Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Exulting in the Absence of the Load

Looking through Sue’s library for something to read, I come across a collection of Strindberg plays. August Strindberg? Are you kidding me? So I find the play title with the most words matching the title of what I just finished reading (A Midsummer Nights’ Dream) and come up with A Dream Play, but I fast forwarded my eyes over the script, and I’m like I don’t think so.  However, I did enjoy this quick and blithe scene between a glazier and his daughter set in a forest near a castle:


THE DAUGHTER. The castle is growing higher and higher
above the ground. Do you see how much it has grown since
last year ?

THE GLAZIER. [To himself] I have never seen this castle
before have never heard of a castle that grew, but- [To THE
DAUGHTER, with firm conviction] Yes, it has grown two yards,
but that is because they have manured it and if you notice, it
has put out a wing on the sunny side.

THE DAUGHTER. Ought it not to be blooming soon, as we
are already past midsummer?

THE GLAZIER. Don't you see the flower up there?

THE DAUGHTER. Yes, I see! [Claps her hands] Say, fa-
ther, why do flowers grow out of dirt?

THE GLAZIER, [Simply] Because they do not feel at home
in the dirt, and so they make haste to get up into the light
in order to blossom and die.

THE DAUGHTER. Do you know who lives in that castle ?

THE GLAZIER. I have known it, but cannot remember.

THE DAUGHTER. I believe a prisoner is kept there and
he must be waiting for me to set him free.

THE GLAZIER. And what is he to pay for it?

THE DAUGHTER. One does not bargain about one's duty.
Let us go into the castle.

THE GLAZIER. Yes, let us go in.


Earlier last week, in need of some inspiration, I turned to Robert Louis Stevenson and his three-part narrative of emigration from Europe to New York and then to California in 1879 and 1880, concluding with The Silverado Squatters, about life in the Napa Valley a mere 120 YA.

This choice was serendipitous.  Here are a few jewels that I noted: 

None can care for literature in itself who do not take a special pleasure in the sound of names; and there is no part of the world where nomenclature is so rich, poetical, humorous, and picturesque as the United States of America. All times, races, and languages have brought their contribution.
For art is, first of all and last of all, a trade. The love of words and not a desire to publish new discoveries, the love of form and not a novel reading of historical events, mark the vocation of the writer and the painter.
…though the coming of the day is still the most inspiriting, yet day’s departure, also, and the return of night refresh, renew, and quiet us; and in the pastures of the dusk we stand, like cattle, exulting in the absence of the load.


Coincidentally, the emigrants that Stevenson wrote about on the train from New York to points west were the same European settlers that Willa Cather fictionalized 50 years later in her Nebraska novels and stories.  And so affected was Stevenson—soon to be the celebrated author of Kidnapped and Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—by the same landscape that Cather would later make iconic, he devotes a chapter in his book to “Nebraska.”

But back to my initial search, I decided to go counterintuitive and make my next read Shakespeare's The Winter’s Tale.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Book Report: The Peculiar State

Patricio Pron The Peculiar State

I enjoyed the incident below, an urban moment, and the telling of it, by Patricio Pron, in his short piece The Peculiar State:

She heads to Starbucks and orders a coffee and a cookie. “Tall, grande, or venti?” the barista asks. “Small,” she says. “Anything else?” the barista asks. “Yes, may I have a glass of tap water, please?” she says. “Tall, grande, or venti?” the barista asks.

That’s the playing field for the main characters in the story, a woman and a man, smart and hip creative types living in “a borough for artists and bohemians” and privileged in a digital, 21st century way that allows them to indulge in the game of metropolitan hide-and-seek as a way to explore their relationship.  The cold-bloodedness of the narrative is compelling, the descriptions of the different cityscapes are well composed, but as far as the relationship between the two main characters, I think Ernest Tubb put it best a long time ago:  “There are two things in this world I don’t understand/One of them’s a woman, other one’s a man.”

Book Report: White Tiger on Snow Mountain

In describing a university student in “North American Post-Modern Culture” who was researching a thesis on “cultural and literary ‘Marginalism,’” the narrator writes:  “In a move that her professors found brilliant for one so young, and that had earned her a grant to travel to New York, she had evolved past the early postmodern fascination with footnotes to focus her research on acknowledgments pages.”

The short story collection White Tiger on Snow Mountain, by David Gordon, has many of these sharp and witty critiques of the academic and public intellectual discourse today.

Of course there’s a lot of broader humor as well.  In the story from which the above was taken, “All This Time,”  the joke, and plot, is enhanced and advanced knowing that the student was intending to focus on a particular writer, not coincidentally named David Gordon, who she presumed was long ago deceased.  “She seemed disturbed by the news,” he writes of her reaction to his not being dead.  And to the flesh and blood subject standing before her she says: “This could be a problem for my research.” 

My favorite story in the collection, “Matinee,” is basically about two boys going to the movies (and having one boy's sister go along, all three juvenile delinquents ditching school), but is much more.  (It helps to know that Mr. Gordon’s resume includes writing pornography for living, so there is a  hilarious and not infrequent use of indelicate sexual repartee and description.)

The two boys have their own backstory going at the beginning of the piece, both being at the age of sexual mania, one kid a fairly grounded young man with straight-laced parents, the other kid untamed and from a totally wildass family---and it’s his sister who is with them, and she’s crazy, too.  Their world comprises the first half of the story, which is very funny, and very nasty.

But it is the second half of the story that lights up the scoreboard for me, when the trio arrives at the Earl Theater, one of the glamorous, ornate, almost mythical single-screen movie palaces that became anomalies in the 1960’s and 1970’s as big city downtown’s deteriorated and multiplexes in suburban malls proliferated.  (During that time Los Angeles had a wealth of the magnificent (and near magnificent) theaters on Broadway between Second Street and Eighth Street:  the Orpheum, the Roxie, the Globe, the Cameo, the Palace,  the State, the Tower, et al.) 

I’ve not read a better homage to these theaters than in this story, exemplified by the Earl and spoken by Mr. Gordon’s narrator.  He begins by declaring “The Earl is a ruined temple…”  and then goes on to write almost reverentially about “entering the great cave of the theater, with its balding plush seats and the shifting curtain marked with the masks of joy and pain…the Earl is the best place in the world to see a movie.”

He describes the audience, fewer than two dozen patron-philosopher-critics scattered around the auditorium, there for a variety of reasons---sleeping, drinking, to get out of the cold---and gives plenty of examples of the vocal interplay, among themselves as well as remarks directed toward the screen depending on what was happening in the movie at the time. 

The scene in the Earl lasts for several pages and is unerring in capturing the atmosphere of the fading movie house.  I’d call “Matinee” a period piece, and a valuable historical document of that era, as well as a well-told story about the crazy excitement of youth in general.  The story ends with these two sentences:  “Everything is still possible.  You have not yet begun to live.” 

Book Report: Five Days in Deauville

Arthur W. Goodhart Five Days in Deauville

The author participated in a major, big stakes poker tournament held in Deauville, France (at the casino, he points out, which was the model for Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale).  The book, a Kindle Single, is a long essay about playing in the tournament---hands, strategies, luck, muck--- as well as ruminations about other matters, both connected to the tournament, such as the architecture of the casino and the hotel and their coastline location, the beach, the restaurants, as well as topics related only tangentially.  He calls the piece a “personal diary that interweaves poker and politics, saints and sinners, connections and coincidences, writers and fighters…”

Judging by his writing, Mr. Goodhart is a thoughtful, widely read, person if not a particularly gregarious one.  There are terse mentions of cell phone calls to his family in London, and he does reveal that in his other life he is a literary agent, but that’s all the autobiography we’re going to get.  By way of example, he describes a moment during the tournament, during a break following a particularly intense series of hands and an especially significant loss by the player sitting next to him: 

“My neighbour seems unconcerned by this setback. He engages two newcomers in conversation, discovers the bearded young man stacking an impressive pile of chips is from Finland while the tanned, more portly middle-aged man is from Montpellier. I increase the volume on my iPod.” 

So much for small talk from Mr. Goodhart. But when it comes to poker, and the tournament, he has somehow kept meticulous track of the details of play, almost like an anthropologist in the era of thick description. The book is loaded with familiar poker lingo---river, button, blind, flop, all-in---and Mr. Goodhart draws concise and unembellished portraits of the tournament players and staff.  Remembering every play and ante, every reason for doing what he did and an analysis of what he didn’t do, and at the same time chronicling the play of the others makes for engaging verisimilitude.

Equally astonishing is the lack of hyperbole and the erudition in the non-poker digressions. Instead of hyped up tales of drugs and booze and sexual obsession, Mr. Goodhart thoughtfully opines on the Davos world leaders’ conference being held at the same time as the tournament, and has much to say about World War I, using Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front as one text, The Sleepwalkers by Christopher Clark as another. Other names that come up include Ford Madox Ford, Joan of Arc, Jack Kerouac, Saint Therese of Liseiux, Roger Federer.  He manages to make the connections, and sometimes uses a poker metaphor to decorate a thought, but he is quick to point out where the relations and the connections unravel.  The reporting on the tournament is almost a cover for his cultural commentary and digressions, but there is little hyperbole and in all areas he is respectful of his material.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

from The Portable Desert

While devices were being charged, couldn’t sleep, nagged by print-based thought, took something to relax, starting reading on my favorite topic:  the death of reading, and writing.  I say let’s recreate the stylus vibe, a daring detour around entropy as only a trained semiologist would devise.  Four collections of essays by Arthur Schopenhauer queued up on Kindle; in turn, my parchment is my horse, and, in turn, turned down another invitation to meet in a public setting for barbecue and beer and music, in order to read about and from the Harlem Renaissance, one of fiction’s many worlds (and did you study, I’ll ask Sue, with Charles May? Whilst I continue at her library.  Book after book.  Cover to cover. One after another.)

Poetry, too; poetry in the operating instructions on the underside of a washing machine lid.  Which is not to say you’ll discover anything similar to, or even approaching, for instance, Blake’s oratorical virtuosity--thoughtful grave, stormy bed, burdened air, seamless grass et al—but there’s no guarantee that later at a garage sale you won’t encounter a recreated illustration from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell made from breath mints or shirt buttons or postage stamps stuck onto a piece of cardboard.

Entropy:  a doctrine of inevitable social decline and degeneration.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Some Things That Fly There Be

One generally accepted talent belonging to an artist is the ability to clearly express what is seen, but a different, less commonly acknowledged, and rarer talent needing development and refinement is the ability not to express what is not seen.  Gertrude Stein writes about Picasso’s adventurous struggle with the latter (which successfully and specifically was his gateway to Cubism) and what generally separates and distinguishes great artists from the so very many, many good ones.

As Agnes Martin puts it:  “The adventurous state of mind is a high house.” In the past month my adventurous state of mind has taken me to Paris, the Andes jungle, the Vatican, Japan, Tucson, the Midwest USA, New Mexico, Florida, and Chinatown.  I’ve been to the future, and as far back in time as what is regarded as the 15th Century. My companions and guides were Henry and Alejo and Barbara and Willa and the two Rays and Zora and Franz and Vilem.  And, although I was in a high house the whole time, I never left home.  Or, as Emily Dickinson wrote:  “Some things that fly there be,--”.

Although my research among philosophers is primarily for ideas about the individual and the ultimate liberty, the liberty to die, there’s lots of other interesting stuff on the way there, and the “death” of books, writing, etc. at the hands of incessant and unrelenting digital entertainment is frequently the subject of much (of what remains in) public, print discourse.  I’ll never be sufficiently astonished at how, in 1953, Ray Bradbury was discussing the effects of screens and non-stop reality t.v. and computer technology upon our intellect---the end of the written word, such a hot topic in the intellectual journals today.  And, as I happily discovered, Vilem Flusser is another entrant into that very classy field, another one of those things that fly.  Philosopher and media critic for more than three decades (just not based in a popular media core city) Flusser was a Prague-born citizen of Brazil who wrote, in several languages that are not English, about a post-book, post-printed page culture.  What is almost a (speculative) given today he was proclaiming decades ago:  “Print-based thought is about to be overhauled.”

He first identifies the factions involved in the transition:  “We must accept that we are condemned on the basis of our perceptual organs and our central nervous systems, to live in a least two realities that cannot be unified:  in the auditory, one of letters, and in the visual, one of numbers.”

Flusser locates this crossroads using linear “history” to represent writing and reading as we’ve known it up until now, and non-linear “apparatuses” to represent screens, devices such as tablets, smart phones, etc.  “Scriptwriters stand at the end of history and the beginning of apparatuses,” he writes by way of example.

That “two realities” conflict (at worst) or paradox (at best) has us up to our eyeballs in the visual, in the numbers, in the digitalia, and while I can’t find a hard and fast opinion by Flusser as to whether this is a good thing or bad, or detect a even a need to make such a declaration (there are plenty of other fish in that barrel), he is clear about the contest between letters (auditory) vs. numbers (visual), about what we are already experiencing and what we still can come to expect.

Flusser takes his survey back to the stylus as evidence for the (disappearing) inscription mode, but my first reading (interpretation subject to change) prompts me to think he is more on the money than he realizes when he calls the Gutenberg-centric print book “an intermediate stage.”  It seems to me digital representation pole vaults from stylus inscription on papyrus up and over to electric inscription in plasma screen.  Or maybe Flusser is subtly signifying that in a remark which I took as a throw-away joke--- “Progress is becoming archaic…”.  (I am learning, at least when it comes to philosophers, nothing is throw-away.  Thus, Nietzsche.)

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Breakfast Served All Day

Breakfast Served All Day should drop within the next 72 hours.  It will be featured on Amazon.  Here is the prologue:

This is my last book.  I leave it and the preceding volumes to fend for themselves in the roiling world of e-books, satisfied that I gave my best efforts to “make it new,” to create an entertaining literature comprised of both of personal observations and the overheard vocalized pauses and fillers that accessorize so much of our public discourse.  Any delight taken by readers of these collections is humbly acknowledged.  The pleasure was mine. 

Over the years of writing the books, I came to realize I was not alone on this stylistic island, was not the solitary, blazing, intrepid discoverer I had imagined myself to be.  However, I can honestly say I came to the technique without premeditation or intent to imitate, or compete with, any other writer; in my isolated naiveté, I developed my own approach. 

It is with no false modesty, however, that I acknowledge the limits of my literary abilities and concede they have been reached.  Should anyone have an interest in taking this style and developing it in ways, and taking it to levels, unattainable by me, I give them my complete, enthusiastic, and unconditional support.   

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

School's Out!

Been doing some reading plus prepping TWO books, hoping to drop by Independence Day.  Here are some things that made me sit up and take notice:

Henry Miller describing a neighborhood in Paris, circa what?, mid 20th century?:  “The streets were so narrow that if an adding machine and a vacuum cleaner happened to meet, one or the other had to give way.”

Maxine Hong Kingston, from The Woman Warrior“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.”

Basho, haiku:

First winter downpour:
The street monkey, too,
Seems to look for his small straw raincoat.

And I read for the first time Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.  Written in 1953?  Are you serious?! There is an 8-page or so passage, a "lecture" by the chief of the book burners, that with a tweak here and there could have been written yesterday, anticipating by 50+ years American culture and public discourse, currently constituted by what John Jeremiah Sullivan now calls a "people of savage sentimentality, weeping and lifting weights," or as Giorgio Ambgen puts it "Rather than fight against the social relations ravaging the most basic conditions of existence, the citizen sorts out his garbage and fills his car with alternative fuel.”  Go Ray Bradbury!