Thursday, February 5, 2009

Getting a grip

I'm the first to admit that I was an opportunist jerk more often than I care to remember when I was in college, a bright boy with a morsel of talent who had large pretensions ; I came to realize these things, though, and I've managed to fit into the skin that God gave me. That is, I sobered up July 16, 1987, the day after my 35th birthday. The gave me the gift of time, twenty one years to change my mind about the mission I came to think I had and to try a different game altogether. It's been ragged , rough and full of mistakes, you bet, but there's been good orderly direction all the same; better writing to, although there are those who'd argue contrarily.

The change of attitude has improved my writing. Kerouac, though, never had the chance to get over his over sized idea of himself as a jazz-keened godhead, he instead became bitter when the vibe went numb and the scene became crowded with people he didn't approve of--Kerouac was essentially conservative, after all. As such, he drank himself to death , bitter and disappointed. Writer Barry Alfonso and I have talked about this repeatedly since our days in college, and what he insisted on is that art shouldn't, by default, be in service to some one's death wish. Leaving a good looking corpse is a myth, he said, dead people just look dead and those who died because of drugs or alcohol just bring on sadness over the waste of not so much talent as the life that contained it. Dying young is not cool, he said, and I've remembered that.

These days I respect writers who have resilient through the years and who constantly challenge themselves with new styles and approaches--both the late John Updike and Norman Mailer are examples of these artists. Bright, brief flames for most part seem to get blown out just when they seem to be getting started with the good stuff. How many decades have we rationalized Kerouac's feckless lack of form, or pondered what Hendrix lived and learned to keep his guitar in tune?

It's a species of hero worship that obscures the newer talent: it's the idea that everything that was good in this culture has already happened , and that more recent additions to our arts are imitation, variation, and elaboration of past genius. It's an odd thing, this latter day Spenglerism, this worship of the dead, that it comforts us in times of an uncertain future. I always thought the future was ours to

1 comment:

  1. Good post. This is a topic worth exploring. The credo “live fast/die young/leave a beautiful corpus of works” still persists in some quarters, I’m sure. Flat on its face, the idea that self-immolation raises the value of an artist’s creation is hogwash. Obviously, the same sort of feverish brains that can bring forth a brilliant novel or painting can also generate the seeds of its own destruction. An artist may labor to keep his demons at bay and create art as a kind of byproduct. But would, say, Booth Tarkington or Frank Yerby have been any better artists if they had committed suicide? Would Thomas Wolfe have been less of a talent if he hadn’t recklessly contracted T.B.? And what about William S. Burroughs – are we supposed to consider him a sell-out because he was able to survive into his 80s? How about Norman Mailer – if he had actually stabbed that wife of his to death and been sent to the electric chair, would that have made Naked and the Dead or The Deer Park any better or worse as novels?

    The issue of whether any of this gives a writer cachet or takes it away is a tangled one. But I can say this – killing yourself as an act of rebellion, as a defiant fuck-you gesture to the world, is pathetic and ridiculous. The world the artist hates WANTS him to die and self-inflicted mortality is no victory. The epitaph on Sherwood Anderson’s tombstone says it best: “Life, not death is the great adventure.”

    As for the idea that good artistic expression is only in the past – every generation must find its own answers, even if they are the same ones. That’s part of life itself, I think. And by striving to find the right words for the old truths, life is renewed. To quote Anderson again: “There is no such thing as an old sunrise…”


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