Friday, January 2, 2009

January Juxtapositions

Hamlet: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.

Horatio: It is a nipping and an eager air.

The blogging muse is still on the road, away from the work that imposes at least some form and discipline upon rumination. Actually, the blogger really doesn't have access to the literary muse, but rather perhaps to the muse's somewhat shady, disreputable nephew. This nephew wastes time, doesn't shave regularly, may have had some minor run-ins with the law. It is doubtful that he is going to amount to much; however, it's also unlikely that he will cause serious trouble. The grand literary muse herself, to paraphrase Nietzsche, may have had an untimely cultural demise a long time ago, at our hands.

If one keeps a journal, there is some pressure to write consistently. If one looks back and finds weeks without entries, there is the question Wasn't I alive during that time? Perhaps only externally so. Or perhaps I was intensely alive, so much so that I felt no need to write. Is writing a vital form of life itself, or a compensation for the lack thereof? The ancient aesthetic conundrum, never to be cracked.

Doesn't every month of the year have its own qualia, to borrow the highfalutin neurophilosophical term for the (arguably) ineffable subjectivity of experience? Or maybe I get the idea from Maurice Sendak's sublime calendar book Chicken Soup with Rice, one of my early childhood favorites.

Just to mention the northern hemisphere winter months, January unsurprisingly appears in the mind as a barren field, frosted, with a few trees austerely left at the edges. It has its own stark beauty, but only in the way that emptiness itself does: a very Buddhist month to my mind. February, owing to its end-rhyme with January and its relative brevity, is a tacky little annex added onto the first month, sort of like a trailer haplessly abutting an overcrowded elementary school. March is limbo, a kind of demilitarized zone scoured by blustery winds; nothing much happens there but the hope of something better. But lo and behold every year something better does come.

In a week devoted to travel and family my very modest reading has consisted mainly of James Wood's brief How Fiction Works. I enjoy his writing, which in its limpid efficiency reminds me of Edmund Wilson's: reading it is like coasting downstream in a canoe--one feels the power carrying one and need only to steer now and then.

For the bookworm the volume is a compressed reminder of things long known, but a few points struck me especially. Wood is impatient with the impatience some have for the artifice of literature, in a couple of respects. Since Flaubert writers have aspired to impersonality, to the removal of every possible trace of the author in the work. Wood reminds us that while this may be a helpful practice, it is never possible to do absolutely. Literature is always the refraction of reality through a specific and necessarily idiosyncratic eye. Just as the psychotherapist, while she may try to eliminate individual details from the office, nonetheless has her character reflected back for all to see in every choice of furniture, item, and paint, so the author's identity fairly screams, no matter in what subtly mutated form, from the text.

Wood is also impatient with the impatience that some have with realism in literary form. He sees the fads of postmodernism and other experimental adventures as being impatience with literature itself, as being an attempt to make writing more than it can or should be. Writing is not life, but a combined reflection and refraction of life. All writers aspire to realism; the problem is deciding what realism is.

Wood points out that so-called "flat" characters, those defined by just one or two characteristics (the famous example he uses is Dickens's Mrs. Micawber), can be every bit as valuable as essential as "round" characters that enjoy depth and multi-dimensionality (think of Tolstoy's Pierre). After all, as Wood argues, this is so because we meet real people who are "flat" all the time, who, free of ambivalence and ambiguity, are consumed by one or two primary passions in life. Being flat has its enviable advantages.

Neither January nor 2008 is all bad. There is, after all, January 20 to look forward to. Cynicism too shall pass.


Retriever said...

Love the picture and the juxtapositions. Have been shooting bleak landscapes with a Christmas Leica that captures cruel and sometimes lovely detail despite my inadequacies as a photographer. Pondering the new regime and the "Second Coming" by W.B. Yeats

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

But perhaps my Yankee dour temperament is just more so than usual. Immediately improved by reading and taking Huskie mutt to beach. And there's always work. The exoskeleton which confines but also supports.

Anonymous said...

Every work of art, including literature, is an autobiography in disguise. Every stroke, every word, every juxtopsoition, every pause, every bit of negative space screams with a raging truth about the creator's life experience, perceptions, hopes and fears. Nothing is random; every lie can be unskewed to the realism of its original truth. Sometimes it's revealed in garish splashes of unhinihibited obviousness; other times it's obscured like the innermost russion doll of an infinite regression. Either way, it can't be deleted.

January's a time to make loose ends, to revel in disorder, to laugh in the face of completeness, to madden the rigors of obligation and responsibility, to hatch the unfulfillable, to somnabulate between here and be free...

February's a bitch - an old crone that nags and urges to be there, and not here and now.

Dinah said...

Maybe the journal-er became too busy living life to have time to write about it. I like that better than the fading to oblivion idea.

Happy New Year.

Anonymous said...

Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.
~Leonard Cohen