Sunday, July 20, 2008

Benjamin DeMott, educator

We learned to read with him. He taught us to respect our gut instincts in reading a line of poetry, a passage from a story. We learned to let ourselves open up and see, and trust what we noticed as sufficient and to the point.

He taught with authority, and he taught us to read with authority, to have faith in the opinions our minds would work out for us upon studying an issue, an event, a behavior, a person's speech. We became enabled as critics.

A delivery truck goes by. You feel the overkill, the churning waste of energy to accelerate at every intersection, to wheeze uselessly with pollution at the next. You feel the cost on the planet. It's the same moment of recognition from real life as we had as readers when we read Hardy's "The Fallow Deer at the Lonely House." Seeing the deer on tip toe, ready to spring away. Once seeing it, you don't deny it, even if such a claim of understanding were the same thing that made you stand out as a crazy in the wold of people.

Emily Dickinson's "I Heard a Fly Buzz as I Died," was something he read for us, gingerly, respecting a greater authority on eternity than his own readership. On that one, he stopped, self-consciously, a little bit short, as if to silently point to a whole world of far understandings.

He noticed the essential, about Presidents and 9/11 reports, about the cultural attitudes rife in television shows, just as he would a poem of Keats, the attitude of Lear.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

A Return to the Tour de France

This year, the advertisements interrupt the countryside and man on bike in peloton. The most common: men in make-up and wigs who follow a sporting event broadcast on the same channel that brings us the coverage of the Tour, which is cage fighting. The screen flashes with autism-provoking violence and hype of a violent inner persona of the rebellious kind. An energy drink that won't let you bonk. Bull-riding. Red hot and blue summer. Kicking, swinging, fighting. Heavy speed metal to accompany. Everything in your face with the frantic mania of those who bring us nothing.

Then back to France. Back to the Tour, Le Tour. Fragile, even with the venerable 93 years of its running, a farmer spelling out Vivre Le Tour with hay bales still speaks of emotion, the allowing of something gentle, archaic, beautiful and emotional to come rolling through our towns, and if we are removed from those towns and country roads, over the airwaves received by our televisons. The only sound that off the helicopter as it hovers over an 11th century castle, then the eye dipping down to follow the pack of cyclists following an old road at a sailing clip. A lot of variables in play, as far as the race, and along with that, many traditions and traditional practices. The peloton closes down on the breakaway, just so as for the team protecting its lead rider to preserve its energy. A sprint finish.

I tape a stage. It gives me a pleasure to stop the recording everytime a commercial comes on. Saab has been particularly cruel on the ear this ear, almost sardonic, with a repetitive statement uttered three times concerning the function exhaust in a turbo engine. Proud of the repetition, thinking it humorous, as a sadistic jailer might when rattling a prisoner's cage, the original captive audience. Advertising to perfection, and yet who can take the commercial more than three times, thence having studied it, shun the television? Cage fighting TapOut. Bull Riding. Energy drink. Saab. Male Enhancement. I record a stage leading from Provence up into the hills on a VCR, cutting out the cancer patiently. A brand name printed on a jersey, I can handle that. I like that. Back before helmets they used to wear jaunty caps, useful to keep sun and rain off the brow, with names of immediately pleasurable and useful things like apperitif liquors and sausage makers before more modern times when the brand names changed to vacuum cleaners, super markets, lottery games, credit issuers, phone services. After a while, the viewer sees only the team colors, which is useful, a necessity for following the race and the individuals one might develop a fondness or an interest for. Green of Thor Hushovd. White of Cancellera. Blue of Hincapie.

The commercials remind me of how people often act in bars. They pretend to be innocuous, relaxed, but if you were to spend any time with them, you would not want to spend a moment witnessing it.

After bartending four straight nights, I don't want to go out. I don't want to talk to people. There is some great abuse of people's basic gentle quality as it is construed and distorted by the ever-present of the commercial, so that each one feels obliged to shout from the rafters.

A writer's work will be good to the extent that he realizes how unimportant talk is, how necessary writing is. Talk is annoying, people having been trained by commercials to think a certain way. Talk is the most problematic and unreliable form of communication, and television relies on it. Talk fosters lies, miscommunication, misrepresentation, misunderstandings passed along. Sunday morning television offers good examples. Placed within the context of a barroom, a speaker, like Mr. Paulson, or Mr. Cheney talking about connections in Prague and weapon stashes, would find a rightful place to the listening ear.

Talk killed Kerouac. Everyone wanting to party with the King of the Beatniks, demanding him to put his understandings beyond words and Zen into cocktail conversation, banging on his window as he sat as his typewriter. Kerouac knew better than to talk. The best minds retreat in a wordy age. So as not to be used.

architecture, shyness, polarity

Tolstoy was very clever to write War and Peace as a preliminary exercise to include, through great detail, through many characters, many scenes, the variety of human experience worth treating with fiction. And then, as he knew himself, he began with his first real novel. There is architecture to it. Levin, who is Tolstoy's self-portrait, on his way to being married, meets Anna Karenina but once in the story. No one is as alive, no one's consciousness so explored as hers, even as we read of marvelous things like Levin scything grain with the peasants on a hot day. We have two pillars, whose arch and vault we do not even see, not seeing in common experience and record a significant meeting of the two. Within the architecture, well, it's like a parking garage. We can drive a truck of all our own experiences into it, plenty of room, so vague, so huge, so encompassing, so familiar, so full of windows and protective roof, nave and bench, that we feel comfortable curling up with it, letting it reflect some form of our experience if we had to put our experiences into words.

The marketplace for the literary is so burdened with marketing dumbocracies that few can save us from the onslaught of puerile stupidity of architecture that we can see, that we feel comfortable with, the McMansion taking up increasingly its dreadful space next to its clones, that the only thing to save ourselves is, like you have done, remembering how to read, remembering that we all have our own tastes and choices, and that we need not to have to be told that the latest piece of admissions and crap is fine literature, as literature breathes quietly, like that bird on a branch up in a tree, a natural creature, with its own motions and habits peculiar to it. No need for mechanical versions of it. The live thing is better.

Some form of deregulation and greed has eased its common way into the publishing world, and anyone taking ideas seriously, fond of the natural richness of culture, would be concerned.

Shyness is not an attribute we might typically assign to Dostoevsky. (He was a nervous man, we are told, and an epileptic.) We know that he was, more or less, a participant in a radical student group, at least a follower of its intrigues. He knew them personally, well enough to get himself hauled in front of a firing squad for revolutionary activities, then marched off to a penal colony in Siberia.

He had written earlier a sketch of peasant life, making clear his sympathies, in literary form. But it is his Notes From the House of the Dead, his record of prison life that sends him on his way, a first bloom of the literary breadth we know him for. Had it taken such a shocking experience for him to move with a literary confidence new and fresh for him? The Gambler would be next for him, taken from his experience as an addictive gambler set in Baden-Baden.

Moving to the end of his career, he crystallizes his experience as a writer in the character of Alyosha Karamazov. While he is giving us a kind of religious propaganda in this figure of a young monk, rendered with the apparent intention of aiding the Russian nation undergo a spiritual rebirth, Dostoevsky leaves in his portrait of the young monk a fossil record of his own literary career. The book shimmers with the free prose and a bustle of defining moments that took a normal person involved in the discussions of the day and made him a fiction writer. The spiritual rebirth, cloaked in terms of joining in with the First Miracle, is a rendering of the emotional boldness through which the writer claims self-expression.

Get over your shyness; come to the human joy offered by God’s love, as God loves human joy, thus the wine of the First Miracle, the wedding of the poor in Cana. The old High Monk Father Zosima has been laid out for the faithful to keep a vigil over, and Alyosha, his young disciple, exhausted, falls into a dreaming sleep. Within his dream, along with the old monk, he sees that First Miracle scene laid out before him. It’s almost like we have the Giotto fresco laid out before us. We see, through the dream in which the old monk is speaking to Alyosha, Mary encouraging Jesus, and a shy reluctance on the part of Christ; we get the banquet manager, puzzled, then imbibing the new stuff, the essential rendered with familiarity. At the end of the dream Dostoevsky gives us Alyosha leaving the monastery, falling to the ground beneath the stars, and rising the fighter that he will be the rest of his life.

To Dostoevsky, it was all something that sounded familiar, enough so that we get a comfortable twinge of comic humor along with the sacred seriousness. Along with the almost tongue-in-cheek propaganda, we get an almost telegraphic message home of plot, theme and ending that only the bravest, boldest, stupidest, most foolish and schlocky, and yet most clever writer would allow himself. The reader has a sense of the master laying down a theme he will encompass and embellish in great virtuosity, as only the confident writer could. We are drawn along, through the seriousness and oceanic depths with which Dostoevsky treats a writer breaking free to find his voice. (Good to claim our own human oceans, to report on their health.) We see the same urge, finally, in every character of his, yet without the slightest monotony, each an individual with different eyes, a different voice, a different situation, this breadth and diversity no small part of the great virtuosity one might allude to concerning him. As if to say, all, atheist, sinner, sensualist, monk, all have the same struggle. Which is different from a topical political message.

Yes, we can imagine Dostoevsky as a shy very nervous man who rose at one in the afternoon and wrote at night at his desk by candlelight, disliking the glow of electric lamps, when all was quiet, when the claim of the conversations he would fastidiously record as an observer in notebooks had quieted down, reverberating in the perspective brought by the silence of night.

I’ve always found the things writers have to say about writing interesting, sometimes the top of their game. Hemingway, for instance, was fascinated with the subject. He shares his opinions, experience, wisdom and his secrets all through his writing. He valued writing about writing as much as writing fiction, both an achievement.

A writer is someone who never knows quite what to do with himself. A writer is someone who questions, who hardly finds anything justified. He has an overactive mind, prone to anxiety, to careful consideration, a sorrowful two-sidedness to just about everything. It is in a way an awful talent to have, and yet one natural to the human being. A writer is an agreement, as it were, with the Taoist notion of polarity, in that a particular attribute may be the source of good one day and ill the next.

Worrying, anxiousness, nervousness and confusion and things of the like, even as they be the cause of suffering, are natural to go through, not necessarily a sign of a lack of confidence. The mind must wander and wonder aloud at things, or it will feel disconnected within.

Shakespeare was brilliant with capturing this array of thought. “Nothing is, but thinking makes it so,” Prince Hamlet tells us. The combining of good and ill, the mistaken impression, the false conclusion, the correct assessments and proper readings of people and matters, the confusion, all placed within the dramatic setting. Shakespeare is particularly fine at rendering a character’s realization of neglectfulness, as Lear realizes his neglect of Cordelia, as if to indicate that a sense of guilt over just about everything is the primary characteristic of personality.

Writing is a lasting therapy to outline the faceted nature of all we go through.

A writer has a chance to discover the false assumptions and other fallacies hidden beneath the treatment of life and ideas.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Tolstoy's Anna

She was his belle ideal. A fuck-up, just like he was. Fallen, prodigal. His book-end match. Through her he could admit what he could not about his own life with standing in society. She started as a sinner, and her husband a saint, but in the architecture of Tolstoy's arches, she stands in relationship to Levin, representing his innermost thoughts and experience.

The story of the individual, however, is not complete without the judgment of society. Few things, short of Jesus, can stop the train. It is the writer's task to observe the ways of judgment, cultural and individual, negative as well as positive. Thus the off-set focus of Levin's story, the last hours in the life of Anna Karenina.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Beyond words, the successes of Shakespeare

Shakespeare excelled in this area of word's meaninglessness, or rather, the inability of words to form a solid and lasting logic by which a character could assess, describe and compute his or her or a situation. The words are so apt and so well-put together because they cannot touch, with any accuracy, what a person is thinking, feeling or trying to achieve. The person, the character, is himself confused, because he is acting not on word and logic but on dreams and deeper impulses. Shakespeare's characters are speaking in the moment. They are who they are. Thinking without the ability to think clearly, because words aren't the best logic or science, but of course, there's nothing any better.

Only when we realize we cannot judge Lear, Othello, Iago, anyone else, does the matter of our brains become clear. Shakespeare, therefore, did a wonderful service for us in showing that our brains are runs of nerve, passion, electricity, animal urges, basic needs. The wonder of the words of the Elizabethan play such as he, Shakespeare, gives us, are worthy by showing us the animal reaction, the gut feeling, the human being in his animal cloak. "A sight for sore eyes," is one recording of humanity's personal needs, for instance.

Hamlet comes with a whirlwind, properly, fitting, of energy. A gentle touch, a kindness, an emphatic intellectual scholarliness beyond the scholastics of Horatio (most admirably broad), as if we were to see some of the trade routes of thoughts that run in the considered life, Beethoven accessing Eastern thinking concerning the illusion of self, being a recent example. Hamlet turns his mind everywhere, brilliantly, and yet, he does not claim any precise understanding. He does not claim a worded response (and this same thing was Kennedy's great moment in the Missile Crisis, saying the few things one knew and not making more of them, keeping the thoughts clean, unencumbered. Kennedy, of course, went on to say some other things with a clarity beyond words, and after him, his brother did the same, in a way to show the world, as if for once and for all, how to take thought back to the very basics. And how odd that the younger brother too... as if the individuals who comprise the public, prior to reading the great political thoughts of natural rights John Locke, don't tread on me, don't tread on you, etc., cannot handle this stripped-down basic clean math of thought, as if the public member would rather spend an excess hour prevaricating upon the complications and possibility for argument, then thereby enact them, rather than boil something back down to the clarity someone like a Lincoln had his awful and beautifully clear access to.)

Shakespeare gives us his characters through the limitations of careful considered thought. The poetry comes from the mouths of confused persons, of persons brilliant and thoughtful enough to accept the possibility of not understanding something clearly enough to be able to take any action but further thought and consideration and talk. (A good review in the NY Times of an actor bringing us Polonius better than we've had him of late.) The best, as in a Donne poem, are when the speaker throws up his hands, or is left to state clearly what his obviously unrealistic thoughts might be clearly, so that they are ready to be opened.

Tonight we, at the wine bar, tasted two wines, both from the Graves appellation of Bordeaux. Organic wine-making. The white, sauvignon blanc, semillon, and a small but immediately noticeable percentage of muscadelle, no oak, resulting in white flowers closest in our palates to acacia, and the red, half and half, no need to guess the grapes, some oak, but not new oak. The red, an '05, and nothing to complain about for the price and the name. The white to sip for a red drinker who's tired of puffed headaches and a dry mouth and an inability to sleep and wake well.

It is right that those who speak the cleanest and most well thought-out thoughts are the grave diggers, the fools at the edge, who, by some happenstance of wit, seem to speak for the crowds gathered at the foot of the stage. Hamlet: a brilliant thinker, as he is able to encompass digestively the thoughts of the grave digger, the body of the normal rank and file person that grows increasingly rare even as the very same exists in abundance, selfishness and a lack of art de vivre coming between.

Clarity, if we are to have any meaningful discussion, is at odds with clarifying words. We can't speak of anything really without trying poetically and gently touch upon an animal situation far beyond any policy and fiscal math. We'd be better off reading aloud Eliot's Preludes at the beginning sessions of our democracy.

This is why it is never tiresome to read a good writer, like Shakespeare, while the seemingly necessary gritty details of a current issue, dreadful as the issue can be, are not understood by shades and contours of detail, but by the basic understandings all, by being live creatures, have within, easily brought forth to good effect, were one to have faith in them.

Shakespeare had the trick. It's why we still listen to him today.