Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Spirit of Self-Disclosure

The opening of Hawthorne's "The Custom House:"

It is a little remarkable, that--though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends--an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public. The first time was three or four years since, when I favored the reader--inexcusably, and for no earthly reason, that either the indulgent reader or the intrusive author could imagine--with a description of my way of life in the deep quietude of an Old Manse. And now--because, beyond my deserts, I was happy enough to find a listener or two on the former occasion--I again seize the public by the button, and talk of my three years' experience in a Custom-House. The example of the famous "P.P., Clerk of this Parish," was never more faithfully followed. The truth seems to be, however, that when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates and lifemates. Some authors, indeed, do far more than this, and indulge themselves in such confidential depths of revelation as could fittingly be addressed, only and exclusively, to the one heart and mind of perfect sympathy; as if the printed book, thrown at large on the wide world, were certain to find out the divided segment of the writer's own nature, and complete his circle of existence by bringing him into communion with it. It is scarcely decorous, however, to speak all, even where we speak impersonally. But--as thoughts are frozen and utterance benumbed, unless the speaker stand in some true relation with his audience--it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk; and then, a native reserve being thawed by this genial consciousness, we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil. To this extent and within these limits, an author, methinks, may be autobiographical, without violating either the reader's rights or his own.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Day

"Behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."


Something possessed me the past few days to reread Pat Frank's nuclear holocaust novel Alas, Babylon, which was an assigned text in 11th grade English, for me circa 1985. At the time I recall finding it both thrilling and horrifying, while this time I found it somewhat quaint; whether this says more about me or about the change in global politics or narrative trends I'm not sure.

Alas, Babylon is fifty years old this year, as is its SF cousin extraordinaire, Walter Miller, Jr.'s quasi-Catholic A Canticle for Leibowitz. There is something about such apocalyptic stories that inspire Biblical references and religious expostulations. Indeed, around the time that I read Alas, Babylon a quarter century ago at an impressionable age I also found myself in a death struggle of sorts with the Southern Baptist teachings that I had equivocally experienced until that time. The notion that the world can change in an instant--unpredictably, whether for good or for ill--is appalling and intolerable. Some forces are of too great a magnitude to be comprehended on a human scale.

Frank's novel probably appealed for one reason because it was set in central Florida, in the drolly fictional town of Fort Repose; somehow one does not associate radiation poisioning with palm trees. Much about the book evokes mid-century American culture: a certain smug can-do attitude even amid the horror, a preoccupation with race relations, and the way in which women anchor domestic life. The very context of a small town--beyond the expediency of a setting in which all of the potential characters haven't already been vaporized--seemed tailor-made to demonstrate the virtues of communal spirit. Barbarism occurs, but in measured forms, and off-stage.

The 1980's, as I recall the period at least, presented an ambiguous threat. The notorious height of the nuclear nightmare was a generation gone, and yet the danger was as present as ever. The age of Reagan was vaguely brisk and invigorating, but for the same reason unsettling; the Soviets seemed to be descending into torpor, but that very fact could foster unthinkable risk. Might the Soviet Union lapse into such decrepit and desperate backwardness that it would have virtually nothing to lose by unloosing its venom in a cataclysmic act of resentment against the West? The made-for-TV movie The Day After appeared in 1983.

Many apocalyptic storylines presented holocaust as arising from a long, if improbable, string of geopolitical tensions, reactions, and counter-reactions. For some reason I always envisioned The Day (as it is forever known in Alas, Babylon) as arising, if it ever did, abruptly and absurdly, not from an overcompensation for comprehensible provocations, but from a mechanical error, or from some psychotic fool pushing the wrong button at the wrong time, a la Dr. Strangelove. No doubt this dread arose from ignorance of what I'm sure are countless safeguards against the ultimate malfunction, but I saw the situations as two men prancing indefinitely on a high-wire; the greatest hazard came not from one deliberately pushing the other off, but from the recklessness of the basic setup.

Now we worry about Iran, about dirty bombs, about terrorists obliterating a city or two. This would be horrifically disastrous. And yet the menace of U.S.-Soviet mutually assured destruction is still, theoretically of course, present. I recall dreaming and daydreaming as a teenager about the second sun on the horizon, the mushroom cloud; my soon-to-be teenaged daughter will be spared these reflections, hopefully, whereas for my younger son these things are curiosities on Youtube, and the greatest thing to fear is the collapse of skyscrapers. Yet all those missiles are still out there, waiting to go, as ready now as they or there predecessors ever were.

Compared to Cormac McCarthy's The Road of a couple of years ago, Alas, Babylon is like a holiday fireworks display. The Road features a man and his son who, beyond numb with deprivation, make their way through an American landscape that has been burnt and scoured as clean as the moon, in which the only sources of nourishment are scavenged canned goods and cannibalism. It is ironic that the actual horrors of our time are borne ambiguously in Afghanistan, forgotten by perhaps the majority of Americans, whereas the fictional horrors of the time, now mainstream narrative tastes, would have turned stomachs in 1959. Are we wiser, or merely more cynical?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.


Another axiom--That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.


Arthur Krystal, in a Times article, writes rightly about the difficulties some writers seem to have with the spoken word. Personally I can say that when I open my mouth, it seems as though my available vocabulary drops by half, and my verbal IQ by nearly as much; it is like a microcosm of aphasia, than which I cannot personally imagine a more awful affliction.

When writing, whether on the keyboard or even longhand, it is as if words and ideas come rushing via broadband, whereas while speaking it is as if I am rustling through a sprawling card catalog, a clock ticking loudly in the background. But it is not merely a matter of a certain leisure of writing, for I write quickly. I suppose it is mainly an issue of overlearning a certain mode.

While the literature of medical documentation carries very little general wisdom, one dictum meant to keep the lawsuits at bay--"If it wasn't documented, it didn't happen"--does reflect at attitude one can acquire toward text. The spoken word is usually evanescent, the textual word potentially forever. The spoken word is all about supporting a relationship--whether personal, professional, civic, or legal--whereas the written word can be about instantiating a reality.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Seek and Ye Shall Find

And for what, except for you, do I feel love?
Do I press the extremest book of the wisest man
Close to me, hidden in me day and night?
In the uncertain light of single, certain truth,
Equal in living changingness to the light
In which I meet you, in which we sit at rest,
For a moment in the central of our being,
The vivid transparence that you bring is peace.

Wallace Stevens

On an oppressively overcast morning in North Carolina, I seek and seek again for a subject (besides dissing popular social networking sites); I am answered, in the form of the phenomena of seeking and finding themselves. Dinah in a recent post at Shrink Rap, discussing the buzz over the pending publication of Jung's Red Book, wonders about the quasi-religious devotion of certain Jungians to their master. Specifically, she marvels, acknowledging a certain envy on her part, that some people come to feel that another human being has come up with the answers that matter in life.

There is fact and there is truth. Facts are the objectively verifiable states of affairs of history and science. Truth is a mode of living, whether individual or collective, that responds to deeply felt human needs. Fact is empirical; truth is subjective and spiritual. If needs change, truth may change as well, but facts won't. However, truth bears such conviction that it has a normative dimension; unlike, say, a mere preference for root beer, it cannot by its very nature be merely relative. Truth need not be totalitarian, but it stakes its claim and naturally seeks community. If I enjoy root beer, and it turns out that no one else on earth does, this fact may puzzle but not necessarily dismay me. But if I embrace moral, aesthetic, or spiritual truth that no one else in the world shares, I am made to feel sad and isolated. In contrast, if I am convinced of a fact that no one else in the world seems to see, I am made to feel mad.

Truth is another word for sensibility, whether individual or collective. Stephen Martin, the Jungian alluded to in Dinah's post, seems to have found in Jung's life and thought a corresponding truth and sensibility. Jung speaks to him as perhaps no one else does. This is an entirely different issue from the "evidence" (i.e. facts) that folks perennially try to muster to bolster the case for psychotherapy (often with an eye toward justifying reimbursement). This is not to say that psychotherapy can't have a factual dimension (e.g. exposure and response prevention may factually, on average, reduce symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder), but this is far afield from psychotherapy as mode of exploration and discovery.

The lucky ones, perhaps, are those who are so constituted as to find one Truth, or more realistically, a central Truth that towers over other truths as an effective spiritual colossus. That is what the conventionally religious achieve, as well as the figuratively religious, like Stephen Martin perhaps. Others must content themselves with myriad truths, like facets on a great gem whose center can only be imagined; undiscovered facets, and undiscovered gems, must be stipulated as well.

I have no Jung, no one human being or school of thought that organizes the world and my experience. Rather, I have many Jungs, men and women whose thoughts or creations I happen upon and think, "A century before I was born, this person knew me, anticipated me." This is truth by committee, albeit a transcendent committee of unherdable cats (truth is inescapably feline for me). I read somewhere that Bob Dylan once said that of his records Blonde on Blonde best captured a certain ineffable sound in his head; this was inseparable from his sensibility, from who he unavoidably was. I do not have primary creativity like that, so I must rely on others to evoke deeply shared experience.

So when people perpetually talk about great books or author lists, for me that really translates into a kind of personal pantheon of spiritual interlocutors, people--like me but vastly more creative and expressive--who could not help occupying at least part of the same truth. Among poets: Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Blake, Shakespeare. Among writers: Proust, Hardy, Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Tolkien, Loren Eiseley, Kafka. Among thinkers: Emerson, Thoreau, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche. Among painters: Kandinsky, Klee, Blake (again), Hopper, O'Keeffe, Brueghel. Among musicians: Beethoven, Schubert, Dylan, Neil Young. I tend to resist film, perhaps because I find that it colonizes consciousness too aggressively, but if I had to pick I would say Hitchcock, Woody Allen, and Stanely Kubrick.

And then there is the different need, for an actual, present, and living person who shares a sensibility, perhaps both reflected and refracted into a form only obliquely recognizable. Yes, there is that too.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


You know, I make an effort to remain relevant, so again and again, despite my better judgment, I return to Twitter and Facebook to try to figure out what the appeal is. These modalities seem to me to be the Web codification of the appropriately named quantity "small talk." Well, if there is a gene for chitchat, it was spliced out of me at the beginning.

But Web small talk isn't even small talk that is directed at anyone in particular, which drains it of whatever "small" charm it may have to begin with. In "real life," small talk at least may facilitate being with another person, however minimally or casually. If email, which at least has a designated recipient, is a message in a bottle, Facebook and Twitter (like the more otiose blogs around) are confetti cast upon the waters, social and semantic froth. Is life really long enough for these things?

As usual I cast my lot with Emily:

The Missing All -- prevented Me
From missing minor Things.
If nothing larger than a World's
Departure from a Hinge --
Or Sun's extinction, be observed --
'Twas not so large that I
Could lift my Forehead from my work
For Curiosity.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Wild

"And we've got to get ourselves
Back to the garden"

Joni Mitchell

Atavism and kids go hand in hand, so last night we set up the tent and built a fire in the back yard. But after some blankets and pillows, the first object transferred to the tent was...a portable DVD player. ("Daddy, do you have a long extension cord? NO!").

Much has been made in the environmental age of a putative core relation of Homo sapiens to the natural world, of a kind exceeding mere pragmatism. I think there is something to this, but only ambiguously, and not in the way that John Muir may have experienced it. For there are two natural ideals, that of the wilderness and that of the garden. Most people in the history of the world, when given the chance, have preferred their nature cultivated and domesticated.

The very idea of wilderness depended on the great divide that was consciousness, the terrifying realization that so much of nature is not only "not me," but also "not of my kind." So history has consisted, among other things, of a stampede away from unrelieved wilderness. Only in the past century or so has the pressure of "our own kind" become so intolerable to some that wilderness seems like a relief by comparison.

The original Garden was well-named, of course, but it was in fact cultivated, by God if not by us. Indeed, the religious impulse could be said to entail an attempt to convert wilderness to Garden, to transform an inimical landscape to one that is somehow home to humankind. Nice try. And nice try, too, when we try to appreciate wilderness on its own terms these days, for we can't help importing humanity, whether physically or conceptually, as we do so. For the ideal of wilderness is human, all-too-human. If we learned that Earth's biosphere would be annihilated altogether tomorrow, who would shed a tear? No non-humans, that's for sure.

So the history of Earth, however complicated it may be to geologists, arguably contains two great phases: pre-conscious and conscious. If to paraphrase Wordsworth, we murder to landscape, it's hard to see how we could avoid doing so. Hamlet lamented of the world, "Fie on't, ah fie, 'tis an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature/ Possess it merely." To be cast into consciousness is to be painfully aware of the existence of weeds, and of the duty to cast them out.

Are there many things in this world that are more grotesquely "unnatural" than a marshmallow, burned to a carcinogenic but tasty crisp? No, not unnatural at all, merely a "weed" to some. But I rather enjoy the dandelions in spring.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Referendum

He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?


Tim Kreider in the Times has a whimsical but spot-on piece about how we go about appraising the choices we--and no less important, others--have made in life. We seem destined to be comparative creatures, and while one wants one's life not to turn out disastrously, one may want even more that it turn out at least slightly less disastrously than the guy next door. Kreider wryly terms this mid-life look to the side "The Referendum."

I'll go out of my way here not to luxuriate in existential exhalations. His article though raised the question for me of what, really, is the single most salient, consequential, and true yes-or-no decision that one makes. I would suggest that in terms of classically fork-in-the-road life choices, the matter of children takes them all.

There is, of course, much in life that we have surprisingly little control over. My temperament and personality have been what they are as far back as my memories go; I can no more change them than I can turn around and look at the back of my head. Have I "chosen" my religious inclinations or the lack thereof (in any conventional sense anyway)? No, not really. I have in fact chosen to expose myself to a wide spectrum of religious ideas and experiences to make sure that I haven't missed anything, but the fact that these either have--or more commonly have not--impressed me is not really under my control. My sensibility is what it is.

Can I choose who I'm attracted to or fall in love with? It appears not. One likes what one likes, full stop. And the fact that one is attracted to the same qualities or types over and over again only drives this point home. The fact that these attractions can be spectacularly problematic, especially for long-term coexistence, does not however suggest that they are truly or existentially chosen. But I'll grant you that whether and whom to marry are significant choices, because one hopes at least to bring the unchosen nature of attraction somewhat in line with prudential considerations of what is likely to produce happiness over time.

But bachelorhood can be reconsidered, and marriages overturned. Similarly with where to live and how to work. These are weighty matters, of course, but none of them irrevocable. Move. Go back to school. Reboot. A friend of mine of a conservative bent not long ago lamented that American culture maintains the fiction that one can be forever pluripotent, like a walking, talking, middle-aged embryonic stem cell. We know it's not that easy. One differentiates; doors close. But freedom is real, isn't it, and not just self-indulgence?

The problem with freedom, conceptually, is that while we often consider specific choices or dilemmas in isolation, they really are subtly influenced by countless other decisions already made, whether by us or for us. The decision of whether to marry is influenced by who one happens to be attracted to, by how one went about about meeting people, by where one chose to live, etc. No decision enjoys a vacuum.

But to get back to the issue of procreation, I would say that child-bearing is the single greatest decision made in a life, for two reasons. It is a true either-or decision, even if one can quibble over degrees such as numbers of children, biological vs. adopted children, etc. (and of course there is the tragedy of infertility). But even more than that, becoming a parent is arguably the most irrevocable decision one makes.

I've long puzzled over why people have children. Many reasons throughout history present themselves: raising labor for the farm, populating the fatherland, generating prestige through marriage alliances. In evolutionary terms, the drive to have children is indispensable, to put it mildly. And sociologically it often just amounts to keeping up with the Joneses (although this suggests that if the Joneses ever stopped having kids--as they have in some European countries--procreation could theoretically grind to a halt). Or maybe people, pathetically and misguidedly, have kids for the same reason they may have pets, because they crave love from a dependent.

But why would a self-aware, thoughtful person in 2009, putting aside all of these automatisms, choose to have children, who after all are a massive drain of time, money, and emotional energy throughout the prime years of one's life? It seems to me that the wisest and best reason is to engage in a relationship with another human being that is like no other, really, in its intimacy and permanency. I mean this in no icky or enmeshed sense, of course, but in no other kind of relationship does one gain a closeness with a human being as one sees him/her come into the world and develop into a person.

All other relationships are reliably finite. Parents grow old and die. Friends move away or choose other paths, as do siblings. Spouses may grow estranged or, even worse, strange and unrecognizable. But children are forever. If they die, or even if they move across the world and don't call, they are not gone, but burn painfully in memory. Yes, there are people, fathers more often than mothers, who can and do forget their children, but I cannot ultimately understand or relate to them--they are beyond the pale for me.

I have nowhere implied I hope that having children is somehow desirable or praiseworthy in any general sense. Needs vary. And I realize that whether or not to parent, like all choices, is also never ex vacuo, but is influenced by countless social, familial, and psychological factors. But to my mind it is the decision that ends up dominating any life, and a decision in which, ironically, one freely (or as freely as it is given us to undertake anything in this world) chooses to anchor oneself--or less charitably, bind oneself--to a system of irrevocable relationships projecting into the future.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Still Kicking

The blog may be dying a slow death, but I'm not (well, no more so that we all are, really). A great deal has been going on here of the family and relationship variety, and in so overwhelming an emotional fashion as to make blogging matters seem quaint by comparison. But life requires quaintness as well as intensity, the abstract as much as the visceral, so whether I will regain the appetite for blogging that I had last year--whether I any more feel the need for that--I don't know, but the final word has not been written.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Hidden God

Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit

If there must be a god in the house, must be,
Saying things in the rooms and on the stair,

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato's ghost

Or Aristotle's skeleton. Let him hang out
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly.

He must be incapable of speaking, closed,
As those are: as light, for all its motion, is;

As color, even the closest to us, is;
As shapes, though they portend us, are.

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.

It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,

A vermilioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.

Wallace Stevens

Saturday, September 12, 2009

KISS and Tell

Among my guilty pleasures are the lower echelons of several modes of popular culture, including comics (particularly vintage copies from the 40's through the 60's) and music. KISS had a lot in common with comics actually, as the quartet came up with the magnificent 70's shtick of costumed secret identities: the rock band as perverse homage to the Justice League of America. I read today that KISS is coming out with a new record, amusingly titled "Sonic Boom," due out on October 6, a date and a year than which nothing could be more fitting in my case. It's almost enough to make me go out and buy a turntable in case it's released on vinyl. Supposedly the record is being advertised as the band's best effort since their 70's heyday; if that's damning with faint praise, so be it.

I wish I could recall when I first stumbled upon KISS, but it wasn't long before I discovered theirs was a subversive aesthetic deliciously at odds with the adult world around me. I came upon them when they were still in their prime, riding high on records like Destroyer and Alive I and II. They were my first concert, which I suppose would have been in 1979 as it was the Dynasty tour. It was probably one of my father's greatest indignities as a parent that he endured that show; his tastes running as they do to Lawrence Welk, I suppose he inserted his earplugs and stared, bewildered, into the smoky darkness. I would have been ten.

Comics books, which are for kids what opera is for some adults, are over-the-top in their aesthetic and mobilize simple but powerful themes. KISS ingeniously, in a move uniting Joseph Campbell with heavy metal, utilized several potent archetypes appealing even to kids and teenagers: the demonic (Gene Simmons), the spiritual or otherworldy (Ace Frehley), the animal (Peter Criss), and of course the sexual (Paul Stanley). Their shows, employing fire-breathing, blood-spitting and various other antics, generally outshone their studio records in both musical intensity and overall effect. It was a formula that probably shouldn't have worked, but for a few years it did. It was like a popular parody of Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk.

The actual music of KISS is a farrago of slick guitar chords and saccharine pseudo-strings. And if 80% of popular music is about one wild thing, in KISS's case it may have been more like 90%, and with less subtlety. For a pre-teen this was just fine; I was receiving disguised messages from an adult world barely guessed-at. It all segued well with a fascination for Conan the Cimmerian (in the form of the decadent Robert E. Howard books, not the Schwarzenegger movies--I still have to remind myself this actor is governor of California). Sure, stuff like "Calling Dr. Love," "God of Thunder," and "Rock and Roll all Nite" was schlock, but it was schlock a ten-year-old could well appreciate. I just loved the iconography; although like boxed wine it may have been tawdry, it pushed physiological buttons and added meaning to the world. The over-the-top excess (check out the shoes!), so foreign to my usual identity, appealed. Even the band's old label--Casablanca--evoked vistas of virtually unattainable mystery. By my early teens I had moved on; but do we ever fully "move on?"

I suppose I loved Simmons the best. While my full defection from conventional religion wouldn't come for a few more years (courtesy of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche), Simmons delivered a message every young boy needs to hear: you have impulses that aren't very nice, but that's natural and okay, so long as you express them this way, in a song and not in the world. Did KISS do any harm I wonder? There have been infamous casualties at Who and Rolling Stones concerts, but KISS?

The real problem with pop phenomena like KISS is that they outlive their glory by about thirty years, recylcing material into their dotage. Around 1980 they should have disbanded and, like Prospero, should have broken their staves and "deeper than did ever plummet sound" have plunged their books, rather than having lived on as a caricature of 70's culture. If they produce anything remotely worthwhile on October 6 they will command a new archetype: Lazarus.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Beauty of Things

Not mine (alas):

To feel and speak the astonishing beauty of things--earth,
stone and water,
Beast, man and woman, sun, moon and stars--
The blood-shot beauty of human nature, its thoughts,
frenzies and passions,
And unhuman nature its towering reality--
For man's half dream; man, you might say, is nature
dreaming, but rock
And water and sky are constant--to feel
Greatly, and understand greatly, and express greatly, the
Beauty, is the sole business of poetry.
The rest's diversion: those holy or noble sentiments, the
intricate ideas,
The love, lust, longing: reasons, but not the reason.

Robinson Jeffers

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Obama Drama

Inexplicably I have lived into middle age without having written a clerihew. My life is now complete; this changes everything. If this is not my Everest, it is my answer to one of my son's favorite questions: "What is the smallest mountain in the world?" (The ant hill in the front yard--how should I know?).

Barack Obama our President
Has learned from precedent:
Nothing worse than being defeatist
Unless it's being labeled elitist.