Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Ladder

The long quote below is from The Anthologist, the latest book by Nicholson Baker, who happens to be one of my favorite writers. The book is about poetry, about thoughts and doubts of a middle-aged, medium-successful poet. It struck me how well his bleak vision applied to us designers, to the entire life effort of so many of my friends and colleagues.

“And now it’s like I’m on some infinitely tall ladder. You know the way old aluminum ladders have that texture, and that kind of cold gray color? I am clinging to this telescoping ladder that leads up into the blinding blue. The world is somewhere very far below. I don’t know how I got here. It’s a mystery. When I look up I see people climbing, rung by rung… Tiny figures, clambering, clinging. The wind comes over, whsssew, and it’s cold, and the ladder vibrates, and I feel very exposed and high up… And I look down, and there are many people behind me. They are hurrying up to where I am. They’re twenty-three-year-old energetic climbing creatures in their anoraks and goggles, and I am trying to keep climbing. But my hands are cold and going numb. My arms are tired to tremblement. It’s freezing, and it’s lonely, and there’s nobody to talk to. And what if I just let go? What if I just loosened my grip, and fell to one side, and just – ffshhhoooow. Let go. Would that be such a bad thing?”

Blogger RWordplay said...

Some time ago I wrote a little piece where I placed a young man standing on a kind of Olympus looking at the mass of humanity at the base of the mountain. He questioned his right to enjoy the privileges and variety of delights available in that lovely place. The more he questioned, the more he considered descending—in my story a wind marble staircase and not a ladder. Just as he was about to take the first step down the young man was stopped by a wiser soul who asked him what he thought he'd find at the bottom of the staircase: Good intentioned, clear-eyed, strong-armed men and willowy shapely bright-eyed women with flowers in their hair? No, the man tells him, what he'll encounter along his descent would be crowds of crude and filthy men and women climbing, clawing, stomping over each other to take the place he had abandoned. The young man remains in "paradise" sadder but wiser.

As for the picture that inspired Baker, I have seen many versions of it in churches and chapels and, of course, in books and postcards in cathedral gift shops. I've collected a few, always finding them inspiring and always find a good reason to send to deserving friends and colleagues. I've always taken pleasure in the appearance of the demons and the pleasure they take in the work—bureaucrats at work, good at their jobs. I also enjoy their victims, so well attired and intentioned and so wrong.

Instructive work but not persuasive. It also says something interesting about the perverse nature of the human mind; our susceptibility to delusion and our willingness ignore reality. It brings to mind a favorite quote from Ring Larder: "The race doesn't always go to the swiftest or strongest, but that's the way to bet."

As for Mr. Baker's concluding thought, I feel it incumbent to say: "It would be a bad thing. It would be a terrible thing, there's no such thing as soft landings.

April 30, 2011 at 12:43 PM  

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