Experiential Reading

Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry was that which cannot be paraphrased, and by defining it that way he added his considerable literary weight to the debate on the topic of form-content unity. By this definition he might in fact have started that debate, I don’t know and purely for reasons of unnecessary self-restraint will refrain from Googling it. Whatever the case, the idea is a very interesting one: Can the expression of something be so tied in with the how of its expression that the two cannot be split? That is, cannot be split without losing the meaning of what is being expressed. The contours of the argument are pretty plain to see, and a few moments’ reflection can give one plenty of ammunition for both sides. Intriguing though is the related thought that in focusing on meaning kept or meaning lost we may after all be looking in the wrong place.

What is a text’s meaning? If language is a communicative tool then it must be the content of that attempted communication, the meat and bones of it. If in writing we are trying to “say” something (given the context it’s an oddly placed verb, I know, but that’s convention for you) then that something must surely be sayable in another way if it is there at all. Take this short stanza from the poem “Thaw Compass” in Joseph Massey’s Illocality, for example (found on page 76):

March rain snow thaw
crumpled metal sign stuck
gravel-grained mud   mulch
ground to dust over sidewalk divots

The meaning here could very easily be paraphrased, in prose form or any number of ways; it is after all a description of a natural scene. It could be paraphrased, that is, but could the whole of it be? Things here start to get a bit more interesting. Let’s try: “Rainfall in March has caused the leftover snow to thaw. There is a misshapen metal sign stuck in some mud that has bits of gravel in it. There is also some mulch that has been stepped on or otherwise crushed and is spread over bits of broken pavement.” That certainly gives the meaning of the poem, but not much else. Our prose-ification does seem to be missing something, and missing a great deal. What has been lost?

It is of course the experience of reading Massey’s work that has gone by the wayside. His framing of the scene, his meter, his grammatical compounding, even his use of spacing (note the extras preceding “mulch”) to offset reader flow and thereby insert a mental break, all are missing from the paraphrase. The meaning may have been maintained but the magic is gone. In a sense, then, we are tempted to conclude that the real unity involved in form-content unity might be experiential and have little or nothing to do with meaning per se. If we take this approach it has the added advantage of appearing to work for all kinds of poems, even those in the Dada tradition where nonsense and the irrational are prized. Extending this beyond poetry we might wish to further the case by stating that any reading is primarily about the felt experience of that reading at that time and only secondarily about actual textual meaning. Would that though imply that the communicative efforts made by the author had been diminished or nullified? I don’t think so, for surely a part of any communication is the way it makes its recipient feel, and in favoring that aspect we do not need to affect any of the other elements involved.

Does Pound’s definition stand? Given the above I don’t see how it could, and that is because of the meaning of paraphrase itself. To paraphrase is simply to restate alternatively, to give the same meaning in different words, and if a poem does have a communicative content (acknowledging here that many poems do not, e.g. some Dada poems but not only them) then that content could conceivably be put in any number of ways and still assert the same thing (more or less). What cannot be translated – as it were – is the emotional movement generated by the structure of the writing, but that is not an issue of paraphrase. It is instead one of phenomenology, one of awareness of the internal, one of life now. And when it comes to reading that, I think, is really where our attention ought to be.

 

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There Is Only the Work

In carrying on with our recent theme of finding value in the doing (and on that, here too), consider the well known writer’s coping mechanism (or happy delusion, willful illusion, nighttime solace, etc. etc. and take your pick) of “famous when dead”. It has of course happened, and the historical examples are sufficiently numerous that it’s easy for anyone to think of a few off the top of their heads. A book’s journey through the world, once it has made those first tentative post-publishing steps, is an unpredictable affair that is so thoroughly entangled with many multiple threads of the historical tapestry that not even chaos theorists or macro-statisticians have much hope of making a reasonable forecast. What happens is what happens, and what that might turn out to be is anyone’s guess. This means either that, depending on one’s half-full or half-empty inclinations, there is a great deal of room for hope or very little – but that dichotomy doesn’t allow for a middle ground. Foolish optimist or hard-nosed realist? Disappointingly shattered or pleasantly surprised? If it’s “famous when dead” then naturally none of the above: a gravestone is a hard border for information on readership or distribution (freebies and/or sales) to bypass. What is the writer to do?

Legacy. Since we create works with at least some potential to last (be it in digital form, paper, or otherwise) the temptation is always there to concentrate overmuch on what’s been left behind, on what one has given to (burdened?) the world. Putting attention there is a focus on results, uncontrollable results, and it is also to equate personal worth with third party appreciation. Again, what happens is what happens, and if a piece of writing’s readership cannot be guessed at then how could the reactions of other people possibly be? As artists we all know this, yet there remains that voice in the back of the head, that refrain of “What if” or “This time” or “Famous when dead” – but at least famous, at least acknowledged, at least read. Loved? What is this drive that possesses us, this yearning to play the toddler to the world’s caring mama and cry out, “Look at me! See what I’m doing! What I’ve done!” Undeniably the desire is there, and even when faced, even when you think you’ve finally got it beat, it can haunt like little else. In the meantime what remains?

The work – there is only the work, there has only ever been the work, there can only ever be the work. Writing must be its own reward, and not the final product, not even the feel of the last typed page and closing edits. If there is little real or long-term comfort to be found in reception (and even a very good reception cannot last forever nor be uniform in its accolades) then there is equally little to be had in the pleasure one gets from glancing at one’s own books on the shelf. They are there and you made them, yes, but so what? What now? Ahh, there it is, we have at last hit the nail on the head: What now, indeed. Now is for what one does next, now is for the shape of one’s resolve, now is for the strength of one’s grit. A writer writes, that is how a writer engages the world in which she is sunk, and there can be no two bones about it. If joy cannot be found in the act then absolutely anything resultant will be even more hollow than what has already been outlined in the above. Meaningless and empty, nowhere near being satisfactory, and quite possibly a gigantic waste of whatever time was invested. And that is our one real commodity, for however we choose to spend our time is how we actively make ourselves. It must be the doing, the process, the highs and lows, the losses and triumphs that occur along the way and only during the way, not the failures or successes that strike the finished object. All we have is what we do, all else is beyond our control, beyond our means, beyond our persons. Hope is not even relevant here, wishing has no relation to anything. The work is its own reward not in the sense of what is held in the hands nor even in the gratification of a job thought to be well executed, but only in that execution. Writing – one keystroke after another, one swipe of the pen to the next. Therein lies a writer’s happiness, therein lies a writer’s life.

 

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Intrinsic Rewards

There’s a scene in the lead up to the climax of Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre where the Autodidact character – in this part of the novel essentially playing the foil to the lead character Antoine Roquentin, in whose first person perspective the book is written – reveals that he is a Socialist and that he thinks that, like him, Roquentin lives for “the people”, and further that the historical biography Roquentin has been writing is perhaps also being done for “the people”. Roquentin, for his part, sees in the Autodidact all of the humanists he has ever known, of all the varying stripes of humanism, and internally derides the lot. He denies that this is why he writes, to which the Autodidact then rather predictably challenges him with, “Would you write on a desert island? Doesn’t one always write in order to be read?” (From the “Wednesday” section, page numbers will vary with versions; incidentally, this entire commentary is made somewhat more interesting by the fact that only a few years later Sartre’s famous lecture and essay “Existentialism is a Humanism” would appear.)

That old chestnut. It’s a topic that comes up often for any writer, and it’s been considered here a number of times over the years as well. (Way back in our archives is this post, and much more recently this one.) It’s a question, the question, that we all must struggle with, and what I think helps to put some perspective on it is the nature of the rewards being sought, or anyway the nature of the potential rewards of any (creative) endeavor. Those rewards come in two stripes: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic rewards are in part indefinable as they tend to be emotionally-based and wholly, or almost wholly, internal. The joy of doing I suppose would be one way to put it, or the pleasure taken from the activity while the activity is being undertaken. This joy or pleasure or bliss or “high” or whatever one wishes to call it may last beyond the time of the actual engagement, but it just as well may not. If it does last then it will be a lingering pleasant subtlety, perhaps something like a feeling of satisfaction at having done it, or a sense of accomplishment. Neurologically speaking there is probably dopamine or another brain reward chemical involved, but I’m not sure so don’t quote me on that.

External rewards, on the other hand, are what the Autodidact and everyone else on planet Earth is typically focused on. Readers, riches, fame, adoration, flirtations at cocktail parties with the debonair literary flame, book signings and speaking tours, fanzines and a whole scholarly cottage industry rolled out in your honor to dissect and celebrate your work. This is the stuff dreams are made of, and comparing a soft and fleeting notion of satisfaction or accomplishment with that is about as enticing as a frozen convenience store burrito over the real thing served fresh and steaming from a mom-and-pop Tex-Mex diner in El Paso.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that the first lies fully and always within reach while the second is attained by… Luck? Prayer? Beneficial circumstantial alignment? All of the above? Note that hard work goes into this no matter what kind of rewards come out of it. At least, hard work, discipline, and strenuous and continuous effort will go into it if one is anything close to being a dedicated writer. (If one is a scribbler, or a first-draft junkie, then maybe not. But any writer worth their salt will know.) The choice of what we chase is ours, and while the extrinsic does shine brightly, and while daydreams can be a lot of fun, I do think that it’s entirely possible to base one’s writing life solely and fully on the intrinsic aspects involved. Getting there likely does require equipping oneself with a fresh perspective, a point of view that hasn’t been born out of the capitalist claptrap we’re all surrounded by and indoctrinated with, and that process might well mean quite a bit of mental gymnastics, but it is possible. And given that we tend to appreciate what we can control a whole lot more than what we can’t, I’d also say it’s very much worth whatever it takes.

 

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A Writer’s Enemies

In last week’s post we considered some aspects of fictional enemies – more specifically the writing of villains – and in this week’s post I’d like to stay on the same general theme but move it out of our heads and into our hearts, from pages to people, from efiles to paper forms, from the easily escapable to the stubbornly present. Lurking closer than we might imagine these folk can torture us day and night, turning our passions into torments and our dreams into nightmares. As if our struggles weren’t enough as it is, we have these others whom we ignore only at our peril. Yet who are these enemies and what can a writer do about them?

We might think first and foremost that publishers are, can be, or maybe have become, our enemies. After all, they are the ones who determine what is printed and what is not, what is advertised and to what extent, what is packaged, prepared, and shipped, and what remains on the cutting room floor. With them we can add their in-house editors, of course, for the two are of a single money-obsessed package, and the only real goal they seemingly understand is the amassing of lucre. But is this an accurate view? Without publishers our shelves would be largely empty and our childhoods shorn of many wondrous afternoons lost between pages. Sure, publishing houses might not be what they used to, they might not even be necessary like they used to, but they have done us and all readers and writers alike who went before us a great service in expanding literature to the very roots of cultural and public life. Whatever our issues might be with individuals within the industry, publishing itself is not an enemy but instead a fellow traveler on a hard road.

Agents then, perhaps. These are the true gatekeepers, and these scoundrels parasitically attach themselves to anything that smells like an easy meal, a lifeline for their continued avoidance of any meaningful work and another sucker to disguise the fact that they themselves are talentless hacks who have been piggy-backing their way through life. On second thought though, no, agents are not to blame for anything. It was only by their expertise in a dizzying array of areas that our forebears were able to navigate the stormy waters of commerce, and that is the role they continue to fill, albeit in a shrunken way amidst very different circumstances.

It must be the critics. They are the ones who cannot even write and yet have the gall, the bombast, to tear down anyone and everyone who puts pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and dares to express themselves artistically. If they had any true ability they’d be writing themselves. Yet they can write, and many do write very beautifully, it’s just that their writing is of a more analytic bend, their minds are differently wired and their actually formidable prose otherwise formed. And were it not for critics all of us readers would often be at a loss, we would be less appreciative and less knowledgeable, and the literary world would certainly have less of a sound foundation.

Readers? They often misunderstand what we wish to say, they hurry through our texts and make no efforts at their own comprehension, demanding instead easy answers from us and nothing but feel-good happy endings. They treat the result of our years of painstaking labor as if it were a candy bar, easily and tastily consumed and then soon forgotten about. But this is nonsense, where would any writer be without readers? Responsibility for any misreadings ultimately lies at the writer’s own feet, and occasionally hearing from and interacting with one’s audience – however small or large – must be one of the few true joys to be had in any artistic endeavor. Readers are the real heroes in the entire set-up.

Ourselves, that’s who our enemies are. What are we doing with all this writing if we cannot conquer our own fallibilities? Why would we keep at it if we constantly look outward for someone or something to blame? Writing is not a forgiving enterprise, it is not a rewarding enterprise, it is very often not even an enjoyable enterprise. To paraphrase Orwell, no one would do it if she weren’t possessed by some daemon whose relentless commands she could neither purge nor ignore. We are obsessed, addicts, we cannot help ourselves, we just keep writing. Coming to terms with that facet of our natures, that is the real challenge. Overcoming and learning to live with (love?) ourselves, that is the adversary to best. Can we? It’s a years-long journey, I fear, and I for one know of no easy shortcuts. The way is open though, and asking to be trod.

 

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Writing Characters You Don’t Find Likeable

Villains. As a child I used to root for them in all of my favorite cartoons (memorably G.I. Joe, He-Man, and Transformers, and amongst them especially Destro and then later the denizens of Cobra-La when they were introduced). The good guys were just so bland, so one-dimensional, and their victories so banally predictable that even my young mind found it hard to root for them. Maybe it was the intrinsic appeal of cheering on the underdog, or the beautiful shine of all that struggle for all those lost causes that got to me. And if we’re honest, haven’t at least some of those bent on world domination arguably done much good with the bad when a long view of history is taken? Cases can be made for Napoleon, Julius Caesar, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and others. (Although those cases do require the almost impossible task of ignoring all that blood – but then who of our heroes have clean hands?) It is only a romanticized and indoctrinated view of democratic institutions as contemporarily practiced that make us think we’ve got it all worked out and that what is can be said to be “the best” (or, if one is more thoughtfully inclined, the “least bad”). Does it come down to a frame of mind?

Perspective, it’s unavoidable. So much so, as I’ve argued elsewhere, that our hopes for arriving at truly objective conclusions ought to be replaced by an acceptance of what I call perspectivism: that unavoidable view from within. Even the results of our most rigidly controlled empirical experiments will contain elements of (data) interpretation and analysis that are inevitably prejudiced in one way or another. Scientists of course make allowance for this in keeping their conclusions open and in welcoming criticism (most of the time, anyway), and we are grateful to them for that. The point remains, however, that there is no really undeniably solid ground upon which to stand. Thus it is that we operate solely out of our own blinkered headsets. And this is what we must keep in mind when writing.

Stories need character interaction, and interaction needs conflict. What is driving anyone along if not goals, objectives, and the obstacles on the way? Even within a plot wherein everyone is friends and everyone is always on the lookout to help one another achieve their cherished X there will be something to overcome – else why tell the tale at all? “Once upon a time there was a young girl who wanted to do Y and her friend helped her and she did it.” My eldest daughter – nearly five now – insists on daily bedtime stories from me, can you imagine how she’d react if I offered that up? The results would be disastrous.

Everyone acts nobly from their own point of view (or at least justifiably), and that, I think, is the key to writing characters that serve necessary roles within your work vis-a-vis your main character(s) but whom you personally may find less than savory. These characters too, whether “villains” in the traditional sense or not, are also acting with their own interests in mind and in the real world very rarely do such ever include the complete and absolute disregard of others. When they do, in fact, we look for diagnoses of psychopathy and expect to find them. Humans are simply not, on the whole, built to behave that way. However warped or embittered or self-regarding any particular character’s perspective may have become there will be a long history of experiences and considerations behind it, and all of that will exist for the character on conscious and preconscious levels. She will move out of her past as she has been shaped by it and as she has adjusted to it in countless ways rationally and intuitively. Surely as we write her we can find some empathy within ourselves. After all, not even cartoon villains are without their charms.

 

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A Poem a Day

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) spent almost the entirety of his life within a fairly small geographical circle of the Northeastern United States. He was primarily employed as an executive for an insurance company based in Hartford, Connecticut, born into a wealthy family, son of a lawyer and studied law himself at the New York Law School. He married a woman his parents objected to (considering her low class), and had a daughter fairly late into his middle years. They lived in a white, two-storey home and vacationed in Key West, Florida. All of that reads as being terribly unremarkable, and even just typing out the description has left me on the edge of boredom. His life, like yours and mine, was passed in an endless series of routines and small comforts, of quiet expectations met and three square meals a day, taking the dog for an extra long outing on Sunday afternoons. Yet he was also a poet, and is said to have written as steadily as the rest of what he did. He walked to work and wrote one poem a day. Here are two stanzas from his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird“:

IV
A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

XIII
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

There are many things that could be written about this poem, many ways to parse its lines and analyze its phrases, to lift up and out and observe its words, carefully, delicately. That, however, is not our task, for what interests me most about this seemingly staid and oh-so-average, oh-so-white man of the nineteenth into twentieth centuries is how he incorporated his writing into the fabric of his life. I do not know if it is actually true whether he wrote a single poem per waking day, and the fact of the matter hardly seems to mean anything. What he did was to make writing a central part of his life, within the confines of that life as circumstances dictated to him. He made the deliberate choice to honor and enact his desire to write, but he did not place it on a romantic pedestal nor ask more of it than it could provide for him – and in his case that provision was essentially personal and probably mostly hidden. He did publish his works, starting with a collection called Harmonium in 1923, but it sold terribly and the run was remaindered. A measure of success greeted him in 1951 though when he won the National Book Award for Poetry, and then suddenly in 1955 it seems that the public caught up with him for he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize (and the National Book Award again), only to die later that year. (Yet what good fortune to have been alive to receive the Pulitzer!) What must he have been thinking all those long years as he trod out his career in insurance and penned poem after poem after poem?

I’ve written here before on goals, objectives, targets, desired output and the like, and concluded that what is needed for the writing life is some kind of format, a steady structure – in whatever shape that might take – if it is to entail a “writing life” and not merely a “life with writing”. Stevens had that, and he had it in spades. What his personal motivations might have been is anyone’s guess, but it’s a safe bet that they weren’t externally oriented. He must have genuinely enjoyed writing all of those poems, and his own satisfaction kept him at it. Did he consider himself a poet? Was that an integral part to his identity, or did he see it more as a hobby? Those are important questions, but they are also impossible to answer. Impossible for us to answer for him, that is, but not so for ourselves. For us, each of us, we must face writing as it calls, look it in the eye, and decide what to do with it. Will we dance with it, flirt with it, give it a call on an empty Friday night, or set it up as the basis of our chosen lifestyle? Stevens had his response, and he lived that despite all the cold he must have felt from the literary world that surrounded him and clearly penetrated deeply into his thoughts. We must imagine that he passed his days contentedly, never even guessing – or caring – about that Pulitzer waiting so close to his grave.

 

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The Private Lives of (Japanese) Writers

There is something of a tradition in Japan of relatives or close friends publishing memoirs and biographies about the country’s writers. Natsume Soseki, Junichiro Tanizaki, Naoya Shiga, Yukio Mishima, all get their share. We are treated to inside views of the authors as people, as everyday men (sadly almost always men despite Japanese women’s voices shining with a clarity and force only sometimes belied by the subtlety of delivery that we might expect) with all their flaws, foibles, and inevitable shortcomings. We are allowed to see them just as them, as the people they were when bereft of their beautiful words. Often the picture is quite common – humdrum even -, and perhaps we should not be surprised by that. Sometimes, as especially the case with Mishima, we find details that may shock us, but then when we turn back to their works the shock really should wear off, particularly given the propensity for lightly or mostly autobiographical fiction that seems to thrive here. Considering the big picture at least, but then there are those details, those nuances of thoughts revealed and behavior described. Whatever these authors may have done, what they wrote is of an altogether different degree. And the same, of course, goes for just about everyone engaged in fiction.

Why is this? The case turns really, on the function of the artist. An artist must have a dedication to the truth of their own soul that compels them into baring it. This is not merely a case of reflection, not simply an issue of self-analysis, but one of both done to a depth that far exceeds where non-artists are willing to go. To function as a creator an artist must not only have the courage to stare at, handle, examine, admit, embrace their subterranean shadows, they must also haul them to the surface and put them on display. This is a necessarily frightening act, and the horror of what is found within cannot easily be exorcised. It can – and does – make for great storytelling though. These writers, and all of us who put pen to paper, have been engaged in an ongoing process of dissecting the human psyche. This can be done to better or worse degrees, and one is tempted to say that the difference lies in the honesty.

How much are we willing to risk? Life in the modern age is naturally fairly predictable, as it always has been, really. We wake, eat, work at whatever it may happen to be, receive payment for our labor, use that recompense for food, shelter, clothing, eat again, rest, and once more wake. The contours of human life: easy, settled, stable, animal. Yet what goes on inside our heads brooks no such comparisons. Emotions, desires, moods, wishes, yearnings, all and more surge through us in great waves. We may be both the victims and the beneficiaries of our affective tides, but we can hardly be said to be their masters. And so it is that we share them, we imagine others – so much like us – who may be in such and such a situation and may react in such and such a way. Far different from what I the author has done, but strikingly similar to how I have felt. Were my circumstances otherwise, I might muse, what would I do? This “I’s” circumstances also including variant genetic inheritances, social setting, historical place, geographical locale, and on and on. Yet if all that is other, then what actually remains of the “I”? What is left is what is human, universally human, the core that unites us all regardless of culture, language, gender, age, and all the rest. Human nature, human potential. Whatever our private lives might consist in, and whatever we can learn of those whose works we read and love, the “what ifs” that rage within boil through all of our veins. As writers, as artists, we give them to the light of day, each in our own way, and in that further individuation of expression make the double proclamation of single self and cosmic human spirit.

 

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Gratitude

It is an incredible thing to be able to write. Just the act of it, the sheer practice, is astounding, and something that is all too easy to take for granted, to lose sight of the vast historical trajectories that have made it possible. Being caught up in the modern world of digi-madness and pop culture “gimme gimme gimme” whinge for celebri-esque status too readily masks this, and so this week I want to take a step back from it all, breathe deeply, and just say “thank you”.

If you look up the history of writing you’ll find that through the haze certain definites appear: cuneiform being an early or maybe the earliest type, straight lines on clay tablets used for keeping records of goods and trade, quantities and accounting. Some pictograph alphabets – if such can be so labelled – arose independently and anciently too though, in the Near East and in Mesoamerica. Simple pictures of things that were, externals in the perceived world. But not only that, for unlike what might be their forebears in prehistory’s so-called cave art these pictures contained symbolic depth beyond mere representation: they had abstractions lying within. These varying networks played themselves out, giving rise to such systems as hieroglyphs, characters, and lettering groups. Each unique in function and form, each having strengths and weaknesses, each allowing for very peculiar mental interactions in environments geographical, biological, psychological, and social. And each very much only for the born elite.

Time passed, trends evolved, abilities spread – slowly, slowly, slowly, and then with the right ideas suddenly in roaring torrents. Mass education, children crammed into rooms and screamed at to hold their pencils properly and make the right strokes in the right way to keep it all nice and legible. (Well, perhaps not screamed at, my own teachers probably should have been a bit stricter with me given how horrid my handwritten chicken scratches have turned out in later life.)

More time and lo and behold the keyboard; specifically the Qwerty keyboard, more classes now to make those fingers automatically recall which key is where, ingrained muscle memory. Such works, and works wonderfully, unless you happen to be like my father and insist on only using the pointer finger of each hand to hack out your messages. But then he grew up only as the typewriter was growing up, so you can’t really blame him. Generational changes.

And now here we are. I can sit at a computer and push a series of buttons and through what must be called the highest of magical incantations (at least if you subscribe to Clarke’s “law” about sufficiently advanced technology being inseparable from magic – conceptually speaking, of course) my words and my thoughts become visible to anyone wishing to find them, or even accidentally discovering them, anywhere on the wired and connected planet. Miraculous.

But much more than the reader aspect of all this, what I am so grateful for is the act: for being able to express my thoughts, to give shape and form to my feelings, musings, dreams. I can bring out that which is within in far more subtlety, precision, and care than I personally can the spoken word. It is this, and the fact that others can do this too – to which I also have access or potential access – that I think we must see as a purely unbridled treasure. Each syllable is a gem, each sentence a crown, each text a vault filled to brimming with language’s grace and the fullness of humanity. Taking a pen or pencil in hand, sitting down before a keyboard, or even a clay tablet, we engage with thousands of years past and connect with millennium of burgeoning futures. We stand in a long line and contribute our own tiny etchings, onwards and forwards, from inwards to outwards. Words, written.

 

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The Narcissism of “Read Me”

There is a particular edge to art, to creation, an aggressiveness almost. It is after all a matter of some chutzpah to think that anyone would or even should care about this little bit of X that you have brought into the world. The attitude perhaps best expresses itself in phrases like “we [artists] are the gods, distributors/sellers/producers hangers-on”, and similar sentiments. It might be that such thoughts stem from an internalized association with the capital “C” creator – if such there be, in whatever sense -, but in that case the bequeathed universe came replete with its own appreciative audience: namely us. Merely mortal artists have no such luck and need to go begging for listens or views or usages or reads. Need to go begging – now that rubs an ego the wrong way. Yet there we have it, our central paradox and our psychic hiccup: the first shall be last and the last first, all power lies with the audience. Ouch.

I recently read a review of a book by Rachel Lyon wherein a young would-be professional photographer moves to New York and, while working various part-time jobs to make rent, embarks on a series of self-portraits. In one of these her camera’s shutter closes at the exact moment when a young boy who lived in her building happened to be falling past her window. Tragically falling, falling from the roof to his death below. The blur of the moving boy created the perfect balance for the photo, we are told, and as a result it signified a career-making – or rather a career-establishing – work of art. This she could sell, and from there the sky would be the limit. Should she profit from her neighbor’s tragedy? As ethical dilemmas go this one is intriguing, but of course we already know the answer. She naturally exhibits the picture, it does garner recognition, and she goes on to a highly successful and tortured entry into the professional art world. A happy ending? A fictitious one anyway. Buy the book and read it to judge the story’s merit, there’s a purchase link in the review page given above.

I can suggest picking up Lyon’s book quite easily, with nary an emotional twitch coursing through my limbic system, but I certainly cannot do that for my own books. Why is that? What is this? Nervousness? Reticence? Self-doubt? Self-confidence? I think anyone who makes anything must feel a mix of all of those. Now, I am quite proud of my books and consider each of them well worth reading, even beneficial reading. They are not for everyone, but then what is? And that which tries to be usually ends up being crap. What strikes me in all this is the phenomenology of it: I can toss off a “you should try Twilight of the Idols or The Human Condition” without batting an eye but when it comes to my works I get all sheepish. Weirdly confidently sheepish. I know my books’ strengths and weaknesses, I know them inside out, but I can know the same for anything by anyone and it doesn’t affect how I personally feel. What is at stake is of course that very ego, and the challenge we face as writers, as creators, is not letting the one be dependent upon the other. Can we?

It is the effort, I think, that reflects on who we are. I am not my books, but I am what I put into them. My books show a piece of me, yes, but not the whole of me. The process of writing them though, the whole agonizing, painful, drawn-out, exhilarating, joyous, driving, devastating process of writing reflects my personhood in a myriad of ways. I am a writer and I relate to the world through writing. That identitarian tidbit is the kernel that lies at the root of all those conflicting feelings I experience when speaking in person about my own work. Silence it? Get rid of it? Ignore it? Impossible. I am only a man and we are not built with the requisite solidity – blame it on testosterone, blame it on the Y chromosome. I suspect the same for women but I’ll have to ask Ms. Lyon after this post contributes to making her novel a bestseller.

If we’re going to be artists then I say we be as fully artistic as we can, and that means exquisite and arrogant self-expression, results be damned. Would I have sold the photo with the falling boy in the background? No, but that’s why I’m no household name. Do I believe in the quality of my own work, as presumptive as that might be? Yes, but where that puts me on the whole “art spectrum” I have no idea. Life – it’s all a work in progress anyway. I leave you, as a capper and a non sequiter to all these jumbled thoughts, with Caravaggio’s wonderful Narcissus (1597-99), letting that speak its thousand words.

 

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Flights of Fantasy

Other than by the default of being human I’m not sure what makes our species so interesting. We spend much of our time concerned about food, we move about in more or less set territories and even smaller circles of familiarity within them, we seek pleasure and avoid pain, we call to each other in audible sounds indicating this or that of potential interest to the other, we play sometimes and fight at other times, we have intercourse, we touch, we congregate, we defecate, we lie down to rest – not terribly unlike the vast number of other animal kingdom organisms on the planet. And if one were to only slightly adjust the above list we could shift that last clause to read “not terribly unlike every other animal kingdom organism on the planet”. When you get down to it we’re not really that special, and even the domains that we once thought were ours exclusively turn out on further inspection to either already be there or to at least potentially be there in nonhuman cases (such as recent evidence of proper name use among dolphins or sacred and ritual practices among chimpanzees). In fact it wouldn’t be a stretch, I’d say, to make the point that we don’t have anything specifically more when it comes to nonhuman animals, we have just more of everything. Very brazenly and loudly more of everything – it’s enough to give one a headache.

Why then all these stories about ourselves? Why do we insist on telling (and in many instances re-telling and re-telling) the same general plot lines, arcs, developmental schemes, and interactions? There is comfort in the known, but that can’t be it. These archetypes we so love can be tweaked though, and that might provide some stimulation; along those lines here’s a scenario for you (taken from this article titled “Truth and a Good Life” by Prof. Lloyd Reinhardt): A man lies on his deathbed, with his wife on one side of him and his best friend on the other, each holding his hand. He smiles as he passes, comforted by these two great and loyal comrades whom he so cherished during his life. After he has crossed the threshold the wife and friend look lustily at each other, push the recently deceased to the floor and energetically engage in one of the activities from our above list (you’ll know which one I’m referring to). The questions Dr. Reinhardt is concerned with are: Have they done anything wrong to the man given that he knew nothing of their affair? and Would it have been better for him to know the truth while still alive?

The truth – that’s a sticky one. There’s no truth in fiction, some say, others that only fiction has the real truths. What is truth anyway? Is there any value in it? Any pure objectivity? (I make a case here on the same great site that regarding the latter there cannot be, that a certain perspectivism is unavoidable.) Personally I’m increasingly of the opinion that pretty and livable lies are far preferable to any tyrannies of “objective truth”. And good fiction can provide comforting lies like little else. With our man above I can’t see how his knowing would have helped him, even in the “truth shall set you free” sense. There is an argument to be made from the point of view of his reputation, but that assumes that others were privy to his wife’s infidelity with his friend, and perhaps no one was. Some say – again thinking of reputations – that posthumous harm is possible, and in the hypothetical given however secretive the two lovers might have been before their hospital room tryst word surely seems likely to get out to some degree after it. Yet I remain unconvinced by such thoughts.

We’ve come back to our talking about ourselves, to our sharing, gossiping, storytelling. Maybe we can’t help it, maybe it’s just how we’re built: born narcissists. Even our mythologies, after all, have strong anthropomorphic tendencies running through them, and culture appears to make little difference there. One people’s ancient tales look a lot like another completely different people’s contemporary tales. Archetypes again. But is this a given? A necessity? If we can think our way into a creature then we can think our way into their being, and that might be wildly different than ours. There are of course limits to consider, and in some cases thinking our way in might be impossible (a la Thomas Nagel and his famous bat piece), but why not try? Oh, I’m as guilty as anyone of writing about the human, but from where I sit now I really believe there is much, much more to explore in our literary pursuits, especially when we unfetter ourselves from the cut-and-paste contours of the mainstream and the pressures of trad-concerns and trad-demands. We can go anywhere and write anything – what’s stopping us?

 

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