Month: May 2014

Easy Lives

OK I’m really trying on Maya Angelou, trying to be respectful, trying to remember that in theory at least the intention of the gesture is more important than the skill of its execution, etc. (A friend wrote me two days ago: “Should we get you going on Maya Angelou, or wait?” “Wait.” said I. “I’m going to try try try to hold off.” It appears I’ve failed.)  Literary concerns aside, and they are large, I cannot help with every encomium remembering the decoration she provided for Clinton’s first inaugural (in Harper’s back in the 90s, in a piece about African American literature, describing her role that day, I used the term “lawn jockey”; I was young, and perhaps that was too strong). Here was a president who, to get elected, especially in the aftermath of Dukakis and Willie Horton, made it as plain as he could that he would be no friend of the African-American community, making sure, in the midst of the New Hampshire primary, to be on hand in Arkansas for the execution of a brain damaged black man, promoting mandatory sentences and minimal probation opportunities as well as the death penalty (Barry is also pro death penalty by the way…), promising to end welfare, and more…. and no one, that I know of, in the black intellectual and artistic communities criticized her. Her performance lifted her from literary fame to world wide international celebrity status, and, though it might not have been her intention, made her scads of money. As mothers with children fell off the welfare rolls and food stamps were cut back again and again — Clinton having been the “new” Democratic who made all this possible — I never heard of her talking about how they’d all somehow be raised from the dust. Perhaps she did; perhaps she realized the inauguration was an insulting mistake and said so, and I just missed it.

Sentiment is easy; it goes nicely with morning coffee while logged in in springtime. And all year round. I can’t help but notice that the M. A. pieties have completely supplanted the CA-shooting pieties on my social media pathways. Let’s all take the weekend off and see what easy pieties present themselves next week.

The 9/11 Gift Ship, Motor Lodge, Gas and Rest Area

The 9/11 museum’s gift shop, revealed in photographs, looks actually insane. Like the idea of some crazy person. Except whole teams of insane people were needed to create it. The jaw actually drops in the face of it.

What happened that day and the days following saw not just the ravaging violence of the attack but the love and support and intense hard work of a community that called itself New York. The nation as a whole and its leadership had a need from the first to sentimentalize the event, whereas we needed to grieve. The nation needed to see “heroes” instead of “victims” among other things: it needed “hallowed ground” instead of what we saw, and knew: a cavernous ragged heap of rubble and body parts, in which men and women would have to work for months, through the night under the magnesium klieg lights, in the chemical air and endless dust, to separate the two, trying to preserve the human and cut away the steel and cement. This museum and its gift shop are the apotheosis of that false national narrative, a narrative that grew more and more false until it became openly deranged. To those of us who were here and experienced the event, this looks like the final development of the derangement, like a virus now perfectly evolved to preserve itself and do damage again and again. It is as venal and as vulgar and as lethal as the nation that demands it.

Does the museum have that smell? That acrid poisonous fucking smell that if you went downtown to volunteer you couldn’t get out of your clothes? Is there anything about our relationship with our dear friends the Saudis in the gift shop? Do they explain in a nice pamphlet why 20 of the 21 hijackers were Saudis, why the attack was ordered by a member of the Saudi royal family, why every important Saudi in the United States on 9/11 was whisked out of the country even while there was a no fly order in effect? Do they sell a T-shirt with tower silhouettes saying “9/11– We took one for Saudi Arabia.”?

The instability at the core of stillness

It struck me today that words are the spiritual equivalent of subatomic particles: at the base or the foundational moment, shall we say, of meaning, is this object, this barking sound or set of glyphs, that doesn’t mean anything or means too many things or whatever it might mean doesn’t last, even though meaning itself is timeless. So too the Higg’s Boson, yes? (I’m no nuclear physicist but I know what I like, my uncle used to say.) From what I read at the time of all teh excitement, the Higg’s Boson is the first principle or prima causa of material existence but it hardly itself exists. Certainly, in terms of time and space, it can hardly be said to exist.

As so many thoughts, this all got underway because I was curious about a woman.  Her photograph captured my attention.  So I looked her up and read about her — a critic named Barbara Johnson — I’d seen advertised a book of her essays recently issued by Duke University Press, with no fewer than four editors, plus introduction, plus afterword, that’s six contemporary “publishing” credits all dangling off the already circulated work of a dead woman (she died in her early fifties).  If you view the larger advertisement on the DUP website you’ll encounter some other critic who called Johnson’s essays “a contribution to theory as ambitious and accomplished as any in the last half century–” which takes you back to 1964 and so blankets the entire history of what most people think of as the academic field “literary theory”… Which calculation then would lead you to conclude that this is coming out the ass horn, that the remark is eminently overblown — until you look at those clever adjectives: ambitious: indeed, there’d be no refuting that, for who’s to say what fire burned in those figurative loins.  And accomplished: another word that doesn’t hold together long enough to argue with. He could have meant she typed quite well.

To use words that don’t mean anything is, of course, like  a salute to theory itself.  I had not heard of Johnson, but struck as I was by the photo of her, I went poking around to read about her work. She got her Ph.D. at Yale in 1977 and if you know about how European linguistics and French literary criticism of the 20th century were transmogrified in the US into the academic lace-and quilt-making societies known as “Theory”, then that date and that university tell you much of what you’d want to know about Johnson. She was — coming with Ph.D. from the Yale English department at that time, she had to have been — a disciple of the very troubled creation known as Paul de Man. (See Louis Menand’s accomplished and ambitious, as well as informative and devastating, essay about de Man in the New Yorker this past March —  http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2014/03/24/140324crat_atlarge_menand?currentPage=all). Under de Man and others (was Geoffrey Hartmann also there? I cannot remember) Yale become in the 70s and after the gravitational center of the literary theory industry in the United States. There are New Haven pizza joints whose names are now metonyms.

You can read, as I did, the Wikipedia entry on Johnson and whatever else on page 1 of your Google search that catches your eye; what stopped me, though, and gave rise to these considerations, was a certain word that would seem quite an important one in literary theory — polyseme, which means, boiled down, a word that means several different but related things — think of the word “pick”, for instance (every time I re-read this I see “prick”, did you?), which has many different applications but most of them are related.  This as opposed to words that mean several unrelated things, such as “saw”, which can be the direct past tense of see; or an old adage or expression; or the well known tool with steel teeth for cutting wood and as verb the using of that tool. English, being a simplified and capacious mish-mosh of other, more precise languages, has many of both of these kinds of words: it has the largest number of words of any language but it is also full of rollicking ambiguity.  There are all kinds of reasons — historical imperatives even — why linguists and literary theorists — especially in the U.S. — have in the years after World War II latched onto the idea of words not only having different meanings, but of entire texts, built and swaying on these liquid foundations, being inherently unstable and contradictory. The whole idea of a coherent life, or a regular life, or a traditional life, was shattered for much of the world by that war and its transformative aftermath. One can go on and on with simplistic historical reasoning of this kind: I’ll add one more of my own: that the growing sense of self consciousness of the modern person in the West, informed by evolutionary science as well as psychology, genetics, and the neurological sciences, has eroded the idea of a stable self. And if the self cannot be viewed as permanent and stable (whereas the medieval soul, which was the only self that mattered, was indeed quite permanent and stable), then there’s no reason to believe a narrative should be. Indeed, in the evolution of theory, the very act of the narrative (by trying to pin down a personality or a set of identities) becomes for the theory-envisioned reader (who is always “other”, you see) a cause of oppression to be resisted; other meanings, other possibilities must be projected into the text, as a bomb in a suitcase is left on the train by a revolutionary.

This, taken down a few notches geo-politically, represents something a decent writer of fiction understands, either intuitively or explicitly: which is that the narrative, to seduce, cannot be too precise: the bed cannot be too small. The written prose narrative (very much not like the film or staged nazrrative) requires a co-imaginative creation on the part of the reader, who will see things differently from the author certainly. “They sit together on the red couch, a man and a woman, not speaking .”  You envision certain aspects of the scene, freely, constrained only by the contextual information that preceding text might have given you (which in this case is none).  Is it day or night? Where are they from, how old are they, are they lovers, are they mother and son or father and daughter, are they white, are they brown, are they yellow, are they black? Are they oppressed by the remnant circumstances of colonialism or merely the blind beneficiaries of it?  Etc. Teaching this concept of narrative pointillism,  I used to use a test, I’d tell the students to close their eyes and please envision the person I was about to reference, then I’d say “His clothes are dirty, but his hands are clean.”  Open your eyes, I’d say. How many people saw a blond man? Over six or seven years doing this in perhaps a dozen classes, thus between 100 and 200 students, only two saw a man with blond hair.  (Some percentage, between ten and twenty percent, reported not seeing his hair at all.) Of course none — not one — ever mentioned that this is a line from “Lay Lady Lay”, but that’s another sad subject all together.

For the novelist these characters, and their story, starts as something very nebulous: they’re seen as if through a few feet of gently moving water, unreachable, fragmenting and reforming. They become. They take possession of their existences.  And as they become, each expresses a will;  they do as they will.  As this becomes more solid the writer is trying on the fly to find the words to describe them and their actions before he loses them. Then he ends the scene, cuts away, and frequently, if he’s a time waster, he goes back and fusses over the sentences, the words, the commas… and the  ellipses.

Which is to say, from the practical standpoint, of course the text is “unstable” and “contradictory.”  Everything is contingent: writers are changing sentences in the printed books when they do public readings: you can often observe this.  We hardly know what we’re doing. We’re the Higgs Boson of that particular reality and the closer you look at it the more it changes.

In our usual lives, we insist on meaning; we insist on physical reality; we insist on some detectable pattern of cause and effect; we insist on narrative; we insist on time. It is the truly modern condition to continue to act within these assumptions even while we know that hardly any of it actually, or compellingly, or determinatively, exists.  This is the fundamental irony at the core of creation.  The Higg’s Boson, it seems to me, should end all the goddamned arguments about “Irony” — the mechanism necessary for physical existence doesn’t. So shut up and go home.

I just read somewhere — forgive me if it’s not perfectly accurate — that if the world were reduced in your mind to the size of a grain of sand sitting on a table in New York then Jupiter would be a basketball in Denver and our solar system would extend, I don’t know, to Vladivostok, our galaxy unimaginably larger than that and ours not a very large galaxy, with vast distances of nothing between it and any of the others. In this enormity of black space and unconquerable silence and nullity, taking up a miniscule bit of space on our grain of sand, each of us squeaks: I exist.

Why else speak? The only other essential expression, love, needs no words.

The 9/11 museum

This is utterly preliminary. Dierdre McCabe Nolan has posted the Times’ review of the 9/11 museum and she asks us all how we feel about the place, whether we believe we’ll ever go.  I wrote the following in response, and would love to hear more from many others:

I actually knew (still know but we’ve changed bar scenes, my bar scene being no bar at all anymore) one of the main restorers who worked on some of this material for YEARS in a hangar at JFK. Fascinating work: a column covered in messages taped on: remember those? Missing, my father… etc. He would photograph every inch, then carefully remove each sheet, replace the glue on the original piece of tape– keeping the backing, mind — cleaning off the cheap original glue and applying a permanent glue; he’d treat the paper to keep it from aging, etc. and then meticulously put the whole thing back together as it had been. The hyper-authenticity of the curator taken to extreme degrees. Of course in that context and so treated, nothing is actually authentic: leaving it out in the elements to rot and be pissed on would be more authentic but…. that all is by way of saying that I have a distinct curiosity about the technical approach of the museum and seeing some of my friend’s work. That said, and not having as yet read the review above or any other, I do fear the patriotic shit and whatever influence has been weilded by the fucking families, who, having tasted the ambrosia of moral justification, of sainthood by proxy, have been relentlessly blowhard on all matters 9/11. What such a museum should capture, I fear this one won’t: as Dante wrote “Caddi come corpo morto cade….” (I fell as a dead body falls.) The bodies falling down through blue and silver light, some holding hands, some bicycling madly in mid-air, the terrible sound of their landings, and yet, in those numbers and in those circumstances and despite the terror, the absolute terror of it, the fleeting freedom in clear air; plus the blackness of the holes in the sides of the buildings, the smoke that hung over downtown for months after, the magnesium-white kleig lights set up down there at night for the metal workers to keep cutting away at the debris to find the dead (And the olive tree blown white in the wind ….What whiteness would you add to this whiteness? What candor?) all the altered subway routes and that day the extraordinary silence  no traffic no trains and walking up Broadway all the blank and silent faces, the hundred unforgettable forms of eeriness introduced into our lives; and too the beauty it brought us, the kindness, the sense of love for one another: it was huge, it was magnificent.  And then how this was systematically destroyed by the politics of armed response and patriotic bullshit and torture and aggression and lies. the fucking flags everywhere — get us Todd Gitlin’s flag and I will tell him this: in my lifetime, the resort to the American flag has always stood for “More Killing.”  Capture that, and yes, I’ll want to see it.

Merchandise thither and yon

From Tin House (good mag) arrives an email announcing “Song of Myself and Moby-Dick Merchandise Available Now!”.  Note the inevitable post-ironic exclamation point, the same as occupies much real estate in all messages from the super-earnest relentlessly well meaning zip codes of Brooklyn.  I will likely check the merchandise out: I could use some Song of Myself golf tees. (It occurs to me that moby-dick is a fantasist’s song of himself, if you know what I mean. You probably don’t.)

Meanwhile, this: A book arrived today from the house of Random, a slender volume of stories from an author of a phenomenally successful novel some years ago, set in the Pacific Northwest just when that territory was getting big. I opened to a page well in, but short of the middle. This is my habit with fiction.  At mid-page stood the sentence: “At this he shrugged and looked at her skeptically.”

Why would anyone write this sentence? Could he actually see a real character at loose and living in the world doing this? And if so, does it matter? (No, I’d strongly venture; and no, I’m certain.)  To add to the banal unreality of the thing, just see if you can make a skeptical face while shrugging. It’s not easy.

It amazes me that writers of English prose at this late date in the historical development of our narrative methods think such sentences are necessary; it amazes me too that readers tolerate them, that they don’t find such tactics, such absolutely stale language, poisonous of whatever credibility — or cinematic reality — or vividness, which we might as well call what Henry James called it, felt life  — that the text might be soliciting from them. James himself, well over a century ago, can be seen rejecting these cliched and empty fictional gestures: read Daisy Miller and you’ll see a text full of hoary narrative directionals. Read the late work and you’ll find hardly any.

Shrugging sighing grinning (but not hacking green gobs into an old rag: that works) — this stuff is the powdered sawdust – ground melamine – pink slime filler of narrative prose. Shrugging and sighing in particular can be encountered at a rate in fiction of fifty times the frequency with which they noticeably occur in real life. And smiling is, as a word thrown in, far too generic a term: there are too many tens of thousands of kinds of smiles to use “smile” in a serious way, to not take the time to describe the facial expression: if it matters.

Usually, of course, it doesn’t. These sentences are merely pieces of water-warped plywood lazily thrown down across perceived gaps and broken curbstones in what we expect to be a standard smoothed-out 20th century realist narrative. We don’t need such narratives anymore.  Even if we do — I still write them, I must admit — we certainly don’t need the enervating bullshit of ‘He shrugged and looked at her skeptically–” but will we give them up?  As another well regarded author once wrote, causing me to close his book a moment after opening it, as I did today: “No,” Tim grinned. Let us grin our no’s forevermore.