“Stuck in can’t-think static. Hitting a wall. Blank. Stuck.” Who hasn’t experienced that state of mind in one form or another? Call this a delusion of reference or a case of Nabokovian referential mania: before reading Blair Johnson’s quick-witted, often hilarious manuscript “Circa,” where I encountered the poem “To, or towards,” from which the lines above are taken, I was struggling with writing an essay. In an effort to approach the quandary I had created for myself from a more productive angle, I had gone to a website that randomly delivers Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies to its visitors. I was given this dictum: “Honor thy error as hidden intention.” As this statement flickered on a black background, I puzzled over what error it could be referring to, and turned to Johnson’s poems.
“To, or towards” uncannily mirrored my thinking. It continues as follows:
Start moving. The car projects any narrative you want to move in — the movement unravels sounds from their folded knot: straightening threads, drawing them out from inside your folded-mind. Keep driving — this scene contains infinite directions — the end never quite vanishes — you’re about to detach from static . . .
Here too I found an oblique strategy, one that is at the core of Johnson’s poems, which track thought’s multiple paths not by taking wild associative leaps from one line to another, but by sticking to their premises, often lifted straight out of logic primers, until their assumptions fall apart and their multiplicity unfolds. They perform a reductio ad absurdum of the procedural, of a logic whose so-called linear progression is nothing but a Flaubertian received idea. Its circularity or propensity to spiral in on itself Johnson proves and relishes.
The dictionary reminds us that logic is the study of correct or valid reasoning. Logic-wise, the inferences in Johnson’s poems might be delightfully error-stricken (an aside: “error-stricken” is not a valid Scrabble word), but under what dictates do they lack validity? Lewis Carroll claimed that his Symbolic Logic would give readers “the power to detect fallacies, and to tear to pieces the flimsy illogical arguments, which you will so continually encounter in books, in newspapers, in speeches, and even in sermons.” Johnson subjects these and many other laudable assertions to their own truth-testing mechanisms, and upends them as if by refracting them through the looking glass. Exposing the flimsiness of so-called logical sense, Johnson supplies a welcome surplus of “materials for a most interesting mental recreation,” as Carroll would have it. But Johnson does it better, because the absurdity of our fixation with mapping reason’s circuitous paths shines in all its pathos and humor, and her utterly disarming poetry is arrived at obliquely.
—Mónica de la Torre
Symbolize the following sentences
July is both intelligent and beautiful, but she is not rich. Charles is rich and beautiful but not intelligent. Edie is sort of beautiful, rich, and intelligent (but no one likes her). July is attracted to both Bentley and Edie but doesn’t love either of them. July doesn’t know what love is and likes to say so elegiacally and often. July loves Bentley but despises Charles. July loves both herself and Charles and despises Bentley and Edie, but neither Edie nor Bentley is attracted to Charles, but Charles is attracted to both of them but only in certain situations and only if not enough is happening elsewhere. Edie has developed an affectation in which she says things such as at least one of the things under discussion is such that it is out of place, while staring pointedly at Charles, who is eating his asparagus.
If Bentley is attracted to Edie and she is attracted to him, then they love each other—which is clearly an inappropriate paraphrase and terrible advice. If Charles loves Bentley and Bentley loves July, then Charles both despises and is shorter than July. Charles does not despise himself for being shorter than July, as July is tall. It bothers Bentley when his parents win arguments with the phrase the self-absorption of your generation after other phrases such as I can’t believe or the toxic effect of. If Charles is neither rich nor beautiful nor intelligent, then no one loves him. Therefore it does not matter if he’s tall, only if he’s taller than y. There was nothing sacrosanct about that choice of variable.
Charles neither loves nor despises July but both loves and despises himself. July loses Bentley’s phone number. Time passes or does not seem to pass. July sometimes talks to Edie but never talks to Bentley or Charles. Edie talks to Charles but not Bentley. Charles often says yes, but I’m nostalgic for Season One. July doesn’t know if Charles talks to Bentley but Edie asks her anyway. July moves again but doesn’t ask Edie to help. Bentley moves. Charles moves out of state. Edie changes her name back to Deirdre and moves in with someone who is not named Charles or Bentley or July.
Joe and July playing characters in Rhinoceros (an epigraph)
Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Here is an example of a syllogism. The cat has four paws. Isidore and Fricot both have four paws. Therefore Isidore and Fricot are cats.
Old Gentleman: [to the Logician] My dog has got four paws.
Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Then it’s a cat.
July: [to Joe] I’ve barely got the strength to go on living. Maybe I don’t even want to.
Old Gentleman: [to the Logician, after deep reflection] So then logically speaking, my dog must be a cat?
Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Logically, yes. But the contrary is also true.
July: [to Joe] Solitude seems to oppress me. And so does the company of other people.
Joe: [to July] You contradict yourself. What oppresses you—solitude, or the company of others? You consider yourself a thinker, yet you’re devoid of logic.
Old Gentleman: [to the Logician] Logic is a very beautiful thing.
Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] As long as it is not abused.
July: [to Joe] Life is an abnormal business.
Joe: On the contrary. Nothing could be more natural, and the proof is that people go on living.
July: There are more dead people than living. And their numbers are increasing. The living are getting rarer.
Joe: The dead don’t exist, there’s no getting away from that! …Ah! Ah …! [He gives a huge laugh.] Yet you’re oppressed by them, too? How can you be oppressed by something that doesn’t exist?
Slant Syllogism (a prologue)
Before it began Joe and July lived in their habits.
Routines originate and enforce stability or stasis, masking
time’s various directions and movements through its inhabitants.
A disturbed state of consciousness can develop at any time.
Everyone loves a lover. Joe loves July. Everyone loves everyone.
If by lover we mean someone who loves someone, and if we take the last sentences as the conclusion of an argument of which the first two sentences are premises, we have a valid argument. The conclusion does follow, though not obviously, from the premises.
The missing reasoning is this: If Joe loves July, then Joe is a lover. It follows from the first premise: Everyone loves a lover that everyone loves Joe. And if a lover is someone who loves someone, it further follows that everyone is a lover(because everyone loves Joe). And if everyone is a lover and everyone loves a lover, it follows, finally that everyone loves everyone.
Of course, this reasoning does not work if “loves” is not being used in the same way in all its occurrences.
This passage about Joe and July is best
constructed as a logically inconsistent set
Both Joe jogs regularly and July jogs regularly. Either Joe jogs regularly or July jogs regularly. It is not the case that either Joe jogs regularly or July jogs regularly. If it is not the case that July jogs regularly then it is not the case that Joe jogs regularly. Both either Joe jogs regularly or Albert jogs regularly—“Who?”—and it is not the case that both Joe jogs regularly and Albert jogs regularly. Both it is not the case that either July jogs regularly or Joe jogs regularly and it is not the case that Albert jogs regularly. “Who is Albert?” Either Albert jogs regularly or it is not the case that Albert jogs regularly. “Who is Regular Jogger Albert? Does July know Albert?” But if Albert does jog regularly, then so will Joe. If Joe jogs regularly then it is not the case that Joe is lazy. And if Joe jogs regularly, then July jogs regularly, because either Joe and July jog regularly, or neither of them jogs regularly. And Joe jogs regularly if and only if it is not the case that Joe is lazy.
“But will I jog today?” Joe asks himself out loud in the bathroom. “Will July jog today? Will Albert? Have they both been jogging regularly?” If either it is not the case that July, who may or may not know Albert, jogs regularly or it is not the case that Joe jogs regularly then it is not the case that Albert jogs regularly. Time passes: Albert jogs by the front window. If both Albert is healthy and it is not the case that Joe is lazy then both Albert jogs regularly and Joe jogs regularly. Or if it is not the case that July does not know Albert then July jogs regularly if and only if Albert jogs regularly and Joe jogs regularly. If Albert doesn’t jog regularly, then Joe doesn’t jog regularly, only if July doesn’t. Either Joe is lazy or he isn’t. Either Albert is healthy or he isn’t. Somebody is perfect. “Who is it? Is it Albert?” July does and does not jog regularly. July jogs regularly only if Albert does but Joe doesn’t. Time passes. Neither Joe or July jog regularly, anymore. Time passes. Joe sits alone, either watching the Olympics or waiting for July. He says to the furniture: “Either the French team will win at least one gold medal or either the German team will win at least one gold medal or the Danish team will win at least one gold medal.” He looks up. Albert jogs by the window. Time passes.
An incalculable amount of this text is borrowed from:
The Logic Book
Solutions to Selected Exercises in The Logic Book
Merrie Bergmann, James Moor, Jack Nelson
Elementary Lessons in Logic: Deductive and Inductive
The Oxford English Dictionary
The epigraph is taken from Act 1, Scene 1 of Rhinoceros, by Eugène Ionesco. Joe plays the part of Jean and July plays the part of Berenger.