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H.:

You (not really you in this case) write of your ideal life. Mine is quite different, of course. I now have projects related to making money (such as my job; a couple other ideas too) and projects related to my Work. These latter projects are up to around a dozen or so. A dozen serious plans for books that could really be written, or related projects that could be taken up. And the formulation of new projects is an inevitable thing for me: I can't get myself to stop doing it.

I'm enthusiastic about all and any of these projects, and would be enthusiastic about myriad other endeavors too, were they to enter the realm of the possible. For instance, if someone told me they would pay me a moderately lousy wage to become fluent in Latin, but that I'd have to sign a thirty year contract, I'd be delighted. That's the sort of lunatic I am. I now want to write a book about the poet Blake, I want to write an eccentric encyclopedia dedicated to the byways of the history of writing (starting from the beginning: Mesopotamia, 3000 B.C.), I want to immerse myself in the Chinese character system. But I can't write my encyclopedia because I'm still writing my novel, and I can't write about Blake because I've promised myself to start teaching a Shakespeare class as soon as my novel is done. And I really have no intention of studying Latin now, but the point is rather as follows: I'd be perfectly happy to take up learning Latin, or writing about Blake--in fact I'd be ecstatic--but I'm too busy doing other projects now. And the point is, again, as follows: I don't have enough lives here to become fluent in both Latin and Chinese; to write both about Blake and Sumerian. So I choose one rather than another, and stick to it, all the while formulating all kinds of other projects that would be more than worthwhile, if I would ever have the time to take them up.

Of these projects, Chinese is a regular Mount Everest rising up above me. The one thing that cheers me on is that it is such a pleasure studying such an intricate and absolutely foreign thing. I will take it up more seriously after I've finished the novel. Perhaps I will sign a fifteen year contract with myself: "No stopping with Chinese until you can write reasonably fluent letters."

But being that I am so doggedly Western, I know that as I study Chinese--speaking, reading, writing--I know I will always be pining for more time spent with my Western books: my Sir Thomas Browne, which I haven't read yet, my prose of Donne, my Mandelstam essays, my Nabokov on Gogol, my definitive Poe biography, my plans, always deferred, to finally and seriously study Plato. All of that is worth five thousand afternoons and fifteen thousand cups of fine Harar coffee (you do the math). Here I've begun to read Gurdjieff's novel Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson, introduction to which I downloaded from the Web and printed, and I think: "Hmm, charmingly reminiscent of Tristram Shandy, this. Maybe I ought to read the whole work, and a biography, and his other book. Maybe here's another name to add to my list of beloved Russians." But what business have I beginning such a reading--I've got seven books I'm reading already, and a couple I'm writing, and I'm supposed to be immersing myself in Chinese starting two or three months from now? So why do I immediately start shoring up plans to study Gurdjieff too?

All of this implies a vice as well, a tendency I really do think is a vice. Namely, not giving enough time to friendships because, after I've spent more than an hour with someone, I often become anxious to leave, to return to some book or notebook.

And the related vice--which one may call "geographical"--: namely, I do not give myself time to explore places, or spend enough time planning to explore some country, because I am so eager to explore unread books or unlearned languages.

Eric

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