Some Versions of the Ice
By Adam Tipps Weinstein
Les Figues Press
Reviewed by Forrest Roth
Those who have spent extended time teaching and writing in academia usually come to accept a tacit rule that one of the many conditions of Knowledge is conveying an impenetrable affect of erudition, attempting to reveal a part of this world to someone else who, in all likelihood, is reluctant to understand what is being explained because of that necessary erudition; or, worse still, using this affect as a shield against every mystery attached to the subject that may be far more fascinating. For those who have not, on the other hand, does Knowledge resemble something of a clownish torture device in the wrong hands or, in its more familiar incarnation, the annoying stranger whose relentless intercessions can't be avoided, à la Nabokov's Kinbote from Pale Fire? Knowledge in this institutional aspect appears, either way, to suffer from itself often, save for the rarified efforts of those who try to use it wisely without wisdom and not inflict these pains upon others as they are dispelled, scattered for purposes remaining unclear to anyone by the close of the proverbial lecture.
Some Versions of the Ice is Adam Tipps Weinstein's amusing yet oddly solemn play-act as an astute academic who proceeds blithely unaware of the trappings of Knowledge while working along them for a dubious audience which may not exist should the speaker ever recognize the possibility. In this relatively brief collection of what could be called fictional essays—only if non-fiction doesn't suffice here—the consistent deadpan humor Weinstein employs offers a piecemeal satire of formal education's hopeless condescensions, its inherently aloof relation to any given subject matter, and its exasperating methodologies of presenting facts, conditions, and opinions. At the same time, however, Some Versions also offers up an informed collection that disguises any perceived loathing for its subjects in the literary and factual, so much so it may often fool readers into thinking there are serious studies afoot while teasing with its self-assured posturing that something heretofore sealed and unknown is about to be cracked wide open.
But we are not here to learn anything. As Weinstein's quote of William Gass in his afterword reflects, this collection, in its own wry perambulations, offers an oblique torch song for all books, albeit based on a tough love born from studiously compiling these books and re-assembling them for an impractical learning in spite of its evident pseudo-pretensions, all of which is shrouded in a rigorous fumbling for the reader's edification. Towards that end, these essays bring together an occasionally unrelated gathering of authors, thinkers, and historical figures who mostly exist in posterity (if they ever existed at all), those who are trapped in an obscure citation dusted off by Weinstein, and others who could be mere caricatures of fancy created in a quixotic academic pursuit. Exploring this fertile ground between what is real and what is not, then, is an essential part of the play in Some Versions, which frequently asks us whether the pursuit of Knowledge has anything whatsoever to do with learning, and who the learned are in an aging world that will not reveal its secrets so easily.
Reminiscent of Ben Marcus's The Age of Wire and String, each essay of Some Versions relies on its own unique subversion of taxonomy's burden to make the old and moldering anew all over again through the tomes of classical education, many deliberate and badly disguised falsehoods, and the simplifying pleasures of language working either against itself or the all-too-familiar academic persona Weinstein employs with steady precision. A particularly satisfying theme Some Versions returns to throughout is the failure of dealing directly with the linguistic boundaries of academic prose, such as "Scented Braille," which interrupts its speculative revisionism and a mischievous olfactory interpretation of William Carlos Williams to call out to the readers visiting "an impossible world, and yet fathomable" and asking what sensory experience they could have experienced instead. Elsewhere, one can identify the struggle with this professorial mucking about in the Post-Colonial pitfalls of encountering the strangely distasteful Other in "Graveyard Shoes (Pulque)," the impracticality of an objective explanation of religious-minded constructs in "Heaven-Seeking or Collars," or the parody of presumed importance in "The False Pigeon" and its struggle to discern any modern significance for the reader of today ("[W]ould we not become those who are verily and indeed wanting in the knowledge of the true being of each thing . . . unable to as with a painter's eye to look at the absolute truth and to that original to repair? For only with perfect vision of the real can we order the laws about beauty and goodness, and guard and preserve the order of them"). It is not difficult to see Weinstein's speaker in these works as the deluded academic who secretly wishes for a role much greater than what it actually is, though only if the opportunity presented itself in some bibliographic scrap uncovered.
In other instances, the essays of Some Versions, through their neglect of acknowledging outdated or useless Knowledge, somehow manage to faithfully reveal and instruct in their indirect ways and they way they uncover the peculiar traditions of our civilization never fully explained. "Some Remarks on Teeth," for example, addresses that most universal of childhood initiation rites in a novel way, which unfortunately limns its sense of pure innocence with a scientific curiosity of the grotesque, nearly squelching it altogether:
When a deciduous tooth is lost—so called because they are shed in adolescence—the child may place her tooth beneath her pillow as a symbolic exhalation of adolescent fantasy; the tooth is procured from under her pillow in the dead of night, and a token is left behind to symbolize a future of good fortune. It is worth emphasizing, then, the symbolic play of the "lost" tooth. If one looks closely at the mire of evacuated gum, one will just be able to make out the naked white tip of the emerging replacement, permanently anchored in the jawbone.
In this same essay, the ongoing feigned concern about obsolescence, and the resulting value judgment that the dusty academic voice lapses itself into, reveals in the process both the difficulty and foolishness of reconstructing a certain subject without an affection plumbing the depths of the impossible first ("Of course, shoving a household icepick into anyone's jaw and removing teeth is barbaric. This is the kind of back alley dentistry that casts a pall over legitimate dental leucotomy"). Peppering these explanations with a mix of arbitrary and often non-integrated quotes, whether they are real or false, along with the typical banalities ("And patterns are found where they once were not," "Results have been mixed," etc.), Weinstein suggests the harsh interruptions that come with academic truth perhaps destroy another, better truth in painful ways, whether by the gratuitous quote-dropping of dead Greeks or an artificial concern for what Moby-Dick has to tell the latter-day reader. And what the past holds for us can never be made entirely attractive by such dedicated minds.
If Some Versions, as a whole, can be seen a veiled cry for help from the terminally pedantic, it may be one seeking to alleviate itself in the best sympathy possible from an intended reader willing to be just as bookish. Mary Shelley's apt metaphor from Frankenstein about the graveyard as a "library of bodies deprived of life" in the collection's final, titular essay provides an accurate expression of an "unspeakable perfection" that eludes precise categorization, much like how Arctic native cultures have many names for the omnipresent snow. Though it is amusing to think of the speaker of these essays as a world-weary mind wanting repose, the heaviness Weinstein betrays in having his academic voice account for these subjects of an imagined antiquity is offset perfectly by the notion of Frankenstein's monster lumbering forward on the solid ice to dispel the calm certainty of Knowledge's supposed progress, and its reanimating pieces of dead truth resting beneath the surface of all that attempts to be ordered and neat.