Every day of my yearlong stay here has been full of daydreams. They carry me from my waking moments into the streets, through the tunnels and back up into the buildings. These are fantasies that enrich and enliven my life, much like I imagine the real experience would. They are my constant companions, my voice, my words, accented by the world and all it encompasses.
I don’t write. Not nearly as much as I should. I wonder why this is, although I no longer despair. My lack of authorship is not a point of contention for me, as it once was. Instead I go about my life in a contended state, not oblivious, but slightly numbed. I still wonder, though.
In the moments where I yank myself free of my dreams, I begin to ask, why? Why have I not written? And then, there it is. That specter of an urge, that yearning to throw myself away into the abyss of language and exploration. I remember the promise in my dreams, that hint of the tangible, freed from the momentary experience of my mind. I am finally taken away, carried along by an unseen current that grows in strength and vitality, lapping up whatever it can touch and pulling it into the currents that make up its body. Life is born, form appropriated, made to conform to a new rhythm, meaning contorted and examined, losing and gaining, burning and cooling. This sudden movement is like a spark or a glimmer that rebounds off every undulating crest, reaching up and then diving below. The current itself builds, it swells, splits and becomes two streams, one calm perhaps, the other roaring, maybe. In the distance I can see them converging, and as I roll along, my eyes set at their juncture, my mind becomes lucid and brave. I can see the world, or a world, and I smile a smile that spans their flowing.
It is here that I first reach for my oars and begin to dip them into the current. But it is here as well that I find myself dammed in, as suddenly as the current arose, and I am left knocking up against that sudden structure. I set my oars aside and lie back, stare up into the sky and watch the birds and feel the breeze. I hear the water, a placid body now, lapping against my small vessel, and I slip back into dreams.
I have been to Auschwitz. Walked the compound, descended into its gas chambers, peered into the ovens. I was a teenager then, well acquainted with the atrocities of the Second World War and the subsequent fallout. Yet my memories of the camp are not of death and terror but of a neatly manicured complex with a somber affectation. It struck me as being maintained more as a memorialization of death itself, rather than a reminder of the horror.
After that visit I struggled to understand why I was not moved more by what I had seen. For a time I assumed it was my age. I then accused the passage of time and its constant distancing of the event from my own life. I even considered that perhaps I was simply disinterested, or worse, callous. Even after reading texts that provided the numbers and details of the Holocaust, I still found myself disaffected. So it was with renewed curiosity that I found Maus accomplishing what everything else had failed to do.
My reading of Maus left me with the impression that the first book served to acquaint the reader with the people and the setting. While this was not necessarily deliberate, its slow pace allowed me to develop an understanding of who these people were and, more importantly, that they actually were. On this framework was presented the second book, which I found to be the most powerful of the two.
Maus II was where I first found myself feeling and appreciating the suffering that occurred during the years of the Third Reich. Spiegelman’s intertwining of his own domestic trials with those faced by his father, for example, managed to remove the temporal distance of the Holocaust. No longer was it just a memory; now it was a specter that continued to haunt all those it could touch, something not quite live nor dead, but present nonetheless.
Then there was the medium itself. I would have imagined that a graphic novel, where the victims were cast as mice and the persecutors as cats, would be a childish recounting of what occurred. Yet it proved to be exactly the opposite. Perhaps part of its effectiveness has to do with how intimately familiar readers are with the human form. I imagine that a reader is likely to view any depiction of a human, no matter how stylized or accurate, to be simply a caricature, something removed from him or herself. Spiegelman, in choosing not to use humans, forces the reader to focus on what is occurring rather than the fact that it is a “cartoon,” and this allows the story to come out in full force.
Even the simplicity of the panels proved to be a strength. In my own reading, I was not bogged down by the numbers of lives taken or the names of cities that I could barely pronounce. Instead of these abstractions I was presented with small, finely crafted depictions that drew my attention to that which mattered. The Holocaust is remembered for its concentration camps, its furnaces, all the items that were taken from the victims. This is of course depicted in Maus. But these things are meaningless without its humanity, and it seems incredibly difficult to remind an individual that an object once had a life force attached to it—a man, a woman, a child whose life touched it or was touched by it.
It could be that we tend to focus on the material as a reaction to not being able to feel and comprehend what occurred. In turning to the only thing we can grasp—the materials and objects used to visualize the Holocaust—we are attempting to find some footing from which to take it all in. But in so doing we lose the human aspect.
It’s because of this that I think the simplification of the tale—into a minimalist’s visual journey—allows, if not invites, the reader to ignore everything else and focus on what is to be felt. With the visual we are often expected to simply take in what we are witnessing, allowing whatever we feel to blossom. Reading traditional literature is more a matter of active cognition than it is of passive feeling, and this can pollute—or distract from—the actual appreciation of what is being expressed.
I see a degree of ingenuity in Spiegelman’s Maus, even if its inception was mostly a matter of serendipity. Through his graphic novel, he has stripped away all of the historical detritus that has accumulated over the years, removed the need to moralize and process, and given the reader an opportunity to simply bear witness.
I have been drinking, and it has been far too long.
I miss you all, sweet nobodies,
People I imagine return to this blog,
Fascinated by the writing that I so desperately hope is revolutionary.
But let me tell you a secret,
The more I write,
The more I listen,
The more I believe that writing is shit.
That it’s all a pile of bile, hah!
That it’s nothing but self-indulgence,
A vain attempt to justify, or rectify, or overcome
One’s own sense of inadequacy.
To feel secure is to be blind,
I assure you.
But to feel secure also is
It’s blindness, yes?
Yes, I do believe so.
So we write and write because we think we are intelligent,
Or ahead of our time,
But in the end it’s nothing but a rehashing,
A regurgitation of what has been,
What will always be,
What will never cease to be.
I’m full of shit.
But the more I write, the more I think of it,
The more I come to believe that it’s all worthless,
And that the only true recourse is to live,
To not do anything but tear apart
And to indulge,
To take arms and fuck it all.
I’m done for now, good night.
I went to a reading a few weeks ago. It was like all the others I had been to: hosted in a bookish environment, warmed by the soft glowing of incandescent lights, a crowd of expectant and well-mannered yuppies conversing briskly and self-righteously in neatly arranged seats. As the night wore on and reader after reader took to the podium, each after an elegiac introduction from an appropriately writerly looking fellow, I became increasingly irate. Partly because the writing I was being presented with was flat, dead, devoid of spirit or passion. Partly because the readers were so obviously reveling in their supposed grandeur, basking in the afterglow of their new award, a token from self-professed curators of quality writing. But mostly because there was no truth, or honesty, or raw expression in anything that was being read. It made me shift in my seat and look at the multitude of books lining the walls, each with their perfectly manicured covers, melting into the exposed brick and aged wood of the shelving on which they sat.
Something changed in me that night though. Still reeling from my reintroduction to the spirit of punk, the blatant artifice and self-importance of it all finally became clear to me. I suddenly wanted to stand and yell, “this is crap!” I wanted to heckle and to be heckled, to tell them their writing was worthless and that they could do better, to challenge them, force them to consider their self-involvement frankly, not on paper or in the safety of a carefully moderated forum but in the moment, through the spitting and anger that is unadulterated, impassioned life. It was then that I realized I had finally made a crucial transition from disillusioned to merely dissatisfied, and so I left.
It is this conventionalism that I see all around me. It is part of our world and our psyche, and as I wandered the city one night with a classmate we could see it everywhere. We wandered because we found some freedom in unguided movement, not knowing what we would experience or how it would affect us. We eventually stopped and sat down but not because we were tired, or because we were in a particularly nice place, or because it was necessary, but simply because we wanted to. We talked about civil pretense and how it was so blatantly before and around us. We agreed that people were content, satisfied with what they had and did. My classmate spoke of how the more conventional laborers, white and blue, were simply going through the motions. To us such a life was one without merit, which was unfair of us to say, but what made it lack merit was that it was a lifestyle that required thought and action preordained by the customs of its predecessors, not by the creative, freeform feeling that is so romantically attributed to the artist.
What I see now is that this mindlessness, this lack of feeling, is also the character of the modern writer. It is a certain smug and self-enamored mindset. These are simple people who are unwilling or don’t know how to dig beneath the facade, partly out of fear and partly out of blindness. Blindness to a more intimate state of being, of a more honest mode of communication, removed of pretense, released from convention. Thus they relinquish any drive to explore what they are feeling as it proves too difficult. And now we have embraced this defeatism and made it holy, made it the status quo, the measuring stick against which we compare ourselves and all of writing, and we cease to acknowledge what we are actually experiencing, no longer making an effort to understand what it is that we actually feel. We therefore cease to express and only create from the cud of the past.
People want to feel good, and as it stands the easiest way to achieve this is by pandering to what the norm is, remaining within the rubric that has already been set. We have learned that if we create what others like they will like it and us. It is an incredibly narcissistic system on both sides. The people create to feel admired and validated, to feel ingenious and visionary. This can only be given by the masses, for the masses, or at least our masses, is always right in our minds. And the masses also want to feel brilliant and better so they revel in the fact that they recognize another person’s creation as genius.
It is a dissymbiotic relationship that has become a natural state of affairs when in fact it is simply a circular prison. I can think of no other analogy than two oxen who, released from their harnesses to the well, continue to walk in circles simply because the ox before it is doing the same. Still the issue here isn’t so much what is being created, or what is being done, as it is the intent behind it, or within it, or beyond it. No one is releasing themselves from the standards. No one is truly taking the time to feel and allow themselves to organically translate that to their craft. They are always keeping within the bounds of “ennobled” precedents.
Intent is not however the same as the content of writing. Content could be best described as being the meaning, metaphor, narrative, or dissertation we do or do not include in our writing. That is not the issue. Content is present without question and is easily included. What I am getting to is that the feeling isn’t there. Not just feeling though, for we all feel and write because of it. I’m thinking about the censorship we engage in in order to make what we’re feeling “appropriate” or palatable to our audience.
Another analogy: A carpenter creates a bookshelf. It has a particular structure which can take a multitude of forms, none of which are right or wrong. It has a particular purpose, which is to hold books, but this purpose is flexible and it can contain almost anything. The carpenter will provide it with a particular aesthetic, lacquering the wood, sanding the edges and adding details. But then he might add small flourishes, details that somehow reflect not so much who he is but why he is, and why he does. These flourishes might be intentional or unintentional, like the accidental chip on a corner. What we see, what we enjoy experiencing, is the life current of its creator, the movement, his history and his intention, born of his experiences and psychology, whether known by him or not. This is what endears the bookshelf to us, not because it has a particular function, or purpose, or aesthetic. It is this that speaks to us.
This is what I wish to explore, understand, and most importantly feel. In other words not the writing itself but the process of writing. I have long been unable to understand why I’ve had this sentiment, or indeed what it is. I only know, or believe, that in some manner this is the best way to bring movement into writing.
So I think we should be focusing on how we create rather than what we create, and we should create not because we have been taught that it is right, or that it is meaningful. We should do so because it is in our nature, it is our expression of life, and to assume we do so for anything else is anathema to the nature of being. To lift directly from a previous piece I wrote, I find that the unwitting personal notes left behind in writing are far more true to form, and intriguing, than what is actually in the work. Whether it’s fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, every letter, word, intonation, punctuation, formatting choice, all of it, is an extension of its creator. It’s a subtle clue into the mental workings of another human being, someone just as mundane or inspired or dumb or smart as yourself, someone who has the same desire to express him or herself and to try to make sense of this crazy world. It’s a way to get behind the civilized persona we all assume as we leave our homes and to see the raw, true essence of being. So I think that the only way to get the unadulterated truth is to read behind the lines.
I say this because I believe that what is truly being said is only said through the totality of the writing, not the manufactured words that we diligently select and use in our work, each one cleanly defined and with a particular function. It is the unseen current that assigns the meaning of the words, which is why reading between the lines, so to say, is so essential. This is not something that I believe a writer can purposefully include in their work, at least not with any honesty or truth. This is a quality born of the uncensored expression of the self, born of the organic, natural choices made while putting pen to paper. This almost appears to be a call to pure stream of conscious writing, which it is not. But our lives are fluid, constantly in motion, and by adhering to established protocols we are removing this fluidity from our own creations.
One can look at the writing of Pauline Kael or Manny Farber. A major criticism of my classmates was the meandering nature and florid language in the pieces they wrote. But I see their passion as being an attempt at surmounting the limitations of modern language and at expressing what they were actually feeling. They were driven by their mood, and in their drive to better understand and express what they were feeling they plowed forward in their writing. Being that feelings are so difficult to articulate accurately they followed each little clue that promised further elucidation, their passion then progressing in the manner that a wildfire does, finding matter which excites and fuels it, hitting upon a multitude of vaguely related topics, raging recklessly and sparks flying every which way, lighting new fires, each producing new crackles, new odors, new sights, each one as tantalizing as the last, adding to the flame, carrying the passion forward and making it more visceral, real, honest, consuming anything that proves to be associated. The passion does not so much know what it is doing, or why, it only continues to blaze because it is in its nature to do so, it somehow understands what it feels through the act of consumption, and in its attempt to more closely understand, or express, what it feels it continues to pounce upon whatever keeps its strength burning.
To those of us who stand and watch from outside their fervor and passion may seem incomprehensible, without direction and utterly destructive. We tend to view their nature as being self-centered or even arrogant, whose only purpose is the maintenance of their power. But it is not just the desire to hear or pander to oneself, it is also the desire to expand one’s own mind, to understand and challenge the self, and in so doing understand and challenge the world. Again this is not necessarily a matter of deliberate, intellectual investigation of what it means to be but a latent desire, expressed through one’s emotions and feelings, to better grasp the nature of one’s existence.
In a way this is what I would consider movement through writing. It is a desperate attempt to surpass the physical limitations of writing and capture the actual essence of what one is feeling, something that is incredibly difficult to achieve for us writers, if not impossible. Music appears to be the most effective way of expressing the essence of what it means to feel, a point Dave Hickey made in saying that music is always at the forefront of expression. I have to agree with him, although grudgingly. I suppose this is true because music allows us to express a facet of being that we are not quite able to express through any other medium. It captures the immediacy of our emotions, thoughts, and actions, of how they exist largely apart from civilized predetermination or editing (all philosophical questions aside), and in a manner that most closely resembles who we are as beings, which more fixed and tactile forms of expression cannot do as they lack the vibrancy of motion. And motion, not necessarily kinetic motion, but motion is life.
While writing may not be able to capture the same fluidities of music that make it so useful as a means of expression, we have the tools to synthesize and articulate what everyone else simply feels. It is our job, as writers, to improve language in order to effectively communicate this motion. But to do this we must first learn what it means to feel, and learn to not fear and censor it. People don’t trust words, they don’t trust how those words exit them, feeling that somehow the language we have now is fixed, puzzle pieces that must be put together just so or else nothing will be expressed because anything vaguely uncomfortable must be incorrect and detestable. Let’s over think and pose problems.
As I left the reading in dissatisfaction a few weeks ago, I explained to a classmate that I was going to a bar, to which she asked why and I responded “because this is crap.” At the bar we discussed whether my sentiments were in fact well-founded. I spoke to her of how I was disgusted by the politeness of the modern-day reading, of how I felt that sitting quietly while another read and gloated was a disservice to the reader and to the listener, that such readings would not create the challenges that would bring new forms of expression to life. To her, a Lebanese expatriate, the notion of a freeform literary arena, where everyone was free to express themselves, either at the podium or in the seat, would lead to chaos. Order was necessary, she maintained, so that the reader could finish the reading, at which point the floor could be opened to criticism, if so desired. In Lebanon attempts at artistic expression would routinely be drowned out by the wild calls of the faddish youth.
She was right and I had trouble justifying the creation of a spartan space where people could congregate to heckle and be heckled, to present themselves as best they could, defend themselves, and through the interaction of these dynamics discover what it was they were truly attempting to do, or say. It was my hope that such a venue would help us better understand what it meant to make writing something like what jazz is, or used to be I suppose. It was the only way I could imagine of capturing movement through writing.
I still want more from writing, even if I get lost in myself and forget what exactly it is that I have been wanting. And I still can’t find a better way to say this then through the idea of capturing motion through writing. Not motion in writing, or writing as motion, or motion and writing. I want to capture motion through writing, in the manner that music does. Until that happens I will say that writing is dead. I’m not sure it’s ever been alive. If not this than it is lying in a coma and we are not allowing it to wake up.
The irony here is, or maybe it’s not irony, but in any case I have, in writing this piece, failed to do exactly what I am championing. I did not allow myself to go forward as was necessary, instead paining over the words and structures to try and express exactly what I was feeling. This last paragraph is more in line with who I am, and none of it is in the writing above. So I will leave you, dear reader, with this: the best, most honest, most accurate representation of how I feel as a member of this great society and engaging in this great art.
I only go to class two days a week, and every time I go it is the same routine. I hop on the N or the Q from Astoria, usually squeezed between quiet strangers as the train rocks back and forth, then force my way out of Union Square. Down 14th, left on 5th, right on 12th. Every Monday and Thursday. Mostly I hurry my way through the crowds, everyone styling leather or wool, all bustling around as if they’re the most important people in the world, just in the manner that I do and likely for the same reason. All I’m really trying to do is get to the familiarity of my school and see the faces I recognize.
When I arrived on campus Monday, still huffing from my power walk from Union Square, I looked through the clear revolving doors and immediately noticed that Will wasn’t there. I can’t quite pinpoint what I felt when I saw he was absent. There was some confusion and disappointment, but there was also an uncomfortable sense of foreboding which I quickly pushed aside. A decided that he likely had the day off, or maybe that’s what I hoped. I pulled out my ID, something I hadn’t had to do in a while since Will seemed to recognize everyone, waved it meekly and went on up to class.
His had always been the first face I could count on seeing, every Monday and Thursday. It’s something I’d grown to expect and cherish. A broad smile, a hello, a handshake. I had only just formally introduced myself a few weeks ago while volunteering for the National Book Awards. He was all smiles then, as was his custom, and we exchanged light conversation while we both greeted attendees. I even managed to snag some catered food that had been left at his counter, grabbing a sandwich that he told me was good. He always had a way of making you feel welcome.
I’m struck by how much someone’s passing can affect you, even if you knew them only briefly. But Will was always there. There with that youthful smile and cheery personality, constantly surrounded by people while still greeting anyone who came in. I had just started to get to know him and understand why people always gravitated towards him. Now I can’t seem to shake that feeling that creeped over me when I didn’t see him there on Monday. I really wish it had just been a feeling, nothing else.
I’m truly saddened to see him pass, but am glad I had the chance to meet and know him. My thoughts are with his family and friends. He will be missed.
Reddit. The next frontier. Assuming you’re subscribed to the appropriate subreddits, of course. While browsing my front page I found a link to an article about the transformation of the preposition “because”. It’s brusque but it got me thinking, partly because it touched on a topic I’d been considering for some time. Additionally, my chancing upon this article coincided nicely, humorously, with an article my uncle sent me with the following headline: NFL Player Quits Because, You Know, Noam Chomsky. So I’m writing this now because, you know, fate.
There was one line by the author of the “because” article, Megan Garber, that led me back to memes and the new, ever evolving, lexicon of the internet. She stated that this new development in how we use because “[is] a usage … that is exceptionally bloggy and aggressively casual and implicitly ironic. And also highly adaptable.” This is the absolute essence of what these social media cultures are creating: incredibly efficient, pragmatic forms of communication that still manage to inform and engage in manners that are highly effective and chock-full of meaning.
This was the topic of an email conversation my uncle and I had earlier this year where he brought up the question of what this new internet culture, and by extension this new mode of communication, meant for actual, in real life (IRL) culture. He had just read Douglas Rushkoff’s newest book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, and was impressed with Rushkoff’s theories on… well I don’t know because I haven’t actually read the book, so I’m just going to quote my uncle:
Rushkoff does a lot with how The Simpson’s, South Park, Family Guy make no attempt at all to follow a narrative but instead are all about references & cross referencing pop culture idioms, tropes, and memes. So couple that type of presentation to our obsessive use of the remote control device and we have this interactive participatory TV experience that for so many substitutes for real life. It’s like porn…how people would rather jerk off than have the real thing. What’s that about? When the simulation becomes more attractive than the actual? Yeah, how this unfolds in coming years should be mind blowing, right now it’s more interrupting or explosive or at least negatory…but you’re right it is the new framework from which creative potential will grow.
I’m including that last sentence because I’m a smug bastard, and since I’m lazy right now I’m going to quote my response:
Once you get in the realm of social media websites it’s not as lazy. Reddit is a good example of potential positive outgrowth from this cross-referential culture. I find reddit to be a forum of sorts that deals primarily with pop references, memes, and snide commentary. Depending on what subreddits you visit you’ll find a different culture, which is partly why reddit fascinates and enthralls me. Once you find the more mature crowds or subreddits you’ll notice that the interaction is not just about lame or worthless culture references. There is meaning and purpose behind what is said. As an example, something as silly as the “socially awkward awesome penguin” meme or any of its variations is in fact a very practical/functional way of exploring and critiquing social life. This quality of being able to condense complex ideas into quick, easily appreciated and interpreted images is what makes memes so wonderful. And they’re constantly evolving, in addition to new ones coming to life and others dying. Not only do memes have their own inherent properties that lend them certain meaningful cultural or perhaps even intellectual value, the manner in which the memes are delivered and then received by others can ultimately foster a very enlightening dialogue. The dialogue is always very curt, snide, a matter of constant “one-ups”, affirmations and counterarguments. This leads to a constant barrage of information where logic and intellect is rewarded (unless you go to 9gag where I’m pretty sure the population consists solely of preteens calling each other fags). The more time you spend involved with Internet culture the more “street smarts” you develop, by which I mean knowing what will be ridiculed or punished and won’t be. It’s not conformism, it really is a critical dialogue. On the other end it really is fascinating how an anonymous, online forum with little repercussions can also develop such strong mores. This is happening all over the Internet. Hell this IS the Internet. To respond to the author, I don’t think this is necessarily disconnecting people from the real world or supplanting the actual, if you will. It is becoming a part of the real world, and people are organically integrating online culture with offline culture in ways that aren’t worthless.
Reading back on what my uncle wrote, and my subsequent response, I see that I totally missed the point of what he was saying. (My diatribe was born of a singleminded need to assert my self-perceived brilliance by morphing the conversation into something palatable to myself.) But I include the former to provide context for the latter, the latter being directly relevant to Garber’s article.
The Cold War doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. At most it is an idea, or just an entry in some encyclopedic text. In fact when I think of that era of nuclear terror and social upheaval I guess I view it as some far off carnival. Indeed, there have been days that I wished I’d been present to take part in all of the movement and excitement. In my senior year English project in 2005, a retrospective of my life up until that point, I wrote of how I wished I could have been a grunt in Vietnam. The attraction I felt was the tragic heroism of those young men who were thrown into a foreign land to fight a war of abstractions, a war all too real to them. I guess I saw some form of poetry in it all, poetry that was absent in my present social reality.
But that was more a fantasy than anything else, no matter how much ethos the fantasy might have had. As I think more about the Cold War now and try to understand the way in which its currents course through my life, and what it all means to me, I find myself thinking of my father’s recent visit in September. To say he’s an interesting guy would be a disservice. He was born to a well-to-do family right as the fifties rolled around, both his parents radiologists, his mother a Catholic and his father, unbeknownst to the rest of the family until a few years ago, a Jew. From his days in his middle-class home he went through college, then lived as a hippy, ended up back in med school and finally settled into a life of global travel.
Here in New York, though, my dad and I are making our way down MacDougal Street to meet up with some old friends of his. I’m busily looking around at the sights when my focus is brought back to center by my dad letting out a whoop. Mark, one of his buds, is directly in front of us, a cane in his hand. My dad laughs, throws up his own cane with an “en garde” and they immediately start fencing. Without a clear winner and both of them chuckling I then follow them up to Jimmy’s apartment, another of my dad’s buds, and sit down with the three of them, drinking wine and bourbon and waiting for the wives to filter in. As I sit and listen it seems like they have suddenly left this world and returned to their years in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, pulling me along with them. It’s one of those magical moments that lingers with me.
Mark and his wife Nel tell me they met my father when he walked in through their kitchen window with a “heey maan”, looking for some kitchen utensil. Both of them laugh as they say it aloud for me. Their Haight-Ashbury apartment would eventually become the focal point for their gang of counterculture peaceniks. My dad laughs and contests the recounting though.
“No that’s not exactly how it happened. I remember it clearly. I climbed up into the second story bedroom window, stuck my head in and saw both of you cowering in bed and holding each other tightly.” He breaks into more laughter and I’m of course doing the same, picturing my dad’s afro’d head looking in a stranger’s window in the middle of the night. It was definitely a different time back then.
As the night goes on and the conversation flows, it becomes more apparent to me that my dad and these friends are the only ones who really managed to move into a new life. They take turns bringing up names from their shared past, and again and again I hear names of people who never got over their habits, who passed, who withered away. I get the sense that while the fates of these other friends is saddening, there seems to be an unspoken acknowledgement that this is just how things are.
Among the named is Chuck, a rough guy who reportedly spent time in prison for murder. But as I listen to my father and his old friends talk about him one thing becomes immediately clear: despite Chuck’s history, the man was one of the greatest, most gentle friends they had. They all speak of him with deference. My dad tells me that he owes his current life to him.
”Chuck is the one who told me I had to go back to school,” my dad begins. “He didn’t want me sitting around, living his lifestyle forever.” My dad went back to medical school and managed to merge his countercultural ways with a traditional American life.
As the talk continues I discover that Jimmy, Nel’s older brother, is a talented photographer, but when I ask to see his photos he demurs.
“I didn’t really keep any, I’d just take the pictures and leave them.”
“I’ve had to collect them for safekeeping,” interjects Mark, “Otherwise they’d all be lost.”
But what few photos Jimmy has kept are nothing short of iconic. He shows me a hazy picture of Mark, Nel, Nel’s sister, Chuck, and Chuck’s prostitute Native American girlfriend, all bunched up together on the floor, their backs propped lazily against a plain white wall, each one of them with the most serene look on their face.
“Why do you think they look so peaceful?” Jimmy asks excitedly, holding the picture for me to see.
“I dunno, they look high,” I say and am surprised by how childlike I feel.
“We were smoking opium,” Mark says.
“No man, I remember taking this photo. You guys were on quaaludes,” Jimmy shoots back, sparking a lighthearted argument as the old friends try to remember what exactly it was.
Jimmy then brings out a stack of photos, each mounted carefully on particleboard so that they are now tiles. As he arranges them on the floor he explains what each one represents, telling us how the entire series hinges on the theory of the dialectic, using the space, light, and mass of the Brooklyn Bridge’s architecture and art to tell the history of Manhattan, from its purchase to its modern state as a metropolis. My dad remembers Jimmy talking about the project in the mid seventies and is amazed to see it in its completion, now some forty odd years later. I’m left speechless. I feel like I’ve witnessed the creation of an expressionistic masterpiece and I can only think that it needs to be in a gallery.
Then there’s one particular photo that Jimmy took back in the gang’s Haight-Ashbury days, one that my father showed me only a few years ago. When I first met Jimmy here in New York, during a Rosh Hashanah dinner with him, his wife, and Mark and Nel’s family, I mentioned the photo, almost in passing. Immediately Jimmy perked up and in his excited manner began firing off questions.
”The photo of your dad and Chuck? The bald guy? They’re both standing there smiling, right?”
“Yeah,” I said, “It’s one of my favorite photos of my dad.”
“I took that photo! I thought it was lost! That’s the best photo I’ve ever taken, it really is. It’s the perfect moment!”
Jimmy began telling everyone about the day he took that photo and what it meant to him. The funny thing is that, ever since the first time I saw it, that particular photo immediately became incredibly meaningful to me as well. And as we sit in his Village apartment he tells us all the story again. I don’t get tired of hearing it.
Finally as we all part ways for the night Jimmy stops me.
“You know I’m the official unofficial historian for The White Horse Bar?” he tells me. He invites me to come back so he can give me the grand tour of the Village and show me where all the beat poets hung out. He has that same excited passion I feel coursing through myself now that I’m here in New York, wading around in what I must call the flotsam of the beat writers and punk musicians of yore. To find this enthusiasm alive and well in someone who was there, who knows how to recognize the debris and put it together, to have someone to bring it all back to life, is exhilarating.
It’s the same kind of excitement I felt on a recent trip home, where I found myself with my dad piling punk CD’s into my hands: X-Ray Spex, Ramones, Dead Kennedy’s, Talking Heads, the works. I also took a book titled “Please Kill Me” about the history of punk, written by punk. As I took the book from him and looked at all the punk CD’s, I wondered what impact it all had on him when it was actually happening.
“What’d you think of punk when it first came out?”
“I thought they were doing something great. I was disillusioned with the hippy movement. It had lost its meaning by then.” Then he pauses. “But I was older by then, and in San Francisco.” But even if he didn’t get to live alongside it he still gets to hold on to it.
So I think that, if I’m connected in any way to the Cold War, it isn’t through the guns or political bravado of that era but rather through legacy of its artistic movements. That is what is all bound up in who I am, passed down through my father, through his life experiences turned to stories, both told and untold. Passed to me through the decisions made in my rearing and the lessons taught, interests kindled. And somehow all of this has become enveloped in that single photo of my father and his old friend Chuck, a frozen moment that captures both an era passed and an era present, captured in my fathers timid smile, really only visible through his bespectacled eyes, reminding me that I am my father’s son and that somehow that makes me a part of all he has lived through, and he a part of everything I have yet to live through myself.
Fiction is work. More work than it ought to be. The question then, is why is this so? Why the difficulties? For those who excel at a particular endeavor, for those who have a particular knack or propensity to engage in something successfully, why would it still be a struggle? Quite simply, in my case at least, it is because I am forcing something upon myself. I am imposing a standard model on what I want to do and attempting to write within its confines. Punk is what has brought this to light in my mind. It is what is allowing me to see that the true essence of who I am is born not in the contrived stories I pain over in order to please, but instead in the rambling essays that I choose to write as a means to air my grievances. Now I see that this fluid exposition of my being, in how I pour my every fiber into the words that are placed on the page, has to be translated to the fiction I create. I must dispense with creative control and allow for creative expression. I have a voice, I have a particular point of view, and regardless of its validity or intelligence I am going to scream it until your eardrums burst and you choose to thrash me with your belt. Because fuck you. And fuck me. But mostly you. I want, and always have wanted freedom. Freedom from myself, my self having been molded into a prison by the others, and now finally giving way to the beauty of irreverence. Others find genius in science, or music, or art. I find genius in writing. I am blinded by writing. Writing is my muse, my Aphrodite, my everything. I will never concede that there is anything more impactful, more profound, more true, than what writing is. Because writing is mine, and I am human and selfish, and what I know and adore is all that matters. No need to elaborate or elucidate. If you can’t read between the lines then you don’t belong. If you don’t understand that reading between the lines is actually feeling, well now I’m explaining. This is just the beginning. I want more, and I will have more, and if others won’t have it now then it’ll be had later, even if I’m dead. I don’t know what I’m doing. I only know that this is what I need.
It’s 10PM when I finally respond to her text. She’s asking me when exactly I’m leaving on Saturday, probably to see if there’s any way we can see each other. We’ve been trying to find time to meet since we were last together a few days ago, but she works and I’m going home so it looks as if there will be a weeklong gap.
“This kinda sucks.” I text her as I near my stop.
I’m unable to hear any inflection, so her response gives me pause. “Busy schedules and all.”
“yeahhh. come over now?”
We live exceedingly close to each other, and while I could very well walk I choose to take the train back one stop. There is something beautiful about being wanted like that, wanted to such a degree that she finds a way to get you over. And there’s something beautiful in the freedom of New York’s subway system. I’m on and off all day but never tire of the meandering purpose it gives me. No matter where I go or why, I always feel like I’m being taken somewhere important.
This sense of importance hasn’t quite given me an existential purpose though. Or at least a sense of purpose that I can hold onto without question. As I make my way to her place I realize that I’m still in a funk from the evening’s class. In class I find myself mute, flitting back and forth between internal musings and attempts at following the conversation. I want someone to stop and ask me what I’m thinking just so I can say that I have no clue what’s going on anymore. I think there’s some wisdom in that statement. It worries me that I can articulate so much, so effectively I imagine, through my writing yet fall dumb when in public. I don’t quite know what this means and I begin to wonder whether my sense of permanence as a writer is well founded. My anxiety is there of course but I can only blame it for so long, especially when I’m at a point where my confidence is near to overflowing. I suppose it’s burgeoning arrogance, not confidence.
This leaves me questioning what I’m doing with my writing; all of this self-exploration, and all of it in the public domain. I know that even if no one was to read these words I would still be punching them out. But this desire to examine every minute facet of my being, and to do so in a manner in which others can follow along, worries me a bit. It feels like the correct process, especially in those moments where I slip away from the world and find myself composing in my mind, the words flowing as easily as water. Still, what I’m composing isn’t literature, it’s this, what I have right here. The only redeeming factor, if it’s of any worth, is that it’s a small glimpse into the being of a developing writer, if in fact I am a writer and if in fact I am interesting enough to listen to. I don’t even know what worthwhile writing is. I only know what I feel, and I’m beginning to pour it out instead of letting it stew in my mind.
I’m reveling in this newfound freedom of expression because of how long I’ve lived in a personal shell. It helps that I believe I am somewhat capable as a writer, a belief fueled by hints from my peers and professors. Some say things outright, while others only in their behavior or fleeting exchanges that require a bit of interpretation. Part of what makes me wonder whether I am producing anything of worth is how some people appear to expect me to say things that validate my supposed writing abilities, yet I inevitably end up feeling like I have disappointed them in that regard. Many times I don’t have anything to say, and I discovered long ago that if I don’t have anything new or stimulating to add then I’d rather stay quiet. Too many people interject in conversations just so that they will have said something. To make matters worse, I can sit in class all day and listen to people discuss the intricacies and merits of writing but I can’t seem, or rather don’t care, to follow most of it. Is it me or is it the conversation? Perhaps we’re discussing the wrong thing.
I realize as I leave class with my classmate, a fiery redhead with whom I share a common mindset, that whether I am capable of understanding what is said in class or not, all I really want to do is push those academic thoughts aside and live. We as “artists” spend so much time sitting around glorying in our shared trade, distilling its every process so that we can find a magical method to genius, that ultimately we fail to simply allow ourselves to feel. Everything needs to be intellectualized for some people. Everything needs to be put in terms that provide dictionary definitions of what is being done. I want to get away from that, but as the redhead and I walk along together all I can think to discuss is writing, unsure of what to say or how to share a congenial moment before we part ways. The last thing I want to discuss, especially after class, is anything related to literature or writing. I want to live and experience but somehow I find myself stifled.
Maybe that’s why I’m going to see my texting lady now, because she’s as far removed from writing as I can get right now. Even so, as I sit down on her couch maybe fifteen minutes after our exchange, I slip back into an old and familiar state of insecurity. We’re exchanging awkward conversation even though this is our third time together. Perhaps this is all we’re meant to be, which I am ok with. I want the companionship but I’m not quite sure if I want the commitment, but I am woefully inexperienced when it comes to hookups. It’s the same with another classmate. We share so much in common that it makes our times together very easy and enjoyable, but I still hold back. I want to wander around I guess, experience more, but still have that nice warmth of female companionship, most clear to me when I wake up pulled up close to one in bed. It must be that desire to live freely, without an explicit societal purpose. To just experience and enjoy, and then spill it out onto the page if possible to see what there is to discover. That is about as clear as I can get it right now. I’ll just keep plugging away.
“Let’s open the floor to questions.”
“Is that so? Would it have been more interesting to you if I had murdered my sister?”
“It’d certainly make you more interesting.”
“… Who the hell do you think you are?”
“Thankfully not you.”
When you’re getting to know someone you should always keep in mind that there will inevitably be little surprises. It could be that you discover they’re impassioned pot smokers, or that they have a fetish for toenails, or maybe some other odd thing you can think of. Rest assured I don’t have a toenail fetish nor am I particularly interested in pot, for what that’s worth. Those would certainly be surprising revelations if applicable to me, but they’re not applicable. Nor is the fact that I have a subscription to The New Yorker all that surprising, at least not as surprising as the fact that I’m actually reading it.
So as I just said, there I was actually reading my New Yorker the other day and I happened to read David Sedaris’ long-winded piece called And Then There Were Five. If you haven’t read it, it’s all about his sister’s suicide and how it affected his family. It’s without a doubt a well written piece. Very heartfelt. A tour de force. Let’s all get together and “revel in ourselves because Sedaris is a genius and we understand him therefore we are also geniuses and everything he says has incredible meaning.” No one actually said that, I’m just making up what I imagine to be the unconscious mental processes that drives his readership.
I am quite clearly coming off as insensitive, but there is a point to this post, I promise. I feel that at some point the masses will ambush and flog me for my insolence. But that’s beside the point. Anyway, Sedaris’ piece is honestly a superbly written one, and through it we as readers are inclined to empathize and share. We are able to do this because of how he is able to invoke the familial spirit that, well, most of us are able to relate to. But this is also entirely beside the point.
So I read the piece; that ponderous (I really like this word), uninteresting, lackluster essay. I’m still not quite sure why I even bothered slogging through it, but I’d bet it had to do with the fact that I recognized David’s last name and that it was The New Yorker. I was also feeling particularly generous that night as I looked through my digital copy of the magazine. But throughout my reading, and especially at the end, one word came to mind: boring. A resounding boring.
Being who I am, as soon as I finished reading the piece I found myself launching into one of my inevitable daydreams where I was able to express exactly what I was feeling. It just so happened that this time it took the form of a reading by Sedaris where the audience was finally allowed to ask questions and I instinctively, prudently, yelled out “boooring”. While I’d never read anything else by Sedaris, I did know that he was some form of humorist or satirist, and I imagined that his reaction to my outburst would be, initially, to assume that the only kind of person who would yell out such an inanity would be a simple-minded peon who only craved stupid titillation from their media. However I am at a point now that I have a certain amount of faith in my writerly abilities, and to a certain extent my intellectual capacity. So I figured that my sardonic response, to Sedaris’ snide retort about changing the circumstances of his sister’s death (and I imagined this response would be in his character), would effectively convey that no, I was not an imbecile, and that my objections to his piece were founded on something other than just juvenile boredom. Then he realized that he wasn’t necessarily dealing with an amateur, became offended, and by the end of it I effectively turned into asshole.
Now I don’t want to make it seem as if I don’t respect the grief an individual experiences when faced by such an unfortunate event. I am in no way judging Sedaris for it, or his family, or his legions of fanatics. Suicide is a terrible matter. But writing style and a heavy topic alone don’t make for worthwhile, engaging reading, at least not to Andres’ brain at that particular moment. Because really that’s what the piece came down to. It was just an expose of writing, an opportunity for a writer to spill his guts on a national platform. My initial thought process was that, fine, this was a great piece, he opened himself up and allowed everyone to get a glimpse into his life. But to what end? Emotional solidarity with the readers? Okay, okay, there’s nothing wrong with that. But in The New Yorker? I would have expected something more rewarding, not just a tug on my heartstrings.
Therefore it was my hope, or rather it was my belief, that in this little fictionalized exchange I would have effectively conveyed the lack of worth of his piece. My thinking was that people would catch on to the subtlety of my little review and see that it was a genuine response based on the fact that the writing was devoid of life (horrible pun not intended, I think) and uninspired. It lacked any intellectual stimulation in my mind, therefore making it unworthy of New Yorker real estate. But I soon found out that this wasn’t the case, that not only was my review too reliant on my own mind filling in the gaps, but that I didn’t understand Sedaris’ role at The New Yorker.
It just so happened that I shared my review with a non-fiction writer in my MFA program, and she subsequently took me to task for it. She’s one of those self-professed Sedaris lovers, and while she conceded that Sedaris’ essay was indeed boring as all hell, she argued that it had value beyond its simple narrative because of the relationship Sedaris shares with his readers. She explained to me that what was beautiful about the piece was that it allowed her, an avid Sedaris reader, to get a small glimpse into his life, in effect bringing him further to life. She also enlightened me to the fact that Sedaris is a regular New Yorker contributor which explains the massive amount of space the magazine gave him for the essay. I felt kind of silly after she told me all of this.
But the thing is my initial review, that six sentence extravaganza, was an honest to god, knee-jerk reaction of mine. Perhaps I’m an idiot and a son of a bitch for even entertaining this entire thought exercise. But it happened, and I want to acknowledge it. Which then, finally, brings me to the question of whether criticism necessarily has to be objective. Is it not meant to be a critical, natural response to something you are exposed to? Even after being told why Sedaris’ piece matters I still think it is boring and without literary merit. I appreciate it, but I don’t value it.
In any case if you can’t appreciate any of this now, it’s ok. Genius is hard to come by.