Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Not Man Apart": George Dennison and Edwin Muir

Robinson Jeffers, a disagreeable poet but unquestionably a great one, spent much of his life hectoring a dwindling audience that human beings need to stop being concerned so exclusively with their own affairs, and turn their attention instead to "the wholeness of life and things" -- the natural world of sea and rocks and animals that Jeffers described so beautifully. Love that, he wrote, not man apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.

I have read two books recently that show, in very different ways, what this sense of wholeness might look like. One is the autobiography of Edwin Muir, a Scottish poet and translator (you may have seen his name on early editions of Kafka); the other is George Dennison's novella Shawno about his life in rural Maine with his family, his neighbors, and his dog Shawno.

The first hundred pages of Muir's biography describe his childhood on the Orkney Islands in a largely self-sufficient farming community. The narrative drifts through early memories: family songs and first scraps of text, walking through the legs of the cows in the field, the butchering of a pig, and the boats that went from one little island to another.

Eventually, when rents go up, the Muirs have to leave for Glasgow, a move that brings about the collapse of their family. As the Orkney section of the book comes to a close, Muir reflects for the first time on the value of the life they had to abandon:
I cannot say how much my idea of a good life was influenced by my early upbringing, but it seems to me that the life of the little island of Wyre was a good one, and that its sins were sins of the flesh, which are excusable, and not sins of the spirit. The farmers did not know ambition and the petty torments of ambition; they did not realize what competition was, though they lived at the end of Queen Victoria's reign; they helped one another with their work when help was required, following the old usage; they had a culture made up of legend, folk-song, and the poetry and prose of the Bible; they had customs which sanctioned their instinctive feelings for the earth; their life was an order, and a good order.
I wouldn't trust a statement like this if it was not preceded by a hundred pages that describe, with great specificity, the elements of this order, from sowing seeds to salting pork. The writing is often beautiful, but its most impressive quality is a sense of truthfulness. As T.S Eliot wrote in his introduction to Muir's poems, "Utter honesty with oneself and with the world is no more common among men of letters than among men of other occupations. I stress this unmistakable integrity, because I came to recognise it in Edwin Muir's work as well as in the man himself."

Dennison's work, to me, gives off a similar feeling of honesty. Even though Shawno is technically fiction, very little of it feels invented, and it hews pretty close to the facts of Dennison's life. After many years in New York, he moved with his family to the little town of Temple in the Maine countryside, and his later works all take place in this setting. Today, he is best known (if at all) for The Lives of Children, a wonderful book about teaching in a free school in New York for poor children. Dennison devoted the rest of his life to fiction, and produced much good work before his early death from cancer.

Unlike Muir's Orcadian childhood, which could just as easily have taken place centuries ago instead of the early 20th century, Shawno is firmly set in the modern world. The family drives to the grocery store to get food and occasionally watches TV at night. But there is, throughout, a sense of community that seems to belong to an older world. This community includes not just the people of Temple but all of the animals, tamed and wild, that share the town with them. Everyone who grows food keeps a dog or, as Dennison writes, "the woodchucks take it all," and these animals, including all of Temple's deer and finches and porcupine, keep crossing paths with each other and the town's human residents.

The book has a meandering quality, moving from descriptions of the creek to the general store to a flashback describing Shawno's days in New York. It is only at the end that a reader realizes how skilfully Dennison has gone about providing the knowledge needed to understand the story's conclusion.

One of the wonderful things about the human characters in Shawno (mostly Dennison's country neighbors, as well as a few other dislocated artists) is the feeling of competence that comes off of them. Today, when all most of us possess is an ephemeral competence involving the manipulation of gadgetry and the navigation of arbitrary man-made procedures, the characters in Shawno can drive posts for a cabin, hunt, replace shingles on a roof, and sugar the maples on their land. Their knowledge grows out of a life lived close to natural cycles, and increases their sense of connectedness with the world rather than drawing them further into themselves. They can also fiddle and draw and sing, the sort of skills that come from generating art and entertainment for yourself instead of always having them supplied to you.

Dennison describes all of this work and play with care and respect. One character sketch, of the man who runs the town's general store, contains a line that I think helps locate the achievement of both of these writers.
Of the men in the village he was certainly the least rural. He had grown up on a farm, loved to hunt and fish, play poker, drink whiskey, and swap yarns. But he had gone away to college, and then to business school, and had worked in Boston for three years. He was not just clever or smart but was extremely intelligent, with a meticulous, lively, retentive mind. He had come home not because he couldn't make a go of things in the city but because he loved the countryside and sorely missed the people. He subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, read many periodicals, was interested in politics and controversy and changing customs. When I met him his three children were away at college. We disagreed irreconcilably on politics. I was aware of his forbearance and was grateful for it. And I was impressed by his wit, and by his kindliness, as when he would allow certain impoverished children to cluster for long, long minutes before the candy rack, blocking his narrow aisle; and as when he built a ramp for the wheelchair of a neighbor who could no longer walk but was still alert and lively. He was not a happy man. He drank too much to be healthy, and his powers of mind by and large went unused. Yet one could sense in him a bedrock of contentment, and a correct choice of place and work.
"A bedrock of contentment" -- like Muir, Dennison is always searching for this sense of rightness, and the vision of a good life that underlies both of these books goes beyond the narrow circle of human concerns to include our relationship with the natural world, and some sense of our proper place in the "good order" that Muir found in the Orkneys.

As you can probably tell, neither writer has much sense of humor, and Dennison's writing in particular is sometimes stiff and high-toned (I usually prefer my "impoverished children" to be old-fashioned poor kids). There are parts of his other books -- Luisa Domic, for example, about a Chilean refugee from the Pinochet takeover -- where I find him sort of insufferable. There is, though, a seriousness and dignity in these two writers that is a much more valuable quality than irony, which is easy enough to find elsewhere. Muir is simply a great artist, and everything I have read by him, from essays to poetry, has been illuminating. I think Shawno is the best fiction that Dennison ever wrote, and along with Jimenez's Platero y yo is probably the best book I have read about a man's relationship with an animal.

It is depressing but in some ways unsurprising that both of these books, along with Muir's poetry, are entirely out of print. As a society, I think we are a little scared of what they have to tell us. Search them out, though. If we want to understand why our civilization keeps absorbing more and more resources while generating less and less human satisfaction, these are the visions we will have to confront, and learn from.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Spooky brew for Halloween

As a break from gloomy thoughts (or a reflection of them), here is a ghost that drifted its way across my beer recently.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The People Take Death Seriously and Do Not Travel Far

I saw a commercial recently that made me so angry that I had to step back for a second to ask why it was affecting me so strongly. It features a polar bear who leaves the melting Arctic for somewhere in America, passing trains and huge trucks and then wandering the streets of a huge city. It seemed, at first, like an indictment of our entire way of life. But then the polar bear finds a man outside of his pleasant suburban home about to get into a Nissan Leaf, an electric car. And the bear gives the man a hug out of sheer gratitude.

It took me a while to figure out why I was so disgusted. I'm glad there's finally an electric car; if you have to drive, it's certainly better than the alternative. And you'd think I would be pleased that an environmental crisis was at least being acknowledged.

But this ad somehow made me angrier than the "clean coal" nonsense you occasionally see in magazines. What bothered me was the commercial's implication that small private steps, from buying lightbulbs to a new car, which entail no real sacrifice on anyone's part, will solve the problems that we're facing.

This is continually what we're told: try to shut off lights, compost, ride a bike once in a while, recycle, make green consumer choices. All tiny, simple decisions that don't affect your life in any fundamental way. And I manage to stay satisfied with myself most of the time doing just these things.

Even a little thought, though, should tell us that this model of transformation simply isn't adequate to our situation anymore. These measures -- which, yes, are better than nothing -- are basically self-pacification devices. It's insane to think that lightbulbs and cars are anything more than a vague gesture in the right direction. The flaw runs much deeper in our way of life.

A simple example: flying is probably one of the most environmentally destructive private acts that any of us can commit. Yet I don't know a single person, including myself, who has ever given up a flight for this reason, even as we turn up our noses at thoughtless people with their huge SUVs.

Giving up flying, for me at least, would mean rarely or never seeing most of my family and friends. How many people are willing to do this? Not many, I suspect. Every modern society is built around cheap energy, and we're now living in a world that would require complete restructuring before normal, unheroic people could be even moderately responsible. And any system is in trouble if it requires heroism to sustain itself.

There's an apocalyptic feeling in the air, isn't there? I don't think it's just me, or a passing mood. It comes with the recognition that almost none of us are actually serious about addressing these problems. We're simply going to throw a party until the water comes through the door. The road we've been traveling for the past several hundred years doesn't seem like it can be gently redirected to a sensible place, so we're just waiting. Large-scale institutional solutions are not forthcoming, at least not until a cataclysm occurs, and everyone knows that the private acts we are willing to perform are drops in the bucket.

There's a poem from the Tao Te Ching that I've always found a little terrifying. It's one of the last verses, from the version by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English.

A small country has fewer people.
Though there are machines that can work ten to a hundred times
      faster than man, they are not needed.
The people take death seriously and do not travel far.
Though they have boats and carriages, no one uses them.
Though they have armor and weapons, no one displays them.
Men return to the knotting of rope in place of writing.
They food is plain and good, their clothes fine but simple,
      their homes secure;
They are happy in their ways.
Though they live within sight of their neighbors,
And crowing cocks and barking dogs are heard across the way,
Yet they leave each other in peace while they grow old and die.

What always scared me about this poem was how low the bar was set, how close the ideal was to vegetable life, how much of what I value would be eliminated. The sense of peace that it carried was too huge, too much like death. It's hard not to rebel against it. Shouldn't life be more than this? Isn't it better that most people aren't satisfied to stay on this level?

The poem seems wiser now than it did before, though, and more of a genuine ideal than all of our clean energy fantasies, which again promise solutions for everyone with absolutely no sacrifices required. A long look at the abyss, I think, might be a better idea. At least it's a real starting point.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

News & Publications

Some good news:

* First, Ensouling Language, which I wrote about here, is finally available.I'm already in the mood to read it again, which doesn't happen very often. If you have any interest in writing, it's worth your time and your $24.95.

* A story I wrote several years ago called The Gates, based on a long trip I took to Madagascar, has just appeared in Crazyhorse. I didn't know this when I submitted the story, but it turns out that Crazyhorse was founded by Thomas McGrath, a poet I like a lot. So I'm doubly glad to be part of it. Hopefully worth your $9 (I did my best).

* Also, Powell's picked up the Avvaiyar review published in Cerise Press for their Review-a-Day, which makes me happy. I hope it sells some copies of the book.

I've been reading some wonderful stuff lately that deserves to be better known, so I'll post something soon,


Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Stephen King's Misery and the Uses of Horror

Stephen King has been lobbying for respectability for a while, and the literary world seems to be coming around to him. Unlike most of the celebrated novels from the last thirty years, people are still reading King’s old work, and some of it seems likely to survive. I haven't read his other novels, but just going off the movie adaptations, there seem to be a wealth of narrative ideas in King's books. He isn’t, like most successful pulp novelists, simply writing to formula.

Misery, published in 1987, feels like a particularly personal book. It’s hero, Paul Sheldon, is a writer of historical romances who wants to be thought of as a serious writer, and even with all of his success has been hurt by the dismissiveness of critics. One day, drunk, having finally written what he thinks is a great book, he crashes his car in a Colorado snowstorm. When he comes to, his legs are shattered, and a large, strange woman named Annie Wilkes is taking care of him in her house. This care includes dosing him with powerful pain medication, on which Sheldon soon realizes he has become entirely dependent. Wilkes, an ex-nurse, is a huge fan of Sheldon’s work. She recognized him when she pulled him out of the car and hasn’t told anyone he is up in her house in the mountains.

Little by little, Sheldon realizes that his caretaker is deeply deranged. Annie becomes furious when she reads his latest romance, because Sheldon has killed off the series' main character, Misery Chastain, whom he desperately wanted to be rid of. Annie also forces Paul to burn his latest stab at literary respectability, Fast Cars, which she doesn’t think is worthy of his talent (too much profanity). Finally, trapped in his room, Paul is forced to write another novel that brings Misery back to life, while continually dealing with Annie’s rages and his own humiliating dependence.

This is certainly a gripping idea, and King develops it with great skill. It met, for me, the simplest test of a good novel: except for some pages from Sheldon’s ongoing captive manuscript, I never skimmed or even had the urge to skim. I was as interested in how things happened as what happened.

King also respects the tradition that he’s working in and has clearly read an enormous amount. Both Dumas and Fowles, past masters of the captivity narrative, come up in the novel, along with a number of other good writers. The book’s psychology is convincing, and the push and pull of power between Annie and Paul is ingeniously handled. King also has a fine sense of what needs to be left out to maintain his claustrophobic atmosphere – we get almost no backstory about Paul, and certain questions, like what became of Annie’s brief marriage, are pointedly left unanswered. There is a great deal of artistry in the book, and I think King deserves, in some ways, the respect he is looking for.

There are, however, several things about it that bother me – and they bother me not only about King but about all of his much less talented imitators working in pulp and television. Misery is about as good as the modern Gothic novel gets, so I think it is worth exploring how it works on a reader.

First, to quote one of Annie’s objections to Paul’s first draft, King cheats a little. He never cheats on plot; he knows all about how locks can be picked and how drug dependencies are created. But there are certain aspects of reality that he simply refuses to explore, and at a certain point this becomes an evasion instead of a narrative choice. For example, Sheldon can’t get out of bed for much of the book, and there is no bathroom where Annie has locked him up. A bedpan is mentioned near the end, but this obvious and intimate element of their relationship – with Paul probably wearing an open gown, and having to be bathed and cleaned and wiped everyday if he isn’t to smell – is never mentioned (their relationship would feel very different, I think, if it was). This aspect of Sheldon's plight is probably much more horrifying than anything else King describes – it is also something that everyone, at some point, is probably going to have to experience or watch someone else experience – but it is entirely outside of the realm of King’s interests.

The obvious objection is that King’s primary concern in Misery is not the body’s breakdown, but the nature of evil. Because Annie turns out to be not just a slightly addled fan but an actual psychopath. Paul is not her first victim; she has been killing people ever since she was an adolescent, and then repeatedly, quietly, and pointlessly ever since she became a nurse, until she was finally dismissed from her post. There is a long tradition of remorseless characters in literature, from Iago to Rigaud in Little Dorrit to Kate in East of Eden, whose motiveless malignity is, I suppose, meant to personify the same force that causes the tumor to metastasize, the stair to be not quite where we thought it was.

King is clearly trying to recreate this same sense of an implacable and unreasonable force bearing down on each of us. The Goddess never dies, Paul thinks, even when he is finally free of Annie, because she has become more than a human being for him; she is, like Iago, a demon.

Demons, though, to retain their power, must exist outside of psychology. And this is where Annie fails as a character, and in a profound way. Like so many modern villains, her actions are explained using the latest research from the abnormal psych people. We learn about Annie’s depressive states, her sense of paranoia, her inability to feel anything for all the infants and terminally ill patients she has killed as a nurse. When Annie suddenly feels bad about buying Paul a terrible typewriter than has hurt his hands – she actually cries – Paul, for the first time, considers why his captor might be this way:
Paul thought that the occasional moments like this were the most ghastly of all, because in them he saw the woman she might have been if her upbringing had been right or the drugs squirted out by all the funny little glands inside her had been less wrong.
This is not real empathy, and it also manages to kill the demon. The line about Annie's upbringing is disingenuous, because we never find out anything, good or bad, about her upbringing, and, like Kate from East of Eden, she began killing when she was still a child. All we have left as an explanation, then, is her glands. Annie is a typewriter with a piece broken; there is no hope for her, no possibility of an understanding than is more than mechanical. And there is absolutely no grandeur to her evil.

Such a person doesn’t produce the dread of a great villain like Iago, or the true sympathy that one can feel for, say, Mr. Falkland in Caleb Williams – instead, Annie just makes people scared. During the week I read this novel, I remember sitting in a bathroom stall in a library and being convinced that a man who walked in was going to burst through the doors and kill me. I even waited a second to buzz up a friendly census taker because I thought he was part of some murderous scheme.

There’s something unhealthy about this. A great book should make you feel more at home in the world, not less – the truth always does this, even if it’s unpleasant. But books like this, and the thousands by King’s much less talented followers, ignore genuine and universal anxieties – like Sheldon’s inability to clean himself or go to the bathroom – to create fresh and stupid ones. They succeed largely based on manufacturing false unease – a world filled with terrors that are, at best, immensely rare.

To some extent, this obsession with psychopaths reflects a natural interest both in the macabre and the extremes of human experience. People have always wanted to hear about murderers. There’s a difference today, though. Our fictional killers, like Annie, are less and less driven to crime by money or passion or revenge, and more often are actually wired wrong. They kill and torture simply out of some error of the brain. I suspect that anyone who watches even a little bit of TV could put together a psychological profile of one of these killers, representing the latest state of criminological science (I am tempted to put quotation marks around that last part).

Brain chemistry, glands: these are the explanations that the times demand. Some of the reasons are obvious: people who are simply, fundamentally, wrong, are the only ones who could possibly justify our fiercely punitive system of justice. We have to believe that such people not only exist but are quite common: the incorrigible, the unreachable. Not many people consider, though, what follows if we consider someone beyond hope. Tolstoy talked about this in The Kingdom of God is Within You. He discusses John Chrysostom’s arguments that some men are fundamentally bad, and must be restrained by force if the world is not to come to ruin:
This is ill grounded, Tolstoy writes, because if we allow ourselves to regard any men as intrinsically wicked men, then in the first place we annul, by so doing, the whole idea of the Christian teaching, according to which we are all equals and brothers, as sons of one Father in heaven.
Tolstoy also points out that there is no “perfect and unfailing distinction by which one could positively know the wicked from the good,” but he didn’t think then of the false certainty provided by brain chemistry and psychology, with which modern juries and modern readers are easily convinced that the death of a certain person is an unmixed blessing.

I am not a Christian, and I am not sure if there is such a thing as a soul, but I know that, if we are truly convinced that there is even a single person who, from birth, is completely impervious to love and incapable of empathy, we have to throw out even the possibility of one, because by what mechanism would some people receive a soul and others be denied one?

I’ve never meet one of these supposedly soulless individuals, though, so I’m not willing to do this, and I think there is something profoundly unhealthy about narratives like Misery and all of its screen siblings that present such people to us again and again. Faulkner talked about the modern author who writes “not of the heart but of the glands” – those same funny little glands that control Annie’s behavior – and saw it accurately as an assault on the dignity of man. This has to be a consideration when we try to measure the value of a book. King has an abundant imagination and a fine sense of craft – he is also, quite probably, a perfectly humane and intelligent person – but his books encourage an ugly and easy view of the world that I find inconsistent with real writing. Certain tasks, even done well, are better not done at all.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Poems of Avvaiyar

A review I wrote of the ancient Tamil poet Avvaiyar has been published in the Cerise Press.

I'm proud of this one - not because of my own writing, but because I think these are great poems and pretty much no one outside the Tamil-speaking world knows about them (I don't speak Tamil and had never heard of Avvaiyar before). I found the book on a review shelf and picked it up out of curiosity over what Indian writers were doing for the many centuries between the great epics and colonization. Producing beautiful work, apparently; these things were here and just the translator wanting.

It's a slim book and a tiny press, but worth your attention and support. All possible praise to Pruiksma, the translator, and Red Hen Press for giving it to the English-speaking world.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Two More Publications

Sorry for the long time between posts. I've read and seen some good things but haven't had anything very interesting to say about them.

A few recommendations: Sugar is a really wonderful and surprising movie about a Dominican baseball prospect who goes to Iowa to play Single A ball. And Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen (a largely forgotten Danish writer who was one of Rilke's favorites) has some beautiful passages in Tina Nunnally's translation. Jacobsen also had an astounding mustache.

I also had two pieces published recently: a review of The Geometry of God, by Uzma Aslam Khan, in the Spring issue of Ploughshares, and a profile of the jazz musician Vijay Iyer for a new Indian magazine called The Caravan. Both were contract work, so I had to work a little to produce enthusiasm. The Khan book was accomplished but never made a profound impression - I ended up liking Iyer's music a lot, though.

Hope the pieces are worth reading - I'll post something more substantial soon.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Ensouling Language, by Stephen Harrod Buhner

Among Gandhi’s thousands of articles and pamphlets, written in English and Gujurati, are several on sanitation. “A small spade is the means of salvation from a great nuisance,” Gandhi writes in one article. “In his book on rural hygiene, Dr. Poore says that excreta should be buried in earth no deeper than nine to twelve inches. The author contends that the superficial earth is charged with minute life, which, together with light and air which easily penetrate it, turn the excreta into good soft sweet-smelling soil within a week. Any villager can test this for himself.”

I felt a strange charge when reading these passages. This is how to write, I thought - this is how to approach life. Gandhi doesn’t bully people with rhetoric or his own authority. He does his research, he checks everything for himself. I would bet my life he dug his own nine-to-twelve inch latrines. Notice the use of “good” and “sweet-smelling,” too, which no scientist would write. There is always an emotional and moral element to Gandhi’s writing, and an underlying vision of a society where people respect each other and live responsibly on the earth.

To leave your waste is “a sin against God and humanity,” he writes. Even in this tiny pamphlet, he is trying to bring about “the restoration of the holy to everyday life,” using a subject that most of us have no inclination to think about.

The last quote – “the restoration of the holy” – is from Stephen Harrod Buhner’s wonderful book on writing, which arrived unsolicited on my doorstep a few months ago. When I started reading it, I remembered Gandhi’s piece, and my old thought that no good piece of writing is ever just about its nominal topic. Buhner’s book argues that any subject can be a doorway to the larger truths of existence, as long as the writer has developed a real emotional connection with his material - although some subjects, of course, are more likely to produce such a connection than others.

Buhner begins with the observation that the majority of books sold today are non-fiction, and not memoirs and histories and other such “serious” books, but genre nonfiction: books on gardening, trail guides, identifying birds, losing weight, etc. To a large extent, this is what people actually read. “There is no reason,” Buhner says, “that the art of writing should neglect the largest segment of the nonfiction field. Well, no reputable reason.”

He then quotes from how-to books like James Krenov’s The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking, and shows how the writer is creating “something that is more than the sum of the parts, something that touches on the depths of the human and the human relationship to the universe around her” – the same thing that I felt in those lines from Gandhi. This is an experience traditionally only associated with belletristic writing – poetry, novels, plays – and not even seen as a goal in more information-oriented work.

Buhner’s book describes how any writer, even one writing about, say, adobe walls, can achieve the sense of expansion - of traveling into larger worlds - that has always marked the best art. And although the subject is nonfiction, what Buhner has to say applies to serious writing of any kind.

Buhner, who is an herbalist as well as a writer, expressed his guiding principle in an earlier book, The Lost Language of Plants: “I do not believe we can solve the environmental problems facing us,” he wrote, “unless we develop our capacity for feeling and our empathy for other life-forms to the same degree that we have developed our facility for thought.”

Although it never struck me as important before, I noticed once that many of my favorite writers had a sense that consciousness was not limited to human beings. Reading their books, you felt life coming from everywhere. Edward Thomas’s winds whistle their joy or pain through cracks in the wall. Transtromer never doubts that plants have thoughts, and the oak tree that speaks to Prince Andrei in War and Peace is as important as any human character. Nicholson Baker, one of the few modern writers I follow with interest, can feel life coming up through old paper straws and other products of industrial civilization.

This experience is commonly known as the pathetic fallacy. Although ordinary people continue, stubbornly, to experience the world in this way, our culture’s intellectual and artistic leaders often see it, at best, as a useful delusion for poets. To argue that we can experience genuine communication with the non-human world without generating the message ourselves, one has to go against the entire current of our society and, by extension, our language. Modern artists who have felt the reality of such messages have often had to invent or procure their own words for it. Hopkins talked about inscape and instress, Lorca about duende. Buhner has to go back to the Greeks.
It is this exact exchange [between the human and non-human] they called aisthesis. For the ancient Greeks, the organ of aisthesis, that is, the part of us that is capable of accessing this experience, is the human heart — aisthesis comes directly out of our capacity to feel. The ancient Greeks insisted this experience could be shared with any part of the world, even the world itself, insisted there could be an invisible, sensorial touching between the human and nonhuman in such moments. And during those moments, understandings, perceptions, and insights that can be obtained no other way flow into us.
Buhner has several writing exercises – some of the very few I have ever found useful – to help get into a state of mind where such a stream of understanding might pass between you and some part of the world. The first step is getting a sense of what might have deep resonance for you: locating your loves and hates, your heroes, and the words and books that have already put down roots in your spirit.

Bertram Dobell, in his introduction to Thomas Traherne’s Centuries, wrote that “utter sincerity of thought, though it is not indeed the only requisite for a great writer, is yet, I think, the one indispensable quality without which all others are useless.” Buhner’s book, as well as being a clear example of this sincerity, is a forceful reminder that anything we produce without this core of conviction is probably going to be worthless. After all, most pieces of writing today – all the millions of articles and blog posts and novels – are not failed shots at greatness but successful attempts to achieve petty objectives.

But surely, one might say, not every piece of writing needs to be so important. Sometimes you need your guilty pleasures, your brainless time; there has to be something that fulfills that function. I don’t think Buhner would agree, and I don’t either. If you can find beauty anywhere, you also can’t forgive ugliness and thoughtlessness in any form. I am simply never in the mood to be lied to. From bad movies to the design of office buildings, the belief that large areas of our culture are inconsequential will, I'm convinced, eventually degrade our ability to find the truth even in the things that we do value.

Beyond the obvious crap, of course, there are the well-intentioned attempts to communicate information and ideas, provide intelligent diversion. Buhner has little tolerance for writing of this sort, motivated by no emotional charge. There is an obvious objection to this, but I will let it be made by a smarter man. Here is James Agee in his review of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard:
On the charge of lifelessness [he writes] I can only say that in my opinion there are two main kinds of life in art, not just one. The warmer, richer kind comes, invariably, from the kind of artist who works from far inside himself and his creatures. For the other kind, we can thank the good observer. Brackett and Wilder apparently have little if any gift from working from inside, but they are first rate observers, and their films are full of that kind of life. It is true, I think, that they fail to make much of the powerful tragic possibilities which are inherent in their story; they don’t even explore much of the deep anguish and pathos which are still more richly inherent, though they often reveal it, quickly and brilliantly. But this does not seem to me a shameful kind of failure, if indeed it is proper to call it a failure at all: they are simply not the men for such a job, nor was this the kind of job they were trying to do. But they are beautifully equipped to do the cold, exact, adroit, sardonic job they have done; and artists who, consciously or unconsciously, learn to be true to their limitations as well as to their gifts, deserve a kind of gratitude and respect they much too seldom get.
There is a whole world of Wilder’s kind of art that Buhner has no time for, and would probably not consider art at all (Roth, for example, whom I respect, is dismissed with a line). But I think this book is a necessary corrective, because today the kind of observational art that Agee describes gets far too much rather than too little respect. It is what goes into most television, even the best stuff, where wit and ingenuity are pretty much the entirety of what’s on display. It is also the same kind of “intelligence” that goes into our value-free mainstream political analysis.

So if Buhner dismisses too much – and takes too many potshots at MFA programs and the NY literary scene – I forgive him. Many of his concepts are taken, openly, from other thinkers – Stafford, Bly, and Gardner, mostly – but the synthesis is impressive, the writing is consistently excellent, and the depth and variety and seriousness of his reading are an inspiration (the book would be worth reading for the quotes alone). Buhner's book also meets its own criterion; by going deep enough into its subject, it gives us glimpses of the whole world and man's relationship to it, and a measure of greatness is achieved simply by telling our society what it most urgently needs to hear right now.

You might raise an eyebrow at the title (the publisher’s decision – Buhner’s preferred title is Inhabiting the Word) and by the author’s involvement with something called the Institute of Gaian Studies. I had those reactions at first, and they are entirely to my discredit. Remember that only time has given people like Blake and Tolstoy their veneer of respectability, and that kneejerk skepticism often keeps us from precisely the people who have something new to teach us. Renewal, if it comes for our society, is going to come from the margins. We just need to go seek it out.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Robert Altman: An Oral Biography, by Mitchell Zuckoff

I’ve sat through more bad Robert Altman movies than any other director’s – and not the sort of bad movie where you shrug and say, “Well, about what I expected,” but the kind where you’re baffled by what the person in charge might have been thinking. Most directors develop a style and a basic vein to exploit, and even their uninspired efforts provoke a shrug, because an audience has felt out their limits and is content with them.

With Altman, no matter how many movies have left me scratching my head, or simply dissatisfied – The Company, The Gingerbread Man, 3 Women, California Split, to name a few – I’ve never reached that place where I knew that he had nothing more to show me. For example, I’d seen a little of Tanner ‘88, which I liked okay, and a few months ago I picked up the sequel, Tanner on Tanner. By the end of an hour I was so bored I stopped. But just before I did, there was a moment – Tanner’s daughter (Cynthia Nixon) and her crew were singing “Exercise Your Right to Vote” in a van headed to one of the political conventions; the camera moves around the van, and she looks at it and smiles.

And immediately that image burned itself into my head; I’m not sure why. Maybe because it captured how much fun a road trip can be. And I thought – no one else gets stuff like this on film. That whole project is a narrative disaster, and I was completely bored, but the amazing thing is that I’m willing to give that movie another shot – I would rent it again, in the right mood, because there’s always something else to notice in Altman’s movies. That’s why I’d rather devote time to re-watching an Altman disaster than another Eastwood or Scorsese or Coen Brothers “success.”

Michael Tolkin, the author of the book and the screenplay for The Player (which Altman, of course, completely changed), says this well: “He has a few really great movies and a lot of films that are of great interest and are worth watching and watching again, but don’t fully work on the terms on which they could have worked because of his disdain for story.” Tolkin doesn’t specify which ones he thinks are great – I’ve never been as taken with Nashville as other people; I think McCabe & Mrs. Miller is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been in the mood to see Gosford Park for a third time.

The Tolkin quote is from Mitchell Zuckoff’s new book, Robert Altman: An Oral Biography. The book is mostly excerpts from hundreds of interviews - with Altman himself, members of his flight crew in WWII, his family, ex-wives and actors and producers – all arranged to tell the story of his life, with a little help from newspaper articles and reviews (this would be an interesting way to narrate a novel, by the way). I picked up the book because I’d heard a little about Altman’s creative method – how much freedom he gave actors to create their own parts, write their own songs and monologues, change the plot and course of a scene (much to the annoyance of the screenwriter) – and was curious how it worked.

Here’s Anne Rapp, an author and screenwriter that Altman met near the end of his career:
Bob has a reputation as being difficult on writers. You won’t hear that from me. I would show him something, and if I did nine things horrible and there was one little seed, one little character, one line that worked, his eyes would light up and he’d say, “That’s it, you hit the nail right there! Not take that and go write that.”

I would walk out of his office and feel like I kicked ass. Any other Hollywood meeting I was in, they’d rake you over the coals about those nine things you did wrong. Bob had that ability to make you walk out of his office and feel like running back to your computer. He had an amazing way of dealing with artists in vulnerable positions.
“I felt like a good writer for the three years I was with Bob,” Rapp says. “I have had nothing but doubts since.”

Much of the first half of the book is devoted to enfant terrible behavior, long past the acceptable age – drinking and cheating on wives and punching people into pools. Altman focused most of his anger on people on the business end of things: producers and publicists and executives (not that this is any excuse). Actors, however, were treated with nothing but consideration, and the book is filled with testimonies of the subtle advice he could give – or, sometimes, refuse to give – and how open he was to input from absolutely anyone on the set.

The stunning end of California Split was George Segal’s idea, for example, and Altman agreed to his suggestion, which Columbia said “cost them ten million dollars” (the screenwriter still seems upset about it). I don’t know if it’s a good ending, but I’ve never forgotten it or stopped thinking about what it might mean. And the girl whose nose gets smashed in The Long Goodbye – probably the most disturbing scene in any of his movies – was just a waitress that Altman met while they were filming, and then decided to insert the sequence into the film.

Altman has a gift, like Dylan, for suggestive incoherence (they’re also both capable of garden variety incoherence) and it’s often hard to get a handle on Altman’s people because he continually plays against the grain of the material. The film gives you a mess of information, and you simply have to work this character out in your head. An artist who tries this method had better be able to pull off coherence as well, though – Dylan certainly could, and Altman was a fine television director before he made any of his movies.

Zuckoff tries the same thing in this book: contradictory versions of stories nestle up against each other, with no attempt to sort them out, and different facets of Altman’s personality are described by the people that forgive him and those who don’t. “He was different,” Alan Rudolph says, “and it’ll take your book to try and define it, and it will be elusive and you’ll never get to the center of it because you shouldn’t be able to.”

The book is full of wonderful material, and Zuckoff deserves credit for his sense of how to organize it. He groups quotes that play off each other, and sets up separate chapters for material that needs its own space: on Altman’s relationships with his children, for example, and his slightly poisonous collaboration with a woman named Scotty Bushnell. I gobbled up the book in three days, and it’s one of the few biographies I might want to pick up again.

I had an idea while I was reading it – one that's occurred to me before when thinking about how Shakespeare operated – that certain art forms thrive on a level of carelessness. Altman never took a project he didn’t care about, and once he got something down to his satisfaction he absolutely refused to change it – but he also didn’t agonize. He worked with concentration but very quickly, got stuff in a couple of takes, make huge changes based on a gut feeling or a suggestion, and then moved on to the next project.

I’ve been on one set before, and was slightly horrified at the speed and borderline heedlessness with which things move – but I realize now that this is a healthy part of a medium which I enjoy but can’t get totally comfortable with. If a novelist or a poet spends years and years on a book, there’s a reasonable chance that the time has been well spent. But when a musician, say, is about to release an album that he's spent a decade agonizing over, you can pretty much guarantee that it’ll be bad. Additional time doesn’t ripen certain kinds of art, but encourages spoilage. So make a virtue out of accidents, embrace imperfection, and then move on – at least if you’re making movies.

Altman said this beautifully in the speech he gave at the Oscars for his Lifetime Achievement Award, which Zuckoff includes in the biography:
I’ve always said that making a film is like making a sand castle at the beach. You invite your friends and you get them down there and you say – you build this beautiful structure, several of you, and then you sit back and you watch the tide come in, have a drink, watch the tide come in, and the ocean just takes it away. And that sand castle remains in your mind. Now, I've built about forty of them and I never tire of it. No other filmmaker has gotten a better shake than I have. I'm very fortunate in my career. I've never had to direct a film that I didn't choose or develop. I love filmmaking. It has given me an entree to the world and to the human condition. And for that, I'm forever grateful.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Two Publications

Hello readers!

A few of my pieces have appeared outside of this blog. First, a very short story I wrote called Attention has been published in Barrelhouse. Also, a poem appeared a few months ago in The Baltimore Review. Unfortunately, you can't find it online, and the magazine is rather difficult to find in bookstores. So, here it is, for those who might not order the issue. I'm fond of both of these pieces, so I hope you enjoy them.

Love Poem for a Boring Woman

You tell me about your job, your old dog,
your boss who is freaking out for nothing.
I watch the swirl of your hands, the movements
of your eyes – lively, dancing – as you talk
about your neighbor always making noise,
the roommate you had once who was crazy.

Listen! They are playing a song you love,
a song you could listen to forever.
It makes you think of winter, middle school,
the sad city where you grew up …

                                                                You stop.
“God,” you say, looking away, “I’m talking
your head off.” No, I think but don’t say –
You’re talking my heart full. Don’t ever stop
talking, there’s nothing I don’t want to hear.

But you do. You go silent. You tell me
later you’re sorry – you actually
apologize, my god, for not being
more interesting. I protest (weakly)
but I don’t tell you my secret. I haven’t
told anyone before: I’m boring too.
I’m tired of telling jokes, watching people’s
faces, pretending to be fascinating.
It’s too much work earning attention, and
there’s so much to say with no one to care.

Listen: I had a cat once, a brown one,
and I tried so hard to grow tomatoes
but they all died. That’s it. End of story.
There will be no punch line, nothing to make
you care other than the fact that it’s me
and I love you …
                                 But it’s too soon for that.
My hand moves closer to yours and I hope
you understand. “Your boss sounds like a jerk,”
I say, and you tell me all about it.