Thursday, January 8, 2015

Out to Sea: An Appreciation

I have been thinking about old habits, of those I think I have outgrown, but having been reminded of them I become filled with a nostalgia for their grip, a longing, if for nothing else, for the known past. Like a hermit crab, if it could miss the snugness of its old shell. That nostalgia may be important. It may be the only place where I can find a sense of departure, a measure for psychological growth, but it's rife with peril because it can easily induce vertigo. It wouldn't be so hard to collapse back.

A teacher of mine once asked the class to tell him what the expression a painted ship upon a painted ocean indicated. There were answers, none of which he deemed right. Motion! I answered, picturing Bob Ross dabbing some spray around a ship's bow with a fan brush (look at that water: bold, churnin', carryin' on). My teacher shook his head at our collective stupidity, looking directly at me. Stillness, he said. A painted ship on a painted ocean is Coleridge's symbol for stillness.  It was there in the poem if I had bothered to read it.

Back then I used to read differently.  There was a long time when I sounded out the words in my head and placed each word next to each other and slowly, slowly assembled meaning and should meaning not come forth, I would stop and flip through the dictionary or refer to the shelf loaded with the leather bound volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. Building meaning sometimes took an hour or more and by then I would need to start the assignment over again to try to get the full sense of what I was reading.

A vestige of that style of reading carried with me all the way through college.  It wasn't until I read Gravity's Rainbow that that habit broke out of necessity. It was the Spring of my graduating year. I had technically graduated that winter, but I had stayed on since I had found a job in the media department at my school.  I fixed broken 4 x 5 cameras. I serviced the color printer in the photo dome. I rented equipment to students with valid IDs. I helped shoot a video textbook that a visiting professor was making on avant guard art starring Rikrit Tiravanija, among others. I lived in a house with four other kids and the parents of a kid we knew through a friend. The parents were the landlords and weren't supposed to be living in the house, but had decided at the last moment to renovate their house and split the first floor with me. They had a microphone and an amp and would sing either the Eric Burden version of House of the Rising Sun or Ween's Piss Up a Rope with one of the other four kids I lived with (the kid I found from time to time shitting in my bathroom because she had run out of toilet paper on her floor of the house). But it was Spring in Ohio. The thaw had become a general budding and there was music, better music, escaping the windows of the conservatory I walked past to get to work.

I had the Penguin Modern Classics edition of GR with the V2 schematics on the cover. I keep to this day a kind of running list of books that people recommend to me or that are referenced within books I have already read and adored. This auxiliary list exerts a significant pressure, compulsive and consumptive. For my entire college life, I just wanted to be able to choose the books I could read.  It's probably what drew me to creating my own major and can be credited with the many C's that litter my transcript.  There was a thirst that I could not get a handle on.  I asked first to understand then to know, if that makes sense, outside of the arrogance of a freshly minted twenty-one year old. There were things that seemed so elemental that were completely left out of the college curriculum. I didn't have the patience for the iterative steps. I wanted the big picture. The biggest picture. I was very much attuned to the idea that the world was knowable and would have gladly carried an x-ray machine on my back from block to block if it meant I could see everything-- the danger, the opportunity that each day wore underneath its ordinary clothes.  

There was also no small amount of social pressure to say that I finished it, GR, that book held up as the paragon of postmodern complexity. It had been recommended by a friend of mine who dabbled in postmodern lit for fun, who had the book pressed upon him while studying at Oxford. I had mishandled that friendship. I picked a moment after he had broken his leg playing soccer to let him know that I needed some space.  As a result, that friend and I had been in less frequent contact than we had been the previous year when I had bought the book, which means the spine had been staring at me for at least a year and that I had, as I did in those days, re-read the first few pages at least a dozen times to get the rhythm. I wasn't fully aware yet of the distance I had put between myself and this friend. Even now I am aware only of the possibility of our return to full friendship as it stands, fifteen years out, that the time of our mutual affection is now something subterranean and that some force would be needed to bring it back to the light of reality. So it may have been still within the acts of friendship, competition and lingering resentment that I decided to read Gravity's Rainbow, at last.  I was also in love and the intercession of that fundamental feeling may have been the solvent that suspended everything that year.

Time is a game only children play well.   

I miss in part the freedom of that arrogance, its prod. There is something almost holy about the arrogance of the young. It is simultaneously our most animalistic feature and the feature that separates us the most from nature. A superiority built upon the most spurious credentials, the achievements of youth taken as an end unto themselves, the eighty yard runs,  the gleaming report cards, the mere fact of youth with all of its heliocentricity. Yet I feel a great many problems that would seem otherwise unsolvable were only initially addressed due to its presence, that secret sentence shouted with every thought, I am better than this! Of course it only worked in those cases where the thought was grounded in some actual ability and I'm sure Malcolm Gladwell has some good stats about how the people who solve insurmountable problems in their youths were actually never young, but suffered some kind of Benjamin Button like disorder where they intellectually aged in reverse so applied themselves in their youths and caroused in their 60's. To get older, is to learn how to doubt yourself with style, but also to learn that confidence and arrogance are miles apart. Maybe neither truly matter past appearances.    

A good deal of my early intellectual arrogance (who's to say it's over) was the result of that class, the one where the teacher asked us the meaning of Coleridge's simile.  He taught us to think, or so he said, woke us from our intellectual stupors.  He got me to read, to begin reading and to begin questioning what I read, for which I'm eternally grateful, but he also set up a self-critical paradigm, a kind of zero point in my learning based on the humiliation of ignorance. Okay not to ding him too much, because he wasn't the only teacher who taught by spectacular humiliation, I went to an all boys Catholic school after all and sometimes the only way to cut through the green fog of indifference was to break a kid down. He was just the one who raised it to an art form. It's still there to this day, a kid made of all of the mistakes I've ever made, swollen with them, the little fuckhead, my inner Mr. Bungle.  This kid is so essential to my thinking, is so full of my own partial understandings, prejudices and old ignorances that when I find his shape outside of me, say in the shape of someone else who maybe shares a misunderstanding of which I have long since disabused myself, my first instinct is to make fun of the person. In a way it's a mark of comfort and friendship, a mark of sameness, a reflex of pier to pier connoisseurship, the kind that's used to sniff out insider knowledge, like the deepest cut on Chubby Checker's discography (a doggone space baby), but it's also polarizing, limiting-- well, dick-ish, right? But to think about that kid, the little fuckhead, is almost bathetic. It's impossible to rehabilitate Mr. Bungle, to normalize relations with him. He must remain a whipping boy. Mustn't he?  I read over this summer Watching the Body Burn by Thomas Glynn. Glynn's world is defined by the illogic of youth and through the portrait of his father he shows effectively how the long trace of that illogic grows well into adulthood, whether its partially suppressed by alcoholism or expressed outright in unchecked bigotry. In Glynn's world, Mr Bungle is the operator.  (See here for an interview Thomas Glynn conducted with Frank Zappa).         

So too, the odd ease with which the effects of love can be extended to those completely outside its sway, an infection local only to the sufferers of that condition, since it's bred from the senses and the misapprehensions which live solely in their brains. In my case, I could sense only the slack I was due as a person in love, that it was my right to withdraw, to be tied up and preoccupied and that everything else could hang until the day I was able to return to their priority, like a Rip Van Winkle certain both of his nap and that things would all remain the same. 

I actually hurled the book, sitting on my bed alone in my room, chucked it so it flew, the many unread pages fluttering as a kind of warning and startled my toilet paper rustling roommate so bad she let out a scream when the spine went kunk against the bathroom door. I let it stay where it landed, facedown against the baseboard for what I thought would be forever. I had run into the Kenosha Kid sequence and I couldn't for the life of me figure out what the fuck he was saying.  Forever turned out to be a day. When I picked it back up and carried on, I decided to take in as much as I could. Full comprehension may not necessarily be the key to making it through the book and I wanted to say I had finished it.  GR was on my auxiliary list.  The fact that it was put there by my friend with the broken leg, the one with whom I had mismanaged my side of the friendship, it made it seem like reading it through would connect us again, that it would go into some column of material we could touch on should the friendship return in full.  At the same time, completing it would mean I was independent of him, that the debt I owed him of reading a book he had recommended was there-by fulfilled and that in reading it I was his equal and so wouldn't need him. If all of this existed, it formed a layer around the book jacket and snuck into the bracket holes/ censor marks that broke each section of the book.

But when I made it through, I was fully under the book's spell. I hadn't resurfaced by the time the last page was turned. It actually wasn't until a few weeks had past that I found that the novel started to unpack itself.  Scenes would bubble up and I'd gasp at what I missed the first time through.  Questions would arise about plot points, historical details and luckily at this point, the internet was a thing, so I went online and found a treasure trove of resources, not the least being Tim Ware's indexes at the old Hyperarts page (now turned to What I found was a great match for the drive, an answering voice for that drive to understand everything (and that this need doesn't necessarily obey linearity) and a model slightly outside of the Mr. Bungle model for learning.  The book gave you everything and you had the freedom to find yourself within it.       

Considering it now, the notion of a painted ship on a painted ocean makes me kind of nauseous. I think of a sudden stillness brought on as the ship tilts into a painted wave, Bob Ross replaced with Albert Pinkham Ryder, caught as I sometimes am when the subway stops on a banked portion of the track. Caught, standing on my toes like Gidget on her surfboard, the surf itself a rear-projection, so incapable of moving anything or settling completely. It's a bit like the stasis that comes from too much navel gazing, the desire to act but the inability to do so either because of a lack of self-confidence or fear of repetition.   But its not self-consciousness alone that breeds stasis, it's self-consciousness with a refusal to own your thoughts, to accept them as your own and so valuable that tends to shut things down.  

I was lucky to get an afternoon a couple weeks back to catch Inherent Vice on the big screen, the 35 mm print on a real projector with scratches and bubbles and cigarette burns and shit.  I was trying to recall the book, but this happens to me sometimes.  Books melt away if I don't think about them regularly or talk to someone about them.  So I was probably as prepared as Doc Sportello for the fun. Now, a little ways after the pic-- enjoyable for its willingness to go there, to be dense and funny and unreal but never quite as fluid rhythmic or funny as the book--I recall a whole subplot involving a country that broke off the edge of California and dropped into the ocean that didn't make it into the film, Lemuria, and its parallel with the lost ideals of the 60's.  That lost country laying somewhere below the surface waiting to be rediscovered.   

David Bowie Golden Years
Boredoms Seadrum
Mr. Bungle Sweet Charity

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