Life In The Margins

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Once I borrowed a book of essays called The Immediate Experience, by the cultural critic Robert Warshow WHO HE? from an old and learned friend. HE'S LEARNED, SO YOU'RE LEARNED? My friend had so thoroughly marked up the text that his annotations constituted a parallel text of its own, consisting of his annoyances, approvals, elaborations, questions and challenges. SO?

Some passages were underlined in black ink, some in blue magic marker, some in green, some in thick red. There were solid red and green arrows pointing from one paragraph to another. RED AND GREEN = STOP AND GO? There were equal signs followed by pithy interpretations. PITHY YET! Words such as key and why? were written alongside certain sentences. YES, YES, GET TO IT! I had borrowed one book and was reading two. INTERESTING--MAYBE.

The subject AS IF WE HADN'T GUESSED is marginalia--the notes one makes in response to something, usually in books. A forthcoming book called Marginalia WHAT ELSE?, by H.J. Jackson (Yale University Press), deals exclusively with the marginalia in books, but it also suggests the wider subject of how the mind works generally.

Every thought breeds an internal commentary, a counterthought NOT ALWAYS, some elaboration on the initial matter. Every action taken incurs an inner comment. EVERY ACTION? Everything we are is under continual revision. We even live in the margins of one another's lives. PROVE IT! That is, in a sense, Boswell was the marginalia to Dr. Johnson's life, which would not have been celebrated had there been no work in the margins. DIDN'T J. HAVE A LIFE WITHOUT B.?

But the major premise of marginalia is that life is infinitely adjustable. As soon as a work comes under someone else's scrutiny, up rises the impulse to correct, enlarge, destroy.

One might go so far as to say marginalia reveal the human desire not to accept finality. BE CAREFUL! The idea of ghosts, or heaven, may be our marginalia on death. GIVE ME A BREAK!

It was interesting to learn from Jackson's book ON WHICH THIS ESSAY IS MARGINALIA, I SUPPOSE, that friends would deliberately lend Coleridge their books, knowing he would mark them up endlessly. Thus, the lenders would be getting back a book improved by Coleridge.

Other writers known for their relentless annotations were Horace Walpole, Charles Darwin, Thomas Macaulay and William Blake. I LOVE BLAKE. But quality that high is rare. We take a book out of the library and read the marginalia, often surly and stupid, of anonymous strangers. THANKS A HEAP! The fun, though, is to respond to them, by which we perpetuate the argument and extend the text. BACK TO HIS THESIS, AT LAST?

Or, one can simply respond to the language and doodle: thesis, Croesus, Jesus. JESUS!

And this practice goes way beyond reading. I sit and watch some political commentator on television and write in the margins of the air. DOES ANYONE KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON IN THIS COUNTRY? An acquaintance slithers into some self-aggrandizing prevarication. I write, LIAR! A nice, honest moment occurs in the new, good movie Traffic when the U.S. drug czar, Michael Douglas, falters in the middle of a false and insincere speech, and you can see his conscience writing marginalia on his claptrap.

Marginalia create the presence of more than one voice at a time SEE COMPUTER MESSAGES, and this cacophony simulates the ways our minds work. The difference between thought and speech--the inchoate mess in our minds as opposed to the crispy words that emerge--suggests that we live with a number of voices at once. SPOOKY! If we really wanted to get spooky about it, we might wonder how to tell the texts of our lives from the margins.

What I am writing at this moment may be the marginalia to feelings of loss and pain that do not appear in the sentence. The feelings of loss and pain may constitute the text of my life for which all sentences, written or spoken, create a defense or rebuke.

The point AT LAST is that whatever is put in the margins in some way enhances the center by deflating certainty and that this infinite operation makes up who we are. For example, I may have got everything in this essay all wrong. NO KIDDING! I may have got my life all wrong. DON'T MAKE ME CRY! And so I may have to start all over again and fill up the margins YOU'RE RUNNING OUT OF SPACE until I run out of space.