On the Balcony

Some time ago, it does not matter precisely when, I was sitting on a balcony’s faux-wood floor. My condition was framed by two incredibly large and incredibly clear sliding doors. The walls inside were white. The floors were of a cheap white tile fashionable in the 70s and polished to a gleam. The glare from the sea was so pronounced that the room, as much as the sun above, seemed, by contrast to the balcony, extremely bright. I say this because I remember my worry that I would be construed as the type who, in spite the south side’s perfect view of blue sea, had taken to the darkest corner, which was, worst of all, outside. In other words a loon of a very peculiar and unfashionable type—as if I was looking to thread the needle between the refinements of a conditioned interior and the beauty of those south facing bay windows.

Inside there were paper bags half filled with aluminum wrappers and animal fries and empanadas and empty bottles of gin that were white rimmed from excitement and thirst. A single red cup lay in the middle of the living room and around it a red splash had dried along the caulking in rough coagulated lines. I took this in because one of my favorite whites had performed the task of eratsz damn and, having left my shoulders, was finished as a piece of conventional clothing. Beside, near an overstuffed red armchair, was a pale-blue cashmere top and matching dress, both understated and from a thrift store whose sign I could, just barely, discern among the sprawl. Indeed sweat drenched finery lay all over, even on the balcony.

I listened to the following conversation that took place below and across the street outside a bar that was notable only because it required everyone to wear shoes.

“It’s an hour to Tijuana,” he said.

The other, “yeah.”

“We could spend the night out there.”

“Yeah,” a half pause, “nah.”

A laugh, “Nah, yeah.”

“We planning to come back?

“I was thinking we could get a little sliced. There’s a nice house my cousin owns. We could be back Sunday to see Kim.”

“I guess. Will Kim be down from West Covina on Sunday?”

He then said “No.”

I was unsure in whose favor the dialogue had been resolved, or if it had been resolved at all.

The faux-wood was beginning to heat up. I felt an individual drop of sweat work its way down my body. I tried stretching but my leg had gone to sleep. I did not stand up because my unspecific phobias seemed to be rendering everything I did in my space useless.

I waited. I remember that I did not like to wait and I despised waiting. I still do. I attribute this to uncomfortable childhood experiences. In line I was assaulted by my body, that thing, whose eating, pissing and sleeping crises (did I mention eating) reached a fever pitch as they acquired an ever more solid stake correlated to how far I was from the front.

Perhaps there was an attraction to waiting. It tastes just the way it looks: responsibility no longer rests with you, and freedom from responsibility can cause incredible tipsiness. It’s easier than putting up with everything. Easier to talk. But when the time comes your knees will be wobbly. And depression—a perpetual depression—until the next time responsibility is foisted. This peculiar effect has no name but that it exists in German as a compound word I have no doubt.

It was a long while later when Alex arrived. He had on a pair of khaki chinos and no shirt. Over his khakis sat a pair of assless chaps but with cheap, vinyl leis connected by twine. He had on a pair of wide, CHIP-gold Vans that he wore like flip flops with the heel-side pressed down. While he sat he plucked the leis’ purple stained flowers. An hour passed before he started sending small, discrete piles of leis off the ledge onto the street below us.

On reflection the most curious aspect of his arrival was this: I did not acknowledge it. Although he was in my direct line of sight I continued working out a discernible pattern to the sprawl that extended up around our house’s hills. I didn’t talk to him. I am large, imposing I suppose. I don’t talk a great deal to people I don’t know. I am invisible, perhaps out of fear. Most of my sentences drift off, don’t end. It’s a habit I’ve fallen into. I don’t deal well with people. I would think that this appearance of not being very much in touch was probably one of the reasons he finally stood up. “Yeah, well.”

This incident, which I often embroider to include an imaginary detour, exactly describes those slow summer days to me.

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.

A Wonder of Reading

In Borges illuminating, “premeditated” study of Kafka, we are deposited–in a fashion Borges’ owns–onto the conclusion that we discover Kafka’s qualities but only because he had written and Max had saved. Kafka’s influence on these earlier works “In other words… would not exist” if Max had obeyed the will or Kafka had not obeyed his will.

When Pontius Pilate was asked to take down the sign above Christ’s head—which read ‘King of the Jews’—he replied quod scripsi scripsi.There was no regret or elusion. But earlier Pilate had looked into the crowd and had washed his hands. Christ was neither his problem nor responsibility. It is a study of contrasts, who is the real Pilate? If he did not allow a single addition or elision then he is a man of towering certainty. If he abdicated his responsibility and washed his hands of the crowds’ decision then, dear, reader, come to the opposite conclusion.

Deciding who he is a question without an answer, but he is a door we have to pass through. He is still alive, having exhausted all infamy, and is a gift that we must accept gratefully. Because he is a gift I cannot refuse I am afraid that my suffering and joys and sufferings, not to mention my other sufferings, will be left for other pages. Other nights will carry the burden of my scribbling life. Tonight is Pontius.

It is a needless observation that Pilate should be damned for his actions but because of his actions he, indirectly, saved the world. Are the world’s sins cleansed forever and for all if Jesus is let go in favor of Barabas? I am not a theologian but Jurgen Moltmann would be a radically different thinker. Perhaps that is a modern point—efficiency and end results always provide retroactive forgiveness to inexcusable means. But I would consider it a small irony if Pilate was damned because he allowed the savior to save the world. Given the omniscience of God he is also a moral point and, thus, we are led back to my first paragraph—what moral point?

I refuse to believe that Pilate is unvarnished evil. He is not Milton’s Satan or Shakespeare’s “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature and deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world, scarce half made up.”

What Pilate represents to us, today, is not the same moral point he has always represented. Theology always contains an autobiographical element, and an autobiography is always changing. What I see in Pilate is Kafka, but if Kafka had not written then I would have never seen him. What I see in Pilate is also an Eichmann, but if Arendt had not written then I would have never seen him.

For that I thank you, authors, and for you dear reader think of what and how figures change when you look at them through different lenses. For Borges could have, and I am sure he did, gone farther. It is not Kafka that we see in those earlier writers, though he is certainly there. It is ourselves that we see. If Zeno’s paradox against movement is reflected in Kafka’s work and Kafka’s work is reflected in Zeno’s then it is because you choose to insert Kafka’s work into Zeno’s and Zeno’s into Kafka’s. And now, as I write, I am busily inserting Borges and, for that matter, whomever you decided wrote the Gospels.

Functionally, I have become Kafka’s precursor. It is a wonder of reading. In considering Pilate I leave myself behind, for Kafka to pick up after I read him–or perhaps before.

If I am not mis…

If I am not mistaken, the heterogeneous pieces I have enumerated resemble Kafka; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. This second fact is the more significant. In each of these texts we find Kafka’s idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if Kafka had never written a line, we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist. The poem, ‘Fears and Scruples’ by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now. In the critics’ vocabulary, the word ‘precursor’ is indispensable, but it should be cleansed of all connotation of polemics or rivalry. The fact is the every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future. In this correlation the identity or plurality of the men involved is unimportant. The early Kafka of Betrachtung is less a precursor of the Kafka of somber myths and atrocious institutions than is Browning or Lord Dunsany.

Borges and his unique, accurate and interesting approach to Kafka. For the full essay, and a few others, click here. 

We, the Refugees

Hannah Arendt was not afraid of making a few jokes. I thank her for it. We, the Refugees has a peculiar but particular beat. Humorous in its own way. I hope you, dear reader, take a moment to read it. Or skim it. Here is an alternate link. She alights from one gem to another. “No, there is something wrong with our optimism. There are those odd optimists among us who, having made a lot of optimistic speeches, go home and turn on the gas or make use of a skyscraper in quite an unexpected way.” Then, at another point, “One may be surprised that the apparent uselessness of all our odd disguises has not yet been able to discourage us.”

It is surprising to me that her essay does not have a more substantial audience. It’s never been more relevant. It seems exactly like the type of document a professor, perhaps exploring marginal viewpoints in history (migrant farmworkers, anyone?), would use in his or her lecture. Maybe her whiteness precludes her from serious consideration. Oh well. Here is Giorgio Agamben.

The reasons for this impotence lie not only in the selfishness and blindness of bureaucratic machines, but in the basic notions themselves that regulate the inscription of the native (that is, of life) in the legal order of the nation-state.

[…]

That there is no autonomous space within the political order of the nation-state for something like the pure man in himself is evident at least in the fact that, even in the best of cases, the status of the refugee is always considered a temporary condition that should lead either to naturalization or to repatriation. A permanent status of man in himself is inconceivable for the law of the nation-state.

Anyhow, happy reading.

I suddenly bega…

I suddenly began rather to admire Frederic Prokosch twenty years ago when he visited me on the Hudson River where I lived. I took him to a party attended by a number of hicks and hacks and hoods from a nearby outpost of Academe. Naturally, they regarded Prokosch with contempt. They knew that he had once been famous in Amnesia but they had forgotten why. Anyway, Auden had won. And Auden had said that there can only be on poet per epoch.

A great deal was said about poetry; and some of it was said by poets. Teacher-poets, true, but poets nevertheless; winners of prizes (“They got more prizes now than they got poets” Philip Rahv, circa 1960, Amnesia). Prokosch was entirely ignored. But he listened politely as the uses of poetry in general and of the classics in particular were brought into question. Extreme position were taken. Finally, one poet-teacher pulled the chain, as it were, on all of Western civilization: The classics, as such, were totally irrelevant. For a moment, there was a blessed silence. Then Prokosch began to recite in Latin a passage from Virgil; and the room grew very cold and still. “It’s Dante,” a full professor whispered to a full wife.

When Prokosch had finished, he said mildly, “Those lines are carved in marble in the gardens of the Villa Borghese at Rome. I used to look at them every day and I’d think, that is what poetry is, something that can be carved in marble, something that can still be beautiful to read after so many centuries.”

“Those lines are carved in marble in the gardens of the Villa Borghese at Rome. I used to look at them every day and I’d think, that is what poetry is, something that can be carved in marble, something that can still be beautiful to read after so many centuries.”

From “Frederick Prokosch,” by Gore Vidal. Appeared in New York Review of Books on May 12, 1983.

The Writer Had a Problem

The Writer Had a Problem

What our correspondent also understood, sitting there in his basement bathtub, was that the literature of creativity was a genre of surpassing banality. Every book he read seemed to boast the same shopworn anecdotes and the same canonical heroes. If the authors are presenting themselves as experts on innovation, they will tell us about Einstein, Gandhi, Picasso, Dylan, Warhol, the Beatles. If they are celebrating their own innovations, they will compare them to the oft-rejected masterpieces of Impressionism — that ultimate combination of rebellion and placid pastel bullshit that decorates the walls of hotel lobbies from Pittsburgh to Pyongyang.

 

 

The Best Type of Censorship

Newly literate and still awed by the printed word, the Russian governors are terrified of ideas. If only they knew what out governors know: that in a huge egalitarian society no idea which runs counter to the prevailing superstitions can successfully penetrate the national carapace. We give our solemn critics every freedom, including the one to fail to be heard. And fail they do: silence and indifference neutralize the irritant more effectively than brainwashing.

“Satire in the 1950s,” Gore Vidal

Meta is Death to Memory

“Once we assign monumental form to memory, we have to some degree divested ourselves of the obligation to remember,” James Young writes. I believe him. I believe that we live in a crisis of criticism because we have built up these great ideas, theories and conceptions about the world without truly reconciling ourselves to our past. In fact, many of these grand ideas are an effort to forget the past for very temporary, but contemporary, purposes. As a result, even though the past is the soil from where these ideas and frameworks have come from the soil is drifting away. To jump unapologetically and, arguably, incongruously to another metaphor these ideas are citadels of the mind. Like citadels today they are simply elaborate memorials of an age that, we assume incorrectly, has no meaning to us now. We have let remembrance become a thing of the past rather than a legitimate reminder of it.

I look at what some call political correctness. Tony Judt has a great experience in the matter.

“In Nice today, for example, the main shopping street has been relabeled with a plaque reading “Avengueda Jouan Medecin. Consou de Nissa 1928-1965.” This is a politically correct attempt, in the French context, to remind passerby that the local inhabitants once spoke an Italianate Provencal patois and to invoke on behalf of the city’s distinctive identity the memory of that language. But Jean Medecin, the mayor of Nice between 1928 and 1965, had no particular interest in local dialects or customs, did not use the old Nicois form of his name or title, and was as French, and French-speaking, as they come–as were most of his constituents in his day. This one instance can stand for many where a false past had been substituted for the real one for very present-minded reasons; here, at least, the historian can help set memory back on its feet.”

I look into my own life and I experience instances that are casual, unremarkable and–with those two adjectives in mind–horrifyingly banal. I live, for a few months longer at any rate, near a reservation for Native Americans. In an interesting pique of disagreeableness they have begun an elaborate process of identifying ‘burial grounds’ near and around their reservation. Knowledgeable opinion is fragmented on the why. Some believe it is to abrogate or somehow encourage the ending of leases the tribe undertook many years ago. Others believe it is an attempt to somehow limit the ability of the local and state government to nix potential building plans. If it is decided that the burrowing owl or fringe-toed lizard can be displaced on account of a proper homage to the dead then the principle behind preventing development of the land is moot. It’s a much shorter jump from cemetery to, say, a parking garage than from an endangered species’ habitat.

The point being, the idea behind any ‘burial ground’ for these particular Native Americans is nonsense. They were nomads, historically, and like most Californian Indians they had no real permanent locations (or even seasonal ones). In a very real sense, specially if we have an eye on our government’s treatment of these tribes, all of California is an ‘Indian burial ground.’ Time will tell what happens and, to use Kurt Vonnegut’s laconic phrase, so it goes. Political correctness in the American context bits a little bit further into the core of American ‘authenticity.’

But what I pull from it is not, perhaps, morality being subsumed to economic efficacy. The issue I have is how so many have let their monumental conceptions about the world erase so many details about this particular event so it can continue to fit their preconceptions. The burial grounds are there, it is argued, because to believe otherwise would be an insult to Native American culture. Tangible evidence and the details of the situation ride shotgun to ‘more important’ concerns. To consider anything else would be a form, another instance in a long lineage of tragedies, of cultural imperialism just like, well, pick your example. It is an autofill statement.

I find myself doing the same thing. I have a rule, a (capital-B) Belief. It was made, at one point, out of the past. Past decisions, experiences and thoughts provided this Belief. Those past accidents, for that’s what they were, are now forgotten because by making my rule, my monument, I have “divested” myself from “the obligation to remember.” I have my reasons. They may not be good ones, or they may be good ones. I have no idea. Too often, and I’m not alone in this, the details of ‘the now’ have ceased to matter because they rely on a past that I no longer remember or feel a compulsion to learn about. The best sort of facts, the inconvinient ones, are rubbed out of existence.

Sometimes this dynamic  can prove Arendt’s quip that “the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny.” To evaluate the statement’s true value take a look at the ultimate holders of all the answers: midcentury progressives, especially those who had taken ahold of communism as a legitimate explanation of the world’s functions. As Sartre aptly summarized, Marxism was “an instrument that made it possible to master all of history and economics without actually having to study either.” Or, perhaps more simply, the ironically titled book by former communist Leszek Kolakowski ‘My Correct Views on Everything.’ It is an autobiographical composite of his life and intellectual views with an added emphasis on the unfalseability of anything he said, wrote or believed as long as it was properly imbued with the absoluteness of Marxist orthodoxy. What strikes me and other readers is how dramatically reality adapted to fit the opinion.

Since we’re on the subject, I’d recommend the Commissar Vanishes by David King. It is the logical conclusion of this sort of ‘meta’ or theoretical thinking taken to the extreme.

With only the slightest rearranging can’t you see, dear reader, these criticisms redirected to our own modern times? It’s fascinating but also instructive. Their tone was not disciplinarian but it would be helpful if they adopted such a tone. Events cannot be shoehorned to fit our conceptions about class, gender or politics. People certainly cannot. Too often they are, just take a peak at Jezebel. It’s tragic but it is avoidable. If there is anything that I hope, personally, that I can do it is to hold myself to this simple standard: approach every situation exactly like it should be, approach it uniquely.