Dangerous Arrangements/ Aimless Estrangements


Walter Reed

Department of English. Emory University



         I arranged to meet myself at Grand Central Station, in the Oyster Bar.  I knew this old, broken relationship would have to be attended to eventually, and I decided to take the opportunity of being in New York for a professional meeting to see if I could renew old acquaintance.  Over a dozen Long Island Blue Points and a glass of beer, I told myself, it would be easier to reestablish old ties.

         In a certain sense, we are always rearranging ourselves, shuffling through the pages of yesterday’s bulletins, last week’s memoranda, e-mails from self to soul that got put at the bottom of the pile of papers . . .—which one was it?  The one on the left side of the desk or the one on the floor over by the filing cabinet?

                  To:  Walt

                  From:  Walt

                  Subject:  Possible rearrangement of our schedule for tomorrow

                  Cc:  alter egos, alternate selves

         Why arrangements in particular?  Why not constructions, constellations, compositions (“Compose yourself now, son; don’t get carried away.”)  Soren Kierkegaard:  “and you would have become, like the unhappy demoniac in the gospels, legion.  You would have lost that inmost and holiest thing of all in a man, the unifying power of personality.”

         Creative Improvisation, #3, Take 4.  I guess what I’m coming around to is the notion that the integral indivisible self is arranged and arrayed, rearranged and displayed, from a set of possibilities dealt from a finite set of cards (the human genome as a deck of cards?  The unwritten diary of one’s days as 52 Pick-Up?).  Is there some occult connection, some Symboliste correspondence, between the number of weeks in a year and the number of cards in a deck?  The arrangements and rearrangements of the hands one is dealt and the hands one plays—skillfully, ineptly, with incredible luck (good or bad) depend on the game ones finds oneself in—on the table on bellies up to.

         Old Maid, Go Fish, twenty versions of poker, with my brother Steve bluffing madly but usually forcing the rest of us to fold.  And Giant Canasta, where every deck of cards we could lay our hands on was pressed into service for games that could last, off and on, for days.  (I’m still talking about arrangements—runs, straights, flushes, pairs, three-of-a-kind’s, full houses.)  “As smug as a Christian holding four aces,” says Mark Twain.  The endless bridge games in the buttroom at Exeter, the hapless poker game above the off-license on Hemingford Road, the idle, time-killing games of solitaire.  Can I arrange these all in some sort of hand?  A winning hand?  “You have to know when to hold them and when to fold them.”  I did get pretty good at shuffling the deck when it was my turn to deal.  Your cut.  Dealer’s choice:  seven-card stud, deuces and one-eyed Jacks wild.  Ah, those wild cards, the deck within the deck.

         I’ve just finished re-reading and teaching the peculiarly scrambled and reassembled novel by Italo Calvino If on a winter’s night a traveler.  Chapters of a frame tale in which “you” are the protagonist alternate with fragments of a series of novels, repeatedly cut short just when “you” were really getting interested.  Other readers try to pursue the text—the unified, continuous story that is promised by the two covers with a single author and title—but they are readers with different agendas, different arrangements, different competing and yet mysteriously complementary desires. (This improvisation has settled into the professor’s professional rut.  To the shoemaker, it’s all leather.  To the English teacher, it’s all great books and good reads.  (Hey, that’s a pun on my name!  Where did that come from?)

         I’m still trying to arrange my thoughts on arrangement. Take 7.


                           Higgledy Piggledy,

                           Douglas R. Hofstadter

                           Lectured at Emory,

                           Discourses three.


                           Ended his visit with

                           Epstein’s experiment,

                           [single word needed here—    crab-compositional

                           last line beats me] canon of glee?


         This last attempt to arrange the exciting intellectual exchanges of the last 24 hours into the lyric form known as the double dactyl (invented by Anthony Hecht and improved by John Hollander) has fallen short, has fallen flat, even with the variant of the last two lines.  Like all arrangements, perhaps, in the end.  As Borges says, “ There is no exercise of the intellect which is not, in the final analysis, useless.”  But no exercise, either, which can’t serve some purpose in the larger scheme (of arrangement) of things.



Session on Arrangements


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