Sunday, April 29, 2012

I have a sensation sometimes.  I'm watching writing go Pixar.  The old two dimensional sketches aren't where it's at as far as reaching the imagination.  The painted still-life, one of those moments that would jump out at you and leave an impression, has been superseded, become the dinosaur, on the Penguin Classic shelf next to Thackery.  The power of impression is allowed to wane, in its place something that can keep up with quick and full bursts of internet and technology.  And the old horrors of normal life, of facing age and lonesomeness and Monday mornings, aren't enough for our attention spans.  (Readable fiction, they teach in writing classes, is characterized by tension.  Tension turns pages.)

What was wrong with all those beautiful old cartoons, those rendered sunsets, dark forests, matching music?  What was wrong with the Pink Panther?  Do we really need everything in 3D?  Or was it all just because of a reaction by Steve Jobs (who cared a lot about winning) to his former bosses and some stock market arm wrestling match, high stakes, economic winners, economic losers, that grants such privilege to whatever seems 'the latest technology?'  Or is it because we are no longer based in the natural world, but a new landscape of pings and claims upon our immediate interest, such that we feel we need to make the messenger cooler than the message actually is?

Friday, April 27, 2012

A little gallows humor:

Reactions to the barman's news that his cat has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer, though she still is eating normally and going about her business much as usual.

Adult male, German.  "Well, yes...  She must be put to sleep."  (Give her the injection.)

Adult male, French.  "Oh. (not very emotional.)  I had a cat once. Yes, a Hemingway cat, extra toes.  I cried when I buried her (expressing a note of surprise at the unexpected).! Yes, I remember, it was a rainy day, out on Long Island."

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ted Hughes has a more dramatic story about it.  'The Thought Fox,' an essay in his collection Winter Pollen.   He's in university trying to write a final paper, and he has a dream.  A half-burned fox comes to him, leaves a bloody hand print on the paper, and says, 'you must stop this.'

In my case, writing papers got harder and harder.  I willingly invested long periods of time in them.  The papers became late.  I got bad grades because of their lateness.  And more or less at the same time I was discovering the simple sentences that made sacred ordinary daily life, first in early Hemingway, and then in later Hemingway.  Before it had been Paradise Lost, and Donne, and Eliot, that caused me to pause, as I was assigned to write.  Then, for whatever reason, it was Hemingway, first "The End of Something," and then, for my supposed attempt at a senior thesis, Islands in the Stream.  For the latter, I transcribed sentences into a notebook, finding something very profound going on within them that I couldn't quite pinpoint.  "Abandonment to the textual truths of life," was the best way I could put whatever it was that was going on in these apparently mundane but somehow greatly evocative touches in each I copied.

What makes the artistic eye tick, I seemed to be asking myself.  What makes it see what it sees in the sense of something being worthy of report.  Why, the trout beneath the bridge holding itself still in the current above the pebbly bottom?  Why, for that matter, the rust colored gin and tonic?  I found the details fascinating, like a child must find the blocks he plays with fascinating, indeed, three-dimensional.

But what had come over me in all this was even a bit deeper, it intuitively seemed to me.  What it all showed was that the way to best observe something, maybe the only way to truly observe something, was to adopt a passivity.  Let the object come at you as it does.  Try not to let pre-judgments get in your way.  Be open to what you see.

Nature created the tomato, basil and olive oil.  God makes the wine, we humans just stay out of the way.  It is the genius of nature that makes things, not our own.  We simply put things together, quite largely on what already exists as tradition.

The passivity required of the artist has a way of bleeding over upon one's general attitude.  Passivity takes a larger role in decisions and one's actions.  And regrettably, in a  competitive and semi-judgmental society, one can come off looking a bit like an idiot.  Praise is more likely to be heaped upon people who, at least to the naked eye, appear to be do-ers of things, conspicuously active types, those who seem to want to 'write their own story.'

But in the end, genius is accessible to all.  Genius is simplicity.  Genius is discovering the themes of nature's music and then the variations that lie within those themes.  The eye is inexplicably drawn, by the strongest most compelling unseen gravity, to the genius already present in nature and in the world.  And that all makes a person fairly quiet.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Poetic Self is Different from the Political

I don't know... when did I become a writer...
When did I become willing to be a blank sort of
personality. When did I become so reverential
that I merely observed, didn't make judgment
calls beyond that, in short, when did I become
an asshole. When did I become in tune with
some things, trying at least, so that I fell out
with everything else? When did they ostracize me as
I watched them  do it, saying nothing, what was my
wish for forty days?

When did the social guy stop being social, except when
he had to be as clever background to other people's
social lives, but never the main, the main
attraction, when cut out by God and Gift to be.

Why doeth the writer hone his craft?

When did the writer evoke the lonely David Foster Wallace character as
the botanical of sensitivity?

And almost immediately, things started going sort of wrong for me.  Not to complain,
as the very same things allowed for me
something to write about, as if coincidentally

Hamlet's ghostly father comes and says to him,
I have tales that'll curdle your blood.
Tales of purgatory, or in short,
the bard's own, of trying to keep it together,
of his own suffered hells, matters of

That book I wrote...
it had, like Hamlet,
everything in it.  Didn't know, except directly,
that it had.
The artist's removed state,
his wish to find another artist,
just like he.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

I thought about David Foster Wallace today in the aftermath of taking the cat to the vet's and receiving a confirmation of some not so great news about her. The blurb about the Pulitzer Prize committee's failure to come to a winner for this year's fiction prize, in which The Pale King was of three finalists, one would expect it to catch your eye. Walking home with groceries on a warm Thursday night, yes, you think of such things. Maybe, "what good would winning the Pulitzer do him anyway?" one thought. Or, "kind of weirdly appropriate, given his subject of great bureaucracy and offices (not to suggest that the Pulitzer Committee is in any way inhuman), such that he would maybe have gotten a chuckle out of it."

Groceries home, then a nap, then clanking around some dishes in a tub of soapy water (which reminds me of helping my mother move once), work week behind me, a turkey meatloaf in the oven, I feel a need to take out the old piece of scrap paper and do some scribbling. Now, The Pale King, here's a book devoted to all those thoughts that writers have but don't, because of jobs and obligations, get to put down on paper. He seems sensitive to that fate. He knew that world. And, fortunately, he occupied a place where he eventually was able to write, write a lot, write well, and then finally produce this great homage, an homage particular to all that which goes unsaid, and thus, when I think about it, a great service, a great kindness to writers everywhere. Seriously.

Well, no one likes to whine. We all have jobs. We all face the huge impersonal forces. We all have to make good choices. And so I ask myself, now, what am I trying to say? "A writer, you say you are; well, who says? what gives you the right? who died and left you 'writer?' why is the fact that you apparently have the notion that you took a thought out of your head and put it on paper have any even the slightest importance, let alone the thought itself? What makes you think you should be treated kindly, that pretty girls should have been more flirtatious in fun ways, that your college professors should have been more solicitous?! Not how the game is played, my friend. Just because 'you are a writer'... yeah, right. Pay the rent, do your job, try at least to be a member of society, not just navel staring all the time."

I find myself in agreement. If you are wise enough to have something to write, you know that you occupy no special deserving seat of privilege, even if you might once have thought. Indeed, there is pride in the jobs we do for a living. And all that time spent away from the notebook, I have to think it makes a single thought or impression or small poetic something all the sweeter. It all goes to be part of that floating sea of consciousness that you would have to be a Joyce to rein in. It all makes what we do get to write all the richer, and sometimes we pay a little homage here and there to all the lost thoughts and works, as perhaps Lincoln himself is doing in his letter to the mother grieving for lost sons, about 'the solemn pride of laying so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom,' a phrase which might have a certain deeply satisfying grandeur for the obscure of us. Indeed the attitude of the great Mid Westerner fairly stares us in the face, the recognition that, of course, 'the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here...' A real writer, one might argue, disdains "PR," both of the personal kind and the popular kind, as it would skew and render false the real human condition, the real human condition including the fact that some people just seem to take to disliking one another.

Mr. Wallace has provided a fine and moving memorial to all of us would-be writers, all us 'worthless scumbags,' all of us who fell for its tasks direct and indirect, all of us who will of course never win great prizes. I should think that would be enough.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Somewhere between watching Bogart in Casablanca the other night out of the corner of my eye and an interesting piece in the Sunday New York Times about how cohabitation doesn't always lead to/isn't the same thing as a happy marriage, a minor, seemingly heretical thought occurred to me that relationships between people work out as they are supposed to. Hmm, maybe it's this attempt at a low acidity diet that has put me in a good enough mood to feel in a bit of a state of peace with the Universe. You can't go around kicking yourself for all the mistakes you made, that thing with her, well, it just wasn't meant to be. It all happened for a reason. I know you can go around telling yourself that things work out as they are supposed to, but, eventually, you find yourself believing and accepting that.

What is this? Maturity? Reaching a point that distinguishes artistic juvenilia and artistic maturity? Wishful thinking (ha ha ha)? Why the heck do such realizations take so long?

I don't know, friends, I know this is all already perfectly obvious to you. You've probably gone through it yourself enough times to already know it. I guess a writer has to state the obvious. A writer has to go through these exercises where she or he takes out an old and perhaps simple, maybe even obvious theme. And then sits and looks at it for a while, runs it through a couple times, and then feels about to be launched in a vast series of variations.

Milan Kundera alludes to the nature of variations on a theme, a story of him with his father, later Beethoven, 'drilling down to the very center of the earth' with each progression, (mentioned somewhere in this completely redundant blog thing.) One gathers it is something artists like to do.

What, subliminally or unconsciously, I wonder does one have to go through the find this sense of peace? Will it be ephemeral, short lasting? What rite of passage attends the dawning? Was it the yoga? Peace with one's self, that is what the self preaches, and one day, it seems, the self finally listens.

Now, of course there is a fine amount of kitsch and cornball in Casablanca, perhaps like a necessary gluten to hold the dough together, though. And I like that scene of old Rick alone with his bottle, slamming his glass down, uttering the famous line, and Sam telling him, let's just go fishing. Note that this is not where Rick ends up psychologically. Sure, it's a beautiful and moving scene at the end, a great actor and a great actress realizing characters must part, but, Rick seems okay in the end, because, quite possibly, he has found himself, in that continual on-going i.e. real sense. Perhaps it was a timely message to the world, back then in the midst of WWII, and probably now, too, thus the story's mythical resonance from a place mythical to Americans.

The hardest thing for an artist, perhaps, is the self-acceptance, not a task accomplished in a facile way. Somehow to make it an acceptable and palatable life choice. And so we must move on from our night with the bottle bemoaning, consider for a moment that maybe we essentially dodged a bullet, as much as it may have hurt to. It wouldn't be much help to stay there anyway, with the bottle. You move on, and hopefully that helps you do your work, even as bungling and amateur as it may be.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

April 14

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Night at the Theater

He waited there passively, in the end,
looking down upon the stage.
He may have wished it was Shakespeare,
Hamlet, Cordelia, Macbeth passing through his mind,
a grave digger, Yorick's skull.
'And the more pity that great folk should have
count'nance in this world to drown or hang themselves
more than their even-Christen.'

It was instead some third rate hack play
perfectly worthy of going down in memory solely
by the one line heard before the fateful moment, as in
'You can't say Dallas doesn't like you, Mr. President,'
ha ha ha.

And so the action upon the stage, the words,
the spoken lines, presumptuous,
could not stop, could not delay
for a moment, a moment to think,
the actor on his way to the President's box.

And there the old man sat of fifty-six.
After the long nightmare
at last able to be hopeful
tender with his wife again,
a carriage ride, a spring day,
the sweet thought went through his head
that all our sorrows
are our joys, our greatest moments to be proud of.
And all his sorrows,
alone, on a horse,
in the rain,
all had become joys for him.
He had regained the proper smile
he'd kept all along.

And the actor stepped in, crept in,
and raised the gun
and the man had all his dreams
and all his memories
going on in his head,
of old New Salem
and countless towns
and then he heard a bang
not from the stage, not at all,
but from behind him.

And who will be kind enough
to lead the nation
to be the good and forgiving father,
hating violence most of all?

Across the street they took him
and he did not remember,
being carried so, except the strange voices, darkness,
a flash of light.
They laid him out,
diagonal on the bed,
and in his mind somewhere
his own voice remarked, within,
yes, this is what it will be like
to be in my coffin, arms across my chest,
the story ended,
as God wills,
as God wills.

Posted by DC Literary Outsider at 10:51 AM

It is 5:25 AM, and like a college student who has stayed up writing a paper, one hears the chorus of birds has started, high, something like crickets, but at the very beginning of the day, spring as opposed to fall. Random thoughts go through a mind. Was it Burroughs, who observed of Kerouac, a guy, in a statement to define him as well as any observer could, who loved to sit in a chair in the corner writing away. That's it; that's all you need for a good understanding of the man we know as Jack Kerouac. A man writing in a notebook, even as stuff was 'going on' around him.

And maybe if you stop and think about it, life sort of needs that exercise, or the constant attention to that possibility, that real need, to sit down in the rocking chair in the corner, to look down and somehow, pad, pencil, pen, whatever, typewriter, laptop, (though I would find these latter two tending to come in later in the process) and write. Any way you pleased. Say what you will of anyone's faults, but if they sit down and write, I think they deserve some credit, some admission into the group of acceptable people, honorable people and the like.

Do our brains spin faster these days, revved up higher, than they have before? Probably not, the biological speed and capacity of the brain being pretty constant in the short span of humanity's presence on the planet. People and all our ancestors have had the same rush of thoughts and suppositions. Less safety valves? Less chance to sit down and read The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot?

If you stop and think of death, I wouldn't imagine it's a bad thing. It's not morbid, it's not unhealthily provocative of depression and sadness. It's that life, after a certain point, has to end. Maybe one of the great lessons we will learn as individuals, via the death of a parent, or of a cat, or of a time in life. Two plus two equals four. In any historical figure, there is the arc of life, and of course, at the end point, there is death, and then that life is whole and complete as it ever will be. And if we are ever to get close to that life again, we are imaginatively recreating it, as we do when we read a letter, though we are doing the same thing when we bring to life a blank moment, a moment that we know, from experience, is full of lots of thoughts.

So, to wit, what is one thinking when he sits on a towel in the summer sun with a girl he likes but hasn't made out with after a swim? What idle Wordsworthian thoughts go through the mind? And later on, how will the Larkin in our mind reimagine and come to understand that once fresh and lived-through moment? And what was Abraham Lincoln thinking about as he looked down upon the stage that night? Was he just tired, and 'let's get on with it?' No, it seems he enjoyed the theater, even though we've all been through, endured, plays when are minds were elsewhere, rebelling against interest in the recited dialogue and laughter on the stage. What can you do? Each play is an experiment in capturing consciousness, the fleeting multifarious buzzing stuff in our heads that yet seems to always ask for that sensitive and decent narrator to come forward and lead, as if to conduct the symphony and all its spilled-out spilling out themes.

And so, all these thoughts, we can imagine, Lincoln had floating around in his head, and any mind would have a very hard time escaping the litany of battles, military and political, and still, on top of it all, there would have been some voice telling a narration, keeping it all together, all attached to the present moment and basically telling him to be, well, not dissatisfied with it all. Or maybe some sort of shrug, 'what can you do?' learned from early life, deaths from milk sickness, and what not.

What would have occupied Lincoln's mind at that point, that day, maybe even those last moments, but a care for, if you will, the prose of life, that narration that is necessary, and often a concern for the art of it, the art of it, sensed at an instinctive level, being the one basic way we can tell if something is worthy of holding the experience of life. The play was coming at him, and up until those last moments, while remaining quiet just as everyone else, but for a very sweet word to the wife he loved (something like 'oh, they won't think nothing about it {our holding hands for a moment like this}') he was full of thoughts, beaming them right back at the stage and at everything from small things up to the necessarily national moment he was always living in now. The old man, well, he was quite deservedly fond of his own narrations of things, and his belief in that very ability coming up from somewhere inside and of course from experience was integral to him and well-founded. The habit increased his even-temperment, which then in turn allowed for a more gracious narration to go with events.

While what he said and wrote in life is full enough to satisfy one in need of a lasting sense of the man and the times (take the Second Inaugural), he was, of course, cut short in one moment of a too real violent act. In perfect silence he clung to life, a vessel with more to say, more to think, more to narrate until the morning when his own death was the greatest thing to observe, and which is still to this day something we do observe, as if out of an instinct as deep as migration.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Permit me an Easter Sermon

It sometimes happens, that when I return to work after a few days off I am immediately greeted by my co-workers with the story of some so & so coming by, acting like a total asshole, just mean, asking for me, of course, as 'his friend.' Yes, like this guy is 'my friend.' Okay, I know I'm a bit too tolerant, maybe even a little indulgent of a guest sometimes, and yeah, I wonder if the crazies don't hone in on me as a sympathetic type. I prefer to see it as a matter of being so perfectly calm and unperturbed that I am able to turn the persnickety asshole's energy back in on himself with a little bit of humor, kind of like jujitsu. But, as we all know, assholes can just simply keep on being assholes no matter what you do. And it sounds almost as if I have created this monster who was by a few days ago, telling people they didn't know what they were talking about, etc. Like I was responsible for his very existence in the world.

But it occurs to me in this 'my life as a Checkhov story' mode that a service industry chaps falls into from time to time, that to a significant extent a barman has to his customers a kind of negative personality. That personality is determined, molded, by the guest's interests and behavior. That personality can be perfectly bland and non-existent, at least to an extent, if the guest choses. But, engagement is largely on the guest's terms. Sure, that barman can be generically friendly, kind, attentive, ask about how the guest's day went, where they are visiting from, did they get outside on such a fine day and so on. If there are foodies present, we can always talk about the menu. If they're into wine, that can be explored too. And then sometimes, well, you're just sort of a would-be gigolo, good company kind of a guy. It's the entertainment business, after all, and one of the finest examples of how to act could well be ole' Groucho Marx himself, smoking out a charming innuendo given what comes out of people's mouths sometimes.

On a deeper broader level, there can be something almost Socratic to it, a disinterested questioning hinted at, as if to prompt one to look out the window and think about life in general. Yes, maybe this is a place for those students whose minds tend to wander from the lesson at hand, and this can be one way of bringing them back. Maybe, who knows. So then the bartender, when engaged in a conversation may, somewhat distracted as he is by small tasks at hand, utter some kind of a thing that comes out sounding a bit like a Zen koan, related, by a bit distant. Or, as some barman are, they will be very specific and talk about baseball, facts and figures, opinions, cut and dry, the great world of sports, of money, politics, news analysis, in a not very Socratic way.

The Buddha, that ultimate Socratic, taught--how to put this?--not so much by explicit direction as by giving a general where-to-look. "The Self is illusion." Once he held up a flower, and said nothing, and one of his disciples got it, what he 'meant.' It is this sort of a thing that I choose to see in a professional existence, a kind of being there for people, a kind of a blank tablet in which to discuss things that come up, opening a door, letting other doors open after that, just not getting in the way, I suppose as a psychologist might.

There is the down feeling, maybe when you go home at night, the world asleep, that you have, somewhere along the line, completely lost your personality. Which may or may not be true, which may not be all bad if it is not all good. Naturally, you go home and wish for the same comfort and backdrop to your conversation that you have strived to provide, and what is there to provide comfort for these deeper sets of worries, some nice girl who intuitively understands when you feel like all is floating away and no solid terms, terms accepted by society, to grab on to. Chekhov stories, naturally, are comforting, too, more so than drinking wine to numb the senses.

"I don't know how you do it," my co-worker adds, about my nights behind the bar. "Don't you feel trapped?" Yes, trapped. Yes, I do.

Friday, April 6, 2012

I wish the Kama Sutra of Vatsyayana was taught in school. The good simple wisdom of it would have helped in those awkward college years, at least for some of us. Just its practical stuff alone, besides the poetry, like here from Chapter One of Part Five: "The causes of a woman rejecting the addresses of a man are as follows: ..." And what does follow is a beautiful list of things I did wrong, I've done wrong, things I probably still do wrong. Now to most what follows is simple common sense, but I think the underlining would serve some help reminding young men and women how to act and relate, arcane as some of the old treatise is. Even culturally removed from us, it's still a helpful guide.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

After being on your feet seven hours in motion making things happen the last people, inevitably friends of yours, start with the 'why don't you join us.' Hunger and exasperation and a feeling of being trapped before watching eyes following your movements have set in. You do your best to ignore them and go about restocking, counting the drawer, cleaning. They are celebrating, in happy tipsy moods. And it's your own fault, letting their expectations get so, for being a 'nice guy,' for the ambiguities of friendship. "We're not keeping we you, are we? It's okay if you want to go home." Well, take the hint. But then with that thought, you try and recover, ask a polite question, then fade again and think about how good the tuna salad sandwich in the fridge in a plastic bag might taste just now if you were left alone to enjoy it.

So you'll attempt a glass of wine, not really wanting it, knowing it's not going to really make you feel any better, that it will just lead to waking in the middle of the night, laziness and a form of irritated depression the next day. And helpfully, you will ignore them as much as you can, and go about the duties of the end of a night. And then get the bicycle up out of the basement and finally herd them out into the night.

You get home, eat your sandwich, do the dishes, and have two Guinness in front of the television before finally turning in. American Masters on Harper Lee.

Now of course I'm probably over-reacting, and maybe taking other people to task for my own worst behavior. I'm probably reacting to my own false personality as it threatens to take over my life. Is that what happens in our jobs until we finally get disgusted with ourselves? Hopefully there is still a real self left!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

When the times become too literal minded, a strict interpretation on everything, that's when spiritual awakenings come forward, as if to remind people of the deeper poetic nature of reality. And so of course there is a fine literary element present in teachings, a new poetry to be applied to life. And those who do bring this forward to us, they are inherently literary people, by their very nature, and so they have little choice, as they find themselves unable to adapt well to the times and all the strict bent people employ even in higher matters. It's as if the 'Ten Commandment' stuff just got to be too dry and boring and a bit lifeless, too Tea Party, such that it makes one ill. I guess this is why Capra's angel likes Mark Twain. This is why the Irish, a lawless people, had the sensibility that allowed them to save civilization, transcribing the ancient books in all their beautiful powerful imagery.