Monday, December 8, 2014

Devotion Over Time Equals Meaning: Proust's Mysticism

From Giotto's St Francis cycle

The means whereby to identify dead forms is Mathematical Law. The means whereby to understand living forms is analogy. By these means we are able to distinguish polarity and periodicity in the world. 

-Oswald Spangler, The Decline of the West, Charles Francis Atkinson, trans.
[NB-- I started reading this after coming across a reference in KOK's second volume. Haven't finished yet, but found the quote interestingly close to Proust's formulation.  With Proust though, the formulation seems to apply more to personal history.  From what we see of capital H history in In Search of Lost Time, it is attended to and created by people caught in the pettiness of the former, so perhaps there is its fingerprint.]

Diverting Analogies, Pleasurable Loops

Walter Benjamin, in The Image of Proust, trims an outline of the author, from youth to recluse that when held against up against the life of say St. Francis or the life of Buddha, makes Proust's epiphany resemble a kind of holy conversion.  The story is there-- the wealthy young man, leading a life of luxury and excess, experiences a moment that recreates his entire being.  St Francis found his catalyst in a dream, followed by the public humiliation of his early return from the Crusades. He is then moved toward an ascetic life after encountering a leper. Buddha grew up in a palace where his every need was cared for. It isn't until he leaves his palace and encounters a sick old man and a funeral that he begins to seek austerity. Both of their conversions occurred over years and our accounts of them are given from the outside, mediated by dogma.  There is something to be said about the relative seclusion and opulence that attended their youths and the sensitivities that these childhoods bred and there may also be something superhuman about Proust.  The eloquence he displays in synthesizing his memories, in limning the ways in which the significances of a moment, of a belief, or of an idea yield over time, ripen and rot and grow anew, transcends his experience. It transcends the form of the novel and vibrates between novel, essay and memoir, using novelistic tropes as foils for deepening his reader's relationship to the progress of character. If there is within the Bildungsroman the remnants of the Medieval confession, its shape can be found here as well.

What benefit can Proust see in self-study outside of the ability to reach a synthesize, to find his life?  He makes the point that a life without review is basically un-lived, but if this is a question about capacity, it is a deeper question about Modernity. If Proust's epiphany can be taken as a kind of conversion, what quantity should we assign to this shape of mysticism?  If it is a reflex within the human organism, then perhaps we can use it as a bridge to understanding those earlier conversions. If it is separate, irrevocably apart and situated in the a-historical moment of life after the WWI, perhaps it is a new form.

I spent about nine or ten posts devoted to the concept of modern literary capacity (see the IPoStHL tags, if you're interested). The Modern mystic is a kind of oxymoron and, in Proust, the irony of his withdrawal seems convenient to his illness, to his heart-brokenness, and to his misanthropy-- not that any of those reasons would be excluded from the lives of earlier mystics, but in the context of The Search for Lost Time they form a brittle portrait of the author, a human rind that protects the fruit of the work and it seems we can't have one without the other, so the only remnant is devotion-- and I may have mentioned this earlier, but Proust's only true avowed devotions seem to be to time and music.

I recently attended a Bat Mitzvah that my father-in-law, who is not a rabbi, officiated.  The Bat Mitzvah was held in the basement of a home in New Jersey and he mentioned that traditionally synagogues are humble buildings, that the buildings don't matter. Jews worship within the cathedral of time. The phrase struck a chord.

In considering the progress of Charles Swann through In Search of Lost Time,  his assimilation and his rejection from the Faubourg St Germaine, plotted against the backdrop of the Dreyfus Affair, provides ample insight into the anti-semitism of the time. I learned recently that Proust's mother was Jewish but Proust himself was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic (a faith he later rejected). In considering the way in which Proust foregrounds Swann's struggle within society and studies it with such an obsessive eye, I felt as a reader almost assured that the narrator too would fall into the same traps as Swann and lose his standing. The novel instead uses this kind of false foreshadowing to highlight the great folly of youth, that in seeking our models we mistake their errors for our own and remain blind to the personal monstrosities we have been nursing all along. There is an added soupcon to consider Swann as well as a kind of model for the narrator-Proust's assimilation.

Within Jewish history there is the story of historical recursion, of repeated pogroms, depredations and struggle. Recursion is written into the Jewish story. But within rituals, the Bat Mitzvah for instance, we find the routinization of struggles and the joyful celebration of their conquest-- momentary as it may be.  Here we have an adequate parallel to Proust's temporal analogies, the celebratory moment in survival.  However, the kind of experiences that strike the sympathetic memory cannot be ceremonial. The analogous moment must sneak up on the intellect, it needs the element of surprise to strike the deepest chord, which is precisely where the routinization of faith fails.  It's not to say that the faithful are exempted from these kinds of experiences. The tragedy of the content of faith is that it is lost to repetition. It dies to provide the structure to the living part of ceremony. The spiritual crisis of Modern man may in part be due to the failure of religion to adapt out of cyclical and stale repetitions. In Proust's attention to phenomena we may find a temporary antidote.  To see it from a humanist perspective, Proust's --or any -- purported mysticism is interesting only in that it reveals an order apart from that of the mundane senses.  Its reward may be a constant inward search for similitude that cracks out the endorphins, that and a kind of kinship born across the several selves we leave in time. Its price is solitude.  Its corruption is nostalgia.

For another time: song structures and recurrence, Girl Talk and the memory of music, Nick at Night, the memory content of memes, Beckett and forgetting...

The Ear

He cannot move the furniture
through that small aperture, yet
expects it must serve
used with reserve,

To wit, the company that comes
runs to be first in,
arranges what it can
within the man,

who (poor fool) bulges
with secrets he never divulges.

-Robert Creeley

E-Z Listening: Schubert Six Moments Musicaux No. 3

Takashi Murakami Buddha at Versailles. Image by Christophe Ena

Monday, November 17, 2014


Some theme music for gridpolitics by Dremstat: via Vangelis, via Trainspotting, via Tron for fire-y chariot home-karaoke:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Notes on Twin Peaks, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Commercial Art by Dave Gunton

Notes on Twin Peaks, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Commercial Art 
by Dave Gunton


I recently watched Twin Peaks for the first time, binge-watching the 30 episodes over the course of a month on Netflix.  The thought I had 5-10 times each episode was: this was on network television in 1990?  The series is so weird, gory, fanciful, disturbing.  An apparently familiar murder mystery narrative dissolves into a supernatural fantasia, and the show ends, depending upon interpretation, with the image of our hero--our unwavering companion for 29 plus episodes--in the maniacal possession of a demon, as discouraging an ending as I’ve experienced in narrative art.  (Although that ending was only supposed to be a season finale.  When ABC declined to pick up Twin Peaks for a third season, it became the series finale.)  Mostly I felt disbelief that Twin Peaks ever was made and then broadcast.  The highest rated show in the 1990-1991 television season was Cheers.  The next season it was 60 Minutes.


Twin Peaks is a parade of quintessentially American themes and archetypes.  The town sheriff, Harry S. Truman (great), wears a cowboy hat and recalls countless lawmen who strive to bring order to chaos in American Westerns.  Donna, Audrey, and the late Laura Palmer are all femme fatales, good girls on the outside who lure men astray.  It is 1990 in the show, but Audrey wears hoop skirts and saddle shoes like it is 1955.  In fact it still seems to be the 1950’s--America’s favorite decade to romanticize--throughout much of Twin Peaks.  The Double R Diner, where the waitresses wear turquoise dresses, is the town meeting place, and James, riding a motorcycle in his black leather jacket, is Marlon Brando, the scarred boy rebel with the heart of gold.  Meanwhile our hero Agent Cooper is the reformed, born again man who now adheres to a strict moral code, part Eliot Ness, part Tom Joad.  True to their a story about the dark undercurrents of life, the show’s creators, Mark Frost and David Lynch, reference a decade when America’s mainstream was perhaps most triumphant and those undercurrents were most in the shadows.


Twin Peaks recalls the 1950s but it also recalls the 1850s, or at least the work of a man who was writing at that time.  I am not the first (or the second) to make the connection, but the show’s references to the stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, in particular “Young Goodman Brown” are striking.  In that story the title character, a virtuous young man in a Puritan village who is soon to be married, wanders into the adjacent woods one night to find all of his fellow citizens engaged in devil worship.  He is even presented with his bride-to-be, Faith, so they may be indoctrinated into the dark cult together.  The town is the place of order and virtue, and the woods are the place of disorder, moral transgression, and evil.

Likewise in Twin Peaks the characters continually meet with violence and horror in the woods.  Laura Palmer retreats to the woods for a wild night of sex and drug use, and she does not live to the see the morning.  Her friend Ronette barely makes it out alive.  The Log Lady lives in the woods and prophesies the spirits that lurk there.  One Eyed Jack’s is a casino in the forest over the Canadian border where you can drink, gamble, and pay for sex.  The serial killer Windom Earl sets up shop in a log cabin.  Major Briggs is abducted by some mysterious force in the forest.  There is an evil that lives in these woods, Sheriff Truman says in an early episode.  And ultimately the characters discover The Black Lodge, what may be interpreted as a portal in the woods to a netherworld of horrors, with Agent Cooper and his beloved Annie standing in for Young Goodman Brown and Faith.


I wonder though whether this dichotomy of town/forest, order/disorder, resonates in our contemporary culture.  The more common experience today seems to be to retreat to the woods as a place of calm and escape the frenzied stimulus overload of the city.  Or perhaps these dichotomies look different from the vantage point of New York City, versus the vantage point of rural Washington.


I read about Twin Peaks after I finished I watching it.  Apparently it was never the intention of Frost and Lynch to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer.  They only did so in season two in response to pressure from ABC, which was concerned about sagging ratings, and believed that the audience needed resolution.  A developing love interest between Agent Cooper and Audrey ends rather abruptly in season two, and apparently the cause was the objections of Lara Flynn Boyle, the actress who played Donna, and who off-screen was romantically involved at the time with Kyle MacLachlan, the actor who played Agent Cooper.  Ms. Boyle did not care to see Mr. MacLachlan involved with Sherilyn Fenn, the actress who played Audrey, on screen.  Enter then, rather suddenly in season two, the actors Billy Zane and Heather Graham, whose characters become the love interests of Audrey and Agent Cooper, respectively.  And of course the show’s creators did not intend to end the show with season two, with their hero in the throes of a demon, but that was simply the last episode that was made.


How, then, are we to accept something like Twin Peaks as a work of art, when the artists are not calling all the shots?  We are reminded that television shows are fundamentally products, vehicles to sell advertising, and but for that commercial purpose they would not exist.  (In 1990 they were used to sell advertising; now they may be used to sell subscriptions instead, but they are always selling something.)  So of course in the case of a television show, the network can have a heavy hand in deciding what the show looks like, from plot, to casting, to direction.  We as viewers want to think of Twin Peaks as Mark Frost and David Lynch’s pure artistic vision, and interpret it on those grounds.  But it is not.  It, like many shows, and many works of art, was shaped in part by countless commercial interests.


Is it then still a work of art at all?  It is tempting to say that once commercial considerations shape in part a work of art, it is no longer art at all, it is merely product.  That seems harsh though.  The dream sequence in season one, episode three of Twin Peaks, in the red room with Laura Palmer and The Man From Another Place, one of the most enduring images from the series: nobody at ABC dialed that up, I’m sure.  That is pure Frost / Lynch madness.  You can’t take that away from us.  So what are we talking about here?  Was the show 75% art and 25% commerce, and we will just focus our interpretive interest on the artistic part?  How can we, when the commercial part had such a profound effect as to force the revelation of the killer, when that was not the creators’ intent (and what Mr. Lynch calls one of his biggest professional regrets).  


And these issues are not confined to television shows but surely are present in nearly every artistic form, certainly every popular form.  Every book, album, or movie that is distributed by a major publisher, label, or studio is shaped by commercial considerations, to a greater or lesser extent. 


No doubt Nathaniel Hawthorne thought about commercial considerations as well.  He anonymously self-published his first novel, Fanshawe, and it did not sell at all.  The Scarlet Letter has never struck me as a work of marketing, but I imagine Hawthorne gave some thought as to the kind of book readers might like to buy.  Hawthorne’s contemporary, Charles Dickens, may not have technically been paid by the word, but he was paid by installment, receiving payment for each 32 pages of text he provided for serialized novels like David Copperfield and Bleak House.  Was he selling novels or toasters?


It seems unforgiving to say that art that bears any commercial influence is no longer art.  I enjoy many such works of art, like Twin Peaks, finding them not only entertaining but deeply thoughtful and meaningful.  Still I find myself increasingly drawn to art forms that are free(r) from commercial influence.  Paintings.  Early 20th century western swing music: the only consideration there seemed to be what would make people dance (itself a kind of commercial consideration).  Low-budget movies.  I used to think that criticizing something as “corporate” was just a tired cliche.  Now I find anything anti-corporate, anti-commercial to be inherently attractive.

David Lynch for CK 
David Lynch for CK 
David Lynch for CK 
David Lynch for YSL 
David Lynch for Armani
David Lynch for Playstation (post twin peaks) 
David Lynch PSA (pre twin peaks) 
David Lynch for Dior (post) 

Dave Gunton is the Fiction Editor of the Paris Review.
Dave Gunton lives with his wife and two daughters in Athens, GA.  You can find him on Twitter at @DavGun10 and on Tumblr at

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Walking Shots, Biked Over

Robert Smithson's concept for a floating island.

Stanley Crawford's concept for a man-made floating island. Image courtesy of (buy some shallots).

Love that Smithson painted geological cross-sections.  Always found these so engrossing in text books. 

John Gerrard's Solar Reserve at Lincoln Center.  An LCD screen displaying a virtual solar power station written over a vacant expanse of Nevada desert.

Beneath the watery April sun, an occasional police car or jeep cruised slowly, watchfully, among the bright shoals of cyclists who floated, flushed, moist, openmouthed, above wantonly pumping legs, curiously disowned, jumping knees, and the transparent whir of wheels.   

-Harold Brodkey, Hofstedt and Jean--and Others, originally published in the NewYorker, 1969

 I was nearly hit by a cyclist the other day.  I was crossing 5th ave with the light and he came careening downhill with no intention of stopping.  I panicked and froze and he squeezed his brakes until his bike squealed and he popped forward on his seat. We each checked if the other was okay before we started yelling. I had the light, was my point. What if he was a car, was his point. To which I again stated, that I had the light-- this is generally less of a problem for cars. I told him he should watch where he was going and I assumed he was just as much in shock as me, because what if I had been a car? but then I grew furious with him and conceded, yes, it is true assholes who want to go fast and ignore traffic lights can drive cars or bikes. He told me to go fuck myself. I had actually just gotten off my bike. I had locked it up before crossing the street. I had the helmet tucked under my arm as I was yelling at the guy.  I was thinking about this today when my train stopped.  Strap-hanging for fifteen minutes with only the dark of the tunnel on the other side of the window, I became conscious of a fear that somehow time would figure out a way to stop-- time would stop but but my consciousness would remain active, my subway car would drop out of time, my fellow passengers would not age and would not feel time passing and though we'd all be stuck with one another, we'd remain as equally inaccessible as if the train were moving and we were waiting for the next stop. It is with biking that the frustrations of mass transit-- of being held momentarily due to the train traffic ahead, of sick passengers, of investigations and earlier incidents, of the people who look as if they've already died twice that day that stay plastered in place even though there's room in the middle and of the others who wedge themselves through the closing doors, of the basic package of powerlessness the city offers its residents--disappear.  I love riding my bike in the city.  At its best I feel as if I'm floating just eight inches above the city, which is enough to feel euphoric.  The city and its rules peel away.   The biking passages in Hofstedt and Jean-- and Others are the best I've come across for detailing the sensation of riding in the city. 




Magic hour

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Human Sacrifice v. Extra Lives

Boris Vallejo...
I want to say more here, but, really: Boris Vallejo

The upper register of Axl Rose's voice rose over the noise of the dozen arcade cabinets and their light and the light of the dim overhead flourescents made the slice of pizza he bought and set on the glass of the unused pinball machine, Raiders of the Lost Ark, look like something from a Robert Williams painting. The teen with two quarters placed beside the player 2 start button who had been standing there all day popping button combos, dispatching challenger after challenger with his casual joystick grip (three loose fingers), had not given up a life.  He had held his own hunger ransom, setting the slice aside before he started playing with the idea that it would somehow be a bigger challenge than the 5th and 6th graders who pumped quarter after quarter into the glowing red coin slot and slapped the player 1 button.  I was one of them, wondering if the action on the second player joystick was that much better as my avatar was immediately cornered. I hammered furiously on the buttons to try to get free, while he executed a few nonchalant circles with the joystick and tapped his buttons.  My power bar declined to zero and the teen stepped back from the cabinet to do a quiet little two step.

A pinball machine always looks fun, but it seldom satisfies the way even a quick 16 bit death does.  Lights and bumpers. A glass coffin showing the height of mechanical-age fun.  From the speakers mounted near the ceiling, the sound of an intergalactic arrival broke into the rude quick bird whistle of Steve Miller Band's Jungle Love.  I looked at the teen.  He was old enough to drive, to have a steady girlfriend, to have a part-time job, to under-age drink and casually use drugs, to jerk-off.  He was wearing fingerless black pleather gloves.  He was thin and he never acknowledged the other players, never chatted with the other teens who controlled the other machines. He just played.  


Recently, I met a former boxer at an end of the summer pool party.  We spoke a little bit about diet and he explained boxing to me.  My appreciation for the sport has always been limited, but boxing, he told me, was a mental sport.  You take two men who weigh the same and who are more or less evenly matched and the sport comes down to their preparation, their mental toughness.  He was still going through a prolonged period where he forbade himself most meat, sugar, wheat, dairy.  In the months before a fight, he did little other than exercise. He refused sex, coffee, alcohol, and nicotine. He went to bed on time and woke up early.  I was struck by his sense of dedication, his self-discipline. It was this time, he said, that mattered-- the months before-- that decided the match.  


I finished In Search of Lost Time at the end of this summer.  At a point soon after Proust stumbles upon his epiphany, that life is joyless unless we learn how to live outside of time by finding those analogous moments within our lives and allow their resonance to take hold, once he has decided upon his life's work, he offers a statement about friendship that, while appearing partially true, and certainly apt within the confines of the Parisian society he has described within the preceding volumes and doubly apt as a justification for the hermitage he undertook to write his masterpiece, it misses what may have been one of the keenest portions of the novel's deeper play.

...the artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for something that does not exist (our friends being friends only in the light of an agreeable folly which travels with us through life and to which we readily accommodate ourselves, but which at the bottom of our hearts we know to be no more reasonable than the delusion of the man who talks to the furniture because he believes that it is alive)...

This is different than both Lemuel Gulliver and Friedrich Nietzsche (who wound down their lives talking to horses). This is the man who sees the horse as his contemporaries and who reluctantly obliges the social norm by passing time with another person. There are a number of inconsistencies through the last volume, Proust worked on Time Regained up until the moment of his death. And though elsewhere in the volume, he states that the novel itself is only an optical apparatus that allows the reader to discover a greater portion of his or her self, this point strikes me perhaps as the last tragic sliver of Proust's blind spot, of the depth of his loneliness.  Though our lives are plagued by uncertainty and the experiences of our growth and education are in fact just the shedding of layers of ignorance and misunderstanding, it is precisely the play of these points through time that allows us ever to achieve any claim to clarity or transcendence, even if that transcendence is only turned inward.  We may misunderstand one another in situ so that later, when we are ready, we can misunderstand to a lesser degree.                

The boxer went on to tell me about a man called Electrolyte, who he visited in the Bronx. Electrolyte ate only bland foods. He kept a battery pack on his belt.  He could turn on a lightbulb by holding it in his bare hand. He pulsed energy directly into the boxer's muscles.  I mentioned I had heard of yogis in India that had gained control of their involuntary reflexes by deep meditation and could turn their body temperature up high enough to light a small piece of paper on fire.  It occurred to me, to be a boxer, to be alone in his kind of physical and mental discipline, it would be a relief to find a man like Electrolyte, a man who had mastered his body and and broken through the daily discipline to find some strange deep power lurking within, but I noticed the boxer was smiling and I couldn't tell if he was putting me on.  


In 2666, Ingeborg recounts in one of her early meetings with Reiter (later to be Archimboldi) that the capstone on Mayan temples would be a block of obsidian polished to transparency and that the tribe would gather in the temple in the midst of a human sacrifice and the light in the temple would be filtered through the blood and the obsidian and this is the light in which they would see one another.   


A sacrifice is made in Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle.  Volume 1 shows Knausgaard propelled through adolescence on a marvelous vapor trail of petty happenings and deep transformations.  While reading I had the sense that the author was confronting his feelings about his life and his family in real time, that he was not editing.  The use of his family's names in part provides this, but so too do those half-digested bits about his older brother, Yngve, that breakup the breath-taking house-cleaning sequences (seriously-- the command of detail in the house-cleaning parts gives order to the whole book) to his time finding suitable writing space in Sweden. He admits to as much when he mentions that he had attempted to write about his father several times before and here he has done it, but it seems he still could not express his feelings about his father, instead he exposes his father's death and his family's role in enabling or allowing it to occur.  The key seems to reside somewhere within all of those mundane details, all of those hours poured out in the first volume, an inability to grasp time as it passes at its slowest and an equal inability to grasp reality, to seek a redemption from time's passage, an absolution.

It may be worthwhile to note here that though Proust speaks a little about his father in the early volumes of In Search of Lost Time, his father is otherwise unmentioned as the books progress and remains a kind of sphinx written in to Proust himself and his desire to make good on his literary ambitions, his detailing of the life of Swann and the other men of the Faubourg Germain.  I don't know whether this was an act of conscious or unconscious suppression.

Knausgaard's expression feels compulsive, but it also feels willed.  In breaking the rules, in sacrificing the names and his impressions of those in his life, Knausgaard takes away a measure of their dignity, their privacy.  He is solitary and presents himself as much, as an outsider within his own family (even his grandparents asked him to stop hanging around so much) and the act of publishing his book establishes this isolation and ensures it. He cannot, at least at this point, navigate past his need to speak out and may in that adolescent way seek to redeem himself and his family by decimating that same silence and coolness that allowed his father's death. He sacrifices his own humanity to try to get at the truth.


As an aside: even saddled with picking up the fractured plot pieces from the ends of the various Marvel movies that have been running the shew-biz game for what feels like a decade now, Guardians of the Galaxy may be the best American movie I've seen in years. It takes a painfully accurate CGI raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper to deliver the message that everyone has dead people, it doesn't excuse stupid acts of revenge. Even better, it just knows how to have fun.

Knowhere-- the floating head of an ancient alien being/ mining outfit.  If you want to speak to twelve-year old me, he'll be wintering there this year.   
Steve Miller Band Serenade
Panda Bear Last Night at the Jetty

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Friday, August 29, 2014

I don't always drive into tornadoes but when I do 40 is not enough

When its shell breaks, the egg slides, lead by the yolk, to settle in the low point of the pan. The albumen spreads. As the heat takes to the pan, the albumen finds its edge and begins to cloud white. 

There's a man I see on the train infrequently.  When I do see him, I have trouble looking away from him. His forehead bulges forward. He wears thick glasses.  I can't tell if he can see me. His eyes don't appear in the glass of his lenses. I have yet to spot his eyes. Behind his glasses his skin is dark, as if bruised. 

Beside me there's a sleeping woman. Her mouth is open. The Gucci insignia is set into the periwinkle nail of her ring finger. Versace glasses. Braids. Skirt suit.

People on my car keep their eyes closed. Some bear pillow marks on their cheeks. When a young man walks into the middle of the car and complains that he looks around the ring fingers of the people of New York and  no longer sees any engagement rings, the people on my car stir.  He's moved into their room. He's speaking in a fluid non sequitur that grows in its anger. I've heard him before talk about the billions of dollars he has, how Jay-Z speaks directly to him. His sneakers are white, dirty and near collapse at the heel.  His voice is broad enough to allow no one to feel it directly but it becomes so loud it's impossible to ignore. The nuisance of an alarm clock.  The faces wrinkle as they cannot slap it back to snooze. 

I have pink eye. 

I woke up with my right eye sealed shut. I strained to open my eyelid. The best I could do was open it a quarter of the way and the room looked soft, glaucous until I made my way to the sink and massaged my eye open, cleaned it then admired the swollen lid in the mirror- what a shifty look it gave me having one eye more open than the other.

Of the few who appear awake, a middle aged black woman in a t-shirt that reads "I don't always drive into tornadoes but when I do 40 is not enough" is writing in an oversized composition book. She has it in her lap and appears to be using it for landscapes. I remember not to check her face after I read her shirt. I look away without looking up, without measuring the pieces of her I can see.

Monday, July 28, 2014



As a rule, I do not stop on the street if someone is trying to get my attention, which may be why on this occasion I decided to stop.  The man I saw peripherally had been well-dressed.  He wore a turban and beard with a long moustache.  I assumed he was a sikh and because of his watch that he worked in the tech industry.  He had said, "Sir, you are going to be lucky." and he made a gesture that indicated something about the length of my forehead and the space between my eyebrows told him this.  At first, I thought he was lost and in need of directions, but he proceeded to tell me that my the last two years of my life had been a struggle.  He said this without any preface and with such confidence that it threw me off.  I was still expecting the request for directions when he told me that my mind was like a butterfly-- fluttering everywhere, but never staying in a single place.  Even at night, as I slept, it took long journeys. At the same time, I keep my heart too open.  I say too much.  I need to learn to guard my heart, but July was to be the month.  The struggles I endured over the last two years were about to end. I remained, despite having a limited time, to see where this was going.  It was an original approach and the man's dress, demeanor and confidence did not point towards the usual direction of a street encounter with a stranger in New York.  He asked if he could read my palm and while he did so he balled up a piece of paper then placed it in my hand then asked me a series of personal questions.  I asked him his name.  He said, Yogi.  I gave Yogi a few of the answers he wanted, smirking when he asked something I did not want to say.  The paper he had placed in my hand came from a small pad he kept within a leather case with his PDA and a picture of what I took to be a holy man, because it resembled an orthodox icon in its execution, but showed a smiling man with long black hair, a yellow line on his forehead and dot between his eyebrows and a single hand raised in blessing.  While I answered, he wrote my answers on his small pad.  He asked what I desired for the future.  I said peace and prosperity.  He had difficulty understanding this part, so I repeated it for him two more times and I watched him write words that appear phonetically similar to the words I just said, but in reality were closer to pears and property.  I let him know that I was short on time and he said okay, he was done with his questions.  He asked if I had anything I could give him as a sign that I believed my luck would change.  At this, I smiled, more broadly than the man in the icon in his PDA, and he could tell he was revealed in this moment, but he did not ask directly for money.  "This is by far the most original interaction I've had on the street," I told him and gave him a dollar, which he set over the face of the icon in his leather attache. He then asked me to look at the paper in my palm, but bumped my wrist, as if by accident.  The paper was so light, it dropped by our feet and I reached down to pick it up.  Written on the the paper were the answers to each of the questions.  I asked him his name again and he said, "Yogi.  But you will not remember it. Remember instead that July will be your lucky month, that your struggles are over." I wished Yogi good luck as well then walked away.  

In Treasure Island, the reader does not encounter Ben Gunn until the latter half of the book, when the crew has reached the island upon which he was marooned by Captain Flint.  Whatever happens in the first half of the book, Ben Gunn remains in the distant background on the island completely unaware of what is happening in the foreground, that his rescue is growing more imminent.  Likewise Jim Hawkins, Squire Trelawney, and Dr. Livesey are completely unaware of Ben Gunn's existence, just as they are unaware of the true nature of their cook or a good portion of the crew upon their ship.  The mutiny prepares the reader for the reality of Ben Gunn and when we do meet him, we are not confronted with the fact that his isolation has been a predication of the adventure that has come so far, it is placed upon the actions of Captain Flint who marooned the man years before. His remove from the mechanics of the story that preceded him are so perfect, that the characters have been either entirely ignorant of his existence or so perfectly mute to the possibility that he becomes a physical stand in for the unknown quotient within each character, the embodiment of the unspoken and of the unknown.

The life of a solitary castaway has always struck me as a kind of zen koan.  If a person exists in total isolation, do they still exist?  It goes back to that notion of publicity--- whether we learn to speak of our inner life or leave it there unfulfilled, do we require evidence to know it's there?  If we never learn to speak of it, it remains only a possibility and not yet a reality.  But if a castaway could be real and possess thoughts and follow actions, what proof would he or she require that they still existed outside of their hunger, their boredom, their loneliness?  The castaway is placed just at the utter end of human experience. Whatever record a castaway leaves of their experience, whether out of a habit of consolation bred to break up the monotony of the days or out of the hope of discovery, it becomes the inverse of that latent inner life. The record of the castaway's reality becomes a possibility, posited on the accident of discovery--  a person that was real and whose experiences were irrevocably apart from the rest of ours.  That is, there's always the possibility that someone will find a small island in the Pacific and on that small island written on the walls of a cave, the sign of a life, or within the cave just a small pile of remains judged to be human, modern and in the muteness of the walls a story too grim to imagine, or a testament to time spent alone.        

Christ was born a millennium before the Montefeltro chapel was built. This image foregrounds the duke's devotion by depicting Christ within his presence.  This is an early example of a political devotional painting, where the Duke's patronage to the church is the painting's main  subject.  The infant in the center of the painting, along with a number of assembled luminaries are examples of an historical/temporal vanishing point. The logical concerns of both time and space are erased in order to bring a historically and spiritually symbolic moment into the foreground. We ignore the implication of anachronism because devotional scenes became common throughout the Renaissance, but the irruption of the infant Jesus, like the Kool Aid man of early proportional painting, served as a spiritual reminder of the magic of transubstantiation, where sacramental bread becomes the body of Christ. 

One of the interesting things about franchises is that they provide the visual promise of sameness. In this way they break apart distances.  If you want McDonald's, you'll go to the one that's closest-- unless you know that one to be particularly bad. The idea being that the visual similarity of a fast food chain creates a broken landscape, where every few miles or every few hundred feet, depending upon where you live in the world, you will find the reminder of that thing you once ate and may crave and you can be assured of its similarity to the one you ate before and this, though the similarity belies a whole universe of rules that must be followed by the owner and staff of the restaurant, is another vanishing point, a four dimensional one meant to create a kind of parallel continuum where a particular flavor or mouthfeel can be found within a regulated, well-maintained space. Through franchising rights, blueprints and zoning laws, this continuum is executed so that a thing you desire, a thing you tasted before or encountered on TV, can be as convenient to your current location as possible. A point of reliance, a piece of food taken out of time and space, underwhelming when unwrapped, but eaten just the same. 


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

She Got the Ruins of Him (IPoS,tHL Part 9)

I started this post considering the expansive style Proust deploys throughout In Search of Lost Time as a hedge against the callousness of history, writing as a cultural biodome for the society and manners all but wiped out by the first World War. Writing for posterity.

In The Recognitions, when asked to forge a Fra Angelico, Wyatt Gwyon answers that it would be impossible. Fra Angelico painted on his knees.  Gaddis, in his letters, mentions that he wrote The Recognitions to be the last Christian novel. When coupled with his obsession over what he saw to be the loss of techne or the technical prowess earned and defined by genius to the ease of mechanical reproduction (will someone turn off that fucking player piano), I get the sense of his historical comment: that man, in losing his connection to god, loses that which can enable the best in men, that is divine inspiration.  When abutted against J R, the historical moment is characterized further as we edge deeper into entropy, we don't just lose inspiration, but we lose its fruits, we ultimately lose the ability to discern the truth.

In reading some of the press around Karl Ove Knausgaard, I have begun to think of his work, My Struggle, as fitting in this place of entropic expansion, where a bowl of corn flakes can carry equal weight to the death of a father, the exact place of anxiety where every moment must be recorded to show it is both everything and nothing, the terrifying place of historical disappearance.  His recent piece in the Times Style section of all places discusses the meaning of fame in the face of a culture that emphasizes and rewards sameness. I'll have to bar myself from completing this prolonged post until I've had my chance to read his books, at least the first, but this I am prepared to say: There are no modern ruins outside of the moment.

However often I see New York City destroyed on screen, whether it's the remains of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, or whether it's the eagles on the Empire State Building gushing water in AI, or the weed-ridden Times Square in I Am Legend, or the towers of the Time Warner Center in Cloverfield, or the intergalactic melee at the close of The Avengers (how much fun is it to watch the Hulk shred aliens and city scenery both in that scene?), or yes the Empire State Building again getting decimated by the alien laser in Richard Ford's Michael Bay's Independence Day, I wonder what it is I'm being asked to consider.  We are entertained by the prospect of our own destruction so regularly that it takes on a Buddhist character of non-attachment rather than as a tragic Cassandra-esque prediction. It brings to mind as well the habit of thought Herman Kahn proposed in On Thermonuclear War, that by bringing ourselves to imagine the worst, we can overcome the fear of it. As recently as a decade ago in India, there was a support group for women who had suffered domestic abuse. The women would sit together and visualize themselves receiving beatings, horrible beatings at the hands of their spouses, fathers and brothers. In doing so, a number of them found the strength to stand up to the abuse, to stop it. After September 11th, I remember wondering how long it would be before New York City could be destroyed again on screen. It would allow us to return to a sense of normalcy.

What is it about NYC that we're so thrilled to see it destroyed? The impersonal city filled with its invulnerable skyscrapers, it's like a great uncle with a face full of cigars shouting for you to knock him one on the chin. Come on, tough guy, come on! By watching its perpetual destruction we are reminded of its importance, its singularity.  We are fragile because of its importance, its centrality to everything, we can't help but to heap more importance on it, add more authority to the place, imagine it as the place where all old world arguments dissolve into currency, the central totem of the New World amnesia.  Of course, New York City has been erased. The idiom of each street runs: Duane Reade, American Apparel, Chase, Starbucks, Payless Shoes or Rite Aid, Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins, pizza place, Virgin Mobile store, TD Bank, Radioshack. I have to pay attention to the street signs. It's amazingly easy to ignore where you are when your street turns into a corridor of chains. The ruins we leave will be like a labyrinth of ice.

Almost two years ago, I got to work about an hour early so I could walk up the street and watch Christian Marclay's The Clock. They were showing it at the Lincoln Center atrium and I got there early enough that I didn't need to wait in line.  I walked right in and found a seat.  They had set up a provisional theater in the atrium, behind dark curtains you crossed through. I sat alone. Marclay edited together a twenty-four hour film made up of shots of clocks from thousands of movies, edited together to become a working clock.  Each scenario I saw occurred within the span between 8 AM and 9 AM and despite showing a kind of pluralism-- the imaginations of hundreds of film makers, the actions of thousands of actors separated by decades, by film stock, by technicolor, split up by the minutes in the day but unified in their purpose-- they were all there to count the time. Each time a clock appeared on screen, it was like the true star of the film had just appeared.  I sat enthralled. Time was passing me by. I was late for work.

Bat Conlon has a forehead like the Merrick's retriever... (William Trevor, The Piano Turner's Wives)

It may be a fair question-- was art more beautiful when god was central to the artist's pursuit?--but it is only fair if it shows us a way forward. In other words, how do we account for the effect of what was once deemed divine inspiration. Part of it seems coeval with the faulty belief that morality can't exist without religion, but the part that is deeper, the question as to what informs great art, because great art still happens and whether that constitutes a true difference between people, a talent that would set aside one person or give that person power or special vision over others may be irrelevant. I think of Rimbaud, the fed up poet turned arms dealer. Perhaps there's a fine line. The best writers are just borrowing our words.

Back in the winter of 2006, I visited Beijing.  I was informed then of the rapid changes that the city was realizing in order to host the Olympics.  Whole neighborhoods were evacuated then leveled, the people relocated, sometimes officially sometimes not.  There was an international shortage of cement and cranes due to the amount of construction happening in Beijing.  It was February and a lot of people burned coal to stay warm.  There was so much dust in the air that when I chewed gum (with my mouth shut) the gum grew gritty. The changes that were happening meant little too me, though I registered the appropriate culture shock that a government could so indispose its citizens without there being some kind of reciprocity-- and there may have been but I didn't hear about it.  Instead, I heard about how the Beijing branch of Hooters set to open prior to the Olympics had stacks of resumes from college graduates fighting over the open waitressing jobs.  In tips alone, the job could provide a middle class life in a country where there was still no sign of a middle class. I think about this in relation to a line I read recently in Jack Gilbert's A Brief for the Defense:
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, 
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight...    

It struck me first as sentimental and a little reckless. Gilbert positions these lines after speaking of women in Calcutta laughing in spite of their pain, but as I considered it against the hardness of Gilbert's other poems, the sentiment went away.  It is just the way we live now. We risk delight.