Thursday, June 18, 2009

Adventures in the Pharmakon . . .


An Essay
John Olson

Introductory Note: In response to my post a few weeks ago on Rae Armantrout’s “Sway,” Seattle poet John Olson wrote, “Holy cow. That is a vigorous reading . . . . I’m coining a phrase, based on ‘extreme sports.’ Extreme Reading.” About ten days ago, Olson wrote me again: “I was inspired to write a prose poem about Extreme Reading. But then the prose poem evolved into an essay. I was wondering if you might want to see it and possibly post it at your blog?” Needless to say, I answered “yes!” and am thrilled to present here the first publication of Olson’s essay.


Extreme Reading
Extreme reading is the opposite of speed reading. Words are not animals killed and stuffed for exhibition. Words are alive. Words are giants and angels. There has to be a certain suppleness of mind for a description of wool to become real wool, or a mosquito drawing blood through a proboscis on a shore near Rockstone, Guyana.

What happens when we read? Things and people that are absent become present. Images develop in the mind. An image is a drop of thought in the form of ink. A timeless vapor spun out of silk. The mind can go as deep as it wants into a word or string of words. Linger there as the world turns and the saga moves forward.

An alphabet is dead until the eyes bring the letters light and life. The harmonica is fulfilled when there is air blowing through it. Letters enter the eyes and become fireworks. A white lotus in a blue bowl. A cherry of juicy cognition. Gold embedded in sand. A pound of air fastened to a sheet of paper. A spectacle in which Montmarte and its smells and sounds are vivid and sexual. And the sky is encased in a walnut. And the spirit is awakened to the meaning of glass. Objects on a table. Sheer sugar bouncing through paradise in a borrowed jeep.

Focus is essential. One must be scrupulously idle. Open the book. Bend forward. Dive into it.


Reading is delicate, like surgery. The ribcage has been opened. There is a large red organ beating in spasmodic rhythms. Our thoughts turn toward a milieu of intellectual endeavor. Syllables rooted in glitter. The water has been disturbed. Sunlight fractures and flickers. The oars drift idly. The mouth opens to say what it is to feel one’s illusions shattered. Meanwhile the fetus of a new idea evolves into a series of convolutions immediate as skin.

Someone has scribbled their name in the sand. But the last breaking wave has made feathers of it.

Speed reading is like riding in a car. The world whizzes by in a blur. We get to our destination without having noticed what brought us to our destination. Extreme reading is driving a car. Extreme reading is stopping a car and getting out to go for a walk.

Consider the sky. Fingers curled around the spine of a book. Affections, reflections, infections, inflections. Yellow and red. Voices echoing in a planetarium.


Reading is a form of hallucination. The images and people we encounter among the letters are not there. The reality they acquire in our mind is equal to the effort we make in building them in our mind. Sufficient training will help understand the meaning of someone waving semaphores up and down but true reading requires something more of you than knowing how to spell or understanding the relationship between a sign and its referent. The letters invite a cooperation greater than the peremptory commands of a traffic light. Whoever came up with the idea of separating green from red with the happy ambiguity of yellow was clearly someone who enjoyed reading.


Why is it always so hard to find time to read? Or a place to read.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry used to set the controls of his P-38 Lightning on automatic and circle Marseille while reading a book.

He was claimed to have been shot down by Horst Rippert, a Luftwaffe pilot who acknowledged himself to be a fan.

It is a good idea to choose a safe place to read, though I am frequently dazzled by people who walk down city streets while reading a book.


Reading is like talking to a ghost. Picasso squeezing a tube of paint, wide-eyed in a yolk of gold.

The mind is silent like an aquarium. A brood of sounds and arbitrary signs lift themselves into color and being. Lambent designs maunder in undulation. A page is turned. A new paragraph begun. Einstein is disturbed to find that, according to the theory of relativity, the universe is not static, but either contracting or expanding. Starlight becomes deformed over long distances. The stratospheric irreality of huge numbers create new dimensions. Reading the universe, or a strand of DNA molecules, requires intuition, a feeling for combinatory forces and their tendency toward play.


All reading is based on this question: why is there something instead of nothing? The quantum vacuum is never empty but roils with virtual particles. The particles represent not only what is, but what might be. The same can be said of letters. Or a string of words. They represent what is, but the reader’s mind may take them elsewhere. Reverie is unpredictable.

Was there a time when nothing existed? No time? No space? No particles? No Bohemia? No journeys? Nothing thin? Nothing thick? Nothing glowing? No beauty or butter?


If you are reading this on a computer screen it is not so much a matter of proverbs as pixels. Proverbs belong to the formation of old religions. Pixels belong to the proverbs of lucidity. The light in the box. The light in the mind. The light coming out of the eyes.


“There is a kind of novelist,” observes Anthony Burgess, “usually popular, sometimes wealthy, in whose work language is a zero quantity, transparent, unseductive, the overtones of connotation and ambiguity totally damped.” The aim of this novelist “can only properly be fulfilled when the narrated action is transformed into represented action: content being more important than style, the referents ache to be free of their words and to be presented directly as sense-data.” This is not reading. This is watching television on paper.

As for the other kind of novelist, and here we have James Joyce and Gertrude Stein and Edgar Allan Poe in mind, “it is important that the opacity of the language be exploited, so that the ambiguities, puns and centrifugal connotations are to be enjoyed rather than regretted, and whose books, made out of words as much as characters and incidents, lose a great deal when adapted to a visual medium.”

The word-intoxicated writer of opacity and centrifugal connotation to which Burgess refers requires true reading. Attentive reading. Fully absorbed reading. Creative reading. Alert and aware and alive and perceptive reading. Deep reading. Engaged reading. Extreme reading.


Maurice Merleau-Ponty, commenting on a statement by French linguist Antoine Meillet, that “linguistic events are qualitative” and that each language “forms a system,” and so entails a principle of internal organization, remarks that “to say that linguistic events are qualitative, is to say again that in their connection and their unrolling [déroulement] they require the mediation of consciousness.”

Language is a medium in the deepest sense, a membrane of sound and meaning in which light is diffused in that space between internal perception and external world.


Think of the potential in a single word. It is like opening a box. A procession of people leaving imprints in clay. Each word has acquired multiple layers and flavors as it has traveled from mouth to mouth over centuries of use. Take the word ‘subtle’ for instance. Subtle comes from Latin subtilis, which itself is a conflation of two Latin words, sub, meaning under, and tilis, which comes from tela, meaning web, which is related to texere, to weave. So here we have a word making clear and direct reference to the fine art of weaving, combining threads in a pattern, work requiring skill, dexterity, focus, and loving attention. And who hasn’t entered a shed and felt the fine brushing of a web against the skin, and how fine and delicate that sensation happened to be, and the smells associated with it, and the sense of things present that were not altogether present.

One of my favorite uses of the word ‘subtle’ appears in Secreta secretorum (The Secret of Secrets), a Middle English prose translation of the work in French by James Yonge, which itself was a translation from the Arabic Kitab sirr al-asrar, which makes reference to the Book of the science of government, on the good ordering of statecraft, and takes the form of a letter supposedly from Aristotle to Alexander during his campaign in Persia. Yonge writes “Sutil and thyn spetil that descendyth… fro the Palete of the mouth to the tonge.” What a spectacular image!

A more recent example appears in John Tyndall’s Heat considered as a mode of motion: being a course of twelve lectures delivered at the Royal institution of Great Britain in the season of 1862. Tyndall, a romantic pantheist, wrote: “The material theory supposes heat to be… a subtle fluid stored up in the inter-atomic spaces of bodies.”


There is no end to the associations drawn from disassembling a word. Lips are skin, finite and fixed, but the imagination is infinite.

Morning is beautiful because it travels on entertaining sticks. The sticks are letters. Some of them have curves. O is a fabric of dreams and snow. H gets expansion from kerosene rags lit by the i in a grapefruit.


Making art with words is just plain silly. Because beauty is savage and alphabets are the product of civilization. And what is civilization except people figuring out how to live with one another without killing one another. The process is incomplete. The world needs readers.

Socrates was against reading because he believed it would weaken the memory and lead people astray with illusions instead of truths. Socrates was wrong. Reading is what you make of it. It’s true that writing doesn’t have the suppleness and spontaneity of speech because once an idea is committed to pixel or paper it becomes frozen in time. Even the sloppiest email message has something stiff and remote about it because it lacks the quick improvisations of the tongue. But speech, which is frequently erratic and muddled, does not convey the truth any better than writing. Writing is a craft. There is more time to cram and season it with thought. The kind of thought that mulls and maunders in the mind until it is ripe and swollen and ready to drive turbines.

Neither speech nor writing can claim exemption from distorting the truth, or outright lying. But the written word is open to examination. It concentrates our attention. The extreme reader learns how to sift each phrase and sentence for nuggets of value and consequence. How to dwell in solitude. How to reflect. How to suspend judgment. How to drift in reverie. There is a sense of disembodiment when we read because we emerge from ourselves to occupy an imaginary domain, what Robin Blaser refers to as “an extreme ghostliness in language itself. It includes the sublime, the terrible and the uncanny…” Socrates feared that this “extreme ghostliness” would make people more vulnerable to noxious chimeras, phantom conceptions, Circean distortions. But the force of a skilled orator can be just as enchanting, just as misleading. Speech is no guarantor of integrity. Psychopaths have a notable tendency to be smooth, inviting, fascinating, and verbally facile.

Socrates was spot on when he said that language was a drug. He calls writing a Pharmakon, which can act either as a remedy or a poison. Socrates sees it acting as a poison because it not only weakens memory but lures us away from the truth with its inherently hallucinatory properties. “Operating through seduction,” observed Jacques Derrida in his essay on the subject, “the pharmakon makes one stray from one’s general, natural, habitual paths and laws.” But what’s wrong with that? That sounds like a good thing to me. Reality isn’t tied down. It is constantly moving.


Writing is governed by the ways of magic and not the laws of necessity. We are not in a domain of binoculars and sweat, as the explorer of a new terrain might be, but a jungle of letters whose horizon continually expands and everything is spectral as perfume.


To go to an extreme in anything implies danger. Extreme reading is no different. The danger is that it puts our mind elsewhere, outside the usual parameters, where it is free to question the laws in which it resides. Derrida compares this to a desire for orphanhood, and patricidal subversion.

It would not be surprising, then, to discover that a number of outlaws happened to be avid readers. Frank James used to perform scenes from Shakespeare while he and his brother Jesse robbed trains.

One of the primary characteristics of the orphan is neediness. Writers who light a match and burn what they have written in order to preserve a purity of expression are rare. Most people, when they have written something they are pleased with, desire an audience. It is there that one hopes for an ideal responsiveness, an educated public. “Context,” observes Ron Silliman in his essay “The Political Economy of Poetry,” “determines the actual, real-life consumption of a literary product, without which communication of a message (formal, substantive, ideological) cannot occur.” It is here that the poet hopes fervently for that rare species, the extreme reader. Someone willing to immerse themselves in language. Someone with a real love of language. Silly language. Non-utilitarian language. Language without boundaries. Language that fuels wild speculations by a vigorous contiguity and artfully reveals the exquisite actuality of words in the spring of their creation. Which, surprisingly, antagonizes a lot of people.

Silliman writes elsewhere, in the mid-eighties, that the “widespread howling and derision which has greeted the tendency which has come to be characterized as ‘language poetry’ reflects precisely this taboo against transcending the known universe… the outcries of those poets and critics for whom the arrival of anything new in the field of writing is, literally, impossible is an index of just how painful the recognition of one’s own cultural borders can be.”


Extreme reading, which encourages the reader to follow the subterranean laws of association rather than logic, offers incendiary salvation from a world that has ceased to be mulled or maundered but mauled into mall after mall after mall. Extreme reading is liberation by inebriation. Mania, marvel, and maze. An evocation, a walk up library steps in quest of a voyage.

-- John Olson


Works Cited or Used in
Extreme Reading
An Essay by John Olson
(May-June, 2009):

Burgess, Anthony. Joysprick, An Introduction To The Language Of James Joyce. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Sens et Non-Sens. Paris: Les Éditions Nagel, 1948. Translation by author.

Oxford English Dictionary. Online Edition.

Silliman, Ron. The New Sentence. New York: Roof, 1987.

Blaser, Robin. “The Practice of Outside.” Essay included in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer, edited by Robin Blaser. Santa Barbara: Black Sparrow Press, 1980.



Thanks again to John Olson.
Olson’s essay on the CERN large hadron collider will be appearing in American Scholar. His essay on aliteracy, titled “Gutenberg Blues,” was published last year here at the glade (click to go).

Olson’s prose poems this year have appeared in print in The Hat 8, New American Writing 27, Denver Quarterly (Volume 43, Number 3 (April 2009), and Bateau, Vol. 2, No. 2, and on-line at Alligatorzine. Additional poems are scheduled to appear in an upcoming issue of American Poetry Review. His most recent collection is Backscatter: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2008).

Olson’s novel, Souls of Wind, concerning the adventures of Arthur Rimbaud and Billy the Kid in the 19th Century American West, was published last year by Quale Press.



Heller Levinson said...

Bravo, John, should be required "Reading," the visual inserts are a hoot and an invigoration.

Joseph Donahue said...

John Olson continues to be my drug of choice. I'm so high right now I can hardly type this.

EILEEN said...

You are GREAT!

brian (baj) salchert said...

Have been here at least three times. Completed reading the essay a couple days ago. Jaunty and intense, it demands a reader's attentiveness. The guy in the stairwell who is apparently trying to read something he couldn't read any other way stands for me as a symbol of the whole of what John Olson, who is new to me, is elucidating. He hasn't quite convinced me here, but I can feel his passion, in light of which his having written about "the CERN large hadron collider" and "aliteracy"; writes prose poems--which he first thought this essay was going to be; wrote Souls of Wind, a novel "concerning the adventures of Arthur Rimbaud and Billy the Kid in the 19th Century American West" come as no surprise.

If you haven't heard of Aaron Apps or Noah Cicero, both writers still in their twenties, I have links to their blogs, and a special link to "Poet as Platypus" by Apps. Apps recently got into a lengthy discussion with Seth Abramson on Abramson's blog. Cicero recently finished the first draft of a book which is approximately 70,000 words long.

Don't know how old John Olson is, but the energy some authors have is astounding.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks to all who've so far stopped in, and especially to those who left a comment.

Baj, I don't "know" the poetry or writing of Aaron Apps, aside from his blog. He did make a great movie suggestion -- Grave of the Fireflies -- a couple weeks ago on the day Ron Silliman discussed Pixar's Up. I hadn't seen that one, and now have, and it was quite something.

Noah Cicero I knew nothing about until your mention, so thank you. I've read some of what's on-line (his blog has a recently posted list of links to various things) and will read more.

As for John Olson's age, Wikipedia reports his birthdate as August 23, 1947. But Olson's first poem wasn't published (in a magazine) until he was over 40, and his first book (a chap) didn't come out until 1995, when he was almost fifty! It's an unusual combination, I think, of experience and freshness or newness.

Conrad DiDiodato said...


I'll add my appreciation to these: wonderful article, true to my own reading 'experiences', now and always.

I shall be pleased to follow this quality 'blog', not least for its postmodernist (deleuzian) tenor.

Andrew Burke said...

Wonderful essay. As a reading writer and a writing reader, I enjoyed the progression of thought - and, as some have already remarked, the very effective illustrations.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks much Conrad and Andrew for the kind words.

Conrad, your phrase "(deleuzian) tenor" sort of scares me! I'll just continue to post what I can, when I can, and I hope if you stop by again you'll find something that fits with what you expect. Let me know if I miss the mark!

Conrad DiDiodato said...

By 'deleuzian' tenor I meant Olson's article jibes, in some meaningful respects, with the views of Gilles Deleuze, a thinker who's radicalized (and improved) my own thinking on the nature of writing (among other things). I have in mind the works "a thousand plateaus" and "The Logic of Sense".

I promise, next time I won't drop names but give a more accurate description of my ideas.

John Olson said...

A Thousand Plateaus has been a huge influence on my rhizomatic brabble. Thank you for noticing that, Conrad. Thousand Plateaus is a magnificent read. Logos Spermaticos in the extreme.

Kat Good-Schiff said...

As someone who chose reading and writing over kickball and swimming at summer camp, I really enjoyed this. Thanks.

Steven Fama said...

Kat --

Thanks much for stopping in and leaving your note.

Your comment about choosing reading over kickball and swimming at summer camp got me thinking.

I wonder if I could read and swim at the same time?!! That would be fun!

nadia; said...

Just found this essay while I was googling "The Pharmakon." This was absolutely beautiful.

Soma Feldmar said...

Hello! I'm a Robin Blaser scholar, writing my PhD dissertation on his work. I was doing research about Blaser's "ghost" and "ghostliness" in relation to language, and came upon your blog and article.

What I find interesting is that while you say reading requires a leaving oneself and inhabiting an imaginary domain, it is actually, to my mind and Blaser's, all and any language usage, whether it be reading, writing, listening, or speaking, requires leaving oneself and inhabiting an imaginary domain. The "ghostliness in language" is that whether or not we are aware of it, us language users are always in that imaginary domain. In fact, just the idea that "we emerge from ourselves," is imagination. The self that most people consider and understand is an imaginary domain.