Interrupted, Again

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Work Interrupted (1891).

I’m fascinated by interruptions. Things are running along one way, one sort of conversation is ongoing, reality is like this not that and then suddenly—everything changes. There’s a further question of when interruptions are admissible, even welcome, and when they are forbidden. My story in the latest Spring issue of The Paris Review is about a dinner party that gets interrupted. The interruption is bad news for the host (an imaginary Icelandic philosopher called Alda Jónsdóttir) and bad news for the person who does the interrupting (another imaginary philosopher called Ole Lauge). But it’s even worse news for a beautiful poached salmon, minding its own business at the center of the table.

One of the most famous interruptions in literary history is the strange case of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Person from Porlock. The story goes that in the summer of 1797 Coleridge was at home in the village of Nether Stowey, Somerset. The cries of birds echoed across the gentle Quantock hills—warblers and whinchats, stonechats, pipits and nightjars. Coleridge was asleep and dreaming vividly (opium may have been taken). Upon emerging from his stupor, he realized that he had dreamed a vast, wondrous poem—“Kubla Khan.” He dashed off to find a pen, ink, and paper, and began scribbling everything down: the famous opening “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure-dome decree” followed by another fifty-odd lines of sparkling verse. But then: a knock on the door, an interruption! A “Person from Porlock” had arrived on business, and distracted Coleridge for a long, tedious interval. When our poet finally returned to his desk, the vision had faded. Coleridge published “Kubla Khan” as a “fragment” and blamed the Person from Porlock for depriving posterity of the complete work.

Since then, the Person from Porlock has become a symbol of unwanted interruptions, poetic genius demolished by tawdry reality, the dangers of answering the front door, and so on. Nonetheless, a few people have questioned Coleridge’s story. In a short poem, “The Person from Porlock,” Robert Graves suggests that if anything we could do with an army of such persons hammering on doors and interrupting solipsistic writers, as a form of quality control. The poet Stevie Smith also presents her views on Porlockgate in “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock.” For a start, asks Smith, why did Coleridge rush to answer the door? Why didn’t he just hide like any self-respecting misanthropic author? Smith concludes that Coleridge was already stuck, “weeping and wailing” over his poem, “hungry to be interrupted.” The advent of the Porlock Person was, in fact, a huge relief.

Douglas Adams’s 1987 novel Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency imagines a parallel world in which Coleridge finished “Kubla Khan,” without any interruptions. In Adams’s witty counterfactual, the finished version of “Kubla Khan” is imbued with some weird power to destroy humanity. A time-traveling detective, Dirk Gently, is dispatched to eighteenth-century Somerset to play the Person from Porlock (who, in this reality, doesn’t exist) and ensure that Coleridge never finishes his poem. One trouble with interruptions, Adams suggests, is that, on a cosmic level, we have no way of knowing if they’re good or bad. By the logic of the butterfly effect, for example, had Roland Barthes been interrupted at any point on the twenty-fifth of February, 1980, he probably wouldn’t have been hit by a laundry van on his way home. The tedious interruption we resent at the time may spare us a far greater sorrow, including—in Adams’s novel—the actual apocalypse.

There’s also a lovely collection of essays called The Book of Interruptions, edited by David Hillman and Adam Phillips. Subjects include Freud, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Proust, death (the greatest interruption), Yeats’s A Vision, and—naturally—the poor Person from Porlock. In an essay called “Xanadu and Porlock: Thoughts on Composition and Interruption,” Hugh Haughton points out that the last two lines of “Kubla Khan” (in its fragmentary form) are terrific: “For he on honey-dew hath fed / And drunk the milk of Paradise.” This begs the question of whether the Porlock Person did Coleridge a massive favor, by ensuring that he stopped there. The Book of Interruptions was published in 2007, and was billed as a response to our Age of Interruptions—as “modern technology is changing our forms of attention, everyday life is subject to more disruption than ever before.” This was before smartphones became ubiquitous, so matters have since escalated. If anything, we now live in an Age of Interrupted Interruptions.

Someone told me the other day that they’d read about new research that proves it takes us twenty-five minutes, on average, to focus again after an interruption. I went away to look this up. I got interrupted six times while I was reading the article, which meant—on the basis of the study—that it would take me two and a half hours to recover from the interruptions. After I’d finished looking at the article I went out, so I wasn’t quite sure how that would work. Was I just going to be in a really diffuse, bemused state for the next two and a half hours? Would that be appreciably different from my usual really diffuse, bemused state? I was pondering that question, but then I got interrupted again. By applying this method for the rest of the day, I clocked up a cumulative tally of seven hundred and twenty-five minutes of necessary recovery time for all the interruptions. This worked out as more than twelve hours. I had no idea how I would fit that in alongside all the interruptions that would certainly follow.

Still, there are (some) reasons to be cheerful. In No One is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood catalogues our quotidian cyberinterruptions and turns them into “an avalanche of details” that retain their poetry: “pictures of breakfasts in Patagonia, a girl applying her foundation with a hard-boiled egg, a shiba inu in Japan leaping from paw to paw to greet its owner, ghostly pale women posting pictures of their bruises—the world pressing closer and closer.” From this teeming array of interruptions Lockwood weaves a “spiderweb of human connection grown so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk.”

And who’s to say that Coleridge didn’t interrupt the Person from Porlock, rather than the other way round? Perhaps our Person from Porlock was at home on that summer’s day in 1797. They’d just woken from a vivid dream, which had conveyed a fully formed and revolutionary new theory of reality. They dashed off to find a pen, ink, and paper, and began scribbling everything down: but then, they were interrupted! Their boss turned up in a fury, saying that some dodgy poet had failed to pay his bills, again. The Person of Porlock was sent off to Nether Stowey—a long ride over strenuous hills. They arrived at the poet’s house, and knocked on the door. A wild-eyed man answered, looking as if he’d just gotten out of bed. He took an absolute age to produce the money, and meanwhile kept banging on about some place called Xanadu. Finally, the debt was paid, and the person from Porlock hurried home.

By then, alas, they had forgotten their extraordinary theory of reality—all because of an unfortunate interruption by the Person from Nether Stowey.


Joanna Kavenna’s novels include A Field Guide to Reality, Inglorious, and Zed. You can read her story in issue no. 247, “The Beautiful Salmon,” online here. 

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