Tuesday, December 25, 2018

EMILY, THE PHILOSOPHER OF CLOSED SPACE

An Emily Dickinson poem, No.443, has the cloistered poet speaking elliptically, mysteriously about her duty to her small labors and benign daily obligations in the wake of a personal catastrophe; her resolve to stick to her routine with an even greater conviction is an extraordinary will to power. Rather than surrender to grief and a long, tedious death knell, she confirms her existence by tending to the world that is left to her. It’s less than she is chained to her routine that she is liberated by them, elevated even. It’s a way to be engaged with things not related to matters of personal misfortune; through the tasks, small and inconsequential as they seem, are a boon to her. There are sound echoes of Samuel Beckett in this arresting poem, the similarities between a shared theme that we are creatures of habit, routine and appetite, that the motions we go through are the irreducible fact of our human condition. A Beckett reader from years back was called I Can’t Go On, I Go On, and bitter-sweetly so, as it is a phrase that summarizes the dry, splintered core of the Irish writer’s worldview. Without the compelling vision, let us say delusion of an overriding ideology, whether religion, political, economic, aesthetic, life is really little else but an eternal return to repetitive functionality. Even in disillusion, Beckett’s characters do not transcend, they do not change, they go back to what disgusts them and lose themselves in reveries of a past that seems to be only something they’ve read; the redundant tasking is the only anchor in the present time. Dickinson, though, was aware of the sheer repetition of her daily tasks and took them to be the things that make this life purposeful and with a shred of meaning, small and banal her small chores might be. It is the doing of the tasks, the chores, the run of things it takes to keep her household in order, that creates purpose — the well-worn existentialist notion that one accepts the consequences of one’s action through a form of creative commitment to the results — and it is in those moments, giving oneself over to a string of small matters that require daily attention, that she is engaged and for a moment outside herself, in service to something greater than herself.

The time ‘twill be till six o’clockI have so much to do —And yet — Existence — some way back —Stopped — struck — my ticking — through —We cannot put Ourself awayAs a completed ManOr Woman — When the Errand’s doneWe came to Flesh — upon —There may be — Miles on Miles of Nought —Of Action — sicker far —To simulate — is stinging work —To cover what we areFrom Science — and from Surgery —Too Telescopic EyesTo bear on us unshaded —For their — sake — not for Ours —

It is at that moment when matters are concluded for the day that our psychic bearing ebbs and we are returned again to the trembling , merely mortal flesh that trembles from the ceaseless self-awareness that one is alone and not the recipient of glory or attending serenity from on high; the mind chatters to itself, contemplating the stark uselessness of things; the more we find out about ourselves from the sciences, the lesser we seem in the grand scheme of an unknown god’s cosmos. Dickinson, the philosopher of the closed space, the metaphysician of precision, refuses to think of herself as lesser in comparison with the vast and unnervingly incomprehensible existence that lay far outside the walls of her Amherst home — this life of hers, these things in that life, were no less consequential as the rage for big ideas and larger, more complex constructions; her life was a matter of fact, of record, and it was for her to tend her minuscule bit of the world and finds with her dutiful attendance elements that link her with the larger chain of American endeavor, a culture and economy that’s locked itself in the present tense, defining itself with the tasks they undertake, the ones they finish, the new ones they begin. There is the question if Dickinson is speaking of herself alone or instead turns the person into a general worldview, as in the way she skillfully switches from the first person to plural in her narration. I think that Dickinson’s subject is herself alone and that the I and we of her poems — when both occur — are interchangeable; it’s not an uncommon trait that those who prefer their own counsel and company would refer to themselves in the third person. Caesar did it with powerful effect in his De Bello Gallico, Henry Adams revived the technique in his Education of Henry Adams, and Norman Mailer exploited the style wonderfully until he wore it out in an intriguing series of autobiographical testaments. It’s a wonderful device, as it allows one the distance to address speak of themselves with more intimacy and less modesty than a first-person narration might. It can also be a convenient way to ease the reader into a writer’s point of view by treating oneself as if he or she were a fictional character; it eases the sting of obnoxiousness, provided there’s an attractive style. Dickinson, though, wasn’t concerned with an audience and seemed, in my reading, to switch to a Victorian plural to dig a little deeper, prod her memory a little harder. It was a technique with which she could crystalize her contradictory responses to her still universe. Nothing went unnoticed, everything was framed in the narrative distance, amazing things from the minute domain were revealed.

Where Beckett offers us a body of literature that informs us that the condition of humankind is a prison house of rote tasks performed without variation by a species that’s been harassed and hazed to a devitalized race of doddering amnesiacs, Dickinson is of heartier stock, a chronically depressed Irish cynic contrasted against a Yankee that will not lay down and die and which embraces Life however insignificant it might seem. Some junior high school existentialism creeps into this cursory discussion: The central issue comes down to the essential existential paradox, from either the spiritual or atheistic; one is ever not free, regardless of circumstances or forces that one finds themselves subject to. There is always a choice that can be made in even confined and restricted circumstance that cannot be taken away. Sartre, from whom I first gleaned the idea, exaggerated in his emphasis in his attempt to undercut determinist currents thought to rule human behavior — religion, economics, biology — and insist that man is ethically bound to make his creative choices and accept responsibility for the results and consequences. He sounds a bit like the lunk-headed Ayn Rand represented this simply, and there are far subtler aspects of his thought as you know, but the point here might be that Dickinson saw her closed in circumstances in the aftermath of her catastrophe but instead as the time to reconsider and reclaim a life that is hers and which has only the meaning and purpose she brings to it. It was her way, I read, of refusing to languish on a past she might be chained to, and to free her, as well, from the anxiety of a shadow future. She frees herself by giving herself over to her present circumstances, attentive, aware, alive, small as that life might be. Small, yes, but her life, uniquely Emily Dickinson’s.





Sunday, December 16, 2018

CONSIDER THIS 4

Fiction does not need theory in order to be written. First, the fiction is written, the artistic moments, and the theory, or theories, arises as a consequence of critical reading. Theory is a coherent statement of known and verified material facts, in this case, works of fiction, and the formation of theory, if it's to be interesting, comes after the appearance of a primary source.  Critics and erstwhile gutter- snipers of ill reputation seek to have a theory on the same level as fiction, literature, but in terms of actual practice, theory is a secondary activity, a delayed reaction to fiction, not a simultaneous occurrence. Changing tastes and fashions have more to do with novels falling off the radar, not an absence of theory. And a philosophy without a theory, to begin with, is not a philosophy at all, only the same said more fashionable chatter. For real philosophies that get dropped into our dirty bin, it's most likely that their systems and suppositions have been supplanted, discredited and sufficiently critiqued into submission, which is just the happenstance of intellectual shelf life. All bad writing comes from writers who are writing badly, even normally good writers who've undertaken bad projects. There are many tangible reasons for bad writing, not the least of which is the plain truth that the world is full of bad writers who manage to get their scams published. Modernism cannot get "less modern", I think, because the modernism seems, in itself, only a tidying up of Romantic impulses before it, as postmodernism seems only a refinement, an updating of some essentially modernist tropes and stylistics. Each age takes the conventional set of dreads and sagas and makes their contours conform to the constructed world of the current moment. What counts is the individual talent that becomes the substance worth talking about.



Friday, December 14, 2018

CONSIDER THIS 3

Greatest American novel is a subject that exists alongside such topics YouTube topics who the fastest guitarist is, or the fanboy delights of slinging invective at each in the course of ruminating on the image of Superman v The Hulk. The fun in all that is that it inspires everyone to put on their Expert Pants and invent conditions, causes and criteria for their favorite --guitarist, Super Hero, novel--and use them as bludgeons against a legion of other equally engorged enthusiasts who, in turn, have their individual favorite and wield rhetoric devices no less bludgeoning. Even Norman Mailer, who was honest enough to admit that he actually wanted to write something called the Great American Novel admitted, after decades of brilliant books, that such a thing, a single entity, does not and cannot exist. The American Experience, or any historically collected National Experience, is too complex and changing too fast for one set of qualifications to set permanently. The greatest American novel, I think, will only be decided, finally, when we are extinct and someone else, something else assumes the job of figuring out who we were, what we did, and what of that is worth a damn thing.

CONSIDER THIS 2

Related imageOne of those questions came my way, as in a friend asked me which mystery writer would I prefer to read, Robert Parker or Dick Francis. Honestly, I don't care for either, mostly because I generally don't read mystery novels. Crime fiction is another matter; in the case of classic writers of pulp fiction, the likes of Jim Thompson, Cornell Woolrich, James Crumley, and more recent artists like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake, the writer is crisper, snappier, the characterization of heroes, so-called, and the bad guys rich. That is to remark that the psychology, the worldview of the dank environment of criminal enterprise and the ethics therein, are sufficiently complex and twisted. At its best, crime fiction is a condensed form of the Tragedy: flawed heroes and crooks who upset the balance of the universe that contains will inevitably and irrevocably be taken out of commision. Ironic conclusions to one's career are not often a reward. To answer my friend's question, who would I read, I would select Robert Parker, in as much as he attempts to emulate a class act, Raymond Chandler. Dick Francis , I find, is unengaging. I had no interest in the world in which his mysteries took place. The sport of kinds be damned and the murder mysteries that occur within its snooty confines. Parker, though, is no Chandler by far. Even at best, he seems like a beggar wearing clothes he stole from a dead man's closet.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

CONSIDER THIS

Existentialism is when I discover that I'm the private joke that hasn't been shared with me.I think Beckett would appreciate those who are able to pierce through that psychic prophylactic against comprehension and grasp the humor he observed and recorded. I have the idea that Beckett permeated the membrane that separates this reality from the metaphysical one, in Plato's sense of the term (and Wallace Stevens as well with his theories about the Supreme Fiction) and instead of finding Ideal Types as promised, he found an empty room. In the Ideal World, Ideas never changed and neither did their representations in the material plane. Maybe they didn't, but I imagine that the kind of fatalistic assumptions that existentialism brings us too--that we are always free no matter what the limitations upon us are, that we are always free to make a choice, even without arms or legs locked in a cell in a bunker fifty miles under a mountain of Bad Faith--but we soon enough get bored with the certainty that matters in the world, the objects of God's main made visible to us, and we go back to fiction, to poetry, to insanity if need be to imagine new ideas. This world needs to move and we need to believe that there is an agency in this discussion, that we can destroy what God had wrought or create something new and previously unthought of from the raw stuff we find ourselves born into. We want to transform ourselves by transforming the dirt under the fingernails. Smart folks, the cynics, the nags, the braying chorus of told-you-so-ers will inform you that nothing can be created nor destroyed but merely transformed into a different form of energy. So does Plato's Cave endures? Or are we our own Christ and push the boulder away from the cave entrance and walk to to the stream and wash our faces, not fearing the water might flow through the holes in our hands as some of us might fear. It goes on. It is another night when the music stops playing and the chimney smoke as dissipated in a stiff evening breeze. There is only the sound of cats brawling in bushes and shadow-cloaked homeless rummaging through the dumpster. Neither gives much thought to how nothing ever changes even as all alliances come loose and we invent more words, ideas, sentences to put them in. What matters is who owns the bush, who gets the half-eaten sandwich and the carton of soured milk.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

LONESOME OR LOATHSOME ?

Image result for blue and lonesome rolling stones
BLUE AND LONESOME
--The Rolling Stones
Yes, yes, I realize the Rolling Stones started out, under the behest of belated founding member Brian Jones, as a blues band, more or less, with Chicago style as their touchstone." Blue and Lonesome", their new blues tribute album, is, however, awful. Never a good blues singer--technically he's an awful singer, in fact--Mick Jagger's better to refer to as a vocalist, distinct from someone who can truly carry a tune and remain on the pitch. His best vocals are studio-made performances, masterful assemblages of grunts, yowls, mewlings and sundry other bull noises that, in the context of great songs like "Satisfaction", "Shattered", "Start Me Up" or "Driving Too Fast", has allowed him to still sound like a 19-year-old punk after all these decades. it was the perfect foil for the fire-fight guitar cross-rhythms of guitarists Keith R. and Ron W. As a soul man, as a bluesman, however, Jagger truly sounds like a parody of blues singing, too no avail. I realize others will argue that what he does here is an extension of the vocal genius I've already described, but that does not wash. Rock and roll vocals can get by on attitude, but blues, I think, requires vocal color, a bit of range, and a range that can twist the lyrics to emotional suggestion as much as a good guitarist or harmonica player could. Jagger obviously tries to channel Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf among other brilliant blues icons, but his vocal attributes, or lack of them, betray him fiercely.Additionally, Jagger's harmonica work here is weak, goddamned awful in fact. The band had the good sense to bring in Eric Clapton for a couple of tracks to give the session the needed fret-gritting it needed, but why didn't call in an old hand like harmonica genius Sugar Blue to handle the harmonica parts. Jagger's harmonica work wheezes, honks, hits the marks but does nothing memorable once he gets to them. All that said, the band itself cranks it along just fine,what you expect from the Stones, a sturdy, ornery, crackling set of leg-breaking in 4/4 time. They may take a bow. The pity is the band's most famous member is this album's greatest defect.

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