Saturday, January 25, 2014

In Praise of Silence, The Hermit's Lament (Part 3)

There are some faces I'll never see.  On the subway for instance, there's that person who gets on, whose face is blocked by a pole, who then settles into a position where their face is turned in such a way that the back ridge of the ear is the only element that isn't hair or cloth then they leave at the next stop and walk away.  It's a little like that scene in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where Jim Carrey keeps spinning Elijah Wood and all we ever see is that barber's view of the back of his head.

It's snowed here and from out of every window the white contorts the familiar shapes of sidewalks and buildings.  Last night I dreamed all the snow was lifted in a single upward swoop. It retained its fallen shape so these oblong white contours hung in the air and all that was covered was exposed.

In part this is about thought, what is evident and what lies beneath, about what makes it into the world versus what is kept back and private. So of the idea I initially attributed to Arendt: whatever happens, happens in public, which began butchered, but the pulp of other's work is what winds up residing after the context is stripped and how cannot it not be changed, to paraphrase Auden: the words of the dead are modified in the guts of the living. So far I have stumbled through two sky-high overviews of literary style in attempt to touch upon how writers deal with their ideas, mostly in response to Proust's Captive and the Fugitive, but the question of publicity should in some way interact with the question of surface.

Jack Gibbs in JR wonders in a moment in an automat, why people choose to sit where they do.  What internal law of comfort distributes one body to the open chair three feet away and another body towards another chair. Barring some perverse mathematical law that governs the spacing of people in North America, we can ask what deductions we make about one another based on appearances. What deductions do we make without even consulting our forebrains? This is loaded: sexually, culturally, socially, racially. The terrifying thing about surfaces is that they are misleading and we can go years before we rid ourselves of initial miss-impressions.

In Brett Easton Ellis's minimalism, the surface is all we have. There is the question of what is underneath it, if there is anything at all under the surface or if all interiority is an illusion, if empathy is a mistake and looks are all that count. I'm thinking especially of American Psycho, which sets its absolutes around surfaces, appearances, which is an apt means of criticizing the US in the 1980's, but past that, the world Patrick Bateman inhabits is that of an object. An object has no inherent value, meaning or position. It simply is. It is all surface.  The tension in his character, within the double realities and the mistaken identities, the only thing that gives Patrick a sense of humanity are his violent outbursts whenever his sense of order is threatened.  In that it is an attempt to bring to the surface what is wrong by extending to ludicrous ends an internal rage, which is otherwise stifled by persona, this too is publicity.    

Part 3 Amplification and Mystification

I have been trying to recall what form my thoughts took when I used to pray.  A portion of my thoughts, I considered correspondence with God. I was younger then. I breathed audibly considering what flavor FrozFruit I wanted between singles matches (coconut). There was a dividing line between my sacred and profane thoughts for a long while.  The the guilt built up, since God was always around. Then I decided all my thoughts were sacred. Then I left that tree alone. For a while though I had a separate practice for a number of years. I believed the voice of my thoughts, those Eumenides that kept me from following too much trouble, that brought my eye around to notice the grief I cause my mother, that allowed me to relent, was the voice of my father.  My father had died when I was three, but I can still recall the quality of his voice now, if not the genuine sound. Eventually, too I had to have some space from this idea.  I recall mentally asking my father to go, to let me grow up on my own.  This is striking me as some odd sentimental furniture to bring up now, but I wonder how much of my thought was narration, that odd mental voice over that captured Fred Savage's internal monologue in The Wonder Years and how much of it was simply wired, silent capacitors snapping sublingually? I wonder if a microphone attached to my hippocampus have would picked up the sound of that internal voice, the little commander, what Saul Bellow called his primitive prompter, pinching his nose and rising a register to tell me different things, impersonating the people in my life who mattered. There's a touch of instinct to it.  Conscious thought can seem interminably slow. Now, at times, I get audio hallucinations when I'm falling asleep. Whole songs will sound as if they are playing outside of my head, or just being wrung out of the cilia in my ear canal to stop at the pillowcase. I wonder if that's what remains of the little commander.

[next time: Gravity's Rainbow, The Confidence Man, the unspeakable, the unknowable, the symbol and the unsaid.]

Monday, January 13, 2014

In Praise of Silence, the Hermit's Lament (part 2)

In Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, a gardner harvests worms from blue orchids that he uses to drug and hypnotize people.  The people in turn sign over their lives to the gardner.  He in turn hands them over to a pig farmer with a love for ambient music.  It reads as a more sober version of Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind. The movie concerns itself more with the people after the worms have been removed.  That removal has its own significance in the movie, but it invokes something as sinister as guinea worm and visually complemented a piece of what I was trying to get at in my last entry: extraction and proof.

I won't provide the actual image here-- I've been told that my use of Geoffrey Wilkinson as Ben Gunn for the last piece was gross enough, but with art, and I'll try to stay focused on writing here, there's always the question of the contract between writer and reader. With the novel in particular, the contract can read as a request to exhaust a topic, or so it's taken from time to time. There are so many methods of deploying ideas within a novel that it may come across as a bit facile to talk about minimalism and maximalism.  There's the question of whether these styles are a choice or just an artifact of personality, a mode of acculturated self-expression that makes sense at a certain time and a certain place in the world and may for that person be as a natural as breathing, because they could not find a food which tasted good to them.  So when I talk about minimalism and maximalism, I will try to restrain myself, but still with Proust I see such a wide difference between his work and the work of say AndrĂ© Gide, that it seems worthwhile to speak about the question of need within style.

Part 2: Minimalism and Presumption

Around the time of Almost Transparent Blue, Ryu Murakami stated that he wrote for those who got it and didn't spend much time worrying about those who didn't. His book weighed in around 120 pages. I read it a while back, when I worked in the library. I'd pick up a book and stop shelving for fifteen minutes at a time.  I picked up that book and found a secluded spot and read it for the duration of my shift (apologies to Sharon, my manager) and I read slow, so it took a couple of shifts to finish it, but I got it, or thought I got it.  The book worked viscerally. It took intelligence to get a book that short to pack the punch it did (I haven't read it since I was 19, so not sure this still holds up). It concerns the fast life in Japan and uses a US military base and some of the US army personnel to write a larger note about the national identity, what I considered at the time to be the degradation of the Japanese identity (though if I read it now, who knows).  Still, Almost Transparent Blue, wasn't a minimalist treatise, but there's a something in what Murakami said that's true to all writing, but especially true to minimalist work. A writer cannot give everything.

There is inspiration then there is the edit. It's the job of art to condense the experience of time and place into a particular form. Minimalism, and here I mean the work of a smattering of writers from the 1960's through the '90's (Leonard Michaels, Jack Gilbert, Raymond Carver, Diane Williams, Sam Michel, Brett Easton Ellis, and Christopher Coe to name a few) who used a clipped and purposefully abbreviated method of writing that relied on evocation rather than invocation. Synecdoche, sign and the sublime understatement employed to elicit from the reader the missing details of the piece. Minimalism works within a realist paradigm as an antidote to a cultural glut. Good, lean prose can stand beside poetry. It can also shift the placement of the story from plot to the words itself, which is in part why meta-expressionists (Ben Marcus, Gary Lutz, Lydia Davis and Christine Schutt) share a common branch with the minimalists via Gordon Lish. Where maximal work shows its intelligence in pursuit of extension, minimal work shows its smarts in reduction. Leonard Michael's waiter gets his best tips when he tells his customers, "Stop when you get to the plate, bitch." What more do we need to know more about his New York?

Minimalism is also a style that is an expression of the lived environment, a recursive loop where people primarily inhabit the manmade world. More and more this world is guided by minimalism's horrid litter mate: economy, which produces the least for the most. Still, I'm relatively close to the minimalists-- I'm calmed by the exquisite curation of a page because I'm also a citizen of the glut, a contributor to the 250 or so tons of garbage deposited in the US a year. What I find familiar, even in work that predated my birth by two decades, may be accessible through strata of inherited knowledge, re-runs of sitcoms, old family photos, movie set pieces and costumes. Part of the question is whether this baggage will outlive our culture and if so what makes the more instructive artifact: the book without excess or the objects of excess themselves? In part there is little to temper the callousness of time to our present moment. I think about the end of Don DeLillo's Underworld, the tons of trash incinerated by atomic bomb in an underground bunker in Russia. Perhaps the problems of our time can come together to form a solution.

As a complete aside, I would nominate Shane Carruth as potentially the best suited director to adapt the other Murakami's work for the screen, especially The Wind Up Bird Chronicles.

Up Next Part 3: Amplification and Mystification

Monday, January 6, 2014

In Praise of Silence, the Hermit's Lament

Part 1: Maximalism and Empathy 
A friend once summed up a view of Hannah Arendt's for me. If it didn't happen in public then it didn't happen. I have not been able to track back where precisely Hannah Arendt stated that view, but the idea disturbed me enough to stick with me.  It ran counter to something I was taught early on: God knows everything. Now, no longer being a child in Catholic school, I can see Arendt's point. If there's no God, there's no witness to the ineffable stuff of being.  Further, from a humanist point of view, what good is thought that does not lead to action? But still, the notion is disquieting, unless you can resolve yourself to the merits of oblivion. We can ask King Lear about the value of demonstrable affection or Forrest Gump about what stupid is, but one of the hallmarks of a pragmatic meritocracy is the ability to rate people based on demonstrated abilities. The student that answers all the questions correctly gets an A. The applicant with the most experience gets the job. This is in part an extension of the scientific method in which a problem can be isolated and a remedy can be discovered.  Given alternatives of nepotism, favortism or lottery, it seems fair that merit be the means of selection. When it comes to measuring something like intelligence what comprises adequate proof?  We all walk around with our private notions of our own superiority or inferiority, but as long as the content of intelligence is the capacity to understand, there's no inherent product of intelligence outside of thought.

One of the hallmarks of the post-millennial USA is publicity: everything is done in public. We have a culture of demonstration. Aspects of the culture of guilt and culture of shame dimmed to a culture of approval. The central aesthetic is the trade show: every good is tabled, exhibited to sell, differentiated but not enough to counter the flattening effect of the high ceilings and florescent lights. This is how a Kardashian lives.  This is how to debunk a myth.  This is my body. This is the best way to peel a potato and save time. While reality TV doesn't generally transact in intelligence, it does speak to a wide-spread human yearning for self-exploitation, if not self-expression, an unconscious drive to be seen. For the majority of reality stars, that is the prime benefit: they are seen by many people at the same time.  The likelihood that they will be recognized and remembered is that much higher, but there's more (to speculate on things in which I have no personal experience) in the moment in which they are seen I find the hope that their unspoken parts, latent as an un-captioned image, will somehow be communicated, that in being alive in front of a camera the work of the quiet self is completed.    

Proust, in Remembrance of Things Past, reconstructs from memory in minute detail the Paris of his youth. Each thought is turned slowly, worked by a lathe then reworked.  Each perspective is drawn and pulled apart into atoms. While reading, I wondered why or from where Proust felt the need to provide such details.  I assume that in part, he did it because he could, because no one else could reconstruct the society in which he was a part that was decimated by WWI. As I've progressed through the volumes and the salons are described in greater detail and the callousness of the ruling families comes to light, I now wonder if Proust's superfluidity of detail isn't the product of that imagined callousness.  I have always had some squabbles with maximalism as an aesthetic.  When it is done wrong, the author takes the breath from his or her reader.  Infinite Jest plays with this relationship.  DFW writes so precisely, in such high definition that little is left to the reader to imagine or to put together, until he withholds the last act. In this he summarily shuts off the tap and leaves it to the reader to complete the story based on the few clues he's placed in the beginning of the story, creating a flurry of conflicts and effecting a mirror for the reader of the dependencies at the heart of the story.  Proust, on the other hand, exhausts his every thought, but leaves gaps to allow for the reader to piece the work together and room for the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.  It is his maximalism which is meant to defend against a reader assumed to be too like the author, and to defend against the callousness of time.  Within this maximalism, as within Buckminster Fuller's Everything I Know, there is the proof of the author's intelligence. What was in their head is now out there, expressed with assiduous details and what one can presume is a high level of fidelity to the original. At the same time, this kind of maximalism risks obscurity by its sheer size.

Next- Part 2: Minimalism and Presumption