Windmills in a Broken Breeze, short story – 1 November 2015

This short is taken from two chapters of my novel Songs of Galilee,  with the intent of making it available in The Library of Babel short story collection.

I moved to the American south, South Carolina to be exact, in 2244, at the age of twenty two. I lived with my grandmother for a while, and spent most of my time in seedy liquor bars with overweight truckers watching pool and wrestling on television and arguing over politics. The local colleges didn’t seem to offer much, but I’d suppose that college has very little to do with learning.

     The first thing I noticed was the air in America. It had a different taste to it, like stale water. American air is different than any air on Earth. Another thing I noticed was the abundance of billboard signs.

     When I moved to the outskirts of a small upstate town, Newberry, South Carolina, I lived in the middle of Sumter National forest, beside Lake Murray. Thick pines surrounded the house, blanketing it from the noise of industry and automobiles. It was a small town beside a lake, like my home by Galilee, but it didn’t sound the same. It was off-key; the songs rang out atonal, mixed with the hum of boat engines. Fishermen on Lake Murray eschewed sails and paddles in favor of the electronic motors and yachts. They said very little to me when I approached them on the shore for information about local plant and animal life. They weren’t rude or anything. It just seemed as though they didn’t know. They were good people, simple and pure, and reminded me of my mother in their quiet routines.

     Main Street had a few small stores: auto repair, a Chinese restaurant that the locals called “The China Place,” a drug store, a drab tennis court and basketball court by an abandoned gym with boarded up doors. An old white church hovered above the planted palms at the end of the street. It was the first time I had seen a church. I had heard of them, of course, and their general purpose, but had never seen one. I made a note to check it out, but for the most part, I stayed out of town. People didn’t concern me anymore in America than they had by Lake Galilee.

     The alien woods were delightful. Birds sang different songs, and different animals prowled the underbrush. Animals I had never seen: possums, different birds, white tailed deer, raccoons, cats, and wild dogs. I fed them and enjoyed their company, but it was a long time before I met my first friend: a fifteen year old girl named Casey who dated my great-aunt’s grandson, Daniel. I spent most of my time with him, playing video games, smoking cigarettes, and getting drunk. He lived with his grandmother. He had been adopted at age twelve after his real father hung himself over a car payment.

     She was only fourteen. Daniel was a few years younger than me, at eighteen, but that didn’t seem to matter to him or her. They started dating and almost all of my time was spent with them that summer, before I met Chris, who would introduce me to Elise. We watched television, got stoned, and played video games. We were kids.

     They started spending more and more time together and wanted privacy. I understood. I didn’t want to annoy them, so I decided to spend less time around them. Behind his house a small stream ran by a basketball goal without a net, so I sat there in the evenings by the brook with a drawing pad. There were occasions when we’d go to the movies together, but those were few.

     I still talked to Casey when she came into the bar where her father worked. She was always friendly with me, but I could tell they were in love. He was the first man she had ever slept with and she vice versa. They had the rare kind of love, the rare type, the type that’s real, and pure. They spent a lot of time dancing in his living room to old Patsy Cline records.

     When walking through the woods, we always had to jump over that little stream behind his house. Casey’s ankles were always sore from it, a car wreck as a child I believe, so Daniel and I decided to make a bridge so she could walk across it. We found an abandoned junk pile in the woods, full of old washing machines, stoves, toilet seats, and broken down cars. We went through the piles for a few hours until we found something we could use: an old car door could be the bridge.

     We went back to Daniel’s before evening’s blanket fell to find screwdrivers so we could pry the door from the old car. It was an old thing, orange tinted, with paint stripped off the side. With his big tool box, we hacked our way through the tall grass to make it back to where the old car was. We took the hinges off, unscrewed the bolts that held it in place, and pulled it into the grass. It was tiring work. We sat there as the night crept in with sweat on our foreheads and cigarettes in our mouths. The discussion went from how to make the bridge, how much we’d like to fuck some of the young girls in town (I didn’t really want to fuck anything, honestly), and how drunk we were going to get. Of course we wasted time. It made us happy to waste our lives. We were good at it. We had online gaming clubs, chess sets, and exotic magazines. We had a secret handshake that only we three knew. To us the shake became a symbol of inclusion for three people of whom the world thought very little.

     We invited her over the following Friday to check out the bridge. She wore short shorts with frayed ends, a tucked in polka dotted shirt, and her curly hair in innocent looking pigtails. She smiled when she saw it. She walked back and forth across it, jumping lithely. She was happy. Embracing Daniel, she told him her young girl thanks and you shouldn’t have. Daniel looked over at me with a shrug. I shook my head. I didn’t want her to know I helped; it was his glory, and I didn’t want to come between them. I wanted them to like me. They did.

     It was after five that Thursday when she parked her bicycle outside the bar. The bells chimed on the door as they swung open. Light from the street outside filled the darkness of the bar for a moment, and then faded as the door swung shut. She ran to her father, embraced him as he dried a glass, and kissed him on his wrinkled cheek. He could tell she wanted something. Father’s can always tell when their children are strangely kind. She got some money from him and told me to come by the night after to watch a scary movie. I lied and said I’d already made plans to see a new movie that came out. Sounding sad, she protested that she wanted to see me before she started working at the local grill. They would go to the movies with me. Their new found enthusiasm forced me to find a movie to go to.

     I showed up at seven or so. Daniel said he didn’t have the money to go that week. He said that if I waited until he got his check, he’d pay for my way and we’d all go together. Instead he suggested I spend the night with them and watch the scary movie.

     It was three in the morning when his grandmother, a paranoid old lady with too many superstitions, shuffled into the living room. I was sitting on the loveseat; they sat together, cuddled on the couch. She asked if we heard anything outside. A prowler had been seen in the neighborhood, she tells us. She suspects that he’s trying to get in the backdoor and tells us to listen out, lock the door, and stay inside. After that, she scowled at us and closed her bedroom door. We heard her digging around in her bureau drawers for a while, but she finally went to sleep.

     As planned, the next weekend we met to go together to the movies in Union, South Carolina at a tiny little theatre with sticky floors and raucous audiences. Casey didn’t feel good that day and protested when I begged and begged and begged some more for her to come over to Daniel’s to go to the movies with us. She didn’t want Daniel to pay her way, she said. Her head hurt, she said. My persistence finally paid off and she showed up in her mother’s jeep, kissed her mother goodbye, and walked up the walkway with her head in her hands. Daniel lived just short of a block from my grandmother’s house on the lake, so I met them there at eight in my best clothes.

     Casey sat on the couch with her face in her hands when I came in with a pink cloth over her face, made of silk; it reminded me of the dancing girl’s in Syria with their silken veils. Daniel was in the bathroom shaving, so I went in to ask him if Casey still felt bad. He ran the electric razor along his chin, lining up his newly forming goatee, and told me that she still had a bad headache. Though she had a headache, she still planned to go because she promised me. I went into the living room to talk to her while Daniel finished dabbing on bits of aftershave that I couldn’t smell.

     I sat beside her on the couch. Daniel came in the room with an old shotgun slung over his shoulders. That old gun was never loaded. We used it to pretend to be hunters sometimes in the fields behind his grandmother’s house. It was never loaded and we doubted that it even worked. He sat down in front of her with the shotgun in his lap. We didn’t think anything about it. He always threatened us with it in jest. It didn’t work. Why should we be afraid of it?

     Casey sighed a tired sort of sigh, and reclined on the couch with the cloth over her face. It glowed a hollow pink because of an antique lamp in the corner. It gave off a dingy sort of light, yellow and muted. He put the shotgun beside the couch, put on his shoes. He ran a comb through his hair, saying, “Casey, you still got that headache?” she groaned behind the cloth. She got it from his grandmother’s sewing table in the dining room. Daniel sighed and turned on the television.

     “You sure you wanna see the movie tonight, shithead?” he asked. “We can always go next week. I could take Casey home now so she can get some sleep. You know she ‘a be cranky if we don’t let her sleep.”

     Casey laughed. The air of her breath made the cloth float above her face a moment.

     “We have to go tonight if we want to see that movie,” I said. “It won’t be playing next weekend.”

     He buckled his belt with a sigh, but doesn’t lose his smile. I could tell he was concerned about Casey’s headache. She had frequent migraines because of the car wreck in her early childhood. It had shattered all of her front teeth and broken the bones in her ankles. Only the pain remained. The pain and the memory of it followed her around like a shadow. If you didn’t know any better, though, you could never guess that she wore false teeth. She sat there groaning on the couch beside me. In my head I could see her car slamming against the milk truck, sending her forward into the dash, shattering her teeth like a wicker basket against the hard plastic upholstery. Daniel rises, drawing me from my imagination, inside my head the image shrivels up; he grabs his car keys and shifts through the dim light of the small living room like a shadow. Patsy Cline played on the television, the music channel for golden oldies that they always danced to. Her sweet voice sang such sublime melodies, so quietly in the yellow glow.

     “Casey, you want a Tylenol or somethin’? Maybe a drink of water?”

     “I already took four already,” she said.

     “I’ve already taken would be a better sentence,” I said. “’Already took’ just sounds wrong.

     Daniel laughed and hoisted the shotgun against his shoulder, putting aside an unfinished origami windmill he had been working on for Casey. This was what brought her to him in the beginning, his flare for origami. He made her frogs, turtles, planes, and roses. That one would have to be finished later. With his origami secure on the stand beside the chair, he pointed the shotgun at her head. “This will help a headache,” he says, and pulls the trigger.

     The gun worked. It took me a few moments to realize what happened. The living room was full of smoke, above the couch where Casey twitched the smoke alarm went off, marring the beautiful music on the television, and a terrible ringing filled my ears. The gun had worked. Drops of blood dripped off my face as I sat there dumbfounded, trying to see Casey through the smoke.

     Daniel panicked. He dropped the shotgun and ran to the couch. Daniel grabbed Casey by both sides of her face and lifted it to his own. Bubbles of blood trickled from her mouth. The left side of her face was splattered against the dingy couch behind her and the little pink veil above her face was torn to pieces. He started giving her mouth to mouth and each time he pushed on her stomach more blood bubbled from her mouth. He shakes her and shakes her and screams for me to call an ambulance.

     I ran into the other room to find the phone. My ears were still ringing when the operator picked up. I could see her little feet kicking against the floor when I leaned into the other room. On the other end of the phone, a burly sounding woman assured me that help was on the way. We should keep talking to her, feel her hands, and make sure she didn’t gag on her own blood. I ran back into the living room. Her feet thrashed against the floor and made soft thuds against the carpet. The ends of her fingers twitched a moment, and then they stopped. Her arm fell limp across her face.

     Five minutes later the ambulance shows up with the police because a neighbor called about the gunshot. They found me in the bathroom vomiting, Daniel still in the living room trying to give her mouth to mouth. His face was covered in drying blood, around his mouth like a clown would paint his face. They pull him away and take him outside, four or five of them together, and slam him against the cop car. It took them a good bit of time since he fought them off to run back in the house to her. I stood there in the bathroom doorway. The shotgun smoke had settled and the smoke alarm had been turned off, but the same song played on the television. It was surreal to see a person die. It’s not the same to see it in a film. Her mother showed up before they carried her body out of the living room. I had never seen a woman lose her control so fast. In the doorway she stood a moment shaking, with urine running down her legs, and then she rushed into the dim light of the room to find Casey silent under the yellow lamp. Her now pale body had fallen over the arm of the couch in front of the television where the glowing notes of the sad song, sung so many years ago, scrolled over the side of her face.

     I sat face down on the sidewalk when they brought her stretcher out. She was zipped up in a long black bag. Daniel starts after her again, punching one of the police officers, and they throw him to the ground and cuff him. He hears the squeaking wheels as they wheel her to the ambulance behind the cop car. That’s when he realized that his Casey was dead. She was gone. She was inside that zipped up bag and she was gone. Daniel slammed his face against the police car repeatedly, then fell onto his knees behind the cop car, and slammed his face against the cement until they managed to pull him into the backseat. They took him to county and charged him for murder in the first degree.

They questioned me about what happened. Had they ever talked to my mother, they probably would’ve decided against asking me anything.

     “Where you from, towel head?” asked the first cop. I didn’t respond, as towel head wasn’t my name.

     “You got a name or don’t you?” asked the second cop.  They both had the same sort of beard, overlapping gut, and shifty eyed glance. This is apparent in larger primates.

     “Tell us where you from or you goin’ to spend the night.”

     “I grew up on the Sea of Galilee,” I said.

     “Whar’s dat?” the first cop asked. “Some sort ‘a towel head village?”

     They laughed amongst themselves a moment, then swung their guts to face me again.

     “It’s where Jesus walked on water,” I said. “Don’t you love Jesus?”

     “Jesus is our lord and saver,” said the second cop.

     “Welp, it’s not nice to call Jesus a towel head,” I laughed.

     “You blasphemer!” they yelled in chorus.

     “You’re the one who called me a towel head,” I said. “I assumed that was a racial slur, and since I’m the same ethnicity of your lord and ‘saver,’ whatever that means, it is a slur against Jesus to call me a towel head.  Now, don’t you boys have something to say?”

     Their pleasant smiles had dripped away.

     “What?” their eyes seemed to say.

     “Tell Jesus you’re sorry,” I said. “What are your names?”

     “My name’s Jeremiah,” the fatter of the two fat men said, “and this is Kent.”

     “Well, Jeremiah and Kent, it’s not nice to call Jesus a towel head, is it?”

     “No, sir,” they said.

     “Now tell Jesus you’re sorry.”

     “We’re sorry Jesus.”

     “Good boys,” I said. “Anything you’d like to ask me now that we know I’m not a stereotype?”

     “What’s yer name, mister?” Kent asked. “We could get ye some cawfee.”

     “My name is Roger,” I said, “I don’t drink coffee; it makes me tense up.”

     “Then can we get ya somethin’ else to drink?” Kent asked. Jeremiah was on the phone lying to his wife. Maybe these guys were all right after all.

     “Vodka,” I said.

     “We don’t have any vodka,” Kent said.

     “Then I don’t want anything.”

     After pursuing my opinions for an hour or so, they agreed to find a bottle of orange juice and some vodka for me. I tell them that from what I knew, Daniel had never even slept with another girl. He would never have hurt her, I said. He was too meek and passive, eager to please, and never seemed to have any sort of aggression in him.  I told them that we’d all played with that gun before… in one way or another. It had never been loaded around us. We didn’t even think it would work.

     If not for that girl, Daniel would have never gone to work at a warehouse distribution factory just so he could buy her cheap jewelry and second rate clothes. He never hurt her or raised his voice at her. They thanked me for my time, had me sign my confessional release forms, and helped me to my feet. I stumbled out of the door as Casey’s mother strolled in. Tears and mascara snakes ran down her face, stained her lips, which twitched at the corners when uncovered by her knotted handkerchief.

     They try him for murder at first. Then Casey’s mother testified on his behalf. The trial was a matter of formality. Daniel’s lawyers convinced him to plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, a plea bargain that would have been impossible had Casey’s mother refused to testify on Daniel’s behalf. She told the judge and jury that Daniel loved her daughter. That he just wanted to do anything that could make her happy. But how did the gun get loaded? The prosecution wanted to know. Casey’s father was not as forgiving as her mother. All he saw was his fourteen year old little angel headed for a hole in the ground.

     His senile grandmother—hard of hearing, going deaf—loaded the gun the night before because she thought she heard prowlers picking at the mesh screen of the door on her back porch. The prowler later turned out to be a starving cat. I took her to my home on the lake and named her Galilee. She would be the waves to me, my comfort in America.

     Daniel was sentenced to five years in prison, suspended to three, with ten years of probation.

     They left the couch, on which lay Casey’s drying life blood, out on the side of the road for weeks to wait for when the garbage men would come to take it away. The pale cushions, once bland yellow stitched with white, had blood red stains on the side where Casey sat. Buzzards often sat atop the telephone pole and streetlights in front of the house, drawn in by the false promise of a meal.

     I baked a cake for Daniel on his nineteenth birthday. Prison officials received me in the main lobby to search me for contraband before allowing me in the visitor’s hall, spotted with circular tables and plastic chairs. After they cleared my wallet, cigarettes, and cake, a female guard waved me into the bright room where scruffy prisoners talked to their loved ones and children. Daniel had his head propped on the butt of his palm, staring at the chef’s behind a buffet table on the far side of the room.

     He wore the typical orange jumpsuit, with one black stripe around the cuff to signal his prison job where he helped load heavy equipment in and out of the textiles factories where the prisons made socks. A purple welt stuck to the side of his face like he’d been hit by something. Behind the bruise his eye was swollen shut.

     For a moment he stared at his cake. I had designed it to look like his favorite singer, Patsy Cline. Because of such protest, they allowed me to put a candle on his cake. The candles burned away in front of him.

     “I can’t believe you got that cake in here,” he said at last. “They normally don’t allow food in the visitor’s area.”

     “They must be afraid it’ll taste good,” I said. “Murderers they can handle. Rapists, pedophiles, and bank robbers are fine. But damn if they’ll let a cake come in here. Maybe their no tolerance policy applies to baked goods, too.”

      He smiled a silent smile, no teeth, just a small curling of his chapped lips. Stubby hairs grew thick under his chin, wrapped around his face up to his ears. Casey’s poorly inked initials lined the under side of his left wrist. It took some courage, but I finally asked what happened to that pretty kisser of his. He paused a moment while the candles burnt down before his face.

     “How you holding up?” I asked.

     “This is a prison, Roger,” he said. “This isn’t a weekend in Cancun. People will kill you here. Dying is a lot worse than being overcharged for a beachside hotel room.”

     “What happened to your face? That isn’t a friendly looking bruise, paison.”

     “I was in the shower,” he said. “I’d just finished washing my hair and some people came in. I thought those cats were my friends. How could they hurt me? Next thing I know, a combination lock, stolen from one of the bathroom lockers. Guy taps on my shoulder. I turn around and try to ask what he wants. That’s when he swung the lock into the side of my face.”

     “Behind you,” he said. “It’s time to go, Roger. It’s time to go.”

     “Wait,” I said. “You forgot to make a wish.”

     The candle flames had dwindled to little more than sparks. He leaned down again, his face in front of them; eyes closed, he blew them out. Small trails of smoke went into the air as he rose to his feet.

     “Hey,” I called as he walked away, gray cap in hand. “Do you remember our secret handshake?”

     He paused a moment, stopping in his tracks. “Yeah, Roger,” he said. “I remember.”

     He extended his hand and walked toward as the times over alarm bell sounded on the high-treble PA system. “If you ever get the time, put some flowers on her grave. But no tulips; she’s allergic to them.”

     I nodded and walked away. Upset criminals bid farewell to crying children with extended arms, reaching out for their father locked away. In defeated lines they tromped off for their tiny cages. That was the last time I got to see my brother. One of the prison guard’s came to escort him away. I sat at the table for a moment alone, to think, to collect myself and give my nerves a chance to relax. To my surprise, Daniel hurried back to my table. He ran his hands in his pockets. As his fingers thumbed the paper edges of his surprise, he smiled. He smiled and placed his origami windmill on the table.

     “Finish it,” he said. “I can’t do it.”

     He disappeared into a locked door on the other side of the room.

2 / One Last Dance

Sometimes I dream of them. The blood on his face always reminds me of clown paint around his lips. Things are different in those dreams. It always comes back to the movie. But in some dreams I call to tell her that I have a headache too, and that we’ll stay home. It is okay, I would say. We could wait on the film to come out in stores. She always tells me thanks, tells me I’m a good friend, and I tell her to sleep well; Daniel and I will visit when she feels better. Afterwards, I go to Daniel’s. His old grandmother shuffles through the living room, dragging her feet in purple slippers, and tells me Daniel is getting ready to go to the movies.

     I must make up my mind today. What to have, what to hold—

     He comes out of the bathroom to the same sort of music they played at the orphanage at lunch. Clown paint covers his face. His eyes are darkened with the same color that showed up when they slammed his face in. He tells me that since Casey is at home sick, and we wouldn’t be going to the movies, he had something he wanted to show me.

     After numerous promises, he leads me into his grandmother’s bedroom. There’s a giant unmade bed in the center of the room with flannel quilts and lint covered throw pillows. A bureau drawer is to one side, with a television on it, bunny-ears and everything, and a dresser at the foot of the bed rises to the ceiling with a giant mirror. Daniel kneels before the mirror, digs around in the clothes for a bit, and then takes out a music box. From the looks of it, it seems to have cost him thousands of dollars. Inside the music box, beside the ballerina’s feet, a golden ring, plain-looking but exquisite, gleamed in the yellow room. Thousand bucks, he tells me. The low music of the box rolls out, high pitched and soft, a Chinese melody.

     A poor man’s roses or a rich man’s gold.

     It’ll be worth it, he says. I’m going to marry that girl and give her the world, he says: fancy clothes, jewelry, and cars. Then there’s the wedding present. It’s an antique jukebox, almost two centuries old. It’s stocked with Patsy Cline, Casey’s favorite singer.

     One’s as wealthy as a king inside a palace. Though he’s callous and he’s cold.

     Five children, he says. Three boys, and two girls, and the oldest boy will be Daniel, Jr. The youngest one will be named Roger. It wouldn’t even have happened if not for me, he says. All of his children will owe their lives to me. Then there’s music in the other room, always the same: low like the ballerina’s song. Daniel doesn’t hear it. I rush into the other room. Casey’s sitting on the couch, now dead for years; her pink socks have frayed, unraveled on her feet. Her eyes are hollowed out and black. I turn around and Daniel’s there, wearing the clown paint again. Daniel looks at her and tells me he always wanted to take her to ballroom dancing lessons, or just take her out to dance, but he never could afford them. In the living room she rises from the couch, with her arms in the air, and spins around on her tiptoes, like she’s in that music box. Each time her face swings by me, the left side, above the eye, is empty. But she can still dance.

     He may learn to give his heart for love. Instead of buyin’ it with gold.

Daniel goes into the living room. He asks her to dance. The side of her head is normal again, regenerated, and then things go in reverse. She falls to the couch. That piece of cloth is hanging on her face again. I’m gone, but I’m watching it happen. She tells him that since I never showed up, they should lay down a while. Maybe watch some television, or listen to some music.

     Then the poor man’s roses, and the thrill of when we kiss—

     He says that’s fine by him, but why not dance a little first? He dusts off an old time Patsy Cline record for the jukebox, moves the boxes out of the center of the living room, and extends his hand. She grabs it. He hoists her to her feet. Just me and you, he says, taking her hands, and don’t worry about Roger. We can always go to the movies. We’ve got all our lives. Are you worried about Roger? I’m sure he just got lost in the woods. He does that a lot. Who knows what that boy is looking for? But don’t worry, you know Roger. He’ll come around. He always does. And he won’t be mad about the movies. He’ll understand. He’s a smart fella.

     Will be memoirs of paradise, that I’ll never miss.

     In the corner, the yellow colored lamp gets brighter, and then shines in the center of the room. They walk there together. Time goes by, lots of time. Sol rises, Sol sets, and they stay together, never moving. Her head is propped against his shoulder. They dance around the center of the room as their faces age. Casey turns into a beautiful woman. Daniel’s face gets harrier. The goatee he always wanted is trimmed and proper on his face. A big beer belly hangs over his leather belt. Pictures of children line the room. The children smile and laugh, and run in and out of the living room as they dance together. They pull little wagons behind them, full of toys and tiny racecars, but Casey doesn’t hear them. Her head is on Daniel’s shoulder. Patsy Cline sings on the stereo. Everything is fine.

     Their children began to grow as well. They come into the room with dolls and puppies. They ask mommy to come and play, or daddy to go fishing, or ask daddy to fix their toy airplanes. Daniel laughs and asks them if he can have one more dance. One more dance, and he’ll fix anything. He’ll read their favorite stories, about knights and dragons and the boogeyman, and everything will be fine.

     They have their entire lives. It will only take a moment, and then they can sleep their happy dreams. They’ll throw the baseball after school, and Casey will braid her daughter’s hair. They smile and run into the other room. In their beds they wait for their parents to come to them.

     And yet the hand that brings the rose tonight,

     The world grows up around them. Casey’s long black hair begins to fray. It turns gray, wire-like, and tangles at the end. Daniel gets wrinkles under his eyes. Gray spots crop up in his beard. They dance as they did in life, in the center of the room, in the same circles for eternity. They never move and the record never skips. I’m never there to bother them. I’m outside with my face against the window, looking in.

     Is the hand that I will hold.

      Then I wake up and remember the couch and how it looked on the curb, with the restless buzzards above it squawking. I remember trying to scare them off with twigs and sticks. There were occasions when I could scare them off, but they always came back. They waited for their meal. That’s all the lifeblood of the young girl signified to them: a meal.

     For the rose of love means more to me,

      In the end, they hauled the couch off to the dumps on the outskirts of town. Every time I passed it, I realized there’d be no more dancing. Daniel was in prison, Casey in the ground, and all that survived their brief lives together was a rose on a plot of grass, in front of a rock at the cemetery. That’s all there would ever be. They had their dance, their time together, and I had an incomplete origami windmill to finish.

     More than any rich man’s gold.

The Devil’s Projector, short story – 1 November 2015

This short is taken from Act II of The Chameleon Mirror, The Thief of Thursday.

A group of men and women in sharp business suits sat in semi-circle round a dusty old computer. All-star black. I sit at the head of the table and a man to my right introduces himself and the rest of the group. There’s a television at the end of the table opposite to me. The eldest man on the left stood beside the AV setup, and ran a clip. Static filled the screen then freckles of white skin appeared then light hair curled, then a white shirt and dress, white socks and shoes. A tennis-racket tea-set popped into view and Willow, sweet Willow, an imaginary friend they said. But kind and her hair was white and stringy. Old Willow miss Willow was with’ring steadfast waving like the others blades of fluff among the mast. She went away, this friend, now renting a spot in my heart and imagination.

 There’s no freak genius just some demons that speak English, target evangelical snakeslingers in four seasons for four reasons snapping snakes stealing souls and they say,

AMEN.

            Hallelujah!

 I pulled out of the tape. That’s what it was. A media device, a recording, a moment at Moncrief, no was it An’mien? And the old man said,  “Accept or take another?”  The others looked at me.

            I looked up and down and the iron frowns returned like stone.

            Monotone,

 “You can make a choice to take one moment into the lord’s paradise, or take all memory, all moments, and entire the world of fire.’  “Another,” the man beside the screen said.

 I felt him say Amen? Ahm-myeen, his name. I’d never heard a name like that.  The screen pans back from the nose of a dog, and my sister is in diapers patting him on the head, old Traveler. A collie with a mane of white, a prize to be sure. And his eyes. The light amber brown touched orange burst into focus like a little sun the size of a ladybug.

            Mama?

            Yes Renny, miss bo, what are you doing?

            She walked through the TV into the room, in that red kimona.

            Let me look at you.

 She turned my eyes to hers those almond browns and looked into mine. She smiled. My Wenny, my Lenny, miss bo! My how you’ve grown! You think your hair is short enough? She smiled and thumped me on the head. Then placed her hand on the side of my cheek. I don’t care what your father says. It looks great. You look wonderful miss Bo, Mrs Brisbois!

 I snapped out of it realizing that somehow I had been into the screen. They let me know, if I didn’t choose one thought or memory or idea that is meant for me could potentially trap me like a genie in a bottle here, inside that screen, stuck in a memory that happened to keep me from slipping out. Each tape they played, it had a song. Bang bang, you shot me all along! My father played the piano, wrote poems and violins. I sat on his lap and he listen here, this is how we’ll us both, Mama too, we’ll sneak off into heaven and take the thief Lain when we do!

 Listen, father said. They may never bring it up. You’re my daughter, a Brisbois like my son. Your mother is difficult, you know. She’s so lovely, so lovely and I love her, but she has a more, strict set of social codes. You know? Don’t keep me here!

 I was back in the seat. The tears swelling in my eyes. Surprisingly, I’d been in the rest of that scene, and how hard it was to stay there as I lived to hear him say it. And it dinged off inside the room, making it impossible to flee.

 Your mother thinks that since we weren’t married proper, that they’d deny you that theatre. Well, we’re not barbarians, and honor can be here won by women and men, bastards and bastard kings. Don’t ever think that since these Greeks couldn’t claim their daughter she’s put as special as you are my bo, Lenny my star. Don’t believe them, not ever that, you’re less because you’re this or that. I tried to strain to pull away but the glass around me kept me in and for the first time in that world I could tell it was a light-show ran by little men, shaped so roundly paper-thin. The words were falling down the screen, through which those who held me must have seen.

 This world is as much yours as mine. Renette, Renette! If you’re ever anyone’s be theirs by your choices. For university to Scottish pubs. Demand and earn respect and it’s yours. Your mother has a different way, you know. Because you’re so so pretty little Bo. But you’re more than pretty. You’re my viking girl. And you’ll be Frey in the Christmas play, and Loki he’ll fall mad for you.

 And there was Lain outside the screen. Hundreds of feet tall so it seemed. Looking at me as the words crawled up the wall in waltzing spirals to the beat of an automatic clock set on repeat. I jumped from one word curious, to another frightened, breathless, overwhelmed and rest.

            Outside the screen again, the people looked to me,

            “Choose,” they said, “One memory. One for heaven, hell for three.”

            I asked by impulse, “What about all?”        “This room, this here?”

            A man with a dignified voice said.

 “This place is between two others, you know by the wrong name. One requires you let go, and so pain goes along. The other lets you keep your pain with your forever alone.”

            “And if I stayed here?”

            The choir gasped, each one except that same man.           “Don’t you know where you are, my Bo?”              She knew as soon as he called her Bo.

            “Brisbois,” he said. “My Joan of Arc. Empress of Arcadia, Queen of the Isles and March.”

 The others had left and with that man, the well-dressed older fellow running these scenes he threw on the screen behind his fingers like playing cards. The thought, I thought, that we’ll all die, it vexes us sometimes in life. For some more so than someone else. It’s still more near a nightmare than a dream to realize you’re in Hell, and getting out requires a choice: To take the anguish and the noise, but every photo ever done, every memory, everyone. Lain and Cammy, Russeau and Jon, my mother, Yes! Mme Nanty… It’s time for you to go on.

            The second tape

I was pulled into the screen. I was dressed up dressed like Cleopatra. I must’ve been 9. In America, it was fun. That’s where I met Lain. He was a big fish in a small pond and we walked around the neighborhood. It must have been 99, maybe. His half-brother Gilbert, four years younger, had been in an accident and he was at that dumb parade. This was a small town, where Lain came from. Every year they had a carnival. Setup like a cheap and temporary fair. A tilt-a-whirl, and gravity pulled him against me on that ride with Maddie. He was in central park I think it was during lunch. I watched him playing chess as I walked up. Nobody was there. So I asked if I could play when he finished. Yes, he said. I’m done. Do you want to go first?

 He looked at me. Lain, god fucking fogasfk. You lose them. We lose them all. What picture do you take then, if to preserve yourself at the expense of all else? Defeat it. Change that. Make them immortal somehow.

 The man smiled in a unique way, seeing her self as her body turned grey. I was behind the scene then, lifted up, drained into the background as I watched them in a cup. “Choose one memory, go up; or take all with you down.”  Another choice, the voice whose owner I had been.

            The man, that demon, that angel, whatever he was, smiled again. He loved her it seemed. And it was unique. He spoke with warmth, while once so cold, distant but now closer.

 “A third choice?” he smiled. “Only for you, my Bo. You can stay here with me, and watch the show. You don’t have to take one, not for heaven, nor purgatory with all, stay in hell where you belong.”

            But I can watch these tapes? I said. Much more confident was I in death.

 “With me, you can watch for eternity. You can go inside that dream machine. I’ll be here by the setup here, as new clients come and finally clear, you can come back into this

little room, I’ll join you in the afternoon. I’ll leave the tapes beside your bed.”

            “I want each scene of me and Dad.”

            “Okay,” the friendly devil said. He’s not as bad as you’d think.

 A moment passed. He saw that then, I wanted to see the screen. My dad again, he threw the card. It stuck to the glassware then a wire brought the sound out of a fiddle. The devil went down to Georgia!”  Did you get his soul?

            The devil said, “You may not know,

            “I may have lost that sole, that one show,     But I met him again fifty years on,         He chose the banjo and moved on.       He took that memory with him,       Into the highest highs of H’en.

            “Do some take all to purgatory?”

 “The poets,” said he, “Romantics that have somehow turned it upside down and made the smiley face a frown. I thought you would, you’d take them all, and suffer with them, forever, just to hold onto a boxful of ghosts.”

 Renette had stopped listening to him talk He’s – he’s I came to myself. The devil has a dark side like everyone else. As for Renette’s, she made a gamble on the bet that the devil, if indeed he were, had thought of no such thing as mirth. Each time he laughed he weakened; Renette didn’t need the treats above, with a digital scrapbook and the world; in her way it was the greatest thing she thought a man or anyone could in the most unlikely dreams: she tricked the devil with the magic word and made him say please. And when he realized the lies, the deceit, he laughed to know that he’d been beat.

 I heard the snap of fingers. He stood before me then. Behind him was a whirling hurricane, hurrying towards a wall of flame. The devil bellowed (yellow!)

            Lane!

 Oh dear, I felt it in my bones. And bones he was and strung along. Whispy, thin as a sheet of paper, and he’d written on it in his blood. Even in hell, misunderstood; he could spell and work but just as good, a suicide floated in the woods and woods he liked; he’d been without them all his life. He floated down and saw me, frowning – more sorrowful than man I’d seen in hell while I’d descend. Leaving the video room again.

 I walked into fire expecting flame but found instead more a cool lake, the embers more like little eddys scribbled in and golden, electric to the touch. I could tell however, despite how heavenly my Hell, Lain looked like Hell in his.

            Lane said, go into the TV, meet me there. I’ll get you out of here and we’ll go South.

            Why not to heaven?

            I know a cooler place.

            “Where is cooler than heaven?”

            “I don’t know, your place?”

            “My place is a mess!”

            “It’s better than hell.”

            The Devil changed the TV channel.

 The props rose behind a cabin, a wooden shed. A boat was in there, and a young boy was washing one side of it. It was filthy; he’d covered it in swaths of paint. Hypnosis, madame butterfly was on. Lain, sweet Lain. He’s about 15 hear, and he has that stupid hair-cut but he’s tall. Thinks he’s the smartest man in the world. He crosses his eyes just to make me laugh and ruins such a good photo of him. I can hear him talk, his voice picking different accents. He chewed on words when he got nervous.

            I’m Renette! I said.

            You are French? He asked. We’d never met.        Yes, I say. I couldn’t help but laugh.

            Before I could respond he’d asked,            ‘What’s your last name, hyphens?’             ‘Renette Brisbois,’ I say.

            “Nice to meet you M Brisbois,” in that accent. Articulate devil, even then.

            “And you Monsieur …?”

            “Lain.”

            “Alain…” I fidgeted. Fuck!

            ‘Yes, I go by Lane. Charles is my first name. Charles Pinon.”

            “Would you rather me call you Lane or Charles?”

            “Whichever you’d like, mademoiselle.”

            “Okay then,” squeak squeak. “What do you do for fun?”

            “I write.”

            “I write too!”

            And we were friends. All writers I think are friends, even when they hate each other.   ‘Where does Brisbois come from?’ he asked. ‘Is it a family name?’

 ‘No,’ I said. ‘It was a chosen name my mother used to hide my parentage from her husband.’ I wanted to cry. No bastard’s happy to be one.

            ‘Did you know your dad?’

            ‘Just from dreams. You?’

            ‘From my stories.”

            “Oh, these stories again…’ I was out of my mind!  ‘Would you like me to tell you a story?’  It’s weird to be intimidated by a child.

            ‘Sure,’ I said. I felt like an idiot.        ‘You’re fine,’ he said. ‘I’d love to.’        ‘Okay,’ so silly.

            ‘What kind of story would you like to hear?’

            ‘A true story!’

            ‘About?’

            ‘Tell me about the last woman you loved.”

 He seemed shocked. Not unawares, but surprised I’d said it. His smile turned into a happier expression. ‘I’d love to,’ he says. ‘Enjoy.’

 ‘Once in Istanbul a mother named Terrha gave birth to a conjoined set of twins. Siamese twins, some call them. The child was unique and beautiful, two girls—two girl heads, that is. Sersia controlled everything, and Lera felt everything, the prick of needles, the warmth of Sersia’s body, but she could not move, not a single hand, and so her head traveled around Sersia’s body, at the whim of what she chose.

 She chose to bash a sailor’s brains in with an old Clam shell. The conjoined head screams for her to stop. The adrenaline shoots through her skin but she can’t make the body stop destroying that sailor’s face. And we were arrested. She asked me to lie, to say he tried to take her by force. But she wouldn’t. So they go to court and Sersia pleaded not guilty, but her sister, though innocent, pleaded guilty. The jury was left to the decide to question: is it worse to let go one murderer to preserve the life of the innocent or punish a crime at the expense of the innocent and by that commit a crime against the innocent?  The jury came back unanimous.   You are the jury. Work this out.”  What a strange child!

            “Is there a right answer?” I asked.               “Yes,” he said.     “Ethically?”

            “Scientifically.”

 He never told me. He said some questions are really answers to an unspoken question posed by the Earth, curious about itself.

            “Tell me one of your stories,” he said.

            “I don’t write stories,” I said. “Just poems.”

            “Can I hear one?”

            “Sure,” confident? Nailed it.

            Nothing lasts forever

Long live the Queen! or not …

Each daughter did their duty

Raising their siblings, all Cindarellas,

No offspring of their own;

At their core, in every child, Was a desire for the throne.

So when the queen was found,

Asleep,

Dead on her satin pillow,

The Royal Guard was pulled apart,

And Regicide! Declared …

Executed were the guardians Each one that wasn’t there.

And so each dreaming Cindarella,

One by one,

Was prepared for the chair.

The peasants and the people of the kingdom weren’t told

That queen Muriel, beloved by young and old,

Had been found without her crown

Her skin already cold, And each day the same parade The same charade portrayed:

A daughter in disguise was taken by The road most taken by the Queen

By the gardens and the markets

She waved from her dark veil

How sweet it was, thought Elanore,

To be so loved, adored;

Each blessing and each tailored

Dressing

Warmed her to the thought:

That the veil may fall, it fell;

And so she took the throne.

Seeing this new Queen, her being, So young and before unseen,

The peasants riot in the streets.

Elanore burned in effigy,

From sea to sea,

From caves and towns, The hecklers in the streets demanded Elanore renounce the crown.

So her retinue of guards

And staff of sycophants,

Prepped an announcement disavowing Any desire to remain:

Though Elanore refused, and more,

Had each traitor slain;

First her guards and then her brothers,

Then her sisters, so becoming, More feared than loved but, It’s enough:

More like her mother she’d become.  Rebellions rose, and frequently
She made examples in the street: Executions, martyrdom;

Baptizing heathens in their blood.

Each shadow she thought had a plan,

Each whispering servant, each stage-hand, All she thought had the desire,
To see her overthrown:
She’d take them with her,
Each advisor:

Would burn like them all
The Fire:

It starts with the smallest town,

And spread without control

Unbound

Through cities and forests like driftwood

Razed

Until Elanore herself went out
Like so many in the flame.

The Obituary Writer – short, 11 September 2015

I Death in Isla Wor

My first paying job after finishing school was writing a sports column for the town newspaper, a town of less than a thousand people, Isla Wor. The games were of no consequence in the world but very important to our little town; it brought everyone together, and when my poor nephew died, a tight-end on the little league football team, the community rallied round our family. Since I wrote about sports, when my poor, dear Alex died, I wrote it up in my column. It did really well, the paper sales; and there was more interest in my work. When no one died, I’d fabricate it just to keep the momentum of my work going. I was the obituary writer. I was proud of that.

Knock-knock.

I was formally offered the position to curate the obituary column after my successes, and it was all good and fun. People started noticing me in public, talking to me about my work, my other work, work I was more proud of, and it was a nice feeling, when people care about you and your work, about who you are. I wrote more, more eulogies than obituaries, more and more, more dramatic, more poetic. It got so popular I was writing an obituary a day, sometimes more, and grew more and more detached from the people; but when it was with old media, with the real newspaper, it was still impossible to distance myself completely.

I got personal requests, too, and got paid for each. I named the price. It was cynical, and depressing, but that’s work. Knock-knock. It changed, to an extent, when I wrote the obituary for the son of a prominent town official, and the only doctor in that small town, Dr. Eddie Redding, the eulogy being for his oldest son, Marcus, whom I knew, but poorly, despite knowing his younger brother William, who was closer to my age. The paper ran it and it sold more copies than any paper in the company’s history; and from such popular success, the boy’s father reached out to me, first to my aunt, then to me personally through email. He invited me to a diner on a Sunday afternoon.

I was intentionally early, uncomfortable as it was. Knock-knock. The reason for my work, by then, had bothered me. Of course it bothered me! Everybody hates their job, or at least some part of it. It was just a job, just business. I knew what I did. I wasn’t proud of it. No, that is a lie; I was extremely proud it.

He showed up in a modest suit, no blazer, no tie; button-up shirt, tucked in, a leather belt, no buckle. I stood to welcome him, extending my hand. He shook it effusively;

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Nobles!” he said. “Did you find the place all right?”

“Yes sir,” I said. “I took a cab.”

“That’s fine,” he said. “That’s fine indeed. Yes, very well. Sit down, please.”

He was a kind man, I could see it on his face, and warm hearted, the creases on the sides of his lip betrayed a man of many strained, false smiles. A doctor, that is.

“Would you like something to drink? Some coffee?”

“If you’re having some, I will, sure.”

He stood and approached the counter. I took my valise out of my satchel. A moment later he returned.

“She’ll be over in a minute to take our order,” he said. “So, where did you go to school? Did you go to high school here?”

“Oh, yes sir. I was in English IV with your son, with Marcus. He was a few years older than me, class of ’03. But I knew his little brother Will a lot better. We skateboarded before I went off to college.”

“Did you always want to be a writer?”

“I think I did,” I said. “I went to a childcare center until I was five, when I was adopted, and I remember story time the most. It was the best part of the day, the only fun I had. I was taught to read, and I went on to read the dictionary back and front. I started copying all the words that rhymed and then started making little lists of rhyming words. I liked Dr Seuss and copied his work quite a bit, learning the rhythm of it. And when I was adopted, my adoptive mother and father adopted another young boy, my little brother Christopher, and he’d call out words to me and I’d name all the words I could that rhymed with it. When I got into trouble at school, they punished me by making me copy out of the dictionary; my punishment might have helped me more than the schooling.”

He laughed a hearty laugh.

A young woman approached the table.

“How can I help you fellas today?”

“I’d like a BLT, a large iced tea,” he said. He thumbed the menu. “And a small salad.” He folded it and put it back on the table.

She looked at me. “And you?”

“Can you get me a cappuccino?” I asked. “Vanilla, if possible.”

“We can sure try,” she said with a smile. A lovely young lady, “Large, medium, small?”

“Large,” I said.

She wrote the answers on a small legal pad in hurried, slanting letters. Left handed!

“Thank you,” she said. “I’ll take that.”

She took our laminated plastic menus, folding them under her arm.

“I’ll be back with your order as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” I said, and Dr. Redding: “Thank you very much.”

She walked away. After a short but rather comfortable silence he turned to face me again.

“Well,” he said, “your punishment seems to have reformed you!”

“I’m sure it has,” I said.

The waitress brought Dr. Redding his iced tea, then a moment later my cappuccino.

“We’ll be over with your sandwich soon,” she said.

He took the glass of tea and thanked her.

“So what was Marcus like?” I asked. “I knew his brother well, but didn’t really get to know him.”

“He wanted to…”

The waitress came over with his sandwich on a serving tray, along with his salad. He grabbed the salad first, then the sandwich, and finally some napkins.

“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” he asked.

“I’m fine, thanks.”

He turned to face our waitress.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“No problem!” she said. “Now, if you fellas need anything else, just give me a holler.”

“We sure will, thanks,” he said.

She walked away.

He took a sip of his iced tea, popped the plastic top off his salad, and unwrapped his sandwich.

“As I was saying,” he said after a bite of salad, “he wanted to be an engineer. He liked working on cars, but he never finished college, quitting after he started working at Nichols’ Tire.”

“That’s that body shop across the river, right?”

“That’s the one!” he said. “And the money was okay for the work, and having to take care of Leslie, his daughter, kept him showing up.”

I was silent. Didn’t know what to say; to admit I’d somewhat faked the obituary, the whole eulogy being a platitudinous exhortation of your most common, most stereotypical ‘live life to the fullest’ excrete. Knock-knock! That’s when it started, the knocking; in my temples first, it spread, following me to my home, then into my dreams.

“So,” he said, wiping his mouth with a napkin, having finished his small salad. “Do you work for the paper full time?”

“Well, I covered sports and town events first, then I wrote a eulogy for my nephew and put it on the internet. It got really popular and the newspaper got a lot of exposure. One of the editors for the newspaper saw it and asked me to take over the column permanently.”

“You do all the obituaries?”

“Yes sir. Every Wednesday. Well, that’s when we get in the information, from hospitals, from the internet, social media. Facebook, Twitter; we have people from the paper who overlook the messages from town residents, keeping up-to-date on the elderly and sick, scouring for updates to get a jump on the story…”

Later I would be sick in thinking back on this conversation, speaking so casually about what must have still been an open wound for that nice old man. Not an old man, not really, early to mid-50’s. I prattled on:

“I start the eulogy on Wednesday, with the goal to run it in the Sunday paper. Sometimes something will come in later in the week and it’s a little more rushed.”

Knock-knock!

He ate his sandwich as we talked, mouth closed when he chewed. Very proper, pausing occasionally to dab his mouth with napkins. His interest seemed genuine, and that’s an intoxicating feeling, that feeling of being good at your job, to believe you’re doing something good, something important; that’s how I dealt with it, how I justified the profession to myself each new night when a name came in with a number beside it.

“I’d much rather get into the business of writing fiction, or at least get some of my finished books and essays published. It’s a passion of mine, much more so than my job.”

A nervous laugh: “I don’t want to be ‘the obituary writer’.”

“What are you working on now?”

“Well, I’d like to write something about theatre. But I’m… I don’t know enough about how it all works, I don’t know enough I don’t think; you know, to do it properly.”

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” he said. “”You’ll figure it out!”

“Yes sir,” I said. “Thank you, sir.”

Knock-knock.

“Do you keep all your work in that?” he gestured to my leather valise; it was a professional suitcase, a type of folder with a metal 3-ring binder along the spine, assorted compartments, two protected by zippers, and another slot for a larger, 8×12 legal pad, another compartment on the outside – for academic work, my studies in art and literature. The binder was reserved for current fiction projects, the legal pad for work, for obituaries and eulogies for my ever-expanding, ever-popular column. I kept my completed, hand-written work in one of the zippered compartments.

“Yes sir,” I said.

I dug around in one of the compartments for a moment until I found the original copy of his son’s eulogy and handed it to him. He took into his hands gently, almost lovingly, as though he held some relic of his son, if not his son outright. He called the waitress over again.

I took my wallet out. He waived it away. I relented, not wanting to be that guy. Instead I took laptop from my satchel and sat it on the table in front of me as he paid.

“Can I get a refill and a to-go cup for this?” he asked.

“Sure can!” the waitress said. She returned presently with a Styrofoam cup with a plastic cap that snapped in place, hole in the center for a straw.

“So,” he said. “What do you have lined up for today?”

I saw that he had a $100 bill between his fingers, folded.

“Ah, I don’t know. Stay here and see if I can get some work done!”

“Your book on theatre maybe?” he said. Such a warm hearted man, he smiled.

Something like that,” I said. I smiled too.

“I’m sure you’ll get it right. Just don’t be hard on yourself. Maybe you’ll have me to dinner when you’ve finally written that book of yours.”

“That sounds good to me,” I said. “It might be a while.”

“A while I’ve got,” he said. “At least, so I hope. I guess you never know. … I’m sure you know that better than most.”

He had remained friendly and light, speaking with levity, no hint of any great weight on his shoulders, the great weight of death, no hint of that on his face.

“Here,” he said. He offered me the $100 bill, a crisp new note.

“I can’t take that,” I said. “I didn’t do it for money, despite that being my job; I did that one because I cared about your son.”

“I know, I know,” he said. “But I’m going to leave it here anyway, so if you don’t take it, it’ll just be lost.”

I took it from his extended hand with a sense of embarrassment, almost shame.

“Don’t spend it all on coffee,” he said. “You might want a new briefcase someday.”

I laughed it off, still uncomfortable with the money.

“I guess it is kind of worn out,” I said, laying it out wide-open to where I’d left off. Ashes everywhere, covering the surface, the leather covered in white scuff marks.

“Have a good day, Mr. Nobles.”

He took a sip of his iced tea through a straw.

“I will sir. Thank you, sir.”

“Good-day!”

He walked away, out the door. It clanged the enter/exit bells, a gentle bing-bong! like metal wind-chimes.

Be careful what you wish for

          (Cause you just might get it)
2 Electric Purgatory 

I stayed at the paper until it went out of distribution in 2012, when I was 28, having worked there for 5 years; but it spread to the internet, infernal machines, miasma of labyrinthine metal snakes with open mouths all sucking data or spitting it out, a confused Ouroboros already drunk but still drinking; my obituaries were broadcast worldwide. The newspaper ceased to exist in meatspace, in old media, becoming digital; the circulation possibilities increased beyond what anyone had thought possible in the early days, covering pointless, minor skirmishes between middling sports teams in the little town of Isla Wor. That stopped being important in the digital world, and the obituary column enhanced my reputation even further; I was finally able to do my theatre piece.

This success, the string of warm feedback and heartfelt thank yous, I imagined, might have been due in part to my over-wrought, faux-dramatic, faux-inspirational style of obituary: it was sermonizing, shameless masturbatory kitsch in arts’ clothes, all false, all hollow, paper houses gone digital. I had a high opinion of myself. The machine brought hundreds of names and numbers a day, deaths and dates, Daniel 22, Susan 17; and the more popular I got, the more famous would my fortunate unfortunate subjects become; musicians, then small-time movie stars, spreading through satellites to phones and tablets, the same hollow pronouncements of the obituary writer. A title I would not only hate, but resent, as the world knew me only as such, and most certainly of what I’d done to earn such a moniker.

As my popularity grew, young kids would find my house an amusing place for practical jokes. Practical joke is a kind word; they wanted to drive me out of town, to drive me mad; I was a bad omen, they thought, as death followed fast behind me, and in my trail were tears and terrible writing, the saddest parade. The knocking on the doors and running away, that bothered me the worst; it happened late at night when I did most of my work. It’s a tradition, at least where I’m from, to knock on someone’s door or ring their doorbell and run away. The satisfaction being that you inconvenienced someone, and as a child, that feels, man, just wonderful.

But it never stopped.

I tried to back away, to make it a colder process, so it’d be easier to handle. I was drinking, taking sleeping pills, drinking a lot actually. Surely much more than was healthy. I set to studying theatre, its origins and traditions; how they worked, how a character would make changes to the sets. I ran the column still, but I didn’t interact with the bereaved personally anymore; I’d get alerts on my computer, email alerts, with new deaths: the names and numbers selected at random using an algorithm written by an intern to select the most profitable, most tragic deaths, those that best played heartstrings–all for more traffic to the website, the digital mausoleum, electric purgatory: young and under 30, teenage girls in love, with a few kids maybe, single men.

It was easy to do the practical part of the job, as easy as it could be to write it up. I didn’t know anything else: names and ages, over and over and over. At the height of my popularity, I’d write five to ten eulogies a week for my column, and it had become much more than what it started out as, adjunct to a newspaper; it was separate now and distinct, and more successful for it. I eventually made out a form to expedite the process further:

[Name] died on [date] in a [cause of death here] when [what to blame] caused [what happened] [gender] to [mistake description]. [Gender noun] is survived by [mother and father, wife and/or kids if alive]. [Gender noun] was [age].

Example:

TRAGEDY ON I-76: MOTHER OF 2 DEAD
Sarah Harding died this Wednesday in a freak car accident when a deer ran out in front of her car on New Egypt Rd. She is survived by Mr. and Mrs. Gary Harding and had two daughters, Lisa and Tammy. She was 34.

But that’d never fly in my column, no, no, no. It had to be dramatic, life-affirming, death-denying. So I set about writing it properly:  

          The lovely Sarah Harding, former cheerleader and passionate journalist, was taken from our poor town in a tragic car accident early Monday morning. Her parents received the call from a stranger, only to be told their beautiful daughter, 34, was dead, and they would bear the burden of telling Sarah’s two young children of her death. Lisa was 5 years old, a pre-school student at the Master’s Baptist Daycare, she loves coloring and singing. Her older sister Tammy, a 12 year old 6th grader and Carver Middle School, plays t-ball for the Isla Wor Wolverines and is in the chess club. I can say, in confidence, that she will be missed by all.

          The knocking at my door!

I flung my papers aside, knocking over a candle. Thankfully it went out. I tied my housecoat and stalked off to the door, cursing and shouting. This is beyond a joke! I yelled. The hallways were dark and derelict. Tables stood with disheveled stacks of unedited pages, existing solely to bear the weight of unfinished work to never be finished.

I flung open the door. Darkness there, a wisp of wind, no middling kids with suspicious paper bags. I stamped off to my study, furious. It kept on and on, this pestilential taunting; always late at night, always while I was busy. It would be redundant, perhaps, to say no one interrupts you unless you’re working! But, like the old saying of New York City: “Nobody drives; there’s too much traffic.”

Knock-knock!

I went on to knock out mock-obituaries in my spare time, more often than not I’d only have to change the names, the pronouns, the setting, maybe. I just made it up, made them sound good, and the facts weren’t important. So I did: to spend time with my girlfriend, then my wife, I wrote thousands of them: each with a common male name or female name. Sometimes people would die who matched the information I invented. I ran the obituaries anyway. Somewhere in all of this Katerina left me and at the time I barely noticed.

Knock-knock!

I tried to ignore it. It kept on and on, pounding harder and harder. I would tip toe then, with a baseball bat, then later with a pistol. I never caught them. It beat in my temples when I woke and why I lay down to try to sleep to take my pills and have a drink; more medicine and more drink, more and more. Money affords you many things, nice suitcases and suits, but peace cannot be bought, nor love, at least not love that stays without being put on retainer.

Knock-knock!

It’s easy to debate the ethics of journalism when you have heat and power and a full belly. Rationalizing those objections was only what the job as obituary writer was allowing me to do: I made enough money to study theatre, researching that book I’d so often talked about. Enough money to live comfortably, without financial worry. The stress of it all got worse and worse as email alerts flooded in with that terrible alert noise, the familiar bing-bong of metal wind-chimes clanging against a diner’s enter/exit door.

I remember the first nightmare. I woke up sweating, having heard that email alert. I checked my computer; nothing there. I had woke to the thought of getting my mother’s name, and sitting there in the dim light of my laptop, smoking a cigarette, I finally did hear that ever-ominous alert and saw the name come in, the result of an impersonal, neutral computer program, the Judge:

Brandon Keith Nobles, Whitmire, SC. 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

I received that alert when I was 28.

I unplugged my computer speaks, putting out my cigarette. I never wanted to wake to the sound of that horrible jingle again. But I did, over and over, all in my mind, imaginary like so much else. And in the bouquets left on tombstones all I’d see, no flowers blooming, just crisp and folded $100 notes, and dead men in their caskets with money stuff in their cold mouths like the horrible bloom of an extinct flower.

I don’t remember what became of that email heading, as I went back to sleep somehow, as it sometimes happens; you wake in the middle of the night, in the silence, still except the shuffling feet of distant cats, chasing invisible mice or attacking each other.

My dreams were disconnected bits of phantasmagoria; lists of printed paper, page after page of names and numbers, rolling on forever, all vaguely familiar and I thought it must be purgatory, and there I’d be forced to truly know all those whom I had so briefly summarized and put aside. All were familiar but ultimately unknown and dead, unknowable. The obituary writer – ha! What a dark star! how very dim, how grey!

Knock-knock!

I ran to the door to catch that miserable cretin, once and for all. And flinging the door wide I saw nothing, once again, then looked down, as I had never done. And there stood a little boy with a bleeding head, a football jersey. I woke up screaming.

I began to burn all of those old handwritten pages, all those falsities, hoping to appease whatever madness I had stirred. But madness is like a cold pool, like all addiction; you may recoil when you first jump in, but stay in long enough, and the ice cold water warms you up, somehow, and when you get out of the pool the warmth of the night air is cold.

I continued to study theatre, pushing all the death and gloom that was my day job from my mind, and I was making incremental progress. I learned of a character in early theatre that gave me pause; Hypokritos was a falsely righteous character who would wear buffoonish masks and feign divinity, uttering lofty, laughable pronouncements intended to be sincere, to be profound, only to be a popular source of mockery and ridicule.

Knock-knock!

I looked at my photograph on the Obituary Writer website. It was an airbrushed joke of a solemn, thoughtful photo, sharp contrast and pretentious, black and white. Knock-knock-knock! The email alert – the one I finally removed – had always startled me, as it was the same as the bell that smote on the shivering prison air to let the inmates know that one of those unlucky souls had made it out. So I thought, naturally, I would turn the sound back on and capture what I looked like when I got the email alert; that way I’d have a sincere impression, not knowing that, instead of taking off the mask of the falsely divine Hypokritos, I was just making the hypocrisy more subtle, slightly easier to stomach, slightly harder to notice. The professional make-over had ended with a vast, fully searchable digital archive; a macabre, gaudy porno.

Knock-knock!

God dammit! I ran through the halls and out the door into the street and looked around. No one, not a raven, no obvious source; just the wind and dogs barking in the distance. I was exhausted by the time I made it home, and tried to get some sleep.

Artists have a sort of fire inside. The greater the artist, the greater the fire, less smoke. I felt that I would exhaust my fuel and become one of those useless plastic lighters, the kind you have to strike over and over, getting more and more pissed off, changing the lever on the back to control the size of the flame, to make it smaller, then larger just to get a cigarette lit, eventually striking it over and over in the vain hope that it might light once more, knowing eventually it would dry of fuel completely and never produce a flame again. I felt that I’d run out of fuel, having wasted my life as a profiteer of misery, death on my mind like a heavy crown.
3 Speaker for the Dead
I did few eulogies when work on my book began in earnest. I had given notice to my employer, resigning to finishing only one: the heading that disappeared, the obituary for myself. I kept working, working hard with the motivation, with the hope that, upon completion, I’d have dinner in that small diner with Dr. Redding again. I still wrote obituaries in the meantime, and never was I more distant from it, as they were cold and ever colder still, the popularity began to fade, and never had I been so happy to fail. Demand dropped off for my particular brand of obituary—though there was a remorse to it, to have invested so much time and effort to become such a good obituary writer; I was very, very good at my job.

Knock-knock!

Those early days were the best, when I wrote obituaries for the paper, the small town paper for Isla Wor, there were no email alerts, no nightmares, no knocking, broken ringing doorbells; and all were at least sincere, in the beginning—many being for family; after the eulogy for my Dr. Redding’s son Marcus, looking back, that’s when something broke, something mechanical, some part of the system that processed grief. It broke as I worked through it and continued breaking as I wrote more and it made me cold to all, more often than not I kept to that automated script completely, completely sterile, no passion for anything save for my book on theatre, and passion enough only to get the money needed to continue; it moved closer and closer towards publication.

Knock-knock!

As I wrote, I thought of my dead father, and I thought of him quite often, and the obituary, the eulogy he’d never gotten, not from me, not the celebrated obituary writer. I looked forward to seeing Dr. Redding again at that little diner, I’d take a cab. I’d order him his BLT and cold iced tea, a small salad too, and I’d pay for it all. I’d bring a new valise, toss out that old ash-stained leather volume, unsightly and assaulted by age, scuffed white and daily marked by time, by dust. I wanted to show him that I’d finally gotten it right.

Knock!

After I got my book edited and did the proper revisions, I managed to talk my brother into designing a cover. He was a graphic design major; and his talent, like his degree, didn’t come cheap. I shopped the manuscript around for a while until a small publishing house picked it up.

Knock!

My book came out to little fanfare, just shy of my 30th birthday, with a reasonably warm critical reception, yet slightly colder commercial response. But there is no price to pay for a clear conscience, being able to tell the truth, if through fiction, it was a better way. There is a great element of truth in the worst lies and in the best of lies, and a great fiction in the most honest statement by the most trustworthy men.

I still had those dreams of waking to that electric death toll, the flowers of the bereaved sprouting monetary blossoms, that horrible knocking which seemed to drone on forever, but I’d dream that first I woke to find that mock-heading:

Brandon Keith Nobles, aged 30. Overdose. Found by mother.

And I set out to finish it, once and for all, sitting at my typewriter in this dim dream in a dim room trying to write it out. I would receive more pressing emails from the machine, each clanging louder than the last, probing me ever on, offering me more and more money to finish my obituary, the quicker the better. And I got to the last sentence, and felt that if I put the full-stop in, if I set the period, I’d never wake, that I’d forever be the obituary writer. I woke cold and sweating, breathing heavily. I expected to hear the knocking, but didn’t; nor the doorbell which, though broken, sometimes near midnight tolled.

When I received the first printed proofs of my book in the mail, it had some time since the initial, limited released, I called the doctor’s office to leave a message for dear Dr. Redding to call me when he got the chance. He did, and I had been out at the time; my brother took the message down. We were to meet at that same diner, again on a Sunday—his one day off. I got there early, uncomfortable. He was already there. He stood as I approached with his hand extended, shaking mine effusively, with feeling and warmth, a smile on his face. With one hand under my elbow, the other on my shoulder, he guided me back to the booth we’d sat in last time we met. I found a cappuccino waiting for me; he had yet to order. Vanilla as I liked it, and cold.

“Thank you, sir,” I said. “And, look at this.”

I took out my book, the copy I intended for him, pulling it from the new valise, much nicer indeed despite the signs of cigarette ash and age, dust collecting around the zippers. I handed him one of the galley proofs. He took it into his hands in that same careful, loving way. I realized then, as he handled it in that delicate fashion in which he’d once held the handwritten draft of his son’s eulogy—he handled things as a doctor, not out of any sort of love, but with delicacy and care—but then, I thought, that is a sort of love, not a sort, that is love; to spend so much time in school, such long hours away from growing children, a lonely wife awake all hours of the night and worried back at home, and to do it for others, to work so hard to live a life to help.

I wondered for the first time, making the strange connection: how many names checked in at his office only to later arrive in my email? Had he ever checked the obituaries, hoping to find some consolation, however fraudulent, to think he hadn’t failed? He was turning my book around, looking at the cover, holding it up to better see it in the light.

“‘Theatre: Tradition & Ritual’,” he said. “That’s fine, that’s very fine indeed. That’s a good looking book, Brandon. I knew you’d figure it out.”

“Open it,” I said.

He flipped to the dedication page.

“‘For Marcus Redding and his family. Thanks for the support and coffee. With love, Brandon.’”

He seemed genuinely moved. He looked at me and smiled.

“That’s really something,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. But thank you. Thank you very much. I’m glad you never gave it up. I can’t wait to read it.”

“It hasn’t been a big hit, but, alas, it’s a better business to be in. I’m glad I got it done.”

“I’m proud of you, Brandon,” he said.

“Thank you sir,” I said. “Thank you very much. And look at this—“

I showed him my new valise, all the new features, the less gaudy white leather. He looked it over attentively.

“That’s might fine,” he said. “Mighty fine indeed.”

He handed it back to me.

“So what are you working on now?”

“That’s why I’ve asked you to meet me here,” I said. “Not that I didn’t want to see you again and give you a copy of my book…”

“A free copy!” he interjected. “You can’t beat the price!”

“Yes, a free copy of my book, but other than that, after I met you, I realized I didn’t really know anything about your son, nothing about his life, your happier times with him, things he should be best remembered for and not my column and I thought—if you don’t think it’s inappropriate—you know, to tell me about who he was, what he was like as a child, the awkward teenage years and the man, your happy memories, the kind of stuff you can’t find online, so often the meat of life is picked away and what we’re usually left with, writing an obituary, is just the bones. And that’s what people seem to like. Short, thumbnail sketches, overly dramatic and declaratory. I wanted to do something real and honest for him. For you, for your family, to the extent, to any extent that I may. If I am to be the obituary writer, I must do so honestly.”

“He was a shy kid,” he said. “You wouldn’t have known it, but he was quiet. Loved going fishing with me and his little brother, when they were young. We had a pond behind our house, and we’d take those Zebco 33 fishing rods down there after church on Sunday, they’d have those corks on the end, you know? The plastic bobbing corks that let you know when you’ve got a bite.

“Then when the twins were born, they stayed home them with after that, always protective big brothers. When they turned four, they got new bikes for their birthday and when you buy for one you have to buy for all! So everybody got a bike, and they loved nothing more in the world. Riding around and doing tricks, popping wheelies, and Marcus repaired them for Will and his sisters when they got a flat tire, when the chains came off—they always did! He got his daughter Leslie one of those new bikes when she turned four, one with a pink boombox on it and a radio.

“And that’s when he started talking about wanting to build things, to be a builder, to be an engineer, working on cars, fixing things that broke. He was always fixing things. They rode the horses, he couldn’t fix those! Hell, neither could I! They played video games and monopoly. We were fortunate, but they weren’t much different than lots of good, kind kids. And they were very much loved. And he is very much missed. He was very much a normal kid, a good kid, and a fine man. A loving father.”

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said. “I hope I can write a eulogy to suit him and honor your family properly.”

And through that finish my own perhaps, the obituary writer’s eulogy—who better to write it?

“You did, Brandon.”

I was confused. And he saw it on my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?”

I was quiet.

“I trivialized it all,” I said. “I was cynical and gaudy, and I’m a fraud. I’m not an obituary writer. That’s just the only way people seemed to care about my other work. And I used it. I used it to advance myself, selfishly. I’m sorry.”

He reached across the table and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Look, Brandon,” he said. “You might not like what you do, and I know you don’t. I can see it looking at you. Who would want to do that? I deal with it in my line of work. But in the end, you’re giving people closure, allowing them to refresh their memories and keep their loved ones alive in there, and alive for longer. Don’t be down on yourself. What you do is a public good, despite your reasons. People need closure. When I can’t keep their loved ones alive, you can give them something I can’t.”

A short, not uncomfortable silence passed between us, a shared sorrow lingered for a moment and departed. I felt that I could do a proper eulogy, then, for Marcus, and maybe let it stand as mine, as all of ours, as normal, kind kids, who are very much loved and would be very much missed.

He ordered the same meal, just the same; BLT, small salad, large glass of iced tea. I finished my cappuccino, took out my laptop, and went about my work, typing away as he ate his sandwich and drank his tea. And I picked up the tab.

After that the conversation mellowed, teetering out but still pleasant; with little left to say, we talked about upcoming projects. He dabbed a napkin at the corners of his mouth, ever-creased from a life of forced and honest smiles. And I thought, if ever a ghost knocked on my door again, I’d invite them in for tea and a sandwich, and let them tell their story, so I could be the obituary writer once last time and get it right, finally, a proper obituary, and live out the true purpose of my title, that we both might rest. He opened the door to leave and the bells clanged,

Bing bong. 

A Neon Angel Fades – short, 1 March 2015

In most love stories, it’s all a chase, a flight, past is prologue; it’s all prequel; ion the cusp of poignant vulnerability and the foolish abandon of youth and frivolity, on the edge of your tongue, a word you can’t quite articulate – that is a love, something to forever be approximated with ever clearer visions of beauty and grace that, at its rarest perch, its clearest view, is a description of a sunset past, a closer approximation bordering on the love of memory, a memory, a face you can see without blinking. Something you can’t quite grasp; Elise was that, the prettiest girl I’d ever seen. Funny and smart, and I was seeing another girl at the time, a girl I thought I loved, whom I promised to marry. We’d been together for over a year and I cared for her. I cared about her family. I kissed her mother on the cheek before I left her house, after Sunday dinner. It’s a mask of sorts of course, of course. And sloppy, but it fit. I didn’t face my problems, I put on makeup and changed my face–so when I did see myself, I never saw what was really there.

                                                                    An electric halo, once cast
can but fade.
And darken with it our once brightest days.

Elise, she was from the bayou; she was from Louisiana. She had a Marilyn Monroe mole on the bottom of her cheek. Blonde hair, a goddess face. She was so fucking feminine and innocent. The more I talked to her, the more I wanted to be with her. The first time I met her, I drove to her house 2 the morning. We put a full tank of gas in my car. We rode around the country roads listening to the Beatles. Our song was Let it be. That was our song; Let it be. She was Christian and Mother Mary, let it be, let it be; I wasn’t Christian, but I understood the significance.

She was in Arizona when I met her. She was in Arizona and I was in South Carolina. I was still dating Sarah, the girl who loved my tales of horror. And I talked to Elise. I talked to her about things I couldn’t talk to Sarah about. She became almost an obsession. And when I met her–-she always had her head turned down like, slight grin, eyes kind of looking up, whenever she smiled she looked up, this bashful, perfect look. And I was still with Sarah. This sounds like, you know, any other romantic tale involving teenagers; it really doesn’t amount to shit in the bigger scheme of things. But it matters a lot to the people involved. It mattered a lot to me because I was put in the position of do I go for two in the bush or do I keep what I have in my hand?

Elise was two in the bush, which I wasn’t sure I could get. Sarah was a cock in the hand. She wore an engagement ring that I given her. I mean, I kissed her mother on the cheek. I brought her mother flowers. I watched wrestling and football with her father. Our families were close. Everything suggested we’d be together indefinitely. And Elise was the flaw in the plan. And I meet Elise after she came back to South Carolina. And she lived in Pomaria. And this is like a nexus point in my life, where in went in a rapidly different direction.

I went over to my father’s house. I called Sarah and told her that I was going to stay the night with my father because nobody was there with him. She said that was okay, we could do something the next day, and in reality, I purchased 500mg of morphine from a friend of my father, this is back in my early stages of addiction, and that’s another one note joke stereotype; Kid hooked on drugs. Kid hooked on drugs. I’m still popping pills now. Doesn’t make you who you are.

And I went… I was on the interstate going to Pomaria. I remember that I told her that I spoke some French. I had beside me, while I was stuck in traffic that there had been a wreck. And it delayed me for fucking hours that I couldn’t talk to her. I mean I had my phone … I could talk to her but there was a wreck and I was stuck in the interstate. I had this list of French sayings that I had written down to say to her. You know, I memorize all these French sayings. I love you, you are the blossom of my life, I would kiss your feet, I would write poems to your eyes, you know, your hair is like the finest silk–-poor similes that bad writers use. Dressed in French. I got to her house. And it was like we were friends, like you me and you are friends, like she was someone I could hang out with without being Mr. Upstart–-you know, I didn’t have to keep up any airs. She thought I was crazy and I think history will bear that out. And she loved that. And she liked my absurd stories, because that’s really, that’s really all I have; just a collection of loose stories associated with people.

We played pool in her basement, billiards, throwing darts. I just smiled, frozen with that great ! above my head like the characters from an old Playstation game. And I remember going to the bathroom; I crushed two of the three morphine pills up under a pill bottle on the bathroom counter, snorted each line with each nostril, and took the last pill orally. 300mg or so; I don’t remember. We go into her bedroom and she has little glow in the dark stars on her ceiling and we lay there together mapping out our own make-believe constellations, just laying there with each other. She rolls over and puts on a movie, stuffs in into the VCR and it sputters on.

And I think I went ten steps past too far and said, ‘Fuck it!’ and jumped off into a stupid oblivion with those blue pills, the pills  Dialudid; they’re really strong and I had never taken that much before. I did it… I thought that it would make me less nervous because I wanted to kiss her. I mean, it was like I was choking and the only way that I could breathe was to kiss her. And I lay there beside her, with her fingers running through my greasy hair. And I’m like, It’s greasy ain’t it? Real men have greasy hair. Real men stink! We stink! And she loved it.

She looked at me like I was an aberration of nature, some one of a kind design flaw that wasn’t noticed until the factory shut down. I didn’t speak like typical southerners did–I grew up in isolation, never learning to mimic the sounds of the indigenous around me. I could speak with eloquence. I wrote books and all that–that was the novelty of me as a character to her.

And we lay in bed–and I start blacking out, going in and out, lapses of concentration and what not; she freaks out. I black out for maybe 20 minutes and I wake up and she’s splashing water on my face, I tell her that I’ve been sick, and she’s crying, right above me, and one of her biggest tears drops fall into my eye and I cry too the tears of someone else.

       When I find myself in times of trouble,

My eyes were pinpricks, distorted, too large or too small I can’t remember, but it was noticeable. I had overdosed in her bathroom. My skin was clammy and I was shaking. I couldn’t control myself. I went back to the bathroom, I splash water on my face, you know, I try to get my shit together, slap myself, run water through my hair, rattled my head and gritted my teeth.

Mother Mary comes to me.

When I left the room I was hyper-sensitive, hyper-aware, I walk back into the room and there’s a blue glow cast across the bed from a streetlight just beside her driveway. There’s this blue glow that reminds me of a dream. It silhouetted the outline of her figure. I remember thinking of it as rolling hills. Smooth, curvaceous, and she looked up at me, and a little blue line across her face, with the television behind her, and her head it looked it was glowing with the static of the TV set glowed on her like a halo. I told her I had to leave.

Speaking words of wisdom,

She begged me to stay. She wanted to make love, or at least have me do something she wouldn’t regret, something not terrible, make lust to me if not some form or fashion love. I told her I couldn’t because it wouldn’t be right. She asked me why it wouldn’t be right. I couldn’t tell her that–that I was on drugs, that I wouldn’t remember it… that I wouldn’t, that it wouldn’t be natural. That it wouldn’t be right for our first time. That I wanted it to mean more than some junkie excursion into the windup dinosaur sex the broken junkies have. I couldn’t tell her why I wanted it to mean more–What could mean more than now? The time was right. She’s not the one who got away, but worse; the one I walked away from.

Let it be.

And she ended up thinking I rejected her. I had her, this beautiful light of my fucking life girl, so fucking pretty in that shade of neon blue; perfect. I had the perfect moment, everything I’d wished for when we first began to love each other, and there it was, right in my hands. She had a halo and glowed a brilliant blue. And I had this perfect moment. And I just looked at her and said I had to leave. I return to it over and over again in my fiction and my poems, usually best expressed as: The door to happiness she led the way / and ignorant I turned away. The truth path appeared, and there it lay / and again I turned away. I’ve written time and time again that I saw the perfect way, and every single time it crops up, I always turn the other way.

And in my hour of darkness,

And it all goes back to her. I had her. I loved her; I didn’t want anything more than her. She told me that she loved me that night, that she wanted to be with me, to be close to me, for us to be together, and all I said was, “That’s weird.” That’s weird, to my homemade angel–that’s what she was to me–and when I kissed her, it was like my first kiss all over again. I held her by both sides of her face and just pressed our lips together, nothing sloppy, but intimate and forceful, and we put our foreheads together both of us breathing heavy. I scratched her hair and made her laugh. And I told her I had to leave.

        She’s standing right in front of me,

She asked me, pleading, Why do you have to leave? Why do you have to leave? And I said it wouldn’t be right, it wouldn’t be right. And Sarah fond out; Elise had told one of her friends that I rejected her. Then I told Elise what happened, that I really cared about her, and I did what I did out of respect for her. That was the consummation of our love; just one long embrace the kind of moment that for a fleeting moment brings God into the life of an atheist sinner who only wanted to do what was right, and by doing so I left my Madonna on the shore–the Madonna was mine for free, and I walked out.

    Whispering words of wisdom,

Until then, my drug use had been more or less recreational. I loved Elise and in that bubble, what remains of that little candle that I carry, that I warm myself to when facing middle age and loneliness, but I keep that bubble, hidden away, that I might pop it with some sort of joy to see the thin film of a flimsy rainbow, and the bubble pop, yes bubbles pop, and the electric halo cast by that white noise round her plump face like a neon crazy angel, weird and beautiful for its rarity. I’m not a practical man, not in manners of love and lasting, but sometimes a clown can more proper catch the color of a drowning man. And that’s why I think I stayed on that shit for so long, each little pinch was my Madonna in blue. Every girl I’ve been with since, is me looking for Elise again, or someone to cast in that role. In the end, the drugs became Elise to me, and each sweet needle prick another kiss, some other bubble that I missed.

Let it be.

The Slow Suicide of Narcissus – short, 27 May 2015

The Narcosis of Narcissus, the mixing of the real and fanciful, lead into this mirror, and distort it, distort it that a nobler shade of truth might reflect this honest fiction. This is not autobiography: this is therapy. 

Whenever you see someone writing about themselves, and they’re not exposing someone or accusing, they’re trying to work something out on their own, never thinking it will enter into the public eye, this dirty little habit of the self-absorbed, when one indulges the reprehensible urge to write about oneself, the simple question, ‘why?’ is somehow invalid, like asking which prime number looks best in a business suit. You know them, they are the doomed and miserable lot who utter that philosophical alibi ‘why?’ And they are as doomed with any why as I am with mine: why write a book about your life?

And without fail, I have to come to the same answer: that voids the question; that at once makes the act reprehensible and justifies my actions to myself, the opposing me whose giant eyeball is always looking over my shoulder, scrutinizing, judging, evaluating, as though I were a specimen under my own microscope. And that, indeed, is the point of this writing.

I’ve written about psychology and studied it my entire life. It has been the most fascinating subject I’ve ever encountered. Not in books, but the psychology of people and their actions. There are psychological determining factors behind any decisions, the complex ones, the ones more complex than, ‘should we have steak or salad? One is good, and murder, one is terrible, but human.’

There are cynics, or those who cum with closure, who read that last line with an exquisite since of sardonic delight. Terrible, but human, that is the joke and the punch line that defines a lot, and as an psychological aphorism, to me, it is three things. It is the crime and acquittal of a conscious race. To me, it is three things because there are three me’s.
There is the noble, the genius, the sensitive, the understanding me, the me I call the Roger complex. Roger comes from the name of the main character in my novel Songs of Galilee. I wrote about Roger from an admiring perspective. He was what I would like to be, and the Roger complex is me trying to imitate the character, when in the novel, Roger faces situations in his fictional life similar to situations in my real one. But he’s more than me, and that is what I felt made him admirable.

To those who have read the novel, they could conjecture that Roger is the manifestation of my ego, what I think would be my highest self, though Roger himself was the embodiment of the highest virtues: no hope, no fear; no pride, no shame. Roger was a multi-talented child prodigy genius of the highest order. That’s how I wrote him as a character, not as to imply that is what I thought I was. Roger was everything I would be if I could.

Thus the creation of the Roger complex; the mystic Buddhist who at twenty-four attained his enlightenment, and at twenty-seven died in the third and last book of his life, The Match Behind the Jar. Roger had invented a cure to death based on theories I had as a child. He was smart enough to make it possible. My theory was that the suspension of decay in cellular organisms could slow the aging process until the point of pure biological equilibrium, without decay or mutation of any cells in the body. Roger studied the human genome, as I did, but Roger found the Sisyphus Mechanism. He found out how to remove it and thereby render immortality.
That was Roger’s final temptation: immortality. In my short story the Dream of the Louse, Roger faces this temptation on a train, on his way to demonstrate the cure for death and the immortality of mankind. He calls the tempter Mara, the Buddhist version of satan, and embodiment of the ego. And like Buddha under the tree, and Christ in the desert, Roger resists temptation on the train.

Mara tells him to become more than a man, to push evolution forward. He dismisses the rules of nature, of life and death, and tells Roger that he is a brilliant man, that he will become the savior that mankind wanted and had been waiting for. He had brought real immortality to Earth. Roger, like Christ, was born on the Sea of Galilee. I chose that birthplace before I knew that that is where Christ is said to have walked on water. In Roger’s youth, he invents boots that stabilize and equalize buoyancy that allows him to walk on water. In one of my favorite passages of the Match Behind the Jar, Roger runs from his father across the sea, with his father chasing him from behind with a belt, to whip him for painting on the walls of his house.

Mara appears before Roger before he arrives in Time Square, on a train. Mara appeared before me in my bedroom, and inspired the Dream of the Louse. The characters are different, and it’s a fictionalization of a real event that took place in my life.

The plan was for Roger, though the plan was different for me, to inject the medication into himself, the immortality rendering compound he designed and synthesized based on his advancement of my genome studies, and then have someone give Roger the lethal injection on the stage. If it worked, of course, he would come back to life. He would be born again.

Roger chooses to take a placebo, and allows them to kill him on stage with the lethal injection because he did not take an injection of his compound. It was an injection of morphine, my drug of choice, and there Roger died at twenty-seven, at the end of the Match Behind the Jar.

Had he done the right thing by saving faith? With the possibility of immortality on Earth, Mara told him, why would anyone believe in the nonsense of afterlife or even need an afterlife? There’d be no more death and war. No more religion. And so Roger, the second man from the Sea of Galilee to offer immortality, to save the beliefs of everyone. He did not want his discovery to be believed, although it did work, and his death was taken as the compound didn’t work, and research on it stopped. It did work. It would have worked for all. Roger allowed himself to die so the soul would no longer be locked in the body. That was his last temptation in the last book of The Lizard’s Tale. I am sure he did the right thing. I am sure I would not have. I would have taken the cure to live.

Think about it as you read: would you take the injection to live forever? One injection: no more pain, death, decay.
It took me a long time to answer that question and two of me would take it, and one of me would not. There are three me’s, as I’ve come to in my psychiatric sessions with myself. Only one of me would resist, and that me is the Roger Complex, which I will further elaborate upon later on.

Rogers’s father was there at his birth and remained until his mother, or as Roger thought, and indeed once hoped, killed his father. This was written to expound upon Roger’s inner self. At first he wished for his father’s death, but at the same time was devastated when he died, and then he, as a grown man at the end, returns to a place his father always wished to take him. That is the coda to the Songs, Roger’s forgiveness. His forgiveness of his father, his mother, and himself. That’s where forgiveness starts.

And when you forgive yourself, it is liberating. At first, I felt like I was free; to do whatever I want. I could smoke and stay out late. I could piss away my mind in a way he would not have allowed. It took me several years to find my Coda at Pigeon Rock, as it is in Roger’s story, but it was more like a coda at Lake Murray, where my father and I went fishing before he died. All of the three me’s, as of now I’ve gone into only the Roger complex, which you will see me imitating throughout my life, even before his creation; I will later go into the Harvey complex, the lowest me, and Complex Zero: Brandon, the medium between Harvey and Roger.

But, I hear the chorus of why, and I must address it. The why of my decision to write this memoirs, Bastard; I’m sure by now, the title choice is apparent.

Why: I’m adept at helping people with their psychological problems. I’ve studied psychology at great length in my life, and it is the most powerful weapon known to man. I’ve written four accredited PhD’s in psychology as of this writing, and I’ve always been able to help people, not me, but others. I am always able to give them the advice they need based on the equation they gave me to solve.

When it comes to me, I don’t know the equation. I know parts of it, and I use those parts to try to solve the problems of my life, but since I don’t know all the numbers, the equation is never solved. I can find numbers in my past: abandonment, the need to assert and prove my worth because of it, the Oedipus complex directed at my biological father, the hallucinations, the dreams, the nightmares, the desires, the tragedies, and everyone has their share, the death of loved ones and friends, coming to terms with mortality, coming to terms with the thousands of philosophical questions I have less than satisfactory answers for, the want to matter, the want to be loved, to be admired, and other, less noble desires.

I can’t find all the numbers and the variables they create in order to solve the equation, the me equation; I cannot make them come together in a unified number, a number that will represent my life, the problem, solved. I doubt I’ll ever determine all the variables. But when it comes to equations of other people, their loves and hates and losses and gains, I seem to do well as someone to give advice, to mentor, to guide: to find the number they needed based on their equation, solved for contentment. The thought is my sickness and the page my hospital, and, all the better, public – the narcosis of Narcissus.

Author’s note: All characters, characteristics of said characters, living or dead, real, or otherwise alive, are fictional. All fictional elements are part of a more honest story. This is the sickness of those who revel in the spiral, enjoying it more the faster they go down. And my oh my, how fun it is to slide. 

Political correctness, 18 October 2015

First I’d like to acknowledge the wonderful article written by Cracked writer J.F. Sargent, whose article can be found here. And point out, that’s generally a more intelligent and insightful argument. That is all.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS, THE BOOGIE MAN, THE CENSORS WAITING IN THE DARK, JUST, WAITING, WAITING ON YOU TO SAY… SOMETHING… OFFENSIVE. MUST…NOT…SATIRE.

I’d also be remiss to acknowledge the state of this dead horse before I proceed to fucking beat it. (Because it’s dead… what is easier to beat? A living horse will fucking destroy you. Horses are the worst. But don’t tell Mr. Ed, he’s way too PC. And also dead. Which is slightly worse. Slightly, amirite?)

Political correctness, oh my god. Right? Right? 
I know.
Dude, I know.
DUDE.

Everybody and their biologically oriented life-giver, in-vitro, biological, or cesarean, has their personally distinct and worthwhile opinions on whether or not people have become overly sensitive. or — now, bear with me — if the response is less to someone saying something insensitive and more of a response to someone being an asshole or otherwise deliberately antagonistic, saying something not in service of a joke, or a story, but something which has one purpose: to intentionally insult or disparage someone or a group of people for the purpose of advocating something: their brand’s betterness, their political brand’s betterness, or their notion of general progress towards being as good as them, which, for some reason, must always be at the expense of others. The response isn’t overly sensitive liberals being too delicate, while I’m sure somewhere, right now perhaps, someone is beginning an article with shit like ‘biologically oriented life-giver’ to avoid saying something like mother … only to hide their hatred of in-vitro fertilization. IT COULD BE THIS VERY PAGE.

It’s not that. It is the response of those who balk at the idea that whoever is saying this “non PC friendly” shit, or the group to which that person belongs is inherently above or better than their intended target, simply because they’re not that target. The response is not one of overt-sensitivity, but of a group saying: you are not better by virtue of what you were born. The Internet has made it very, very hard to distinguish between someone’s merit and ability based on their sex/race, so when someone is being called out because of that, and that alone, the response is the response of those who believe in an idea: You know, they call this democracy. And it’s not a deviant sex act some French-y developed… But it is close. Democracy is an objection to inherited worth, status, or value. 

The idea that some things are inherently offensive, while certainly true, the criticism, the criticism of the politically correct sensibility is invariably made by someone who has said something inflammatory, and intentionally so, from a position of influence and power–which seems to consist primarily of rich/famous white people who think the concept of democracy is something to define, to the inclusion of some and the exclusion of others, for them and those who believe as they do, which is coincidentally the way the law was written by (surprise!) people like them, wealthy, white, heterosexual males – as other minority groups were for some wild, crazy reason, not allowed to vote; thus perpetuating the freedom of this group to the exclusion of that group, which were all groups, minorities and women (yep! All inclusive exclusion!) while at the same time making it illegal for anyone who has broken the law to vote someone who might represent their needs.

When women and minorities were finally given the god damn right to vote, the elected representatives – surprise! – began to become more diverse and the fight  against institutional prejudice began – and with same sex marriage only recently becoming legal in all of the US, and the remaining resistance comes from that same group struggling to stay true to rules that were very much written by people like them, voted for by people like them, to keep those liberties very much in the hands of that same, homogeneous group: wealthy, white, heterosexual males, betraying the very core of democracy; that everyone should be, by birth, afforded the same freedoms and protections under the law.

Democracy is either absolute or not democracy.

The greatest achievements of America have been, with exception of course, the reversal of earlier, less inclusive institutionalized standards. Greatest moments in political history? The American revolution? Overthrowing … taxes and tea, something like that. The Emancipation Proclamation? As wonderful as that was, it was the eventual overturn of the casual attitude towards slavery. The million-man march? A protest against prejudicial practices in Jim Crow-era south. The greatest achievements of America are those moments when the establishment finally goes, Fuck it, other people can have freedoms too. It’s great to have figures like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr… but to need them is horrifying by implication. And, it didn’t end well for either. Go ahead, guess what happened. This isn’t uniquely American, either. Anyone vocally against systems set in motion to benefit the few at the expense of the many, historically speaking, have been fucking killed.

And now, the criticism of political correctness is used as a means to brush aside – sometimes legitimate – accusations of racism or sexism. But the accusation of political correctness leading to censorship, or that people are being too sensitive, is only used when someone has been genuinely sexist, genuinely racist, xenophobic, or otherwise intentionally hurtful – for the sole purpose of being inflammatory, as a way to be provocative without being thoughtful or insightful, or even interesting. It’s less about overly sensitive liberals and their quivering antennae when someone isn’t PC, and more about a sexless, colorless culture recognizing bad manners and assholes – and making them know, ‘Hey, you’re a fucking asshole. And we know it.’ If you were to fart at a dinner table, you wouldn’t accuse your dinner guess of being too sensitive for saying nobody wanted to smell your asshole at lunch. Put it in the right story, or in the right context, and we’ll laugh right along. Conservative, liberal, communist.

Fuck the French!

2015-02-11 13.00.16
Don’t shoot, French friends!

Chapter 1

Last New Year’s Eve

My mother was center stage, right there in the spotlight, dressed as Queen Clytemnestra. It was her first role and her favorite, wife of King Agamemnon from the play by Aeschylus, the first play I ever saw, in a dark, smoke-filled shanty theatre in Paris. She wore that same dress, screaming red. A prop sword in one hand, the other pulling back the cotton head of our mascot Tragos, tragedy my friend, that janitor in drag.

“Troy has fallen!”

The crowd cheered on like Spartan whores, like clapping seals and Sirens, whistling shame.

Mother held the sword aloft to the sound of more applause, then she let it fall; and silent it fell soft along the seams of that poor mascot’s head. And off it came, the crowd roared on, applauding as it ran bloodless down, down, down, down, off the stage into the crowd. A thespian in a black mask scooped it up, hoisted it into the air, and shouted:

“Happy new year!”

“Happy new year!”

The bloodless sacrifice complete, the Gods appeased, the janitor in the buffoonish goat-suit was hurried off the stage. He stumbled into the crowd to retrieve his head. After a brief scuffle with some drunk asshole in the front row, it was returned to him. Mother raised her hand to bring the crowd to silence again, ever the conductor, a virtuoso playing their preferred instrument: a crowd of two hundred at capacity, and more if you didn’t mind standing or sitting in an aisle, or on the floor.

“I’d like to thank you all for coming, first of all,” mother said. “It’s a pleasure and a privilege, truly, to see you all tonight, to have such support from the community and our friends, and our family. So, on behalf of everyone here at the La petite illusion, the Players and the Faces, thank you making this year’s Christmas play such a success. And remember, when you see the stage light come on…” a large, bright light flickered into life above the stage. “When you see that light, it’ll ten minutes until midnight. So, if you’re interested in joining us for the bonfire, make sure to meet us at stage door left when you see the light. Now, until then, enjoy the music! Enjoy the wine! I’ll see you all at midnight!”

More applause. She smiled, and smiling walked away, waving with a rigid, cupped hand like an aged beauty Queen, forever a rose, a rose forever to fade but never wilt; mother would have to be buried alive. The house band, just four college kids on holiday, had gathered in front of the drawn curtains and began to set up. Two young men and two guitars with nylon strings, la-la-la-la-la. A digital grand that clanged for a young lady, about my age or thereabouts, a lovely piano, upright on rolling wheels, one violinist, Chinese and demure, very thin and sexy.

Behind the curtain was a softer symphony, unheard, drowned by the cheerful holiday music mixed with a mumbling crowd of Faces and masked patrons, the soft symphony in silence behind the scenes, , drowned out by this cheerful and familiar holiday music, a chorus of shuffling feet.

And Jack Cade said it best:

I have thought upon it, it shall be so.

Away, burn

all the records of the realm:

my mouth shall be the parliament of England.

“Spare none,” he said.

And none were spared.

Not one chair, nor table cloth, everything had to burn, just painted kindling, a great buffet by poor Camille, a discount muse but worth each Franc.

With our audience and patrons, and anyone who’d wandered in for a drink or a show, everyone who gathered for this show, playing the voyeur, all costumed and masked, to burn those props—that was the show, that was the point. Camille was one of the few staff members I knew personally; a young girl and very pretty, kind of dim and shy, she sat on the flyloft above the stage, suspended from the rafters with her feet dangling off. The rest were kept in costume while at work, as per mother’s instruction.

The workers without masks were Faces in theatre lingo, always behind the stage or in front, never on it, forever locked in one poor role, confined by their own skin. The rest, the actors and performers and staff, save for me and Lain and Camille, they were Abstracts, they were character, like that poor goat Tragedy; they were Players, and as such were never given, nor did they give, real names, and were never to be referred to as such. Referring to them by their character names, mother told me, helped their performances. It probably gave them acute impostor syndrome too, but that didn’t matter, not as long as the reviews were good. Tragedy joined us at the bar.

“Good evening, Tragos,” said Lain.

“Nice to see you, Charles,” said Tragos. They shook hands warmly.

“You know, Robert,” said Lain, “I think you’re the only person I know who dies for a living.”

He smiled.

“I had no idea why Madame Nanty wanted me to dress like this, much less pretend to cut my damn head off. You know how I found out? My mom was born in Athens, not far from where that shit started, an offering to the Gods. What an offering!”

We all laughed.

“Yeah,” I said, looking over to Lain. “You know, when theatre began, it was basically a cult, a boy’s only club, all based around a ritual celebration. It was a cult, a cult of Dionysus, God of fertility and wine.”

“To Dionysus!” said Robert.

“To fertility and wine!” Lain said.

“They sacrificed real animals before the start of every play,” I said. “To honor the Gods, naturally. Theatres were outside back them, you know, you do what you have to do.” And, at the start of each performance, they sacrificed a goat to honor the Gods. Theatres were outside then; you did what you had to do.”

“And we just sacrifice our dignity,” said Lain.

“We’d probably do the same, if we had to,” I said. “Think about what we go through already, sacrificing our dignity to critics, starving ourselves to fit in costumes to be scrutinized and judged by out of shape assholes. Gods are easy, critics are not won so easily, and if sacrificing a goat got us a better write up, a better review in nouvelles de divertissement, we’d have a farm behind the fucking theatre.”

Lain laughed, “No expense, no goat, no mercy!”

“Lance!” I called, turning away. Lain was explaining his new play to Robert.

There were three bartenders on staff, all well dressed; tuxedos and simplistic masks. Lance was the only Face at the bar. He was very prim, very proper, and neat, very neat, and too much so. At least for me. I imagined that his father beat him. He approached the end of the bar where we were sitting:

“Yes, mademoiselle?”

“You see that guy in the goat costume?” I asked.

Lance nodded, “Yes, mademoiselle.”

“I want you to take him the Cote Chalonnaise,” I gestured toward the underside of the opposing cabinet. “And, yeah, that one. And, grab the green—that one, yes! the Macon. And get him a couple of decent glasses, tall.”

“Who am I to say it is from?”

“It’s ‘whom’!” Lain shouted at him. “Fucking idiot!”

“Tell him it is from the Queen,” I said, talking over Lain.

“If the person is the subject of the sentence, you say ‘whom’…”

“Yes, mademoiselle,” Lance said, never breaking character. And he kept on. And on.

After retrieving the bottles and two tall, slender glasses, Lance handed them to Robert.

“And you shouldn’t end a sentence with ‘from.’ Because…”

The Cote Chalonnaise was especially nice, and the dusty bottle was a sure way to tweak the nipples of a connoisseur.

“Prepositions are there to show the relationship between the noun and the pronoun…”

Robert took the bottles one by one, and lovingly, then the glasses. He sat them down and read the dusty labels.

“From whom? Well, to whom shall I say? That sounds bad, whom shall I say? No…”

“Compliments of the Queen,” said Lance.

He was without costume finally, in a comfortable button up shirt. The man looking back at me was a stranger then, somehow less real without his mask.”

“It’s from mother!” I said. “She forgot to give it to you on Christmas.”

“You’re just a noun, you know. You’re a diminutive little noun, unworthy of superlative or adverb…”

“Lain, shut the fuck up!” I said. “English isn’t his first language!”

“It’s not mine either!”

“Merci,” Robert said. “My wife is going to go crazy when she sees the year on this Chalonnaise.”

“Thank you Robert!” I said. “We’re very grateful to have you here!”

“We all know who the Queen is,” he said. He smiled, bid us a very good evening, and walked away, with Tragedy dissolving into just another member of the unnamed supporting cast.

I called for Lance again. He approached after serving to middle-aged ladies dressed like slutty angels.

“Two fingers of bourbon for me,” I said, “and take Lain one of his pussy drinks.”

“Such as?” he asked.

“Something fruity,” I said. “A white Russian, perhaps? Yes, that’ll do. Thanks, Lance.”

He returned a moment later with our orders.

“Two fingers of Jim for mademoiselle,” said Lance, “and a white Russian for Monsieur Pinon.”

“That’s racist,” said Lain.

I sat my glass on a square napkin, pretending not to notice Lance’s number scribbled on it in hurried, purple penstrokes. Painfully obvious and Lain caught a glimpse when I passed him his drink. He didn’t say a word, but I saw it in his eyes, a small defeat. He took a generous sip from his glass.

“Anything else?” asked Lance.

“Not now,” I said. “Now, fuck off.”

“Yes, mademoiselle,” he said. He returned to serving the other costumers. I turned to Lain.

“Cheers, Monsieur Pinon!” I said. He smilled despite himself. I raised my glass.

“Cheers, Mademoiselle Brisbois!” said Lain, raising his The glasses clinked together and we both finished our drinks in one long, profane gulp.

We chatted between shots, taking in the sights and sounds, the live band playing merry music, the smell of liquor and cheap perfume in the air, small clouds of cigarette smoke swirling under low-hanging, red-tinted spiderlamps. The audience was alive with mirth and conversation, the social butterflies buzzing, deaf to the fools with nets behind them. Lain was doing the same: silently judging everyone, trying to guess who those people were, beneath the mask, what kind of animals were they without those feathers? Or was there nothing but feathers, and nothing under the mask but another one, or a smooth face, smooth as a cue ball and just as featureless and memorable.

“Here’s to The Little Illusion,” Lain. He held up his empty shot glass. I raised mine. They clinked together with a hollow clink! as we tossed back the drink that wasn’t there.

“Best of the night!” said Lain.

“Here’s to it,” I said.

The hollow sound the glasses made when they clinked together somehow got through: when you’re 5’4”, don’t match drinks with a guy over 6 feet tall. Especially not a Russian.

“I hope you’re being careful,” a far-off, snobbish voice said. It was her superpower, judgment, arising for the perfect moment from the darkness. I straightened my back and turned my bloodshot eyes back to white. A strange talent, I’d discovered it in drama school.

“Tell her, Lain,” she said, “If she’s going to do Anna again this year at the Medea, she needs to watch her weight.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t want to kill myself and be fat,” I said.

Lain laughed, and mother turned to him and smiled, a broad and bright smile. It was her way of saying, you’re funny, but not quite funny enough to earn my laughter. A smile, and that’s it, you fucking peasant.

“Bonne soirée, Charles,” she said. “Comment çava?”

“Il est une merveilleuse nuit putain,” he said. “Pardon my French.”

She smiled.

“Such a clever boy,” she said. “You need to talk Renette into growing her hair back out so she can keep getting leading roles.”

“You see,” Lain said. “That’s the problem. You can’t negotiate with fire.”

“But she had such lovely hair.”

“Renette could get any role in Paris if she were bald.”

“I know you love her.”

“Everybody loves Renette,” said Lain. “Except Renette, of course.”

Mother smiled again.

“Take care of her, Lain,” she said. “I’ll see you later. Renette, behave yourself! I don’t want to find you under the bar!”

“Where are you going?” I asked.

“I’m going to meet with a new director,” she said. “A potential director, that is. I saw a really good production of his last week and got his contact information from the Exchange. So, I’m going to show him around, show him how we do things here. Hopefully we can get him on board and do something really, truly new. I’ll see you in a bit.”

She leaned in and kissed Lain and both sides of his cheek, and then me.

“I love you two,” she said.

“See you then,” I said. “Remember: don’t leave your drinks attended around Lianne. Just saying.”

“We love you too, Madame.”

She smiled again. Fucking peasant.

“Make her behave, Lain,” she said. “Don’t let her drink too much.”

“Remember King Lear,” said Lain. “‘Get not between a dragon and its wrath’? It’s like that with her.”

“Good lad,” she said and turned to walk away. “Good evening, Charles.”

He fucking hated being called Charles.

“Good evening, Mme. Nanty!” Lain called.

She thrust a hand into the air and waved without turning round. In mere moments she had disappeared as quickly as she had appeared. Lain followed her through the crowd; excellent vision, somehow keeping track of her. The red, of course. The Russian blood.

“That’s racist.”

He nudged my shoulder.

“Who is that?” he asked. “Look, right over there.”

He nudged my shoulder.

“What?”

“Who’s that?” he asked. “Look, right there. The guy with the mask.” He gestured across the gallery, lit only by sparse dining table candles. I followed his pointed finger, bouncing from one masked face to another.

“Are you fucking with me?” I asked. “Everywhere is over there!”

It didn’t take me long to catch a glimpse of the man. He stood out somehow, my mother very animated, holding his hands in hers and smiling broadly. It was the mask, a damn grotesque but lovely in that twisted way, lovely in the way a flower growing from a boot might be. It was a faded white, an ivory color, the color of Time and dust, snowflakes and cigarette ash. The nose was very prominent, about nine inches give or take, hanging from his face but not too sharp. Grotesque, sure, but not horrific. The rest of his clothes were black, save for his cuffs, both white with a black button in.

“I hope we can get a good director here,” said Lain.

I nodded.

“As fun as it is to do all those Shakespeare plays,” he said. “I didn’t come to France to do the same shit they do off-Broadway in New York.”

“Why the fuck did you come to France, again?”

“For you,” he said. “You know that.”

I smiled, turning to look toward the upper crosswalk again where mother had stood with the strange little man and his Pinocchio mask. They were gone. I scanned the crowd to no avail, the liquor making itself known to us both.

I sat my glass down and Lain followed. Lance hurried over to collect, thanking me profusely for a €50 tip. We walked from the bar, humming together, our heart beats keeping tempo; I was stumbling drunk, my arm around Alain. He smelled like old books, like a fine mahogany desk. He kept me up-right somehow. We weaved in between one patron after another and finally found mother and my little sister Lianne at the exit, precious Lee, and more were gathering as the green light above the stage had come on. Lianne said hello to Lain and he knelt and took her little hand into his and kissed it, saying,

“Madame shook her hand, “Madame.” She smiled a toothy smile, her two front teeth missing.

They began to gather in ever larger groups in front of us, what was left of my family. And Lain, of course. Alain. It was a large crowd. Many were as drunk as we were but all were polite, well poised and surprisingly proper for a French mob in Friday voyeur masks.

“Alright,” mother said. “Hey, hey!”

She whistled, a whistle so loud it hurt. “Listen!”

Get not between a dragon and its wrath.

Everyone went quiet quickly.

“Now, we’re all here to have fun, but be careful and don’t get too close to the fire. And once it gets started, please stay behind the crossguards. One simple rule: if it’s taller than you are, don’t get near it! That goes for you too Lain!”

Everybody laughed.

HAHAHA.

“Okay? Great! Now, follow me.”

She flung the swinging doors open, outward into a cold night, the crowd spilling out in single file behind us. And there we were, scene of the crime. I imagined my grandfather’s ghost still walking through those ruins, never to rest, looking for his satin curtains with the dancing plague and grandma on piano. After everyone had gathered in front of the pile of painted sets and props, the kind we couldn’t use anyway since the matte painting was by then damaged by the stage light’s heat and fading, mother opened the easily negotiable barrier between the scenic kindling, carrying a single candle. She struck a match and lit it. She spoke:

“50 years ago, during the German occupation of France, German soldiers burned this theatre down,” she said.

Print the myth.

“When the war ended, my grandmother raised enough money from the public to rebuild this theatre, with the help of patrons and friends just like you. And over the next half century it has become our home and a part of our culture. As it passed to me when mother died, it will pass to my daughter Renette when I’m gone, and to her children then…”

Everybody looked at me and Lain. Lain put his arms around me and smiled, pulling me closer to him with one hand and holding the other, interlocking our fingers. I hugged him back and smiled. I smiled despite myself, turning a very self conscious shade of red. A chameleon cannot always control its transformations.

“And so, to celebrate our family’s tradition and our friends and patrons, it is our tradition here at La petite illusion, to burn these sets ourselves. We do this to wash away the success and pain of yesterday and start anew. We do this to symbolize our determination and rebirth. We do this because it takes more than fire to kill the French spirit…”

Mother passed the crossguard and knelt, the fire passed into the stream and flared up with a whoosh that made the gathered crowd gasp and then clap enthusiastically. And we followed her, me first, then Lain with Lee, hold her hand. The rest tip-toed near the edge of the mountain of rubbish, snickering as they razed the castle to the ground, Castle of the King, poor Lear, you poor bastard.

Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel.

Thy will be done.

And so went pomp, and physic too, and then the throne and every stone, each and every brick, every single inch unto its ruin. That was our Thanksgiving, uniting us in a heathen’s Sabbath, each patron with a little colored candle, blue or white or red, just for us and not far off, just up there, just up above, was an old Watchtower deserted nowm, once a lighthouse—there were no ships no more, no more below at Le corniche, there were no ships. The fire grew ever larger as the candles fell, one after another, the line moving single file, with great caution, and with greater caution still until no longer approaching; it could feed itself.

The countdown began as “Dix!” rang out in a woman’s voice and the great trois coleur, a descending ball along a track and brightly lit, electroc-neon blue-white-red and falling with each descending number;

“Dix,” echoed back, the ball was falling and all were counting:

Neuf!

Huit!

Sept!

Six!

Sinq!

The fireworks went off in the sky, bursting into those patriotic colors, I pulled Lain close to me and put my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes, the fire calming and warming me.

Quatre!

Trois!

Deux!

The flashing lights of the trois coleur solidified as it came to a rest at the base, a base from which it would not rise for another year, next year’s New Year’s Eve, and all were clapping, hugging one another as the fireworks increased in brightness, so bright I could see the whiter whites with my eyes closed, the New Year ringing out through the French countryside.

And all together:

Un!

“Happy new year!”

And those happy people, young and old, all in great cheer and happy, thrilled by the coming year and its promise. I’d never see them again, most of them, and not without a mask. If anyone who stood there then showed up the year to follow, a year from where we stood that night, Lain and I, watching the fire grow and warm inside. One year from a curtain call for most, and finally they’d get the spotlight, center stage, never to see roses, and a shame it is for all to only get your roses when you fall, nor read the many rave reviews, a two-star epitaph on a five-star grave.

<– Return to Prologue Go to Chapter 2 –>

 

Poetry, its Forms and Traditions: 10 September 2015

Part 1: Forms and Traditions

As poetry is a type of music, there are, as in music, many different varieties, or styles, of writing poetry. I will briefly enumerate them in the following vignettes; some of which are undoubtedly familiar to western audiences. But others might not be as familiar. If this is a book from which you are to take instruction, I implore you to experiment which each of the following techniques and forms as you read.

          As you can trace different types of music to different parts of the world, poetry is no different. Different styles of music bear the stamp of the culture from which they come. Jazz is a distinctly American production, a production which later led to what is titled punk rock, when of course one wishes to resign expression to names. Classical music that behaves led to blues; blues evolved into rock ‘n roll, rock ’n roll into metal, and metal into a myriad of different species of music. Poetry is no different.

          Poetry has been around since the beginning of writing itself. It is an echo of the time where humans understood one another by tone alone. An example of this, to a non-German speaking listener, one can still fathom the emotional expression that is put forth in Mozart’s opera; therefore, tonal value is of great quality in getting the ambience and tone just right and then, upon revision, turning it into an atmosphere, an atmosphere in which the tone is the movement of the clouds, and the sounds become the rain that touches the reader’s heart and soul.

          As valuable as expression is, it is important to know the difference between expressing and stating. To express sorrow, the tone of the language and the contrast between happiness and sadness must be apparent. It is also important not to be entirely obvious, but it is important to be relatable. To be personal and relatable is not easy to attain. Throughout this book, after detailing the most famous of poetic forms, I will analyze historical efforts as well as modern, and to give legitimacy to my thoughts on poetry, I will not avoid showing how I put my philosophy on what poetry should be into practice.

FRAME ONE:

ABECEDARIAN

A recent example of an abecedarian poem is Anna Robinowitz’s ‘Darkling.’ This book-length acrostic sequence details the experiences who family went through during the Holocaust. ‘The Darkling Thrust,’ by Thomas Hardy is used as a palimpsest for its structure.

          For people new to writing novels or poetry, a helpful way to begin is to map out another poet–preferably a good one–and use the length of lines and quatrain arrangement and substitute their words with your own. As one learns to play piano by learning how to play pieces by old masters, by using a palimpsest approach, by changing only the words and keeping the structure, it will become easier for you to branch off into your own territory.

          The abecedarian form of poetics is ancient and is identified by its form of usage according to alphabetical arrangement. As it is to be expected, the first line begins with first letter of whichever language it is you are writing in and succeeding lines are begun with the next letter in your chosen alphabet.

          The history behind this tradition is semitic and can be found in the religious poetry of the Hebrew peoples. It was traditionally used for compositions considered sacred; hymns, psalms, prayer. There are many examples ot the abecedarian to be found in the Hebrew Bible. Psalm 118 is highly regarded. It is composed in twenty two eight line stanzas, each for one letter of the alphabet. Another example, fast forward several centuries, and the abecedarian can be found in the medieval English poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘An ABC.’ As it is one of the works of literature that would signal to the world that English was a viable language for beautiful expression. ‘An ABC’ is crafted from the translation of a French prayer (the translation being of his own doing it is thought.) It is composed using twenty-three eight line stanzas following the alphabet, excluding J, U, V, and W.

          Abecedarian poems are wonderful tools for children and can make poetry fun by turning the composition into word games. Dr. Seuss and Edward Gorey are children’s book authors who have used this form in modern times, even if it’s a modified way of doing so. Among adults still using this ancient form, it is a mnemonic device. Contemporary examples of can be found in Blue Hour by Carolyn Forché, and in Sleeping with the Dictionary by Harryette Mullet. In Forchés forty-seven page poem On Earth, the alphabet guides not just the stanzas, but the words as well.

          Languid at the edge of the Season     

          Lays itself open to immensity

          Leaf-cutter ants bearing yellow trumpet flowers along the road

          Left everything left all usual world’s behind

          Library, lilac, linens, litany.

A poetic form know as the acrostic, which spells out names or words through the first letter of each line, was developed through abecedarian poetry. In a perverse sort of effort, the intention is to reveal by hiding. In William Blake’s London, he recalls the way in which the pain of the people come to people as he wanders the shore of the Thames (a River that runs through London, among other cities in England.) In the third stanza of his poem, Blake uses the acrostic in the third stanza to emphasize jarring, terrific sounds.

          How the Chimney sweeper’s cry

          Every black’ning church appalls;

          And the hapless Soldier’s sigh

          Runs in blood down palace walls.

The way this works is that within the stanzas he is communicating with sounds and through acrostic getting the message ‘hear’ across. This is an interesting technique, despite the fact that is built on an edifice of rules, and, normally, I’m opposed to any sort of edifice in which expression is forced into a corset unable to contain its voluptuousness. Practice with me. I’ll mimic the four line quatrain of Blake’s, and within the acrostic use the lines themselves the first letter word to convey the hidden but intended to reveal word that echoes the theme:

          Looking for someone in the dark     

          Old as the wind playing the Lark

          Someone somewhere just may help

          The child climb from the darkened well.

         

That might not be the most eloquent of verse to which my name has been attached, but I think the acrostic’s lettered word is well-connected to the content of the verse. It’s an easy way out, admittedly, to speak of being lost only to then use the acrostic lost. So, out of solidarity, I’ll put a little bit of effort in this next one:

          To hurt is how we know we live,

          Ruin is what heaven is;

          Under a pale sky’s looking glass

          Thumbnails from some distant past–

          Helpless we ne’er seem to last.

FRAME 2:

ANAPHORA

Anaphora’s etymology can be traced to a Greek term meaning, ‘To carry.’ The intention of anaphora in poetry is parallelism; parallelism can also lead to something called non-complement anaphora. Successive phrases or lines beginning with the same word is the essence of anaphora and can be as simple as just a word or as complex as a complete and musical phrasing. Anaphora is an ancient poetic technique, and is familiar, even if by the name of anaphora, to Christians due to the usage of ‘And’ in successive lines of devotional, religious poetry–especially in the Psalms.

          Poets in the time of queen Elizabeth during the Romantic period, a period including Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (author of Faust,), Philip Sidney and Edmund spenser (author of the Faerie Queen.) Shakespeare used anaphora in his plays and sonnets. Line 66 demonstrates anaphora to its utmost, as he begins ten lines with ‘and,’ which is the most common repeated word associated with using anaphora.

          Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,

          As to behold a desert beggar born

          And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,

          And purest faith unhappily forsworn,

          And gilded honour shamefully misplaced,

          And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,

          And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,

          And strength by limping sway disabled,

          And art made tongue-tied by authority,

          And folly–doctor like–-controlling skill,

          And simple truth miscalled simplicity,

          And captive good attending captain ill:

          Tired with all these, from these I would be gone,

          Save that to die, I leave my love alone.

To continue our discussion of anaphora, it is important to remember that the intention is to produce a rhythm, a rhythm of reiteration that deepens the content by stacking words, building more and more pressure on the content. It can also intensify the emotion of a poem, make it more sporadic, make it seem more desperate. Lord Alfred Tennyson’s ‘Tears, Idle Tears,’ does this in repeating ‘the days that are no more,’ at the end of each stanza. The end line variation of anaphora is termed epistrophe, as it is an echo of a phrase instead of the voice that speaks it.

          Here is an example of a poem I wrote that demonstrates the epistrophe variation of anaphora. In these frames I won’t attempt to go into theme or meaning, only the demonstrative qualities of form. This poem is called the Malfunctioning Robot and is published in my poetry collection Counterpane and Other Poems. The classical variation of anaphora is evident in the some of the stanzas, but the epistrophe variation is used in others.

          Error, error,

          We have a problem here.

          The robot is malfunctioning;

          The warranty is void.

 

          It’s stuck in an endless loops,
asking the same questions,

          Getting the same answers,

          Repeating the same line:

          Wrong place, wrong time.

         

          Error, error,

          We have a problem here;

          The robot is malfunctioning;

          The programmer won’t answer the phone.

  

          It’s stuck in the same place,

          That stutters back and forth;

          Wires flicker in his brain,

          Disconnected data goes nowhere;

          In one side and out the other:

          ‘Wrong place, wrong time.’

 

          Error, error!

          We have an emergency;

          The poor robot is shutting down,

          Not knowing why, not knowing how:

          The programmer isn’t home.

          The robot does not know what’s wrong;

          He wants to go to somewhere safe;

          He’s never had a home.

          Random command lines drift around,

          A broken fish-bowl brain:

          Random numbers, random letters,

          Faces without a name.

          Ten seconds of power remains.

          Find another power source,

          Or you’ll lose everything.

          The malfunctioning robot repeats the same line:

          ‘Wrong place, wrong time.’

          He falls back in a chair, offline.

This poem (the merit of which may be questionable) has many elements that represent the elements of anaphora. Anaphora doesn’t always have to be a direct replica; it can be a replicated reference that evolves within the story. For example, the ‘programmer’ references would technically constitute as anaphora, although they deviate and change as the situation for the robot changes. It is important throughout the progression of a work of poetry that the refrain alter, or evolve to suit new and changing conditions within the composition. Anaphora can also be thematic without being true to repeated lines or words; it can be repeated leiit-motifs. Within the poem, although it is not classical anaphora, the repeated references to the programmer, although his position in relationship to the eponymous ‘robot.’

          The obvious anaphora in the poem, the ‘error, error, the robot is malfunctioning’ and the ‘wrong place, wrong time,’ is obvious. The reason I chose this poem of mine to represent the poetic form of anaphora is to show that it doesn’t necessarily follow the Biblical concept of ‘And,’ after ‘and’ after ‘and’ which we will discuss in turn. The point in discussing this poem is to show the versatility of anaphora within your own writing as it can reinforce thematic elements.

          There are many famous poets who use anaphora to reinforce the rhythm and cadence within their works. Howl, by Allen Ginsberg is one, as is Walt Whitman’s ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. It is also used by T.S. Eliot in ’The Waste Land,’ in second V; Mark Strand–all are great examples of modern poets who have found creative ways to use anaphora. In a book length by Joe Brainard, I Remember, anaphora is used in recalling his childhood in Oklahoma by starting each phrase with ‘I remember.’

          I remember when one year in Tulsa by some freak of nature we were invaded by millions of grasshoppers for about three or four days.

          I remember downtown, whole sidewalk areas of solid grasshoppers.

          I remember a shoe with a big brown x-ray machine that showed up the bones in your feet bright green.

          Kenneth Koch was so influenced by Brainard’s technique that he adapted the process to teach children how to compose verse. The method has maintained its popularity with English composition teachers for students of all ages since.

          A popular usage of anaphora among English readers of poetry who are by necessity uncultured and unaccustomed to variety and therefore drawn to what they consider macabre, in Edgar Allen Poe’s strictly superficial work The Raven, which is given more depth by those who explicate it than by the author who penned it, the repeated refrain ‘Nevermore,’ is an example of anaphora.

         

FRAME 3

THE BALLAD

It is thought that the composition of ballads began in the European folk tradition, most often accompanied by musical instruments. Centuries old in practice, ballads were not originally put to parchment, but preserved as oral lit for future generations, with the intention of being passed along through recitation. The subject matter dealt with religion, love, tragedy, domesticity, and even took shape of political propaganda.

          The prototypical ballad is defined as a plot-driven ones, with one or more characters that drive the narrative to its conclusion. Traditionally, a ballad does not intend to reveal what is actually happening and instead relying on detailing crucial moments that lead to the conclusion. Quatrains are the typical method of stanzas in ballads; this technique is often employed to convey emotional urgency–wherein there are three to four stresses and rhyming either the second or fourth lines, or of all alternating lines. This style of composition is most common in the forms of poetry one encounters, as it is in the ABAB style, and, as such, provides a palimpsest which allows the transposition of one’s own ideas into an established form of poetic expression. Due to the nature of the ballad’s hidden happenings allow for abstractions throughout the composition that are to be resolved with its conclusion.

          In the fifteenth century, English ballads began making their way into print and have remained popular since. Ballad broadsides were a rich source of cultural income during the Renaissance and because of this became a popular practice, though rarely earning the respect of other authors because those who wrote ballads were referred to as ‘pot poets,’ a pejorative used to demean the ‘lower classes.’ It was considered a cheap form of poetry, easy in the sense that it didn’t require the complicated rhyme schemes or the sceptered iron mood music of bombastic blank verse, like that of Shakespeare.

          The ballad would later evolve into a sort of sport. Samuel taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth would make the ballad a respectable form of poetic expression and both wrote numerous ballads during their careers. Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner,’ the tale of a cursed sailor aboard a ship caught in a tempest, is a revered ballad in the English language. It opens: (Take notice of how syllable count and line separation allow the reader to keep the fluidity intended by the author while reading–we will analyze this further in another section):

          It is an ancient mariner,

          And he stoppeth one of three.

          –’By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,

          Now wherefore stoppest thou me?

          Te bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,

          And I am next of kin;    

          The guests are met, the feast is set:

          Mayst hear the merry din’

 

          He holds him with his skinny hand,

          ‘There was a ship,’ quoth he.

          ‘Hold off! Unhand me, grey-beard loon!’

          Eftsoons his hands dropped h.e

 

          He holds him with his glittering eye–

          The wedding guest stood still,

          And listen like a three-years’ child:

          The Mariner hath his will.

 

Writers of early ballads, such as Thomas Percy, and later W.B. Yeats, contributed to the english tradition. The ballad evolved into folk songs in America, in compositions such as ‘Casey Jones’ and the old time cowboy favorite, ‘Streets of Laredo,’ and ‘John Henry.’

          In France in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, the ballade was the principle form of music and poetry. It is distinguished from ballad, as a ballade contains three main stanzas, each with the same rhyme scheme, plus a shorter conclusion stanza, or envoi. Each of the four stanzas have identical refrain lines. The tone of the ballade was most often solemn and form, using elaborate symbolism and classical references to further its narrative.

          François Viillon was one of the most influential writers of early ballades in Renaissance France. His exacting form was checked by his limited rhyme, although he was capable of creating intense compositions about poverty and the frailty of life. Inspired by vagrancy and poverty and the vagrancy of his criminal life, his work offered up eviscerating attacks on the bourgeois and declarations about the injustice imposed on people ranked lower in the caste system.  It was a sort of ‘poetry for the poor,’ that would later be claimed of Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist about whom Nietzsche said, ‘[He[ was the only psychologist from whom I ever learned.’

          Ballades were also written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century. It would become popular again in the nineteenth century after being revived by Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne. Ezra Pound, a major figure in the post-modernism and a person for whom James Joyce has to thank for the publication of works that would change the world of literature (Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses), would later compose variation of Villion’s ballades. This poetic form is used for light verse in modernity and there aren’t many examples from which to cite as successful.

FRAME 4

AMERICAN BLUES

What is, in America, called the blues poem, is an extension of another type of poetry that has been around since poetry began, the lamentation. But in this chapter, I would like to discuss the tradition of American blues. It began as an oral tradition among slaves in southern America, it is believed, and is imbued with weighty themes like struggle, despair, though some of it does lighten up enough to include sex–which usually is the outcome of struggle and despair or, inversely, the cause of it.

          It has an inherent form, but it’s not set in stone. Its formal shape is an individual statement, modified by the second, and the third is usually an ironic alternative.

          It is about struggle and despair

          And can be light, about sex:

          Which sometimes is the cause of it.

See?

          Ralph Ellison once said that the blues, though they are often about struggle and depression, it is also about determination to overcome difficulty through strength of character. Making it through the struggle is what defines the blues poem, as it begins with tragedy, and ends in ironic bemusement after it has been overcome. This can be seen as a way of differentiating between traditional lamentations and American blues poems.

          Among the many famous poets who work in this category, among them Sterling Brown, James Johnson, and the more popular Langston Hughes. In high first book, the eponymous poem, ‘The Weary Blues,’ is an wonderful example of an America blues poem:

          Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,

          Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,

                   I heard a Negro play.

          Down on Lenox Avenue the other night,

          By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light

                   He did lazy sway…

Another good example is Brown’s ‘Riverbank Blues,’ which begins:

          A man get his feet in a sticky mudbank       

          A man get this yellow water in his blood,

          No need for hopin,’ no need for doing,’

          Muddy streams keep him fixed for good.

Kevin Young is a contemporary poet who has continued the tradition. In his book, Jelly Roll, he presents a collection of poetry steeped in the tradition of American blues poetry. Apart from that, he attained success as the editor of the anthology, Blues Poems.

          Try it out yourself. Begin with a line that states the issue; modify it in the second line, and then finish it with it being overcome.

          Sisyphus tied to his rock,

          Pushed it up all day and night,

          Until he realized he could stop.

FRAME 4

THE BOP

The bop as a poetic tradition is relatively recent, originating from Afaa Michael Weaver during a summer retreat at Cave Canem. The bop is not unlike the sonnet in its framework; it is a form of poetic argument, rigidly constructed; it consists of three stanzas; the first is followed by anaphora, or refrain, each mutating to reveal a different facet in the overall composition; the first stanza is six lines long and states the issue; the second is eight lines long and enumerates on the issue. If there is a resolution, the third stanza, which is traditionally six lines long, attempts to find it. If a resolution can’t be made, the third stanza is the reflection on the failure to overcome the proposed problem introduced in the first stanza and modified / expanded upon by the second.

          Despite its youth, the bop has engendered many variations. Adding to the three stanza bop, six line fourth stanza, refrain-ending bops have appeared. A good example of how a bop introduces a crisis before attempting to resolve it is a poem by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, whose book Black Swan features several bop poems. The most popular, Bop Haunting begins:

          In the evening she comes, her same unsatisfied self,
with the hard, smug look of salvation. Mama,
stop bothering me. When we argue, she says
What you’re saying is not scriptural

          You need to get back to your Bible.

          In one dream, I slap her. I’m tired of her mouth.

          I hate to see the evening sun go down.

         

The refrain in this piece, ‘I hate to see the evening / sun go down’ appears at the end. It is, what is called in blues guitar, the blue note; the tone of the speaker has not found a solution to the woes conjured by the invocation.

In contemporary criticism, the bop can be looked at as a formalized way of recounting a life: it begins with an issue, the issue evolves, and the issue is either resolved, or the failure to resolve it is lamented. To do your own bop poem, extrapolate an issue from your life that you have been struggling with, show the evolution / modification / growth of the issue, and then show its resolution, or lack thereof.

          I’ll give it a shot.

          My mother left me at a door,

          At a home for children poor;

          To me, to live, is such a chore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FRAME 5

CENTO

Cento is a Latin word for ‘patchwork,’ and the cento is a collage poem, a poetic form made from lines cobbled from other poems and other poets. Poets often ‘borrow’ lines or leif-motifs from more imaginative and skilled writers, a cento in its true form is composed entirely independent from the composers own poetic sensibility, though it can definitely reflect it in his / her choice of juxtaposition of foreign and imported sources. Examples of this can be found in the most respected of poets, including Homer and Virgil, who wrote the Odyssey and The Aeniad, respectively.

          The composition of a cento consisting of other poet’s lines can do as much to reveal the intended expression of the collaborator as that of the original writer. You can make psychological deductions regarding the arrangement and selection of verses and the poetic voices included in the arrangement of the cento to find the individuality in the voice of the person’s compilation of the work of others. You can find out if they’re a novice, weekend warrior poet–if, for example, they’re canto is littered with Edgar Allen Poe (ugh) and Sylvia Plath.

          Sylvia Plath actually had great poetic ability, and to put her in the same sentence as the morose and monotonous Poe is a sin, I’m sure, but the compilation of one’s favorite poetry can do as much to express one’s self than writing one’s own verse, if that person is without the talent or inclination to construct their own verse. William S. Burroughs went through a copy, cut and paste period that is similar in style to what falls under the heading of canto, as defined by this chapter.

          The Academy of American Poets, with lines from Samuel Beckett, Emily Dickinson, Charles Wright, and Marie Ponsot, composed the following canto, which can serve as an admirable example of the psychology and individuality that typifies the poet who composes cantos consisting of other poet’s work.

          The the Kingdom of the Past, the Brown-eyed man is king

          Brute, spy, I trusted you; now you reel and brawl

          After great pain, a formal feeling comes–

          A vulturous boredom pinned me to this tree

          Day after day, I become less use to myself

          The hours after you are gone are so leaden.

Not to be confused with the division of Dante’s Divine Comedy’s division into cantos, which were of original composition, the modern cento is less weighty in tone and often ironic, witty, or humorous, humor which comes from juxtaposition of idea and representation. This is something we will come to in due course. Contemporary examples of centos are John Ashbery’s The Dong with the Luminous Nose, and Peter Gizzi’s Ode: Salute to the New York School.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FRAME 6

VARIABLE OPERATIONS

Variable operations, or the more common name ‘chance operations,’ are methods of generating poetry independent of the author’s will. This can be done by throwing darts, rolling dice, chopping up and juxtaposing pieces of newspaper articles (as Burroughs did in his ‘cut and paste’ period), and the laying of yarrow stalks, which dates back to the Chinese divination method used to make sense of the Oracle, or book of changes, the I-Ching. Sophisticated computer programs have also been designed to randomly select disparate and seemingly incompatible work to put it together by using encyclopedias, almanacs, or famous works of literature.

          The purpose of this method is to separate intentional contrivance and allow the nature of your variable methods to speak for you; it is the poetry of chaos, and it creates unusual syntax, disjoined images and odd correlations. This sort of chaos is intended to be extractable, that is to say meaning is imported from the chaos while there was no intended meaning in its composition.

          The Dada movement in western Europe are generally credited with the development of chance operations in the early and mid-twentieth century, Paul Eluard, Phillipe Soupault, Andre Breton, Louis Aragon, and Tristan Tzara are notable. The prominent focus of Dadaism is the subconscious as they believe that the mind would create meaning and association from any text, even randomly selected juxtapositions in variable operations. Tzara’s Dada Manifesto on Feeble and Bitter Love offers instructions on how to compose a Dadaist poem, here translated from the original French: (The translation is mine, so any errors are entirely my fault.)

          Take some newspaper.

          Take some scissors.

          Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem.

          Cut out the article.

          Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up the article and put them [all] in a bag.

          Shake smally [gently.]

          Next take out each cutting one after the other.

          Copy with conscience in the order they [are] left in the bag.

          The poem will resemble [you.]

          The use of chance operations in contemporary poetry has been used by the avant garde group Fluxus, poet Jackson MacLow, and the poet / composer John Cage. A good example of a poem written using chance operation is MacLow’s Stein 100: A Feather Likeness of a Justice Chair, which includes, also, MacLow’s explanations of the methods he used he used to compose the poem.

          Considering futurism, Dada, and concrete poetry, if a language is to support a highly literate culture, claimed rhetoric scholar Richard Lanham has argued, then the language must be composed of more simplistic parts. That is to say, characters which are to be the building blocks of language must be easily comprehensive and written in unobtrusive calligraphy. This is primarily due to the fact that because language is an external device that requires internal recognition, a reader must be able to internalize the alphabet and see through the characters to differentiate between representation and meaning. When reading a book, it is not often apparent that one is simply looking at marks on a paper; the awareness of the ideas that the words represent under the surface of language.

          Typographical philosophy, simplicity, clarity and transparency, dominates printed culture and has since the advent of the printing press, Lanham has argued. The twentieth century has seen many movements in art and poetry has called this philosophy into philosophy into question, using typography itself for a medium for meaning, preventing people from looking through words, and forcing readers to look at them. This is to disconnect idea and representation and make representation and idea the same thing.

          A movement of Italian futurists, led by F.T. Marinetti, in a 1909 manifest, rejected traditional expressions of art as ‘borrowed dresses.’ (The English idiom would be second hand clothes.) Among their critiques was the book itself. Marinetti called the book stale and oppressive, a symbol of what the futurists called the ‘old guard,’ which they [the futurists] were striving against.

          In the Electronic Word, Lanham wrote: ‘In a literate culture, our concept of meaning depends on this radical act of typographical simplicity. No images, colors, strict left to right then down one line, no type changes; no interaction; no revision. In attacking these conventions, Marinetti was attacking the literary totality of humanity.” Marinetti would begin by experimenting with unusual typography, creating textual and visual oddities, such as the 1919, SCRABrrRrraaNNG.

          At the same time, Dadaism was gaining strength as a coherent artistic movement in Europe, due partially because identity is adapted in three manners: alignment with the culture, rejection of the culture, or an independently evolved set of ethos and sensibilities, commonly found in orphans and the displaced. As a rebellion against traditional art forms, it had its appeal. The Dadaists were keen on spotaneity, something which I believe is of great value in poetry and prose, along with automatic writing and variable operations.

          Collages were important elements in both are and poetry until the futurist movement, and it remained important in typography. The Dadaist Tristan Tzara urged poets of the futurist movement to cut out of newspapers as in variable operations, and anthropomorphic letters were also used; Kurt Schwitters used the character ‘B’ with feet and arms, for example, and the style was also interested in poems that were ephemeral and erasable, such as poems written in sand or on a blackboard.

This sort of interest in transience is reminiscent of a poem I will come into in a later section, Masters and Masterpieces, which is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The image of a poem written in the sand along the beach, to me, has poetic, dreamy power to it. It establishes an important element often addressed in poetry across cultures, transience and mortality. I can’t think of a more poetic way to describe life than in terms of a poem written on a beach, or on a blackboard, however passionately, it is finite, it will go away.

          Although the futurist revolution never really took over the old regime of classical forms of expression, public interest would reemerge in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s in the form of concrete poetry. These are poems that take visual shapes and can only be appreciated when seen. Reinhard Dohl, for example, wrote a poem in the shape of an apple made entirely of the word apple, save for one instance of the word worm.

          Another example of a concrete poem is Eugen Gomringer’s 1954 poem Schweigen, the German word for silence, was composed of entirely of typographical representations of schweigen, which surrounds an empty, silent space in the third line. The silent space in the third line is the most important part of the poem, as scholar Roberto Simanowski in Concrete Poetry in Digital Media, because, in practical terms, silence can only be articulated by the absence of words.

          Concrete poems continued the typographic experimentation begun by the futurists, requiring readers to look at and through language. As Simanowski wrote, ‘Concrete poetry deals with the relation between the visible form and the intellectual substance of words. It is visual, because it adds the optical gesture of the word to its semantic meaning.’

I’ll give you an example from one of my own poems:

          The Glass Umbrella, one of my most popular works of poetry, was one of the first poems I wrote after becoming somewhat fluent in Italian. And sometimes it’s necessary to orient the subject-modifier-article in manners which reflect the normal diction of other language to maintain the music of what you’re trying to convey. Another good way to maintain the music of what you’re saying is to keep time. This can be done by line by line syllable matching. This is a good way to keep tempo; to break it into faster reading, making shorter, even one to two word lines, will increase the speed with which the reader takes the music of the piece in. Another important aspect of getting poetry read at the intended tempo is ‘rolling’ from one word to another.

          It is easiest to roll words when a following word begins with a phoneme that could attach to the ending of the previous word to form an independent word. This will be important to consider when we’re considering first line beginnings for end line rhymes. When done properly, the reader will read the poem in the manner you intend it to be read in, while poor poetry may work when read in certain ways by the author, it is rarely rendered in a consistent tempo, or universal meter that makes it possible for everyone to attach to it the tempo at which it is intended to be read. Another important aspect of a good poem is intimacy. While it is amateurish to rhyme about how you feel, it is not so to, by tone and imagery, isolation of ‘blue’ phonemes, to convey a type of sadness. Theme is usually something that is threaded throughout the poem; it is reinforced by repetition, but made poignant by reconciliation and furtherance through moderation as the poem progresses. In making a poem universal and also personal, it has to be open to extraction / allegory application for those who read it. If it’s an elegy (a poem for the deceased), a personal approach can be more universally applicable as one’s own lens through which death is seen can remind one of their own and enrich it, making the poetry more relatable and stronger. Let’s consider the mentioned elements in an analysis of my narrative elegy, the Glass Umbrella:

          We are the footprints by the Sea. (8 syllables)

          The waters come

          The waters leave. (8 syllables)

          Miss Sea, you see,

          your children taken. (9)

          Children of the Sea forsaken. (8)

By keeping a running syllable count, it ensures that the lines will be read at the same speed. Using words that allow one word to roll into another adds to the music of the work, although ‘come’ and ‘and’ could not be attachment phonemes, they can be said as one word. Like ‘miss Sea, you see,’ it can be pronounced as one word, an extended phoneme that allows for appreciation of tonal quality. Repeated consonants, of the same delension, such as Sea and see, give an element of completed rhetoric to a basic statement. Independent clauses, beginning with ‘the waters’ employ a poetic construct called anaphora; anaphora is a device in poetics where certain words are repeated, usually at the beginning of the sentence, and is most obvious example of anaphora usage. Mnemonics in poetry is the usage of a term to represent an abstract; in the Glass Umbrella, the Sea is represented as a proper noun and preceded by a definite article because it is being used as both a literal sea and a place to which life goes when gone, and whence life came. The waters come; the waters leave also echoes this biological truth, thus linking the poem to the natural workings of the world and, as a eulogy, enforces the thematic elements regarding the wax and wane of natural processes. The reference to forsaken children introduces the idea of the eulogy in the first stanza and sets it up for the coming story.

          It is important to import music into your poetry to invite atmosphere. The sound of waves gives atmosphere, and footprints disappearing hints at the element of passing, and as mnemosis, it is, the footprints, our lives, and the waves are death, the death that take us back to whence we came. This cyclical nature is central to the poem. Let’s take a look at the next line, where syllogism is more direct than symbol-idea association, though the syllogism is without an unstated contrast, the conclusions drawn from this natural cycle pervade the work, and thus the apparatus of syllogism is just as important as that of mnemosis, which has a soporific effect and adds to the atmosphere. When writing poetry, to fully immerse the reader in the world, a certain part of the story’s completion relies on the reader’s ability to fill in the gaps, to fill in implications and open ellipses (which we will touch on later), and the scenes should be painted with broadstrokes, allowing for fine details to be added by the imagination of the reader. The author creates part of the work, but it is completion is only accomplished by the reader’s coloring in between the lines and synthesizing the words into a complete portrait. Another important part of poetry is telling a story that can be about yourself, but also can be extracted to be about any aspect of any person’s experience with similar experiences. The poet paints the picture, but the reader puts the frame on it. Let’s look at how the Glass Umbrella develops (remember this is a elegy written when I was 21 upon the death of a friend.)

          See me, see Miss Galilee (7)

          Bring back what she took from me; (7)

          Bring back what you swallowed whole. (7)

          The yawning old,

          And wide-mouthed urn, (7)

          Lolled on but never turned,

          Her deaf ear,

          To me,

          To hear,

          My confused shouts at her. (19)

The first line is an invocation, a request for the murderer to look me in the eyes. My friend, her name Diane, had taken a lot of pills and walked into the New Jersey shore, and Galilee was the name of a church we once went to when she visited me in South Carolina, so that’s where the title of the Sea comes from. The next two lines are anaphoric, pleas to something that can’t hear, the first being a request for what ‘she’ took from me–this is an instance in which the reader’s participation in the work is vital. When someone is gone, what is lost varies from person to person. Instead of naming something precise, the ambiguity allows the reader to substitute their own feeling of loss, and what it was they lost, and this allows them to feel with the poem instead of feel it on an intellectual level. Age is another thematic element referred to over and over again, in adjectives such as ‘yawning’ and ‘wide-mouthed’ and the lazy, lolling about. The sea is mnemonic in this stanza for death again, being a wide-mouthed earth, and is described in a way that would befit death–never turning her deaf ear, to me, to hear, my confused shouts at her. Using ‘at’ instead of ‘to’ furthers the unfeeling nature of what has taken away my friend. Confused, as a modifier, indicates the nature of how we react to loss. We don’t understand it, the why, the where they may be going, if they’re to be going anywhere, and we’re often reduced to unintelligible shouting, either in our heads or at something that can’t hear us. The shortening of the ‘her deaf ear, to me, to hear,’ lines are designed to keep the tempo read at the proper pace by the reader. It quickens the pace and brings about the conclusion to the stanza. Within the stanza, the sea is referenced to an urn; this is a way of expressing what was taken into the sea–a person–although nowhere in this poem do I explicitly say it is about someone who has committed suicide. The abstract artists of the 20th century who followed in the tradition of Vincent van Gogh believed that there was more passion in the strokes and fury of the execution than the accuracy of photographic replication, and therefore a report unedited from nature was not the highest calling of an artist, but simply a way to paint rich and famous people as accurately enough to flatter them because they didn’t have cheap and affordable photoshoots in those days. The abstraction in this poem is mostly embodied in the characteristics given to the sea which is by mnemonism addressed as the Sea. In looking for the music of a line of poetry when written in Victorian classic verse, my preferred method and the preferred method of W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, and, more famously in America, Edgar Allen Poe, it is useful to read a sentence as one word and attempt to ascertain whether or not it would not sound inappropriate, or disjointed, if it was a single word in some other language.

          The poem has been given sound, anthropomorphic characteristics (related to swallowing and blindness), and deafness. The poem, being about deaf, is just as concerned with shutting down the stimulation of the senses as it is with stimulating them in the livelier sections. In later, less ambiguous narrative segments, the senses will be fully engaged and for it to work so well, to contrast death and life, is to shut down reference frames that one can avail oneself to in part, and then make them accessible when the character becomes alive again in memory. The deafness of the lost is reinforced in the next stanza:

          Without a word at all to say (8)

          She waves at nighttime and the day (8)

`        She rolls about within a dream (8) –

          The carousel goes by overhead (9)

          To it she turns her mirrored head (8)

          She simply looks to it, and all, (8)

          As we, like leaves,

          Around her fall. (8)

The silence is reinforced again, the silence from that side of this veil of tears, and movement is introduced to give the mnemonic representation characteristics of the idea’s dressing. Introducing movement gives fluidity gives it a natural feel to it, and the addition of our comparison to leaves keeps the natural feel to the whole implied cycle. To extract this and apply it to the physical process of lives, we sprout from seeds, grow and flower, and produce leaves and seeds of our own. To this sea, this urn, we’re universally the same watchful, fearful eyes, unheard and afraid of her ‘mirrored’ head; the mirrored head is not a poetic device without implication. When we look at someone dead, part of the revulsion we fear is our own mortality and this is what gives us pause, trepidation. In giving death the face of a mirror, the expression is open to debate, as it should be. There are those who believe once a mystery is solved, it is no longer interesting. Being a fan of Sherlock Holmes’s detective stories and Agatha Christies serial works, I don’t necessarily agree with this when it comes to art. Art is an elaborate door and there is no skeleton key, and sometimes the person who understands it the least is the person who wrote it. So it can be said that instead of defining what it means, I’m interpreting it. Finished works of poetry rarely begin and end in one sequential writing. When I first compiled this poem, when I sat down to put it together, I had to gather it from non-linear and disparate sources, notebooks, scraps of toilet paper. I don’t intend to speak for all poets, but it’s rarely a straightforward, linear process. And at the time, while I was generally aware of what was being said, I didn’t have the kind of understanding of poetics I have now. One thing I’ve learned from the study of aesthetics, you can use philosophy, if you’re good at it, to make something mean anything you wish depending on the quality of your rhetoric. When I wrote it, what I was conscious of was the symbols of the footprints and the sea–the footprints being us, the sea being where we’re from and where we’re going. The best place to hide a tree is in a forest, and subtlety is not used purely to understate your ideas; it’s a means by which the attentive are rewarded. And subtlety, to be honest, is most often accidentally done by the author being in tune with his subject.

          Whenever you go back to your refrain, the glue that keeps your narrative strings together, the narrative changes and evolves and your refrain has to reflect the growth of the narrative. The best way to execute a refrain and keep it memorable is to, although it’s slightly modified, is to keep it recognizable.

          The beach we leave our footprints on, (8)

          The waters come,

          And then they’re gone. (8)

          We are but footprints by the Sea; (8)

          The waves come in,

          And then we leave. (8)

          Miss Sea, you see,

          Your children taken. (9)

          Children of the Sea forsaken. (8)

The importance of rolling in tonal value cannot be understated. Internal rhyme, instead of completely relying on the end of sentence rhyme, although it is the most common. The anaphora of the first two sentences gives stability to the stability. ‘The beach we leave’ opens the refrain with two compound syllable rhymes, and if pronounced together as ‘thebeachweleave’ doesn’t sound disjointed as a word, and thus retains the music. The same is true of the delayed anaphora of ‘the waters come, and then we leave.’ In this delay, a transition article is used to denote a brief passage of time–one word is used, in this instance, is used to separate the tide coming in (our lives) and the tide receding (our death.) The next stanza addresses this in a manner intended to break the fourth wall, as it is a direct line of questioning–questions for the king in black. The pain is in the appeal to something that cannot grant your wish, nor even hear your plea. Remember the elemental mirror of looking into death and seeing oneself, this stanza presents an inversion of that idea–wondering if that king in black can look at us.

`        Ancient Sea, Miss Galilee (7)

          Can you see yourself in me? (7)

          As I see myself in you – (7)

          Glowing white and tinged with blue (7)

          Can’t you see what you have done? (7)

          The lolling sea-saw none. (6)

In matching syllable counts to keep control of the tempo at which you wish for your poem to be read, breaks between articles and end stanza lines are not always necessary. Sometimes an abrupt stop can add tension and make the closed quatrain jarring, which is something you might want to employ in horror or suspense.  The lolling see saw, which is non-perfect anaphora but effective in playing with the up and down nature that has been a thematic element with the tide, the waves, the sprouting of trees and falling of leaves; lolling was an attempted casual benevolence, not a mockery, although to a heartbroken person screaming at a loved one dead can make a world feel as if it’s turned into a mockery of your need to love and be loved.

          Passing through the stages of grief from confusion and denial and anger, we get to acceptance in the next stanza, the gradual coming to terms with something that’s almost impossible, and would be impossible if not for it’s lack of other options. When Diane died, it opened a wound, and the poem I’ve spent this chapter analyzing is just the shape the blood happened to take. Sometimes apophosis is a good way to tell a story that allows the reader to put the pieces together on their own, like a magic eye test, by telling one story through apophosis, you get your expression across, and allow the reader to make it an extracted allegory of their own personal experience.

          I see, I said, and that was that, (8)

          Standing at the shore of black (7)

          I hear my own words echo back: (8)

          In that mirror,

          I saw me, (7)

          Just  a reflection in the Sea. (8)

Continuing with the stages of grief, this stanza begins with facing the ‘shore of black,’ which was intended to be the equivalent of looking into the face of someone dead. The double anaphora of ‘I see, I said’ and ‘that was that’ is a seven line consonant non-complement anaphora and it serves, in this case, to further the see-saw / up and down of the nature de’ monte so persistent throughout the poem. Looking in the mirror–seeing someone dead from a drug overdose–was the first time I saw what would happen to me if I continued to abuse medication, and as painful as this process was, it had the effect of healing me, and seeing myself as just a reflection in the sea, in writing it, I intended it to connect me with the rest of humanity, as we are all alone in facing this natural process of our life.

Rolling, Natural Sounds in Poetry and Expression: 11 September 2015

Poetry is a method of expression. Expression, ostensibly, means to show–not say. For example, to rhyme how you feel is not poetry, or expression; it’s didactic and it’s boring. Touching on universal characteristics of the human condition is important; hope and fear, gain and loss, love and hate–it is all a part of the human experience.

          Although it is not poetic to simply rhyme how you feel in blatant statements, to overtly symbolize and make metaphor of your work is almost as bad. Symbols rely on idea association, and one of the main movements of modern art was the separate symbol from idea, idea from representation. Symbols are important, but to be obvious is to be boring. The oblique interplay of ideas allows for the reader to extract and apply allegory to their own life; allegory shouldn’t be equivocation within the poem itself.

          The best poetry not only has the ability to express without stating, but also works as a work that can successfully convey beauty with tone alone. Having fluency in another language will awaken the reader to the tonal qualities of his or her native language and, in doing so, allow them to see the beauty that certain arrangements of words can be. It has been said that ‘cellar door’ is the most beautiful word in the English language. It is unclear who actually made this claim, but once it was perpetuated by a popular Hollywood movie, it has become a go-to word for illustrating the beauty within the tone of certain English words. In writing rhyming couplets, a good way to judge the way it may sound to someone who can’t speak the language, is to see if it is possible to read the sentence as one word without difficulty. Let me offer a demonstration:

          I’m uncertain as to what makes a book on expression necessary.

          The consonant reflections do not adhere to natural vowels which would follow if the sentence rolled, in the manner I intend.  ‘Expression good’ doesn’t roll because it’s rare for a consonant, N, to be followed by another consonant, G. (It does happen, as in lingo and linguistics, for example) but adding to the diminished roll after the reflective consonant is the D that closes the sentence on a closed sound. It is a good practice in rolling to arrange words in ways that reflect single words, as in the following sentence ‘for what’ is not too far a stretch from ‘forward.’ For what I do not know the purpose for those books on prose. In the same manner, ‘purpose for’ is tonally related to purposeful; ‘books on’ is tonally related to book song.

          The sentence works as an example of smooth rolling and as an example of internal rhyme and, in addition to removing an unnecessary proposition, the line becomes more fluid, as though the words become Siamese, inseparable from what came before and what is to come after. In addition to flowing and being more lucid, it has multiple syllabic rhymes within it. ‘Do,’ (although not a perfect rhyme), ‘Know,’ and ‘prose’ connect as middle and ending phonemes and, taking away everything away from the sentence between the phoneme rhymes, the rhyming words, do the imperfect, and know and prose the perfect, you are reduced without transitions and articles to a statement: ‘Do know prose.’ Consonant pairing spread across the lines can also lend symmetry to a line: as the ‘t’ in ‘not’ presages the ‘t’ in quality. It is easy to do end-sentence rhymes of vowels, but to rhyme consonants by alliteration using internal, ellipse rhyme schemes, is much more difficult.

          End-line rhyming is the easiest form of writing poetry. But, just because it’s easy, doesn’t mean the resultant poetic expression is without value. I could make up lines of more than 20-30 internal parent rhymes, imperfect rhymes, and consonant relationships, but it wouldn’t make the statement, or expression, any more lovely. For example:

          I’m an imaginative and passionate masochist given adjectives elaborate and massive ass whoopins so bad it could land my ass back in prison. Imaginative, passionate, masochist, and adjective are three syllable perfect rhymes done over the course of the first half of the sentence. Just because of the display of rhyme ability in such a sentence is admirable, it is not necessarily a poetic sentiment. Which brings me to what qualifies as valid poetic expression.

          To be a poet, idea-object relationships have to be seen through the lens of a poet. To be a poet is to see relationships between objects and ideas that people without the poetic inclination do not. To look at a ring of smoke and see the essence of life is the type of idea-sight association that a poet would make, because there are layers to this idea. A ring is cyclical, like the cycles of life and death, the coming in and receding tide; the fact that it’s blown into being and lingers briefly before fading also links it to the idea of its relationship to life.

          It is important to keep in mind that, as important as it is to keep meter, for the sake of maintaining musical quality, nothing about it should be forced. If you are resigned to a specific meter, it is important not to be hasty in putting thought to paper. It is said that the poet Virgin, author of the Latin epic the Aeniad, wrote only two lines of poetry a day. When you’re under the impression that it is necessary to wait for inspiration to write good poetry, the best advice is to write on anyway: inspiration doesn’t always come when it is needed. If every writer who ever penned a master piece waited on inspiration for every page, the amount of masterpieces we have on record would be cut in half. Frank Herb, author of the acclaimed science fiction series Dune, said of writer’s block (I’m not aware of the price quote): the important thing is to write anyway, for when you look back, if you forgot all memory of the composition, you would not be sure which parts came to you while inspired and which came to you while uninspired. There’s something dangerous about inspiration, too.

          Inspiration should come to you as you’re working. You don’t get past writer’s block by waiting on the fence to be torn down, you have to break through it yourself by writing. If you waited on inspiration to write, you’d never get anything done. By the time inspiration does arrive, you should be too busy to notice. There is a dangerous quality to inspiration too; inspiration is like a drug, and certain drugs can lead you into self defeating cycles: professional writers will know what I mean when I refer to the re-write cycle. There is a tendency to stop while you’re in the heat of a good section to go back to the beginning and check out what you have so far. In doing this, you lose what future was going to come naturally before you stopped, and can be locked into forever trying to improve what you’ve already written. Be wary of this; it is possible to fix something until it’s broken. Jack Kerouac famously believed that re-writing was a censorship of one’s self, that re-writing was a cheat that altered the original expression for the sake of making it more decorative, more intentionally pandering to the sensibilities of one’s perspective readers. Ginsberg, author of the famous poem Howl, was always revising, always looking for le just mot (the perfect phrase, as it is said in French) and considering his success, I would not give my support to one extreme or the other.

          Another dangerous thing about inspiration is that it can lead you into tangents that, due to your confidence, will lead you so far away from the actual novel that, when working with a copy editor to produce a galley proof to send to a publish, it can look like an out of place, drug induced tangent that, in reality, was the moment you were lead astray by the confidence that inspiration can bring. Like a drug, it can convince you that you’re doing no wrong. Therefore, I would say that while inspiration is a good quality and excellent motivation, it is just as important to write logically and with a clear focus on where you’re going.

          When you go back to the beginning and start trying to improve, you begin to take the story out of a linear progression, because ideas intended to come later on are slipped in unknowingly, and as it is easy to do this, it is easy to forget what you have already said and, in all probability, have said better. Expression should be as natural as breathing; breathing is not a practiced process. Serendipity comes to those who summon her through great effort, not to those who wait on her to provide them with everything.

          Symbolism and metaphor are wonderful tools to use in poems. But the reliance on heavy, weighty symbols and metaphors, as well as the deplorable usage of using ‘like’ to relate one object’s essence to a train of thought, can trap you into expressing the ideas of symbols, instead of symbols used to represent ideas. When I say the reliance on symbolism in poetry is dangerous, I only mean to say the reliance on often used symbols to represent something is dangerous. Poetry is the expression of the personal, but it should have the touch of the universal. That’s why when I am writing I take great pains not to use ‘I’ as much as possible, to use ‘I’ in writing a poem is a way of separating your poetry from the reader. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but it keeps your writing within the three walls.

          The forth wall is the final barrier between true art and kitsch.

eBook! The Science of Expression: Art and Language, its History and Form (Collected essays, 2012-2015)

 

 

 

THE SCIENCE OF EXPRESSION

Art and Language; its History and Form

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2013-2015

BRANDON K. NOBLES

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By THE SAME AUTHOR—

 

 

 

 

THE DREAM OF THE LOUSE

ATTENDING AWAKE

THE MAKE-BELIEVE BALLROOM

SONGS OF LALANDE

COUNTERPANE

ATTENDING AWAKE

SONGS OF GALILEE

NOBODY: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Connect with Brandon online at http://www.brandonknobles.wordpress.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Dorothy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

REVISION

 

Hello. The majority of these essays were written before I considered publication. Therefore, repetition and overlapping ideas are to be expected. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort editing this material to try to keep such instances to a minimum. And, as much as I wish for these essays to entertain and inform, I also wish for them to instruct.

First of all, I’d like to talk about the varying positions taken by writers in regards to revision. This is the first time I’ve edited an entire book of my own and I’ll say this: surely, an author being forced to edit his own material for eternity is between one of the Seven Circles of Hell; between lust and suicide, obviously. Trapped as a tree, motionless—yet whirled forever to and fro by the violent winds of passion. Every writer understands this.

Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road and The Dharma Bums, believed revision was tantamount to censoring one’s own true vision and that raw, first draft storytelling was always more compelling. The Roman poet Virgil, author of The Aeneid, is perhaps most famous for guiding Dante through hell in the first, most popular book of The Divine Comedy, Inferno. Virgil was a revered poet in Dante’s time and that is why Dante, himself an aspiring poet, chose Virgil for his guide through hell. While we know nothing of Dante Aligheri’s method, it is said that Virgil wrote only two lines of poetry per day, and only when he was certain of perfection.

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert is known primarily for two things: his Kubrick-like perfectionism, and his novel Madame Bovary, widely considered to be one of the three great adultery novels of the 19th century; the others being Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Fontaine’s Effi Briest, respectively.

However, it is interesting to consider that he didn’t always belong in such exalted company. Graham Greene, the English author of The Third Man and The Human Factor, a still relevant commentary on apartheid, once said, “Proust was the best novelist of the 20th century, as Tolstoy was the best novelist of the 19th century.”

While I disagree with his opinion, Graham Greene himself was no slouch. He was once thought of as a great himself, described by John Irving, acclaimed screenwriter of the Oscar winning film The Cider House Rules, as the most accomplished living novelist in the English language.

Flaubert’s early struggles are well-known by scholars of 19th century French literature. For this it is all the more remarkable Madame Bovary was put into the same category, even if that category is ‘one of the three great adultery novels,’ as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a book widely thought to be the best novel ever written. Ir it is to be believed, here’s how the story goes: Flaubert read his first novel, November, to a small group of family and friends. When finished, the small crowd to which he read was unanimous in dismissal. They suggested he feed it to the flames. The friendly advice, it would seem, was, ‘Don’t quit your day job.’ Because of this, Flaubert would later become one of the most coherent and succinct prose writers of all time, in a never-ending search for les mot juste, the perfect phrase; his success is beyond question. After all, he did write one of the three best adultery novels of the 19th century.

In his part-memoir part-manifesto On Writing, Steven King gives a sweeping account of his life and childhood which emphasizes moments in his life which he believed to have shaped and influenced his work. It’s inspirational and light and has a quaint, touching humanity to it; a testament to the virtue of persistence and passion. In addition to discussing the way in which his style was developed (and how much he hates adverbs) King offers advice for people who are thinking about becoming a writer. He was once told by a publisher: Second draft should be the first draft minus 20%. Remove everything that doesn’t have to be said. Remove the non-story. Most of [Steven] King’s advice is founded in the English Major’s Bible: Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style; both are worth serious consideration for aspiring authors.

It is now known that Kerouac didn’t always follow his own advice as pages showing considered and layered drafts exist. Virgil’s extreme deliberation, however, is probably apocryphal. Yet if the account is true, and he only put two lines to parchment in a day, I’d say he’s lazy; Robert Louis Stevenson wrote The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in three days. So which method is correct? I guess the truth lies somewhere in between Kerouac and the Seven Circles of Hell.

If every writer wrote as though each line would pass under the eyes of whatever pantheon of Gods they have, writers would surely spend an obscene amount of time and effort, like Virgil, on every line. If I knew that this collection of essays would be passed under the eyes of one of my idols, I’d do the opposite of what Jack Kerouac falsely advocated; I’d fix it until it was broken, never release it out of fear, and hope no one ever brought it up.

It is a certainty that upon completion this novel will fall under the scrutiny of at least two friends, both writers, who have my respect and admiration. I’ve always found the best method is to write to the standards of the people whom you love.

There’s no way I can give the best advice to every aspiring writer as method is by its very nature individualistic and singular. The way one person writes may not work for someone else. In this instance, I will attempt to offer serious advice. Know your audience and don’t imply meaning. Don’t define a character through description; allow a character to define himself/herself through choices.

If you intend to write fast-food, pop novels such as the type of meals served by John Grisham, Dean Koontz or Nora Robertson, you know straight away you’re not going for the avant garde, but that doesn’t mean pop literature as pure entertainment can’t have strong characters and natural dialogue. If you want to make a legendary Thanksgiving dinner, like Garcia Marquez or Friedrich Schiller, don’t quit your day job.

When you have a finished manuscript, put it away until you can read it without reading it as your book. Then try to be objective, finish a 1st draft, and gather two friends, male and female, and two enemies, male and female, and read to them. The quality of your book can be directly measured by how embarrassed you feel when you hear your words read aloud.  A second draft should be capable of being heard without embarrassment. When your story is finished, then you can format it and check for any remaining typos. Self-publish a galley proof and order it. Invite your friends and enemies and allow them to submit their opinions anonymously. Read it without pride or prejudice but with proper nuance and enthusiasm. If they universally dismiss your ability, call them philistines, and resent them. But keep your dignity. Tell them the inspirational story of our friend Gustave Flaubert, the timeless tale of a timid French writer who rose from the ashes of being French to the Olympian heights of writing one of the three great adultery novels of the 19th century. Not only that, he wrote a great book; Sentimental Education. So write with confidence. If they love it, you’re good. Resent them anyway.

 

 

 

2

SUBJECTIVITY

 

 

ART IS DEFINED AS MUCH BY THE BEHOLDER AS IT is by the artist. Their combined efforts serve in its completion. Before it’s seen it’s incomplete. The sound a falling tree makes in the woods with no one there to hear it is each unheard piece of music, each book you’ve never read, each painting you haven’t seen. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is meaning and understanding. People complete art in their affirmation of its value. Civilizations are defined more by artists and poets than their kings and queens; as kings and queens are defined by artists and poets. The same is true in the interpretation of art.

In a broad sense, I don’t distinguish literature, music, painting—or any form of true expression—from art, although where I’m from art is usually reserved for visual arts, paintings, sketches, etc. Not all paintings, songs, or stories are art; rather all forms of expression are capable of becoming art when handled properly. And, to distinguish, how do we define art?

To me, art is anything that expresses or shows depth of feeling, passion and sincerity; something that pulses, something that breathes, something that bleeds. The depth of expression is usually the measure of its quality. It’s about emotion, in most cases, but expression isn’t limited to emotion. For example, art can express confusion. Confusion isn’t a traditional emotion, but it can be an emotional state. Expressing confusion is possible, as can be seen in Picasso’s Guernica. It has the quality of emotional detachment, a reservation to it. There are so many ideas, so much to see; the painting is drunk on its own drunkenness, out of control. This technique of echoing or reinforcing a theme is common. With a painting that demands a wandering eye, when you don’t know what to look at, in a sense Picasso takes you to that confusing day in Guernica. None of those who died were in control. They ran from one fire to another.

 

 

 

To give this painting some context, here is what Wikipedia has to say about the painting and what Picasso intended to represent.

The bombing of Guernica (26 April 1937) was an aerial attack on the Basque town of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, carried out at the behest of the Spanish nationalist government by its allies, the German air force’s Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria.

Picasso painted scenes he may not have understood and his great gift and innovation was painting material not found in nature, but in artistic exaggeration based on life, if loosely, found only in the imagination—where all great art begins.

The struggle once committed to a canvas lives forever. This is hope for the hopeless, a position in the mind of those who honor them. Paint frames them in a moment of horror, the figures paused. Time is broken; in that pause Picasso’s brush does for those who died in Guernica what Antigone did for the honor of her dead brother, Polyneices in Sophocles’ best play, Antigone.

Antigone did it with her life, Picasso with his brush. The baying horse, screeching with its neck crooked out of joint, a spear in its chest from which spills indecipherable news columns—a savage critique on journalists who profit by such horror. But there is hope, a candle, soft-light in the soft hands of an, above Picasso’s pyramid of death. This is in thematic opposition to the electric lightbulb’s imitation light; the electric eye that lights the scene.

Picasso’s mistress took several pictures of Picasso at work on Guernica and the painting becomes more and more confused and less optimistic as it progresses.

Earlier drafts showcased a socialist fist thrust upward in defiance. This sense of winning the fight, if only morally, disappeared with many stark, more wistful expressions. It seems as though Picasso was being drained as he stood before such noise, such horror and panic. The eyes are tricked to follow those disjointed lines; the lines that lead upward to the orgasm, the consummation of imagination and technique.

The reception was lukewarm when Geurnica was unveiled at the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne at the world fair in Paris in 1937. It’s a disheartening pattern when one considers some of the most beloved paintings we have from pre-modernity may have debuted to little or no success at all and, possibly, even to scorn and disgust.

Historically Guernica has been interpreted as an expression of protest, pain, and chaos. I think it was a chaotic expression of pain as protest. Many things are made of the light, as the lightbulb could be symbolic in a literary sense. The Spanish word for lightbulb is bombilla, which is similar to the word for bomb, bomba. The perforation on the palms suggest the stigmata of Jesus; a likely homage to Francisco Goya’s 1814 painting The Third of May 1808.

 

 

This painting was inspired by the Spanish resistance to Napoleon. [It] is lit by a box lantern on the ground at the feet of the firing squad, lighting them from below and casting their expressions in shadow. At the same time the on-canvas light source illuminates the line-up of riflemen and also serves as a gesture, a means to guide the eye from the muzzle of the rifles to the background to create depth, to create breathing room for the characters depicted. Picasso later reworked the painting:

 

 

In matters of subjective art, two reasonable questions arise: by what criteria is the quality of someone’s interpretation judged? And more important is a nonsense question with an accidental sort of wisdom. If the author of a painting or a polonaise or waltz intends no meaning at all, is there an objective meaning? Is it even possible? Keep this in mind: Jesus is a prominent figure in the lives of hundreds and hundreds of millions of people, and a good percentage of those pronounce it as it’s spelled in English. Now this is hilarious:

Jesus is a mistranslation (the idea of the virgin birth is the result of mistranslating ‘young woman); the letter J isn’t in the Greek or Hebrew alphabet and the Hebrew name is Yeshua. The English spelling is Joshua. Iesous is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name and its English is Jesus. That’s right: half of the world of Christendom is mispronouncing their God’s name. If something as important as, you know, the name of whomever you worship, can be muddled, how are we supposed to get through history when the game is Chinese Whispers?

Some artistic license is incapable of finding its way through translation.  The first thing that comes to mind is the disparity in how obscenity is judged. One of the most unique approaches to convey oneself is van Gogh’s self-portrait as a pair of boots, suggesting that the character of a person can be revealed through their possessions.  Van Gogh did this many times throughout his career; by painting absence; he did it with chairs, villages, and boots, of course.

It’s a good idea and a good painting; and a man with such worn out boots is a man who often walks, and anyone who walked as much as van Gogh spent a lot of time alone, lost in thought, living the life of the mind. So he’s a thoughtful person, and the shoes are sleepy looking; he’s forever tired, an insomniac with some nervous malady. In many parts of the world, receiving that painting, with knowledge of what it is, would give anyone who received it joy. Even if they didn’t get van Gogh, or thought that he couldn’t paint because he didn’t try to be a camera, they would understand its value.

Now, take that same painting to a family in Saudi Arabia. They would not be thrilled to receive such an image, not even as a gift. In Saudi Arabia shoes, boots, and footwear in general, if shown to a guest or elder; is offensive, as offensive in their culture as the middle finger is in America, as the A-Okay gesture is in Brazil. Do not use that gesture in Brazil. Things will be decidedly not A-Okay. They’ll hang you from arms of Christ the Redeemer if you pull some shit like that.

It was one of van Gogh’s personal favorites. It won him little critical or commercial acclaim but, with his first sunflowers, this was a great way of painting metaphorically.

 

 

Variations in opinions on art are explicable only in terms of individuals, their history, and their culture. Sometimes a painting or a song or smell can take you to another place, or bring images and other ideas, independent of the work to the fore, some memory on the tip of the tongue you can’t quite name. It could be a sort of nostalgia, an effortless remembrance. In this fashion a work of art can become meaningful in a way independent of the artist’s idea and its representation.

I have a coffee-table book on the collected works of the Dutch painter Vermeer. On the cover is perhaps Vermeer’s most famous work, Girl With a Pearl Earring. For me, this painting has become permanently associated with a friend of mine; since the book was a gift, and I once attempted to similarly depict her, she has become attached to the painting in that unique, Proustian way.

 

 

Because of time and habit, the painting itself has all but lost its intended emotional appeal; I still appreciate its beauty, its soft (what light?) angelic glow. But now when I see that face, I imagine a friend; a friend whose company I would much prefer to the portrait to which she is now inextricably attached. This could be a unique example of Pavlovian conditioning wherein instead of the result being conditioned fear it is in this instance conditioned love. The painter could have never foreseen this association and this type of meaning is by its very nature singular.

Subjectivity means that meaning is not set or definite. It means different things to different people. That is the positive aspect of subjectivity the interpretation of art. This is how we connect the dots we cannot see and, indeed, may not even be there. It may have a definite meaning to the author, but it is ambiguous; and this is what makes art great, the ability to connect to it personally, to understand and, in the process, learn something about ourselves, about who we are, and what made us that way. The interpretation of a work of art often says as much about the interpreter as it does about the artist.

It’s fun to speculate. It’s fun to talk about art and literature with your friends. That is part of the magic of the creative process, and a great thing for form and style—as ambiguity is purposed for varied interpretation.

Some authors not only have vague messages, they themselves have no true intention or meaning to consciously convey. The postmodern movement in art and literature stretched the unconscious onto the page and all was open to interpretation. Consider the varied analyses of Samuel Beckett’s tragic/comic play Waiting for Godot. There are different readings of the same material from every angle; from Freudian and Jungian psychosexuality and behaviorist studies to political Christian homoerotic interpretations. That’s what makes it so bizarre and enjoyable.

It’s this far-reaching and confounding web of connections that makes us draw knots trying to make a constellation; then it frustrates you to the point of being satisfied with the labyrinth, and eager to overcome your insecurities, as Theseus overcame the Minotaur. That’s what makes books such as Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow so challenging for critics and essayists. And for better or for worse, it makes books like this possible.  

3

THE GREAT MONKEY KING;

Prelude to a Fallible Philosophy

 

 

THE JATAKAS ARE AN ANCIENT COLLECTION OF parables and fables intended to impart the values and traditions of Theravada Buddhism unto children. These stories recount the past lives and incarnations of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. The Buddha is a title, not a name, and is best translated as, ‘Awakened one,’ despite the more popular English translation, ‘Enlightened one.’ It’s important not to confuse the historical Buddha with the “fat Buddha” so widely known in the West. The fat Buddha is a Chinese deity of wealth and plenty named Hotei and has no connection to the historical Buddha. If the accounts are to any degree valid, the historical Buddha was quite fit.

Gautama distinguished himself in more than just his diet; Siddhartha was an ascetic, though not quite austere, patient and humble. He eschewed wealth and taught moderation. This had a level of authenticity due to the fact that Siddhartha was a prince, first in line to the throne of the Shakya tribe; and he gave it up to wander through the woods in search of enlightenment. He didn’t claim divinity or supernatural influence and was not above the pains and desires of this world. Siddhartha was probably the first philosopher who went deeper than philosophy into psychology, into what the Dalai Lama has called the science of the mind.

It’s not surprising that the Buddha’s teachings, which denounced wealth and warned of the destructive nature of desire, would get him into trouble with the highest caste of society, the Brahmans. As keepers of the ancient religious traditions of the Vedas, the Brahmans were powerful and wealthy. When the Buddha was brought before them and charged with blasphemy, he defended his teachings in a precise and understandable manner. The Buddha described his teachings as such, “I know not whence the arrow comes, nor who holds the bow; I’m interested only in how to live with the pain.”

I guess that was good enough. He wasn’t interested in money or converting anyone, or changing anyone’s core beliefs. He was, at his core, an educator of the heart.

The middle path is the primary focus for Buddhist aspirants. These teachings were spread with poetry, stories, and songs. There’s a unique, strangely relevant story from the Jatakas I would very much like to share with you. It is important to understand that, as messengers should not be shot, they should also not be worshipped. The wisdom of Aesop, famous as well for fables, has not brought worship or adulation to Aesop as a man; as it is needed nor necessary for any person who wishes to contribute to the betterment of the world, even if it’s one small story at a time. The point, I should say, is this: a philosophy should be more important than the philosopher.

We don’t know who wrote Beowulf. It doesn’t matter. For if we knew the name of that Anglo-Saxon poet, the story would still be more important than the character of the writer. Idolizing a person of great ideas diminishes the value of those great ideas; as [the message] is less and less focused on, as the cult of personality takes shape. The Buddha never wanted to be iconic, and yet he probably has one of the largest personality cults of all time.

One night the Buddha sat around a fire and listened to his followers, the Bhikkus, and heard a particularly beautiful and inspirational tale; a tale of love, humility, and selflessness. The Buddha was profoundly moved by their tale and asked for it to be repeated that he may better appreciate its value and improve his depth of understanding. Upon hearing it once more, the Buddha sat for a moment in silence, then spoke:

“This is not the first time the Tatagatha has done well for the good of life. I would like to tell you a story and I think you will enjoy it. It is the story of the Great Monkey King.

“Once there was a Great King, a King of the Monkeys of the Himalayas. He was wise in mind and noble in character. He was a most respected King, solemn and humble, adored by the many monkeys under his rule and protection.

“Along the bank of the Ganges River (where the historical Buddha is said to have wandered) there grew a magnificent mango tree with massive branches. The fruit was ripe and sweet and spread across the embankment The King, keen in awareness and perceptive, knew this could be disastrous, as the King of Men, and all his knights behind him, could find the tree and subdue it, as men were known to do.

“He made the decision to have his subjects pick the flowers and fruit from the trees so the men would soon move out of their territory. They did their duty diligently, but in their haste left one tree unspoiled, intact, as it was hidden from their sight. And soon a fruit unnoticed, from the great mango tree fell into the Ganges, beside the bathing King. He was so fond of the mango’s taste, he ordered his soldiers into the forest to find the mango tree and pick from it as many mangoes as they could carry. After a brief search the King’s men found the tree the monkeys had neglected, but couldn’t get them all at once, as night was settling over them and, with their bellies full, they fell asleep under the moon.

“As soon as the Monkey King confirmed the King of Men and his soldiers were asleep, they sought the forgotten tree and began to remove the rest of the mangoes. They hoped that, with all the mangoes gone, the soldiers would finally leave their forest home. The monkeys scattered through the limbs and made such noise the King of Men was roused and found above him the army of the Monkey King. The King of Men felt threatened by the monkeys and woke his men. They were ordered to pursue them with their bows.

“They saw no way to escape and they feared for their lives. They gathered with their children and their families around the Great Monkey King and asked, ‘What can we do? They’re going to kill us.’

“The Great Monkey King spoke to them without fear and much reassured them that they were not in danger as he would not let them come to harm. Their spirits were lifted and the monkeys were entreated by their King to follow him to a small crossing. It was much too deep for them to wade, and as they were poor swimmers, they didn’t know how they could get to the other shore.

“On the shore they stood upon was raised a barren mango tree, and on the other one as well; the Monkey King carried a heavy rope on his back, sprung from the base of the dead tree, up the trunk, up into the empty branches, and pulled it down with him onto the other side of the river, making a bridge. On the other shore he found a long vine and fastened it to the tree to allow the rest of the monkeys to cross. The he tied the vine around his waist and leapt across the river, returning to the other shore in haste. And in his haste he made a mistake. The Great Monkey King forgot to include himself in his estimate of distance and therefore would not be able to reach the other side. The Great Monkey King did not despair, and would not give up; where there is true peace, and true love, seeds of despair do not bear fruit.

“By holding on to a smaller branch which he had managed to grab, it was possible for the other monkeys to cross; though he would then be stranded in the river there to drown. He wished them luck as they passed. Even though the Monkey King had made a mistake, he refused to give up, and managed to grab a branch. Seeing his fearlessness much comforted the Monkey King’s dedicated subjects; they were no longer afraid.

“The King of Men, seeing this, was moved to tears and a great feeling of empathy overcame him. ‘This King of Monkeys,’ said the King of Men, ‘has sacrificed his life for the safety of his subjects.’

“The King of Men then called his soldiers to a conference and ordered them to bring the body of the Great Monkey king ashore. They brought him back to camp and bathed him and anointed him with perfumes, dressing him in noble robes. He was given sugar water to drink and was treated with respect by all who looked upon him. One day the King of Men, hearing of the Great Monkey King’s failing health, visited him in his tent. He stood before the Monkey King and made a low bow. ‘Tell me, Great Monkey King,’ said the King of Men, ‘what were those other monkeys to you? What could mean more to you than your own life?

“The Monkey King replied, ‘Great King, as you must guard your soldiers and protect your honor, I must guard my herd. I am their lord; their chief, their shepherd. When they are filled with fear, I will assure them. They know I will give my life to keep them from being harmed. To be a great king and ruler, a king must guarantee the happiness and safety of those under his command. Sire, you must understand this if you wish to be a righteous ruler. The happiness of your people must be worth a life, it must be worth your own.

“Speaking thus, the Great Monkey King closed his eyes and died in peace. He was given a royal burial. The women carried torches to guide his soul to the next world. A shrine was erected in his memory; the height of honor, adorned with lotus flowers. The King of Men would remember the sacrifice of the Monkey King for the rest of his life.”

When the Buddha finished his story, it was said that each of his assembly felt a renewed sense of togetherness and safety. The Buddha said, “In that age so long ago, the King of Men was

Ananda; the monkeys this assembly, and myself the Monkey King.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4

THE EVOLVING LOOKING-GLASS

 

 

FOR 97% OF OUR SPECIES’ TIME ON THIS PLANET WE have no stories or documents. We can only conjecture and infer and speculate and imagine as to how our earliest ancestors lived. It is possible, even likely, that stories were being written much further into the past than the oldest stories we have, but if there are such stories, they are not extant and not to be found in the historical record.

Before the stories of ancient Mesopotamia, we have nothing; afterwards, however, a Cambrian-like literary explosion took place, with similar stories—the stories of Gods and Goddesses and God-kings and God-queens—springing up simultaneously from many different civilizations. As it has been noted, like languages, pyramids sprung up from many different pre-historic cultures independently, each without knowledge of the other. The literary equivalent can be seen in the flood myths of many ancient civilizations in the Middle East; it is interesting to note the way stories evolve and change even when they’re about the same event.

There is a book called Oral Lit as Holy Writ by Alan Dundes, a folklorist who holds a professorship at UC Berkeley, which shows how fables evolve into hierarchal belief systems and how those fables are repurposed by religious leaders, often borrowing from other cultures. Consider the flood of Noah as recounted in the Old Testament (or the Pentateuch, Torah, the Books of Moses.)

Ziusudra was from the ancient Sumerian City of Shuruppak, meaning, ‘The Healing Place.’ This may not be a familiar name; but this story predates the account of the global flood to be found in Genesis. Ziusudra is known to have been the last king of Sumer prior to the great flood. The single account of Sumer’s creation myth was excavated in Nippur and is called the Eriduo Genesis. It is written in Sumerian and dates to 1600 BC during the first Babylonian dynasty.

Sumeria’s story is a bit different. Being a polytheistic religion, one God isn’t the only one who’s a bit miffed; in this instance there are a committee of pissed off Gods: An, Enlil, Enki and Ninhursanga are responsible for allowing the flood to destroy the human race. Almost a thousand years before the account in Genesis, this story tells of a Gudug priest and what came to pass after he was told of an impending flood. In a later version of the story, an Akkadian version, Ea (or Enki) warns a humble man named Astra-hasis and is then given instructions to build an ark.

This leads to another biological parallel: if there is convergent evolution in flora and fauna, is there a literary equivalent to this phenomena? Could all the unknown intricacies within the human genome lead to epigenetic, subtle, information transfer and inheritance? Is it possible that the dreams or lives of our ancestors are relived within our own dreams, consisting of what we know of the human genome and what we have yet to correlate to function? Could this information play out as the unconscious data without known functions, permeating minds when closed off by the natural echo chamber of sleep? I once thought that the curiosity of the prevalent flood was somehow inherent, a fixed memory, being our intuitive knowledge of our own birth.

There may be an even more absurd notion; it might be true. The issue of its veracity, to me, comes down to how people of that era would be able to know if water was covering the whole world when the Americas had yet to be discovered, and, how even in our modern era, we have to check the internet or the weather channel to get the forecast for other countries and cities. It is possible that the entire world as they knew it was flooded.

Either these stories somehow travel through the darker, undiscovered catacombs of genetic code, or pass like oral lit, evolve into the written word and then pass through the ages as a part of the dreampool, the intellectual equivalent of the genepool from which our beliefs and identities are formed through assimilation or rejection.

The sheer number of independent flood accounts in different places and different eras, though all relegated to the Middle East, are familiar with Ziusudra and the Sumerian account, which is the oldest written record we have of a global flood. This attests to the fact that, whether it is biological or oral tradition, stories are inherited. And these ‘prokaryotes’ are replicas, replicas with just the nouns and pronouns changed.

The Genesis flood in the Biblical Old Testament endures to this day, with many people taking it as literal history. The Greeks have similar myths. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book I recounts the flooding of the world. The difference between this story and the familiar Genesis account is that one person, the King of Arcadia, has incurred Zeus’s anger by sacrificing a child. Before Zeus unleashed the flood, Deucalian, with the aid of his father Prometheus (with whom the Gods would also have a bit of a disagreement,) was saved from the flood by building an ark, like Noah and the Mesopotamian Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh. 

The case for Alan Dundes’s assessment that all of these stories and fables became the source for holy lit is further evidenced by how close these cultures were in proximity to one another, in locale if not in time.

Even before oral lit there was a form of communication among humans, a communication that is closer to the language spoken of other primates; the role of the FoxP2 gene has been studied in great detail and is thought by evolutionary biologists to have played a major role in the development of consonant-vowel speech patterns which evolved in concert with our controlled and conscious breathing to form the sounds required for speaking.

This was first presented by Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man.  It is a widely cited and popular idea, even in our literary culture, once referenced by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the first Sherlock Holmes publication; serialized in The Strand as A Study in Scarlet. In it Holmes says to his companion Watson:

“Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are subtly influenced by it; there are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.”

Watson replied, “That is a rather broad view, Holmes.”  To which, Sherlock Holmes says, “One’s views must be broad if we are to interpret nature.”

Modern discoveries, including the discovery of a protein encoded by the FOXP2 gene, a human specific phenotype located on the 7th chromosome, have shown that this protein is also found in songbirds. Darwin was correct inasmuch as suggesting song was a precursor to speech as much as speech was a precursor to language and language a precursor to story.

Before alphabets, however, before even Gilgamesh and Elfinspell, there are examples of sequential symbols being used to tell stories through hieroglyphs long before the cultures of 6,000 years ago began to preserve stories for posterity; so, in essence, comic books are the oldest form of storytelling, going back at least 30,000 years.

There is a period in our evolutionary history called the Great Leap Forward, before the agricultural revolution. It is thought that it is in this period humans began to make complex and well developed tools along with using figurative language. This historical awakening coincides with the advent of processes that would make primitive communication possible, through tone and pitch at first, a language still spoken in the jungles of the world. It was a necessity: the beginning of a cumulative advancement, as knowledge could be preserved and passed from generation to generation.

The book considered by most to be the first work of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, was discovered in ancient Mesopotamia. Although there are stories thought to be older, such as Elfinspell and The Shipwrecked Sailor from Upper Nubia, Gilgamesh will here be used as the starting point from which all else follows.

The first stories to be written were written in cuneiform characters in and around Mesopotamia. And these cuneiform symbols, which, like itinerant species, branched off into different idiomatic inflections, adapting to new environments. It was the diplomatic alphabet used in Babylon, Hattusha, and Egypt. As with animals, language, once separated from its indigenous habitat, will, given enough time, adapt and evolve.

Italian and Sicilian are examples of this kind of evolution as both are offshoots of the Latin language and originally were no different. Separating cultures allowed for languages to, at first, become colloquial and cultural until finally becoming different enough to be classified as a new species. As language has evolved and our ways of writing have changed, the materials used for writing have changed as well.

Throughout history stories have been written on everything from papyrus, clay tablets, cement walls, blotting paper, stones, hemp paper, modern paper, typewriters, and finally the predominant methods used in the digital age. Television programmes are as related to cuneiform writing once chiseled into stone as we are to chimpanzees, as we are both descendants of the ancient order of australopithecines; having diverged in lineage around 6 million years ago.

We live in an age where information is more available than it has been in the history of our species. This text can be transferred from one corner of the Earth to another with minimal effort. If I want to look for a copy of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir, I have only to do a brief search and I can find it—in the original French or in translation. It is an irony I think that in our era, books have become more widely available than they have in human history, and yet are probably less read than at any other time. I have a device in my back pocket which contains more books than the highest estimates of the contents of the famed library of Alexandria. Our access to information on government and religion is unprecedented; at no time in history has a civilization bore the critique of its government and religion in the manner now available.

We are more advanced than we have ever been. But when I say we’re more advanced, what is meant by that? Advancement relative to what? The issue comes down to how we define human progress.

In ascertainable history, we’ve seen the world evolve by looking through different windows, wearing different lenses as academics; be it biology, history, physics, genetics—the fields continue to advance. The difference between now and then is not only do the films evolve as we watch with genre-specific glasses, the windows we look through have now themselves evolved.

Gilgamesh, like The Arabian Nights, have preserved these cultures for all time, like ornate ships in a bottle being passed between countries carried by the natural rhythms of the Earth according to season and mood. We’ve sent our poems and our music and our biological information into space. The music of Mozart may one day be found by a culture with no understanding of who we are and through that music would know all they’d need to know.

The Bhikkus we discussed in the Great Monkey King have passed down the stories told by the Buddha to their children for hundreds of generations and these stories are genetic, the preserved DNA of a culture. The books we read are arranged into pairs of letters like units of DNA which, in a manner similar to the way in which our biological traits are programmed, greatly shape our character and personality.

Art and stories, folklore and music, are the backbone of cumulative, cultural advancement. They are, based on their quality, protected by posterity, affording ideas the ability to be further built upon. To see the future of literature, you must look to the other schools of academia, where numbers and letters join, to glossolalia.

To understand the future of language, the origins, the proto-form of the expressed idea must be explored and we, with our new window, must go back to the parent of all ideas—the eukaryotic idea. This is what made the evolution of life and ideas possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5

THE EUKARYOTIC IDEA

 

 

LITERATURE, IN EVOLUTIONARY TERMS, BEGINS   and ends with the idea. Even if the idea is unconsciously expressed, it is behind the conveyance of all forms of information. Because of this, the idea is behind the edifice of standardized language.

Language is a recent development; the end product of intermediate stages that have been changed throughout history. To show the developmental stages of narrative is necessary when looking to the future. Before we look at variations between languages, I’d like to present a more natural way of looking at language and what language represents.

Human beings aren’t the only animals that use language, nor are they the only animals to use language to describe objects and other individuals within their species and environments. Dolphins are well known for their intelligence and have names for one another; they have names for objects and places. It was recently discovered that crows pass information and habits to offspring through language, and, as it is with humans, these animals have different, colloquial accents; and, when conditioned to respond negatively to certain masks and faces, crows will not only continue to respond negatively and attack the same mask years after their conditioning, their offspring will inherit these prejudices. That’s right; racism is hereditary.

Literature is not only the chronicle of life or ideas; a book is a haunted house, a haunted house that scares the shit out of complacent, naïve people. To start with the first organized story using structured language would be to exclude 97% of our history. So, we have to use the 3% of our history we have to account for the rest. The best way to do this is to look at literature in biological and genetic terms. What follows this is a eukaryotic idea: when new information becomes available, this idea will have to be revised. Dismissing reality to keep an idea alive is more often than not what kills it.

Based on the information we have available, what we know as life began in more basic and simple terms and remained that way for the greater majority of biological history. The birth of conveying ideas began in prokaryotic fashion, as life began as prokaryotic in nature. To say that ideas were originally prokaryotic is to say that the replica was idealistically without variation from the replicator. This is the stage in literary evolution when the idea and the representation were the same: images of cows, fish, and people, were what they conveyed; cows, fish, and people. This was the first form of idea, the prokaryotic idea.

The eukaryotic idea became possible with the disconnect between idea and representation. Without abstraction we would be without the majority of literary devices we so often use such as analogy, simile, metaphor, parody, satire, equivocation. At this stage, a cow can be an obese person; taken further, the obese person can be gluttony; gluttony can be insatiable desire, a sin, and a hobby. At the deepest level of meaning, meaning becomes a choice on behalf of the reader.

One of the most famous works of English literature, The Old Man and the Sea, which won Ernest Hemingway the Nobel Prize for literature, was about a man going fishing. The reason it won is not because the board of voters is particularly good in judging English literature. There was a mystical, archetypal sense about the famous short story. I think something with that kind of simplicity and clarity in storytelling is startling. It is presented as idea without equivocation. What makes good literature resonate is literature that doesn’t think for the reader. It presents a story without obvious answers and this is what compels us to project onto it our own ideas and theories.

The Old Man and the Sea is not specifically about how we are defined by our struggles; the kind of struggle which always demands one more effort, one more pull, forever and ever. It’s not about climbing to the top of a mountain to discover it’s a sand-dune. It’s not about how even when we achieve our goal it comes to nothing, as only the bones of the great fish remain when the man returns to port. It is not about the fight between two aspects of nature. It’s about an old man and the sea, an old man who dreams of lions when he sleeps. What is the fish and what is the man? They are the same thing: organisms fighting for their continued survival. The struggle portrayed in literary terms resonates in biological terms. The reason the book is so meaningful is because it is not intended to be meaningful.

The most important difference in the prokaryotic cell and the eukaryotic cell is that the eukaryotic cells has a nucleus bound membrane which allows for the passing of genetic information from one generation to another. In eukaryotic ideas, information is being passed and replicated imperfectly. The imperfection is its greatest attribute because it allows for improvement. The only reason evolution is possible is because DNA is not always perfectly copied, and sometimes variations have better chances of surviving than a genetic replica would have.

Change happens during replication, during chromosomal encoding as each gene, in competition with an alternate gene, an allele, takes place along each slot, each locus, at each of the mother’s 23 chromosomes and the father’s 23 chromosomes. Adaptation, on the genetic level, doesn’t happen within an organism’s lifetime.  Its ability to adapt is dependent on its genetic endowment. There are selection pressures amongst varying ideas, and it is most often cultural, subjected to changing intellectual climates and competition with other competing philosophies. Eukaryotic ideas are different than prokaryotic ideas because there is deviation in replication that allows for difference to enter into the dreampool. The difference between the biological and literary eukaryote is that an idea can change and adapt after birth. This is what makes the evolution of ideas and information possible and this is how knowledge can be improved upon.

As we’ve seen, ideas are inherited. The success of an idea is largely dependent on the environment in which it emerges. Its success among competing ideas within that culture. Genes operate under the same principle and those which allow the organism to survive aren’t selected in the human sense, and perhaps ideas aren’t either.

The cave paintings in Chauvet, France can be considered the archetypal prokaryotic idea: it is both idea and representation and does not deviate in replications.

 

 

Considering fire in biological terms can illustrate this point. Fire breathes; it excretes; it consumes and produces energy; it gives birth to daughter fires; you can smother it by cutting off its oxygen, drown it in water, but fire doesn’t pass on genetic information, even though it makes copies of itself, even though there are different varieties of fire. Some spit, some crackle, some hiss; but they are biologically not alive, although they share these traits with living organisms. The difference between fire and eukaryotic organisms is the passing of genetic information through DNA.

Tone is the gateway to understanding modern language, as domesticated animals can usually understand commands given based on their tone, volume, and rapidity. The point of tone is to convey the idea, but tone is predated by pictorial literature wherein symbols are used to represent something they aren’t, the combination of different symbols to reference other ideas.

The way we begin to understand language in our native environment is not through form and definition. We begin to understand words by the tone and volume of the sound, in concert with posturing, facial expression, and other such things that children understand more thoroughly than adults. Parents, or more precisely, mothers, will tell you that a child can mean a lot without using descriptive language. A mother can differentiate happiness, grumpiness, anger, and contentment (silence) in terms of tone. Even when a tone is no different to the ear of a casual listener, a child crying because of hunger and a child crying because of being sleepy can be understood biologically by mothers. This is found in other species as well, as tone can extend and manipulate the genes of other animals at a distance.

There are two examples I can use to illustrate this principle. Cuckoos never raise their own children. Female cuckoos parasitize the nests of other birds, such as the common reed warbler. When it becomes obvious to the diminutive reed warbler that what she’s feeding may not be, in fact, a reed warbler, considering that it is larger than the rest of the chicks, and her, the cuckoo is capable of making a noise that mitigates this factor.

The noise produced by a cuckoo chick is an expression of its genes, an extended phenotype; it can be said to control the way the reed warbler thinks, as the sound a cuckoo makes acts on the mind of the reed warbler. The sound made by the obviously fraudulent cuckoo is enough to change the reed warbler’s ability to realize that whatever is making that sound probably isn’t a reed warbler, or any other kind of warbler. This is not the only instance in which a phenotype is extended.

There is a species of cricket in which the male uses very specific and intentional sounds to manipulate the ovulation of female crickets at a distance. The general concept is synonymous to that of the reed warbler; as a part of our natural inheritance, we can use sound and tone to convey basic needs.

As animals born into environments in which their immediate ancestors were, genetic information that gives the resultant organism its tenacity and survival probability comes from an organism that relied on its genetic information to survive in the same environment. To illustrate this in terms that apply to ideas, an idea which allows for an organism to maximize its utility within its environment is, although not always consciously, selected.

The information carried in DNA makes up the chromosome of every animal on Earth, all of which have phenotypic traits encoded by four letters: T, U, G, and A. Every animal you see in the wild is just a different assemblage of those four letters of DNA, collectively representing an animal’s genome. Similarly, each book is a different animal. In English, each of those animals are just different arrangements of twenty-six letters. Different languages, obviously, have different letters and alphabets. Considering the English alphabet only, all of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the collected works of Dickens and Shakespeare—all being different only in its arrangement of the same twenty-six letters.

The most common selection pressures are the environment (culture) predators (competing, contrary ideas,) and, in the idea’s case, adaptability. A rigid idea, which does not adapt, is prokaryotic; this means that while there may be individuals who try to adapt it, the adaptation process is an unnatural one: when the terms we use to evaluate nature are altered to adapt the idea to new cultures, this is the reversal of ideal evolution. It is preservation, but it is stasis. Isaac Newton’s theory of gravitation has been modified to more accurately describe nature and it took 300 years for it to become a closer representation of what nature reveals to us.

The interpretation of nature hasn’t been changed to give more authority to Newton’s theory of gravitation. When someone distorts information provided by nature to fit an idea, this is the death of the idea as a viable, adaptable organism, and this process is what assigns prokaryotic attributes to the idea, because once an idea is no longer subject to revision based on better understandings of nature, and objective data provided by observations of nature, it can only survive through prokaryotic replication. The conceit that an imperfect being can have a perfect idea, an idea that overreaches future, contradictory discoveries, is unhealthy, and leads to stagnation.

These ideas may be dead on a biological level, but survive as the literary equivalent of a living fossil. Living fossils are extremely successful species that can survive without significant change for millions of years. They are perfectly adapted to their environment, are either without predation or the apex predator, and lack competition for food and mates within its species and among cohabiting species.

Prokaryotic living fossils in literature aren’t successful because they are perfectly adapted to the environment. Adaptation to an environment means, in literary terms, that the preserved product was molded and shaped by the culture. This is how more vibrant and adaptable eukaryotic ideas survive; they are updated to fit the environment as it changes. Prokaryotic, living fossil ideas are so successful because they were created for the environment, and then the environment was adapted to the idea.

These ideas are successful enough without the intellectual sculpting and cultural evaluation and revision that makes eukaryotic ideas successful, viable organisms. Even though they compete through people, by proxy, only the ideas are at war. Through people, ideas make war with other ideas, which happen to be in other people. An idea is what wins a war, never a person. The winner of a war is never a person, it is the idea. People never survive a war, they die—for what survives is no longer a person.

With few exceptions, such as humans, other primates, and dolphins, when an animal kills another animal there is no need for justification. Need is the justification. In natural conditions, animals kill other animals to survive, for food, to prolong their lives. Animals such as the big cats (tigers, lions, cheetahs, jaguars) teach their offspring how to kill, admittedly, but it is not about philosophy. Cheetahs don’t chase down antelopes and kill them because they disagree. In more intelligent animals, where there is killing for sport, for thrills, for ideas, the idea itself is, to some degree, symbiotic; it is using the organism to transmit itself to other hosts. It is a virus, a disease—Marco Polio.

Prokaryotic ideas survive at the expense of people; eukaryotic ideas survive because people, culturally and collectively, keep them alive to better the culture and the collective.

Methodology and evolutionary history has shown how harmful it can be to introduce a foreign species to an isolated, stable ecosystem. A prominent example is the dodo, a flightless bird not unlike the common pigeon, which once inhabited the island of Mauritius. The species’ that inhabit an island are a snapshot of a different evolutionary era and have selection pressures that are favored only there, pressures which haven’t yet prepared them for something like a dog, a cat, or a drunk sailor.

Importing living fossil ideas and introducing them to indigenous ideas is the first symptom that hints at the real relationship between idea and host: this is a symbiotic relationship with the carrier species, podochus ennoia; from the Greek for ‘idea holder,’ and a prokaryotic idea that can only make replicas. It’s a perfect word: a dying idea uses a host to escape, to survive, to maximize the survivability of its genes.

The success of the prokaryotic idea is dependent on p. ennoia to propagate and survive, since it has lost its ability to change to suit environments, environments are changed by p. ennoia to accommodate the idea. Superficial changes are made to make it successful for different potential carriers. In this case, the language of the prokaryotic idea behaves like DNA, as it rewrites an organism’s thought, and inoculates them against attempts at further cultural and intellectual adaptation.

The analogy can be extended, biologically, because when an idea requires a host organism, a carrier species, to survive, it doesn’t simplify and adapt itself; it simplifies and degrades the carrier.

The ennoia begin as objective idea evaluators, where ideas are given value based on accuracy in description and economy of explanation. To become a pod, an idea host, it is usually the mistake made by someone mistaking a virus as the cure for a deeper sickness. When a superficial, mass-market idea kicks into gear, hosts are immunized by the symbiotic life-form against attempts at objective evaluation and become permanently prokaryotic, ideas whose survival is dependent on the ennoia’s success in adapting new environments, which includes new carriers, for the idea.

This type of reverse-engineering takes place within the dreampool with disturbing regularity. Eukaryotic ideas, ideas which evolve to best represent nature in natural philosophy, are rarely changed by individuals, but by collections of individuals within scholastic traditions. Einstein’s gravitational constant was phased out, because it was incorrect. As it was eukaryotic in nature, it allowed for after-birth evolution to take place, and when errors were found within the idea, an attempt to revise it to keep it alive was made. When revision couldn’t save it, and nothing but opinion could support it, it was phased out of the dreampool. A prokaryotic idea resists adjustment. Before Charles Darwin and Watson and Crick and Mendel, different versions of these ideas were in the dreampool.

Lamarcke was a French biologist who had an epigenetic centered view that revolved around the error in supposing that if you learned to speak other languages during your lifetime, your genetic code would be rewritten and your children would inherit the ability to speak these languages. Lamarcke’s idea of evolution was phased out because it was wrong. Objective idea-evaluators know what can prove them wrong, and in most cases, are not extremely keen in putting forth the effort required to be considered right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6

MARCO POLIO!

 

 

Note. This chapter is intended to be experimental, expressionist, and is done in the vein of self-parody and irony. This is a rambling mess included for the sole purpose of extending the concept of the eukaryotic idea. For a more straightforward and natural chapter, skip to chapter 7.

 

DAVID HUME WAS A POPULAR SCOTTISH
philosopher and naturalist. He didn’t live long enough to become acquainted with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species or Mendel’s theory of dominant and recessive genes, but he was very keen on science, nature over myth, and proof over faith. Conceding a less deterministic, pre-programmed ideal of humanity and the cosmos, he believed the abdication of free-will was a means of obfuscation, a way to defer responsibility for one’s actions.

MARCO!

Voltaire once said, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to create him.’

If Voltaire was alive today, having seen the last hundred years of war and terror, I’m sure he’d reconsider. Forced with the maddening conclusion that there is a God, which cannot be proven for all to accept it, there are many ways, if not to prove, to strongly persuade. Perhaps this may be the original argument. There have been many books dedicated to precisely this and in modern America the debate continues. Arguments for and against have been put to the public at large, with varying degrees of success. There are good arguments on both sides.

 

 

POLO!

What became the dictator, the belief, began as idea, if a somewhat pregnant one. We have, for the most part, in modernity, allowed the ruled to choose the rulers; this makes sense, as people are most easily deceived by those they trust. The Master isn’t what it used to be. It is more subtle, more nuanced. Due to a psychological trait called confirmation bias, the relationship between the host and idea is only made stronger by antagonism. The relation is now that of symbiosis; between a carrier organism and a sickness, a virus: Marco polio. When an organism is possessed by a virus, the impulse to infect others is overwhelming. There is nothing greater or more important than the point.

MARCO!

The way this works is analogous to the way in which biological viruses work and the demonstratively bad impact they have, not only on the ecosystem at large, but on a carrier organism’s viability. This works with symbols and sigils and at this moment in human history in America, the most powerful symbol is the dollar sign; the symbol, the addictive element of Horatio Alger’s Ragged Dick fantasies about the American dream, is the appeal to desire (whose twin is despair.)

POLO!

‘Give me the child for 7 years, and I’ll give you the man,’ was once used more confidently; those who wish to erode one’s sense of self and identity is much more subtle now. Yet it all begins with the appeal to fear and hope; the idea that you’re not in control and your life is bereft of meaning, and the hope that through this process you will attain meaning and control. What life means is no longer as important as how much life costs. That’s why the dollar sign has risen out of the shadow of the cross. They say money can’t buy happiness. I guess. But it can buy half of it, I bet.

MARCO!

It is ironic that the most prevalent cause of slavery in history is the possibility, the promise of freedom. This is a well-understood idea and affords expansionist slave-owners the ability to create slaves. If the cross’s popularity can be explained by its appeal to our fear of death, the dollar sign’s popularity can be explained by its ability to appeal to the possibility of happiness without having to die. This is fine when it’s an individual choice and kept to one’s self. When it evolves, as the best viruses do, you forget that it’s a thought. When it takes control of the host completely, it becomes something for which a believer will sacrifice their lives, their children’s lives, and the lives of other people’s children. This is all in service to the point. At what point is this going to be explained in terms of what it is—a Sickness?

POLO!

When one’s own happiness is dependent on what another person believes, they become enslaved by the point, and it’s usually something they inherit: racism and xenophobia, excommunication and divisions, all of which are, if not invented, at least cultivated and nourished—class, sexual inequality, race, culture, religion–and the most terrifying aspect of this illness is the desire for healthy people to see the disease and its symptoms and desire infection; to desire the disease.

MARCO!

Perhaps this is debatable: another terrifying aspect of this illness is its ability to pass itself off as a cure for a deeper sickness. Once you have the disease, you will forget you didn’t need it; then you become a happy carrier and willing distributor, targeting children and fearful adults. Any belief maintained by fear has the same value as information gained under torture: how do you recognize the difference between the actions of the sick and the healthy?

POLO!

The limit function is assigned a value, a numerical value that becomes the price of possibility or the cost of failure. One of the reasons for the tremendous success of this mirage is how happy its replicators seem, happy to be flag carrier’s in a distant war only to be lost to time, to die for a combative ideology, a philosophy not even your own.

MARCO!

It seems that after the last ice age human beings imagined a tower of Babel as a way to understand why there are different languages and cultures and, because it was another point unprovable, it was created, another self-fulfilled prophecy. It’s an interesting story. You have the stern reminder of the futility of attaining perfection, a heavily implied punishment for something harmful to no one. Psychologically and philosophically, the disease was contrived and purposed in slow but intrusive ways through the application of misdirection, the appeal to hope, and what becomes the king—Fear.

POLO!

It is a natural, inherent desire to be acknowledged, to be understood, to have others share in your beliefs. This can go too far, however, and a good indication that it has gone too far is when it becomes necessary for others to accept what you believe as true accepted as true by others. This is how the infected become a drone-mind collective idolizing the preaching Patient Zero, creator of this friendly disease, conveniently working for the cure, or at least the idea that there is a cure. The end game is to live diseased and to spread it as much as possible.  It evolves again. It’s in the air. It’s in the school, the courts; it’s everywhere, adapting to changing hopes and fears.

POLO!

It’s natural to question the origin of need and necessity. If this is the product of disease, it must be explicable in biological terms. Without selection pressures favoring an organism’s ability to perform inception on itself, it wouldn’t have remained in the genepool. I think this is analogous to the favoring of human beings with prodigious abilities in the arts, music, and mathematics. This is another type of peacocking and lends itself to sexual selection. Perhaps without Don Giovanni Mozart wouldn’t have found someone to love. Perhaps Goethe’s success with his first publication The Sorrows of Young Werther had the effect that peacocks with the largest feathers had.

MARCO!

Searching …

Frequency found; group-think

The capitalistic ideal is individual-based group gathering that appeals to need and greed. When contagious ideas and memes, poltergeists and demons, begin to alter the nature of what an obtainable dream actually is, confirmation bias leads us to believe even harder.

POLO!

What is the philosophical alternative then, to group-think, to Marco polio? What meaning is there in meaninglessness? This isn’t as emotionally void as it may seem; the search for meaning has a way of defining those who search. That’s not to say it doesn’t matter. It matters and it matters now, as it will always matter in some form or another.

MARCO!

A system that robs people of their individuality is a system that robs people of their identity; to the system’s credit, those who abdicate their personality and allow themselves to be changed by such an ancient system serves only to testify to the quality of that system. That has to be at least respected; the resulting trauma, awkwardness, depression, questions, cynicism–all of this arises from trying on an idea that doesn’t really fit.

POLO!

It is a false and intentionally cultivated accusation that without faith one has nothing. Rather it is the rejection of a paradoxical portrait between competing points in the same marketplace and it is rejected as a body rejects a poison. The only difference is that this time the poison is no longer inside the person, it is the person: they have become an expression of inherited and airbrushed incredulity in the face of nature, and it gets worse: the externalization of the struggle between the poison and identity sometimes makes the` idea more exciting. Part of the fun of having an idea is debating it with others. Make no mistake; I’m not suggesting that these elaborate mind games we play with ourselves can’t be interesting.

MARCO!

Surrendering to a society in which amenities are based on monetary value, you don’t really have the free will to surrender. The best trick the devil ever pulled wasn’t convincing the world he didn’t exist, rather, as it would seem more likely, is convincing the world that there is an external figure that causes the interlocutor to do wrong. As David Hume believed, the argument for pre-determinism is a means by which personal responsibility can be avoided.

POLO!

The reason this is a dangerous illusion is because blame and responsibility of our personal choices are projected onto an external evil. Here is the trick: the devil is an idea that imposes itself upon choice due to the inclination for self service, which Freud called the pleasure principle. Money can feed you, buzz you, clothe you, get you laid; the glowing and neon image of this institution is forever young, just like you, and those dancing girls, that alcohol, those dice, that must be wickedness. All of these things are absolutely recommended as every one of them, in moderation, can lead to fun and excitement and sexual release.

MARCO!

The imagined happiness of hereafter can look dull in comparison to the pleasures of this world as they are fleeting excitations against which are imposed impossible admonitions: it’s a cruel judgment when considering that if pre-determinism is correct, those who are guilty were pre-determined or at least presaged guilty whose judgment, despite being foreseen, still warrants punishment.

POLO!

Another interesting question is at what point an individual belief becomes manifest as a desire to spread, to behave like a virus; and yet another is what form is ultimate if this is penultimate and what the true end-game of this really is, best-case scenario. A possible answer is that this is a zero-game aware of the unwinnable nature of the game. Once the disease is contracted, is there a means by which it can be cured or excised? Yes. The answer is yes. [See The Doctor is Sick.]

 

 

MARCO!

The market exists because we want to be pleased. In our most modern city, in New York City, you can get Geoffrey’s Chaucer’s collected works more cheaply than a hotdog, the kind hairy, tattooed old men peddle from modified shopping carts they push around the city looking for starving people.

POLO!

Food vendors depend on hunger the same way doctors depend on sickness. The overarching connection is the dollar sign, the label and the symbol. The person doesn’t sell an item to a person. It does not simplify and improve the product. It simplifies and degrades the buyer. What I’m trying to say is something William S. Burroughs said much better in Naked Lunch:

‘…The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product. He does not improve and simplify his merchandise. He degrades and simplifies the client.’

MARCO!

An addictive carcinogen made by a people who were put to the sword by conquerors has more monetary value than A Tale of Two Cities. When a dollar sign decides what you can eat and how much you can eat and if you can eat, the power it is exercising over you is beyond control. Though the goals of literature and art are more exalted and lasting, you can’t eat Naked Lunch. There are unique ways designed to appeal the opposite of the concept of Marco polio and is itself a type of sickness.

POLO!

It is perhaps most poignantly expressed in the Buddhist philosophy, the idea that evil is an expression of our selfishness, the desire to feed our ego, what Carl Jung meant by, ‘the dark side of the devil.’ The pig on the stick in Lord of the Flies takes on the shape of the fears of its viewers. This is a similar concept

MARCO!

I came up with the idea for this in the pool behind my mother’s house. Everyone knows that the name Marco doesn’t mean anything and polo is just a response needed to locate, to acquire, to find, to get to another person—to make them it.

Whatever you want to call the acquisition of a systematic pursuit, it is a function of the Marco polio virus: using psychologically suggestive mixed signals. Guilt and fear are just as good at forcing surrender to a competing point by being so ridiculously long winded that agreement is more palatable than debating because of how exhausting it all is. So, give me a television, a cup of coffee, two cars and a nice house, fill it full of books, and that is happiness to some degree.

POLO!

The awareness of this application and methodology does little to free you of the sickness but it does bring a brief catharsis. But here’s the best part; when we create these monsters, we give them friendly faces, beautiful faces Everyone sees a different mirage yet everyone sees what they need most, what they think is perfect. We can see the mirage and realize it is a mirage, and know that it is an illusion. However, despite how brief this window of time may be, we may find some comfort here, and sometimes that’s enough to make the sickness worth it.

MARCO!

The more we attempt to look at this objectively, the more we try to distance ourselves, the more biased our evaluation becomes. It is the most casual of human conceits to believe in our uniqueness. Even among civilizations; whatever culture we come from, and whatever system of belief and mythology that comes with it, seems more plausible, more special than others. And the world was made for us, and the universe was created, it had to be. To think that one drop of water in a sea is somehow superior to the same drop of water on the other side of the world is to accept a position that denies the authenticity of the ‘other’ water.

It is so perfectly designed, we see; this idea works on an intuitive level because human beings are natural designers. We understand design by means of evaluating purpose observing function. We put ourselves and our cultural relevance ahead of other animals and even ahead of other human beings because of self-bias. It is no different than the communication of ‘ower animals. Dogs do not bark because they wish to be understood. They bark to be heard as children cry, as we do, to know there is some comfort somewhere, to know we’re not alone.

POLO!

The point is not the product of our creativity; it is the product of waste, the type of waste with aspirations of necessity. This is natural. The way psychoactive mushrooms affect us has been compared to sacred religious experiences. If you eat the right part of the excrete, you’ll meet the point—the point which defines your struggle. There is asymmetry in our perception because of how molecules and symbols interact with the different co-working parts of the brain and consciousness.

MARCO!

A person is a combination of nature, environment, and nurture despite their position in the point/counterpoint debate. It is our raison d’être to look for answers. What doesn’t follow is the acceptance of other’s answers to our questions, questions unique to who we are. It is much more powerful and life-affirming to derive answers from our own experiences and assign value to those answers accordingly than to look for answers created for entire populations, for generalized criteria.

POLO!

Pre-determinism and free-will together are the best theological examples of doublethink I can image. This is the creation of dualism; the creations of categorization people based on their ideas. A people divided, confused and insecure, are much easier to persuade. The truth can be told with lies; and any suggestion accepted because of what brief relief it provides is, at best, conditional, at worst delusional, yet in all forms ephemeral.  The struggle is enough to answer any questions one may need answered.

MARCO!

There is certainly commercial value in tragedy as it speaks to a deeply ingrained need for the alleviation of fear in our own lives by diversion. The results of this are by their very nature divisive, connecting an individual to a hive of the lost looking for their keys under a streetlight, even though the possibility is greater that they aren’t in the light, but the amount of dark is overwhelming, so overwhelming they only look for keys where they are capable of seeing them.

POLO!

It is natural and unavoidable to be attracted to charisma, confidence, and boisterous rhetoric. The most successful rhetoric affects depth yet offers only confusion. Confusion and novelty does not equal depth. This is why the response to a provable unknown is so overwhelmingly strong: confusion and uncertainty allows for the multiplication of assumed contingencies in deriving truth from nature. Marco polio allows the evaluating area of the mind, that small computer that really makes two water droplets different, to accept relief at the price of dormancy, for no cure but a permanent remission, a salient way of accepting what is unacceptable.

MARCO!

When an unknown is formally assigned a limit function, wherein a is always equal to a and never equal to b; what we’ll accept is predetermined by exclusion. It is, if nothing else, a unique form of solipsism. Despite the fatal flaw with solipsist thinking, at least any idea you come up with on your own has a value the ideas others do not have. It is important to recognize the true face of Marco polio, despite its variation according to individual desire: it is a persistent system, a deaf machine that cannot hear which still cries Marco in the dark, splashing in a pool alone and screaming MARCO! incapable of hearing POLO! if it were to come and still screaming, screaming more if it doesn’t.

POLIO!

For at least 80,000 years (by current estimate) humans have used symbols and signals, and the most arresting symbols appeal most prominently in denoting gain and loss, addition and subtraction. The popularity of the $, even if it’s losing actual value, has supplanted the cross as the type of idea it conveys is more urgent. It’s an easier way to be happy. This is ubiquitous in our culture. What follows that currency donation, is great gain. It’s advertised as a way to make the world what we imagine heaven might be like. I think that it has surpassed the cross as a memetic virus.

MARCO!

The printed word is the most persuasive virus we have. It’s catchy. We wish to identify with authors and artists and composers whom we believe to be cleverer than we. Yet the penultimate authority in every theocracy—a theory that seeks to outlaw questions and inquiry—is a unique source without reference. It’s easier to accept the symbol and what it represents; the successful manipulation of images correlated to thoughts which seek to comfort through pain and punish through loss.

[Silence.]

MARCO?

In order to move forward, one must first come to terms with regret and failure, look backward with objective consideration, to stop chasing yesterday and start planning for tomorrow. As vendors rely upon our hunger, and doctors need our weakness, artists need evaluators, and our weakness is no different than what I call Marco polio. I don’t want to be remembered as a great poet or philosopher, artist or composer. Name a disease after me.

YOU’RE IT!

 

 

 

 

 

 

7

ALLEGORY

 

 

EVEN IN THE MOST ORIGINAL AND IMAGINATIVE narratives, it is common to start somewhere identifiable and familiar to the reader. This is a universal element of literature, the establishment of a reference point, a commonality. As much as I would like to start the insanity with the first sentence, and I really, really would, it is inconceivable if you intend to be understood.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most famous sequences in cinema history (the star gate segment) is a long and kaleidoscopic montage of mutating images set to an otherworldly score. This [film] must have been a lot of fun for Stanley Kubrick after working in black and white on Dr. Strangelove, but it would have been impossible to begin the movie this way. People want to go to space, of course, but the operative word here is ‘go.’ As much as people would like to go to space, I doubt they want to wake up floating. They want to get into a familiar and conventional vehicle and travel there.

To develop a means to convey information without reference, one must first have a foundation, a platform, a link to reality. The need for the familiar is the reason Finnegan’s Wake was so divisive; Joyce started in the Twilight Zone without the decency to tell us something was on the wing. Writers begin with the familiar so the unfamiliar, when it comes, will be sensible.  So, here goes.

Allegory after the fact has always been a natural companion in storytelling and, in modernity, is perhaps too commonly used to interpret dreams. The most commonly analyzed and interpreted dreams is, arguably, the falling dream which, to explain it simply, is just a dream in which the sensation of falling is experienced. The imagery this conjures is itself artless enough, but it has been gifted a sort of unique symbolism and depth in pop-philosophy and psychology. The setting is unimportant and the dreamer’s association with falling is not in relationship to a place from which or to which they’re falling. The issue is that you are falling. There are many ways to look at this.

It is a popular view, or was when I studied psychology, that the falling dream is an unconscious representation of something that is bothering you consciously. Falling, in this sense, is synonymous with failing. I don’t think this is always true, but for the moment we’ll assume this is true. It is synonymous with losing, also, in most of these interpretations.

The psychological viewpoint that this is an unconscious response to a conscious crisis is limited and fundamentally flawed; a conscious assessment of the unconscious is possible only in retrospect when viewed as a scene from the perspective of the third person. For a person taking part in a rollercoaster ride, it’s often impossible for that person to explain it in sensible terms, in terms not abstract or expressionistic. For an observer it is a scene. Those within the scene can’t always derive meaning from it. To a third-person, the show can be evaluated in a way in which someone in the show may be incapable.

There are many types of falling dreams listed in Dreams and Their Interpretations: losing balance, pushed, location, lost grip, holding on, people, how did you fall, slipping, and somebody help. This purports to approach this from a subconscious perspective, but any attempt to consciously describe the subconscious with breadth and depth is usually doomed to fail. The concept of depth in literature is attached to depth within character. The modern conception of depth is based on surface and layers. The surface, in this instance, is the conscious personality.

The conscious personality reacts to stimuli and information. A modern way of explaining this behavior is based on the simple observation that people actively, that is consciously, choose what they know is bad for them. Statements like this aren’t intended to encompass the entire population, but a significant minority.

It’s rare in ‘lower’ animals for behavior to manifest that the animal knows is to its detriment. Evolution has worked so well because it works to maximize the viability of an organism. Since it is inconceivable to think that evolution, which favors the survival of the most successful groups of genes, would select animals that intentionally harm themselves, we built a human discipline to describe human beings in human terms.  Since this is rare in other, less intelligent animals, it is looked at in psychological terms.

Psychology and philosophy are branches of academia in which students attend college to learn questions instead of answers; like Jeopardy where, instead of winning money, you pay to play and you never get to be on television. The philosophy behind psychology is based on assumptions regarding the intent behind action and reaction. The most prevalent assumption is that behavioral patterns can be understood through profiling. The success of profiling is not a testament to the validity of the assumptions behind it which are often based on pattern recognition and inference. I’m not saying that profiling is based on incorrect assumptions: I’m saying that profiling doesn’t have to be based on correct assumptions in order to work.

This purports to be an explanation of a dream wherein the dreamer is losing balance:

“Dreams of losing balance suggests [sic] that the problem lays [sic] within you. You are not stable in this moment and need grounding in your life. You need to find more ways to become more confident with people and yourself.”

This is too broad to encompass the way everybody feels. The first suggestion is that the solution of the problem is within the subconscious. This is to suggest that the solution to the problem comes from the same source as the problem. You can look at this in a simpler yet more profound way. Emotionally, losing balance can suggest any number of real issues. Loss [the deprivation] of balance [stability] is a simple scene, without giving expression to what it ‘represents.’ Losing balance and falling is a naked idea. Most ideas in dreams are naked, unequivocal; when a dream is explained, there is an unspoken desire for meaning to be gifted to it. If you’re clever enough, you can take the loose association of images and impulses found in dreams and give it meaning; you can give it surface depth.

Losing balance, as defined by the dream dictionary, is a very superficial connection-correlation-conclusion approach to psychology. It is equally possible for something positive to make you lose balance; you could be falling in love. It can be a positive. Psychology seems to have more enthusiasm for negativity than positivism in their interpretations. Perhaps it increases the quality of drama in your personal life.

This is the appeal of psychology. It allows for depth to be created in people who don’t have it; yet, for some reason, would like to think they do. Psychologists, in describing dreams, put them into the context of dressed ideas and naked ideas.

A dressed idea in aesthetics can refer to a painting of something that is a representation of something else. For example, most Caravaggio paintings work on the dressed ideas as representation level. The easy thing about allowing dressed ideas to represent naked ideas is that it circumvents the need for individual consideration; that is to say it negates what an individual might develop within themselves to give true meaning to the idea.

A revealed revelation is the literary equivalent of an author or artist putting a lot of time and effort into saying oh for you. This might not sound like much of a compliment, but it’s less reproachful for someone to think you’d enjoy saying oh for yourself than it would be to deliberately mislead you. It might take more time. It might cost you energy and effort. But—trust me—when you say oh for yourself, there is a level of understanding taking place that isn’t possible when someone is saying oh for you. ‘Oh’ is the noise our brain makes when something is understood.

To allow someone to understand for themselves, and think for themselves, is to respect the intelligence of your readers. And the most important part of being considerate requires you to first be less considerate—to deny the evaluator access to anything capable of defining the experience for themselves; the answer must be undressed. The reason an audio/video recording of a dream will never be recognized by the dreamer as their dream is because most of what is conveyed is conveyed without images or sounds, at least not images or sounds recognizable in waking life. If this recording was possible, the agreement on what it actually is intended to mean would never be agreeable to all; sounds and images mean different things to different people.

A dream can be as simple as the sound of a car horn, a repeating red number one, or a Barbie doll hanging itself. If you made the representation of this absolute, that is to say that it would be absolutely the same for everyone who dreamed it, I doubt it would be possible for any relevant percentage to ever agree on what it was they actually dreamed. Evaluating dreams as image/idea representation, or dressed ideas, is to take away the subjective nature of dreaming. Regardless of how we remember our dreams, while they’re taking place, trust me, they’re much different in our memory than they were in action. To me, the psychoanalytical approach to interpreting dreams is a type of convoluted incest wherein the only real meaning is individualistic.

The conceit that another person can mold your dream into a generalized pattern (based on representations that don’t mean the same to all evaluators) is unhealthy, lazy, and encourages people to look at their dreams in a way that presupposes depth and meaning because of novelty. This is the opposite process of wanting to see something in beautiful clothes without those beautiful clothes. A losing balance dream is a concept revealed for you based on simplistic image idea correlation.  It doesn’t matter how beautiful the clothes are. This is true for most, if not all, imaginative people: although a beautiful and elaborate costume may enhance someone’s beauty, what it enhances to an appreciative onlooker is the desire to see the beautiful and elaborate costume taken off.

Letting someone else dress or interpret the thoughts brought to life in dreams can sometimes lead to a false sense of understanding; but since it’s convenient and seems deep and meaningful, it is generally accepted. To say this simply: when someone uses clothes to enhance sex appeal, the clothes are best at enhancing someone else’s desire to see them removed.

Association begins after waking as we’re trying to make sense of what we just experienced. So we cast our dreams in the mold of allegory. This is a trick we use to make sense of something that makes no sense. It is something we do unconsciously, but it’s easy to see why we do it. It gives our dreams cinematic and literary quality. Description and meaning are not synonymous. In that context, imply and suggest are synonymous.

We have a rich literary and artistic history of parody, satire, irony, allegory, suggestion, and inference. When an inference is understandable, that doesn’t mean that it’s right or applicable. I can understand someone using their dream as a subconscious allegory for their lives. This sort of correlation between representation and meaning is weak, but it makes sense. When something makes sense, that’s all it does. Making sense is not synonymous with being correct.

Books and films and television programmes have a rich history of using allegory and symbolism. Allegory is a literary device that allows you to say one thing and mean something else. Symbolism as a literary device is most often used to echo or draw attention to thematic elements within a story. Being an evaluator of this naturally leads us to think about our own ideas in this way. The point we miss is how often the allegory being used is being used by the author with specific correlations in mind. The same is true of symbolism.

When symbolism is used in a story, the writer or director is using it to highlight an element within their story. It’s important to remember that our dreams are not stories, movies, or allegories intended by a ‘meta-mind’ somehow overreaching our conscience. Just because we can make them work this way does not mean this is how they function.

It is a modern symptom to feel cheated when it is obvious that something is being hidden. There are a number of reasons for this, but the deepest is suspicion. It is a distressing sign to see someone cover something you suspect would be more attractive uncovered. It is distressing because there is a disconnect between what you want to be the truth and what the truth actually is.

If we viewed our dreams from the third-person perspective, attaining that narrative ability, dreams would become sterile, plastic symbols; suggesting, but never approaching, anything that could be considered depth. When an artist relies too much on symbolism and equivocation, it is often the sign of a terrible artist. The job of the writer is to allow the reader to make the connections presented to them; to undress the ideas for themselves, to make connections to other aspects of the story and aspects of their own lives; this is the equivalent of communion among strangers, separated by space and time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

8

THE POETIC SENSIBILITY

 

 

IN WRITING A BOOK IN PART DEDICATED TO    writing and how it is done and understood, I must acknowledge the bitter truth: there is no way to teach the poetic sensibility and practice will not cultivate it. The poetic sensibility is either present in you, or evolves as you come of age. No matter how much you study or emulate the techniques and practices I’m trying to illustrate (and attempting to demonstrate,) without the eye—without the sensibility—technical precision means nothing.

If you were to see a willow tree expelling pollen, what type of correlation can be made to imbue this image with poetry? When a willow tree is expelling pollen, it is raining DNA and therefore life itself is literally raining from the sky. It is this type of correlation that gives poetic color to the familiar.

During the time I spent in New York City, a city full of aesthetic art-deco architecture and historical sites steeped in lore and legend, the most striking and poetic visual I encountered was a solitary flower just outside The Strand, a book store teeming with beautiful and colorful poetry. What made this image so memorable was how it stood in absentia of other flowers of its type. The reason for it being there was, to me, unknown, but it was there, fledgling, struggling to get the light blotted out by the monoliths of our civilization. I knelt beside the flower to see how it was getting any light. And I discovered something I didn’t think was possible. The flower wasn’t receiving light directly; it was growing from reflections cast, and shafts of bent light through skyscraper windows.

It was lit by Pale Fire, a line from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, later appropriated by Vladimir Nabokov in his book of the same name. The flower and the book became intimately linked. This imbued an ordinary flower with a rich, four-dimensional history, a history from which an entire world of embedded poetry can spring.

I have thought about that flower a lot, what kind of flower it was, and what happened to its kind. Which, in itself, brought to mind the published work of Tupac Shakur, The Rose that Grew from Concrete. I had never seen this kind of flower before and it really hadn’t bloomed, but it seemed to be trying.

In Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, the narrative voice alternates between two fictional characters, John Shade–the author of the 999 line poem and his editor, a foreigner from Zembla by the name of Charles Kinbote. The element that is most remarkable, to me, is how Shade believes that by writing about the universe, we gain understanding of it.

In one of the best works of literature ever written, and my personal favorite, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or as it is alternatively translated, Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel does the equivalent of creating what may be the first four dimensional novel in history, as every object is imbued with an unspoken, associative history to later be recalled spontaneously.

The important aspect of Proust’s art is its lack of equivocation and bombast; although it is related to points in time, it is not necessarily allegorical in nature. Dissertations can expound upon and bring a better awareness of recurring elements within the novel, but it’s all pretty much right there. For example, in the version that I read, the narrator Marcel, who is not Proust, recalls a moment when he dips Madeline cake into tea and it produces a type of transcendent state of being, and it causes him, as a child, to hear a sort of holy music.  He uses time and object association instead of symbol and idea representation, although he does both, but it is later when he is in his own home, as he relates in a collection published under his name On Art and Literature, he dips his toast in tea and that intangible, holy music comes back to him some thirty years after the original experience. This would later be reproduced in Swann’s Way, the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past.

The idea that dipping bread into tea can trigger such moments is the art, and the poetic value of it is in the spontaneity in which it forces itself to the forefront of the poet’s mind. These are not recollections or déjà vu; these are relived sensations, tying points in time together.

More has been written about Marcel Proust than just about any other writer since his time, with the exception of perhaps Nabokov and Hemingway, so I don’t intend to turn this into a dissertation on Proust.  There are over four thousand pages in Remembrance of Things Past, so there is far more in its pages than any critic, despite their acuity, has the ability, or the time, to unpack. Howard Moss’s The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust is the best condensation of the leviathan work of world literature, along with a wonderful book by Jonah Lehrer, a beautiful marriage of science and art; Proust Was a Neuroscientist.  [Nabokov] offered his opinion in his collection, Lectures on Literature. So we’ll move along. Nothing to see here.

An example that will not be universally agreed upon as being poetic, is one of the most touching moments of mutual consolation in literature, and comparable to A Tutti Contente, from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. The prevalent interpretation (which is brought to the fore in Salieri’s analysis in the film Amadeus)of consolation in this opera takes place when the man, who began the story in joyous exaltation, in the measuring of his marriage bed, becomes disenchanted with his wife, and in A Tutti Contente, speaks the only kind words he has spoken to her in months because he believes she is someone else. It is this type of consolation to be found in the most memorable scene in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

A little context: Raskolnikov is a penniless student an ex-tutor who has resorted to murder; the murder of an elderly pawn broker and, to compound his crime, the murder of her invalid sibling. That’s just dirty pool, Radia. Although the intention is robbery, Raskolnikov is seen throughout the early part of the novel giving away money only acquired by pawning invaluable, personal items; a silver cigarette case, his father’s watch. For example, he leaves money for the drunken Marmeladov’s family when he leaves his home, knowing he has no more money, and no way to get any. And once he has committed the murder, he hides the plunder under a stone and then never makes use of it. His punishment is not the punishment of the crime by law, it is the punishment endured by the guilty conscience shrinking under an ideal he no longer believes in.

The scene I’m referring to, I’ve been told, is not in most English translations of Pretuplene e Nakazami due to the amount of Russian Mat found in the original. Russian Mat is an organized language of obscenity in the Russian speaking world, a type of slang used by the vulgar and profane. The scene to which I refer takes place between the prostitute Sofya (Marmeladov’s daughter) and the murderer Raskolnikov after Marmeladov’s death. After confessing to his crime to Sofya, she forgives him, and he responds by kissing the prostitute’s feet.

This may not translate into poetry or romance for everyone, but to me it’s one of the most memorable moments in the history of literature, even if it’s not included in the English translations, or even if I misread the Russian copy I had. Either is possible, and it might be an invented memory, but it is undeniably poetic. There is more beauty in this than all the rotating rom-com reunion shots in cinema and it takes place between a murderer and a prostitute. So, my sense of what qualifies as poetic may be questionable.

To look at another example that can be considered questionable, Anna Karenina’s choice to be alone in a grave rather than alone in a world without love, is also a poetic gesture. And by poetic gesture, she throws herself in front of a train and dies. Moments of tragedy have been imbued with poetry from the beginning of human literature. Consider what leads to Hamlet’s most famous scene (well, that is debatable; as nearly everything he says is an exercise in what the poetic sensibility should be,) in which he speaks to the skull of a jester, a familial friend he had known as a child, yes: Yorick. A fellow of infinite jest, I’m told.

The juxtaposition of the macabre (he is holding the skull of a former friend whom he adoration) and the beautiful elaboration on the character of Yorick is what makes the scene work so well. This is how the terrible can be beautiful; it just takes the right sensibility to put it together. This leit-motif of memento mori was common for the time. It also hints at how time modifies memory and change events based on changing the emotion associated with its memory: ‘He hath bore me on his back a thousand times’ can be distorted, (he describes it as abhorrent.) This is a scene of a man talking to the skull of a dead and beloved friend and it is poetic and beautiful.

This is how the correlation between the leit-motif of memento mori (Remember, you’re going to die) and the response to this is the contemplation of legacy (Please do not think about your legacy before you die, you’ll die earlier just to enhance it) and the transience of earthly beauty. It can be argued that one of the most beautiful and most quoted poems of all time, Edward Fitzgerald’s ‘translation’ of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, is ostensibly dedicated—depending on the interpretation—to telling you that you’re going to die, but this has beauty in it, so, Khayyam suggests, drink wine. Or at the very least, don’t let the fact that everything you have is going to be taken no matter what you do take away from what you do enjoy.

 

The moving finger writes, and having writ,

Moves on;

Nor all thy piety, nor wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,

Nor all your tears wash out one word of it.

The poetic sensibility arises in people who see change as a never-ending process and that it is the transience of life that gives us the incentive to hold dear to us such beauty. Poetics is the application of human sensibilities mixed with linguistic skill. You don’t have to be a walking dictionary to do poetry properly. Dr. Seuss wrote one of the most famous works in English literature, Green Eggs and Ham, with one-hundred and fifty words. Ulysses, by James Joyce, on the other hand, uses about 25,000-30,000 words. But there is one part in which the juxtaposition of the unchangeable and the changeable are somewhat inverted when Bloom discusses with Stephen the death of his son, Rudy, who died at eleven days, although he doesn’t imagine him this way; he imagines him at eleven years, and through this poetic license and imprint, something resembling immortality emerges. But even that is ephemeral.

When we’re held accountable for our civilization, what survives the ravages of time to represent our souls, our art and culture will probably not be recognizable, or considered degenerate, to the species that will inevitably succeed us. What then is truly immortal within systems of expression? Well, in our case, it is the need to express. It is definitive.

Works of expression can define entire epochs. Consider Jimi Hendrix’s deconstruction of The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock; it defined a generation, not through its accuracy, but in the details, through its clumsy humanity. You can hear bombs dropping, sirens blaring–the sounds of chaos, but in the end, he finishes it off perfectly, with resolution. It’s not intended to be perfectly rendered, anyone can do something with technical precision and accuracy, but the clumsy, flailing, jarring notes of individuality; it is clumsy, frail, on the cusp between definition and degradation–and that is why it’s so definitively human.

The poetic sensibility is what separates photographs, taken by photographers, from van Gogh paintings, because there is (or so I’ve been told) imperfection in his representation of nature. Unless he saw the world in a way people who criticize him do not–people who admire the perfection of Rembrandt and Caravaggio, but scoff at Vincent van Gogh’s talent. He is to be maligned because he saw the world in a way only people with this sensibility could see. That’s the point of all the chaos in his brushstrokes. It is the chaos of his mind and that is what we’re looking at in his paintings, not landscapes, but mindscapes, dependent upon our poetic sensibility to understand the consolation granted through such chaos.

Yes, he could paint. He could paint as realistically as anyone at that time could. In an era where a machine can do what only the best of masters could a century earlier, van Gogh found a way to make representations human again. In fact nearing the later stages of his life, Rembrandt, considered by many to be the finest portrait painter the world has ever seen, began to go in a direction that would have become what van Gogh did had he lived. His dishonored masterpiece–the one of the barbarian’s lair–is a primordial example of expressionism, where the artistry is evident in the passion of the strokes as much as it is in the accuracy of the depiction.

Simon Schama said it best when he said that, at a certain point in Rembrandt’s life, he stopped carrying about the ‘noisy, outward show’ of life and turned on a ‘quiet, inner radiance.’ This inner radiance is what vibrates on the canvas of Starry Night Over the Rhyne, the other Starry Night painted by Vincent van Gogh. It was revolutionary and completely new, and it took a generation, and van Gogh’s death, to vindicate him and realize what he had done as genuinely revolutionary.

You cannot change the way someone sees the world. And it’s true to say the poetic sensibility can be nurtured and sharpened, it cannot be given to someone. You can be taught about poetic traditions, poetic techniques and styles and masters of poetics, but you can’t be taught the sensibility required to be authentically poetic.

It has been said that no class on philosophy can substitute for enough hours spent watching the world from a bus window. Anyone who has spent more than ten consecutive hours looking out a window becomes, for that duration, a philosopher. If constraint can turn someone into a philosopher, what, if anything, can turn someone into a poet?

Thinking. Seeing patterns and important correlations between things of no importance independently. It doesn’t always work. Studying the work of other poets can help you, as long as you know how to incorporate what you know without imitating.

I’ve done other work, essays and novels and plays and what not, but the way Victorian classic verse conveys a sense of music in tone and meter is my favorite way of composing. I was first acquainted with it the way many of my friends in the South were: through the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, a poet to which I have been compared for my stylistic approach. The reason for the comparison is probably not (solely) considerate of style; but more of readership in America, or at least in the American south.

At any given point you may be able to recall to mind maybe, at most, one hundred artists to which you could accurately define as poetic. If only 300 people in the population have the proper sense of the poetic, what percentage of the population is that?

It’s not exactly encouraging to see what percentage of the population individuals constitute:  .0000000428571429% is the percentage of the world that is you, that was Balzac, Chekhov, Mozart and Mary Shelley. If we suppose that across the language barrier there are 10 million poets, our access is fundamentally limited; the National Virtual Translation Center recognizes around 7,000 languages. The most erudite of intellectuals can lay claim to fluency in 3 to 5 of those languages, so that severely limits the ability for poets in the rest of those languages to be considered.

I wrote most of this chapter at a bar with a friend of mine in Anderson, SC. I asked her to name five poets.

She named Brandon Nobles (an up-and-comer with great potential and talent, I hear) Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens. (I expect she was being deliberately facetious.) If one considers how many languages there are, and compares that to how many they can name, well, I’ll say this: it doesn’t make you feel important.

I have studied language for the better part of my life and I’d claim true fluency in two languages; I have a good grasp of Italian, French, and German, and know enough of the rest just to get by. The fluency of which I speak amounts to being able to read and write in the language, the ability to debate science and philosophy, and the ability for thorough knowledge of synonyms and puns. It takes years. And people have jobs and other such stuff to do. If it’s not important to their life, or in some way improves it, it isn’t important enough to spend years learning.

So, grant the linguistic and philology students about 5 languages to work with among 7,000, and this brings down the percentage of poets available to reach you considerably. To an English speaker, W.B. Yeats may be the final word on classical, Victorian poetry; that is because classical, Victorian poetry is the only poetry that falls within their purview. This is no slight on people who major in English. If it takes years to learn to appreciate the poetry of Sun Tzu in its native tone, the original is going to only disturb the way your anticipation of language syntax is structured and become obtrusive upon fond memories of prior translations. Ask me how I know.

An English translation will, for 99% of the population, suffice for anyone wishing to study The Art of War. The same is true of the beauty of the Arabian Nights, the Songs of Solomon and the book of Ecclesiastes from the Christian Holy Bible, and the aforementioned Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, which, after learning enough poetry to appreciate the tone in its original—I preferred the English translation, the tone, the structure, everything about it appealed to my English sensibilities.

So when an English poet believes one poet to be superior to another, particularly a poet whose work is being read in translation, nobody flinches. Someone who pipes up and says ‘read it in its native language’ are just like those people who say of inadequate movie adaptations ‘read the books!’  And they’re assholes for so doing.

It’s important to recognize that different languages are, for the main part, different in more areas than sound arrangement and script. The arrangement of the words is different and (can) be unnatural to the native English speaker. The linguistic typology is different. Consider Irish (or Gaelic), a verb-subject-object language. The English rendering of Phil walked home, is in Gaelic rendered Home walked Phil. In subject-object-verb languages, it would be Sam home walked. There are subject-verb-object languages, like English and Russian, then there are verb-object-subject languages, like Baure and Malagasy, in which the rendering would be Walked Sam home.

There are object-verb-subject and object-subject-verb languages as well, and most of these methods of writing are entirely alien to English speakers. A better run-down of this can be found in Charles F. Meyer’s Introducing English Linguistic International, Student Edition and in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language by David Crystal (2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.) Basic Word Order: Functional Principles by Russell S. Tomlin is good too, if somewhat out of date.

It is disheartening and hard to accept, for me at least, that there is a world of poetry being written that will never fall into my purview. This limits us to popular poets; and poetry, in the new millennium takes place within music. Modern music and lyrics have taken the spot once reserved for poetry to convey poetic ideas. There is genuine poetry to be found in music of all sorts; there is poetry in Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Alkan, Mozart, Liszt and Chopin; there is poetry in modern music, hip-hop, by its very nature, lends itself to poetic intention and execution.

When I began this essay, I mentioned correlation and representation as important elements of poetry. There is a song by Tupac, which I will discuss for a moment, which works with correlation and representation in a grand way: Thugs Mansion. I know it may seem as though I’m breaking some intellectual rule by even mentioning rap (I like basketball too! Go ahead, judge me) but it is the poetry of modern America, for good or ill. While I believe that emotions are best expressed through tone and atmosphere, that’s not the end of consideration. For example, consider this verse, the first in Thugs Mansion:

A place to spend my quiet nights,

          Time to unwind,

         So much pressure in this life of mine;         I cry at times.

         I once contemplated suicide,      

         And would’ve tried,

         But when I held that nine

         All I could see was my mama’s eyes.

         No one knows my struggles;

         They only see the trouble–       Not knowing it’s hard to carry on      When no one loves you. 

The reason this works, despite the directness, is because of the directness. Before Tupac, poetry in rap was described pejoratively as backpacking; by blending poetry and the streets, a form of hip-hop that has been imitated by just about everyone since Tupac. Rakim. NWA, and Public Enemy were excellent social critics in their own right; Rakim would be an outstanding intellectual, on par with a professor in technical lyricism if he didn’t think he had to be an Islamic muller when he backpacks.

Tupac gave poetic expression to the struggles of black people in America during an era in which black Americans were reliving a sort of civil rights struggle. I won’t pretend to know what it’s about, because I don’t know what it’s like to be black. But this voice, running the streets, carrying guns was given a conscience. Tupac was certainly imbued with the poetic sensibility and enjoyed popularity in his lifetime, but his death drew a lot more attention to his message. From Changes.

“I made a G today.”

         But you made it in a sleazy way,         Sellin’ crack to the kids.          

“But I gotta get paid.”    

Hey, that’s the way it is.

The importance of this stanza cannot be overstated. People put into situations such as poverty are not always acting immorally; it is not immoral to do what you have to do to survive. Giving voice to this struggle is what made Tupac a success, an icon of late 20th century hip-hop. He was a poet, with the poetic sensibility, who just happened to use hip-hop stylings to get it out. Another example of poetics in mainstream hip-hop can be seen in Eminem’s better work.

On his second mainstream release, Eminem produced two songs that touched on so many themes inherent in poetry that, by twenty-six, his legacy was cemented as more than a rapper; he was a satirist with a high awareness of the messages he was able to convey and Stan was a thoughtful piece of social commentary as well as being a genuinely lovely piece of music. Stan may be his most critically applauded work because it works on many, many levels, touching on a number of themes; obsession, mental illness, misplaced love, rage, alienation, and isolation. And it does it to the strains of Dido’s famous refrain, ‘My tea’s gone cold, I’m wondering why, I got out of bed at all.’

It uses multiple narrative voices. Stan, the eponymous obsessed fan; the lamentations of his girlfriend are being echoed in the chorus, and the target of the misplaced affection, the artist, responding in the end. The equivocation that works the most is the evocation of another work of art, In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins, and its explicit connection to how the letter writer, Stan, feels about what has happened to him emotionally. This juxtaposition of the romanticism within the refrain, the slow degeneration of the fan’s ego, and a perfect correlation that demonstrates the relationship between works of art in a unique brand of anaphora and thematic echo within the piece:

You know the song by Phil Collins

In the Air of the Night,

About that guy who could have saved that other guy 

from drowning,

          But didn’t

         Then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?

          That’s kinda how this is; you could’ve rescued me 

from drowning,

         But now it’s too late; 

         I’m on a thousand downers now I’m drowsy.

         And all I wanted was a lousy letter or a call.

          I hope you know I ripped all your pictures off the wall.

        I loved you Slim, we could’ve been together;

         Think about it.

        You ruined it now; I hope you can’t sleep,     

         And you dream about it,

         And when you dream I hope you can’t sleep

         And you scream about it

         I hope your conscience eats at you,    And you can’t breathe without me.

This correlation between In the Air Tonight and the urban legend, about the drowning man, and the way the narrator feels about a life being derailed is a good example of art referencing art to tie thematic elements together. Depression manifests itself in many different ways. To typify it and associate it with drowning works because Stan drives his car over a bridge and in the end he drowns. It is conveyed with genuine anger. Not only has his desire to be acknowledged turned into hatred, it turns into the active desire to elicit pain in the same artist from whom he once found joy. It is more than a poem; it is a modern fable, and it changed the climate of what hip-hop was in the early 2000’s–for better or for worse—and set a new standard for intimacy in rap.

The setup and framework in establishing different narrative voices, the fan, the girlfriend (who is to die in the trunk of the car), and the conclusion letter sent by the target of the affection, uses many different poetic techniques to great effect; repetition there at the end (anaphora) of ‘and…’ and the chorus keeps the melancholic atmosphere pervasive throughout the song. At the beginning, the opening bars are sang to the sound of raindrops and the storm changes throughout the song, ends with the artist’s disbelief at what obsession and misplaced affection can do to someone psychologically. It works as a piece of poetry and a psychological exploration of fandom and hero worship.

The psychosexual element is a product of this identification with the object of affection, and by proxy is a means by which the fan can love himself, by loving his object of desire. The tearing down of his fan-inspired imagery, after he’s made an identification with the object, is a way of beginning to dismantle parts of himself. To look at this from the perspective of the person writing the piece, is to look at warring aspects of the ego–which adds a decidedly psychological element to the process of excising this demon. If I were to interpret the expression behind the writer’s decorative language, I would say, after looking within the piece, we look outside the piece at the circumstances and era in which it was written. There’s the microcosm, within the poem, and the macrocosm, outside; the writer is writing about the impact of writing. And exploring the impact of one’s writing is metaphysical and projectionist in nature. It is a way to externalize our own suffering and perhaps from it find catharsis or even comfort. It is this catharsis that leads so many to choose writing as a profession. It functions as psychoanalysis, a way to explore your fear and desire, and allows you to explore different aspects of humanity.

I leave you with the poem I wrote in response to that lone flower outside of The Strand;

It was a flower, not a brand,

On the sidewalk by the Strand.

Surrounded by those monoliths

Was this fledgling life unplanned.

Nobody stopped to notice;

Blinding light such shadows cast,

Surviving on pale fire,

The reflections through the glass.

It wasn’t in the scheme of things, not this,

It had no plan;

A miracle of nature to be paved away by man.

Leaving Time Square, with books, I went,

Back home to read, to work, to rent,

A place to stay, long moments spent;

Thinking of that flower, that pale fire,

Where it came from, where it went,

Once someone had to dig it up,

And replace it with cement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9

TUPAC CHANGES

Speaker for the Dead

 

 

FOR THE AMERICAN RAPPER AND POET TUPAC Shakur, who performed under the stage name 2pac until his death, Changes was, upon release, considered to be a step backward from a groundbreaking and impressive career. Though I won’t shame the critic by naming him, the critic believed that the gospel stylings in the chorus and the piano was pandering to white audiences. This may not be necessarily true on 2psc’s part; but not keeping his music exclusive to a particular culture is in the spirit of equality and therefore something to be applauded.

I don’t think this is what brought the white audience in; I think this is the musical equivalent of Ray Charles recording Georgia. It strayed away from his usual fair and, when that happens in an artist’s career, there is always the accusation of pandering, selling out, or backsliding; I think by branching out into different styles of music 2pac was able to bring in a larger audience. This is what solidified 2pac as more than just a bad boy or a thug, and turned him into a social commentator and poet.

He still had the image of the bad boy of gangster rap when Changes was released; it showed not only an unprecedented cultural and political perspective in hip-hop, but in the long run humanized a caricature, making his message harder to dismiss. Now his most well-known and beloved song, it was once named as one of his 10 worst by Rolling Stone.

If there’s any correlation between another person’s attempt at artistry which, upon release, was considered backsliding, it was The Shining by Stanley Kubrick; a man who brought us some of the most famous and revered scenes and movies in the history of cinema throughout his career, including the proverbial ‘good’ science fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the most visionary films ever made, despite audiences understanding it as much as the apes at the beginning of the film understood the obviously unnatural monolith. They didn’t understand it, but it changed something in them, awakened a new capacity. Keep this in mind.

To look at The Shining with modern eyes, we see one of the most iconic horror films ever made, an enduring, unnerving classic full of immortal moments; a masterpiece one could say, and one of the finest pieces of film to ever to be screened. There are many people, having watched it in the past few years, who had, by innumerable pop-culture references, seen almost every scene in the film in one medium or another; that’s how ubiquitous it is in modern culture, standing as a cultural milestone in film history. Bear with me; the relationship between The Shining and Changes will be made clear.

Stanley Kubrick is responsible for 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dr. Strangelove, Paths of Glory, Eyes Wide Shut, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket— all of which received enormous critical success and frequently turn up on Top 10 and Top 100 lists. Then there was The Shining, for which Stanley Kubrick, a man responsible for masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece, received a worst director nomination for the Razzies. Worst director.

Lies are often referred to as scandals, but it’s not off the mark to consider some truths to be just as scandalous, if not more so, than your run of the mill scandal. Especially in The Shining; we are here confronted with terrors much worse than the fictions of the werewolf or the vampire, the mummy or the ghosts: there are things in this world more terrible than vampires and werewolves, mummies and warlocks and Plans 1-9 From Outer Space, and they are more terrible because they are real, and even more terrible because they’re common.

These are houses haunted by the living, living amid child abuse, alcoholism, and domestic violence. This is the relationship between 2pac’s Changes, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The horror in these poetic works is the horror of the real world. Discounting whatever Kubrick was going for with the ending, the abusive father and husband, an alcoholic and egotist, terrorizes his family in very real, very human ways. And 2pac’s Changes evokes the same sense of real life horror. The horror is not in its novelty, its singularity; the horror is in its frequency, its pervasiveness—not only in American slums but around the world.

They are both horror stories, hauntings, and Changes is a world of teenage ghosts who died for shoes or change; shot in the streets for their watch or misplaced rage stemming from hopelessness and a crushing sense of futility, their spirits giving resonance to the evocative but ironically flat and passive refrain, ‘hey, that’s the way it is,’ – a quietus, acknowledged as an accepted absurdity in wistfulness, and these young men and women imbue the delicacies of the piano sampling, the echo effects being reminiscent of the lost; echoes as they are, emanations Tupac channels in his lyrics. The horrors in this song aren’t just a family trapped in a haunted house; it’s a nation trapped in haunted house full of the ghosts of racism, poverty, distrust and vendetta.

In a concrete prison, each war a maze of alleyways to nowhere, a Minotaur at the end of every corner, a world transformed into a permanent purgatory and Tupac expresses this purgatory and the nonchalance, or suspected nonchalance of the ineffectual response in government. This is what upset the stomach of the 5 star restaurant crowd, putting them off their lobster and linguini; a land of the free in which an entire culture is without the afforded liberty to give expression to their rage and their confusion and their anger. In a way that Shakespeare gave the English a sense of who they were, what their struggles were to be in life, Tupac Shakur was this to millions of people in ghettos and poverty stricken neighborhoods.

With some of the best lyrical structures of his career, and a chorus channeling the ghosts to whom Tupac is giving voice, add up to a socially conscious song that, in the abstract, encapsulated a confused point in a culture’s arrested evolution caught between inarticulate screaming and a measured, silent response to a government unconcerned with poverty stricken neighborhoods.

2pac the rapper is a character within the song, and Tupac the person is as well, as a cynic, an optimist, and social critic, as well as what would get him dubbed a preacher and a visionary. There is also another narrative voice, the common man, the streetwalker, trapped by debt and lack of economic opportunity. Drug trafficking in these communities is rigorously opposed by cops. This is by design.

The likelihood of going to college is low; a high school diploma guarantees nothing. They are left in a permanent economic depression, a limbo somewhere between poverty and lower class.

Selling crack is perhaps the biggest cliché about ghetto culture and is used as a way to malign someone’s character. It is not a reflection of the moral decay of an individual; it’s a reflection of the decay at the root of a system that creates beggars—starvation in between buffets.

Drugs are gasoline for cars that cannot run on gas, or cars that can but just can’t will themselves to do so; it is fuel for working cars that think they’re broken. Changes is a rich literary work and will take some effort to unpack and do a proper critical study; but, as this is kind of what this book is for, that’s what’s going to happen.

 

 

 

Cont.

 

Perspectives emerge through contextual correlation. It begins with Tupac the person reflecting from the perspective of the streetwalker narrator, a narrator whose perspective is from a life of drugs and crime and violence, an exaggerated parody of what Tupac’s critics believed him to be; this voice comes in after the first two lines. This is a thematic response to contrary perspectives within the stanza. Tupac reflects before it’s made implicit; as it is a written piece, it isn’t necessary to be linear to make a cohesive whole.

The first line sees Tupac the person–the person behind songs like this, not 2pac the rapper behind songs like Hail Mary– waking up; this has been related to enlightenment, to a heightened awareness, and it is an ancient dramatic device which evokes the revelatory and poignant by appealing to the best within us all.

The first lines come chronologically, within the song, after the first lines are spoken, as the first two lines are a reflection of the third and fourth lines. The streetwalker narrator’s interplay with Tupac the person plays a big part in the first verse; the contrast between someone living the life and someone reflecting on that life.

It is possible, if not probable, that the contrast is between what a person is–disenchanted with being a streetwalker– reflecting on the way they were preemptively to provide context for such remarks, as they’re often augmented by the Tupac voice before they’re made or immediately–sometimes midline–after they’re spoken. Tupac the thug shows up too, in later lines, but Tupac the person begins in reflection:

I see no changes;

Wake up in the morning and I ask myself 

Is life worth living, should I blast myself?

If the change is not between different narrative aspects, it is interesting to consider: the narrator’s first thoughts upon awakening are of suicide.

I’m tired of feeling poor, and even worse, I’m black       My stomach hurts so I’m looking for a purse to snatch.

By immediately linking crime to poverty the discourse is forced to look at the roots of crime, to poverty. The character is being imbued with a crisis of conscience because of what he feels is necessary just to eat. The suggestion that criminals are not by default born to be criminals again asks the listener to consider what can justify the actions behind this kind of crime and the character behind the actions of what used to be easily dismissible criminals without motive beyond self-gratification.

It may be this realization that led to the initial crisis:: the likelihood of positive change taking place in his lifetime can seem to be a naïve dream.  In the face of hopelessness, many people feel that suicide is the only answer, which leads to the following, highly charged interplay between Tupac the person and the streetwalker narrator.

Cops give a damn about a negro,

         Pull the trigger, kill a nigger,    He’s a hero. 

As irreverent as this sentiment seems, it is a harsh, but sharp analysis of life as seen through the eyes only a poet or philosopher can put to use; to take in knowledge for storage is education; education and creativity is the synthesis through which true intelligence is expressed. Genius is the degree of poignancy and depth the expression possesses.

The poet is always present; as you can see how he interjects more rhythm with the false stop between what would be two end-sentence word rhymes with the ‘pull the trigger, kill the nigger’ line. It’s crude, but it’s an elegant technique to interject a degree of thematic resonance into what could’ve just moved the song along.  The best writers always find a way to make words within end-rhyme structured sentences connect each other in more ways than rhyme; and in this rhyme he ties trigger and with nigger, in rhyme and, at the same time, negro and hero along with all that implies.

Sensitive as he is, making such a comment ‘pull the trigger, kill a nigger, he’s a hero’ with such distance and frequency has left him undoubtedly callous and jaded. This is another facet of the artist, prismatic in contrasting internal conflict. While the streetwalker voice may be desperate, the cynic is what he is because of a life mired in not only a miserable cycle, but a tiring, taxing, emotionally draining cycle, making old men of teenagers. The next verse is a direct exchange between narrative voices:

Give crack to the kids

(Who the hell cares?)

         One less hungry mouth on the welfare.

And he continues in the same, ironic voice, this time in the third person:

 First ship ’em dope and let ’em deal to brothers

Give ’em guns, step back, and watch ’em kill each other.

The commonality of black on black crime in the 90’s got to the point where it wasn’t turning any heads.

         ‘It’s time to fight back,’ that’s what Huey said.

         Two shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead.

This moment is transformative; in the presence of death, Tupac becomes a sharp social critic and voice of a generation of disenfranchised, disaffected youths whilst simultaneously broadening awareness and pushing for change in other communities that might not have cared had he not tackled these issues, had he continued to play it safe. When the optimist within him comes to the forefront in the presence of tragedy, he is a grand consoler; and he realizes that although there is some hope for the hopeless, he still hasn’t shed his doubt completely and wont, but in making this song, it is the embodiment of the famous Rosa Parks aphorism:

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

The narrative voices are still conflicting. The interlocutor, the operating consciousness, is expressing solidarity, consolation; perhaps by recognizing these elements within himself, he finally achieves a sort of peace and in making peace with himself sees how peace is possible for all men and women:

 I got love for my brother,

 but we can never go nowhere 

unless we share with each other. 

We gotta start making changes, 

learn to see each other as a brother

instead of two  different strangers.

Although he sees the need for changes, he unconsciously ties the rhyme of changes with strangers. Earlier in the song, he tied negro and hero, trigger and nigger; now he’s tying changes and strangers—after saying earlier he wished he could go back to the way things were when he was a kid–after changing. He understands that the type of change he is suggesting is tantamount to a cultural death, the death of a shared hardship having created, and broken, so many bonds; and the loss of that identity is not something to be mourned because he sees it as poverty, drugs, crime, and death.

Although shedding a cultural identity is long and hard, people are addicted, psychologically, and are dedicated to remain ‘true’ to who they are, even if who they are is destructive to themselves and others in some way or another. As the Tupac narrative voice realizes, he has a cultivated image, which allows him to prevaricate between critic, satirist, and the stereotypical thug introduced in the first verse; his personality and identity is something to which he is dedicated. Even as he rebukes this caricature, the revolutionary he invokes is killed; and this is what it takes—horror of the highest order—to truly bring people together as a truly human family whose patriotism is to the world shared by us all. It’s a harsh truth that while murder can bring out the worst in people—in revenge killings, wars—it can also permeate higher social strata and breathe life into advocacy that is capable of making lasting change.

         And that’s how it’s supposed to be,     how can the devil take a brother

         when he’s close to me?

Even this optimism changes when he realizes that change isn’t a cure-all; it won’t bring back any friends or family, to be able to rewind the tape of history and leave the pain on the cutting room floor, with only childhood left enchanted, PG, not a horror movie. He says as much with the following:

I’d love to go back to when we played as kids, 

but things have changed,

and that’s the way it is.

Even though his anaphoric usage of ‘I see no changes,’ is not only a master class in rhetoric, it is each time, by the end of the verse, revised as Tupac realizes that all things change; it’s how we know that time is happening. The idea, however, is that now, although change is inevitable, he has a particular idea of what changes could take place to improve the lives of millions of people.

The bridge between verses has a touch of irony in it which always fascinated me The idea that change, even if it’s for a greater good, which the positivist narrator seems to be endorsing, the change that narrative voice longs for creates strangers. Habits are hard to break, even when they’re unhealthy; smoking, drinking, writing. Although these things are known to be bad for our health, it’s hard to give it up.

That’s just the way it is,

This line is important in establishing a sense of permanence to the situation advocated by the positivist narrator. The second line flatly contradicts it by stating that everything changes;

Things will never be the same.

That’s ‘the way it is’ establishes the idea of a hopeless society on the verge of self-destruction, and ‘things will never be the same’ contrasts combative attitudes towards what change is within the writer, between the different narrative voices, and what is in the realm of possibility.

I see no changes,

all I see is racist faces,     ]

misplaced hate makes disgrace to races we under. 

I believe this misplaced hate is a reference to the pervasiveness, or perceived pervasiveness of black on black crime in the inner cities; this ‘misplaced hate’ is an embarrassment to Tupac, because he believes this kind of behavior reinforces the negative opinions of black culture, and is especially embarrassing to the races he feels that black people are ‘under’ in his view of America’s caste system. The previous narrative points of view are abandoned; excepting the invented dialogue later in the verse, which is a dialogue between what Tupac knows people have to do, and his own idealism towards what the streetwalker character has to do to survive.

The reason behind Tupac’s legacy as the greatest rapper in the history of hip-hop is because of this level of thoughtfulness and poetic sensibility, as well as his gift for rhythm and performance. It was something that hip-hop until then had lacked, or at least was rare. Public enemy was a political force, for sure, and empowering. But with delicate rhyme structures and intermixed commentary, the setup for the last verse is Tupac’s rediscovery of who he is and what he has to do.

I wonder what it takes to make this one better place…

This philosophical epithet is punctuated by two perfect rhymes, takes and make, and one family rhyme, place. It could be said that Tupac could have gotten his message across in ways other than rap, but since he was so good with words it made him available to a larger audience, an audience that replays their music over and over in a way that isn’t possible with books or traditional speeches and is much more accessible. He also recognizes that the good within is motivated by the American promise of opportunity and that is not something which should be color coded.

Take the evil out the people,

Although I can understand the interpretation that there is a defensiveness and maybe even hostility towards white culture—or at least a subset within it—people wasn’t just used here because it rhymed well; all are created equal—a statement which has no asterisk.

…They’ll be acting right,

‘Cause both black and white are smoking crack tonight.

The reason this song could be made is because of how good Tupac could rap and write; he had a wonderful voice to give expression to his thought. In the next bar, his multisyllabic and intricate rhyme structures demonstrate his versatility. It’s easy to forget the weight behind the statement because of how well it flows and how well it works as just music.

And the only time we chill is when we kill each other     It takes skill to be real time to heal each other. 

It’s easy for the message to be overlooked when it’s packaged in this manner. Tupac obliges in the last verse with typical rap fodder, perhaps as a reward for our patience. He recognizes more and more how truly equal we really are throughout. He doesn’t refuse to acknowledge what he sees as universal, what is present in everybody, and it’s unclear in my reading of the song how he would suggest this be changed, or even if he thought it could be. Throughout the song, he acknowledges behavior he’s not proud of, shown drug trafficking and usage. But true equality in deed does not equal equality in prosecution and this hasn’t ever really been a secret.

It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact

The penitentiary’s packed and it’s filled with blacks.

In all works of art, literature and poetry, there is a level of ambiguity; sometimes it is intentional, sometimes the artist didn’t really know what the fuck he was talking about, and sometimes it is another instance of the connection-correlation-conclusion method of proof, at least in academic theory.

There are conflicting characters in this work, and it comes down to the simple observation that these conflicting characters are not just conflicting views held by the author, but a microcosm for a culture at war with itself, an internal struggle that manifests in violence and hate.

As for change: the song is full with different ideas on what this is, what it should be, what it’d make better, what it’d make worse; the good parts and the bad. In the first verse, one conflicting narrative voice considers change as the nature of the way things are. Near the end of the second verse, there is a reflective denouncement of this idea coming from another aspect of the same person.

But sometimes things will never change Try to show another way  but they stayin in the dope game

         But tell me what’s a mother to do

        Being real don’t appeal to the brother in you.

         You gotta operate the easy way.         “I made a G today.” 

         But you made it in a sleazy way

         Sellin’ crack to the kids

          I gotta get paid.”

         Well hey, that’s the way it is.

When someone of great persuasion and authority says something real but unfortunate, it will always be politically incorrect. The concept of political correctness comes from a type of censorship regarding the way we address certain aspects of culture and aspects of other people’s culture. Unfortunately, this doesn’t win you any popularity contests. Tupac was a controversial writer up until the time of his death–at the age of 25!–and the media never looked at his death as anything other than typical black on black violence, something which, earlier in the song, Tupac considered an embarrassment to his culture.

In the monologue between the second and final verse, he offers a plea not unlike Charlie Chaplin’s when he finally spoke at the end of The Great Dictator:

Charlie Chapman:

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible – Jew, Gentile, black man — white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate or despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

The monologue Tupac gives is in the same spirit as Chaplin’s.

We gotta make a change…

         It’s time for us as a people to start making some   changes.

Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live           and let’s change the way we treat each other. 

         You see the old way wasn’t working

so it’s on us to do            what we gotta do, to survive.

It’s hard to pin down where Tupac, the person, is leaning idealistically in this song. He had the capacity to look at it from every realistic point of view, and it’s not clear if he’s even happy with having made the song, in his identification with Huey; he certainly saw poverty as penultimate to crime, and desperation to drug use and sell, but it’s not clear whether or not he believes positive change is even possible. In one line, he despairs of change; in another, he longs for the innocence and purity of a youth not yet disillusioned. It’s been almost 20 years since Tupac died. There have been changes; some for good, some for bad. But I think if he was allowed, if there was a Heaven and he made it, to visit Earth for one day, I think the 2008 United States Presidential Election would be the best post-death gift for him. If nothing but high symbolism is there attained, it is an affirmation that a black guy can maintain the highest office in the land; elected and reelected fairly.

Racism still exists but is barely hanging on. Although racism by another name is certainly still all too popular, outright racism isn’t tolerated in the media or in political circles. There are still fights to be fought. The fight for the equal pay for women along with their ability to make their own choices about what is best for their life; the fight for the rights of homosexual men and women to be afforded the full measure of freedom is ongoing; but it will happen. Someday those who now oppose it will wonder how they ever served the spirit of a nation founded upon freedom while at the same time fighting against the right for people to make choices about who they love and when they wish to have a family. Progress has been made; the possibility for the first woman president looks to be just on the horizon in 2016. Again, there are still fights to be fought; but now, more people than ever are willing to fight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10

THE DOCTOR IS SICK;

Dissecting Dostoevsky

 

 

FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY IS NOW PARTLY MYTH.
He is perhaps as popular in the English speaking world as he is in his native Russia. His work is that of an exaggerated naturalist by tradition and a psychologist in practice. He is deservingly famed for his intensive, microscopic analysis of the human condition and the psychological insight that is be found in his more fleshed out characters.

Although his legacy is controversial the conversation on Russian literature is incomplete without him; if Dostoevsky is left out of the picture it is incomplete. It’s akin to writing about the beginning of a truly American literature and not mentioning Mark Twain. And, with the exception of Vladimir Nabokov, who had no fondness for the ‘novel of ideas’ approach, and [Joseph] Conrad, who, in his own words, thought, ‘Dostoevsky reaches far back into the first chaotic mouthings [sic] of the Earth.’ That’s one hell of a review, insult or not.

Because his work evokes a madness, a mania, a tempest of animalistic, flailing and pathetic people, the natural assumption is that these are exaggerations intended as a type of satire, parody or social commentary, and I’m sure in many situations that’s exactly what it is—as certainly Prince Mishkin was in The Idiot and the Underground Man was in Notes from the Underground. What I believe is more interesting than the myriad of opposing people and their conflicting philosophies, are all internal, warring aspects of this author’s soul. He was a psychiatrist—his own; writing was his therapy.

“All the novels [written] by Dostoievski [sic] were Crime and Punishment,” wrote Marcel Proust in his collection of essays, Art and Literature.

I’d say that’s about right.

Dostoevsky was a man at war—at war with ideas and philosophy; with destiny and himself. Each of his characters embody a characteristic of their creator either consciously or unconsciously created as such. As he writes, he is revealing more about himself than about his characters. As was said in Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey, the work revealed much more about the artist than the subject.

(I paraphrase; it has been many, many years since I last read that book.)

As for madness, I would say that Dostoevsky was a kind of madman, sure. He once robbed the famous Russian author of Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev. He was mad, truly, but not a sporadic writer. He wrote with clarity and patience, often by dictation. Through this dissection, he attempts to excise the within himself to find some sort of peace, as well as the more popular notion that the central thematic element in all of Dostoevsky’s work is the necessity for suffering in attaining spiritual redemption. He is adamant, across his entire body of work, that suffering is a necessary condition for development and salvation.

All of Dostoevsky’s literary characterizations are not only externalizations of inner struggles, they also served to contrast competing political, ideological, and theological attitudes in Russia as it neared the turn of the century. Perhaps as a wink of acknowledgment, Dostoevsky introduced the abstract behind this dual analytic projection in The Double; his meaning there inverse to the doppelganger, though sometimes it gets murky; it is a person of the very opposite of your ideals and beliefs. For example, if you were left handed, your double would be right handed. If you were deeply religious, your double would be a staunch atheist. A double is an intrinsically linked literary antiparticle, such as the positron—an extant example of anti-matter, being the anti-particle of the proton.

In Demons, what Dostoevsky is calling demons are ideas. Specifically, the ideas that possess; the ideas are the demons. They cause war and destruction and can lead to murder, betrayal, and sin. He uses the concept of the double and ideas as demons in his final work, The Brothers Karamazov. Each of his works have an ideological relationship.

Prince Mishkin, the idiot from The Idiot, is a brother in spirit with the ‘hero’ in The Brothers Karamazov, the youngest brother, Alyosha. The double concept is also heavily featured in the novel. This is done not by direct contrast, and never made concrete; it is done by playing characteristics of one character against another in the background, reacting to unspoken provocation to the others’ expressed beliefs within independent, unconnected scenes—connected only in the manner of the anti-particle: Ivan Karamazov’s pairing with father Zossima is a good example. The former is a skeptic of the highest order, atheist, and intellectual. The latter is the leader of a religious order; a faith healer, and a devout Christian. This is a way in which Dostoevsky goes above and beyond the call of duty and gives his personality to the shadow of his characters. 

Dostoevsky understood the poor in the same way Tolstoy understood the aristocracy. He was a notorious gambler, and to pay for more money to gamble, he wrote a novel entitled, The Gambler. And, to avoid being counted among the peasantry, the hopelessly poor folk of the country, he wrote a novel called, Poor Folk.

Dostoevsky had a well documented case off epilepsy and Smerdyakov, the bastard child of Fyodor Pavlovich and Stinking Lizavetta in The Brothers Karamazov. In his private letters, which were recounted in Sigmund Freud’s Dostoevsky and Parricide, it is shown that, just maybe, Dostoevsky had more in common with Smerdyakov than epilepsy; Freud linked this neurosis to the loss of his mother (What else is wrong with people, Freud?) but was later rebuffed when Dostoevsky’s surviving children were diagnosed with epilepsy.

It is not by accident that Raskolnikov (the anti-hero from Crime and Punishment) has the same possessive demons that characterized the main character in Demons, Stepan Trofimovich, who could also be said to have been possessed by an idea. In this case, the Double is becoming more of a doppelganger than an inversion, but the double is meant to define by contrast, or tie together by resemblance in expression. Both Raskolnikov and Trofimovich are lead to ruin by their possession, by their possessors, these demons.

In the culmination of his life’s work, The Brothers Karamazov, all of his work leading up to it features in some way—through demons and doubles

You have the intellectual; Ivan Karamazov is a brother in spirit to the Underground Man from Notes from the Underground, Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment, Stepan from Demons; all of these characters are linked together, each one third of the trinity Dostoevsky is constructing within the framework of the sons of Fyodor Karamazov. In giving the wastrel, buffoonish patriarch Fyodor Karamazov his own Christian name, he at least identifies the trio—the trio in harmony. But what of the sickness that creeps in and disturbs this trinity?

The Russian Orthodox Church believes that the mind, the body, and soul are elements within the Godhead. The mind:

Ivan Karamazov, Raskolnikov, the underground man, Stepan; the body: Dmitri Karamazov, Alexie from the Gambler, Grushenka, Marmeladov; the soul; Prince Mishkin, Alyosha,  Grigory the housekeeper, adoptive father of Dmitri.

What do all Dostoevsky characters have in common? They all in some fashion gamble with everything they have on the table. More often than not, they lose. At the end of The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri is off to prison for a crime he did not commit; Ivan is “on death’s door,” and Alyosha, seems the only brother with a full life ahead of him.

Through these characters the trinity remains in balance until a poison, something toxic weeds its way into it, disturbing this holy order, making it unnatural: Smerdyakov, the bastard child, the reeking one, unacknowledged, the irrational strain just outside—a new breed of degenerate cropping up in Russian society, the real murderer of his father Fyodor Karamazov. And what was Smerdyakov? Another in a long line of possessed whose ideas lead them to ruin—and in the end he hangs himself; all real problems seem to be self-terminating.

At the end of his life, at the end of The Brothers Karamazov, we have the idiot, the simpleton, the soul, giving the famous speech at the stone, exalting the virtues of simplicity, tenderness, and kindness. Through this Dostoevsky withstands the harshest indictment ever created against the orthodoxy (which he himself delivered through Ivan Karamazov in Rebellion, and The Grand Inquisitor, respectively) and found a kind of peace.

What Dostoevsky had inside him was purged through this literary exorcism. With Smerdyakov hanging in Grigor’s basement, the trinity in balance, Dostoevsky was set free. After a life of such passion and intensity I hope that at least in the days before his death he managed to get a good night’s sleep with the knowledge that he had contributed more to the literary culture of the world than he (or anyone, for that matter) ever thought he could.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11

SHAKESPEARE’S MADNESS

 

 

SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS ARE ALL INTRINSICALLY Shakespeare plays; yet with MacBeth, Shakespeare taps into a deeper madness, a madness rarely pulled off with lucidity in literary history. Daniel Paul Schreber’s unique autobiography Memoirs of my Nervous Illness is a notable exception.

Shakespeare unravels MacBeth in much the same manner as he later did in his best play, King Lear. Piece by piece the layers shed, layer after layer of human skin, and the higher he climbs, the closer his story mirrors the myth of Icarus.

At one point he was an honorable man, but is tempted by the witches to kill to rise in power. This is a common reading, but I think the witches intended to be a sort of externalization, a way of seeking validation for the kind of the desires he had. As he rose to power, through each step, he deteriorated even more morally. The deterioration was such that another theme of internal / external heaven and hell becomes very apparent in the fact that he can’t even enjoy his kingship because of his internal struggle—in this he is much like King Henry IV, unable to enjoy the glory of his usurped throne.

Although Macbeth deteriorates slowly and becomes more and more vicious, his passionate soliloquies, such as the one before murdering Duncan, invoke a sense of pity and awe in the audience simply because of how much he suffers. The great take-away for me is simple: Even monsters suffer. There is great ambition for social heights in MacBeth, but to gain it his morality is more and more cast aside.

MacBeth was once a highly respectable general in Scotland. He even witnesses to some degree the deterioration of his character as he notices his own choice for the social climb over moral goodness. He was respected by the soldiers and even King Duncan while in Scotland; however, this externalization of his greed and desire, the witches, will tempt him with the Throne of Glamis and Cawdor—and propose it will be Banquo, his good friend, soon to be a father of a dynasty of kings, and not he whom they hail as King.

MacBeth’s ambition is the heroic flaw, a common theme in theatre, a theme going back to the time of the first recorded productions of the plays staged by the cult of Dionysus.

“My thought, whose murder is yet fantastical, shakes my single state,” he reflects, regarding the prophecy. At first he rejects the idea of murder, shuddering as the witches mention what is to be his fate; he says, “If chance will have me king, chance may crown me, without my stir.”

Again the three witches, an internal peer pressure of sorts projected, make concentrated his murderous intentions, which he had yet to express. Again it is ambition goaded by temptation that drive him further when Duncan announces his intentions to make Malcom heir to the throne.

MacBeth says, “That is a step on which I must fall upon, or else o’erleap, for in my way it lies. Stars hide your fires; let not sleep my black desires: the eye that winks at the hand, yet that be which the eye fears, when it is done to see.”

In the end his ambition gets the better of him and his moral deterioration is complete; in the role of a desperate murderer, he doesn’t wish for the light to shine upon what he has done—it is considered too evil to be seen.

The inner conflict that acts inside Macbeth from evil and moral virtue carries on through the entirety of the play and the struggle against the prophecies and temptations become weaker and weaker. He reasons after multiple aversions to kill Duncan. This shows how he did this all to himself well aware of the risks and is unable to even enjoy his kingship because of the conflict inside him. His slow fall covers a noble man falling from good, through temptation, into a complete servant to his more evil instincts and ambitions.

Methought I heard a voice cry

“Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep,”

the innocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleeve of care,

The death of each day’s life,

sore labour’s bath,

Balm of hurt minds,

great nature’s second course,

Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

Of many the recurring themes in Macbeth, sleep is focused on intensively. Macbeth thought that sleep made life worth living and thought that by killing the king in his sleep, that he had murdered sleep itself. This, of the many points in Macbeth, is probably the most provocative and widely discussed. He thought it to be soothing, “like a bath after a long day’s work.” In the passage, which is common to modern English’s “Sleep on it” – Macbeth is frustrated and distraught and sees no end to his troubles. Though he has a lot of troubles, he relates this with. “A ravell’d sleeve” – this is the metaphor he uses for having a tangled mesh, or string – or skein – of thread and yarn.

Before Macbeth murders king Duncan, Banquo says, “A heavy summons lies like lead upon me, and yet I would not sleep: merciful powers.” Something, though as of yet he doesn’t reveal it, is keeping him from sleep. Banquo shows beforehand that he is suspecting that Macbeth may have ulterior motives when Macbeth bids him a “Good repose” – which is the same thing as a good night’s sleep.

In one of the most popular of all the scenes in Macbeth, Macbeth hallucinates seeing a bloody dagger suspended in the air pointing towards King Duncan’s chamber; he thinks it’s appropriate to have the hallucination at that time of night and says, “Now o’er the one half-world, nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse that curtain’d sleep.” Sleep, as he says, was curtained because many of the noblemen and personages high in the social hierarchy used four post beds and hung up curtains to keep out cold air. Macbeth believed the air of night could see through the curtains and through sleep itself.

“There’s one did laugh in’s sleep, and one cried murder,” – After King Duncan is murdered, he tells his wife this as he leaves the chamber and believed that the people, even though were asleep, could see the blood on his hands.

Tragedy is mainly two types, Modern tragedy and Greek tragedy. Greek tragedy is tied to the ideas of fate and the gods. A hero defies the gods, often due to fatal flaws which is the reason behind his downfall; and English playwriting, in its early years, follows this tradition. In Shakespeare’s plays, tragedy is also identified as a story that ends unhappily due to the fall of the protagonist, the tragic hero. Romeo and Juliet is related to the Greek tragedy with the characters having many fatal flaws such as rivalry and youth as well as cultural flaws.

Romeo and Juliet was written around 1595 among many other tragedies. Romeo and Juliet is a broad-stroke tragedy. In Shakespeare’s other tragedies, such as Macbeth and Hamlet, although those characters are fated to die, this type of tragedy is different. Romeo and Juliet is a domestic type of tragedy, despite the fact that other characters influence the result of the final tragedy; however only a few people are affected. In most of his work, the microcosm (Hamlet) along with the macrocosm (The fiefdom of Denmark) are affected apropos, making the tragedy in microcosm and macrocosm, personal and universal.

Tragedy was used by Shakespeare to break down and end the rivalry and feud between the two families; Capulets and Montagues and also to bring an end to the play. Many tragedies have been presented in the play including Paris, Mercutio, Tybalt and the death of Romeo, Juliet and Lady Montague. These figures all lead to each other, each building up and abetting the next death or tragedy. Tragedies could have been causes for the following reasons; authority, patriarchy, codes of honor, rivalry, masculinity, rebellion, ambition and fate.

From the very beginning of the play, fate was constantly referred to by Shakespeare, starting with the prologue, “A pair of star crossed lovers take their life.” This is Shakespeare working on a different type of tragedy, a tragedy in the face of time and destiny. Romeo and Juliet were meant to die, in that sense, because it was their destiny.

Therefore this is what fate had planned for their lives—as it was crossed through the stars. So the audience recognizes even further that the tragic death of Romeo and Juliet was something which was definitely happening, something inherent and inevitable. Shakespeare’s job to convince the audience to believe that what has happened in the play was down to fate was easy. As the audience at that point of time would have believed in fate.

The fated death of Romeo and Juliet was revealed from the opening of the play. To say they’re going to die is not even a spoiler. Shakespeare tried to showcase the idea that to fulfill destiny and prophecy, destiny you have to believe in destiny; Romeo and Juliet was tame for Elizabethan play-goers. By comparison, Henry VII is Kill Bill in tights.

Like prophecies, inasmuch as they are ultimately self-fulfilling, Romeo was shown to believe, saying, “I fear too early for my mind misgives, some consequences yet hanging in the stars shall bitterly begin this fearful date.”

Romeo knew—to that degree of belief, it transcends idea and becomes a physical reality—that his actions were not under his control; “…He that hath steerage over my course, direct my sail.”

By believing that one’s actions are out of one’s control, one avoids responsibility and, for Romeo to this, he tried to defy what was already a self-imposed idea, to go against the tide that swept him to his end.

The use of fate by Shakespeare was central to the progress of the play and its outcome; an example could be Romeo’s banishment and Paris’s engagement to Juliet. Both a modern and an Elizabethan audience would, despite the knowledge of the plays outcome, be interested in the play, and keep watching, and in a way Shakespeare uses the audience’s knowledge as a dramatic device.

Despite his own ambition, Shakespeare has a madness for condemning it; like MacBeth, Friar Lawrence could be an example of ambitious person, believing that by marrying the lovers the feud would stop, alleging that the only reason he is marrying the two is to bring an end to the rivalry between the two families. Despite how well intentioned this action is, The Friars decision to marry Romeo and Juliet only serves to indicate his naiveté. The Friar is ultimately responsible for the ending. To persuade Juliet to fake her death, he attempts to reverse nature—to heal the wounds of the feud—but only succeeds in making everything worse.

The Friar was a man who did not believe in fate. As such, his decision making leads to chaos. The unpredictable direction of events help to keep the audience attentive. Shakespeare used these techniques to build tension and make scenes more dramatic over and over.

Rebellion.

Romeo and Juliet both rebel against their families and the rivalry between them by marring one another. The play has presented several examples of adolescent rebellion. Juliet disobeys her father by refusing to marry Paris which makes her seem guilty as she live in patriarchy society. Juliet then makes it even worse for herself by going against her father and not marrying Paris. Both rebel against their parents through their continued association. Juliet not only disobeys her parents, she encourages Romeo to do the same, saying, “…deny thy father and refuse thy name.”

 

Cont.

 

Shakespeare could turn out plays like Romeo and Juliet like no one else, but in Hamlet and perhaps more so in MacBeth, he pushes himself higher and higher by bringing the Hamlet drama closer and closer to the personal, neglecting archetypal tragedy; Hamlet, the character, is probably the best evidence for this, as his own son, Hamnet, had died, sparking Shakespeare’s renewed interest in destructing the relationship between fathers and sons.

After his son was carried away by the plague, we have Hamlet, looking in a mirror, contemplating suicide. ‘To be or not to be,’ is just a fancy way of asking, ‘Should I kill myself or what?’ That’s the question. It’s the same question Camus pursued into his philosophy of the absurd, see The Stranger and The Myth of Sisyphus; life is penultimate to a type of eternity and Shakespeare says as much, taking the reader through a tempest of sound and fury, signifying not only fathers and their loss, and the loss of a father, but suicide, lethargy—the lethargy that puts gravity to his quill.

To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow

         Creeps in this petty pace from day to day     And all our yesterdays are lighted fools;         Out! Out brief candle!

         Life is but a walking shadow,

          A poor player that struts and frets 

his hour upon the stage

         And then is heard no more.

         It is a tale told by an idiot—       Full of sound and fury,           Signifying nothing.

The people upon whom Shakespeare’s penetrating eye falls are, in one form or another, saddened by personal loss and trying to deal with it in different ways. It is a dissection of grief. Hamlet’s deliberation on his life, Macbeth’s lethargy and disdain for the noise and futility of life, what is real and lasting, and what is ephemeral, a passing storm, false pretenses, and masks.

A good example of this is how King Lear mistreats his only honest daughter at the same giving lavish to the sycophantic ass-kissing of his other daughters.

It’s hard to pin Shakespeare down and say with definitiveness what he believed. He used the past as a prism through which to enlarge the issues of the present. But in his later works, the character of Hamlet in his more reflective, pensive moods; MacBeth might be a reflection of Shakespeare’s own transformation. From the highest of poets in England, to a grieving father; he had money and fame, and I think the character of MacBeth was both his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde  moment all truly reflective people encounter at some point in their life.

At the time King Lear was written, Shakespeare was English playwriting. Kip Marlowe, Robert Greene, and Thomas Kyd were his contemporaries and they did well.

When one considers the popularity of Hamlet’s conversation with the mirror and his thoughts of suicide, it’s easy to see yourself before that mirror thinking, always thinking, of what you have to lose, what you have lost, and what you know will be lost soon. If there be providence must this be the greatest lack of mercy—the denial, the voices of those we’ve buried; it is this great mystery from whence springs the theological edifices of man: the dead stay silent, unless by a proper necromancer restored to live forever in the folio or painting of a fine dramatist or artist. This is among the finer qualities of art—the preservation of what we are as individuals and as a species, struggling with self-definition. Shakespeare was one of the first writers to give us a hint at what that definition could be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

12

HAGIOGRAPHY;

THE FICTIONAL YOU

 

 

MARY SUE NOVELS ARE MUCH MALIGNED IN
literary circles and among the intelligentsia. It is also the first idea a non-writer has for a story. Because of a very unique psychological blind-spot called self-bias, it is natural for us to believe in the quality of our uniqueness and the intensely interesting aspects of our lives. Because of this, it’s hard to convey our memories with the emotion intended because that emotion is unique to us. Our importance in regards to our own story is profound and without doubt.

As an unknown writer, I understand how it feels to need validation. And because of this, to advertise ourselves, we create a fictionalized, externalized self through which we attempt to show our worth. The trope is best described as a semibiographical, thinly veiled origins story for the author. The narration is the proxy through which we attempt to show our merit as a writer and as a person.

This isn’t limited to first-timers, though it is more common for a first time writer to write a Mary Sue than it is for an established author (ask me how I know.) For example, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is a good Mary Sue, but the author, the titular David Copperfield, is not the same writer as Charles Dickens. If anything, I think Uriah Heep reveals more about the author than the author’s author.

This technique can work if the person attempting the Mary Sue is skilled and / or witty; but if the intention is to make the most sock-sniffing faux pas of an autohagiography, why then should it be fiction? If your life is interesting enough, no embellishment should be necessary. If you don’t deserve a genuine biography, making a slightly fictionalized account of yourself where you, by proxy, become what you wish to be instead of what you are, you are attempting an exercise akin to a chef trying to fake the quality of a meal. William S. Burroughs said it best in The Western Lands:

“Cheat your landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the muse. It cannot be done. You can’t fake quality any more than you can fake a good meal.”

The more obvious the intent to blur the recognition of a by-proxy facsimile makes more embarrassing the entire situation. And, considering you’ve admitted to yourself no achievement worth an actual autobiography, choosing to enhance your good characteristics and be a cool guy by proxy, to be cared for by proxy, makes this a sad, sad state of affairs. If you want a biography, do something to change the world. Invent a working system of government—you’ll get a Mary Sue for you that.

Growing up I was a big fan of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.  I even got a tourist map of London (though the names were changed) to try to follow Holmes and Watson around in their adventures. When I first started thinking about it as an adult, I started to think that, since Watson was a disabled war vet, he created Holmes to somehow live an exciting life as an important, intelligent and useful man. Or perhaps he created Holmes as an imaginary friend, to escape the monotony of a slow mind and unfulfilled life. There is evidence to support this.

First, within the framework of the story, there is a surprising lack Holmes in newspapers despite his brilliant career—as for his reluctance for validation, it does not make sense for the character as described by his biographer The Sherlock Holmes as described by Watson had few weaknesses; yet, time after time. he is prone to vanity and showmanship. A man so moved by vanity would naturally take credit for his deeds. Yet, when not on the scene or talking to witnesses, Sherlock dislodges himself from the scene entirely, like a moth roused from sleep by the hint of a greater fire. Watson dramatized the stories by making Holmes artist and magician; in Hounds of the Baskerville, Sherlock was absent for most of the novel. As events begin to move along at Baskerville Hall, Holmes is found camping on the moors. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a good author of fiction, but he is much greater at bringing together lots of disparate strings together in each dazzling denouement.

In between these cases, Holmes is described as abstracted, detached. aloof. The sole motivation seems to be to perform these pieces of drama at the behest of his friend, Watson. At the end of The Sign of Four, the denouement is usurped by the wonderful story of the main antagonist, the one-legged Andaman islander Johnathon Small. The ending is brief but telling:

“The division seems rather fair,” says Watson. “You have done all the work in this business. I get a wife out of it, Jones gets

the credit, pray what remains for you?”

“For me,” said Sherlock Holmes, “there is cocaine.”      And he stretched his long white hand up for it.

Watson was the narrator in all but a few stories (I can think of two in which Holmes narrates himself, The Blanched Soldier and The Lions Mane (both from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes; there are two that come to mind written in the third-person omnipotent perspective, The Dying Detective (in the collection published as His Last Bow) and The Mazarin Stone (also from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes; Watson narrates most stories exclusively in his first-person present indicative perspective.

In the second half of A Study in Scarlet, the first book to feature the world famous detective, the story is told in a third person to give the murderer, Jefferson Hope, a back-story. The same thing takes place in the second half of Valley of Fear, when the tale of the man (whose supposed murder kicks the story into motion) takes place in Utah.

Watson, in Valley of Fear, describes Scotland Yard’s MacDonald as a protégé to Holmes thusly: ‘Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, while genius instantly recognizes talent.’

Consider who is more likely to exist: a man capable of riddling out your job by the calluses on your hands, where you live by the unique stains on your boots, and where you sat in a carriage because of the direction of the splash, or a retired military man playing his own little game of literary cops and robbers, imagining himself as Sherlock Holmes, a man of genius, wit, and skill. Watson’s injury isn’t consistent from the first story to the second: in the first, he says:

“I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.”

In the first chapter of The Sign of Four, Holmes manages to upset his dull companion by his accuracy in regards to the character of Watson’s brother. In that scene, it becomes a leg wound that, ‘aches with the change of weather.’

Watson’s greatness and his weakness was projected onto Holmes. After his death in The Final Problem, published in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, he is assumed to have died in combat with Moriarty, having fallen into the Reichenbauch Falls. However, in The Adventure of the Empty House, from The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Watson tells of his comings and goings in Sherlock’s absence, but interestingly omitted from Watson’s account of life without his famous friend is his wife Mary, whom he met in The Sign of Four. And how does he find Sherlock Holmes again? Holmes, disguised as an old man, bumps into Watson, carrying a pile of books. And from that disguise, Sherlock Holmes reappears.

To imbue your fiction with aspects of your life in a relatable way is different in a very important way than the proper Mary Sue. To have a character with your mother’s manners or your father’s name is natural. The reason the Mary Sue is so frowned upon is because it negates the problem of imagination at the same time fictionalizing. The best thing about writing fiction is the fantasy. When you understand what makes the best art so great, it has a dual and positive effect: you have the motivation to acquire the skill to create, and the sensibility and identification with the material to know what you’ve created

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

14

THE ART OF OPPRESSION

 

 

AS MUCH AS ART AND LANGUAGE HAVE ENRICHED
our lives and culture, it can be used more nefariously—and it is, and has been for thousands of years, used as a means to a much, much more nefarious end; as the best literature and information can liberate, it is possible to enslave. I know I touched on this in the chapter on the eukaryotic idea, but I’d like to expand upon that through and analysis of George Orwell’s nightmarish vision of a future where literature does not set free the soul—as the most noble of literature and ideas can—it enslaves. When you control the information, you control those who receive it.

‘Big Brother is watching you,’ a classic line from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four appeals to the same sensibility to which ‘God is watching you’ appeals. Big Brother is a collective, a hivemind of herding principles structured by those in charge of Oceania designed to keep the fear palpable; the more afraid someone is, the more likely they are to comply with what is terrifying them.

Although Ray Bradbury has denied Farenheit 451 is about censorship, it certainly illustrates the horror behind the destruction and suppression of ideas and draws attention to how the forces behind book burnings are usually those in charge of a control system. It is interesting, also, to consider the inversion of allegory involved; the allegory is the main narrative, and the main narrative is allegory for the idea.

John Taylor’s Seven Lesson Schoolteacher has a different approach to handling an authoritarian edifice and his lessons are the bricks in the edifice of the mind’s sometimes voluntary enslavement. It is a poignant testament to the quality of individuality and warning against subscribing to a belief system structured to control. When the information provided comes from the same body enacting the law, it is, no matter the brand of information—literature, media, radio—designed to control by fear and recruit by a promise such law givers are unable to keep.

In The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher, Gatto shows us what Dostoevsky, in Notes from Underground, called the ‘edifice of glass.’ Gatto shows the reality of totalitarianism in a distorted yet eerily similar America.  To paraphrase, a centralized order must not be questioned. No possible objections, logical, sensible or otherwise are to be taken seriously and those who make such objections do so to their disadvantage.

Mr. Gatto, as he wished to be called, was a school teacher who had taught for twenty-six years, winning many awards in the process. He outlines a subconscious and hidden curriculum that is unconsciously transmitted to every student in every school in the United States. These rules aren’t acknowledged, written, or made apparent but, as Mr. Gatto suggests, this is the only way students can be turned into functioning member of society—as he sees it.

What does it mean to function in a society if one has to be manipulated as a child to be able to do so? The seven universal lessons perpetuate what has done more to harm people throughout history, though it helps a select few, and could be interpreted as a list for the pros of making war upon your own government, as Shakespeare famously questioned in his treatment of the character in Richard II: is it ever right to overthrow a monarchy? When it is necessary for the following traits to be drilled into children in order to keep them in check, it most certainly is; I fall into another category on this position, which Leon Trotsky expressed so well in Literature and Revolution. 

‘Mechanical centralism is necessarily complemented by factionalism, which is at once a malicious caricature of democracy and a potential political danger.’

Mr. Gatto’s entire structure is built on factionalism. His seven universal lessons are meant to strengthen some factions to invite membership and conformity, and others are intended to keep those ‘unworthy’ are those for whom the rest of the rules were written. The seven universal rules are: confusion, class position, indifference, emotional dependency, intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and an admonition against anyone who notices the slavery of a system that confuses intentionally, gives to one side it created for itself, and addicts the rest to scraps because class position can only exist in a society confused and emotionally dependent. You can’t hide. Big brother is watching you. Take your soma and fall in line: this is the literature of enslavement. And the author of this material is a real man and really believes in these universal ‘laws’ of education.

Students are often taught a barrage of information, none of which is important to their lives, intended to work as an assembly line towards an end, a goal: to college, to graduate school, and finally to a job. This sort of cynical approach by a life-long teacher is disheartening; it is disheartening not because of one man’s belief, but those who rally behind his ideas of slavery are highly influential. Behind all the useless information is what the intended goal of this system is: there is this centralized element abhorrent to Trotsky, an element that might have made Shakespeare rethink his ideas of overthrowing a monarch.

The central command structure of knowledge reaches into the deep past of western philosophy. It’s in Plato’s The Republic, St. Augustine’s City of God, even Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Although it wasn’t published in his lifetime, Hobbes’ much better work, Behemoth, was forbidden by a king, a king who probably would’ve endorsed it, had he read it. Satires like Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World were considered, in their time, to be ridiculous. These were not instant classics. And the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four nearly killed George Orwell; this brings us to what gave the English their first clear vision of totalitarianism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

15

AN HOMAGE TO ORWELL

 

 

BEFORE A SOCIAL AND BIOGRAPHICL ANALYSIS
of Orwell the man, writer of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, I would first like to say that I believe he was at his best in his non-fiction account of the Spanish Civil War—Homage to Catalonia.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Sixty years after the publication of Orwell’s mostly widely cited and read work, Nineteen Eighty-Four, that crystal first line sounds as natural and compelling as ever. But when you see the original manuscript, you find something else: not so much the ringing clarity, more the obsessive rewriting, in different inks, that betrays the extraordinary turmoil behind its composition.

Probably the definitive dystopian novel of the 20th century, a story that remains eternally fresh and contemporary, and whose terms such as ‘Big Brother,’ ‘doublethink,’ and ‘newspeak—all of which having become part of the everyday currency in the English lexicon, Nineteen Eighty-Four has been translated into more than 65 languages and sold millions of copies worldwide, giving George Orwell a unique place in world literature.

The circumstances surrounding the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four make a haunting narrative that helps to explain the bleakness of Orwell’s dystopia. Here was an English writer, desperately sick, grappling alone with the demons of his imagination in a bleak Scottish outpost in the desolate aftermath of the Second World War. The idea for Nineteen Eighty-Four, alternatively, The Last Man in Europe, had been incubating in Orwell’s mind since the Spanish civil war.

His novel, which owes something to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian fiction We, probably began to take a definitive shape during 1943-44, around the time he and his wife Eileen adopted their only son, Richard. Orwell himself claimed that he was partly inspired by the meeting of the Allied leaders at the Tehran Conference of 1944. Isaac Deutscher, an Observer colleague, reported that Orwell was “convinced that Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt consciously plotted to divide the world” at Tehran.

Orwell had worked for David Astor’s Observer since 1942, first as a book reviewer and later as a correspondent. The editor professed great admiration for Orwell’s “absolute straightforwardness, his honesty and his decency,” and would be his patron throughout the 1940s. The closeness of their friendship is crucial to the story of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Orwell’s creative life had already benefited from his association with the Observer in the writing of Animal Farm. As the war drew to a close, the fruitful interaction of fiction and Sunday journalism would contribute to the much darker and more complex novel he had in mind after that celebrated ‘fairy tale.’ It’s clear from Observer book reviews, for example, that he was fascinated by the relationship between morality and language.

There were other influences at work. The atmosphere of random terror in the everyday life of wartime London became integral to the mood of the novel-in-progress. Worse was to follow. In March 1945, while on assignment for the Observer in Europe, Orwell received news that his wife Eilee, had died under anesthesia during a routine operation.

Suddenly he was a widower and a single parent, eking out a threadbare life in his Islington lodgings, and working incessantly to dam the flood of remorse and grief at his wife’s premature death. In 1945, for instance, he wrote almost 110,000 words for various publications, including 15 book reviews for the Observer.

Then Astor stepped in. His family owned an estate on the remote Scottish island of Jura, next to Islay. There was a house, Barnhill, seven miles outside Ardlussa at the remote northern tip of this rocky finger of heather in the Inner Hebrides.

Initially, Astor offered it to Orwell for a holiday. Speaking to the Observer last week, Richard Blair says he believes, from family legend, Astor was taken aback by the enthusiasm of Orwell’s response.

In May 1946 Orwell, still picking up the shattered pieces of his life, took the train for the long and arduous journey to Jura. He told his friend Arthur Koestler that it was ‘almost like stocking up ship for an arctic voyage.’

It was a risky move; Orwell was not in good health. The winter of 1946-47 was one of the coldest of the century. Postwar Britain was bleak and Orwell always suffered from a chest pains and other anxiety-related pains. At least, cut off from the irritations of literary London, he was free to grapple unencumbered with the new novel. ‘Smothered under journalism,’ as he put it, he told one friend, ‘I have become more and more like a sucked orange.’

Ironically, part of Orwell’s difficulties derived from the success of Animal Farm. After years of neglect and indifference the world was waking up to his genius. ‘Everyone keeps coming at me,’ he complained to Koestler, ‘wanting me to lecture, to write commissioned booklets, to join this and that, etc.–you don’t know how I pine to be free of it all and have time to think again.’

On Jura he would be liberated from these distractions. The promise of creative freedom on an island in the Hebrides, however, came with its own, unique price. Years before, in the essay Why I Write, he described the struggle to complete a book: ‘Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand. For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality.’ It ends with the popular adage: ‘Good prose is like a window pane.’

From the spring of 1947 to his death in 1950 Orwell would re-enact every aspect of this struggle in the most painful way imaginable. Privately, perhaps, he relished the overlap between theory and practice. He had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity.

At first, after ‘a quite unendurable winter,’ he reveled in the isolation and wild beauty of Jura. ‘I am struggling with this book,’ he wrote to his agent, ‘which I may finish by the end of the year—at any rate I shall have broken the back by then so long as I keep well and keep off journalistic work until the autumn.’

Barnhill, overlooking the sea at the top of a potholed track, was not large, with four small bedrooms above a spacious kitchen. Life was simple, even primitive. There was no electricity. Orwell used Calor gas to cook and to heat water. Storm lanterns burned paraffin. In the evenings he also burned peat. He was still chain-smoking black shag tobacco in roll-up cigarettes: the fug in the house was cozy but not healthy. A battery radio was the only connection with the outside world.

Orwell, a gentle, unworldly sort of man, arrived with just a camp bed, a table, a couple of chairs and a few pots and pans. It was a Spartan existence but supplied the conditions under which he liked to work. He is remembered there as a spectre in the mist, a gaunt figure in oilskins.

At the end of May 1947 he told his publisher, Fred Warburg: ‘I think I must have written nearly a third of the rough draft. I have not got as far as I had hoped to do by this time because I really have been in most wretched health this year ever since about January (my chest as usual) and can’t quite shake it off.’

Mindful of his publisher’s impatience for the new novel, Orwell added: ‘Of course the rough draft is always a ghastly mess bearing little relation to the finished result, but all the same it is the main part of the job.’ Still, he pressed on, and at the end of July was predicting a completed ‘rough draft’ by October. After that, he said, he would need another six months to polish up the text for publication. This does not happen.

Part of the pleasure of life on Jura for George and his young son was the outdoor life—fishing, explore the island, and potter about in boats. In August, during a spell of lovely summer weather, Orwell, Avril, Richard and some friends, returning from a hike up the coast in a small motor boat, were nearly drowned in the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool.

Richard Blair remembers being ‘bloody cold’ in the freezing water, and Orwell, whose constant coughing worried his friends, did his lungs no favors. Within two months he was seriously ill. Typically, his account to David Astor of this narrow escape was laconic, even nonchalant.

The long struggle with The Last Man in Europe continued. In late October 1947, oppressed with ‘wretched health,’ Orwell recognized that his novel was still ‘a most dreadful mess and about two-thirds of it will have to be retyped entirely.’

He was working at a feverish pace. Visitors to Barnhill recall the sound of his typewriter pounding away upstairs in his bedroom. Then, in November, tended by the faithful Avril, he collapsed with ‘inflammation of the lungs’ and told Koestler that he was “very ill in bed”. Just before Christmas, in a letter to an Observer colleague, he broke the news he had always dreaded. Finally he had been diagnosed with TB.

A few days later, writing to Astor from Hairmyres hospital, East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, he admitted: ‘I still feel deadly sick,’ and conceded that, when illness struck after the Corryvreckan whirlpool incident, ‘like a fool I decided not to go to a doctor – I wanted to get on with the book I was writing.’

In 1947 there was no cure for TB; doctors could only prescribe fresh air regular diets. However, there was a new, experimental drug on the market, streptomycin. Astor arranged for a shipment to Hairmyres from the US.

Orwell’s son Richard believed his father was given excessive doses of this new drug. The side effects were horrific (throat ulcers, blisters in the mouth, hair loss, peeling skin and the disintegration of toe and fingernails; but in March 1948, after a three-month course, the TB symptoms had disappeared. ‘It’s all over now, and evidently the drug has done its stuff,’ Orwell told his publisher. ‘It’s rather like sinking the ship to get rid of the rats, but worth it if it works.’

As he prepared to leave hospital Orwell received the letter from his publisher which, in hindsight, would be another nail in the coffin. ‘It really is rather important,’ wrote Warburg to the star author, ‘from the point of view of your literary career to get it [the new novel] by the end of the year and indeed earlier if possible.’

Just when he should have been convalescing Orwell was back at Barnhill, deep into the revision of his manuscript, promising to deliver by ‘early December,’ and coping with ‘filthy weather’ on autumnal Jura. Early in October he confided to Astor: ‘I have got so used to writing in bed that I think I prefer it, though of course it’s awkward to type there. I am just struggling with the last stages of this bloody book [which is] about the possible state of affairs if the atomic war isn’t conclusive.’

This is one of Orwell’s exceedingly rare references to the theme of his book. He believed, as many writers do, that it was bad luck to discuss a work-in-progress. Later, to Anthony Powell, he described it as ‘a Utopia written in the form of a novel.’ The typing of the fair copy of The Last Man in Europe became another dimension of Orwell’s battle with his book. The more he revised his ‘unbelievably bad” manuscript the more it became a document only he could read and interpret. It was, he told his agent, “extremely long, even 125,000 words.’ With characteristic candor, he noted: ‘I am not pleased with the book but I am not absolutely dissatisfied… I think it is a good idea but the execution would have been better if I had not written it under the influence of TB.’

And he was still undecided about the title: ‘I am inclined to call it NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE,’ he wrote, ‘but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two.’ By the end of October Orwell believed he was done. Now he just needed a stenographer to help make sense of it all.

It was a desperate race against time. Orwell’s health was deteriorating, the ‘unbelievably bad’ manuscript needed retyping, and the December deadline was looming. Warburg promised to help, and so did Orwell’s agent. At cross-purposes over possible typists, they somehow contrived to make a bad situation infinitely worse. Orwell, feeling beyond help, followed his ex-public schoolboy’s instincts: he would go it alone.

By mid-November, too weak to walk, he retired to bed to tackle ‘the grisly job’ of typing the book on his “decrepit typewriter” by himself. Sustained by endless roll-ups, pots of coffee, strong tea and the warmth of his paraffin heater, with gales buffeting Barnhill, night and day, he struggled on. By 30 November 1948 it was virtually done.

Now Orwell, the old campaigner, protested to his agent that ‘it really wasn’t worth all this fuss. It’s merely that, as it tires me to sit upright for any length of time, I can’t type very neatly and can’t do many pages a day.’ Besides, he added, it was ‘wonderful’ what mistakes a professional typist could make, and, ‘in this book there is the difficulty that it contains a lot of neologisms.’

The typescript of George Orwell’s latest novel reached London in mid-December, as promised. Warburg recognized its qualities at once (‘amongst the most terrifying books I have ever read’) and so did his colleagues. An in-house memo noted ‘if we can’t sell 15 to 20 thousand copies we ought to be shot.’

By now Orwell had left Jura and checked into a TB sanatorium high in the Cotswolds. ‘I ought to have done this two months ago,’ he told Astor, ‘but I wanted to get that bloody book finished.’ Once again Astor stepped in to monitor his friend’s treatment but Orwell’s specialist was privately pessimistic.

As word of Nineteen Eighty-Four began to circulate, Astor’s journalistic instincts kicked in and he began to plan an Observer Profile, a significant accolade but an idea that Orwell contemplated ‘with a certain alarm.’ As spring came he was “having haemoptyses” (spitting blood) and ‘feeling ghastly most of the time’ but was able to involve himself in the pre-publication rituals of the novel, registering ‘quite good notices’ with satisfaction. He joked to Astor that it wouldn’t surprise him ‘if you had to change that profile into an obituary.’

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published on 8 June 1949 (five days later in the US) and was almost universally recognized as a masterpiece, even by Winston Churchill, who told his doctor that he had read it twice. Orwell’s health continued to decline. In October 1949, in his room at University College hospital, he married Sonia Brownell, with David Astor as best man. It was a fleeting moment of happiness; he lingered into the new year of 1950. In the small hours of 21 January, George Orwell suffered a massive hemorrhage in hospital and died alone.

The news was broadcast on the BBC the next morning. Avril Blair and her nephew, still up on Jura, heard the report on the little battery radio in Barnhill. Richard Blair does not recall whether the day was bright or cold but remembers the shock of the news: his father was dead, aged 46.

David Astor arranged for Orwell’s burial in the churchyard at Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire. He lies there now, as Eric Blair, between HH Asquith and a local family of Gypsies.

 

 

Cont.

 

Why ‘1984’? 

Orwell’s title remains a mystery. Some say he was alluding to the centenary of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884. Others suggest a nod to Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel (in which a political movement comes to power in 1984), or perhaps to one of his favorite writer GK Chesterton’s story, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, which is set in 1984.

In his edition of the Collected Works (20 volumes,) Peter Davison notes that Orwell’s American publisher claimed that the title derived from reversing the date, 1948, though there’s no documentary evidence for this. Davison also argues that the date 1984 is linked to the year of Richard Blair’s birth, 1944, and notes that in the manuscript of the novel, the narrative occurs, successively, in 1980, 1982 and finally, 1984. There’s no mystery about the decision to abandon The Last Man in Europe. Orwell himself was always unsure of it. It was his publisher, Fred Warburg who suggested that Nineteen Eighty-Four was a more commercial title.

Freedom of speech

The effect of Nineteen Eighty-Four on our cultural and linguistic landscape has not been limited to either the film adaptation starring John Hurt and Richard Burton, with its Naziesque rallies and chilling soundtrack, nor the earlier one with Michael Redgrave and Edmond O’Brien.

It is likely, however, that many people watching the Big Brother series on television (in the UK, let alone in Angola, Oman or Sweden, or any of the other countries whose TV networks broadcast programmes in the same format) have no idea where the title comes from or that Big Brother himself, whose role in the reality show is mostly to keep the peace between scrapping, swearing contestants like a wise uncle, is not so benign in his original incarnation. Apart from pop-culture renditions of some of the novel’s themes, aspects of its language have been leapt upon by libertarians to describe the curtailment of freedom in the real world by politicians and official—alarmingly, nowhere and never more often than in contemporary Britain.

Orwellian

Room 101

Some hotels have refused to call a guest bedroom number 101—rather like those tower blocks that don’t have a 13th floor—thanks to the Orwellian concept of a room that contains whatever its occupant finds most impossible to endure. Like Big Brother, this has spawned a modern TV show: in this case, celebrities are invited to name the people or objects they hate most in the world.

Thought police

An accusation often levelled at authoritative governments, or arenas in public in which ideas or speech are being restricted; any conglomeration designed to bleep or blur, remove or ‘correct’ literature, hide and suppress ideas.

Newspeak

For Orwell, freedom of expression was not just about freedom of thought but also linguistic freedom. This term, denoting the narrow and diminishing official vocabulary, has been used ever since to denote jargon currently in vogue with those in power.

Doublethink

Hypocrisy with a twist. Rather than choosing to disregard a contradiction in your opinion, if you are doublethinking, you are deliberately forgetting that the contradiction is there. This subtlety is mostly overlooked by people using the accusation of ‘doublethink’ when trying to accuse an adversary of being hypocritical—but it is a very popular word with people who like a good debate with their beer. If I may: everything is good with beer—if you have the beer first.

 

14

THE ART OF LIBERATION

 

 

IN THE BHAGAVAD-GITA, THE HINDU HOLY BOOK, we find the great archer and warrior, Arjuna, with his charioteer, and avatar of Vishnu, Krisha—of questionable fame stemming from an event earlier in life, having been caught stealing butter–allegedly. They are poised between two massive armies lined up to fight one another. He looks at both sides and finds relatives, fathers and sons, ready to slaughter one another in this battle. In his confusion and anguish, he cries out for guidance. To guide him, Krishna speaks to him as the supreme God of Gods, almighty Time, and instructs him the way of the Yoga.

The war, like so many of what is herein discussed, is an externalization used to illustrate the conflict inside oneself, the kind of conflict that every person has when it comes to choosing, when it comes to differentiating between what is right and what is wrong. Krishna appeared before him as a beacon of light in a time of darkness. He has since appeared to millions as the same light, to lead people from eternal return (For modern comparison, consider Groundhog Day) from what Krishna calls ‘the transient world of sorrow.’

The main thing that appealed to me about this ancient text is just pure beauty. Transience, I believe, is the major theme, the mortality of everything alive on the earth. In describing this to Arjuna, the transience of life and its luxuries, Krishna consoles and reminds Arjuna of his purpose, thereby escorting him out of darkness. What Krishna reveals to him cripples Arjuna and he is left shaking with fear and awe, saying, ‘Thy tears are for those beyond tears; and are thy words words of wisdom? The wise grieve not for those who live; they grieve not for those who died. Life and death will pass away.’

By this I believe he was saying that emotional and physical states exist in finite space, unable to last forever, and reasons that life, like death, will someday pass away into another sphere of existence, beyond eternal return.

‘Because we have all been for all time, I, and thou,’ he says. ‘We all shall be for all time, forever, and forever more.’

It appears in his words that Krishna relates the human body to be nothing but a vessel, like a physical ship to carry the ships’ captain, then, when the physical ship is no longer set afloat, the captain moves on to find another ship, only to be imprisoned again, like smoke inside a bottle until reincarnation, where we’re trapped again inside a body in the miserable cycle of eternal return.

Krishna appears before him as all powerful Time, with, ‘…multitudes rushing into him and pouring out of him as he devours them all, destroys everything.’

Krishna says, “I am all powerful time, and I have come here to slay these men. Fight, or fight not; all these men will die.”

After the mortal body is shed, ‘As the spirit of our mortal body wanders on in childhood, and in you and old age, the spirit moves to a new body,’ Krishna believes the evaluating mid-mind, the mind behind the body, passes in and out of light and dark, between worlds, reliving one cycle of life and death without ever finding something that lasts forever, something that is forever tangible. The spirit, however, is forever to him; this is a good idea, as death is relegated to nothing but a temporary shedding of a body: ‘Interwoven in [his] creation, the spirit is beyond destruction. No one can bring an end to the everlasting spirit or an end to something which had no beginning.’

Once someone escapes the transient world, Krishna instructs, he will dwell beyond time in these bodies, though our bodies have an end in their times, but we remain immeasurable, immortal. With these words, Krishna tells us to carry on our noble fight and noble struggles against the depreciating forces of all of life.

The highest goal for him is a goal familiar to Buddhists: asceticism. ‘From the world of senses,’ Krishna says, again beautifully illustrating transience, ‘comes fire and ice, pleasure and pain. They come and go for they are transient. Arise above them, strong soul.’

These words have encouraged and inspired millions of people; from east of the globe to west, every day for thousands of years, this has the quality of liberation. As the Persian poet wrote: A king wished to have a phrase that would cheer him when sad and sadden him when joyful:

This too shall pass.

The tone of the piece is intended to convey a liberating, lasting peace—an acceptance and eagerness to dispel disillusion and ignorance, to grow closer to the laws of the world and universe, a universe that is god made manifest—this is, in essence, what is called Brahma. It is a call for people to be honorable and kind to others. I’m not a religious person. I am however not ignorant of what this gives to culture and the arts. From a secular perspective, The Bhagavad-Gita is one of the greatest works of literature ever produced by mankind. There is much to take away, to learn, to believe. Acceptance of the supernatural is not necessary to learn and benefit from this cultural jewel.

The Bhagavad-Gita is a beacon of light, a candle in the dark. All cultures in some form or another produce these spiritual and religious texts. The dependence on the supernatural varies, but the message is universal: good for the sake of goodness and kindness for its own sake, while it will earn you no medals or honorary titles, is what lasting peace demands. If the world worked in this way, if everyone was motivated to not only improve themselves but the world around them, a peaceful world becomes possible. In a free world, there is no need to govern, or for government. Government is a euphemism for organized, demanded control.

Confucius, the proverbial wise old man, is credited with the composition of The Analects. In it, Confucius believed himself to be nothing more than a carrier of knowledge. Nothing divine, nothing unique or supernatural, not an inventor but a curator in the museum of our artistic history. Confucian intended to ‘reinvigorate’ what is called the mandate of heaven. Although he claimed to be but a messenger, he is, nevertheless, credited with the most famous of all axioms: “Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

With great subtlety and emphasis on learning and growing, Confucius left behind a legacy that has had a lasting impact on the world for thousands of years. The Analects are not the only source for Chinese philosophy: Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching, The Teachings and Sayings of Chuang Tzu, and the iconic I-Ching, or Book of Changes, are cultural treasures, and inherently consistent in tone and content, giving this brand of Eastern philosophy a unique consistency in an otherwise muddled, frustrated series of contradictive versions.

‘Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.’

Lines like this are the sun, the light to the lofty and pretentious little quote-loving moth in us all.

In keeping with the tone and aloofness of Eastern philosophy, generally speaking, The Analects echo the Book of Changes, Confucius says, ‘The only constant is change.’

This axiom is but a small notch above pandering tautology; yet we’re still drawn to it. Quotes in this vein are uniquely popular and for good reason. Sometimes one can, without true effort and study, get a good summary or imbibe the essence of a work of art with a cursory glimpse and partial, sometimes non-representative quote. However, this quote is representative and conveys a valuable message. The intention is to raise awareness, to make us more aware of ourselves and changing moods and their relation to the seasons, the cycle of life and death, destruction and renewal. As with The Bhagavad-Gita; it is another mantra urging us to accept the inevitability of the transient, the ephemeral among what is truly immortal, or never-changing.

In the religions of independently evolving cultures, we find, over and over, a connection, a branching out across time and space; in this there is a surprising consistency in the essential message, ‘It is only he who is possessed of the most complete sincerity that can exist under heaven, who can give its full development to his nature. Able to give its full development to his own nature, he can do the same to the nature of other men.’

Confucius’s philosophy is a call to the most ambitious of our characters to look for wisdom and sincerity.

‘Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles. Then no friends would not be like yourself (all friends would be as loyal as yourself.) If you make a mistake, do not be afraid to correct it.’

This is unique among quasi-religious texts: this is a eukaryotic idea within, what is by nature, a prokaryotic art-form.

In all the philosophies and religions produced by mankind, within each is some sort of promise, some hint of shelter from whatever storms in which we struggle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

17

OUR BAROQUE INHERITANCE

 

 

THE BAROQUE WAS AN ERA IN WESTERN
civilization characterized by various movements in art, literature,, and popular music in which broad strokes and generalizations were replaced by intricacies, ornate and self-aware arabesques, bringing out the devil in the details. Traditional ideas were questioned, overturned, and art and architecture underwent profound metamorphoses. Men and women of great ambition fought for the most trivial of positions in what was essentially a political chessboard in which every pawn has decided to wear the clothes of a king.

The word Baroque, as is the case with all periods of note in human history, would be invented later by critics and historians. The etymology of the word has a unique history; it is a French translation of the Portuguese phrase perle barroco, which roughly translates as ‘irregular pearl,’ or more literally as ‘false jewel.’ A similar word is used in Roman dialects to convey the same idea:  barlocco or brillocco. The idea being that, as sometimes pearls are by chance and circumstance shaped different, more common forms, having no axis for rotation, are in need of a new taxonomic classification. So the irregular forms are baroque pearls. The word’s history may have been influenced by the mnemonic term baroco which serves to denote, in the scholarly tradition, a supposed labored form syllogism.

What would lead historians to classify this period with so unique a word? Originally it was a derogatory term meant to underline what was thought to be affectation and excess, a maligned celebration of self-awareness and anaphoric abundance as opposed to clearer edifice on which stood the sober rationality of the Renaissance. It was first rehabilitated by the Swiss-born art historian, Heinrich Wölfflin in his study Renaissance und Barock; in this work, Wölfflin identified the Baroque as a ‘…movement imported into mass.’ It was a unique artistic antithesis to the edifices of art established by the Renaissance. Originally Wölfflin did not make distinctions between Mannerism and the classification Baroque as do modern historians do; he also completely ignored what is now classified as the later phase, the ‘academic Baroque’ which moved into the 18th century. Writers in French and English did not begin to treat our inheritance from the Baroque period as something of great worth until Wölfflin’s study made German scholarship preeminent.

Baroque art began to take shape during the same years that the world’s expanding economies were laying the basis for the age of Western expansion in America and the high-stakes game of duck-duck-goose started accidentally by European as a financial pissing contest which somehow provoked the masses, the starving peasants to rebel and kill these despotic assholes. Despite this, it was a fascinating age of richness in the art—literary, visual, and musical. This intense circulation of ideas, happening as new national schools took form, allowed for this new age to unite Europe in a golden age in which none living during the age described as golden were aware of this goldenness.

Painting alternated between references to the chiaroscuro (the finer are of shade and shadow) and realism of Caravaggio and La Tour and a more purely baroque use of fantasy and color; architecture oscillated between the courageous inventiveness of the avant garde and the traditionalist reliance on the preservation of antiquity’s ideals and philosophies in regards to idea and execution.

In theater, the most spectacular aspects of the stage came to dominate the taste of the period, becoming the models for figurative and architectural expression. If the goal of Baroque art was to amaze the viewer, it was the world of the theater that provided its most successful special effects. This historical and artistic story is lushly illustrated with works by the greatest artists of the period; Bernini, Boucher, Caravaggio, Gainsborough, Hals, Hogarth, Poussin, Rembrandt, Rubens—along with works by minor artists who made important contributions. This volume includes a chronological table to guide the reader through one of the most dramatic periods of history, brief biographies of the artists, a bibliography; and an index. Together these resources make this exceptionally well researched volume an essential introduction to one of the most fascinating periods in art history.

Baroque actually expressed new values. These are often summarized in the use of metaphor and allegory, widely found in Baroque literature, and in the research for the maraviglia—wonder and astonishment in the manner of Marinism—and the use of artifices. If Mannerism was first breached with the Renaissance, Baroque was an opposing force with a unique and distinct language.

The privilege given to external forms had to compensate and balance the lack of content that has been observed in many Baroque works: Marino’s Maraviglia, for example, is practically made of a pure mere form—whatever that means.

The prevailing philosophy was simple: an active fantasy and imagination should be cultured, evoked in the spectator, in the reader, in the listener. All was focused around the individual, a straight relationship between the artist and the beholder. Art is then less distant and by definition closer, closer to us and therefore more real.

The increased attention on the individual made possible new methods of approaching art, such as the Romanzo—and, in Italy, this movement was a cultural descent; some believed it to be a betrayal, disrespectful to the traditions established in the Renaissance. Apparently, an age of revolutionary and new ideas, like the Renaissance, was, without irony, used as a basis for what new art should be. This culminated in the definitive replacement of Latin by the more widely understandable and spoken dialect of Italian.

Writers in the Baroque are framed in Siglo de Oro in Spain. Naturalism and sharp criticist points of view about Spanish society are common with conceptista writers like Quevedo, while culterano authors emphasize the importance of form with complicated images and the use of hyperbaton. In Catalonia the Baroque took hold in Catalan language, with representatives including poets and dramaturgs such as Francesc Fontanella and Francesc Vicenç Garcia, as well as a unique emblem book Atheneo de Grandesa by Josep Romaguera. Spanish theater was extensively developed by authors like Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca. Overall, Cervantes is considered the most accomplished author of Spanish literature due in no small part to Don Quixote. In Colonial Spanish America two of the best-known baroque writers were Sor Juana and Bernardo de Balbuena.

In the Portuguese Empire the most famous baroque writer of the time was Father António Vieira, a Jesuit who lived in Brazil during the 18th century. Secondary writers are Gregório de Matos and Francisco Rodrigues Lobo.

Though the Baroque era is most famous for its music, it is nevertheless an area in which many noted figures emerged from different fields. Artists, such as the aforementioned Rembrandt and Velasquez were prominent during the period. Galileo Galilei was persecuted by the church because of his ideas regarding the universe, and prominent philosophers, such as Descartes, Spinoza, John Locke, and Voltaire also lived and died in the Baroque. Paradise Lost and Hamlet came from the minds of William Shakespeare and John Milton, respectively.

Music from the period varies in style and comes from many different countries. There is English, French, German, and Italian Baroque music—all of which are uniquely distinct and utterly new. There is early, middle and late Baroque music—all of which being uniquely new.

When compared with its predecessors, Baroque music can be seen as being highly ornate, lavishly texturized, and sometimes affectations intensity. The music of this time period was characterized by a counterpoint and melodic line, being one of many defining characteristics of the period, including the use of basso continuo and the belief in a specific doctrine of affections. The doctrine of affections was a new way for composers to add color and express in their compositions. Another distinguishing characteristic of the Baroque was the emphasis on contrast: of volume, texture, and pace. The Renaissance was a large-scale, rubbery portrait—the Baroque zoomed in on the picture all the way to the pores.

And finally, a sacred yet secular type of music was now in abundance and used as widely as those of the liturgical musical tradition. Imitative polyphony (more than one line of music) was still an extremely important factor in writing and playing music, while the homophonic method (a musical technique that displays a vast separation amongst the melody line and the accompaniment) was gaining acceptance and aplomb.

The homophonic style eventually became dominant in all instrumental forms. Musical works containing a continuo—in which a keyboard (usually an organ or harpsichord) and a bass instrument (usually a bassoon or a cello) helped to convey the harmonic support of chords under melodic lines.

Despite the increasing popularity of homophonic music, it occurred amidst evolving forms of polyphonic music. Similar to the composers of the Renaissance, the composers of the Baroque felt that the art of counterpoint was an essential aspect of artistry. Despite the advancement of the avant garde’s freedom, formalism in imitative polyphony, cannons and fugues, were very popular; another ironic establishment based on what was meant to encourage uniqueness in the evolving characteristics of the period.

It is important to note that opera and the orchestra were both conceived during the Baroque. Around the year 1600—wherein Shakespeare was alive in England—what we know as opera came about because of the desire Italian intellectuals to recapture what they believed to be the spirit of ancient Greek drama in which music played a key role. Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo debuted in 1607, was perhaps the first great opera. The characteristic homophonic musical style played a significant role in this as soloist vocals focused on the perceived listener’s concentration of a pronounced melody.

By the mid-1600s the orchestra and orchestral arrangements were evolving into a unique and insular entity and one of the offshoot animals in this family tree was the concerto. The concerto is defined by a solo instrumentalist, or small ensemble of soloists, playing in opposition to the orchestra; this fortissimo added another interesting contrast in texture and volume.

Renaissance composers had invented imitative polyphony which Baroque composers fashioned into the fugue, perhaps the most developed musical form of the era. Bach became the undisputed master of the fugue. Bach’s Invention No. 1 in C Major, written in 1723, points in the direction of all of his magnificent contrapuntal compositions.

As a composer, teacher and performer of the organ, harpsichord, violin and viola, Bach had an astonishing ability to blend a variety of national styles into existing musical forms in an accessible, engaging manner. Composing solo works for organ, harpsichord, violin, cello, and flute, Bach’s extraordinary abilities allowed him to create music that has remained popular and critically acclaimed, being also the subject of the unique study Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter—who approached Bach mathematically, as [Carl] Sagan did in his Voyager plates designed to represent humanity to any potential extra-terrestrial civilizations, as math is the universal language.

The Prelude and Fugue in D Major from Book II of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier provide an excellent example of his superb craftsmanship and the sort of mathematical approach for which he is now widely known among the modern intelligentsia. His Prelude grandly introduces us to the key of D Major. This sets up an expectant ear, eager for what is to follow: a spirited, complex, and eloquent fugue.

French composers of the era excelled in music written for solo harpsichord. A tradition that had begun with solo lute music was continued with the harpsichord, in some senses a mechanical lute, after the lute fell from favor at the end of the seventeenth century. They delighted in music that imitated the sounds of nature and in the character piece, that is, a musical portrait of a friend, colleague or patron.

Francois Couperin, court composer to Louis XIV, wrote charming and endearing harpsichord music which remains popular. Le dodo ou l’amour au berceau and L’evapore are excellent and characteristic examples of Couperin’s musical ambitions and sensibilities. The first is undoubtedly the musical portrait of a patron’s cherubic sleeping infant. The second would be a description of one of the ebulliently frivolous ladies of the French Court. The first piece is a rondo, a form developed during the Baroque. The first theme, or rondeau—it is here that the tune, from a popular French lullaby, is repeatedly presented alternatively with other material in the popular ABACADA pattern.

Domenico Scarlatti was a Neapolitan who spent the most important and productive part of his career in service to the Queen of Spain. He is remembered for his harpsichord pieces, as Chopin would be, a century later, remembered for his compositions for solo piano. Scarlatti’s harpsichord sonatas have an enormous emotional range, evoking lyrical mellowness, languid hours, somber solemnity, dazzling pyrotechnics, and cheerful sprightliness. Scarlatti is often considered merely the author of sonatas of insuperable technical difficulty, but this important composer’s real power lies in his dynamic strength, pouring forth in scale runs and elaborate cascades apropos to the overall harmonic richness. In this respect he is a precursor to Franz Liszt and Charles-Valentin Alkan, in his ability to create multiple melodies for soloists.

The solo sonata and the trio sonata were very popular forms of composition with Baroque composers. Consisting of one or two solo instruments supported by a continuo for rhythmic and harmonic definition, the sonatas gave ample opportunity for the soloists to show off their virtuosity. Soloists developed their technique with pieces such as The Sonatas for Violin and Continuo by violin virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli.

These pieces were published January 1, 1700, and quickly became a standard teaching tool for violin technique and musical inventiveness. Corelli’s Folia Variations offer a rousing example of the musical effectiveness of solid violin technique and of the variation form. The violin begins quietly, builds to a musical climax, and then returns to the calmer atmosphere in which it began.

This unique yearning, this striving and reaching for ever greater, more personal, more pure forms of art is behind every movement for which we have a pronoun. Biologically there may be little in our genome to distinguish us from other members of the primate family, but in the power of our expression we ascend to something penultimate to more than just an animalistic creature of instinct. This period brought admiration once reserved for frauds and magicians to genuine bringers of light, to secular prophets whose work has shaped the world and in doing so left it brighter than it was before.

Humanity wrestles with methods of expression because of what it does for our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the world. Once something is understood the natural fear surrounding it diminishes. It is a way to bring us together. It is a unique aspect of character to set out with the knowledge that what will be for us the product of years, perhaps decades of research, drafting and revision, painful deliberation and punctuated periods alternating between cautious optimism and utter desolation, will be born into a world wherein there is a healthy and moneyed community of critics who by definition exist to pick apart the meat of what is, in a very true sense, the offspring of an artist.

Our inheritance from Baroque, that irregular pearl, that charming era replete with unique and important developments in our exploration of expression and the ways by which it can give voice to the unspoken subtleties that have no official language. The scientific, biological purpose to this—in deep time, the time-scale evolution works on—is the ability for these songs, the poems and paintings, the way they bring us together; the stories of ancient India and Mesopotamia live on in a digital, intangible library of information which cannot be burnt down—a permanent, unbreakable, fireproof Alexandria.

Radio waves have broadcast our thoughts and art into space where they continue traveling at the speed of light; perhaps it is the echo of a species alone in a quiet universe of wasted space, or a particularly loud section in the cosmic chorus: regardless, through this process the genetic and biological impulse of preservation is achieved in a way that nature has so far denied us: immortality is the reward for a life given to these pursuits, despite our ephemeral ambitions, these books and portraits and songs are love letters to posterity; a love letter to a love letter in a sea of similar songs unsigned.

 

18

EVERYTHING IN A NAME

 

 

A ROSE BY ANOTHER NAME IS A POPULAR PHRASE
that originated in Shakespeare’s light-hearted romantic comedy, Romeo and Juliet; for reasons we will discuss, it has entered the lexicon. The popular interpretation is that an object’s name doesn’t change an object’s nature. Of course a rose’s smell would not change if it was called a rope. It doesn’t matter what it’s called. The essence of a rose should not change if the language used to describe it was changed. The beauty and aroma is entirely independent and separate from its designation. This assumption, this assumption that a name does not carry with it any inherent value which can be added or subtracted based purely on what it’s called or how it’s foreshadowed, is wrong as wrong can be.

Science has disproven this lovely quote in many ways. For example, studies have shown that not only is a medication more therapeutic and effective if we know it is the more expensive brand-name and not the generic, but the placebo effect works even when we know we are taking a placebo. How is this true? It works this way because we know the placebo effect is real and therefore expect a placebo to work when we take it and because of this predisposition it more often does work this way.

If a rose was called a rope the smell would surely change. One letter marks the difference between a Cézanne painting and the cover of an Agatha Christie novel. One sells for millions of dollars, and the other for $0.99.

The gravitas and respectability of these quotes and works of art are very much dependent upon the name attached. A quote attributed to a famous intellectual will naturally have more authority than the same quote might have coming from a virtual unknown. Think of the mileage of Oscar Wilde’s famed quips and witticisms; as well as Shakespeare and Churchill and all of those great speakers and writers whose work we know because of these stand-out axioms, witticisms, zingers, adages—whatever you want to call it, the name, in this case, really doesn’t matter. It affords the laziest of ambitious academics the luxury of at least sensing the aroma of a work of art, if nothing more than looking at a rose through a glass chandelier.

In the marketplace of ideas, as it is in the world of marketing and free-market capitalism, endorsement and star power is important. Brand awareness is crucial. If someone without a much admired and extensive oeuvre, had said, for example, ‘All happy families are the same; all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way,’ as Tolstoy did, the quote that opens one of the finest novels of all time, Anna Karenina, it would be witty, maybe even passed around in a circle of friends. But would it infiltrate the world and other cultures and linger for hundreds of years if David Brent shad [Ricky Gervais] aid it on The Office? As much as I would like to think so, I doubt it.

Tolstoy’s pedigree and critical success afforded him the ability to be taken serious as a thinker which predisposes one to the opinion of what constitutes as Tolstoy’s genius. The name in this instance is just as important as the quote; because without the name, the quote doesn’t have the tenacity to survive in the wild. The attribution is what designates credibility and the endorsement is important. If you switch it around and attribute the quote to, let’s say, the Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, the same poetry and piquant wit would mutate and take on sinister dimensions. In his day, Tolstoy was considered to be the foremost of moral thinkers; in his essays, Marcel Proust compared him to Thomas Aquinas because of his gentle wisdom. That in itself is a triple layered endorsement that hinges upon names: Marcel Proust’s credibility as a thinker has afforded him the attention and respect for thought that he and Thomas Aquinas deserve, furthering the importance of names in respect to the consideration of ideas. For every field there is a star.

Physics has Einstein; biology has Darwin; genetics has Mendelev; astronomy has Carl Sagan; Christian theology has C.S. Lewis; philosophy has Descartes and Nietzsche; politics has Napoleon, Khrushchev, Kennedy and Britain’s killer Queen Elizabeth; popular science has Stephen J. Gould, author of Wonderful Life and Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and the superior, but less popular, The Extended Phenotype, and science itself has Bill Nye and a relative newcomer, who deserves his increasing popularity, Neil deGrasse Tyson. As a name goes, it imbues ideas with a quality that without the name would lack.

When it comes to books and poems, the admiration and fandom of the writer adds a layer of appreciation that is absent from a book or story by a virtual unknown. The name brings to mind a known personality, a known and respected author, and it’s easier to give them an assumed quality. An author who is unknown to you is understandably treated with more skepticism and thus must do more to earlier in the story than established great whose prior qualities afford them such patience and courtesy. Consider how seriously this quote would be taken if attributed to a much adored Russian poet, Aleksandr Pushkin, and compare the reception if the quote was attributed to an annoying pop star, or Televangelist; From Pushkin, it is a statement on the importance and value of the imagination:       ‘The illusion which exalts [us] is dearer to than ten thousand truths.’

Consider the plot of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Speaking of which…

 

 

 

 

19

LO-LEE-TA;

THE EXORCISM OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV

 

There’s no doubt that literature and writing is a form of catharsis. While that is certainly true, I believe that it can be much, much more. Not only is it a form of healing, or an escape, it can be considered an exorcism. We’ve discussed the biological nature of words and ideas and how they can possess; yet, once possessed, how does one rid themselves of this possession? As we saw with Dostoevsky, his exorcism of the doubt and sickness in himself was possible through Smerdyakov’s suicide in The Brothers Karamazov.

When artists have these addictions and impulses it is not uncommon for them to use their art as a means of exorcism, as a means of ‘killing off’ the part of themselves that returns to addiction. Lolita, as Nabokov once said, was more than his affair with the romance novel, it ‘…was a romance with the English language.’

I think it’s much more than that; it was a way for him to exorcise what he believed, either consciously or unconsciously, to be possession. Lolita was that obsession, that idea. Remember Marco Polio, I illustrated how it could be contracted, but for the purpose of this essay, how can it be cured?

In a course I attended at Yale University in May of 2008, American Novels Since 1945, professor Amy Hungerford spent three lectures talking about Lolita, although the second was a guest lecture by Andrew Goldstone, and only freakin’ one lecture talking about a much more complex book by Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49. The first thing she discussed was Vladimir Nabokov’s idea on the autonomy of a work of art, the idea that it could be alive and, transversely, if it could be alive, it could be killed. This reminded me of another of Nabokov’s novels, Pale Fire.

Pale Fire is a lesser known work from later in Nabokov’s career, yet it is revealing. The book is framed as a 999 line poem, the eponymous Pale Fire, by deceased poet John Shade. The poem is between an introduction and a critical study by Shade’s friend, Charles Kimbote; a professor of literature and emigrant from the fictional country of Zembla.  This has a close is similar to Nabokov’s own experiences as a professor of literature and emigrant from the fictional country of Russia.

In Pale Fire you have can see Nabokov’s identification with the character of a professor. His annotations of the poem reflect his published works Lectures on Literature, in which he writes about James Joyce, Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Marcel Proust, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Franz Kafka. He also produced Lectures on Russian Literature, which included Gorky, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekov, and Bulgakov. Nabokov was very well read. As a sensitive connoisseur of world literature and essayist, Nabokov shows his acuity and understanding; he understood that art and literature placates a myriad of human needs myriad of human needs.

The best books and works of art allow us to better understand ourselves. By casting Charles Kimbote as a professor of literature in Pale Fire, he inadvertently, albeit subtly, confesses to a guilty secret: although the main character in Lolita may not be Nabokov himself, it is, at least, the personification of Nabokov’s guilt. The confessional nature of the novel is belied by the introduction by John Ray, Jr., Ph.D; in it, a psychologist named Blanche Schwarzmann, is quoted: Blanc is the French word for white while Schwarz is German for black. For linguists, this isn’t even subtle; Dr. Whiteblack. This is thought to be a slight on Freudian interpretations of the novel. I think it could be a playful way of commenting on and circumventing any potential over-analysis of the novel’s content. Nabokov loved these little word-games: a well-known bit of trivia about Lolita is also revealing: Quilty’s mistress is also famously implicative: Vivian Darkbloom—an anagram for Vladimir Nabokov.

Although Nabokov is believed to have gotten the idea for Humbert Humbert’s unique name from Edgar Poe, which may be consciously true, nconsciously, however, I believe it to be an accidental allusion to a more subtle attribute of the relationship between the books’ characters and its author. Quilty, the eccentric counterpart, also falls in love with Lolita. The difference between Humbert Humbert’s reserved obsessions and Quilty’s obsessions are their attitudes; Humbert Humbert is ashamed of his own behavior and sees Quilty as what he is in danger of becoming: indulgent, perverse, hedonistic, and unashamed.

A hint to this possibility is easier to identify in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of the novel, the screenplay being co-written by Nabokov himself.  Kubrick did nothing without purpose and the same is true of his shots. So when you see elements of historical importance in Quilty’s home, it is there for reason, a very precise reason. ou can see the elements of historical importance in Quilty’s home. It’s filled with the kind of artifacts one would expect to find in the home of a history professor’s house—in Humbert Humbert’s home.

The last novel I wrote was written during a tumultuous period in my life. I had struggled with addiction to sleeping pills and painkillers since my early teens and had developed a seriously unhealthy habit. The book was originally conceived about six years before it was written. The idea was to do a story about a con-man; he would go from city to city, always giving a fake name and history, and the idea for the novel was for this conman to forget which of his life stories were true and he gradually forgets who he really is.

For me, the title is the impregnation; it gestates in your mind over time. Once I have a title, the novel is conceptually complete in my head within an hour and then, once I have the book cover, to continue to metaphor, I go through a grueling birthing process. You don’t need to have an outline. The important thing is to have a sense of where you’re going, not the exact directions. What came out half a decades later was Nobody, the story of a slave who kills his master, his master’s wife, and runs away, escaping to the north. Along the way, he encounters many manifestations of his slavery.

For the purpose of this essay, I looked for (and found) a paper from a former student in which Nobody is being analyzed:

The name of the slave Neddy is taken from the Sanskrit term Neti Atma, which means Not Myself. Begins to feel guilty after seeing photos, is tormented by the memory of what he has done (murdered the Master and wife) [sic] … Neddy experiences Nirvana for the first time. … The narrative changes from straightforward prose into fragments of Neddy’s thoughts are right over another, disconnected and out of order. … Nobody is beginning to talk as his thought processes begin to break down.

Begins fabricating stories about who he is, feels ashamed (he is trying to escape from what he has done. … Halfway through the book the author began withdrawing from heroin and morphine leading [to] further paranoia and disjointed images. …

All of these obvious associations weren’t so pronounced in my mind during the writing process; none of it was directly connected to drugs; but each character that acts as an intermediate protagonist (the protagonist itself is not an external person or system) can be seen as embodying characteristics of different feelings related to withdrawal.

I’ve said that one of the benefits of schizophrenia is to understand your subconscious.

On the 22nd chapter, I took my last shot. For the first twenty-one chapters, the novel is somewhat straightforward. Once I started writing while going through withdrawals, it inadvertently became an homage to Dante’s metaphysical journey through hell. Except I didn’t have Virgil as a guide; I had one person, my editor Katie Chiles, a bed and a bucket and a notebook. What came out of that pen was not something one would consider coherent writing, but it changed my philosophy in regards to metaphysical writing in creating the inner-world of a character’s mind. When I realized how this was done, Finnegan’s Wake began to make a lot more sense.

The novel ended three weeks after I took my last shot with the Slave committing suicide. I later realized that this was a way of using literature as means through which one’s demons could be excised; it’s how I externalized the addict and killed that aspect of my character, that slave inside of me.

I didn’t think this was a common practice in art and literature. I believed that Dostoevsky’s externalizations were ways of contrasting philosophical perspectives. While that is certainly true I didn’t know at that point the extent of writing’s. Looking back with this perspective made me further consider the idea that Ivan, Dmitri, and Alyosha, as the mind, body and soul, were intended to parallel the Christian trinity. When I first shared the essay with a friend, a creative writing major, she thought the essay was incomplete. And it was. Smerdyakov’s exclusion in the representation made his character something else: it made him an antagonizing agent of the trinity and most importantly—the lamb on which all sin is leveed in order that its sacrifice brings redemption of the rest of the flock. It was a thematic echo of the Biblical account of Jesus and it made sense for Dostoevsky to draw this analogy; his whole schtick is the necessity for suffering in salvation—something even casual fans and non-readers of Crime and Punishment know about Dostoevsky by now.

 

Dostoevsky wasn’t fond of the epileptic bastard and atheist Smerdyakov because Dostoevsky was all of these things: he was an epileptic, his father was murdered by servants, and he was an atheist for a time. As such I wasn’t particularly proud to continue selling all of my nice things for drugs or hanging out in rundown apartment buildings where groups of less dead people robotically move from the floor to the flame throughout the day. And Nabokov, being a charming emigrate and professor in upstate New York at Cornell, surely found himself the object of attention and respect of many young and lovely female students.

In the film, the first sign of attraction occurs while watching a horror film when Lolita grabs his hand. It the book, however, the attraction begins because Humbert Humbert of which Lolita was fond. Another difference is substantial in giving credence to this theory: the hotel at which Dolores and the stage-play by Quilty, which Dolores prepares to perform at her school is called The Enchanted Hunter in the book, a reference to Humbert Humbert; in the film, the play is renamed The Hunter Enchanted. This changes the dynamic between Humbert Humbert and Dolores. The Enchanted Hunter puts more emphasis on the hunt; The Hunter Enchanted puts more of an emphasis on the hunter’s enchantment. By enchanting the hunter, it puts a distance between his condition and his goal; while in the book the focus is more on his goal as caused by his condition. In the book Lolita is only used by Humbert Humbert as a pet name, as prey; she is the object of his pursuit. In the film Lolita is a named used by more than one of the characters and the title change alleviates some of Humbert Humbert’s guilt, making the focus on Lolita as a seductress, not Humbert Humbert as a hunter. This title actually suggests she may be conscious of what she is doing, while the other title is only indicative of Humbert Humbert’s desire. With the combination of these two titles, both of them are responsible for what happens.

This isn’t just the result of Stanley Kubrick’s desire to put a personal touch on the adaptation. Nabokov co-wrote the screenplay so, while it is possible that it didn’t occur to Nabokov that Lolita was a confession when he was writing the novel, it is also possible that, upon reflection, Nabokov realized this and shifted the emphasis and blame to the object of desire.

Vladimir Nabokov was a professor of Lit 312 course at Cornell University in upstate New York. Nabokov, as an aging author and academic, would have been highly susceptible to a friendly face, a flattering young woman. Writers, more so than perhaps any other workman, are particularly susceptible to flattery. And there are some very, very lovely young ladies in at Cornell University.

It’s also possible that this assessment only serves to further demonstrate the problem with allegorical extraction and application in the interpretation of popular literature. Lolita is a great book, a work of art and, as I’ve said, the best works of art mean what we, as readers and evaluators, need it to be. And Lolita succeeds for this very reason; it reminds us that our sin is impermanent, soluble through that unique witchcraft we call art.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

20

PROUST’S WAY

 

 

WHEN I WAS 12 YEARS OLD I READ SOMETHING more terrifying than anything I had read before. The only book series any of the kids in my year ever read of their own choosing was Goosebumps by R.L. Stein. It was a ridiculous pop-horror book for kids. The book that would keep me up for nights was recommended by my librarian after I shared a poem I wrote. She responded with the recommendation that I read Crime and Punishment.  I was twelve. I have since reasoned that this was a punishment in and of itself.

I don’t know if individuals can explain why they like the things they like, or why red is better to most Russians than the color blue. My own theory is that after so many centuries of fighting off the most dangerous armies in history, they have ironically fell in love with the sight of blood. And to a young man, it was the first book that ever made apparent to me that murder and violence is not always motivated by clear-cut villains who sing a song to explain why they’re the bad guys.

In our culture, the villains often have their faces masked, or hidden, covered in black—or they are aliens or terrorists or, for nostalgia, communists, and they’re all reduced to identical thoughts and attitudes and looks. Dostoevsky was the first author I discovered who made the killer the main character; he made the killer a hero. I wasn’t used to that. It changed the way I looked at motivations and my attitude towards simplistic depictions of good and evil. If Dostoevsky changed the way I looked at the nature of good and evil, Proust changed the way I looked at everything.

The more I read the more enamored I was I was very fond of the Russian literature I read; Chekov, Turgenev, Lertmentov, Bulgakov (especially Master and Margarita,) Tolstoy, Pushkin, Nabokov, and Gogol. The explosive characters, the madness, the psychological complexity, all had a tremendous influence on how I would write novels.

When I was almost finished with this book, I was fortunate enough to go through a profound moral crisis and tragedy. I was put in the same situation as Ernest Hemingway was, at twenty-five, when all the work he had to show for his entire life was lost at a train-station because of a misplaced suitcase. Everything about Hemingway’s formative years that could have given us a better understanding of his method didn’t exist.

Hemingway was the antithesis to the bombast and platitudinous method of Shakespeare and the high drama of Goethe and I never found another writer who could write so gently with such force. The most important thing about Ernest Hemingway was how he made the ordinary seem almost mythic. After I went through pupation I discovered that I had no real affiliation with post-modernism. It seemed to be more focused on what can only be called more form and less art. It was a type of masturbation, a way to use words as a maze to amaze with flair of language and verve of the freedom that came with abandoning the rules of composition. There is a freedom in that kind of work, but cleverness is no substitution for tenderness, and genius is no substitute for beauty and true poignancy.

I had been writing for twenty years when I discovered In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. The first thing to strike me was how understated and natural it all was. There was no sense of bombast or overt melodrama. It is another case in which the deepest of meaning is achieved because life is shown in all its forms and from such scenes so much can be taken.

Proust’s epic is hard to relegate to a category. If I had to say what it was about, I’d say everything; time and space, love and loss—everything in the human sphere of experience.  In Search of Lost Time or alternatively, Remembrance of Things Past, is one of the longest popular novels in history. It comes in at over 4,000 pages. And not a word is wasted.

The importance of the unimportant is a unique characteristic of the French school of romanticism and naturalism among the more prominent of French novelists; Balzac, Flaubert, Chateaubriand. Stendhal. But none of them managed to reach the new heights of literature I had discovered in Proust. It’s a cliché now to say that reading Proust will change your life. However, in this case it has become cliché because it is true. And he does it unremarkably, conversationally, even recounting the seemingly unimportant details of his house in the fictional town he made immortal at the end of The Past Recaptured. The titles are literal.

Proust was a sickly and anxiety ridden man when he turned thirty and had but one newspaper publication to his name. This was before he found himself capable of pulling such a masterful tale out of that famous teacup. In doing so he fashioned out of thin-air what I believe to be the best work of literature of all time. It’s all a disappearing act;  a whole life in one book, wherein there is no death; time is defeated in these silent pockets of eternity in which Proust found that precious hawthorn bush; the sound of skipping rocks, the sound of toast; the heavenly music was the fountain of not only youth, but that which he had found in his search through time and self-diagnosis—a gradual undressing of the superficial and the shallow. The layers of a well-crafted mask fall away like autumn leaves.

Proust not only unmasked himself. He unmasked the entirety of human history. Along with the Geurmentes, an idolized, almost deistic conception for Proust’s French universe made immortal by his hand. Balzac’s The Human Comedy collection is more decorative, concerned more with unedited nature than Proust and external translation, settings, set-pieces; Proust’s setting is the landscape of malleable, fallible memory and his strangely acute sense of time as it dripped over his asthmatic shoulders as he lay in his shabby Parisian flat, paralyzed by apprehension and anxiety.

His search for immortality became immortal; it is, in this regard, a precursor to Fellini’s 8 ½; both now considered untouchable, beyond reproach. Another interesting fact is the reading within The Search, his characters are always in the middle of one book or another, and art and affectation in the highbrow culture ripe for satire.

In a book I recently read, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, the author [Johah Lehrer] makes a convincing case for the triumph of art over science in demonstrating discoveries of scientific truths in art long before conventional science could verify the discoveries. Proust presaged the findings of modern neuroscience intuitively. He understood the distortions and the way a building by memory could change in color, in form, in location; bringing up the obvious question as to how much of our lives are as we remember it to be. It’s a heavy question, and perhaps the most existential of Proust’s probing into the human soul.

The difference, I discovered, between my former favorite author Dostoevsky and my current favorite Proust was in their handling of naturalism. Dostoevsky, I realized, is more of a young man’s passion: a peasant’s soap opera, despite its psychological pastiche, is lacking in the most important aspect of realism: the unimportant.

In Swann’s Way, a peculiar aspect of Marcel’s family is revealed: they come to dinner an hour earlier on Saturday than they do the rest of the week. It’s almost a throwaway line, but resolves itself in a memorable subplot. The lack of over-description, the lack of meaning to the overall plot, and its lack of importance is what makes it so important to consider when reading and interpreting naturalism. Despite the number of scholars who have made their careers in discussing and interpreting Proust, he’s not particularly heard to interpret; it’s all right there. If you read the entire story, you’ll find the narrator happy to explain every detail of his conscience. This is what gives Marcel as a character have such depth. It has been said that every disguise is a self-portrait. And because he says so much, he attempts to hide much more; whenever the story gets too close to the author we are deferred to another of the conscious, another explanation. If ever a book was more adequate in describing what it is to be alive, I have yet to read it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

21

DREAMPOOL;

THE IMMORTALITY OF MEANING

 

 

PHENOTYPIC CHARACTERISTICS OF ANIMALS ARE determined by genes lined along chromosomal loci, slots along the chromosome, where genes compete with alternate genes called alleles. All gene combinations are taken from an ancestral pool which allows for innumerable possibilities in the assemblage of genetic traits. The genepool is a good parallel for the dreampool as both allow diversification in nature and (eukaryotic) ideas, respectfully; and, conversely, the requisite standards found in the structure of language, of alphabets and declension, punctuation, syntax, context and form.

As each animal can be traced to the beginning of life, ideas are built on past ideas and use other ideas as a foundation for new ideas. Identity and individuality are so define by the content of the dreampool, as inherited ideas pass from one person to another, generation after generation, from one to the next forever until it is replaced by that which evolves from it and extinction when it no longer applies to the world in which it lives. As life ideas have ancestors; satire was born in the tradition of Dionysian theatre, where comedy in art began. Satire is from the Greek word satyr; this may be the memetic ancestor from which would descend Napoleon, Orwell’s pig. Those cuneiform tablets are the ancestors of what you now hold, the bound book;–itself a descendent from other methods of story distribution which predates written history.

As eukaryotic ideas contain specific information, as do most books of this variety, for viability and function there is a replacement of new, better thought out ideas; another mimicry of character based alphabets that allow for different phoneme groupings necessary to use predefined terms in the arrangement of new ideas. New ideas, as new hatchlings in a pond, enter into a dangerous and predated world; this is a world of strict competition in the marketplace of ideas, the dreampool; each idea born is another tadpole looking for a way to crawl from the sea like we and on land be much more than what they were; meaningless and non-viable like that tadpole, like a caterpillar chrysalis into pupa, into beauty.

Similarly, our schools put together our dreampool chromosomes; our interlocutor is influenced by contrasting opinions and put to a unique, internal check, a test to which all ideas new ideas are unconsciously put. For a Buddhist aspirant, the idea that wealth is worth the effort to strive under a hot sun daily is somehow errant because of transience, the temporary joy of earthly riches which do not justify the labored suffering for a temporary anodyne, a Band-Aid attempting to cover the wounds caused by need and desire.

To a Buddhist aspirant, in the tradition of that Great Monkey King, the jewels do not denote nobility; compassion and moderation does. To the Romanov dynasty, to Queen Victoria—the Jewel, the crown diamond, is worth more than the gross domestic product of many countries. By what machination do we divide the worthy and the worthless? Human beings do what evolution prepared us to do: choose what makes us feel safe, for what makes us feel safe is a genetic response to surviving long enough to pass on our own genetic inheritance, imperfectly translated by a tadpole into a less imperfect frog.

A microcosm of speciation is variation among clade [and subclades]; a macrocosmic evolutionary metamorphosis becomes itself an itinerate species to be tested. Ideas that survive the criticism of individual evaluating interlocutors become predators, predators that seek and destroy other ideas. The idea of evolution has remained alive despite one-hundred fifty years of varied attacks by individuals and institutions having inherited different memetic traits; some of these contain unverifiable yet untouchable strains of dubious wisdom verifiable by instinct and the idea itself. The holder of an accepted idea concentrates on what gives the idea its validity because of what it means, ensuring its memetic perpetuation. This is known as confirmation bias; defined as,

In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirm one’s own preconceptions,

Ideas found to be un-true by oneself can be just as passionately thought true by another. What accounts for this discrepancy in universal truth without interpretation, meaning without equivocation, and unconditional waivers of possible contradictions? The connection-correlation-conclusion system, what I call The Three-C Truth.

Human beings have twenty-six chromosomes, inherited from an ancestral genepool, to genes responsible for blue eyes or brown, dark hair or fair; the phenotypes of an animal’s genotype which provide the architectural plans for our body. It is obvious in the analogy to consider that for an idea to occupy a position considered truth that one idea, for belief, competes with the alternative idea for disbelief. This competition takes place in the building, not of phenotypic traits, but the building of the thinking individual.

How much of what we choose or select as truth can be traced to the collective culture from which it originated without stuttering or translation, static or contention? The dreampool is an abstraction, the meta-construct of the sum total of a culture’s accepted and rejected wisdom accessible at any time through mental exercise and interlocutor evaluation in regards to what is meaning, what is true, what is objective, what is true for everyone—is there such a thing? Consider: there is one truth beyond dispute; not all truth is absolute.  Ideas are open to interpretation; meaning does well to engender debate about what the actual debate is about.

In most cultures, one of the first books one encounters is the A to Zed, a Bible and a dictionary. The childcare center which I attended had three books which were intended to impart to the average person, young or old, not only what, in my culture, was considered the authority on morality, but a book that defines what the other book about morality—which must be defined by a book not using the term, outside of itself—means with its sentences, what sentences mean and how the true meaning should be evaluated.

As I discussed in an earlier essay on allegory, as I have in the essay preceding this one, what is said is not only gifted an assumed quality based on attaché; it can have a second layer of clothing to cover naked expression. By what standard do we hold information endorsed by others to be true? How much is worth worth? If a book is ‘worth’ something, it is published. The degree of worth determines something more important than the number of units sold: it determines what a person believes they’re worth.

Worth has been the strongest motivating factor behind everything I do: my studies and education; my novels and my essays, and all of my artistic aspiration. Even now, in this very essay, the worth is the biggest consideration because that is what ultimately determines publication. This ambition has changed through time and, with a chip on one shoulder and a devil on the other, it remains. The devil hasn’t quit, but he has gotten quieter.

A book is how we hide a piece of our soul away and survive our death. In my favorite novel, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, I think the same desire burns within the character of Marcel (though the book is not autobiographical, it is written by the fictional Marcel at the end) there is this desire to find worth and meaning. Marcel (the character) realizes this as the highest value of the novel—the immortality of meaning, of encapsulating an entire life within one work of art, hiding part of ourselves inside it that it may never be destroyed, that it may live forever.

Before talking about hiding one’s soul in an object, I will first address the elephant in the room.

J.K. Rowling, author of the acclaimed Harry Potter series, introduced a magical object in the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, called a horcrux; this object allows a practitioner of black-magic to split their soul and hide part of it within an object. This allows them to survive a fatal attack, as the part that is hidden lives on.  In the series it is used by the primary antagonist as an attempt to become immortal.

The first horcrux made by Voldemort (a French portmanteau intended to mean flight from death) was a ring; the second one is what made me realize not only what Proust’s real achievement was, but also what a book really is: the second horcrux was a diary. The written word is a horcrux, a horcrux which doesn’t require the splitting of one’s soul, that is to commit murder murder to create, as it did in the work of J.K. Rowling. All artists are magicians and each diary and book, each symphony and painting, all are a means by which we put a part of our soul into an object, objects with survive us. We survive our deaths through this process, waiting to come alive each time a book is opened.

Although Harry Potter and In Search of Lost Time are miles away in style, content, and story, there is a link between the character Marcel and Voldemort; they’re both afraid of death and go to extremes to prevent it. To these characters, Time is something to be defeated, the greatest of all mass murderers. Although their motives for trying to escape death couldn’t be more different, Time is the antagonist. Voldemort loses his life in search of immortality; the reason for its pursuit, for Voldemort, was a means to an end and the end was more power. Proust’s character Marcel has very different motivations.

In the last book of In Search of Lost Time, Time Regained, or, alternatively, The Past Recaptured, Marcel Proust sees Combray rearrange itself and rise into the sky above him. Throughout the series, which may be the first four-dimensional books ever written, Time is the antagonist. It takes away everything he loved; his mother and his father, the fictional town of Combray and the love of his life, Albertine. His mother, his father, the hawthorns he loved so much; but they come back to him, such as the Madeline cake in tea. In the end, he begins the book we’ve finished and, in that moment, Death and Time are defeated; he has survived death through hiding his soul away in a book. And if you want to listen, if you are inclined, open a volume of In Search of Lost Time, and Marcel Proust will speak to you. Across time and space, he’ll speak to you.

The immortal mother theory, the theory that all animals from every species go back to one mother, is compatible with the concept of the immortality of meaning. Different letters can be arranged to produce different expressions in phylum and language. But what is meaning? Does it exist independently of human beings? The answer to the prior question must be the answer to the following: is there emotion elsewhere, in other species? Yes. The answer is yes. Elephants mourn the dead. Alpacas can die from loneliness. Meaning is something that is to be applied after consideration of action, thought, and behavior

Meaning is immortal and requires only sentient beings, who can evaluate, of course, to be able to extract meaning from what they think. The meaning behind the great works of literature, unlike the works themselves, is in the air, intangible, capable only of being recognized, plucked from the ether to imbue our work with light and worth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

22

BEING HUMAN

 

 

Before the Epic of Gilgamesh, it is possible that we didn’t write stories. Or at least stories in that manner. Because humans had not yet settled into a sedentary lifestyle. Without settling down and ending the hunter gatherer period in our history, the ability for a story with characters and a familiar history would be impossible. Without culture, a culture to reflect and understand the mythos of a gathered people, there is no avenue for story fiction.  This [Gilgamesh] and books like it, such as Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (from which Shakespeare himself would take historical accounts for his dramas.) Stories become possible when a people congregate and share a common history, a reference point or mythology. Without this a story, though understandable by literate people, will contain alien references and characters whose import is not known.

It is also possible that writings before the Neocene were lost during the last ice-age, which modern science believes to have ended around ten thousand years ago. Studying the ancient works of literature, such as the Vedas, Upanishads, and many other religious texts popular in the Western world. And it is true that, from these stories, the identity of the reader is forever shaped and changed either by acceptance or rejection.

Of course leading this new lifestyle allowed for humans to do more than survive. For the first time it allowed us to live; it allowed us to live in a manner not too far removed from the way we live today. And when humans started coming together, the long history of oral lit eventually became the written word, the most ancient of which is to be found on clay tablets in ancient cuneiform writing. Cuneiform was the first language system to be developed and was used by all the major empires of the era. This includes Egypt, Hattusha (of what is modern day Turkey, not the Biblica Hittites,) Syria, and Babylon. It was the diplomatic language of the period. And on these clay tablets we find the first work of fiction known to exist.

Outside of a textbook a story doesn’t need to inform or educate although they often do. From the epic of Gilgamesh we get a partial understanding of the people who lived in the area where it originated, on the land between the Tigris and Euphrates between the second and third millenniums BCE. We know the king Gilgamesh was a celebrated ruler; we know the culture was a literate one of many gods, conscious of their cultivation of the nature world. These are things we can fix historically and definitively establish. Yet in the case of Gilgamesh we are made to understand the things we cannot know, things of which we’ll never more than partially glance, and get a better understanding of what it means to be human, what it has always meant. The culture as defined by this epic reflected our will and need to understand, and was painfully conscious of what we could not, and, in its way, is an attempt to reconcile our morality.

The reason Gilgamesh remains popular among scholars is because we learn about human history; we look to the past and through that prism see our daily lives in a different, richer life– and we look to it to understand life as it was all those centuries ago. The search for the meaning of life has always began with the opening of a book, and a historical perspective from different angles offers us a larger range of possibilities and, being subjective in our sight, make the associations ourselves, as one who looks upon a cloud formation and finds the shape not in the clouds, but in themselves. ‘Methinks it looks like a weasel,’ as it’s put in Hamlet is a subtle nod about the nature of how we understand and believe and its relationship to our inner universe.    Lao Tzu, one of the trinity of great Chinese philosophers, the others being Chuang Tzu and Confucius, wrote in the Tao te Ching:, in regards to ‘the line:’ The five colors will make blind a man.” This could be said in regards to the man who, though studious, being so omnivorous in his selection of books and philosophy, knows so much that something is lost.

This also suggests that definitions (the way that can be named is not the constant way) impart a fixed idea that there are only those fixed colors, only those fixed philosophies; this obscures the infinite continuity of shades between and opposite. To know with division distracts

from the subtlety of merging; the static gaps as defined by omission take away from the eternity of f. Similarly, the mind’s sensitivity to meaning is impaired by fixed perspective based on the absence of considering gradation in respect to what it means to be human, to be separate from the animal kingdom. There is an infinite continuity of meaning and the history of literature has done well to, through writing and analysis, pull meaning because of our natural instincts and pattern recognition.

A Rorschach test may very well be meaningless in objective terms, but the way in which it is subjectively interpreted testifie to the notion that what we bring to the table of understanding largely influences the understanding we take away. Reading is a kind of re-telling – not to learn what is known, but to know what isn’t; this is the endless search all readers engage in each time they pick up another book. It is a search for what can’t be known and we’re right in the middle of it, to see for ourselves, the meaning of a story. First we need to account for the events, having first established whether it is fact or fiction, so we may be able to articulate the question raised by a character’s actions and reactions as well as the implications and consequences. We need to consider how a story is put together as well: how it uses the conventions of language, events with beginnings and endings, description, description of character, and the way in which the story reawakens our sensitivity to the real world.

The real world is a world without a plot, without conventions, unnameable world—in the chaotic world of cause and consequences, the madness and blurry character and indecipherable patterns of being. The stories that mean the most to us bring us back to our unintelligible yet immeasurably meaningful lives. The reason storytelling became so popular in human society is largely due to the satiation of our natural curiosity with the world and our suspicion and questioning consideration of how others live and feel.

The Epic of Gilgamesh begins with a prologue–a common convention that serves as a frame – and recounts the story of Gilgamesh’s life. An anonymous narrator writes, ‘I will proclaim the deeds of Gilgamesh to the world. This narrative technique is not only a way to frame a narrative; it is a way for the narrator to introduce himself and welcome us to the endless present of telling the story. All is prologue when the third person omniscient reflective is used. All is past. The story continues by explaining itself; having returned from his journey, taking respite from his labors, Gilgamesh inscribes the story about to be told on a clay tablet. This suggests that what we’re reading is a transcription that repeats an oral telling that repeats a written tale. By using the frame the narrator intends to convince us of the story’s authenticity. By calling attention to the act of telling the narrator reminds us that the truth of the story might lie in the fact of its being a story – the undeniable fact of its own narration. The frame intends to blur the distinction between the world of the story, the world of Gilgamesh, and our own. One may not, as of yet, travel into the future: but a type of time travel is taking place as this unknown narrator begins his story. The long gone bricks rise again and reassemble and from a thousand years ago the voice begins the tale:

“Look at it now, today and still, a threshold ancient; touch it; climb the wall of Uruk and walk upon it. Regard the foundation terrace and masonry. Is it not a color of burnt brick? Is it not good? The seven sages laid these foundations.”

The narrator literally builds the story brick by brick and in our minds the walls of Uruk, a city having faded into dust, rises in its prime, in its glory in our minds; as Baghdad in a bottle-the Arabian Nights-Uruk becomes immortal, a familiar setting for philologists and cultural anthropologists and linguists, living forever as the word. This is a kind of magic, as all good books are, creating fantastical situations in exotic locales with danger and excitement and the bravado of a God-king at the dawn of human history. Two-thirds God, and this is key to all that follows, Gilgamesh is a classical hero – more beautiful and courageous and more terrifying than us all and yet his desires, attributes, his accomplishments epitomize our own. And yet he is mortal; he must watch others die and someday die himself. How much more can a God-king rage against death than the rest of us, purely mortal? Reading Gilgamesh allows us to celebrate being human, being mortal, having brief lives.

The hero’s failed attempt at finding immortality, ironically, as it is to be forever alive in the dreampool of readers the world over, has thereby attained what he died without finding. How much then should a god-king rage against mortality than we merely mortals? It is in impermanence that importance is most beautifully assigned. What joy would there be in a magnificent meal if no effort was require to attain it and it never ended? The reconciliation of past and present is always present in the work;

Gilgamesh is a tyrant without restraint. He has no compassion for the people of Uruk, a king but not a shepherd. He kills his subject’s sons and rapes their daughters. Hearing the people’s lament, the gods create Enkidu; he is to be a match for

Gilgamesh, a second ‘self.’

“Let them fight and leave Uruk at peace.”

The plan works in many ways. First Gilgamesh is prevented from entering to home of a bride and bridegroom. Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight at first yet become friends. Second, they journey into the forest to face the terrible Humbaba. There they encourage each other to face death without fear, triumphantly.

“All living creatures born of flesh shall at last in the last boat of the west.. When it

“All living creatures born of flesh shall sit at last in the boat of the west. When it sinks the boat of Magilum sinks they are gone; but we shall advance and fix our eyes on this monster.”  It must be noted, to ancient cultures the West, or Western Lands, was equal to death, where one went when one died. And although eternal life is not to be found, he understands the power of story, the immortality of character, legacy, and meaning. “I will go to the country where the cedar is felled,” he tells Enkidu. “I will put my name in the place where the name of famous men are written.” Then Gilgamesh turns away from selfishness and small desires and aspires to loftier goals, goals to benefit Uruk.

His duty to Uruk can be seen from the prologue; the very first sentence testifies to the immortality of his name. The immortality of a name is less the ability to live forever than the inability to die. Gilgamesh learns the meaning of love and compassion, the meaning of loss, of growing older, and eventually accepts mortality. In following Gilgamesh, we are asked to not only take part in his adventures, but in his emotional growth and broader understanding of the world and his place in it, and through that better understand our own.

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23

DENOUEMENT;

The Shadow Gallery

 

 

Earlier in this book I considered a book to be a haunted house. And in a sense, I still think it to be, but my perspective has changed; the perspective is change. These ghosts aren’t here to scare us; they’re here to tell us their stories, their struggles, their ideas; they’re here, living through the words, telling us they lived, telling us who they are, telling us that they lived and that their lives had value and, reassuringly, so did ours. They ask only for our time, these characters, for our sympathetic understanding.

The reason writer’s write is the same reason mockingbirds sing; it’s something in our childhood, something in coming of age, something in the enjoyment of stories and imagination; if writing is how the imagination breathes, writing is how the soul exhales. To write is to dream while you’re awake. As different peoples of our world are different and inherit different genes, different cultures inherit different stories.

Our stories have escaped our planet, finally, and are in interstellar space. The message encoded on Voyager 1 and 2 was a message from our entire species. We wish to be remembered; this message may be a murmur, but it is the echo of our planet and our species, to one purpose to express: Remember us. If nothing else it will be a haunting, a ghost’s way to perpetuate itself, a more eloquent ghost perhaps.

There are a variety of images and sounds, extravagant and mundane, natural and contrived—Mozart and Stravinsky, Chuck Berry and greetings in fifty-five languages. Sounds of animals are also included; for example, the record contains sounds of crickets and frogs, hyenas, elephants, frogs and chimpanzees. There are soundbytes of a kiss, a mother and a child, footsteps, heartbeats, and laughter.

It is a golden message in a bottle, and time capsule, a record of our species looking to be remembered with this encyclopedic representation of what it is to be a citizen of Earth, to be human,, to be empathetic and hopeful that someday, when this Golden Record approaches another solar system, it will not only be found—it will be understood. The message included from then American President Jimmy Carter sums up the desires and yearnings of the human race to have a place in the history of the cosmos. As Carl Sagan said,

‘These are the murmurs of Earth.’ It is a beautiful summation of the highest nature of mankind. It is ambitious, noble, and hopeful.

‘We cast this message into the cosmos … Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some—perhaps many—may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and understands these recordings, here is our message. This is a gift from a small and distant planet, a token of our sounds, science, images, music, thoughts and feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live in yours. We hope, someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope, determination, and goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.’

And through our understanding our empathy, through empathy identification, and in that identification, we see our lives anew; forever permanent, figures drawn by words; and in this mausoleum, we live—and death for us loses our fear in knowing that memories are those ghosts, and memories are stories, and those stories evolve into who we are, and stand in our place when our legs are too weak to hold us up and, forever young, we join the company of these ghosts to say to you we lived and when you’re gone, we’ll welcome you to our palace, to our gallery, and the living will redraw you when you leave. They’ll resurrect you in their paint and in their ink.

Literature isn’t a haunted house, no place for a banshee; a book, a poem, a play—each is a prism, a palatial gallery of characters we love and hate and envy and desire and need, and each book is its own room at the palace, complete with its guide, complete with its perfectly framed snapshots, snapshots from all the world, from every moment of the small slit in the window we have on record for our species, every emperor and conqueror, every peasant and chambermaid, every hero and every villain, the men and women we dream of, the men and women we strive to be. You are alive, brief though it is, and when you pass into Dylan’ Thomas’s sweet night, there’s a place for you on the page with us, with us in the Shadow Gallery, to say not only that we lived, but in this we are alive; and in this we do not die. And for the rest of the time this little blue ball of ours keeps going and churning and the sun still shines, somewhere on a shelf, this book might one day be found, and when it’s opened, I spring to life again to say that I lived, I loved, and ,my life had value.

Writing is the chronicle of our fantasies and our lives, and within them the obsessions and passions are amplified, and we think in broader, brighter colors, in glorious Technicolor. We will rise each time that page is turned. Here, as Dylan Thomas said, death has no dominion. You can’t kill the idea; you cannot kill the living word, not with nuclear weapons or automatic rifles.

It gives humanity to oppressed people. It lets us understand victims as they were, not as just a broken person. It acts out the moral and religious schisms in our culture. It looks through the past into the present. It refines us. It defines. It gives us heroes and comfort and passion. Art is the religion of a faithless world.

The living word is immortal, and in it so are we. And with this final word, I join the shadow gallery. When you read a book, a lot of time you are talking to a ghost, or aspects of a writer externalized, many having died so long ago. Writing is the only communication we have. It is our way to commune with the spirit world. Every time you open a book, you’re performing necromancy. There are many charlatans, and mediums and psychics, but if you want to hear a message from the beyond, open your favorite book and find a friendly ghost; they’re always willing to talk, willing to tell you everything, anything, but most of all that they lived. Opening a book is necromancy, and the benefactors dedicate their lives to it, to haunting the dreampool of our world.

The prologue is hello; the denouement goodbye.

Goodbye.

— Brandon K. Nobles,

Newberry, SC,

27 February 2015

Wish you were here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Essay: The Role of Art in Life and History, 18 August 2015

I once wrote that a book was a haunted house, serving to scare the shit out of complacent, naive people. And in a sense, I still think that to be true; but my perspective has changed; the perspective is change. These ghosts aren’t here to scare us; they’re here to tell us their stories, their struggles, their ideas; they’re here, living through the words, telling us they lived, telling us who they are, telling us that they lived and that their lives had value and, reassuringly, so did ours. They ask only for our time, these characters, for our sympathetic understanding.

         The reason writers write is the same reason mockingbirds sing; it’s something in our childhood, something in our coming of age, something in the enjoyment of stories and imagination; if reading is how the imagination breathes, writing is how the soul exhales. To write is to dream while you’re awake. As different peoples of our world are different and inherit different genes, different cultures inherit different stories, and as products of a unique culture ourselves, we produce stories to contribute to our culture, to intermix among the existing, more popular imaginings of better artists.

Our stories have escaped our planet, finally, and are in interstellar space. The messages encoded on Voyager 1 and 2 were message from our entire species. We wish to be remembered; this message may be a murmur, but it is the echo of our planet and our species, with one purpose, to express: Remember us. If nothing else it will be a haunting, a ghost’s way to perpetuate itself, a more eloquent ghost perhaps.

There are a variety of images and sounds, extravagant and mundane, natural and contrived—Mozart and Stravinsky, Chuck Berry and greetings in fifty-five languages. Sounds of animals are also included; for example, the record contains sounds of crickets and frogs, hyenas, elephants, dogs and chimpanzees. There are soundbytes of a kiss, a mother and a child, footsteps, heartbeats, and laughter.

It is a golden message in a bottle, a time capsule, a record of our species looking to be remembered with this encyclopedic representation of what it is to be a citizen of Earth, to be human, to be empathetic and hopeful that someday, when this Golden Record approaches another solar system, it will not only be found—it will be understood. The message included from then American President Jimmy Carter sums up the desires and yearnings of the human race to have a place in the history of the cosmos. As Carl Sagan said,

‘These are the murmurs of Earth.’ It is a beautiful summation of the highest nature of mankind. It is ambitious, noble, and hopeful.

‘We cast this message into the cosmos … Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some—perhaps many—may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and understands these recordings, here is our message. This is a gift from a small and distant planet, a token of our sounds, science, images, music, thoughts and feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live in yours. We hope, someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope, determination, and goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.’

And through our understanding comes empathy, through empathy identification, and in that identification, we see our lives anew; forever permanent, figures drawn by words; and in this mausoleum, we live—and death for us loses all unease and fear in knowing that memories are those ghosts, and ghosts the authors of those stories, and those stories evolve into who we are, and stand in our place when our legs are too weak to hold us and, forever young, we join their company to say to you we lived and when you’re gone, we’ll welcome you to our palace, to our gallery, and the living will redraw you when you leave. They’ll resurrect you in their paint and in their ink.

Literature isn’t a haunted house, no place for a banshee; a book, a poem, a play—each is a prism, a palatial gallery of characters we love and hate and envy and desire and need, and each book is its own room at the palace, complete with its guide, complete with its perfectly framed snapshots, snapshots from all the world, from every moment of the small slit in the window we have on record for our species, every emperor and conqueror, every peasant and chambermaid, every hero and every villain, the men and women we dream of, the men and women we strive to be. You are alive, brief though it is, and when you pass into Dylan Thomas’s sweet night, there’s a place for you on the page with us, with us in the Shadow Gallery, to say not only that we lived, but in this we are alive; and in this we do not die. And for the rest of the time this little blue ball of ours keeps going and churning and the sun still shines, somewhere on a shelf, this book might one day be found, and when it’s opened, I spring to life again to say that I lived, I loved, and ,my life had value.

Writing is the chronicle of our fantasies and our lives, and within them the obsessions and passions are amplified, and we think in broader, brighter colors, in glorious Technicolor. We will rise each time that page is turned. Here, as Dylan Thomas said, death has no dominion. You can’t kill the idea; you cannot kill the living word.

Art and music and literature gives humanity to oppressed people. It lets us understand victims as they were, not as just broken people. It acts out the moral and religious schisms in our culture. It looks through the past into the present. It refines us. It defines us. It gives us a sense of where we came from, and where we’re going. It gives us heroes and comfort and passion. Art is the religion of a faithless world.

The Royal Reflection – short, 10 August 2015

1

ELANORE WAS BORN TO A ROYAL FAMILY IN THE NORTHERN-MOST TIP OF what had been Padania, in northern Italy, having come into being by accident. As Elanore lost her sight, and as she gained it inexplicably.

As an infant, before she could remember anything else, her handmaiden had burnt her eyes while straightening her unimaginable curls. And being in the part of childhood forever forgotten, she had a happy childhood, ideal, fool of love. She liked her toys, milkmaids and moo-cows. Quite happy she had been too for so long, for all her life, until she strangely woke to find a flame that seemed to speak:

“I think she’s in the country…”

Father.

She screamed as she realized what was happening. Seeing, she knew that she was seeing. It built from the center and expanded out with the width of the room, that white mantle and what a beautiful device! A clock, she’d never seen a clock, never seen a minute pass. Her father turned to face her.

When she saw him she remembered his face. Somehow, it was right. Yet everything was blinding to her there, in that moment in the morning when the sun has intruded into the bedrooms blessed with open blinds. She fled from her room into the darkened corridors of her family home, almost a castle—save for the cruddy gray bricks – this was wood, and smelled differently in different halls, having been a way for Elanore to find her way to the chamberpot room and to sit on the sell de banne.

She ran through the halls assaulted by the shapes and colors that rose out of a black mist just outside of range, a blackness she didn’t understand. Guards young and old passed the wild-eyed child as she fled that those stony corridors, lit by torches dwindling, spent as the veil of night had rose.

Nothing shook the feeling that the world was somehow wrong, the colors off; she tried to squint to take it in, subdue the light, to conquer it, to shut it off, hoping she could tame the sun, make it relent. And she came upon a mirror. It was her, she knew by instinct, as she had known her father’s face, despite never having seen it. But everything was wrong in the reflection: the eyes and hair and her complexion, chestnut colored eyes, a lovely brown, dark hair still curled – as her maid had no chance to have pressed it. She began to think – how strange! her eyes could lie, how strange a thought.

“She’s in the country…”

She heard the distant murmurs of approaching horses, her father calling out:

“Alissa!” he called. And others with him: “Signorina Alissa! Signorina!”

The retinue of men, in strange dress and manner, approached her, slowing down. The horses, what a sight! for new eyes beyond belief, such strange machines, covered in hair, larger than she’d have thought. Her father dismounted and ran up to her, pulled her into his arms and turned to walk away. He saw the mirror and turned around. He said: “So what did you think? Aren’t you the prettiest little girl in the world?”

No, she thought – she didn’t say it – she’d never thought of such a thing, a mirror that is – why would she, how? How could she have been told, and why tell the blind that such a device existed, knowing they’d never see themselves? He told her what it was, a mirror. She was intrigued and asked. “Papa,” she said, “Are there other mirrors? Better mirrors? I don’t believe it worked, the one I saw.”

“Of course,” he said. He dismissed the other men, helped her onto the horse. He made sure she was secured and hopped in front of her. .

“Hold on!” he said. She wrapped her arms around him as the horse broke into a gallop. The sky she’d often heard was full of clouds and birds was empty then and barren, an ocean she had thought, an ocean without end. And the moon hung like a thumbnail above distant treetop. They rode toward the castle and must have taken a more scenic route. She saw such things beyond belief: birds in flight, rolling hills and vineyards, bright and strange. Back in the castle she felt lost; She’d made her way around for many years without help. She held her fathers hand and he led her to a washroom. Another mirror, oblong with a gold frame above the wash-basin. Something was off; It was wrong as well. She looked away. In her father’s bed chamber she found another, a smaller vanity mirror, wrong again and so on: mirror after lying mirror; she didn’t trust the glass. They stopped for a moment in a gallery, a well-appointed, spacious room, comfortable chairs and divans. Each picture, each painting, she thought was an honest mirror, mirrors she could loved.

He introduced her to the family; his father then his uncle, distant relatives, the rest, and then her among so many, how few with that same hair and eyes, no other was a true brunette. The painting had it right, she thought, and each mirror had been wrong, imperfect glass that lied or changed to spite her. She said as much, asking her father,                                “Could you show me a better mirror?”

“A better mirror?” he asked.

“Yes,” Alissa said. “The best! Only the best. One that is as accurate as this.” She indicated the painting and smiled.

“I will in the morning, sweetheart.”

“You promise?” she asked. She took his hand and swung it back and forth. “Do you promise? Do you? Do you?”

“Yes dear,” he said. He smiled. “There is someone I can see. I promise.”

He never lied to her, and a promise she could count on, unlike her mother.

“She’s in the country…”

They were quiet at the dinner table. It was too long, she thought. The table, feeling lonely, a new feeling for the dinner table, a feeling she had not felt before. Two men in uniform stood on opposite sides of the dining table with white kerchiefs draped over their wrists, on call. She finished her meal, they took it away, and her father finished, and the table was cleared.

“Are you ready for bed?” he asked.

“Not yet,” she said. “I want to see the prettiest thing you have.”

He took walked toward her, took her hand, and said, “It’s not in the castle. But I’ll show you. You’ll love it.”

2

The night had crept up on them quietly, bathing the now dim dining hall, its candles blown out and left smoking. That candle light, those flames still seemed so personal, like living things. And she liked to watch them as her father spoke, to relive that moment when she first awoke again.

He led her from the dining hall through winding corridors with torches hanging on the walls. The shadows thrown, such strange patterns, with light and darkness split by lanterns. The castle doors came slowly slowly down and moaned. Everything seemed to make some sound or sounds, as if they spoke, not as a consequence of movement, not for her, but from personality; the doors were old and groaned but did their duty still; they had purpose, as all things did, all personable and alive. Soon they were in the courtyard, and under the canopy of distant lights, the stars! There they were, scattered in that endless ocean, stretching on and on forever, without end. A black ocean full of fire, anglerfish with entranced planets, hypnotized and trapped by its spell.

So much to take in, so very much! So much she knew she’d never know, never could know, never hear of all of them nor their names, and silent all of them, so far away like all of space and quiet, She fell asleep underneath the constellations as her father spoke, imagining those distant fires as candlelights themselves, with the same voice.

“And that is Ariene, and Toros, and Pesci there, and my sign Acquario, your mothers there, Gemelli, and yours..,”

Alissa was fast asleep. Dreaming in color, too; she was a fire like the rest; and spoke to kids as that same flame that managed to light her life, bring her the stars; among them now and uncontained by mirrors or frames unbound by math just change; never stopping endless never still. Breathing and stretching in such freedom with such relish, a longing she had never known and it went on. Sparks struck into flame and swelled orange at first then red, then white and finally blue and bright bright beyond compare it flashed and ebbed away. One after another flaring into flame and life just to subside as had all others growing faint, growing dim each light, each point she had just slept under in such peace. Each point followed in its fashion, some larger and some brighter yet none of them were lasting; finally they were far away, as far as they had been when she had listened to her father. She heard him speaking, voice of the last stars each fading, ever darker, ever gray. She woke in the comfort of her bed. She could hear father talking to someone, a woman; the voice was familiar.

Alissa heard her father say, “Whatever you ask,” he said. “It’s yours.”

The woman walked into the room. Alissa’s father followed close behind, “I have something for you…”

The woman held an object, egg-shaped on one end , straight on the other; cased in black satin, tied at the hilt with a golden tassel.

“This,” said she, “is very special, a magical object. Your father said you wanted the best of all the mirrors, best in the whole wide world, is that right?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Alissa.

“Well,” she said, “look at this!”

The velvet sheet fell to the floor as a glittering object, mostly silver, slid from it into one hand, then to both. The glass was more liquid than solid, unusual and restless; the mirror moved—the mirror moved! Changing shapes and changing colors always shifting restless, so it seemed. The woman said, “This is a very special mirror. This mirror tells only truth, while other mirrors only show what’s real. This will show your true face no matter what, whether you wish to see it or not. It is a camaleonte, alive… Do you know that is?”

“It is a lizard,” said the princess. “A chameleon.”

“Yes,” the lady said. “This is the Chameleon Mirror.”

3

The young girl nodded.

“But,” she said, “Pardon, ma’am. Could I see it work before I try it?”

“How clever!” said the lady. She had a toothy smile. “Do you still have your dolly?”

Alissa looked around. She hadn’t thought of toys, not since she woke at least. She didn’t know how to find them, not with her eyes. She lay back as if to sleep, pretending for a moment, and replayed her usual routine. She sat up with her eyes closed then felt her way around, out of the bed across the carpet, onto the wooden floor, then to the corner. Her old toy-chest, made of soft-wood, had a cold, metallic switch and buckle. She groped about until she found a wooden doll, a dairy-made she’d never seen. She opened her eyes to finally see. The shirt was white and bilious, the dress was red and wrinkled; her shoes were black, her stockings white. Alissa walked across the room and sat down again. The lady smiled. She took the doll and said: “My daughter had one of these!”

She placed the doll in front of the mirror and – the mirror moved! The mirror moves, Alissa thought. it changed from an amorphous shade of neutral grey and blank and bit by bit became defined; sketchy at first then color sprang into life coloring the face. It looked different immediately, but Alissa didn’t know exactly why or how. There was a discomfort in the face, an emotion, a pained expression somehow. Alissa looked at the doll in the mirror, then to the real doll; at first glance they seemed the same, but the mirror gave it personality; it told the truth by some strange voodoo that the real doll for some reason could not manage. The reflection in the mirror was more true than the milk-maid’s face.

“Well?” the lady interrupted. “Would you like to see it work on you?”

Alissa thought for a moment, wondering truly, wondering what question she wanted answered; none, she thought, had troubled her before she woke to find the speaking candlelight.

“I want you to look!”

The lady’s smile faltered a bit but did not fail. She said, “Of course.”

She turned the mirror to her face. It sprung to life again, shifted from a settled palette, undefined, and bursting colors sprung from beneath the liquid surface and hurried into place, each more definitive, putting the face together bit by bit as she looked on. A lively woman appeared, not unkind nor kind, came together dot by dot, color by color until the surface settled into a stern, more wistful countenance. The face was younger, much younger, but the eyes were older, weary and tired but sharp, acute and penetrating. She became beautiful through that same magic. And Alissa took the handle but the lady grabbed her hand.

“Are you sure you want to see?” she asked. “If you look, you can’t take it back.”

And without thinking she said yes, compelled and egged on by that magic. Alissa took the handle into her hands and held it up to her face and focused. Colors rushed from the lining silver toward the center, dark colors first, the outline in dark colors then new colors softer, beige and lesser brown, each softer, more subtle shades all marching towards a growing image. And the face with currents shifting settling, colors barging into one another, merging, and finally settled. She looked into the eyes on the mirror’s face, her face. It was … was it? Was it?

“Take it away!” she screamed. “Take it away!”

4

Alissa pushed the mirror away and covered her face, holding her eyes shut tightly. Her father sat beside her. The lady – she could tell through each small sound, still at strange heights – began to redress the magic mirror. She couldn’t shake the image bu she tried, for hours hoping, praying, begging, wishing that when she slept she’d lose the image, the whole thing would go away, like a memory from childhood of a small moment, a moment no one notices or remembers; filling a bird-feed, changing the hay for the horses, something routine, something ordinary.

Her father stayed with her until the sun went down. She felt her father’s heartbeat against her shoulder, tender and supportive. She felt silly and opened her eyes. His eyes were closed, but he seemed calm. Calm enough, at least. And he put his head on her shoulder, looking, she knew, for some sort of support from her.

And she said, “I’m sorry.”

He laughed and asked:

“What did you see?”

“The painting,” the princess said. “It just didn’t seem like me.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “It’s okay.”

She’d find out later to her shame the kind of fee her father paid for a mirror, for such magic. The price for her to get to see had cost her father’s sight. She thought back to that night with him, leading him outside into the courtyard and then on the hill under the black velvet blank full of stars. He got comfortable on his back. She wanted to show him she remembered, the stars from the night before. She put her finger on his stomach first, “I remember,” she said. She pressed into his stomach, “Here is Ariete,” she moved onward, sideways, “And Leone right here,” she kept on drawing. “Pesci of course and your sign Acquario, that’s yours and mama’s sign is here, Gemelli…”

“Wait!” she cried. “Where is my mother?”

“She’s in the country,” he said. He repeated a few more times and was quiet. She understood and never asked again. She continued with the constellations on his stomach, on his chest. And when she stopped, he said: “You forgot yourself.”

He pulled her hand above his heart and said, “Right here.”

“Toro!”

QOTD: The Difference Between Philosophy and Academics

Also for the bite-sized philosophy page, today’s question: What is the difference between an academic and a philosopher? 

Despite what some of the material on this site might suggest, I am not a philosopher. I have more in common with the potboiler writers of Astounding Fiction! (Inasmuch as I do an ungodly amount of work for wages a foreign landscaper would scoff at.) I feel I must point this out, as there is a — I think — a different between an academic and a scholar, or just someone who sits somewhere and looks at the sun and thinks … whatever it is the brightest among us think when they look at nature and unravel it. I am an academic, and I use the term to mean, “someone who is [reasonably] learned in institutions of learning.” That’s not a philosopher, and those words, philosopher and scholar, are only sometimes synonymous. The thoughts of a philosopher lead to new thoughts and even new academic institutions. Newton invented calculus, or stole it from Leibniz, who invented fucking calculus; it was a new way to measure things that had precedent in the world of academics, Euclid’s geometry, for example. Descartes would develop analytic algebra, Einstein would develop relativity, and Richard Feynmann would develop shit so far beyond genius that a modest volume (on light and its interaction with matter) could blow your mind with just a bunch of fucking arrows. 

A philosopher is a scholar who creates what future scholars will study; nothing I ever create will be studied by scholars. A philosopher is a present-tense scholar, an academic that studies the world and the people in it; as opposed to past-tense scholars, academics that study the words of the wise and contribute only to the criticism culture in art and literary circles. Anyone can learn about something that has happened, or a new language, calculus – the fucking central limit theorem if they so desired. (Give it up, you guy.) All of those subjects involve memory and its application. Philosophy draws on memory to imagine the future, to take events to their logical conclusions, to know what is happening as it happens. Thinkers do not always know what is happening presently, despite impeccable memory and clarity and wit.

A scholar, of literature or history or mathematics, can be dynamic, nuanced, and subtle, and even creative. A thinker strives to be thoughtful and understanding, and through this a thinker attempts to contribute something unique to the world of academics, a new element, like relativity or quantum electrodynamics. A philosopher is at the burden of his craft, at the mercy of the world, compelled to put each aspect of the competing dramas of a world at war into words the rest of us can understand, to help make peace with the people at war with themselves. The philosopher’s alibi is ‘Why?’ — this is a different alibi than, say, the engineer’s alibi, ‘How?’ It may me on more fertile and productive ground, but ‘How?’ to get a glass of milk is not as interesting a question as why any humans ever discovered milk was okay to drink.

The mirage, for the philosopher, is the oasis: the mystery is not the matter of simply answering it. A philosopher is not concerned with such magic, such subjective experiences: they want confusion and they will have it for, as bravery is not the absence of fear but the mastery of it, confusion is not the absence of knowing, but the struggle that must take place to allow for the possibility of understanding. An intellectual looks at the philosopher and the thinker and says, someday I’ll be like Newton, or Edison, and change the world by stealing ideas from smarter people, those suffering, miserable, desperate men and women that must know, and waste away with books and puzzles. All people of genius are similarly burdened with the madenning need to know more, to test the limits of the imagination, to push it beyond the capabilities of the rest of us, we average and unfortunate  masses, born without that spark, if only we spent our lives looking for patterns in nature, testing un-answerable questions against reason, if only we had the time to dedicate our lives to the pursuit of a new wisdom. Being a philosopher means learning the difference between knowledge and wisdom. And as I am not a philosopher, I have no answers for you. The best advice, I think, would be: think about it.

Bite Sized Philosophy started as a way for me to address broad, classically philosophical issues in shorter articles. This was to get some of my more time pressed friends into the outer realms of academia that obsess me and attempt to supply discussion or at least a conversation. One you can read on the subway, the toilet, and then forget about as easily as the last big scandal, the last plane crash or disaster, and for a moment, you can forget: the wise taste no better to worms. 

Take a Penny Problem Solution

In adding quantities to individual rows, whether along the horizontal (x axis) or vertical (y) axis, you start from five pennies and end up with two rows: one row of two, along the y axis, and a row of three along the x axis. To solve it, you make one move and create to rows of three. To do this, you must move into the z axis – the axis of breadth and depth, the third dimension, and place the third penny in the x axis row by placing it on top of the first penny in each row, thus, you create two rows of three with one move.

pennieslists
Laugh at my pain

To resolve this, move penny labeled 3 on the x axis onto the top of the first penny, which is the first penny and beginning of axes.

pennysolution

                                         If this was obvious to you, enjoy your Richard Feynmann lecture, nerd.

Notes: The idea behind the puzzle is to test spatial awareness, to demonstrate the z axis in mathematics, and (hopefully) teach students to think in three dimensions. The problem is in the assumption that the solution must be limited to the horizontal and vertical axes when the only way to solve the problem in the context of making one move (to move one penny) to turn two rows of different quantities into rows with equal quantities, from an x axis row of three and a y axis row of two, by removing the third penny in the x axis and placing it on the first penny in the z axis makes each row contain three pennies, making them of equal quantity, that of 3.

Poem: One Summer in the Sun (Shakespeare tribute!)

One Summer in the Sun

Sweet lights, sweet candle,
burning far away and slow –
Candle in our music box,
Spotlight upon this cancelled show,
Light each path that in my past
in one form or another torn,
From Yesterday 
Each new day born,
Sweet mother may it glow –
That we sweet orphans
though unimportant
have the fingertips of light to keep us
on that road.

For their summer in the sun,
one yawn before the winter’s breath,
a ring of smoke blown through the gates of nowhere.
And life, the beautiful nothing,
a candle for its own sake lit,
begins to blur and fade,
another song from the record played.
Once so great, and now so small,
now a whisper in the hall.

Once to live, and wonder why,
to rise and fall under the sky.
Summer rises;
summer sets.
One summer in the sun is all we get.
The sun will smile,
and sun will fade;
a single dash, between two dates,
poor written by the hands of fate.

One moment caught inside a bulb,
our destined hour to abide,
with all the living things trapped inside.
Lighting for but a moment,
snow scattered on the desert’s dusty face-
glimmer in the hall and go their way.

One after another, into the sky for miles;
a blind caretaker, with a hammer,
forever walks the aisles.
His calloused feet to scratch path,
to on occasion tap the glass–
releasing light back in the air,
to Saturn’s seat without a care.

Destiny behind the veil will play,
with all the vessels on the waves.
Slaves to the lighthouse, in the rain,
Miss Destiny, the ball and chain;
until she folds, and counts her pay,
and, in silence, walks away.

No more moments from the box to take,
from the fountain by the waste.
Life, brief candle,
one summer in the sun.
Tomorrow and tomorrow,
then there are none.

Life itself, a momentary scream,
amidst the sea of nothing gleamed,
a murmur in the ivy by the well,
one verse in the narrator’s Book of Tales.

The title of our story is,
“One Summer in the Sun,”
Tomorrow and tomorrow,
then they are done.
One chance to bloom,
one chance to shine;
to rise and fall under the sky.

One summer in the sun in winter’s way.
All of those who to the light have went,
when their pocket watch of time is spent,
turn brittle in the air, fall to the ground.
The sun rises.
The sun sets.
A summer in the sun is all we get.

The finish line, same as the start,
oh what a nobody has in his heart.
A thousand roads to nowhere,
lost highways to the sun.
The finish line is the same place,
the human race begun.

And in that race together,
we all finish last;
those faceless watcher’s, in the crowd,
recline their heads and laugh.
Again and again, the cars go in,
desperate circles round and round.
sometimes they brush against each other,
seldom to make a sound.
And blind they pass each other by,
in a tempest tossed around.

Before the blind man, with his hammer,
turns to face your aisle,
laugh with the best of them, and smile.
And this is just graffiti,
scrawled on time’s unending walls,
by no one left for nobody,
a fragment in the stall.
Tangles in the Earth’s coiffure,
for life— a limited time offer.

Another verse, another song,
some sort of old-time sing-along,
of pebbles lost in sand and foam,
who sing alone, and murmur make,
while they their ride on the carousel take.
And then they sleep, once more to dream-
of all the things that flashed by the screen,
patterns in the ivy and their seams,
an arabesque oft told before,
of those who run blind on the shore.
With all of them on their way to see,
the Wizard of Oz for sympathy;
the highway is long, how awful to know–
the door at the end of the road is closed.

Let the hands wind up another,
song for the music box.
And let the shadow shapes around the candle,
play till the melody stops.
By candlelight or dark of night,
their path forever paved;
every second of their life,
the same sad song is played.
Again and again we figurines spin,
a lullaby loud for no one to hear,
turns static into silence, fades,
as dust upon a mirror.

Another poor player, whose hour forgot,
those passionate words on the stage.
Another soliloquy, the sound and the fury,
bit player lines erased.
Characters live; characters lie.
Some do nothing, instead wonder why.
All of them are together lost,
together to laugh and to cry.

Some of them love,
and some of them hate;
some look out, some in.
For a moment fleeting contact made,
another to begin.
There’s no such thing yesterday,
no tomorrow, and no then–
just a now that never ends.