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Ruminations on literature, art, politics, music, photography, design (architecture and landscape), wine and spirits &c.

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  • 02/24/13--02:53: Thibaud Street Part II

  • As a young artist, Wayne Thibaud worked as a cartoonist and commercial illustrator, during a time when such media were not considered serious art. They were illustration, popular consumer fare, unworthy of critical regard. Like the Pulps, Comix, Dime Novels, and cinema serials and cartoons, commercial artistic work was a bargain artists might strike with necessity, something they did to make a buck. Serious art belonged in galleries, not on newsstands or up on billboards.   

    Thibaud, of course, was one of the early progenitors of Pop Art, the movement which legitimated our interest in cartoons and comix and pulp. Framed inside the conceptual limit of "serious" representation, Thibaud and his contemporaries (such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Wesselmann) turned the art world on its head, foregrounding and celebrating the symbols and commodities of our capitalist mass cultural picnic, bringing the techniques and tricks of illustration and cartoons directly into play in the elite sphere of collectible, traditional art. 

    Though Thibaud spearheaded the Pop movement in the 1960's, his deeper preoccupations would be revealed in his portraits and figure studies which paralleled his inanimate object images. One of the problems of Pop style is the typical way that human figures are rendered as typecast or stereotypes, lacking human character and ambiguity. (It seems that in art, the more emotional ambiguity one can get into a human face, the better.) Thibaud's very unique character and figure portraits exhibit a specific segment of regard, neither highly individualized, nor general--adrift in a sort of middle ground between actual existence, and an artistic limbo. 

    These two women seem to refer to specific models, and may well have been painted "from life"--but there's a generic quality which tends to deflect that specificity into a more stereotypical realm. They become "examples" of type, rather than studies of individual people. The composition is abstract, because it (typically) has no background, no context. I suppose it could be in an indoor swimming facility, or at the edge of some kind of drop-off, but it's clearly intended to portray two women completely divorced from any reference--two generic "types" set adrift in a three-dimensional void. 

    The second pair has the same existential presence--two people possibly related, or not--sitting in poses of slightly impatient boredom. Late mid-century citizens--certainly American--posing for the painter. Yet their identity seems indeterminate. They could be friends of the painter, or just casual acquaintances who agreed to pose, probably for free. They aren't "artist's models" in that sense, just "ordinary" people, intelligent, alert, and slightly distracted. But, again, they have no attachment, and it's that disengagement, that slightly anxious disconnection that provides the whole point of the painting. If they're meant to stand as victims of the painter's regard, we're powerless to save them. They're caught forever in this attitude of mild delay, a circumstance either so common as to be incidental, or so forlorn as to be tragic. But the picture answers none of these speculations; it sits at the edge of statement, cool, distanced, stuck in its own groove. 

    In one of Thibaud's signature images, a youthful woman wearing a full bathing suit, sits facing the viewer, holding a pink ice-cream cone to her mouth. She looks as if she is perhaps by a swimming pool, or near the ocean. She's completely relaxed, and unself-conscious, but there is a look of slight concern on her face, as if she's just noticed something slightly unexpected or worrisome. Her legs are spread, revealing the blue patch of trunks at her crotch. At one level, the pose isn't especially revealing or suggestive, but there's an aura of complete disorientation. The light source "behaves" like sunlight, but there are no visual queues to support that presumption. Like the other Thibaud figures, this model exists in a kind of spatial purgatory, neither really "in" the world, nor out of it. 

    In the context of the sensual attractions of the artist's rich food and dessert studies, the woman projects an obvious sexual innuendo. She's both the unwitting sacrificial "victim" of the artist's appropriation, and a neutral participant in the symbolic position she occupies. The pairing of the ice-cream cone, and her spread legs, are obvious codes for sexual meaning. But the overall mood is so bland and relaxed--as if we were on vacation from the "serious" side of daily insinuations--that we're free to experience the portrait as an innocent occurrence, cleansed of any guilty reservations we might have about looking. 

    The picture seems a perfect summarization of the attitude of the liberated 1960's--of the craving for release and permission, of a license to feel, even at the expense of respectability or grace. "You can have it all," the picture seems to be saying, at least on one level, you can devour and embrace material pleasure and possess prizes without any loss of dignity. Yet on another level it's a denial of fulfillment. Her feet, raised towards us, seem to be poised to push us away. Her arm, supporting her from behind, prevents her from bending back in a position of released posture. 

    She isn't really interested in us--she's eating her ice-cream and is looking elsewhere, at something, or someone, past us on the right side of the illusionistic space. That distraction is a familiar position in Thibaud's portraits, of the separation of viewer and subject. His people don't care about being portrayed, they're unexcited about the prospect. The candidness, say, of photographic shots, doesn't apply here. "Okay, take your picture' or "hurry up and finish the painting, my arm is tired; it's hot out here!" Despite its obvious symbolic suggestiveness, the painting is flat, suspended in a timeless emptiness within the frame of the canvas. Unlike a snapshot of someone in exactly this pose, this doesn't capture anything; it's more formal than that. Try as we might, we can't put this woman anywhere--she doesn't fit into any narrative or setting that would legitimate our interest. She's without history, nameless, without a past and or a future.   

    The cold finality of these portraits, their edgy refusal to connect with any purposeful or emotional ulteriority, can be distancing. The young woman's attitude of leaning against the chair's angle pushes the perspective off-balance, an unresolved visual conundrum. Who is she, and why is she sitting in this chair, sideways, in a slightly rigid, slightly defensive way? She seems a little uncomfortable, and so do we. Her cheerful dress does nothing to relieve this tension. And that impossible, unarticulated shadow behind her just adds to the mystery. She holds her knees chastely together, but there's nothing particularly purposeful about that, either. Feet flat on the floor, together. He face is blank, though particular enough not to seem doll-like. She's not a store-window mannikin, she's a thinking, feeling person. But what is she doing in this twilight zone of space? Can we care about this person, is her fate something we're meant to connect to? 

    The more we study the painting, the more we see that it's a dance of colors. The blue shadow connects to the blue of her shoes, and the horizontal striping of her dress. There are little shimmers of blue and green on her legs, in her barrette, on her arms, under her chin; tiny strips of red and yellow on her skin. Her legs are white, but her arms are brown. The painting is like a color wheel, a rainbow panoply of application built up out of dense coherences of improbable combination of different light. The closer you look, the more it all breaks up into pixels and points of reflection.  Individuality and detail are subsumed into a spectral matrix of detail.

    What does art offer us? A picture of reality, or an arrangement of color and form? What is the secret withheld, in the material world, that art can unlock for us, or reveal? This marvelously simple and obvious study of a gift-box--the ideal metaphor of a prize within, waiting to be opened, but withheld from us (because inaccessible) possesses the same poised assurance of the food studies, and the portraits. The box is like an axiom of all Thibaud's art, the sensual embrace with rich surfaces and textures--filled with hunger and thwarted intensity. So in the end you can't "have it all." There's always another box, another painting, another juicy sweet to consume. There will never be an end to the replication of commoditized delight, of desire seduced. 

    Death may terminate the feast of the eye, the mouth, the skin and nerves, the ear--but the simulacrum endures. A pink bow around a box never opened-- sent by whom?-- meant for whom? Which is what the consumer culture does--makes hungry consumers out of us. And the artistic artifacts are one with the packaged replications of food, clothing, transport, tools, toys--all the stuff that fills our world. Thibaud's canvases share this material immanence, a boundless surfeit of infinite production. Wanting and having. Desiring and possessing. 

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  • 02/27/13--13:58: Thibaud Street III

  • In the Nineteenth Century, painters were at pains to evoke intense emotions, dramatic situations, glorious inspiration, tragic dilemmas, etc. The great Neo-Classical artists--David, Ingres, et al.--strove to place realistically modeled figures into rigidly posed scenes and positions, often hieratic and annunciatory, frequently with heavily symbolic or freighted references. They were narrational and theatrical, as if illustrating historical texts, events or mythical tableaux.  

    Jacques-Louis David's famous familiar portrait of Jean-Paul Marat, which bears resemblance in style to depictions of Christ, for instance, is now regarded as a canonical "Pieta" of the French Revolution. The incident inspired a popular play by the German playwright Peter Weiss, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.  

    David's painting is in turn reminiscent of works such as Caravaggio's Entombment of Christ, with a similar attitude of mortal sag, with the right arm hanging down. 

    I was reminded of David's painting when I was browsing Wayne Thibaud's images in an exhibition monograph of his work--     

    Woman in Tub [1965]. It seemed obvious to me, when I saw this work, that Thibaud was perfectly happy to have us make these kinds of connections to earlier paintings from the traditional canon. His depiction is meant to echo back and back to earlier images of people in this situation, so we can't dismiss entirely any gratuitous reference. Thibaud was an art instructor for decades, and knew its history intimately. Every Thibaud painting, whatever else it is doing, is also commenting on history, and the history of how art has been done, has been made. 

    This composition is consistent with the style and approach characteristic of Thibaud's work from the 1960's. There's a clarity, a lack of context, before which the subject seems to float in a sort of timeless void, without boundaries. The line of the edge of the tub, as well as the other line of the inner edge of the tub rim, extend infinitely to the right--though of course we assume that this is indeed a bath, and not some other kind of container. As with Thibaud's other portraits, the attitude of the subject seems superficially at ease. This is a woman taking a tub bath, relaxing, head tilted back, looking at the ceiling or wall or window above her. There's no indication that she's in any distress, which makes this candidness feel, well, candid. And yet everything else about the painting is unsettling. The tub is a kind of body container, like a cot, or a coffin. The woman, we presume, is nude, though we aren't allowed to confirm that. Though she seems alert, there's no sense of animation: she could literally be dead, with her blank eyes open. At the least, there's a slight sense of invasion--if not to put her at any risk, then at least of her privacy. She's rather vulnerable. 

    It might be more natural to suppose that she's simply somewhat distracted, just meditating for a few moments. Maybe she likes to think in the tub, as some people do. A bath is a sensual indulgence, after all, not simply a way of cleansing the body. 

    Modern Art has tended to see people or things separated from the contexts of history, or to de-emphasize their connections to historical event. Painters who do this, in the 20th Century, are the exception, rather than the rule. Think of Grant Wood. Or Paul Cadmus. Since about 1900, paintings which tell a story, or illustrate something from history (in a straight, un-ironic way), are rather uncommon. That's partly a function of the non-representational nature of contemporary art, but also a symptom of the alienation or disengagement of humankind, a characteristic of the distress of the social, political and cultural unrest of our age. 

    Thibaud's paintings never offer an easy answer to any question you might ask about them. There are always many more questions than answers, and the answers are seldom fully convincing. The woman's head, for instance, is like a "stop" against the continuous inertia of the horizontal linear space established by the brown lines which define the tub. She could almost be riding in a car, except that the whiteness of the space, and its length, deny that possibility. Her attitude almost seems to be a submission to some fate, the course of her life. She's "propelled" in a sense, by the level inertia of her position. She's passing through time, moving from left to right, towards some unanticipated consequence, some appointment with destiny. Ultimately, she's going to end up, in this position, at some undetermined date in the future. Though she seems unconcerned about that, she knows that she must submit to the inevitabilities of the life to come. Or she must change its course. 

    Could she be coming to some determination about her life choices? Or is she thinking about a nice dress she has been wanting to buy at a local department store? Or is she thinking of cheating on her husband? Or going to the Post Office later? We don't know. And it doesn't matter that we don't. She's just floating there in her tepid bath-water, thinking silently to herself, with no other information to give us. She doesn't yield up any pat messages, isn't making any point. She's Everywoman, caught in the moment, in the matrix of connections and relationships that govern her existence. We can't help her, we don't even know if she needs help. We might like to get to know her better, but she's unavailable just now. We'll have to make up our own story about her, put her in it. She won't know, or care. After all, she's just a painting, not a real person.

    The longer we look at her, the cooler her bath water becomes. The painting is like a kind of delay in time. We watch, and wait, and wonder, much as the woman does. What will happen next? We don't know. We can only surmise. That sense of our having to supply a meaning is somehow unfair--why can't the artist be more specific, give us more clues to the meaning? In what way are we, as viewers of this picture, like the woman? We're just looking into space. Someone painting a picture of us, against the blank wall of a picture-gallery, might reveal us in this same kind of indeterminate gaze of mystery. 

    People often say the the Mona Lisa is mysterious because we don't know what she's thinking. In much the same way, we look at this Woman in Tub, and try to connect her to some vector, or spool of narrative that makes her more real, more explicit, more connected. Thibaud's genius is to pose all these questions, without supplying a definite explanation. 

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  • 02/28/13--01:07: More Dirty Driving

  • Do you get pissed-off at things people do when you're driving? 

    I began driving at age 17, and I think I've driven just about every day of my life since then.

    That's something north of 15,000 days of being on the road, responding to situations, handling minor crises, making allowances for other people's mistakes and rudeness and ignorance, and just outright deliberate craziness. 

    Among my latest pet peeves, which seem to be occurring at an alarming rate these days, are the following:

    Tailgaters. Generally speaking, almost everyone speeds these days. That is, they exceed the posted speed limit by at least 5 miles per hour. Almost no one keeps to the limit, unless passing through a known "speed trap" where patrol cars lie in wait, like wolves or sharks, to nab unsuspecting offenders. But speeding isn't my hang-up. My problem is that even when I'm driving over the speed limit, often by as much as 15 miles per hour, I'll get tailgated by some jack-rabbit. There doesn't seem to be any type-casting here. Age and sex and ethnic background and make of vehicle have little to do with it. They'll sit about a car length and a half behind me, hugging my back bumper, trying to push me to go even faster. I'll often pull over and let these folks charge ahead. It's the only solution. Otherwise, they'll never give up.

    At intersections, it's common sense that some people will go straight, others will need to go left or right (except where prohibited by no turn signs). What I see increasingly these days is people who will deliberately occupy the center of a single lane, preventing cars behind them from turning right on a red light or stop sign. They will even do this when they're signaling to turn left. Some of these people seem to believe that to make a turn, in any direction, you have to move to the opposite side of the road in order to complete your turn. But others, I firmly believe, want actually to prevent drivers in vehicles behind them, from using the side of the road to execute turns to the right. Like drivers on freeways who try to prevent other cars from cutting in front of them, these folks just resent anyone passing them for any reason--as if the road were a board game, and you had to block other drivers from circumventing your position at the stop. In California, it's legal to turn right after stopping at a red light or sign, unless prohibited; but at least 40% of all drivers turning right seem not to know this, and will wait patiently for the light to change before turning right.  

    We live on a hill, in a residential neighborhood. Every day I have to drive down three steep streets, and then drive back up to return home. Cars usually park on both sides of these streets, which are too narrow for two cars when there are vehicles parked on both sides. This means that the law of right of way applies. Unfortunately, almost no one seems to know the rule: Cars going downhill must YIELD RIGHT OF WAY TO UPHILL TRAFFIC. There are no signs to this effect posted in the neighborhood, and most people heading downhill just plow right on ahead, pushing uphill traffic to the side as if they were passengers on a gravity-enhanced roller-coaster. I've even had folks motion angrily or frustratedly at me as they descend, expecting or demanding that I get out of THEIR way. These people are ignorant jerks, yahoos of the road. I keep promising myself to write a letter to the local police department to put up a YIELD sign at the top of these steep streets, but they'd probably interpret the gesture as a crank. They might even come knocking on my door, demanding to know why I've bothered them.

    The Bay Area is full of bicycles. In principle, I buy into the notion that riding a bike is a good alternative to driving. Public transportation should be encouraged, and biking should be encouraged as part of the campaign to curb the amount of traffic on our streets. But bicyclists, at least those around here, are generally scofflaws. This may be because they believe themselves to be morally superior because they're living "green" or because they just resent having to share the road with cars. Most of our roads were built with automobiles in mind. A few of our older cities have rail tracks, and overhead electric wires for public transit trains or busses. But the vast majority of our roads are designed for cars, not bicycles. In countries where bikes (or motor-scooters) are more common, as in Italy, or India, the traffic congestion is several times worse than regular four-wheeled vehicular traffic is, almost anywhere. This is largely due to the refusal of bicyclists to follow any rational or sensible rules of the road. Many bicyclists in this area ride right out in the middle of the street. They will do this even on streets that have ample room on the side, near curbs or sidewalks. What usually occurs to me when I run into this behavior is that people who ride bikes are terribly vulnerable to serious injury. A bike is no match for a car. Biking regulations are several times more important to cyclists than they are to drivers of cars. And yet, in the Bay Area, few cyclists obey the rules. They routinely drive right through stop signs and signals, turn without signaling, and ride on the sidewalk, endangering pedestrians. Another thing they seem not to understand is that a bicycle doesn't have right of way on a cross-walk. A bicyclist should by law dismount, and walk a bike within a cross-walk, but you hardly ever see a cyclist obey this rule. They have signs these days which say "SHARE THE ROAD" which seems to embolden cyclists to believe that the road belongs to them, that they can ride right down the middle of the street at 8 miles per hour, refusing to pull over to allow traffic to pass. My guess is that as bicycle use increases, the problems of congestion will get worse, not better. Take a look at the traffic jams that happen in India, and you'll have some idea of what's coming down the road in our future with bikes. When bicycles become so numerous that they crowd out regular four-wheeled vehicles, you have chaos.

    That's my annual venting on dirty driving. DRIVE SAFELY!

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  • 03/06/13--11:14: Wittgenstein's Door - Part I

  • Lyn Hejinian published my pamphlet, Wittgenstein's Door, in her Tuumba Press series, in September 1980. I can't remember now whether this manuscript was unsolicited. I think someone--was it Ron Silliman?--may have suggested that Lyn was favorably disposed towards new material just then. So when the possibility occurred, I thought of putting together a group of recent prose poems, based on reading I had been doing in Marxist philosophy and political theory. Ostensibly, this was a period when I was beginning to focus on architectural design--an interest that would eventually flower in other ways. But my interest had strayed, and I was reading Adorno, Benjamin, Jameson, Derrida, etc. I had been dipping into Wittgenstein's work for years--someone that seemed compatible with the radical neo-Hegelian trends that had unfolded over the previous 50 years. Though I had always been fairly liberal as a youth, I wasn't a Marxist, and wasn't sympathetic to anything that was happening in the Soviet Bloc, or in Communist China. Yet I found Adorno's metaphorical elaborations of the "dance of the commodities" thoroughly stimulating, and a brilliant analysis of the phenomena of capitalist culture. You didn't have to be a Marxist to appreciate what he was describing. You might disagree about how things "ought to be" but you could hardly deny his diagnosis of the disturbing symptoms.         

    In any case, I was very grateful that Lyn had granted me this privilege, and still am to this day, though I suspect she might not feel as positive about it in retrospect.  

    After self-publishing Stanzas For an Evening Out: Poems 1968-1977, I felt the need to explore other areas of writing. Stanzas was largely a processing (or re-processing) of the lyric impulse which had grown out of my reading of early 20th Century American poetry. My heroes were Creeley, Williams, O'Hara, Ashbery, Schuyler, Stevens. I wanted to create a poetry of emotion, song, immediate verifiable particulars, rhetorical flourish. In a sense, I felt I had done that. 

    I felt then a new sense of ironic distance from the thrust of that earlier work, and my reading of philosophy convinced me that contemporary writers could no longer invest in the direct speech of dramatic expression. It no longer felt genuine. 

    Perhaps I can explain this change of heart this way: Lyrical poetry, in English, is based on the principle of inspiration as expressed through the musical qualities of language, or as evocative, harmonious and convincing sound patterns in persuasive grammatical/syntactical constructions. An inspired speaker or writer feels language intimately, and in turn is able to conjure original expression into effective and unique examples. This is what I would call language from the inside out. Language as experienced from the birth and early development of conscious thought and expression, is language from from the inside out. Language from the outside in is language observed or studied, or learned as a second tongue. You can never "un-learn" a first language, just as you can never unlearn the memory of any experience templated on your brain, unless you suffer brain damage. 

    But from a practical point of view, you can objectify your apprehension of your own language, at least to the degree than you can understand it and analyze it as if it were an external phenomenon. You may never be able to unlearn your intimate sense of it, but it is possible to perceive it ironically, even scientifically, in the same way that you can study behavior, or the movement of physical objects in space. This objectivity is a kind of self-consciousness, the self-consciousness of being aware of the implications of your own thinking, your own speech. Objectifying language is one step towards higher levels of awareness, both of our own limitations, as well as the deeper meanings of existence, above and beyond the contexts of our immediate daily lives and concerns. The ability to understand the immediate rhythms and presumptions and habits which underlie our intimate linguistic behavior(s) is a like a window on the processes which govern our very lives. It may be human to speak, and the ability to see this function in its workings and tendencies can be a crucial step in a better understanding of ourselves.   

    In any event, what happened to me in 1978-79, was that I was beginning to see some of the faults in the structural assumptions of my understanding of the lyrical impulse in poetry. Coleridge believed in the inspiration of the mind, enhanced by the influence of chemical stimulants. He wrote some of his best poetry (Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Kubla Khan) while "under the influence" of opium. What this meant to me, was that the notion of a "divine" inspiration was nothing more than a failure of description. The linguistic skill found in poets of high calling was not something miraculous, but a condition of mental acuity, unequally distributed among the population at large. One might be born with greater or lesser degrees of lyrical ability (or capacity or aptitude), which could be exploited, opportunistically. There was nothing purely "rational" about the ability to write good poetry, and it could only be "learned" if the capacity were first present. In addition, attempts to enhance this capacity through interventions (such as administering of psycho-active drugs) were unlikely to create results without the preconditions. In other words, a writer like Allen Ginsberg would never be a better poet on drugs, than he was without them, so the idea that one could achieve a higher lyricism through effort, or artificial "encouragements" was purely bogus. The lyrical skill was an innate predisposition, of measurable degree, though susceptible of only modest, at best, improvement. 

    I calculated that I possessed only a minor degree of lyric skill, no matter how well trained I might be, or become. I had arrived at that point in my linguistic training, a threshold, beyond which I could either continue to produce new versions of the same skill I'd already achieved, or try different approaches. Another way of saying it is that I'd become uncomfortable inside the skin of my familiar poetic contexts, such as they were, and needed to get out from under them, like a reptile shedding its skin. I suspect that Ezra Pound probably went through a similar kind of reckoning, one which enabled  him to move away from the confined English lyric (of the Personae) to the more expansive, and modern Cantos. Which is not to say that the earlier poems are better, or not better, than the Cantos. Only that the difference--the alteration--is the progressive evidence of a transposition of consciousness, from being "inside" language (or inside the tradition of lyric poetry as known) to an "external" view in which ideas and events are confronted directly, instead of through the original mental apprehensions (templates of language experience). 

    But my interest was less in confronting actual events directly, than in seeing them in an ironic, or perhaps a satiric, way, as kinds of entertainments--which might, in turn, throw light on the presumptions not just of linguistic experience, but on the assumptions of aesthetic regard which underlie so much of accepted artistic practice. 

    Formally, I had been impressed with a group of prose poems in Charles Wright's first trade collection The Grave of the Right Hand [Wesleyan, 1970]; and the stories and poems of Jorge Luis Borges. This was work, it seemed then, which did not depend upon a high degree of lyrical force, but was meditative, mood-evocative, alert to mystery and atmosphere. It was a prose, primarily, sensitive to metaphor, surface, place. Rather than enacting a performance, it sought to see and to understand phenomena, or to recreate the frame within which that experience could be objectified. To do so, it needed a little distance, a calm space. It wanted to recollect in tranquillity, but not through any timidity or fear of discovery. 

    If mine were ironic meditations, they were also performances in the sense that I wasn't speaking in my "own" voice. The "voice" belonged to . . . another presence. Through imitation of the prose of descriptive habit, I imagined I might create the ghost of a character more persuasive than the lyrical cry of my early attempts at poetic expression. I would no longer be confined to the personal identity of the lyrically committed voice. That was of my youth, slipping quietly away. 


    This was the entry into the space in which I might be able to objectify my writing (self) as a distinct entity, to approach that degree of separateness which would allow me to see my own activities and consciousness at arm's length. Though written in prose, it wasn't stylishly formal; it was deliberately flat. 

    As a meditation on language works off Adorno both as an ironic take on his way of seeing reality, as well as the "flat" uninflected prose that isn't conscious of itself, it's almost "automatic." 

    I wanted the writing to be "out there" so it could function on its own, be autonomous, free of effort and vanity and embarrassment. I wanted to make something more durable than passionate gesture, perhaps more permanent than my own immaturity.

    I wanted the objective sense of works "out there" (outside of my immediate circle of desires and frustrations and concerns), to be static, to have a permanent, probably even futile, lack of development. If a work of lyric poetry tells you anything, it first of all is a dated event, constantly decaying within the context of its epoch. The desire to get "outside" of free will has been, I think, the secret desire of thinkers since the beginning of time.


    It seemed to me then, and perhaps it still does, that all writing is, at least to some degree, autobiographical. One of the illusions of autobiography, is that one risks disclosure, that the degree of disclosure is a measure of the illusion of self-knowledge. People only rarely understand their own motives, so their choice of disclosure usually becomes an expression of insecurity or ambition or error, rather than the actual truth of their experience, recollected in later time. Bulgaria was the most alien circumstance I could imagine then, a place of primitive isolation, despairingly so, and hence an analogue for my own sense of profound alienation, working inside a government job for which I had no feeling, no overt qualification, and no interest. My dream couldn't be "of" poetry, so architectural design would suffice. On a deeper level of irony, I would soon enter the design field for real, returning to grad school to get a degree in Landscape Architecture. And yet, that too would crumble under the heel of necessity, of abandoned interest.


    The sense of liberation I felt then, to be free of the arc of striving which had its seeds in my middle-class childhood, school, the yearning of my generation for release from the icons of that time (WWII, the Bomb, the Cold War, religious pieties, the presumptions of sex, ethnicity, and role), characteristically was focused on a European model, the British architect of the late 18th/ early 19th Century, whose quaint and weirdly claustrophobic library at Lincoln's Inn Fields in London, of spaces fashioned as an adjunct to a classically trained mind, felt the perfect containment for the ideal locus of meditation. 

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  • 03/07/13--02:52: To the Ladies

  • Ordinarily, I'm not fond of cocktails "lite" or those which are so watered down with fruit juice or soda, or just plain diluted goods, that they taste like Kool-Aid. Kool-Aid is fine for kids, and I think I must have probably sold some at a card table on the side-walk at some point as a toddler--one of those little projects that kids used to do on summer days. Or at least I may have bought some, for 5 cents a glass. 

    But some people don't like strong drinks, though they don't mind the "idea" of alcohol, as long as it doesn't taste too much like alcohol. Traditionally, women have tended to like weaker drinks. Drinks have often been one probable method of manipulating women's sensible resistance toward temptation, which partly accounts for their caution. In my experience, women's taste-buds are no more delicate than men's, and they often like spicy food just as much as, or more than, men do. So delicate taste may not be the thing--it may just be delicate sensibilities, or at least the impression of that. 

    In any case, here's a cocktail which I find thoroughly seductive, at least in the taste sense. It doesn't use any distilled goods, but instead contains two kinds of what are referred to as aperitifs, or fortified wines.  In Europe, where they were invented, aperitifs are popular as pre-dinner drinks, or as sipping drinks taken during the day, as at lunch or tea. They may be drunk straight, chilled, or mixed with soda. In America, aperitifs tend to be used more for mixing with goods, than by themselves, though many such proprietary brands are drunk straight or with charged water, e.g., Pernod or Lillet.    

    This one is perfect for an afternoon date, though of course it could be drunk pre-dinner as well. This would make one drink.

    3 parts dry vermouth
    1 part St. Germaine liqueur
    1/2 teaspoon simple syrup
    juice of one quarter wedge fresh lemon  

    Swirled in ice and served up. I wouldn't recommend this on the rocks, for the simple reason that it's already such a relatively weak drink that any further dilution would tend to make it too much like fruit juice. St. Germaine is an elderflower liqueur, delicate and aromatic. The vermouth tends to dilute its intensity, though not complicating its purity. The addition of a little sweetness and citrus brings it subtly over the line as a cocktail, instead of an straight aperitif. I find it very tantalizing. And the ladies, one surmises, would be intrigued as well.    

    Something to be taken in moderation, a sip at a time. Especially if you don't want much alcohol. Something sensible, something light, something easy, something bright. 


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  • 03/10/13--10:49: Wittgenstein's Door II

  • I suspect that the "infernal music I was thinking of in my "Night Piece" to have been Alexander Scriabin's. Scriabin, an important figure in Russian music during the turn of the last century, composed in an eerily quasi-atonal vein. Primarily a keyboard composer, he also wrote orchestral pieces. He was a mystic, who believed in the metaphysical power of music, the relationship between visual phenomena (color) and sound (tones). This led him into eccentric notions of harmony, which can sound "off" to the untrained ear; I can also testify that his pieces are a "devil" to play, with countless minor augmentations which are difficult to make sound rounded and of a piece; nevertheless, they are quite beautiful once you get into the spirit of them. It's Russian late romanticism, decadent and "fatalistic" in mood. Too, his work often conjures up a feeling of possession, or other-worldly alchemical revelation. (Some day I shall have to write a blog about him. Here are some characteristic Preludes [Op. 11] which may serve as an introduction to his style.) 

    In any case, whatever the underlying inspirations may have been for these prose-poems, I felt a liberating facility which lasted throughout the several weeks I wrote them. When you are drawn to an unfamiliar source, or an access of inspiration, you may feel yourself to be on uncertain ground. On a creative level, that uncertainty can be of great use, allowing a freshness and novelty whose strangeness is intriguing, which carries you along on a path of curiosity and discovery.       

    John Soane's house - the sculpture room

    Time in poetry is characteristically measured through the beats in the musical "line" created by a sequence of words. The harmony of the resulting syntax is what Robert Frost once called "the sound of sentences"--which for him was an amalgam of the accent of New England down home cracker-barrel speech and his meditative inner voice. But it is also a surprisingly accurate descriptive for what poetry actually is, and does. But in prose, the musicality becomes much more complex, a continuous thread unconfined by the length of a single line. A prose poem may have the same kind of argument of successive statements, leading to a conclusive synthesis, as a "poem" does, but there is a kind of stasis, a static poise which resists pauses and rests. Punctuation may demarcate, but prose is both a continuous thread--endless, by implication--as well as a repeated "starting again" from zero or "1" as each sentence or phrase reinitiates the voice. This is at least in part what I had in mind with "S T A T I C" which the spaced capitals was intended to suggest. 


    Someone told me once, after reading this poem, that one of the symptoms of schizophrenia was the illusion of getting smaller, inside a larger containment. I don't know how much truth there is to that, or even if it's stock psychological theory, but I do know that I was thinking about Morandi's Etchings when I wrote this. Several of his still life studies suggest a condition of near total darkness, in which objects may appear to emit a ghostly "light" delineating their outlines, which then may seem to be "absent" rather than materially present. It's an odd phenomena which I've only experienced a couple of times. The essayist and auto-biographer Ved Mehta, who is totally blind, once described his ability to "sense" objects, perhaps suggesting a sixth sense. I'm not sure how far I'd want to take that. 

    In the 1970's, all the men seemed to be wearing their hair long, with sideburns, and wore bell bottomed trousers in pastel shades. I think this was an aspect of the "British invasion" but in any case, it was a pertinent reminder of the predictable conformity of American cultural habit, one which I took as a symptom of its decadence.  

    If prose poetry mimics the supposed sequential strategy of narrative, or logical argument, then, as an act of creative destruction, we may choose to question its assumptions by denying its objectives. Why must any story follow the usual illusion of chronology? We know that time in mind isn't the same as that we experience in "real" time. I remember that at the time I was reading one of Le Carré's very well-plotted and crafted espionage thrillers, and it occurred to me that an interesting experiment might be to carve one up and turn it into a meta-fiction of misplaced events and clues and false leads. Of course, flashbacks and previews and time-jumps and interpolations of all kinds are used, and not just in crime fiction. What I meant to suggest here was that the act of the reader's participation was based on the actual dialectic between the reader's patience, curiosity and judgment posed against the author's intention, ability and choices. There's a degree if improbability about any fiction, that no amount of suspension of belief or patience can obviate. 

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  • 03/12/13--08:28: Wittgenstein's Door III

  • The question arises, what was the central theme of these pieces? The title, Wittgenstein's Door, was derived from a monograph on Ludwig Wittgenstein's Stonborough House (or Wittgenstein House) in Vienna, Austria. Designed by Paul Englemann, with the aid of Wittgenstein, who showed a great interest in the project and in Engelmann's plans, and poured himself into the project for over two years, focusing on windows, doors, door knobs, and radiators, demanding that every detail be exactly as he specified, to the point where everyone involved in the project was exhausted. 

    I was fascinated by this project because it united several of my interests in a single object: Language, language as philosophy, architecture and design, the psychology of spatial definition. Wittgenstein the man was known to be a classic eccentric, exploring different modes of behavior. But my concern was to position myself in relation to the meaning of his work--so Wittgenstein's house became for me both a symbol of that work, and an analogue for the eccentric designer and occupant himself. Wittgenstein's application of philosophical principles to architectural design was an external translation of meaning into material form. Could that application be a useful demonstration of the possibility of carrying out a personal program of formal innovation, or realization? 

    The title poem, Wittgenstein's House, is the setting for the title of the book, Wittgenstein's Door. The door was a metaphorical passage from one condition to another, one state of consciousness to a defined set of parameters. The door of the title is this entry into the house of a new kind of understanding, the passage a journey fraught with fascination and mystery and danger. Could a deeper self-knowledge accomplish anything more than a heightened sense of one's own mortality?         

    The riddle of existence had for me then a distinctly geometric implication. These prose poems would be about the delineation of an ulterior extension, in which words would be the building of a controlled shape, with the resulting confinement the consequence of the process. So, from the door to the room in the house, the trajectory of spatial progression, the house of language fit to suit the occupant. During this period, I had initiated an interest that would flower into the taking of a graduate degree in landscape architecture.     

    Later still, the experience of building a house would expand my understanding of the process of designing for oneself. Attempting to mediate between the architect's sense of who we were, what we wanted, and how that might be accommodated within the confines of a budget, was a mind-expanding experience--with the certainty that this would be our "last house" (in M.F.K. Fisher's phrase). "What are we in." In our bodies, our brains, our rooms, our houses. "Time is a room." Translucent, or opaque, large or small. 

    If my place in the world might be a structure, where might that ultimately be, in the ultimate grid of the universe? My sense of locus had always been wayward, a dislocation from any connection to ground, history, ancestry, tradition. This alienation bore all the hallmarks of a Kafka-esque disorientation, an exile to some Eastern Bloc urban nightmare--a weird dream obsession of wandering without maps or familiar signs--a Piranesian structure of confusing streets, wrong turns, disjunct intersections. Consciousness in a body gone awry. 

    History in the remnants of its residual artifacts. What evidence of our having existed, even, might be validated by the recorded events of past epochs? With the birth of photography, history took on an eerie verifiability, a confirmation of literal material presence of existence. How might the gothic truncation of the Victorian nightmare throw our difficult, stark present into relief? Persistent rays of light from around the edges of the door to the future penetrated backwards in time, illuminating objects, revealing closely guarded mysteries concealed under the veneer of fake histories.    

    As confirmations of the dissolving present, I had once wanted poems to stand as bastions against impermanence, ephemerality, mediated obsolescence. Words were unstable things, slippery, wobbling, evanescent. How could they hold the immutable permanence of silver images? A glance at an early Middle English text could convince you of the mortality of the text in an instant. But photographs had an undeniable stopped presence. Images of the Civil War were like crime-scene snapshots, holding clues that language couldn't distort. If only they could be read.   

    My contemporary reading had included a novel by a favorite author, Solo Faces, by James Salter. Salter, working for Hollywood as a screenwriter on the project Downhill Racer [1969], had been asked by that film's star, Robert Redford, to do a script for a knock-off based on a mountain climber. That failed effort led to the novel, published in 1979, just as I was beginning work on Wittgenstein's Door [1980]. Salter's description of scenes on mountain faces were harrowing. I saw in that desperate intensity a philosophical dimension that summoned all my intuitions of earth's power, the rumblings of change across the spectrum of difficult efforts to penetrate the complex densities of matter and meaning. 

    Initially, my readings had suggested to me that the Cold War antinomies were in some ways mirrored dilemmas. Artists and writers might find their inspirations in radically different contexts, rendering their sincerest efforts relative and even irrelevent. Frank O'Hara could appreciate Pasternak and Mayakovsky as exemplars of a new kind of enthusiasm, which transcended barriers constructed to divide and insulate. Global constructs seemed too big to grasp. On the mental stage, symbols vied for traction. At sunset, Monet's haystacks took on proletarian significance.

    The ceremonial cannibalization of the goddess of plenty in a frigid day in the dead of winter made all such acts seem like the expression of a faceless bureaucracy, locked in the rigor mortis of fixed positions. Opponents wrapped in space-suits "galloping terribly against each others' bodies" looked like a perfect cartoon of the way we were

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    The underlying local context of much of my aesthetic has always been landscape. I grew up mostly in Napa, California, at the lower edge of a west-facing mountain. Living on the coastal verge, against a parallel north-south ridge of mountains has always had a metaphysical dimension for me, "facing West" towards the Pacific, the western extent so important to American consciousness, not just of growth and possibility, but of terminus and boundary. Though it's seldom meant as much to me in my work, psychologically I always had "relied" on it for a sense of stable settledness, of positioned-in-place. Charles Olson wrote an essay, Proprioception, conceived around this idea of knowing where one is, its history, its context, its composition (in all senses). I've always believed that a proper respect for and consciousness of the ground under your feet makes the best sense. If you have no attachment to earth, to your region, your place in the world, you're literally lost, set adrift in time and place, with no home. And home is where the heart is, where we choose to be, or long to return to. My parents, coming west during the war years, were literally exiles, part of a vast diaspora of displaced persons set adrift during the Depression years, many of whom found work in the busy war materiel factories of the West Coast, and stayed. 

    A panoramic photograph taken from a northern point overlooking the San Francisco Bay 

    So my comfort in living in the Bay Area, as it's known, has had both a mountain and a marine aspect. Literally, being on a mountain overlooking a bay has been the context of my consciousness: To the East were the mountain ranges, and beyond them the "Great Central Valley." To the West was a great broad Bay with islands (Alcatraz and Alameda and Angel and Treasure Islands), crowned by the dramatic profile of the spanning Golden Gate Bridge, the "gateway" to the Pacific. So literally every day is a confirming vision of this western aspect from our perch on the slopes which overlook that view. An amphitheatric pan across a space first viewed by Europeans only a mere 500 years or so ago. A quiet place, by all accounts, for the centuries during which Amer-Indians settled progressively southward from the Northwestern-most reaches of the continent; it would blossom as a vast metropolis over the last century and a half, its natural port, clement weather, and adjacent water and proximate bounty of resources clinching the bargain. Who would not want to live among such splendor?        


    How many times had I reprised this view, of sailboats and billowing cumulous plying within a barely contained plain of undulating surface? Thousands, no doubt. Reading, as Robert Duncan somewhere points out, is a "made place"--really for him a magical ensconcement defined by the lulling music of its syllables, weaving a delicate web of associations, apprehensions and shapes, a spell-binding process that leaves an indelible imprint in our boundless deep cognitive memory of experience. Again, my interest here was to make a sequence of language that was static, or barely moving. Reading implies a certain pace, a given clip. Reading is a narrational flow, but how to deny its relentless drive, its pointless getting from point to point. Time underlies everything we do, but it is also an illusion, a system by which we "measure" the separation of displacement, the dance of objects in the universal play of matter. Could writing posit a passivity that might reveal the isolation of stopped time?   

    But the narrative was also a kind of metaphysical protest against the writer's block that at every point seemed to deny my entry. If writing was a room, I needed to be in that room as much as possible, no matter how claustrophobic it might seem. But once inside it, I found it just the passage to an infinite series of other rooms. Consciousness, after all, is nothing more than the awareness of containment. We are what we're in, where we find ourselves. Birth is, as Plato said, a kind of waking up, but from what? The miracle of animation. If we're asleep before we wake, then what is sleep? If we wake from dream, or wake to dream?   

    Disembodiment means death, and the residue to a writer's life must contain all that it can, lest he leave but a shadow of his being behind. Each of us is a variation upon a genetic template, but with the felt presence of unique mortality; every individual feels his mortal limit, separated from a whole. Religion seeks to subsume us into a fantasized oneness that comforts us in our isolation; but we know it's a grand illusion. Our death will not release us into a gathered family of members. We bud off like flowers from the tree of life, never to return. We release our descendants into an unknown, with no assurance that anything we have passed on to them will survive. Plato believed that souls were immortal, that they passed from body to body, living successive lives through time, forgetting and relearning everything through repeated deaths and births. We know that his explanation of inheritance was wrong, because he knew nothing of DNA, or genetics, or the double helix. But there is a mysterious consciousness which coheres in the sense of being which each one of us perceives. Self-consciousness is that part of us which feels pain, and pleasure, and the inevitability of our own mortality. We know that we are. It's a terrible knowledge. 

    The piece below has always made me feel slightly uncomfortable. Sex is weird. Like most people, I was never able to understand how my parents mated. I could never put them into the romantic scenario in which people of the opposite sex desire each other, and complete that mutual attraction through sexual performance. It was as if one lived inside love's body, as a stranger, and lived through the feelings and intentions of another. By the same token, the notion of the possession of another through physical intimacy, or the submission to a passion whose strangeness and intensity exceeded one's rational investment in the idea of love--it was all off the chart. I never understood how people could approach sex interaction as either a recreation, or as some casual, momentary commitment. Because it seemed so much larger than that, in the imagination. Were people just animals, moved by temporary impulses? 

    George Orwell once lamented how demanding human sexuality was, and how much more sensible it would all be if humans, like dogs or birds or insects, might mount each other for a few agonistic moments, and then be done with the whole affair, free to pursue their separate priorities. The installation of the complicated business of romantic love, and the customs and duties which had been constructed around it, seemed telescoped into a crazy short-hand of the difficult dilemma of interaction between the sexes. Americans were free, but that freedom could be terrifying. One might chafe at the prospect of an arranged marriage, but how much more confusing the challenge of locating someone, anyone, out of the myriad plenty, with whom to establish the highest form of intimacy?                     

    Poets rarely write about sex directly, which may be the courtly courtesy of official modesty, or because it's difficult to evoke in an interesting way through description. I suppose I imagined an image of carnival, or participants dancing anonymously from partner to partner, only to discover their true selves in the privacy of the boudoir. Seduction is both about disguise, and disclosure, deception, and nakedness, power and surrender.   

    As a child, I had been given a gift by a parent's friend, of an oriental box, the kind that opens only through a series of secret levers built seamlessly into the design. The sense of secrecy, of something hidden, preserved through time, inside a carefully constructed enclosure, was like a riddle. What might anyone think to hide for posterity? And why hide it in the first place? Historians and archeologists hunt for clues to the cultures of the past; the residue of a people's daily life, their deities, their diets, their habits, which lie hidden in the relics of deposition. These clues are like secrets to a code. Writings can have the same quality, of something withheld, either by intention or oversight. What we may think to conceal may not be the crucial element in our personal code. So writing a poem, or group of poems, can become an act of will, bequeathed to the future.     

    As I mentioned before, Wittgenstein's Door--the door--was a possible passage, symbolizing all the implications of an escape, or an entree, an access to a place, designed on purpose, as an emancipation from the husk on an earlier phase. But there was also a split, a separation from self that had always existed, between the belief in the possibility of an artistic enterprise, and the hidden self, plotting to conjure the pretext. Ghost-writing, oddly, had always seemed an attractive role, like the puppet-master behind the puppet, fashioning, from behind a projection, the public face. The man behind the green curtain, animating the Wizard of Oz with levers and buttons, artificial lightning and thunder, all bluster and bluff.            

    So I posited a connection between these two segments of my personality, one in which the journey, from fragmented selfhood to integrated whole-ness, might occur, though like Theseus in the labyrinth, fraught with dangers and challenges, the most baffling of which might be that the Minotaur would turn out to be myself--and the ensuing confrontation result not in a victorious transformation, but a complete effacement of self. As I've said before, matter can't hold or preserve the essence of our intention--everything passes away, dissolves, decays, decomposes, disappears. The sense of a meaningful existence is atomized. We are temporary projections with no ulterior attainment. The only purpose we may have is that which we give to--make for--ourselves, reflexive, circular, encoded.      

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  • 03/23/13--06:51: A Princely Anxiety

  • "In my next life I want to live my life backwards. You start out dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in an old people's home feeling better every day. You get kicked out for being too healthy, go collect your pension, and then when you start work, you get a gold watch and a party on your first day. You work for 40 years until you're young enough to enjoy your retirement. You party, drink alcohol, and are generally promiscuous., then you become a kid, you play. You have no responsibilities, you become a baby until you are born. And then you spend your last 9 months floating in luxurious spa-like conditions with central heating and room service on tap, larger quarters every day and then Voila! You finish off as an orgasm!" --Woody Allen

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  • 03/28/13--13:21: A Note on Translation
  • Alastair Reid [1926-] is a poet and essayist and translator, probably best known for his English language versions of Neruda, Borges etc. In his book Whereabouts: Notes on Being a Foreigner (North Point Press, 1987), he writes about his native Scotland, and his periods of living in Spain and Dominican Republic. In the course of which, he makes the following statement(s) regarding the learning of foreign tongues, and, because it's something I've thought and said myself in the past, I believe it worth quoting: 

    "To come late to another language means that even after it is learned well some of its dimensions are lacking. One is that of its written past, its literature and mythology; and it takes a discouragingly slow trudge to catch up. But what remains always out of reach is the experience of having known a language as a child, when words were intuitively calculated rather than learned; that instinctive knowing is what underlies word-play, wit and word music, the sudden surprises that can happen in language, that extend language. A friend from Peru remarked on the same thing while he was learning English: 'I can read the nursery rhymes, discover what they mean, but I can never get to the state of feeling them before their meaning, when the words are acting like a spell. I can have no past in the English language.' Translating back and forth between the two languages [English and Spanish], I often find myself with a foot in each, conscious of how great the gap can sometimes be, how distinct the styles; but I accommodate them both, and am grateful for the Spanish extension." 

    Which is to say, if I may paraphrase for my own purposes here, that it is impossible to duplicate the process which occurs in childhood, when one is first learning language, of adopting the sounds and rhythms and denotations thereof. One can never have the intuitive underlying layers of feeling and secret springs of emotion and knowledge that are formed from earliest consciousness in language. It is these qualities that are deepest and most profound, which inform the best writing, the most poetic, the most mysterious. 

    Robert Frost said that poetry is that which is lost in translation; by which he meant that the crucial ingredient of poetry, its magic element or component, is the wellspring of intimate associations with the language, which reach far back into our earliest encounters with and experience of words. As one who studied Latin, French, Spanish and German in varying degrees of unsuccess as a child and young adult,  I was always struck by the strange rhythms and habits of phrase which exist in foreign languages. I think I knew then, as I am certain now, that I would never be able to fully grasp the native speaker's apprehension of what it felt like to speak those "foreign" languages as an original act. The more difficult any poem or piece of prose is to translate, the richer its degree of idiomatic content. We are closest to the springs of our language when it's at its most inscrutable, its most curious, its most enigmatic. 

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  • 04/04/13--09:43: Pound Ear [Part I]

  • In a previous post inspired by the work of Language Poetry and Poetics as espoused by Barrett Watten and Ron Silliman and Charles Bernstein, I addressed the issue of how criticism could occupy a place of privilege equivalent to original creative writing (or literature). Critical literary theory, or aesthetics, has a long and dignified history, dating all the way back to the Greeks (Aristotle). Propositions about the most effective forms of art have been the preoccupation of poets, playwrights, philosophers, journalists, and critics for two thousand years.  

    Prose--whether of exposition or narrative fiction--may attain the level of art, but is it possible for critical prose--that is, non-fictional prose, which surveys or estimates the meaning and value of another art form, such as poetry or music or art--itself to be on a par with the creative significance we normally reserve for original artifacts? Can criticism be art? Or is it destined always to be a parasitic attachment to original creative acts? 

    Great critics, like Edmund Wilson or George Steiner, may lay the groundwork for a fuller appreciation of works we either don't understand, or haven't figured out how to interpret, or to place within a context that makes their appreciation possible, or clearer. 

    But there may be another kind of criticism, which belongs to another tradition, or which has come to define its own tradition, in the latter half of the 20th century. The so-called "cultural criticism" movement, which began largely in Europe after the war, gathered steam and migrated to America. Though ostensibly devoted to the progress and purpose of art, cultural criticism's deeper function may be purely self-generating, or self-directed. It may begin as consideration of a work or works, but move beyond these to a philosophical meditation or analysis of a whole civilization; as if the pretext, the work in question, is merely a starting-point or prompt. 

    In America, the career and work of Hugh Kenner presents an interesting case of a critic whose insights and interests may be said to outstrip the boundaries of mere literary criticism, and to expand outward in widening circles of iteration and implication, far beyond the limits inherent in the pretext. Kenner's area of interest, as an academic and serious critic, was Modernism, and he wrote important books on the work of Pound, Eliot, Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Beckett, Yeats and Williams, among others. 

    In the disintegration of European culture which culminated in the events of World War I and after, he saw the Modernist movement as a reaction to that disintegration and a reformation of sensibility, made new. 

    Reading is a creative act. That may be the most crucial innovation of the post-structural era. The idea that the principles or tropes contained within a given work are not fixed, but can mean quite different things to different people in differing circumstances. The undermining of the cultural power centres which took place in the American academy in the last third of the 20th Century is largely attributed to this idea. 

    But if reading is a kind of collaboration between audience and artist, criticism may take on an autonomy which does not merely mediate between work and reception, but which actively revisions a work, building systematic adjunctive buttresses. Criticism may attain a separate integrity, independent from its model, standing alone. 

    Any artist or writer desires great readers, or should. Artists or writers who are content to condescend to lesser minds or sensibilities, by pandering to reduced expectations or a standard of mere entertainment, can expect to be treated less seriously. The higher an artist or writer aspires, in terms of the ambitions and demands of a reading context, the higher the stakes. 

    But if the terms of a work of art's apprehension become too hermetic or complex, the artist risks sealing himself off from his audience. Who can say what the membrane is between understanding and appreciation, accessibility and effect? 

    In Kenner's great work, The Pound Era, we are treated to the deepest and subtlest probing of The Cantos imaginable. We are shown connections and correspondences which are either so obscure, or concealed, that we hardly guessed they were there. 

    The Cantos is a confusing mass to most readers. Formally, it isn't organized in such a way as to render the ordinary reader's comprehension probable. That would suggest that a failure of structure, or of sense, might signal a deliberate distortion of intention. The Cantos imagines a reader so polymathic or ambitiously curious as to defy expectation. Though individual lines or references or stanzas may bulge out to recognition, the overall effect of the poem is of a chaotic mass, stretching and distorting into grotesque rhetorics and untenable notions. 

    Yet Kenner is inspired by it to construct a rich tapestry of speculations and echoes and correspondences, weaving reference and antecedent and incident together to make a body of animadversion which is temptingly more fascinating and organized and interesting than its model. If texts are equivalent to sources, than all traditional forms are arbitrary expedients--media for the transmission of data.  

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  • 04/09/13--07:16: The Bathroom Book

  • Reading in the bathroom is a cultural tradition. Whether sitting on the pot, or languishing in the tub, or sitting in the window alcove, reading in the bathroom is a form of pleasurable relaxation, an indulgence, a slightly louche depravity, a private thing which you don't have to share, a mixing of bodily service with mental diversion. 

    Reading may be about waiting, or occupying yourself when there's nothing else to do. There's necessary reading, compulsive reading, ceremonial reading. But reading in the bathroom is about personal preference--you get to choose. 

    Reading on the pot may not be a good thing. Doctors tell us that we shouldn't spend too much time there, since it can be a sign of unhealthy bowels. You can develop symptoms if you sit there too long. 

    Reading in the tub's a different matter. If you stay too long, the water may get cold, or your skin may become water-logged, and wrinkle up. Some people like to drink in the tub. You can have music on, a drink on the ledge, and a novel in your hand. That's involving all your senses at the same time. And then there are people who like to keep a phone handy, just in case. But reading and talking on the phone seem mutually exclusive to me. Reading by yourself in the bath isn't the same as being in touch. It's more like being deliberately out of touch.   

    I don't think there's a sexual distinction here. Anyone can read in the bathroom, and lots of people do.

    What kinds of books are best for the john? Personally, in cases where I can't devote hours to the task, I tend not to prefer books that require a train of attention, like novels or non-fiction studies. I like to skip around and pick things at random. That means I like anthologies of poetry, or books of quotations, or selections of brief prose extracts, which you can sample, without having to keep track of characters and plots and threads of argument. I can read as much or as little as I like, and not get stuck in the middle, or frustrated by having to leave it hanging. 

    While reading too long on the commode is not recommended, reading in the tub always carries the risk of water getting on your book, or of actually dropping your book into the water. It's best to confine your tub reading to cheap mass market paperbacks, just in case of accidents. 

    Probably, in the current scene, people are more likely to want to be on the phone than reading a book. Reading a book is a solitary activity, and no one seems to want to be alone anymore. It's important today for everyone to be constantly tagging and tweeting and teasing each other on their hand-helds. The idea of occupying yourself for more than a few minutes, alone, may be an old-fashioned habit, may be more than some people can stand. Kids today, even young adults, seem to feel lost without their devices. "What's happening?!"

    I gotta go.

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  • 04/11/13--11:04: Lobos --the Shrine
  • This photograph was taken in the late 1980's at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, just below Carmel along the California Coast. This is familiar terrain for landscape photographers, since the days when Edward Weston (and his son Brett) haunted it, beginning in the 1930's, looking for interesting natural subject matter. The Reserve is almost a shrine to Weston pére, whose images of it constitute one of the great loci, like Cezanne's Estaque, or  Cheever's fictional New England town St. Botolph's.  

    Coming back from Japan in 1986, I was anxious to pay my own humble homage to the place, and traveled there several times in the late 80's and early 90's. The area offers a number of specific kinds of views and textures, all of which Edward discovered. Odd rock formations, windblown cedars, cypress, pockets of tide-pool, blustery surf, undulating pools--all bathed in a changing light, sometimes bright and dazzling, other times overcast, moody with mist and fog. 

    I had wanted to get closer to this little rocky bluff, but there was no closer vantage, and the Reserve's rangers don't like you to stray outside the narrow little pathways laid down for visitors. I had my 8x10, but my 480mm lens was the longest I had with me. In the end I had to crop about 60% of the negative away to make this composition, which I had formed in my mind's eye through the ground glass. Though it's quite clear, if I had had my 600mm it could have been a bit better. Clarity of image, as with quality of reproduction (print) are debatable characteristics. Wonderful images sometimes don't depend upon the exactitude or technical precision of the final image. A communicable content may not be "in the details." But clear seeing is equivalent to clarity of image, and very clear photographs are an ideal for which one must almost always strive. This is what I saw on the ground glass.  

    The great beauty of branches blown by wind over many years I've always found compelling. It seems to refer to a determination to survive, to bend without breaking, like the portrait of an old seafaring man with wild hair. In this picture, the arrangement of the rocks, wholly unplanned, seems to organize itself into a balanced composition, the counterpart of thrusts and lodged weights holding under the strains of gravity and settlement. There is a logic that dictates the positioning of everything in nature, neither man-made, nor man-related. To look at such phenomena in the natural world is to perceive the truth of a cosmic structure, which predates our witnessing of it, and tells an ancient story.

    Someday, I'll need to get back to Pt. Lobos. It's calling to me, a summons I need to answer.    

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  • 04/14/13--09:31: The Greinke-Quentin Incident

  • It may be helpful, or at least helpful to know, that I have no particular feelings about either of the two men (Zack Greinke of the Dodgers, and Carlos Quentin of the Padres) who were involved in the bench-clearing brawl at Dodger Stadium last Thursday. That's because both players have spent their earlier careers in divisions that I don't follow--Greinke for the Royals and Brewers and Angels, Quentin for the Chicago White Sox. Both have had impressive years, Greinke winning a Cy Young in 2009, and Quentin having a string of impressive power years (2008-2011) with two All Star appearances. 

    Though as a Giants fan, I have a healthy dislike for the Dodgers' organization, I really couldn't care less about the fate of either player. So I think I can be objective about the meaning and implication of this latest example of the "hit batsman" dispute which has been continuing for many years in professional baseball. Sports-talk shows have been chewing this over lately, and there's a lot of disagreement about how we should regard it, and what our appropriate response to it should be.    

    A little background: It has always been the rule in pro baseball, that whenever a hitter is struck by a pitch, he is "awarded" first base. The technical rule is discussed clearly in this Wiki entry. There has been a history of teams using brushback pitches deliberately, and then of retaliation by the other teams' pitcher. Let's be honest about the dangers inherent in throwing at, or even accidentally hitting, a batter. Regulation baseballs are hard, and when thrown at speed by a pitcher, between, say 65-95 miles per hour, can be a deadly weapon. Head injuries ("beaning") can be very serious, even fatal. Hand, wrist, elbow, shin and foot injuries occur with some frequency, and many players wear protective gear to protect their arms and legs and feet. 

    Effective hitting involves taking a position (a "stance") in the batter's box that allows the hitter to comfortably reach all parts of the strike zone (the "plate"). Stand too far away, and he can't reach an outside pitch. Stand too close ("crowding the plate") can make it difficult to hit an inside pitch. Generally speaking, players prefer to stand a bit closer than a bit further, particularly those with shorter arms. Stances are based on individual preference and style, but many players like the idea of standing closer, to have more leverage in covering the plate. Players who habitually do this may expect to be hit accidentally, from time to time, and there are even players who actually get hit regularly. Quentin is one of these players, who crowds the plate and has a record of being hit a lot.  

    Back in the day, the great Willie Mays was routinely "decked" by aggressive pitchers; that is, pitchers would regularly aim a pitch right for Mays's head, and Willie would be forced to unceremoniously "hit the deck" to avoid being "beaned." In those days (1950's-1980's) umpires rarely were proactive in trying to prevent this kind of behavior. Mays was one of the first African American big leaguers to cross the color barrier, and this contributed to the disrespect shown him as a racial minority star player. Mays never retaliated by confronting opposing pitchers, though there often was retaliation by Giants pitchers "sending a message" to the opposing team by throwing at their players in response.   

    Baseball was not designed to be a "contact sport." It's a game of "inches"--of controlled exertion, attention, timing, guile, honed skill, endurance, speed, power, and sequencing--but success, either at the individual or team level, has nothing to do with impact, except by implication (as intimidation). Physical collision can only occur in the normal course of a game, at second or third base, at home, and by the ball (hit batsman). Because of the limited opportunity for physical contact, and the relatively measured pace of games--a lot of poised waiting and readiness against a few seconds of very limited action-- baseball is very much a thinking man's game. Statistics and strategy dominate. Some men may play into their forties.        

    Despite this, the macho aspect of the sport--exemplified by "dirty" players going in "high spikes" at second base, or a runner tackling the catcher at home plate to shake loose the ball, or of pitchers using "brushback" pitches to keep batters from being too aggressive at (or close to) the plate--has persisted. Arguments, or even fights are usually the result of an over-reaction by one or another player(s) about the challenge of a "physical" aggression. Physicality is usually regarded as provocation, which incites emotion and notions of unfairness. 

    In the culture of this macho behavior, there are perceived limits to this marginal activity, though they're poorly defined, and technically forbidden by the rules of the game. Under what conditions is a runner allowed to "take out" a fielder on the base paths? How can an umpire decide that a pitcher has merely lost control of a pitch, or is intentionally throwing at a batter? What seems clear is that as a practical matter, the rules are routinely "bent" to accommodate a certain amount of provocation, as long as things don't get out of hand. Pitchers are routinely allowed to hit batters, but batters aren't allowed to charge the mound and confront the pitcher. Runners are routinely allowed to go in "high" with spikes flying, to take out a second baseman. 

    My feeling is that base-running plays are more easily interpreted, and that dirty play by base runners should be punished. If a runner clearly is more interested in blasting the catcher off the plate, than he is in touching the plate, then he should be penalized. By and large, major league pitchers are considered skillful enough that they won't hit batters by accident. Especially successful pitchers--those with good or great control, who can hit a spot within 6 inches of a target--should under no circumstances be allowed the freedom to throw a pitch aimed directly at a batter's head or hip, especially at key points in a game. 

    The culture of "retaliation," of pitchers "disciplining" batters with brushback pitches, of pitchers "sending messages" must stop. 

    In the incident in question, Zack Greinke, who had hit Quentin twice in their previous meetings (over in the American League), threw deliberately at Quentin on this day, and followed this up with a verbal challenge. Batters are in a vulnerable position in the batter's box. There is no "acceptable" stance for batters, and pitchers don't have the right to force them away from the plate by sending "message" pitches. Whether or not you believe that baseball tradition exempts Greinke from any responsibility for this kind of behavior, Quentin cannot in any respect be held responsible for having provoked the act. Batters are up there to hit, or walk; there's the occasional player who makes little effort to evade being hit by an inside pitch, but the idea that a hitter must "expect" to suffer the occasional very dangerous warning from a pitcher is sheer nonsense.

    In my view, despite their history, despite the culture of macho provocation and retaliation, Quentin had every right to be enraged by Greinke's violent challenge. In the scuffle that followed Quentin's charging Greinke, Greinke suffered a broken collar bone. Had Greinke actually hit Quentin with the pitch; had he even seriously injured Quentin, everyone would have been indignant and scornful of Greinke. But since Quentin decided to retaliate for an unprovoked act of violence, he's been suspended for his action. The Dodgers have bitched to the League office to suspend Quentin for the same number of days that Greinke will be out of action on the disabled list. 

    In my view, Greinke got what he deserved. But obviously the ultimate solution to the problem of throwing at hitters is to make it illegal in the first place. If I had anything to say about the official rules, I'd advise the committee to institute a regulation which would automatically penalize any pitcher for hitting a player, whether by intention or accident. That would put an end hit batsman. All cries of unfairness to the contrary, if pitchers had nothing but punishment to contemplate, it would be the rare instance where a pitcher would be dumb or belligerent enough to threaten harm, if he knew there would be certain consequences. 

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    Of all the frivolities of modern culture, one of the most intriguing is the debate about what the correct position should be of toilet paper rolls. In surveys noted on Wikipedia, the "over" advocates always win out over the "under" faction, but the difference is not usually very great. More interesting, perhaps, are the reasons that people give for their preferences.

    When I was growing up, our family invariably loaded the toilet roll over. When we visited other people's houses, I often noticed that the rolls were mounted under, and I was puzzled as to why this would be. I think my parents believed that people who mounted it under were being pretentious, as if under were a sense of exaggerated appropriateness--perhaps what we would today call political correctness. People who did under were more inhibited, perhaps more embarrassed by normal bodily function, who liked to conceal such things as much as possible. Going "under" meant a kind of subtly more faux polite attitude towards elimination, and a moral unctuousness that was almost religious in its aspect. Since, in our family, priggishness was frowned on, we tended to regard such behavior with private amusement.    

    On the one hand, any earnest preference for one over the other might seem silly, since the actual effect of the difference is inconsequential. The social meaning of such distinctions is the subject of study by sociologists and psychologists, who measure the significance of such choices as clues or symptoms of behavior, towards a higher understanding of culture generally. But the process has its amusing side. 

    Since bathroom behavior (and bathroom facilities) aren't something people normally talk about, the isolate opinions that people formulate on an individual level may tend to be eccentric or odd. Training and habit play a part, but it's when people speculate about the coded justifications for preference, that they may reveal things about themselves that they were hardly aware of.          

    Of greater interest to me personally, has been the evolving technology of public facility appliances, the structure of bathrooms, of toilets, sinks, soap dispensers, and hand-drying devices. I seldom used such facilities when young, except in school restrooms. (Not many people rest in bathrooms, which is why calling them restrooms is evasive, something our puritanical ethos seems to demand.) 

    The new brands of toilet paper dispensers seem to be designed to reduce the cost of paper usage, as well as the frequency of servicing them. The new ones I've seen are variations on the example shown below. They carry very big rolls, but prevent the user from accessing them except from a thin slit in the bottom. Some have two rolls, one on each side. What they all seem to have in common is that the paper is much narrower than traditional paper rolls, and it's not easy to pull enough out to accomplish the task. I've had fantasies of "institutional" toilet paper getting stingier and stingier, until it's about an inch wide. That would make using it nearly impossible, which would seem to be the ultimate end of these new design trends. Also, of course, the paper is thinner than ever, and even a bit rough. This makes it difficult to break evenly; and it tends to twist; and it can't be folded easily. All of which seems, as I say, very intentional. They don't want you to feel comfortable using it--that's the point. "Don't use the toilet paper!"      

    I remember reading an account once about W.H. Auden, who lived a life of noble poverty, telling a visitor once (seriously), who was heading for the bathroom in his apartment, "only one section of tissue allowed!" 

    Soft paper products are one of the marks of a civilization. We're blessed to have Kleenex and soft toilet tissue to use. In Russia and China and South America and Africa, such things are true luxuries. Perhaps it's true, as a poet I once met at Iowa told me, peeing outdoors is "healthy" (healthier than urinating inside, into a toilet). In many parts of the world, the "conveniences" are much less up to date than one might expect. When we lived in Japan, we experienced that culture's notion of dumping into an oval opening in the floor--something which, if you haven't tried it before, can present a real challenge. I've never used a bidet, but I can see how it might be a mark of higher hygiene, particularly in a society where regular bathing isn't a frequent routine.

    Over or under, we're privileged to have toilet tissue at all, and we should be grateful for it, no matter how it's dispensed. For myself, I prefer a free-standing roll, which I can dispense in any way I choose. And I also prefer to use the "disabled" toilets in public, since they provide enough room to remove your coat, without dropping your sunglasses or wallet into the bowl, and the inward opening door doesn't force you back against the flushing appliance when you're trying to exit.   

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  • 04/21/13--09:43: Salter's ALL THAT IS

  • I've spoken before on this blog about the novelist and short story writer, James Salter, in the Gallery of Heroes. Any book by Salter is for me an occasion, an event, an opportunity to celebrate. 

    Salter's life has a dramatic shape. Beginning, almost by accident, with attendance at West Point, and a 12-year-long career as an Air Force pilot (seeing action in Korea), during which he managed to complete two published novels based on his service experience, he abruptly switched direction, resigning his commission, and starting a new career in the motion picture business which lasted over a decade. (His first published novel, The Hunters [1957], had been adapted by Hollywood.) This included script work, and even an independently directed film (Three, 1969). During which period, he managed to complete his first substantial book, A Sport and a Pastime (1967), before finally abandoning Hollywood altogether. Since then, his production has continued sporadically, with two short collections of stories, and two more novels (Light Years, 1975 and Solo Faces, 1979). That last work had an interesting germination. Working on the script of Downhill Racer (1969), the idea of writing a similar treatment for Redford led to a parallel narrative of a mountain climber. Since that book appeared, Salter had produced some travel journalism, and an autobiographical memoir (Burning the Days, 1997) but nothing substantial. 

    Salter in middle age

    Now, after a fallow period of about 25 years, his sixth novel appears. 

    Not sure of what to expect, I responded to the advance publicity with some excitement, and read the book straight through, something I rarely do, especially with a writer whose prose I enjoy savoring, like Salter. It may be that this is Salter's "easiest" book, the prose flows effortlessly, and there is less density. It is in many ways, the most traditional of his novels, less poetic, more straightforward story-telling--more event, less impressionistic description--more accessible to the average reader. 

    It may be that when you tire of a writer whom you've always loved before, it's something in yourself that has changed. A Sport and a Pastime is without doubt a young man's book. Though Salter was 42 when it was published, it seems the romanticization of a much younger sensibility. Many of the same kinds of themes that he first explored in A Sport were continued in the next two novels, and which reappear here again in the new work.  

    Above all, Salter writes from a man's point of view. All the women in his books are beautiful, it seems, and the affairs they have are often, if not usually, with older men. Heterosexual calisthenics is celebrated with uninhibited gusto in his fiction, so that the more of his work you read, the more likely you are to feel that this is an aspect of his character, rather than the testing of limits. Sex is among the most difficult things to write effectively about, and Salter has mastered it. But what always made his work interesting to me was its style, the effortlessly deft metaphors, the shrewd pacing, the triple-edged ironies, and its majestic sadness--as elegant as a crumbling French chateau. But in the end, you realize that what makes great stories isn't the detail, the graceful sentences, the "attitude" of an omniscient narrator laying out scenes; it's the ability to make powerful actions, turns and dilemmas in the lives of characters we are persuaded to care about.           

    Contemporary photo

    In Salter's new novel, we trace the life of Philip Bowman, a WWII veteran who finds a life in the New York publishing world. This is clearly a world that Salter knows with some intimacy, though the interior concerns of editing and making books isn't his focus here. It's merely a platform for accessing the upper-middle class world of the rich, New York culture, European cities, and the beautiful and seductive (and available) women who people it. (One could say, too, that one meets here rather the same kinds of people one finds in the fiction of Marquand, Auchincloss or even O'Hara, though their versions are always less poetic, and they'd probably not credit the romance that Salter sees in them.) Here, for the first time, Salter traces a single life end to end, and for the first time we see him addressing the implications of a life devoted to the selfish dissolutions of those who live for pleasure, for the transitory indulgence. Too, we begin to see the underlying distrust for women which was probably always present in his work, though disguised by the lavish charm of its surface. This is a novel of some 300 pages, and at the end, after a life of failed relationships with a series of fascinating women, we feel, with the narrator, that Bowman's life has been a tragedy. 

    In A Sport and a Pastime, the central character, a young American, pursues a French girl through an erotic tour of France. We never learn much of either one of these people, who seem like stand-ins for our vicarious curiosity. It's much the same in Solo Faces, we're seeing life through the eyes of a young, intense man with a single-minded devotion to a physical test. 

    In All That Is, the saga begins during the end of WWII, as the Navy steams towards Okinawa and the final great battle in the Pacific. But we aren't concerned with Bowman's war experiences, only what will happen to him in the future. Almost by accident, he falls into the publishing business, and begins the first of a series of intense relationships, a marriage to a self-involved blonde patrician ingenue from the prosperous horse-farm country of Virginia, which ends in a mutual loss of interest. As the decades pass, Bowman encounters one after another these ravishing women, each of whom seems, at the time, to offer the ultimate fulfillment. By the end of the book, all these relationships have come to nought. Unlike the earlier narratives, in All That Is we trace the hero's whole life, eventually at the threshold of old age, with the ultimate foe, death. In the earlier books, the male testing has an heroic quality, a challenge that each protagonist meets with confidence and aplomb. In All That Is, there are no such rigorous tests, only the ineluctable progress of failed encounters. Peripheral characters curve into the orbit of Bowman's existence, but they're so fleeting, and typical, that we hardly remember them. They're types of people, the kind the narrative dismisses as symbols or clichés of a certain class of privilege and presumption. 

    Against the backdrop of Salter's previous efforts, here the routine of seduction, conquest and aftermath begins to seem wearying, and stale; by extending the scope of the mythic quest into later life, we're deprived of the luxury of romanticizing the physical, sensual thrall of the male hero's pursuit of ecstatic self-realization. Which may indeed be the secret trope. By the end of the book, we've become accustomed to the let-down, and as each new affair begins, we sense a skepticism, a slim hairline fissure that will eventually develop into separation. Am I wrong in sensing a whiff of misogyny here? At one point, having been jilted by one of his flames, cheated out of a house he paid for, Bowman later ruthlessly seduces her daughter, then leaves the girl (who must be less than half his age) alone and penniless in a Paris hotel room--a finely honed revenge. Even as we see him do this, we watch in disbelief as he glories in her beauty, her vulnerability, her trust. 

    For me, that episode lies at the heart of the book's meaning. In the context of the post-War American excess of wealth and privilege, and the over-riding presumption of power (and the aura of potency) with which he always seems to be preoccupied, there is a self-delusion which is almost unconscious. Authors get to choose their characters, good or bad, but reading Salter's fictional narratives is like being inside a body that has little self-consciousness. Other figures, especially women, after an initial flurry of interest, seem hardly to matter. For all the deft touches which I always appreciated in his work before, I must admit that his characterizations lack a certain solidity. We sense life's richness, its fatal attractions, its deep undercurrent of sadness and waste. And there is always a dramatic awestruck aftermath of astonishment--after beautiful scenes, after sex, after the triumph of a physical excitement. But beyond that, there is only jealousy, envy, contempt, pity--that the world doesn't live up to its billing, to the protagonist's exalted expectations. Salter's heroes demand a lot of the world, and though they may be courageous, honorable, and attractive, they don't possess staying-power. And that's the message of All That Is: That a life devoted to the hedonistic model ultimately leads to dissolution and decay. 

    In a short note preceding the text, Salter writes this--

    There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real. 

    What this means in the context of Salter's career as a writer is that, as he approaches the end, what endures is the record he has created (through his work), rather than any of the fleeting (though endlessly seductive) moments of a long life. All That Is addresses the riddle of mortality, of that fulcrum which balances the attractions of pleasure and indulgence, against the probable benefits of an enduring legacy. Salter set himself a high standard as a writer, but in the end, as E.B. White once said, "each of us who puts pen to paper writes of himself"; or, as the poet Charles Olson said, "people don't change; they only stand more revealed." The young boy of A Sport and a Pastime has grown up, has grown old. As he looks back over his life, the sexual conquests, the physical testing, the panoramic tapestry of the passage of time through the world laid end to end, is studied, and surmised. The verdict is ambivalent, as it must be. None of us can be completely sure of what it all has meant. Was it all a dream? If we could re-write the story, one more time, could we make it all come out right? Or would that be simply another story, another version of the great journey?    

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    If you've ever tried sky-diving (I haven't), or hang-gliding (not me), ballooning, or even high-diving into water, you may understand part of the attraction--as well as the sensible terror--involved in what is called Wingsuit Flying. Wingsuit flying involves jumping from a plane, or from a high cliff, and falling through space using a specially designed webbing (or wing) suit, which enables one to conduct a controlled glide through wide space or very close to the edge of a steep terrain. 

    I was surprised to learn that people have been trying this out since the early 1930's, with limited success, until this century, when better engineered materials have permitted the invention of more reliable outfits. Everyone has seen film of people sky-diving, facing downward, sometimes in groups, the illusion of floating a visual trick. Parachute jumpers may reach speeds of 100-150 miles per hour in dead-fall, but sky-divers generally go slower through a controlled glide. Sky-diving is dangerous: Uncontrolled "spins" may lead to extreme dizziness, preventing the proper use of the parachute. 

    But if familiar sky-diving seems absurdly dangerous and foolhardy, consider wingsuit flying. Rather than jumping from a high-flying craft, with miles and miles of open space within which to maneuver and focus on the safe cushion of air, wingsuit jumpers prefer to leap off sheer cliffs, placing themselves directly in the line of descent towards the ground. Thanks to the minor miracle of digital video technology, these jumpers are able to record their flights. Check out the following two videos--the first "Grinding the Crack" and the other "Gliding through the Crack Gorge"

    At first, looking at these videos, you lose the sense of orientation, and must remind yourself that the slope of the descent is very much steeper than it can seem, as seen looking straight ahead from the vantage of the jumper. Traveling at speeds of 140 mph this way is a revolutionary step for humankind, albeit limited to a handful of daredevils willing to train and risk the worst. Jumpers wishing to try this maneuver must pass a daunting apprenticeship of hundreds of sky-dives, and then go through a build-up of easier jumps, gradually increasing difficulty. At the top of the sport, a few fearless wing nuts test the outer limits of possibility. Lest you assume that such feats are only accomplished in the outback, check out this scary descent between to twin skyscrapers, and at night!   

    The ultimate in death-defying risk must be this fellow's desire to aim himself right through a rock window, at speed. This almost stretches credulity. Is this really happening?   

    This one can literally take your breath away. If it seems visually stunning, imagine what it must feel like physically, the continuous sensation of falling, falling, the intense air pressure, the unrelenting demands of attention, constant adjustment and anticipation in which the loss of focus for even a tiny fraction of a second could mean instantaneous violent death on impact. 

    What is it that drives individuals to put themselves at this edge of terror? Men have been testing limits for all of recorded history. Is this kind of stuff just dumb joyriding with a deathwish? You might want to turn the sound off, or at least down a bit, as the accompanying music to this last one is a little brutal.

    In dreams, we overcome the limits of gravity and fly. But my flying dreams were never like this. In mine, there is no fear, just the ecstatic release, an exalted sense of freedom combined with the drug of a new kind of power over my body. I think we want to know that someone, somewhere is trying things like this, though we may not want to experience the direct rush and mortal risk ourselves. Skateboarders, snowboarders, skiers, surfers, parasailors, stuntmen, race-car drivers. But these aren't things you just do; they require years of training and work, just to get to a level of competence that allows you access to the experience. 

    Animals don't do this. It's our higher brains that are to blame. In space, weightlessness is the ultimate light-headedness. This is probably what attracts people to computer games.As for me, I was never even able to turn cartwheels.  At 6'4", I learned to dunk a basketball--my sole physical feat. In my work, I once met a professional stuntman, who had done all the stunts on the television series Sea Hunt (with Lloyd Bridges); he was a textbook case of all the different kinds of injuries you can suffer by trying the impossibleWhat are the survival advantages of these kinds of feats?

    "Reality is greater than our dreams." --Frederick Sommer. 

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    A good deal has been written and said about the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15th, 2013 and the aftermath of the pursuit and capture of the accused bombers, Tamerian Tsamaev (26) and Dzhokhar Tsamaev (19), two Chechen-born legal residents of the United States. 

    Since the successful capture, and the subsequent general sense of relief in Boston and around the country, there's been a surprising amount of self-congratulatory back-slapping and high-fiving and general smug boasting about how efficient and courageous our law enforcement community was in the "solving" of the crime, and their successful apprehension of the bombers. Bostonians cheered in the streets when Dzhokhar was discovered huddled in a residential backyard under a tarp inside a boat. 

    Since 9/11, there have been a number of fairly amateurish attempts at terrorism in this country. Most have been thwarted. What the Boston Marathon event proves, in my estimation, is that for all the homeland security measures, all the protective systems put into place to reduce our exposure to unwanted foreign or domestic terrorist incursions, we're still not really very safe. 

    The signal characteristic of all of the known (or at least publicly acknowledged) cases is their amateurish incompetence. What we know now is that it takes very little effort to acquire the means to construct and deliver an explosive device. In addition, it's become clear that very little indoctrination or "training" is required to animate individuals to perpetrate an act of sabotage or anarchistic destruction. It's relatively easy to "radicalize" a sympathetic mind, and even easier for that converted radical to carry out a simple act of terrorism. A teenager could do it. 

    In the case of Boston, the bombers were able simply to walk into the crowd and deposit their devices in full daylight, with many police in the immediate area. Apparently, our Homeland Security people had already been alerted, by the Russian government no less, about the older brother's extreme Muslim sympathies, and yet a brief investigation of him had been concluded without further ado, despite the fact that he had been posting radical Islamic messages and videos on the internet--activity which we've been told is routinely monitored by our Homeland Security people. 

    What seemed perfectly obvious to anyone who watched the unfolding drama in the days following the bombing, is that the two brothers could very easily have escaped the Boston area, either in a stolen car, or by some other form of transportation. Their behavior following the bombing was plainly irrational, killing a security guard, then attempting a hold-up of a convenience store, you could almost believe that they wanted to be caught, or wanted an open confrontation with authorities. Those with a death-wish may feel that a perfect escape is somehow less direct a message; we've known in detail that many of the Muslim "suicide" bombers regard an honorable death as the highest form of religious sacrifice, which may explain the reckless actions of the Tsamaev brothers. 

    But the really simple conclusion to draw is that the authorities--at all levels, local, state and Federal--would never have caught them, if they hadn't given themselves away in the immediate aftermath. Their capture had nothing to do with good investigative technique or rapid response or great bravery by the police. The suspects, in effect, gave themselves up. What's even more troubling, in this respect, is that the second of the two bombers actually escaped, after having been cornered on a suburban residential street. After reportedly exchanging stolen vehicles, he continued on foot. It remains unclear why he didn't--as he should have been able to--leave the area at once, realizing that a dragnet would shortly be underway and the area encircled. The area where he was believed to be hiding was so large, that authorities were unable to close off all roads leading out of the neighborhood. 

    In short, there is nothing in what we have been told of the events of the bombing, or the pursuit of the bombers, that would inspire confidence either in our ability to identify and intercede, before the fact, or to "solve" the crime and apprehend the perpetrators. I see nothing particularly "heroic" or impressive about the abilities of the authorities to pursue the criminals. These two brothers were rank amateurs, who made every mistake in the book, and might still have gotten away with not only the terrorist act, but the subsequent deadly incidents, if they had managed to make any kind of intelligent escape plan, or had been just a bit more clever. 

    It may be helpful to the American public, or to Boston's residents, to feel pride and relief, but there is nothing about the whole affair to make a sensible person feel secure, or proud of the performance of the local law enforcement. There was nothing but blundering incompetence shown here, from the failure to accurately identify a known terrorist suspect, to the lack of adeequate security at a public event, to the pursuit and capture of the equally incompetent suspect(s). If this is evidence that we're "winning" the war on terror, I think the victory has a hollow ring. 

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  • 04/27/13--11:06: The Great Wave

  • When the great wave approaches, it's important to know that you should simply dive through it, and to believe that by doing so you will come through alright on the other side. It is of course possible that you may not come out, but in that case, do not trouble yourself, you will not be conscious of it. 

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  • 05/06/13--06:23: Procrastination

  • Death with Headphones

    “No time like the present,”

    my stepfather used to say,

    as if
    there actually were

    an alternative,


    as if
    mortality were a compromise

    with inconvenience,
    instead of

    the ultimatum

    we know it is.


    Wake up and smell the roses.

    Wake up and smell the ocean.

    Wake up and smell the bacon.

    Wake up.

    Wake up.

    Wake up.

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