Sunshine

It is a fact that not once in my life have I enjoyed the sunshine. Every moment while I sit underneath that singing star makes me regret the old days when I was safe underneath a large, protective blanket of clouds. Or inside. When I grew up it seemed to me that the only advantage of the desert was that nobody ever wanted me to go out into the heat. I was safe, like some form of tortoise, and lived in relative peace.

The desert’s drawbacks—such as its endless dust and grasping pedipalps–assured all its resident this one immunity. But whenever I left the desert, especially with friends, I knew that at any moment, unless rain was falling with enough zest, someone, probably some man, might say “Let’s go!” in that sharp, short imperative tone I could not dream of hearing in any other connection. This desire seemed especially common whenever they saw someone comfortably settled in an arm-chair, reading.

I admit I was free to say, simply, “No.” Saying no to old friends is easy because I establish the habit early and often. No to new friends is easy because they do not yet matter. Unfortunately, this logic is unsatisfactory in a very particular way. Once you forget to say no, or more likely the no is quickly forgotten, then no is no longer a path left open. “I went last time,” “I wish I could, this time,” and so on are unconvincing. They are like dead birds and, once flung, simply return to the ground with a dull thump. Since this state of affairs can’t continue forever it follows that a single moment of weakness, once started, leads to a sweaty career of disillusionment without end.

Going out on a bright, beautiful day may be an excellent and appropriately ambitious task by those who practice it. My objection to it comes in two parts. First, no matter the temperature on stepping outside the air is thick and hot. It is like wandering into a place where you do not belong (and it is like that place exactly because outside is that place where you do not belong). Invariably, as if only to increase the heat and sweat of all those involved, and this seems particularly true on days when the day is especially bright and oppressive in its cheeriness, people hug each other and shake hands, big grins and a whoop here and there: “What a beautiful day! Good to see you, boy! Damn good … and I mean it!”

Second, on days where there is no escape from that unlidded eye the brain stops working. On a cloudy day, in a cozy café with a warm cup of coffee the conversation is always interesting. No gossip, no matter how dull, is unbearable above the gently tickling waves of steam. But on a bright day, walking around? The same man who entertained me with stories of past, present and future now says that A. (someone we both know in an unconcerned way) is a thoroughly good fellow. Fifty steps further on, he adds that A. is “one of the best guys I have ever known.” We walk another block and he says that Mrs. A. is a charming woman. “She is one of the most charming women I have ever known.” We pass a shop. He reads “Cakes and Ale.” We pass a street sign. He points at it. He says “Commerce Drive.”

“I would rather not,” but unlike Bartleby I am not willing to follow the statement to its conclusion. Instead I rely on the self-preservation of my friends. Unfortunately sunshine transcends reason. They go outside and remain. There is no destination in mind. Instead they answer from within with curt cogency. “There is no destination when we are in the sunshine. There is no ulterior motive. We are in the sunshine because of the mere fact that there is sunshine.” Existing underneath the sun is an indication of their happiness, elation or character. But while they swell with pride their brain is finding ways to escape and, eventually, abdicate altogether.

It is little wonder that the brain falls into a senseless slumber. It cannot bear such a body until it has been deposited out of the sunshine again. In the sunlight the brain becomes completely alone and if there is any wish, it is for the day of execution so that it is greeted with, at least, something—even if the something is  These signals from the brain are interpreted and reinterpreted into peculiar statements that are terrifying if taken in any other context. For example, a close friend, reclining in the sun, said with equanimity “I cannot keep my eyes open.” “I feel… as if I may just die.”

I contrast this with the days of overcast. Then the mind is alive and the senses are (thankfully!) quiet. Ensconced within cozy layers the day seems far off, away from the present and so lends itself to contemplation. The day’s gentle indifference is not hidden behind the map-white consumption of the world.

I do not hate sunshine. I will go out for a walk, occasionally, when time demands. If a few strands of sunlight infiltrate the living room I will not huff the blinds closed. I enjoy the light sensation of watching the horizontal lines of my blinds plop, one by one, up and over my book during an afternoon. At midday the sun will do any number of helpful odd jobs for you. These jobs are useful, especially during a light cleaning, but when you are bandying about outside to gratify the soul’s pride, such as it is, there is every reason for despising it.

But, pending a time when no people desire for me to go out into the sun, or I have no wish to go and see any one, I will never willfully go out into the scorch. It is an indulgence that I am confident I will never acquire, to my great benefit.

Of course, I have written this out in the sun.

Toni Morrison

Don’t write about Woman, write about a woman. This is a simple statement but controversial.

Toni Morrison was recently appointed at Columbia University, a nice gesture. Morrison would not be teaching. She would not be publishing in any academic publications. She likely will not publish much more fiction because she is rapidly approaching her mid-eighties. “Her papers” will never be released in any form to the public and will not be viewed by any biographers. Her public refusals of Henry Louis Gates Jr. to catalog her life and African American heritage needs no additional commentary. The same is true for her repeated refusals to find a memoirist (for those dear readers who do not know—nearly all ‘memoirs’ are in fact written and compiled by other people and the ostensible subject combs through a finished project).

If Columbia does not expect a sudden start to Morrison’s academic career, has doubts about her continued career as a writer and does not, or should not, expect to be the recipient of Morrison’s generosity then there is no soft answer for why she was offered this position. But the answer is not difficult. Columbia University has joined an ever greater number of the public who read Morrison to make themselves feel better about themselves.

Few judge her on whether the prose is good or what she has to say because she’s long past being an author who is understood. Or an author at all. She is an empty memorial to everything and, so, nothing at all. She’s taught, at best, and at worst she’s just another author passing the public like two dark ships at night. And we’ll probably have nice little articles, perhaps a few honors, about a Morrison completely unrelated to anything other than the article-author’s own peccadillos and loves for quite some time.

Few people appear to be reading her books. One can pick up a glut of once read, perhaps, copies of Beloved for less than a dollar: the foisted remains of each successive high school class that struggles through a book presented by aging diversity ‘trail blazers.’ Unsurprisingly, her latest novel, God Help this Child, is currently ranked in the mid 1400s on Amazon, which in fact represents something of a crest in terms of sales potential as Amazon has recently begun combining all mediums—Audio CD, Kindle, Audible Audio. Never before has it been easier to buy a book no one else does.

That Morrison is not read because Morrison—as a person—no longer matters is a neat, linear progression I think more would make if they considered it. It also explains why Morrison, as a New York Magazine piece summarized, “decades after she won her Nobel, [her] place in the pantheon is hardly assured.”

For example, elsewhere in the article, in a burst of unintentional self-parody, the same writer fired off a slew of meaningless pretensions that explain more about the article’s author than Morrison. She writes, Morrison is successful even when she isn’t successful or, in the article writer’s words, writers with “smaller ambitions” would “live on contentedly in this plush purgatory.”

But what I found especially telling in this piece was a final, parting paragraph. Tacked on, perhaps, but truncated just as the article becomes interesting. The author writes: Morrison will escape the “plush purgatory,” and “pass the test” when  “Chloe Wofford is gone, and Toni Morrison is all that’s left.”

Chloe Ardelia Wofford is Toni Morrison’s real name and, curiously enough, her preferred name—as she has stated almost incessantly since the end of her first marriage and, likely, stated long before its end. “Oh God! It sounds like some teenager—what is that?” She laughed through one interview with the Times.  “But Chloe,” she explains “That’s a Greek name. People who call me Chloe are the people who know me best. Chloe writes the books.” Toni Morrison, Ms. Wofford clarifies, does the tours, the interviews, the “legacy and all of that.”

Her legacy, so far, is bracketed by discussions of her Nobel Prize. Note well how the international community has approached Morrison, memorializing and promptly forgetting about her. Like ‘yeah, yeah, yeah—African American literature, great stuff, see you later.’ They made a nice gesture, handed out a few medals and became (I’m reminded of Tony Judt’s comment) another gnome in the land of forgetting.

And note well how the Times, serenely unaware of its own complicity, writes in the same article that Wofford does not even have control of her own name—as if that was an accusation directed against anyone but the people who appreciate her body of work. Gawker famously remarked, on the announcement that there would be a Morrison book this year, declared that there was already a ‘Best Book of 2015.’ Enter Columbia University to finally prove, channeling Dr. Johnson’s Gospel of Matthew, that pride must have a fall to prove that it is the true thing and not merely the mock.

Or, perhaps even better, a tendentious article with the word ‘vision’ in its title. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/magazine/the-radical-vision-of-toni-morrison.html?_r=0 As the author explains, but doesn’t get at the heart of, “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Song of Solomon” are a bold holy trinity of “classics.” How do we know this? They were the jumpstart to a “literary culture that had to either diversify or die.” And if we ignore the uncomfortable fact that literary culture died anyhow along with most of the reading public, then we get at the heart of what Morrison was to the author from virtually the very beginning. Not so much a writer, or even an artist, but a thing that everyone just wished would hurry up and die so that she could be memorialized and symbolized. And since she has (unfortunately) lingered on, we will just go ahead and memorialize all her work as “classics” before she dies.

She is often discussed in terms of her audience, the older black women who fan themselves with her book covers at her readings, the teenage girls who sigh on buses and trains while reading “Sula” for class, the young male rappers who have interpolated lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their songs.

Here the author comes so, so close to making that point. I take for granted that the “older black women” who fan themselves with Morrison’s book covers, apparently just the book covers, are just as real to the author as the “young male rappers” who have “interpolated” lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their song. By that I mean not real at all. Instead, they are reduced from an actual group of people to symbols whose actual existence is irrelevant. Morrison herself flatly reflected across other people, other times, because Morrison doesn’t exist as a person to the author either. Morrison is the ultimate mirror, and like all mirrors merely reflects back at the author the author’s own opinions.

This sort of empty memorializing, Morrison “on her own terms,” is both flatly untrue if the author is writing from the Old Gray Lady and is also a choice to evaluate Morrison on no terms at all. If I evaluated you on your own terms that would only be evaluating you on whatever items I thought were neat. Cool. Exciting. Not ‘terms’ in the classical, objective sense of the word but random notes that I bang on about. The author almost admits it, “Morrison serves as a totem for so much of this energy.” Totems don’t write, they just accumulate whatever superstitions the devoted attribute to the object. Phrased a little differently, Morrison is in fact a totem.

This sort of thinking isn’t limited to popular venues. Even odd academic pursuits, such as the recent Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, is ready for those heady times when we are completely free from living with Wofford. As the introduction explains one essay, “For Stave, Sweet Home is a riff on the Garden of Eden with its ‘lush pastoral setting’ that is far from innocent. She then engages both Jazz and Paradise as a ‘startling critique of the Judeo-Christian God,’ positing salvation not as religious reward but as the ‘result of human forgiveness and connectedness.’” This essay must assume that Ms. Wofford is dead—most of these essays have to as a preliminary matter. Because if they don’t their ‘research’ is useless. On one hand they can write and write and analyze. On the other they can call her up and ask.

Less interesting, but also relevant, is the creation of Morrison as a weapon. She explains herself well: her vision of God, Judeo-Christian and all, is one of forgiveness. This anthropomorphic being creates bridges and, as the cliché goes, he does not destroy them. But here, as is elsewhere, Morrison is ‘actually’ criticizing the author’s own peccadillos. Perhaps it’s an elaborate coincidence, and that it so happens that Morrison was actually thinking that when she wrote of her conception of Judeo-Christian God she was also criticizing Judeo-Christian God—or, at least, a form. But when a whole book, a whole industry, springs up where author’s appropriate Morrison for their own views coincidence begins to look like deliberateness.

I am not saying that they must pick one side or the other. I’m merely commentating on the choice they have created for themselves. One or the other: whatever Ms. Wofford happens to say is beside the point. Her ‘true’ meaning is irrelevant and the meaning that they pull from her works, which inevitably has a meaning near and dear to their own lives, is of primary importance. Literary hashish for the 21st Century.

Part of this is inevitable. Books are never written for most Americans. They simply are not. How many comments begin “I’ve never read (m)any of Ms. Morrison’s books but…?” And when you reduce book-reading even further to all dozen African-American study programs that require their students to read novels, the pool only gets smaller. The calculus, then, is that more people will care about Morrison if she is divested of her thorny, real-person edges and transformed into being a feel good story about black experience.

Young, male rappers and old, porch-bound spinsters coming together with NYT article writers to sit in a circle around the figure of Morrison–the NYT’s writer leading the discussion, of course. It doesn’t have any meaning, but in the garden of forgetting not having a point is rarely fatal. In fact the opposite is true, so Morrison herself can be left at the door (and must be). Such that someone can be quoted, criticizing the establishment, “black literature, black art, has always been put in a separate category” almost simultaneously as Morrison herself is saying ‘I write on my own terms, African-American literature first and distinct from literature over all.’ Oh well.

I had spent hours with Morrison, accosting her with questions, thinking about her, observing her, and yet for the first time I understood Morrison was a person with real human concerns.

And for the last time.

A Liebster Award

I was recently nominated for an award by RaiBal at Rain’s Writing Realm. Her mental decline is evident because she neither nominated my blog ironically nor insincerely. She genuinely seems to enjoy something that is written on here. I am willing to give her a pass, however, because she was simply desperate to fill out the eleven-spot list and threw my blog’s name in a rush of adrenaline that obscured rather than heightened my failings.

Part of the process is that I must list 11 facts about myself.

1. I’m interested, but I’m not interesting.

Continue reading

Idle Thoughts

Hello dear reader, the point of departure for today’s post is two quotes. The first comes from Paul Klee, ‘Art does not reproduce the visible, it renders visible.’ The second is from Marxist art critic Max Berger, which can be more or less paraphrased as art is anything that raises our consciousness. As a Marxist his definition of consciousness is more systematic and unrelated to my unforgivably vague definition. That gap between me and Berger is not worthy of comment because it is so natural. It is normal. But I often forget it. We live in the fragmentation of definitions, and consciousness neither has the associations of Marxism Berger used nor the Freudian, bourgiesie definitions he sought to overturn. Instead it’s just a pleasant mix of post-modern clutter. A bit of psychology, maybe a bit of sociology but generally consciousness exists in my mind as word. I know its definition in the abstract but practically, as here, it means just about anything. It is a symbol that points to a gap. It’s sad, in a sense. Who is Oediphus, now, but a fragment pointing to Freud?

Ah well, such is life.

This lack of substance reminds me of the other day. I was standing in the house of a partner at a respectably large and well-fed Southern man, partner at a local law firm. He had a desperate look in his eye I’ve seen in dozens of other Southern men. They will soon be unelectably and ineluctably fat. I blame it on the food. “His house should be bigger.” I nodded absentmindedly. It was time for the guests, myself included, to chat amicably, stare into the fire and miss each other’s points. “The television,” as if it needed no modifiers. Its existence served as an indictment. My eyes betrayed me with an elaborate roll. The betrayal went unnoticed. The conversation turned inexorably to a few other perceived slights. Some slights were unrelated to us, others were. I yawned. A few of the slights were based on that twenty-something, affable liberalism that can’t stand too much scrutiny.  Continue reading

A One Off

One-off does not mean merely “unusual”; nor does it mean “like Halley’s comet,” coming back once in many blue moons. The one is off by itself, standing alone, pristine in its singularity. The compound adjective and noun means, in my mind, “without precedent, easily copied but impossible to perfectly reproduce or clone.”

Hello, dear reader. I am going to start something to accompany the somewhat standard ‘Today I Noticed’ blurbs with a few posts titled ‘One Off’ or ‘Another One Off.’ It’d be something small. Appetizing, I hope, but still small. Perhaps a photo but more often a link. 

The first one-off will be about the etymology of the word. Happy reading.

Also, dear reader, feel free to post links that you find interesting.

Me, The Collector

I should not be writing this post. I should be writing something else. I should, I should and I should. There are a half dozen other things I should be doing but everyone needs some private time to relax, reconsider and collect themselves. The search for a summer internship can be placed on hold. Understanding the arbitrariness of our country’s highest court can wait. After all, the list of things I should do today is big enough to take care of itself. It does not need fretting. There’s a joke.

I like to think that literature does not provide us with completely new information, but that the best writing is a tool. Literature belongs in the same family as telescopes, or perhaps microscopes, and it provides us with a way to see something about ourselves that we could not see before. But we knew where to look. In short, literature is a game of optics.

With that point of departure, dear reader, I would like to share the story of Beersheba from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

This belief is handed down in Beersheba: that, suspended in the heavens, there exists another Beersheba, where the city’s most elevated virtues and sentiments are poised, and that if the terrestrial Beersheba will take the celestial one as its model the two cities will become one. The image propagated by tradition is that of a city of pure gold, with silver locks and diamond gates, a jewel-city, all inset and inlaid, as a maximum of laborious study might produce when applied to materials of the maximum worth. True to this belief, Beersheba’s inhabitants honor everything that suggests for them the celestial city: they accumulate noble metals and rare stones, they renounce all ephemeral excesses, they develop forms of composite composure.

They also believe, these inhabitants, that another Beersheba exists underground, the receptacle of everything base and unworthy that happens to them, and it is their constant care to erase from the visible Beersheba every tie or resemblance to the lower twin. In the place of roofs they imagine that the underground city has overturned rubbish bins, with cheese rinds, greasy paper, fish scales, dishwater, uneaten spaghetti, old bandages spilling from them. Or even that its substance is dark and malleable and thick, like the pitch that pours down from the sewers, prolonging the route of the human bowels, from black hole to black hole, until it splatters against the lowest subterranean floor, and from the lazy, encircled buybbles below, layer upon layer, a fecal city rises, with twisted spires.

In Beersheba’s beliefs there is an element of truth and one of error. It is true that the city is accompanied by two projections of itself, one celestial one infernal; but the citizens are mistaken about their consistency. The inferno that broods in the deepest subsoil of Beersheba is a city designed by the most authoritative architects, built with the most expensive materials on the market, with every device and mechanism and gear system functioning, decked with tassels and fringes and frills hanging from all the pipes and levers.

Intent on piling uo its carats of perfection, Beersheba takes for virtue what is now a grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself; the city does not know that its only moments of generous abandon are those when it becomes detached from itself, when it lets go, expands. Still, at the zenith of Beersheba there gravitates a celestial body that shines with all the city’s riches, enclosed in the treasury of cast-off things: a planet a flutter with potato peels, broken umbrellas, old socks, candy wrappings, paved with tram tickets, fingernail cuttings and pared calluses, eggshells. This is the celestial city, and in its heaven long-tailed comets fly-past, released to rotate in space from the only free and happy action of the citizens of Beersheba, a city which, only when it shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy.

The words vibrate with an energy all their own, I admit that, but the notes reverberate within me. I chose to make a decision long before I read this passage that heaven is not where glistening spires (and evidently their close companions, tired metaphors, reside) and tightly wound displays of security shine. Nabokov was right, I think, in writing that the study of literature sits atop one crucial assumption and that assumption is simply a feeling that what we’re reading is something important. Special. I like to think that seed of meaning is a portion of ourselves that we recognize in the text, but everyone has their own thoughts. But that is why I write and why I read. I collect portions of myself.

I’m probably insane.

Today I Noticed: Criticism

The times that I have heard ‘anyone can criticize, only a special few can create,’ or some other deformed relation to the sentence, cannot be counted. I’m not sure if it’s a devastating commentary about myself. It probably is. I should find other worlds to read and exist in. Others, terribly unaware of their own irony, choose to regurgitate Benjamin Franklin’s (apocryphal?) quote “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do.” Some, marginally more learned, will turn to Diderot. “What a dull and dreary trade is that of critic, it is so difficult to create a thing, even a mediocre thing; it is so easy to detect mediocrity.” I’ll give Diderot a pass because, unlike Franklin, he never touched these American shores. Shores that disprove his epigram because if there is any constant to modern American life it is the absence of good criticism while absolute nonsense is pandered about with a recklessness whose only redeeming quality is its honesty. It’s honestly bad. In the land of (I hope you hear the capital letters) Special Snowflakes filled with Serious Ideas about Serious Topics the one person whose skepticism gets the better of him or her is the Know-Nothing. He, or she, is the slammer of doors on the precious idealists filled with all sorts of imaginative (read: peculiar) ideas.

Gore Vidal once identified poor work’s defining trait as requiring “Our memories” to round the “flat portraits; our prejudices do the author’s work.” How often do you, dear reader, find your memory and prejudices doing the work for the writer? When the French New Novelists yearned for the day when the author would be joined in creation by the reader I hope, even pray, that they did not mean the flow that we all see around us. I have spent too long looking for that shy aphorism. The scarab in the desert is priceless because it is a gem and the desert is vast. The lone and level sands stretch far away. The sentences become more and more complex as the ideas (‘privilege’) become simpler. I spend a few moments looking through some of the choicer topics on tumblr, on WordPress, on news aggregators and especially those sites where fairness is ritually praised but not learned. I realize with a sinking suspicion that there is not one pen in the world that is willing to be a little biting. The internet is a democracy and every person, every sentence, is alike. Sadly, however, that is not reflective of reality. It is not a window to the world outside but it is a depressing mirror. Mistaking one for the other is an understandable mistake.

If you, dear reader, are feeling an ounce of fortitude I urge you to look around WordPress. Look at those who are putting effort into their Unique Ideas (unique, not in the classic sense but in the more modern sense where everything is ‘a little’ unique) ideas. It’s not pleasant. Some of you dear readers create and create well enough. You know who you are.

I’m Back

After a little sabbatical from blogging I am, for better or worse, back. I’m sure my old readers are absent. I look forward to new ones. As usual, link me and message me so that I can inhabit your blog. I love to comment. I’m terrible at creating something of my own. I’ll try to be interesting. 

 

I, Claudius and Other Tidbits

I recently picked up I, Claudius and Claudius the God. I also picked up a few law books but those, I’m afraid, are dramatically less interesting than these two companies. Few books are quite as entertaining. For those who are not as familiar with the books, and truthfully they are a bit obscure on this side of the Atlantic, they detail the life of the Roman Emperor Claudius. The books delight not only because Robert Graves, the author, is an excellent house guest but because of the historical research that went into writing the books. The fluidity of the novel disguises the accuracy of his work in constructing a character that is historically faithful even if some of the rougher edges are shined to a glowing burnish.

If you, dear reader, or those of you still left who are interested in the decline of original quality and quantity on this blog, are worried then don’t be. I am merely going through the hollow motions of becoming an attorney. It is a long process and arguably a difficult one. But it does not affect my mental health terribly. For the foreseeable future I hope you are entertained with the images and links, perhaps with the odd video thrown in, as I get my feet underneath me. Adjusting to a new schedule takes time and until I do there will be less effusive postings so characteristically filled with the type of rambling (vomiting? useless?) thought that populates these pages.

Before I go, however, I want to touch on two things.

First, it seems that I am not alone in scribbling in the margins of the books that I read. I’m not sure why I do it but I do. The true gems of my library have a twin in the marginalia of their bindings. This twin is uglier, more deformed and ultimately derivative. But in spite of being the less appealing second child of my reading, it has a special place in my heart. It is inexplicable but, I venture this opinion with an anticipatory grimace, it does not have an explanation. Some things just feel right, and if that’s a little too campy for you, dear reader, then consider doing it for a short time. Choose a favorite book and begin.

A final item was that I was generously nominated by Kevin Brennan for five awards in one. I do not feel up to the honor of his esteem. I am wary of awards that proliferate extraordinarily. It seems a little bit too… Well, I’m still looking for the right word there but for now I am only going to accept the good opinion of Kevin. Perhaps it is my skepticism, which can be too loud for its own good, but faceless awards do not fill me with any particular feeling.