The Fourth Law of Thermodynamics

David Shields

Illustration by Legend Hou Chun-Ming

Yeats said, more or less, that we can't articulate the truth, but we can embody it. I think that's wrong or at least beside the point. What's of interest for me is precisely how we try to articulate the truth, and what that says about us, and about "truth."

What separates us is not what happens to us. Pretty much the same things happen to most of us: birth, love, bad driver's-license photos, death. What separates us is how each of us thinks about what happens to us. That's what I want to hear.

Texting: proof that humans are solitary animals who like being left alone as they go through life, commenting on it. We're aliens.

Updike: "I loathe being interviewed; it's a half-form, like maggots." Gertrude Stein: "Remarks are not literature." Um is not a word, but I like how people use it now to ironize/mock/deflate/put scare quotes around what comes next. The moment I try not to stutter, I stutter. I never stutter when singing to myself in the shower.

The perceiver, by his very presence, alters what's perceived: Plato, Dialogues of Socrates; Eckermann, Conversations of Goethe; Boswell, Life of Johnson; Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer. Nietzsche: "Whatever in nature and in history is of my own kind speaks to me, spurs me on, and comforts me; the rest I do not hear or forget right away." Pasternak: "A poet is not an author, but the subject of a lyric, facing the world in the first person." Schopenhauer: "The world is my idea." We don't see the world; we make it up. 

Sanskrit texts emphasize the ephemeral nature of truth. Writers use fiction, nonfiction, stories-within-stories, stories-about-stories, reiteration, oral history, exegesis, remembered account, rules, history, mythological tales, aphorisms to try get to the "truth," often dressing it up in narrative as a way to make it appear comprehensible, palatable. Ancient Sanskrit works revolve around the question, "Who is the narrator?" Subjectivity is always present in the recitation: the nature of reality is ever elusive. We spend our lives chasing it.

When playing an electric guitar, instead of plugging the chord straight into an amplifier, you first plug it into a little electronic stomp box called a pedal. A second chord takes the altered sound from the pedal to the amplifier. The sound coming from the guitar to the pedal is "clean"—as true to life as a given electric guitar can be (which is a whole other debate). There are hundreds of different guitar pedals you can buy, each one altering the "true" sound of the instrument. One "clean" note from your Telecaster can become a crescendo of sound (if sent through the right distortion pedal). 

In Amadeus, Salieri says re: Mozart's score: "I am staring through the cage of his meticulous ink strokes at absolute beauty."

In Ron Fein's "Drumming the Moon," the flute assumes a pitch and sound somewhere between the tonality of human expression and wolf howl, never quite sure of its place in the world, negotiating its own survival.

I recently reread Renata Alder's novel Pitch Dark and felt like I finally "got it." The three sections are thematic sculptures: the first section is about how love is a mystery, a sadness, an absence, a darkness; the second section takes place in Ireland, where the Adler-figure gets in a car accident—the misunderstanding between her and everyone she meets is represented as utter epistemological darkness; and the third section is this darkness writ large, into society and civilization as a whole (every human interaction is conducted in pitch dark). 

Walking on 45th Street, Laurie and I witnessed a car accident. Ten seconds later, we had and held diametrically opposed views of what we'd just seen. (She was wrong.)

I find that no matter what I write, Laurie doesn't respond to my work in the way I want her to, or more accurately, she resents that she's an arrow in my quiver. I wouldn't want to be an arrow in her quiver, either (though in a sense aren't we all etc.). I love that time when she asked, the day before my profile of Delilah was published in the Times Magazine, "Are we in it?"—i.e., do she and Natalie make cameos? When I said no, she said, "What—we're not good enough?" I took this in the way in which I hope it was meant: as a brilliant gloss on Damned If You Do/Damned If You Don't. Might as well go for broke.

It's hard to write a book, it's very hard to write a good book, and it's impossible to write a good book if you're concerned with how your intimates are going to judge it. I learned a long time ago that the people whom you most want to love your work... won't (I'm nowhere near Laurie's favorite writer). The people who know you the best are always going to view it through the screen of their own needs; they're never going to read it on the terms in which you intend it. As do I, of course, whenever I see even the briefest description of myself in someone else's work.

We're all characters in one another's novels—is the drama of love indistinguishable from the engine of narrative? Is reading for the plot identical to desire? Ich don't think so. Egoists all, the best we can do is make sure our own needs don't get in the way of other people's pursuit of happiness. We're all sleepwalkers in the mind of, oh, I don't know, Napoleon: the emperor's body is a box within a box within a box, a prison within a prison within a prison.

My former student Rachel Jackson: "Sometimes the place I go to be alone to think ends up being finally the most dangerous place I can be."

According to Frank Harris's My Lifes and Loves, Victorian women liked to fuck, though apparently (whaddya know?) only Frank.

Ross McElwee's Sherman's March utterly transformed my writing life. By being as self-reflexive as it is, a heat-seeking missile destroying whatever it touches, the film becomes a thoroughgoing exploration of the interconnections between desire, filmmaking, nuclear weaponry, and war, rather than being about only General Sherman. 

I grew up in a family in which there was much talk about love, peace, justice, truth, community, but what I saw operating in my own family was a horrific regime. I often feel like a 1980s Eastern European who traveled west and had to hear about the glories of Communism: the Eastern European lived his entire life under the oppressive umbrella of Mother Russia; he didn't care to hear naïve paeans to the Marxist state. I realize this is trumping up badly my own experience growing up in a San Francisco suburb, but that's how it felt to me: don't tell me how right-on activism is going to save the world; the split between idealist rhetoric and ragged reality was so extreme that I've never quite recovered an ability to participate in the commonweal. I can hear how naysaying this may sound, but I peeked behind the curtain and saw the Wizard of Oz making silly sounds in a megaphone; I'm not going to now believe all that sound and fury is signifying something real.

I'm a product of post-hippie California of the '70s: a culture of the unreal that had lost its idealism and found its only refuge in drugs; you had to dig around to find any sort of meaning... 

The last line of Adler's other novel, Speedboat, is, "It could be that the sort of sentence one wants right here is the kind that runs, and laughs, and slides, and stops right on a dime." (Cf. Isaac Babel: "No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.") She's fascinated by the arbitrariness of language, the enveloping embrace of culture. Try as she might to liberate herself from social convention, e.g., cliché, she can't. She's doing everything she can to make me hyper-aware of her thought processes, to develop intimacy between the speaker and listener—moments in which I feel the strange rub of language, the way it not only evokes life but creates it, prophesies it; the epigraph is from Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies: "'What war?' said the Prime Minister sharply. 'No one has said anything to me about a war. I really think I should have been told...' And presently, like a circling typhoon, the sounds of battle began to return." Speedboat is an oblique bildungroman, taking Adler's alter ego, Jen Fein—whose name suggests that she's not real, that she's Renata Adler—from the privacy of her pastoral childhood into the irredeemably corrupt, war-torn (cliché!) world of public affairs. Adler frequently writes and then repeats an idiomatic expression—for instance, "And what's more, and what's more..." It's a very strange gesture—this impulse to articulate and articulate again: highly oral, even oracular. What is the book, exactly—a novel? memoir? cultural criticism? philosophical investigation? journal? journalism? standup comedy? The chapter titles don't very accurately or fully describe their ostensible contents; the material can't be held by its ostensible container. The book is constantly breaking its own bindings, as you're going deeper into, you know, a single human consciousness. I love that feeling of being caught between floors of a difficult-to-define department store. You keep turning pages and reading scenes until, finally, you understand what, for Adler, constitutes a scene: a toxic and intoxicating mix of velocity, violence, sex, money, power, travel, technology, miscommunication; when you get it, the book's over. 

Maggie Nelson claims that it makes her feel less alone to compose almost everything she writes as a letter; she'd even go so far as to say she doesn't know how to compose otherwise. When I'm having trouble writing something, I often close the document and compose the passage as email. I imagine I can feel the tug of the recipient at the other end of the wire, and this creates in me a needed urgency. The letter always arrives at its destination.

In London, I asked a book editor if he could locate the origin of the tendency for every British conversation to rapidly devolve into a series of quibbles, quarrels, and contradictions. "The end of empire," he said with certainty. "We're not going to make that same mistake again."

Irony is the song of a bird that has come to love its cage—people always quote this truism as if it were the clinching point of an argument about the limits of irony, but name me the bird among us that is not caged and isn't at least half in love with its cage.



David Shields is the author of twelve books, including Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Knopf, 2010), which was named one of the best books of the year by more than thirty publications; The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead (Knopf, 2008), a New York Times bestseller; Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity, winner of the PEN/Revson Award; and Dead Languages: A Novel, winner of the PEN Syndicated Fiction Award. His essays and stories have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper's, EsquireYale Review, Village Voice, Salon, Slate, McSweeney's, and Utne Reader; he's written reviews for the New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Boston Globe, and Philadelphia Inquirer. His work has been translated into fifteen languages.