Friday, August 25, 2023

age, breath


Age puts a hole in your pocket. You reach in there and find out that, without you knowing it, somewhere in the course of your days and wanderings, you’ve lost … well, all kinds of things that you thought you absolutely needed.  Memories. Desires.

Or, for instance, breath.

When I was a child, I thought about breath in terms of holding my breath. I’d exaggerate the whole not breathing thing, mumping out my cheeks, keeping from breathing through my nostrils, until I’d have to stop, breath in, breath out noisily. The rumor was that you could do this and at a certain point you’d turn blue and pass out. For some reason, I thought that sounded great, a feat worth doing. I never passed out, though. I never met anyone that did. I began to think this was a myth.

I also learned to hold my breath when I swam underwater. I tried to make it from one side of the pool to the other underwater, to build up my stamina.

Later, in my spiritual twenties, I took Yoga. As part of the routine, I tried to meditate upon my breathing.

And the Yoga phase passed. Decades passed. Wine and beer and coffee and all the starches and sweets of a developed economy passed.

Then, a few years ago, I came down with pneumonia. I’d had pneumonia before. We were old friends. But this was ultra pneumonia, like I never had before. It carved a month out of my life. Afterwards, I was short of breath whatever I did.

Since then, I am not ever long of breath. I sit here, breathing in and out, nothing simpler, but I know that I can easily get out of breath if I get up and run around. Breath has dribbled out of the hole in my pocket.

Mallarmé, in an essay he pieced together out of three previous essays and published in Divagations – Crise de Vers, 1895 – imagines poetry, or literature itself, as a sort of institution of breathing: “replacing the perceptible respiration of the in-spired ancient lyric (la respiration perceptible en l’ancien souffle lyrique)  or the enthusiastic personal direction of the phrase.” I could go all deriddian on this notion of a replacement, but I am more interested in the transfer of the breath in one body, human, with its tongue and lungs, to another, the written, lungless, an imprint of a long lost breathing – rather like the X rays that they took of my lungs when I had pneumonia.


One thinks of Mallarmé as the high priest of the blank page, the page addressed in A throw of the dice. But by grounding literature in breath, he foretells such poets as Olson and Snyder. The beats. Ginsberg.


How am I to locate, what am I to do with breathlessness? I’ve long thought we build our strengths out of our deficiencies – not in denial, but in experiment, pushing against the limit. So what am I to do with breathlessness?


I’m not sure I can follow out some ideology of strength and deficit and make it all a happy end. But what I know is that it makes the stairs more stairs, the hill more hill, the stone stonier. Perhaps shortness of breath, too, is a device. A god in decline, but a god still.


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...