaneous, unconscious, aggregate—”(11). As several bodies begin to “oscillate” between fiction and reality, between this blurred line of the illusion and of the actual, the readers’ movements become a “shoal and plural movement of consciousness” (12). Thus, the collective process of each person entering and enacting fictions through behavior is the substance of consciousness. The reader focuses in on the words she is reading, letting the marks hold her focus, until she starts thinking about what she had for breakfast, and before she knows it, she has read an entire page while simultaneously thinking of other things. Similarly, she looks up from the book and thinks about a person making noises in another room, or a bird rattling at the window, before delving back into the book’s world. This is one way that the reader oscillates a fiction.
There is another way, though. The reader also changes from one belief to another in her daily life. She enacts the fictions of group culture, playing a character in the group dynamic, before she is alone and acts out a different fiction, or until she is with another group and mimics their performance. In turn, she is “Setting and set by the turbid water in motion,” as she both dictates the directions of her collective fictions and is dictated and restricted by them. The idea that both a shifting personal and shifting group consciousness sets out humanity’s path is a “new law of movement,” different from the physical laws spoken of earlier (12). And, as the reader changes her behavior of these fictions, or as she enacts these fictions against the phenomenon of the physical world, a transitional state is created: a bardo.
Bardo: The Transitional State
For Streckfus, the bardo exists as the boundary between fiction and the physical world. Although this transitional state becomes enacted in and consequential to the physical world, the bardo is governed, at least partially, by a fictional order or a set of fictional rules, such as cultural codes, language rules, and the limits set by a person’s social and personal upbringing. Streckfus calls this state by many names: the transitional state, nini funi, bardo (6, 8-9). He says “a bardo is a gap between states” (8). It exists between “the death of one state of mind” and “the birth of another” (9). In “Body of Dreams” bardo is represented by the father who emerges in the speaker’s dreams as a vampire that was “neither alive nor dead, both and neither.” In such a border state, the father is described like this: “Unable to pass, he craved and feared his lasting” (8). He is the dead father of the speaker’s world, the father who authored the speaker and who authored the work the speaker adapts into a section of Errings. Both real and symbolic, the father’s ability to remain (since he is dead) becomes possible through the adaptation of his work and the replication of his genes.
Additionally, the father symbolizes memes. Memes, like genes, are replicated from prior versions of themselves. Where one version of a story dies, another takes it up, replicates it, and becomes an imitation of it. If it is not replicated, it passes on into nothingness. Therefore, the space between instances of replication, imitation, and mutation is a bardo. The bardo is also present in the space between our enactment of fictions and their interactions with other people’s enactments of different fictions. The reader is, always, somewhere in this grey area, flickering in and out in the same way that, while reading, her consciousness passes from the book, to the window, to what she had for lunch last Sunday, and then finally back to the book.
Normand Holland’s “Transactive Theory of Reading” refers to this as a “feedback loop.” By his theory, the experience of reading a poem is captured in the following: First, when approaching a cultural or literary fiction, the reader sends out a hypothesis, such as “What does this poem mean?” or “What is going on in this personal situation?” This hypothesis, and the way the reader searches out answers and asks the questions, are shaped by her cultural and personal upbringing. Second, the answers to this searching are not purely objective. They are not simply received “facts” from the actual world or the text; the answers depend on and are shaped by the reader’s way of viewing the world. The reader receives stimuli and reads a text in a way allowed by her personal identity. Third, the reader tests the stimuli against her identity. Holland says it this way: “Identity frames the hypothesis, identity hears the return, and identity feels the discrepancy between the return and one’s inner standards” (441). This discrepancy is a bardo. The reader’s perception of another person, and how he or she is acting in a given fiction, is also subject to this feedback loop. As another person acts out a fiction within the framework of his or her own personal identity, the reader perceives those actions within the framework of her own personal identity.
Regarding this framework, Streckfus symbolizes the reader’s place in the bardo as fish in a tank. Describing what it is like to be suspended in bardo, he says “the ghost state, the purgatorial state, the dream state/—fish circulating their tanks” (9). Remember, also, that the water in which a reader swims is a text. In the section “Body of Moving and Light,” a severed cod head “occup[ies] the transitional state/ between tank life and the next,” and each of these fish tanks, holding different types of fish, are “large enough to hold a full grown person inside” (6-7). This reference to humans further supports the idea that the fish is a symbol of our enactment in bardo, a state of fiction. The cod is also “disembodied,” which illustrates the difference between the body and the mind and between fiction and the outer world it is tested against. Moreover, the bardo is a state of the mind because, though it is enacted in the real world, it is grounded in ideas and, thus, exists in abstraction.
Further illustrating that this scene occurs in a fiction, the tanks exist in a “video fiction” (10). The video the speaker sees of the fish is from a camera strapped to someone’s backpack, a camera that shakes (6). This additional layer reinforces that we exist in a reality textured with the illusion of competing fictions and the bardo between them.
Paternal Replication and the Storing of Memes
While the reader lives in the organic world, fictions only partially reside there. Science may eventually prove an organic account of memes, and neuroscientists are certainly trying to do so, but currently there is no verifiable basis for its physical existence and replication in the brain. Some philosophers, such as Thomas Nagel, believe the sciences will never objectively explain the mind’s existence (7); others, such as Daniel Dennett, believe that they will (71). So, while scientists are currently unable to identify a place in the brain and say that, there is where the poems of Errings reside, there are other places where the organic existence of fictions can nonetheless be identified.
In Errings that place is the manuscript. The book borrows, adapts, and “takes” (Streckfus’s word in the “Notes” of page 77) language from four books. Furthermore, it is inspired by two others. Errings is primarily adapted from Two Golden Earrings, an unpublished novel by the poet’s father, Robert Streckfus. Even without the note in the back of the book that says as much, it would be obvious that some of the poems are replications of the father’s work. In the poem “Patrimony” (the title helps quite a bit), the speaker says, “When I declared myself a poet, you handed me the pages of your book to finish and make public” (13). This adaptation and mutation—from father’s voice to son’s voice—emerges in the next poem, “Erring”. Some of the pages of this poem are normal pages, comprised of typeface on paper. Others are scanned images of pages from the father’s original novel, including whiteouts and notes scrawled on the manuscript. All of the pages from this poem, though, are both Peter’s and Robert’s merged voice.
The organization of the normal and scanned pages directs the reader to read at least some of the lines of the normal pages as adaptations of the scanned pages. On page 16 of Errings, the reader gets one such scanned page. The last sentence that has not been whited-out reads, “I will dictate your prayers.” This same phrase is the only sentence on the next, normal page, which is a hint that the voice of the poem is a merger of the father’s and son’s language. Consequently, “Erring” exists as a replication and mutation of the father’s novel. It is a physical enactment of how ideas are carried forward and recreated in new forms, among new generations in the same way that the genetic information of a father passes on and becomes recreated in a son.
“Erring” also alludes to genetic replication with the idea that prior material passes forward through replication. A line on page 26 suggests several places the reader finds the old in the new. Here, the speaker asks and answers his own question: “Where is my Father?// He is there close to the lips with the forefinger and thumb.// Which means to speak” (26). The reader finds the father in the language that comes from the son’s mouth—not only the father’s prior novel in the son’s new work, but also the father’s upbringing of him in the language that the speaker uses. Likewise, we can find the father’s genetic material in his son’s lips, fingers, and tongue. The language of every speaker has multiple fathers, though, as we use our “Father Tongue” to formulate words into a coherent, grammatically correct pattern. Because of these influences the past exists and is reborn through its application in the present. This is symbolized by the placement of a scanned page of the father’s novel, now “spoken” on the page by his son, directly after the lines quoted above.
Other lines from the poem, “Patrimony,” also acknowledge that our language and fictions are an interplay of different sources: “Two bodies, two signs, for one voice” (14). The next line of the poem goes on, “Plato argues such a voice, because it exists as two, unchanging, is a dead voice” (14). Though Plato was talking about the dead voice of Socrates, the poet is being ironic. A voice could, theoretically, get copied over and over exactly as it is, with no errors or adaptations, and still exist, i.e. not be “dead”. We could print Apology until the end of time and each new copy would still have the same organic marks on its pages. Fictions, though, cannot live without adaptation. They must change and be recreated because the nature of fictions and language is to be interpreted through the reader’s personal identity. Thus, each interpretation is an adaptation, a merger of intention and understanding. Moreover, the new interpretation exists as one voice: both what is carried over from the previous idea and what is adapted and restricted by the new voice. This one voice, however, is the fluctuation between the two voices: both what’s being replicated and that which is doing the replication. As the meme is viewed through our personal identity, it adapts to that identity and thus lives on. “Erring” represents this fluctuation as it is an adaptation of an earlier work of fiction.
Wolfgang Iser makes a similar argument. He says that “literary texts take on their reality by being read and this in turn means that texts must already contain certain conditions of actualization that will allow their meaning to be assembled in the responsive mind of the recipient” (Iser 145). Iser acknowledges that a text cannot be reduced to the conventions and interpretations that the reader brings to it, nor can it be reduced to the text’s “objective” meaning. Conversely, the text is an interplay of these two areas and is merely assembled in the mind of a reader. It is important to note, though, that Iser uses the phrase “in the mind” rather than “by the mind.” This gives the text agency in its own actualization and interpretation as the mind becomes as much a receptacle for ideas as it does a creator of them. Thus, the gaps between a text’s objective meaning and the reader’s subjective interpretation are a bardo.
Moreover, fictions embody certain characteristics to nurture their own replication. In the way that certain organisms exhibit survival advantages that help the species live on, so too can fictions contain such traits. Religion, for example, quite clearly dictates the behavior of its participants, but the cultural transmission of religion is more complex than was originally thought. Religious practices that are common now, and that have lasted thousands of years, successfully replicated because they activate a variety of “mental systems,” such as “emotional programs,” our ability for “recall and communication,” and the parts of our minds that are social (Boyer 50). Since these religious practices align with common human traits, they are enacted more often; thus, they survive. Religious memes are also successful if they can instill in followers certain behaviors that support the meme’s replication. For instance, the Ten Commandments’ order to honor only god (the center of this particular religious meme) fosters replication as its members focus their behavior on spreading only that idea. This commandment also restricts the reader from spreading other memes (i.e. other gods), which cuts down on the competition this particular religious meme has for the minds of its followers (Lynch 102). These two examples showcase an idea’s ability to nurture its own replication.
Behavior: Learning and ReplicationLike everything else, fictions would die out if they were not replicated in the physical world. Even though they exist in abstraction, fictions have concrete consequences; they take their form as a concept but are actualized by behaviors. One such behavior is learning. In “Erring,” Streckfus argues that the layering and adaptation of ideas creates understanding. He says, “This is how we learn.// Everything appears as light and images.// Rainbow bodies and bodies of darkness and water” (22). The page of a fiction is where the reader learns and enacts that behavior. She makes sense of her world by behavioral imitation of language, texts, and ideas. She exists by being made of prior ideas and of prior genetic material. In the lines quoted above, bodies of darkness and water are the text within which the reader is the images; she is the fish bending in and out of the screen, making the C shape of consciousness and civilization. The light and images are also the “video fiction” of her sensory (mis)interpretations. The light and images are the bird digging in the bank a few feet away, not touchable because the bird might, after all, be partially a projection of earlier birds the reader has seen. As a result, this is how the reader learns: by enacting, on both the collective and individual consciousness, a text, which may or may not be an illusion. Consequentially, the text, by being repeated in the reader’s understanding of it, continues to exist.
As stated previously, fictions are replications and adaptations of earlier fictions, as are the sentences and ideas of which they are comprised. This idea is represented in “Erring” in several places, the clearest of which states, “I held myself, firstborn vulture from heaven.// A few seconds later I heard a voice in my ear// I felt my language torn from my mouth, writhing on the deck like an eel out of water” (30). The father never makes references to language in his novel, so the poet is most likely the speaker in this instance. He acknowledges that the language he uses to create poems comes partly from another source. Rather than being in control of every sentence and syllable, the speaker acts as a conduit for ideas. Like the notion of poets and their muses, the poet “hears” a voice in his head, and upon hearing this voice, the poems come out. These lines emphasize the physicality of language (an eel) to reinforce that fictions are enacted in the physical world and are passed on from one carrier to another. Fictions do not just exist in minds; they are the slimy, squirming things seen every day.
The poem references this idea in a subsequent passage as well. It reads, “My head will never be the light airy member its parents meant,/ made and presented to me in gratitude” (35). Here, the speaker’s head (mind) is handed to him by its parents—not his parents, its. The omission of the pronoun “my” reinforces the argument that the fictions and sentences of the speaker’s mind are not his own. Every fiction has its own set of creators, which are separate from the speaker’s genetic line. The “it” could also be understood as the book of poems, whose parents are countless and who date back to the origins of human culture and language, as does the parents of all language.
While the beliefs that make up the mind and the book are gifted to the speaker through learning and memetic replication, the copy is not always completely accurate; it is adapted. The copy is not what the earlier versions intended, but an interpretation of what they meant. It is a fish, flickering in and out of the borderlines of reality and illusion, the physical and the abstract. It is a squirming eel, ripped from our mouths and constantly wriggling its signification out in the open.Right after the eel reference, the next page argues that a person carries forward the ideas and language of those that came before. In its entirety, the page reads, “You shall be my page—” (31). This line has several meanings. First, since the poet has taken his father’s novel and reworked it into the long poem, the fiction that is produced from this joint effort is the page the father never published himself. This idea is extended on page 32, where, after the poem lists details from the novel’s pirate adventure, such as a musket, a cutlass, bartering, a merchant and mountain people, the father asks his son to bring these into his own work. Second, the son is physically the father’s page. He is the flesh, blood, and bone page where the father’s DNA gets written out as a genetic text. Third, the reader is the page. As the reader scans these black markings, they are encoded in her brain, replicated and adapted in her mind to create understanding and images. The fiction copies itself through pathways in the brain that create new neural connections. A text is a dead voice if it is only physically replicated on paper, but it is a living one if the reader reprints its language on her brain and replicates it in her behavior and learning.
“Erring” is not the only poem that presents a layering and replication of voices. The poems “New Rules for the Oan Era (1372),” “Suggestions for a New Day (1452),” and “Additional New Rules, Suggestions for a New Day, & Cetera (1502)” do this as well. According to the notes, these poems are adapted from Shohaku’s Renga Rule Book. of 1501. Written by several authors over many years, the book acts as a guide for writing rengas, which are a collaborative form of Japanese poetry where each stanza is thematically linked to the one preceding it. In the Rule Book, and in the poems adapted from it in Errings, the text lists what types of language and connections are permissible and forbidden when attempting such poems. For example, the first poem, “New Rules…,” reads, “If one has linked kogaru, ‘to burn,’ to the word ‘incense,’ then one should not introduce ‘crimson leaves’ in a subsequent third verse, but use a word such as ‘boat.’ This is because boat makes for a change in the meaning of kogaru” (42). Thus, this rule restricts the ways poets may link different verses. In this case, the rule forbids linking words of the same category, such as “fire,” “lit,” and “fire-colored leafs,” in three consecutive verses.
Each of the renga-rules poems also builds on the poem that came before them. The entirety of “New Rules” is written out and incorporated into “Suggestions.” Similarly, the entirety of each of these poems is replicated and incorporated into “Additional New Rules.” Every new poem, then, becomes both a physical replication of the previous text and an adaption of it as new rules are added. These poems physically demonstrate the layering and building of a collective consciousness that is dependent on the consciousness that came before it. “Additional Rules” is spawned from its parent, “Suggestions,” which is spawned from its parent, “New Rules.” This mirrors how cultures build on and are adaptations of those that came before them.
Like “Erring,” these poems highlight both a mental and a genetic spawning. Each set of renga rules are attributed to a different writer. These writers are, in the same order as the poems are given, Nijo Yoshimoto, Ichijo Kanera, and Shohaku. Ichijo, as Streckfus’s inscription says, is the grandson of Yoshimoto, so a genetic replication occurs as well as a mimetic one. This authorship does not just extend to the three poets, though. The work is also replicated and adapted by Streckfus, further layering the work, and giving its meaning a new way to be interpreted: within the context of Errings.
Just as fictions are restrictive and are adapted from other fictions, fictions also have power over our lives because ideas affect our behavior. This notion is represented in the poem “Una Narrazione.” Meaning “a narrative” in Italian, this poem enacts the renga rules of the three previous poems. The rules, however, do not just restrict how the poet may write the poem; the rules also restrict the characters in the poem themselves. Setting a scene with two characters, the first line of this poem reads “A man and a woman came into a car with money”. Additionally, the speaker says of one of the characters, “Standing in the other’s shadow, one pines for the other.” The following examples of dialogue between the characters then reflect how the renga rules constrain even the characters: “‘get into the car’ and ‘goodbye old paint’ brushed on a pillar”. These lines are to be read as dialogue between the two people because the words are both in quotation marks and also things the two characters would say to one another, given the situation, and given that the poem tells us the characters are in “an animated discussion” (44).
Regarding the character’s statements, the speaker says they are following the fiction’s rules too closely. After the poem uses the words “shadow,” “pined,” “paint,” “brushed,” and “pillar,” the speaker says, “The trees of the grove turned bone white.// One need not hesitate to use ‘black pine’ near the word ‘tree.’/ One needn’t hesitate to paint ‘pine’ at the edge of the words/ ‘pillar of black’.” The characters, in a mistaken enforcement of the rules, used language, such as “paint,” and spoke it in a way that they thought was allowed by the rules. They refused to say, “door of black pine” or “pillar of black pine” but instead say, “goodbye old paint,” since it is physically near the word “pined” in the lines above, which they thought would break the rules. The poet, though, tells them that this is too strict a reading of the rules and that they “need not hesitate” to use those words. Regardless of whether they use the rules properly, the rules still affect their behavior.
Right after the elaboration of the rules quoted above, the poem gives another example of language rules shaping the characters’ behavior. It says, “Standing in the other’s shadow, one pined for the other”. This “pining” by one of the characters is allowed, even though it is next to the word “shadow,” because pining here is an emotion, and not a tree. It is not a black pine tree near a black shadow, but a negative emotion near a shadow. Thus, they are allowed to enact this behavior.
The last line of the poem also comments on how the characters’ behaviors are controlled by language rules. After a reference to more renga rules, the poet says, “The water and plastic of their things, standing in their shadows.” The phrase “standing in their shadows” highlights how we are forever guided and restricted by ideas and language, our behaviors either allowed or forbidden by the context of the fiction. In this way, we are forever in the shadow of culture. For instance, the fiction of race tells us that someone born of both “black” and “white” parents is a “black” person. This is “allowed.” The child is not “white,” however, as this is not “allowed” by the fiction. Both ideas are wrong, as the concept of race has no valid basis in genetics. The concept of race does have a basis in behavior and societal impact, though, as the fiction and its rules affect how society treats the child. Even though race is not genetically real, society still treats him or her as “black,” making the concept of race real in its consequences.
Besides the characters, the poet also follows the language rules. One line reads, “The words ‘pillar of black’ should/ be parted from the ‘tree’ by at least five lines—.” The poet literally follows this rule by placing the word “tree” in line seven, five lines after “standing”, “shadow” and “pine.” The poet, though, follows the rules too strictly as the combination of “standing,” “shadow” and the emotion of “pine” are being interpreted as too close to “pillar of black pine” (tree). He sees the standing as a pillar, the shadow as black, and the emotional pine as the pine tree, and in mistaking these meanings, the poet waits five more lines to use the word “tree”. The influence of the rules on the poet and the poem shows that fictions restrict the behavior of the poet as he alters his poem. They also demonstrate how words are “plastic” as the interpretations of their meanings and the use of their meanings are constantly changing. As a result, this poem, titled “A Story,” shows how the rules of collective fictions restrict society and how the behavior within that society are both limited by and replications of them.
How the Reader Enters the Story: The Reader as a Character
At this point, one might wonder whether it matters that characters in a written work follow the rules set up by that work. Similarly, one might wonder whether Errings is just about a literary fiction that has nothing to do with our actual lives. The book does apply to our lives, however, because Streckfus morphs the reader into simultaneously the reader, author, and character of the poem. This morphing suggests that the reader should interpret the work as a representation of humanity. In the poem “Erring” it becomes apparent that the reader is a person within the poem. As the characters of this story ride through the landscape, the poet says, “One of them dismounted.// And helped the viewer onto his horse.// Then mounting in front of you they galloped.// Toward the open book, the open shore, the open horse” (38). Since the reader must connect “the viewer” with “mounting in front of you” (the other characters being viewed this way), she must come to the conclusion that she is that character guided onto the animal. Thus, the reader trots along in the book, a member who must adhere to the guidelines of the story.
As the limitations, rules and ambiguity of language affect the behavior of the characters of “Una Narrazione,” so too do the rules and context of fictions affect our own behaviors. It has already been demonstrated how the reader is a character in the fiction of race. Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard, understands this meta-reality well. After he was arrested by a white police officer for breaking into his own home, a media storm followed. When Gates, at the behest of President Obama, shared a beer with the arresting officer at the White House, he felt cast as “the angry black man,” and then as the “conciliatory suck up.” He gave the policeman a signed copy of his memoir. Inside, it read, “To officer James Crowly, two characters in a drama we did not write” (Miller). Accordingly, Gates felt as if he and the officer were molded into characters that fit a national narrative about race relations.
Not only is the reader a character of fictions, but she is their author as well. Streckfus highlights this in another long poem, “A Bridge, the Pilgrims.” In the poem, the characters, Reader, Storyteller, Idiot, and The Witness, travel the countryside, working as census employees, looking for people to mark as present. The poem begins by addressing its reader as “young author,” and then says, “As you hold/ your pencil, as you transcribe your cat, a cup,// the car, a carp, the cap, testing in lead/ the margin of civilization—the letters cee, jot, vee, ell, zed, a, tee, o,/ and en” (46). These letters (c-i-v-l-z-a-t-o-n), roughly spell and sound out the word civilization. As a quick scan of Wikipedia tells me, the word “jot,” also known as “iot” comes from the word “iota,” which, in the Greek alphabet, sounds like the letter “i”. This adaptation emphasizes that the reader is holding the pencil, jotting down the fictions that make up civilization. They are being created in her mind as she reads.
Similarly, Normand Holland elaborated on the different texts created by the various interpretations of different readers. In “The Miller’s Wife and The Professors” he tells this anecdote: One morning, he shared Edward Arlington Robinson’s poem “The Miller’s Wife” with a group of professors from the same English department. He also gave them a series of questions to answer about the poem, some more objective than others. One of the questions asked what the miller’s wife looked like. The professor’s answers varied from people they had actually met (“My grandmother;” “My aunt betty.”), to a literary figure (“The Wife in ‘Death of a Salesman’;” “Woman in the Death of a Hired Man.”), to less concrete descriptions (“She reminds me of someone who someone wants taking a less active role.”). In Holland’s view, these differences arise because each individual brings a personal hypothesis and bias (built from each person’s cultural and personal upbringing) and tests out the poem based on this bias. Even among professionals trained in reading literature, the answers were different enough that we must ask, “Are there as many versions of a poem as there are readers of that poem?” This is true of cultural fictions as well, as navigating the boundaries of society is nothing less than navigating the constantly changing representations of cultural norms and values. Furthermore, navigating the boundaries of society is dependent on navigating the various and different interpretations each member of society finds in any given cultural fiction. One reader sees a situation one way, another sees it differently, and somehow they manage to make it work (not always) despite these gaps. What’s important, though, is that we each author our own fictions.
Additionally, the fact that Streckfus chose to use the word “jot,” instead of “iota” (which more closely aligns to the sound of “i” in “civilization”), emphasizes adaptation as a norm of cultural replication. “Iota” is adapted to “jot” since it fits with the theme of writing. Just as genes mutate and spawn adaptations of species, which are essential to most species survival, ideas, too, mutate during replication. There are several instances of this in the book. The entire poem “Erring,” for instance, is a mutation of the father’s pirate novel. The reader’s interpretation of that poem, also, is a mutation, as she pictures the situations and meanings of its language differently than the next critic. These replications keep the fictions from remaining stagnant; they keep them from becoming a dead voice.
Further lines in “A Bridge, the Pilgrims” elaborate on the idea that the reader, as a character of a fiction, creates the fictions she inhabits since she is “writing” it. On the same page as the “jot” reference, the poet says, “The Reader, Storyteller, Idiot/ and The Witness held their vessels of light/ as they wrote themselves into the tent camp.” These lines show that beyond the texts of literary fictions, the reader is also simultaneously the author and character of civilization. Similarly, the phrase “vessels of light” resembles the poet’s description of the mind as a “light airy member.” As mentioned above, the mind acts as a vessel for its parent’s ideas. The characters of this poem, though they write themselves through civilization, bring with them the prior, replicated ideas of which their behaviors are an adaptation. Even though the reader creates the elements of a fiction in her mind, she is still restricted by the rules, practices, and traditions before her–the letters on the page, the rules of grammar, the symbols created by previous writers, the memes that are commonly replicated, etc. This is true, also, of the fictions of our lives. By enacting ideas, we become both the characters and authors of them because idea cannot be real unless they are produced through behavior. The idea of money, for instance, is only real because the reader goes to the grocery store and uses it to buy a can of pie filling, rather than walk into the mountains to pick the wild huckleberries growing there. In this way, the reader becomes the author of the fictions of civilization, even though she is still restricted by their rules.
“A Bridge, the Pilgrims” furthers the argument that we encounter fictions in our enactments of them. As the characters of this poem search for civilization, Reader (the character in this poem) finds a “globule of light,” an image indicative of the lit screen of consciousness presented earlier in the book. The poem continues, “The cave, you see, was actually located behind/ a huge water fall// quoted Idiot, from his favorite book” (49). Idiot’s observation represents both an enactment and replication of an idea, as his behavior is dictated by a fiction. He is quoting from both the book he is holding and also the “book” of his life where the waterfall is physically present. This blurring of the lines between a textual fiction and a cultural fiction is furthered by the image of water, which has been set up earlier in the book as a text. In these two instances the characters are searching into the text for the light of consciousness. That consciousness, Idiot claims, is a cave, which is itself a meme, as any cave in Western Literature has to carry with it Plato’s “Myth of the Cave,” given that Plato is mentioned earlier in the book and because his separation of the world of illusion and the world of actuality is a theme present in Streckfus’s manuscript. The characters searching for a light in the cave behind the waterfall symbolizes the characters searching for consciousness in the illusion of the text. They are searching for a way to grasp civilization through the bardo created by our acting out of fictions.
The “EM” and “E” of Being Born into a Fiction
As a character of her own fiction, the reader’s life is both dictated and restricted by that fiction. Similar to the characters in “Una Narrazione,” the characters of “A Bridge, the Pilgrims” are restricted by language rules. As the characters investigate under the bridge to see if anyone resides there to “count” for the census, the reader receives a note directed at the “young author.” This note explains some of the renga rules that must be followed. After listing different nouns that would categorize a verse as “lamentation,” the speaker directs the reader to group these words apart from each other by a considerable distance. After listing off the rules, the speaker says, “And thus: white-haired, retired, and half asleep,…..their subject sat up on his/ concrete bed and allowed them to count him” (54). Since the rules of the renga are followed by the phrase “And thus,” it implies that the rules allowed and created the situation for the man to exist. As a result, the fiction of this man is created and governed by the rules of his personal fiction. In this case, those rules pertain to being a homeless man living under a bridge. He is both a “Grieved Soul” and an “Abandoned Soul” due to his sorry state and due to the fact that civilization, which “at dawn above is hushed to thrums and clicks,” has left him behind (52, 54). The details and the behavior of the man are affected by the rules that come before him. Furthermore, living by and through these rules allow him to exist within the fiction, which allow him to be tallied as present. The argument here is that existence in a societal fiction depends on one’s behavior being governed by that fiction.
Thus, the homeless man partly represents the reader, as each reader inhabits and is edited by her own fiction. Civilization, all the while, thrums along. On page 56, the speaker says, “And so they found you, young author, behind them,” and, after directing the reader to make a drawing, continues, “Then the hermit wiped his eyes and returned to sleep/ Draw here the letter em, the letter e.” The drawing of these letters (m, e) clearly indicates that the reader is the homeless man, pulled and pushed and existing in fictions. In addition, this image also renews the idea that the reader acts as the author of that fiction. She draws herself into the ideas by exhibiting behavior that is a replication of that idea.
As indicated above, this includes both cultural and literary fictions. “A Bridge, Election” merges both the story and the actual world. In this section of the poem, its characters travel to Arlington, Virginia, moving “deep under the bridge of George Washington Hwy at the corner of Kilgallen” (55). This is a real place, in modern day Virginia. However, the characters bring with them items normally found in fantasy, such as “a rope of horse hair, a yarn of human hair, and a dog hair hat”. This scene represents the bardo of our existence—the constant clash between the physical and the conceptual. The physical, represented by the real town of Arlington, is merged with the fictional, represented by the fantastical times that the characters bring. However, the characters fail to register the overlapping of the fictional and physical. This is unsurprising, as people generally do not perceive their own lives as fictional. Real people and fictional characters are invested in their own myths and take the myth as a given part of existence.
For example, E.E. Evans-Pritchards provides an anthropological account of this in his study of the behavior and beliefs of the Zandu people. In the Zandu village where Evans-Pritchard conducted his research, the roof of a mud house fell in with people underneath it. Those in the village said witchcraft was to blame for the collapse despite Evans-Pritchard’s explanation that termites were likely the cause. The villagers refused to accept this explanation, beholden to the belief that if termites had something to do with the structural failure, the people underneath the roof must have had strong adversaries who made the roof collapse at that specific time (qtd. in Boyer 12-13). The Zandu people were unable to see outside of their cultural fiction for the cause of this calamity, just as people in western civilization are often unable to see outside the perspective of their own cultural fictions.
In addition to drawing the “m” and “e” of the self in “A Bridge, Election,” another poem, “Earth and Water,” asks the reader to draw. After the poem directs the reader to draw out its characters, the poem says, “Be born by three right there” (65). At this moment, the reader births into the fiction, but one must ask, “What is three a reference too?” In Errings, we have three poems comprised of renga rules, each incorporating the one before it. We also have three scanned pages of the author’s father’s novel. As in all literary works, we have an author, a reader, and a text. Also, the book lays out three fundamental elements of interactions in society: fictive rules, a physical world, and the reader’s behavioral enactment of those fictive rules within a physical world. Additionally, towards the end of the book, in “Transmigration,” a poem where the speaker and his lover go bird watching, the poem reads, “The three stooges, the father the son the holy book” (73).
Part of what the reader is born into, then, is language rules—the rules of a fiction. Also, the reader is born into three lenses that influence our perception: the lens of the interaction of her father (what came before her, both genetically and memeticly), the lens of herself (her interpretation and realization of those lines) and the lens of civilization (the phenomenon we must test these interpretations against). The reader carries forward her parents’ prior material and exposes that material to the outer world. This replication and exposability happens genetically, of course, as our parents give us our genes and those genes become cells which deteriorate via the 2nd law of thermodynamics. But this also happens memeticly as the reader replicates and enacts the fictions of her mothers and fathers, the ideas that spawn further ideas, like the building up of rules in the renga book, or the poem “Erring” mutating from the father’s pirate novel. Even Hamlet was a retelling of an earlier story (Jenkins 82-5). The reader enacts these fictions into civilization, which is a “primordial soup” of different fictions pushing and pulling and colliding with one another, sometimes to disastrous effects, such as racially-motivated lynchings, or the murdering of abortion doctors by right-to-life extremists. Like the characters of Errings, each reader writes herself into the fictions, but not boundlessly, as the fictions have both cultural and genetic limitations.
Because multiple fictions clash and because readers enact roles as both author and character, the reader is more than one self. The poem “The Lake and the Skiff” deals with the difficulties of maintaining and enacting only a single fiction. In the poem, the reader is immediately placed inside the text when one of the voices asks, “Tell me again about the lake of the poem.” In this instance the poem has an author, a speaker, a reader, and a subject. Which of these, though, is the reader’s voice? She is certainly a character in the poem as the speaker, referring to the skiff, says that in this boat “you were curled, like an infant in its bed” (66). This places the reader directly in the scene.
The reader is also outside of the poem, its audience, as the story of the lake is told to her at her bedside by a “we”. This “we,” the teller of the tale, shapes the story and its realities through discourse. They enact the story by telling it: “The regularity of our speech prevented the breeze being so discursive” (66). This roots and shapes the elements of the fiction in the rules of language.
More than a character and an audience, though, the reader is also the tale’s author, as some of the lines could only be said by characters within the environment of the poem’s fiction. These include, “As we paddled away, to speak and rest together, the wind took up its chorus” (66). The speaker of the poem is paddling on the lake, and thus is both character and author. The paddling, though, is dictated by the wind, its strength, duration, and direction, which, as the poem said, is controlled by our language.
Lastly, of course, the reader is the reader as she physically reads the poem line by line, holding Errings in her hands. This leave the reader, in the end, as the poem’s author, speaker, character, and reader—quite a lot of identities to hold, especially in a western culture which assumes that identity is stable and singular. But this poem does not promote a singular identity and continually argues for a multiplicity of them. The poem states, “Search, confused one, around your shores, if any parts of you rejoice in peace” (67). These lines highlight a fractured self, and implore the reader to search for a cohesive identity. Any cohesion, however, would not be stable when multiple fictions must hologram over each other. Some of these selves even overlap, as in line five: “Standing at your bedside, we recounted our tale to you” (67). The “we” at the bedside is both the author and audience, since the tale is simultaneously told by and received by the “you”. Thus the poem ends, “How difficult it is to remain one person” (67).
Errings is about the replication of fictions through dialogue and storytelling. So, of course the book would end in the beginning of a new chain; of course it would end as a new story prepared to start. After all, the line of succession and replication must go on. The last page, immediately after the mention of an idea’s “invisibility”, states, “Love. Love, couldn’t you see?/ No, you said. No. Tell me. Tell me” (74). As the speaker asks the lover if she can envision the ideas of the previous page, or even the idea of love as a concept (if we are taking the first “love” as the concept, and the second one as an address to the lover), she of course says, “No.” The ideas are inside of the speaker, and if they could be seen at all in this capacity, they would have to be witnessed through neural imaging. Love, also, as a concept cannot be visible. Both of these options, however, can be encountered if the speaker relates them in a story. The lover asks the speaker to “tell her” the story as this telling places the meme into the physical world: an environment where interpretation is possible.
Though invisible, all ideas are replications enacted in behavior. As readers, we interpret these fictions through our own personal identities, and we help realize them through our behavior, acting out a fiction’s various components. While the fictions that are most successful at spreading contain qualities that nurture their own replication, they must, of course, be passed through and by humans. My guess is that you will tell your friends about the fungus which controls the ant, and they may tell their friends, and so on, further spreading and enacting the story. Even this essay, with its ideas of the meme and the transmutability of fictions, is boring its way into your brain right now. It is causing you to climb to the higher rungs of its concepts, to latch down on its arguments, to participate, as both host and transmitter, in its parasitic behavior. So go ahead, pass it on—to another reader, another drone, another host. Onward.
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