Four Years and Twenty-Three Days Ago

Four years and twenty-three days ago I made an extremely common mistake: I agreed to a friend’s request. He recommended that a couple we both knew, two of his friends and I visit a picturesque, elaborate, and once widely-celebrated establishment known for its hookah and cocktails. He and I went together while the three would attempt to come later. The weather was wintery, and cold and rainy. In effect we went during the sliver of offseason afforded by nature but, in any event, the place had already begun its descent to shabbiness and demolition.

The business was on the third floor. We walked up a groaning stair case. The grass needed cutting. The roof was a patchwork dating back to the 60s. The surface had been mauled by salt’s erosion. The businesses had two large doors, but the wood paneling was either peeling away or a patchwork of stain from ersatz replacements.

I agreed to this because my friend was an agreeable alcoholic. “I do not have a problem, I have a preoccupying hobby.” One day he drank a bottle of champagne, what was left of a bottle of red wine and started on a glass flask of Jack Daniels—while eating his way through gingersnaps and cheddar cheese. This began at eleven in the morning. At eight he fell asleep. At ten he woke up around the time we were heading out, and he followed. He drank three Old Fashioneds, four plain shots of bourbon, skipped dinner, and puked the next day until five. At five thirty he resumed his normal course. He admitted, “In the long run, gets rather unhealthy.”

He was agreeable in all ways but one. He smoked, which is no vice, but when he smoked he would put out his butts and place them in his pockets. We could smell him long before we could see him and while tobacco leaves may have an enticing aroma, there was nothing enticing about the lingering smell of burnt filter.

On entering we made the acquaintance of the proprietor, or some agent thereof, who was ugly, lazy and, really, quite accommodating. He monitored and curated a collection of faded couches, fraying armchairs, and coffee tables with new, plastic tops. In the corner was a shabby bar where the threadbare carpets had entirely given way. Bemusingly, not to be confused with amusingly, the lighting in each area is either too dim or too bright. The bar’s was too bright.

Since we did not see the others, we headed for the bar. The bartender was a small, middle aged man, smartly dressed, with an exceptionally lively, intelligent face – and a perceptible air of sadness. He was, like the rest of us, alone but also, I must say, deeply and truly lonely. My friend ordered a half dozen martinis to be prepared not sequentially but simultaneously—six shining glasses in a bright row, down which he would work, all the while talking at a rapid pace.

As he waited and drank the sun sank until it smiled crookedly like a fingernail. The declining light softened the sharp contrast of the establishment’s lighting and for the first time I was able to make a full inspection of the other patrons. There were a few Iranian businessmen, a few Pakistanis and a group of schoolteachers whose loud, crying laughter echoed horrifyingly among the quiet leather. Taken collectively I can say several things. First, at no time did any of the groups acquaint each other with another. Second, no social interaction proceeded beyond polite nods. Third, we made no indication except with the barest of turns that we noticed the passing of each other.

When I turned my attention back to the steadily thinning stems I noticed a new presence in our company. She immediately engaged me in her own conversation. Why she did this I cannot say for certain, but I believe that people perceive my mind as at rest. My face, which enjoys a default position studiously devoid of emotion, may imply that I am an endless supply of life without stress and obstacles, that I dream up what I want to do. Then I do what I dream or sometimes I do not but it is all baloo in the end. For this reason they tell me about themselves even though it is a fact that I do not know how to react to stories. My face brings characters and events to me and as long as I maintain my ability to look and listen people seek me out.

In literature and movies, sexual revelation is a matter of tact and occasion. Whether or not such candor is appreciated depends on the revealer’s attitude more than, even, the listener’s. But tact, mercifully, usually forbids us to tell other what one feels or, especially, Feels. Today I am never quite certain why memoirists are so eager to tell us what they do in bed. Unless the autobiographer has a case to be argued, I suspect that future readers will skip those sexual details that our writers have so generously shared with us in order to get to the gossip and the jokes. For this reason I am, these years later, equally mystified about her.

I have no recollection of all what was said, though much of involved hiking with her college roommates, but I remember her concluding with a small grin that “Come is a horrible word to apply to something ecstatic.”

A Recommendation

I was hanging out with the wrong people. The bad people. An unusual crowd. A maddening friend. So went the parade of horribles as I nodded uncomfortably in my pew. Asleep? Such is life in the court.

I work for the ‘juvenile’ division of a public defender office, I work mainly for kids and those considered ‘adults’ in relation to the heinousness of their crime. On one occasion I was asked, by a client who is going to be incarcerated for a violation of parole, if I had any recommendations. A curious if pleasant question. He wanted to make something out of his time. He wanted to take steps toward self-improvement. He wanted a book to read.

Some decide that their incarceration will be the start for going to the gym, or finally kicking caffeine. Others have promised to watch less television, or have fiendishly reasoned that self-improvement relies on watching more television: they still don’t know what happened at the Red Wedding or who Walter White is, and this is making connecting with their fellow human beings difficult.

But what if you’re interested in connecting with your fellow human beings in a way that doesn’t require access to premium cable? At the time there was anything to say. What could I say? I could recommend some books, but uselessly. I can never forget when Starbuck tells Ahab that the hunt for Moby-Dick is against God’s purposes, and Ahab looks at him blankly. Just who is Melville’s God, or the God of those who came after him? Who is Ahab’s God? Like Prometheus, in ancient and in Romantic literature–or Gore Vidal against the New York Times–Ahab opposes himself to the sky god, even if you want to call that God Yahweh or Jehovah. He does not expect to win but he fights anyhow, perhaps like Milton’s Satan merely for the excitement of courage in the face of defeat.

I can never forget the client’s face for the same reason. He is fighting a battle he will not win and so what could I say? And yet saying nothing seemed a crime. Seems a crime. Is a crime. If not against him then against a far-off world where people know what to say.

Fortunately Penguin Books aims to help thousands of the soon-to-be-incarcerated (who else reads?) by engineering a fantastical little effort. For 80 pence, or about a 1.30 dollars, readers can purchase a lovely (“slender”) black book by Penguin. They take a bite from multiple pies—Roman history, poetry, essays from Montesquieu, a few shorts from Chekhov, a novella from Dostoevsky. No context, of course. Just snippets and little tidbits for men and women that are endlessly trying to improve themselves.

Like most marketing these days what is being sold is not product, but an image of you. For some the image is being sold as an ancillary to the product. But only some. I make no judgment, dear reader, only commentary. Note well: there is no pattern to the selection. A quote is plucked out, perhaps perfect for the creation of a Buzzfeed list, and potential customers are seduced with a future image of themselves navigating a literary iPod of little black books. Russians fill the gaps between Romans. Sappho makes an appearance. Nietzsche pops up, but since he—like myself—was never pithy he comes in an edited book of aphorisms.

What is a book without context? Not much, I am afraid, which is why recommendations are so crucial. It is why I failed. How can I capture in a few words, even a thousand, a whole book—a whole novel? There is a short story in here, I am sure, of a man who tries to recommend a book but ends up recommending it so well, so on point, that he ends up writing the book himself.

If I could have that moment back I would recommend the short stories of Anton Chekhov. There are few things about his writing that are not loved. According to a study published in October, 2013 in the journal Science, reading literary fiction — including the works of Anton Chekhov — increases scores on tests of empathy and emotional intelligence. Who wouldn’t want to be more empathetic in 2015? Much better than kicking a nascent addiction to Keurig cups.

I wonder what I should have told him about Chekhov. About Penguin Books. So it goes, in Vonnegut’s laconic phrase, and so I will tell you. Before embarking on a self-help tour of late-Czarist Russia, dear reader, be advised that Chekhov doesn’t provide easy answers to becoming a kinder, more caring person. There’s no five-step solution, no short prayer that will increase your fortunes and lay waste to the fields of your enemies. Instead he brings us into a world where bad things often happen, especially to good people. That is why he can be so difficult. He does not afford many happy endings, or endings of any sort. Yet I firmly believe that if you read his short stories, maybe even twice, then you will become a better human being than when you first went in. Here is one short story that you may like.

Chekhov will always represent the impressionistic pole of the short story, and the novel for that matter. For better or worse is it impossible to escape his shadow. He is simply a door we must pass through, having exhausted all infamy, gratefully.

But that is not what Penguin is offering, even when it offers us a few Chekhov’s shorts. They are offering a fragment, a shadow of a shadow. Instead of Chekhov, and understanding him, they are offering the appearance of improvement. Improvement without purpose. Click the Penguin, select a random book and press purchase. “Where to start? In the end I just tipped them out and stuck out my hand at random.” Don’t think about it—buy it. Improve yourself. To what end? That is the question that is better left unanswered. That is the question that makes me think about my client.

The trouble with the presumption is not that it addresses trivial or unreal issues but that it provides self-defeating solutions. Arising out a legitimate need to sell itself to an increasingly ignorant public the idea is to, well, accept that the public isn’t going to read books. They are going to buy an article that is marketed as a sleek, little, black book. But such a solution is self-defeating. Without foundation these little black books are symbols crashing. If a book falls on deaf ears does it make a sound?

Those who believe in critical thought as an indispensable precondition of social or political progress might well renounce the very possibility of progress and side with the conservatives, who at least recognize intellectual deterioration when they see it and do not attempt to disguise it as liberation. But the conservative interpretation of the collapse of standards is much too simple.

There is no wrong crowd or maddening friend. There is no group of bad influences, mistook for good. The trouble is with him. No single book, or collection of books, is going to do him much good. We failed him a long time ago. It is too late to spin the dial and hope for the best. But I guess I will.

Maya Angelou, a Signpost in the Land of Forgetting

There was a recent article I flipped through. I worried, wrongly, that it was intentional clickbait.

Instead, we read post after post, obituary after tribute, calling her a “pimp” and saying she had “an unsuccessful stint as a prostitute.” The most detailed accounts currently online are making sure to emphasize that she spent a “brief stint,” a “short time” in the sex industry, so as to, without explicit words, solidify the shame they believe she should have felt, the shame we should feel as well. The media uses inflammatory terms to get clicks and to emphasize the terrible and shameful secret that was, in actuality, never a secret at all.

Much to my chagrin it was a useful post.

Like many writers who have signed up with a systematic way of thinking about the world, Ms. Marie’s worldview consists of all external political or social data. The data is filtered through a grid of suspicion: Things are not what they seem. These ‘things’ reveal their true meaning only when decoded in accordance with the knowledge of the initiated. At that point, dear reader, the data (and author) make complete sense and everything falls into place in a universal scheme. What her particular worldview is does us little good, but keep the thought in mind.

‘The Erasure?’ I thought. The article arouses suspicion. Since there is hardly a shared conception of the departed author, I’m a little surprised at the audacity. Sadly, audacity seems more laziness than significance in this instance. When an idea seems to tremble and treble under its own inanity, I will always add an article–or several–to make it seem more significant. The idea of the blogger at the WordPress working at the table. So ominous. Keep it in mind, dear reader, because I am similarly lazy.

But enough of this entertainment. To the substance of the argument: we have forgotten that Maya Angelou was a sex worker. True but the author can go deeper. She can implicate herself. Specifically, if we have forgotten it–if we need to be reminded about its erasure–it is only because we have not read what Angelou has written. That is my interest in this article. Admitting an erasure is an erasure itself. If I wrote a post about the erasure, the forgetting, of Mark Twain’s time as a riverboat captain–the sine qua non to understanding Mark Twain’s work–there is no distinguishable line between furthering and preventing.

In some sense, talking about the erasure of someone’s life is roughly comparable to describing Ulysses as an old soldier on his way back from the war who encounters a few problem en route. Not false, but hopelessly inadequate.

To add an sharper point to this discussion, what is the reason (notice the article) for why we do not chat, somewhat amicably, about the departed author’s thoughts on sucking cock for money? Ms. Marie has this to say “It comes to this: there is no way, in the minds of most people, to have worked as a prostitute and not be ashamed of it.” True, perhaps, but what people–exactly? It is an interesting question that, I think, has hard answers.

One answer, a simple one, requires the premise that a blog post needs to be written. So she chooses an easy target. I’m doing the same thing now. She chooses the ‘public.’ Spoiler, this is not her writing.

The public is not a people, it is not a generation, it is not a simultaneity, it is not a community, it is not a society, it is not an association, it is not those particular men over there, because all these exist because they are concrete and real; however, no single individual who belongs to the public has any real commitment; some times during the day he belongs to the public, namely, in those times in which he is nothing; in those times that he is a particular person, he does not belong to the public. Consisting of such individuals, who as individuals are nothing, the public becomes a huge something, a nothing, an abstract desert and emptiness, which is everything and nothing. . . Our Present Age

At the risk of sounding absurdly academic, if Ms. Marie holds the view of Ms. Angelou as post-erasure, we need should possess a view of post-posterasure. By this I mean that if her identity has been so successfully uprooted her old distinctions ‘people’ can no longer remember, why should they need to feel anything in favoring a return to a reality? Why, we should ask dear reader, should we keep forgetting? What does it have to do with the ‘public?’ Or any sort of system of thought? We should remember, not because of ideology or some sort of greater purpose but because, simply, that is what she wrote about. Therefore, we should read it. If we do not it is because of our own fault, not the public’s. Not some system of thought that has systematic power over our conception. If we enjoy an author and we do not remember it, especially if there are blog posts about how great we are for managing to remember something the author wrote, then there is no finger pointing.

More importantly it seems a bit bizarre to assign the problem to other people, in some other category. If her erasure is anyone’s fault it is her own. It is my own. Most of all it is the fault of those who loved her: for every individual that praised her for what she was (black, woman, ect) then, if for only reasons of personal integrity, they should have embraced her use as a pricey sex toy. I doubt we’ll see that but we should live that precept out in our own lives. Make people feel uncomfortable. It’d be honest.

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

Sudden Popularity

It is odd but, in a perverse sense, exciting that this blog stumbled one of WordPress’s valiant employees. He or she decided that instead of kicking this blog away, one of my posts deserved to be placed upon the Freshly Pressed section of WordPress. I am proving, once again, that it is infinitely better to be a lucky writer than a good one.

Speaking of that maxim, I take it most of my readership has glimpse the sales figures for ‘unlucky’ J. K. Rowling. It makes for some interesting reading. The same author, the same prose (perhaps, even, better prose) and sharing the same starting point of her past self. In this instance, however, it is her past self that succeeds. Her book, written with a pseudonym, has floundered. On the off chance that you missed it, here is a CNN article of the event.

Or one could look at this commentary-image composite of the most ‘famous’ rejections of ‘famous’ authors.

I like the idea that the best authors get published and aside from a few hiccups, I’m looking at you Twilight, better books sell more on average than the worst books. Is it enough to produce good content, or should writers learn the intricacies of sacrificing small mammals (firstborns?) to Mammon to make sure that their books have an actual fighting chance?

Consider also, dear reader, that I am neither a writer, lucky or–morally–good. Yet that is not from where the perverse sense of excitment comes from. It comes from the simple realization that in the darker hours of the soul I believed that I needed, and wanted, little readership. Everyone has their own personal stock quote for the occassion. Mine is from Phocion, ‘when the multitude applaud and assent’ then something is in fact very wrong. Now that, comparatively, the multide seem to be descending onto this blog I cannot say that Phocion rings quite as elequoently. It is amazing how pliable my beliefs are. The realization is exciting.

Today I Noticed

The truth of H. L. Mencken’s aphorism that “An egotist is a person of low taste-more interested in himself than in me.”

There is one rule for semi-colons. First, remove them all. Then insert into your Foreword “I, also, lived through a few English classes.” The effect for the reader will be the same but you’ll get points for honesty in the case of the latter.

People who argue about punctuation are looking for things to argue about.

Zimmerman, n. An indication that the person in question does not participate in the legal field.

 

 

Remembering Books

I am surprised at how little I remember the books I read. There is only a few scraps of each that remains after I’ve devoured them, and sometimes I do not know what scrap goes with what book. For example I have iridule seared across my brain–inexplicable. Perhaps, even, inexcusable. I have no idea what it means or how it got there. It is, however, in my brain. Is there a more curious incident?

I wonder if it is because I read too much or if it is because I read too little. Perhaps my mind is not equipped for remembering all the small, minute and titillating peculiarities that I collect through my endless travels. If that is the case then I cannot help but notice that I share something similar with the Family Sciuridae. I have a romp through a book, and then at its conclusion I declare–like Milton’s Satan–that even if I do not remember, exactly, every carefully tended paragraph I still enjoyed myself. “What though the field be lost?”

The conversations I have with people, alive and in person, spare me this sort of introspection. I can neither remember what I had for breakfast–though a nearby plate confirms that it was several blueberry muffins–or what the conversation was like. I have a vague feeling of either well-contemplated execution or the lack thereof. But beyond a general feeling I cannot think of a tangible thing to say. I do not care. I console myself, ‘such is life!’ If I had a photographic memory then, of course, life would be different but I do not so it is not. But then I look over to the books I have read, boughten and–I hazily recall–enjoyed. If I had to stop and think I cannot seem to gather more than a dozen facts about them. How peculiar!

Take my last post, for instance. That definition of literature, I am now sure, was not my own. It must have come from somewhere. But from where? My mind immediately drifts through my library. It drifted towards some of the pieces of literary criticism, especially the frothier specimens, I’ve consumed over the last few years. Was it in Gore Vidal? T. S. Eliot? Michael Dirda? I quietly and quickly scanned through a few books. I have a habit of underlining the best lines. I am a squirrel, always collecting, with little or no reason. It’s actually quite bizarre.

What is more bizarre is that as I flipped through the pages more and more came back to me. Here, underlined, is one of my favorite quotes from Jonathan Swift: “But not to digress farther in the midst of a digression, as I have known some authors to enclose digressions in one another, like a nest of boxes.” A digression digressing on the unpropitious use of digressions! Now located within a digression of my own making! I am sure I am not the first to think of this bemusing and amusing bit of smug diversion. But, please, bear with me dear reader.

I think my problem comes from a disease, one that is closely related to the one identified by Merton and labeled ‘insanabile scribendi cacoethes. In plain English, the itch to publish. My ailment, since I hardly publish and if then only on this blog, is the itch to read. I must read. It’s almost an obsession and must be, I believe, labeled appropriately. It is a disease. Suspend your disbelief! If only for a moment. Se non e vero, e molto ben trovato — if it is not true, it is very well invented. You must allow me that much.

My choice of reading material is not always defensible. I am sure there are people out there who find my bookshelves pretentious, a waste of time or an unpleasant mix of both. My comments follow a similar trajectory. Swift quipped that “Good God, what a genius I had when I wrote that book.” I feel something similar, but when I read these little nuts that I have burrowed away inside the pages of these books. Some of my notes are informative. They have grown into trees of knowledge–yes, I am straining this metaphor to the breaking point. Some are entertaining. Some are great. Quite a few are trivial, useless and ultimately dismissible. Yet if there were only gems how I would ever distinguish the good from the bad? Contrast is key.

To get back to my original point I have found where that little, nugget of inspiration was for my attempt to elicit a chuckle–or, at least, a grimace–from you, dear reader. It is found within, of all things, the (new) introduction by Mary Russell to A Canticle For Leibowitz (Eos Paperback Ed. 2006). The first page no less! What are the chances that of the books that I picked up, randomly, from my bookshelf the one that I turn to has it? If there is any need for proof of a disturbingly sentient subconscious, I think I have it. I can only wonder how many other, small tidbits and large ideas–or, at least, a few of the former–have I been accidentally borrowing from other authors? How many authors out there have committed preemptive plagiarism on me–to pull from Merton’s OTSOG?

I doubt I will ever know and for that I can only thank whatever higher power exists in the world. Ignorance, sometimes, is bliss. But, if nothing else, then at least trying and failing mightily in the world of reading is better than a life of bare economic necessity. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that since cows may be purely economic it is “why a history of cows in twelve volumes would not be very lively reading.” If there is a ever going to be a book about myself, or at least about people like myself–precious, precocious and smugly self-satisfied residents of the United States–at least it will make for some lively reading.

Today I Noticed

Judicial activism, n: the result of a decision that contradicts one’s own beliefs.

I have heard that social sciences are not sciences, they’re humanities. If that’s the case then the sciences must be the inhumanities.

“Forward!” The current administration’s admonition that reflects their awareness that we do not like what they have done previously and we like less what they are doing right now.

Privileged, adj. A signpost used to indicate the end of calm, reasonable discussion. “You are privileged, thus!” Alternatively, “I am less privileged, so.”

Atheists, n. The most oppressed people on the internet. Go ahead. Ask them about it.

Literature, n. A manuscript where the editor doesn’t know three or more words.

Myriad, n. Used too often.