The End of the Bookstore

One of the best things I ever read was not by Gombrowicz but it expresses something that, to me, sort of rhymes with G.’s take on the promise and danger of fellow humanity. In an interview Allen Ginsberg did in the Paris Review, the poet described a religious experience he had as an undergraduate, brought on by reading William Blake. He describes visiting the Columbia University bookstore while in this transcendent frame of mind and his sudden realization on encountering the face of one of the familiar bookstore clerks — whom he described as a “pleading cousin in the universe” — that “the fixed expressions that people have, the habitual expressions, the manners, the mode of talk, are all masks.”

Because almost at that moment it seemed that it would be too terrible if we communicated to each other on a level of total consciousness and awareness each of the other — like it would be too terrible, it would be the end of the bookstore, it would be the end of civ- … not civilization, but in other words the position that everybody was in was ridiculous, everybody running around peddling books to each other. Here in the universe!

(Like much of Ginsberg’s work, the account of his Blake-inspired fervor really could be described as “intense,” “exhilarating,” or “lived at a fever pitch.” There’s nothing wrong with those categories as long as they are truthfully, honestly applied.)

The point is: Humanity has devised a billion ways of not contacting each other. Everything you look at, everything we’ve done or accomplished, can be seen as a way of avoiding contact. The Hebrews of the Old Testament kept God behind a curtain because to be in his presence, they thought, was fatal. I think really being in the presence of the human is fatal, so we create structures, channels, protocols, machines, to redirect the energy, redirect ourselves, and protect ourselves.

Books, ideas, art, like grimaces, are too often just ways of not making contact. Just smoke and bars. Gombrowicz’s books are, refreshingly, not like that.

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