Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Youth, the republic, last sentences, et cetera

Snowed in, then snowed in, now getting snowed in again. So what else has been happening...?

I just finished the Republic, a book I should have read several years ago. Since a text this heavy begs for a chaser, by the end of the week I will be cracking open another cultural milestone I've thus far managed to cheat myself out of reading -- Jack Kerouac's On the Road, which I anticipate will make a fine counterpoint to a tome espousing temperance, rationality, emotional restraint, and the abolition of poetry and art.
When picking up a new book and getting to the end of the first or second chapter, I can never help flipping right to the final page and reading the last sentence or two completely out of context. I don't think of it as "spoiling" anything -- if you're only reading a book for its plot, then it can't possibly be a very well-written book. It often helps me enjoy the story even more, since I go in with a vague idea of what the author is working toward and can better follow what he's trying to do.

A novel's last few sentences must be as damn near close to perfect as can be. Ideally, they should put the events of the story in context, contain the overarching idea of the work, and trigger a powerful emotional response in the reader (be it exhilaration, comfort, fear, catharsis, or whatever else). If we think of the story as a rifle bullet, the last sentences must be the hollow point designed to expand on impact and maximize the work's lasting effect.

A Sunday or two back I was sitting in my friend's apartment and browsing his bookshelf when I found his old paperback copy of On the Road. After scanning a few pages here and there, I compulsively flipped to the end to look at the (very long) final sentences:

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out, and don't you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be dropping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

Ah, yes. Here we go again. Another strain of the Don't Get Old Blues.

It's such a powerful and prominent motif throughout Twentieth Century American literature -- the Eden of youth, the barren fields of age. In the major coming of age stories our Republic has produced in the last hundred years or so, crossing over is almost never a happy occasion or even a bittersweet mixed victory: it's a downright bummer. And it gets repeated over and over and over again throughout the 1900-2000 literary canon, from Hemingway to Salinger to Updike: "we were young, we were beautiful, we could do anything, and everything was great. Then we got old and found out that everything wasn't so great and we couldn't do anything, and we'll never be young again and nothing will ever be as great again." Bam. Welcome to the wide world of American letters.
If we wanted to drag national/cultural consciousness into the discussion (and that's a big "if"), we might conjecture that such intellectual currents are only to be expected of a nation whose own coming of age occurred at the close of the Nineteenth Century. America entered the 1900s like a college student waking up with a hangover after homecoming and finding himself a manager at Sears with a pregnant wife, a six-year-old son, a mortgage to pay off, and a lawn to mow.

When the settlers crashed into the Pacific and finished securing all the land between the oceans to the east and west and the neighbor nations to the north and south, that was it. When the booze goes dry, the party ends. When a nation has no more space to expand, it settles down. Why wouldn't the intellectuals and artists of a republic grown out of its idealistic revolutionary period and wild frontier days find themselves preoccupied with the stresses and ambivalences of the aging process?

This particularly American anxiety is expressed nowhere better than in The Great Gatsby, and nowhere better in The Great Gatsby than the last couple of paragraphs, which end with these two sentences:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter -- to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther....And one fine morning---

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

It need not even be said that Fitzgerald was an influential writer, but it might surprise you that another famous author on whom he had a profound influence was Hunter S. Thompson. In the early days, Thompson most wanted to be a fiction writer; he likely saw his journalism work as something he could do to sharpen his skills while earning a few bucks and getting his name out there. The Rum Diary, his first novel, is a very interesting work for many reasons, particularly for its similarities to Fitzgerald's tone and themes (echoes of Hemingway can be heard as well, and that Thompson fancied Kerouac and the beats is practically a given), and for the fact that it was written by a version of Thompson existing before the LSD, before Gonzo, before he started getting himself confused with his Raoul Duke character.

Its (very Gatsbian) final sentence reads:

Sounds of a San Juan night, drifting across the city through layers of humid air; sounds of life and movement, people getting ready and people giving up, the sound of hope and the sound of hanging on, and behind them all, the quiet, deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks, the lonely sound of time passing in the long Caribbean night.

It has an added weight when you consider the last spoken exchange between protagonist Paul Kemp (Thompson) and friend Bob Sala, two paragraphs above:

"How old are you?" I said. "Thirty? Thirty-one?"

"Thirty," he said quickly. "I was just thirty last month."

"Hell," I replied. "Imagine how I feel -- I'm almost thirty-two."

He shook his head. "I never thought I'd live to see thirty. I don't know why, but for some reason I just didn't."

I smiled. "I don't know if I did or not -- I never gave it much thought."

"Well," he said. "I hope to god I never make forty -- I wouldn't know what to do with myself."

"You might," I said. "We're over the hump, Robert. The ride gets pretty ugly from here on in."

After having idolized Thompson throughout my college years, then growing up a bit and discovering the full shameful scope of the contrast between him as a young man and as an old man, I've lately found myself beginning to agree more with David Plotz's 1998 assessment of him:

Today, Thompson is part Beavis, part whore. He still behaves like an adolescent moron. He's a freakish Peter Pan--the juvenile delinquent who wouldn't grow up. He ignites kegs of dynamite in his Aspen, Colo., backyard. To ring in the new year in 1997, he reportedly blew up a Cadillac. He gropes female guests, watches porn, drinks monstrously, smokes more, and uses drugs. There's something unbearably sad about a 60-year-old man who still takes drugs.

I'm still close enough to twenty-one to roll my eyes a little at Plotz's squarish, puritan tone, but I concur that Thompson all but wasted his talent throughout the last three decades of his life (though there are still occasional flashes of brilliance, his writing throughout the post-Nixon decades tends to be disjointed, muddled, and forced), and the greatest and most tragic cause for this was his own inability to come to terms with the fact that it was no longer the 1960s and he was no longer in his twenties. Consider Thompson's suicide note -- his Final Sentences:

Football season is over. No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won't hurt.

This is all very, very morbid, and it doesn't appear as through we're approaching the point that is to be made, if any is to be made at all. Before the detour, we said that the last sentence of On the Road is typically American in its anxiety towards aging, that I would soon be reading On The Road to balance out the dry staidness of Plato, and that the Republic is the book I most recently finished.

When reading a new book, I like to stick colored markers onto pages that have interesting, important, puzzling, or eloquent passages. The first marked page in my copy of the Republic contains the following paragraph:

I will tell you, Socrates, he said, what my own feeling is. Men of my age flock together; we are birds of a feather, as the old proverb says; and at our meetings the tale of my acquaintance commonly is: I cannot eat, I cannot drink; the pleasures of youth and love are fled away: there was a good time once, but now that is gone, and life is no longer life. Some complain of the slights which are put upon them by relations, and they will tell you sadly of how many evils their old age is the cause. But to me, Socrates, these complainers seem to blame that which is not really in fault. For if old age were the cause, I too being old, and every other old man, would have felt as they do. But this is not my own experience, nor that of others whom I have known. How well I remember the aged poet Sophocles, when in answer to the question, How does love suit with age, Sophocles -- are you still the man you were? Peace, he replied; most gladly have I escaped the thing of which you speak; I feel as if I had escaped from a mad and furious master. His words have often occurred to my mind since, and they seem as good to me now as at the time when he uttered them. For certainly old age has a great sense of calm and freedom; when the passions relax their hold, then, as Sophocles says, we are freed from the grasp not of one mad master only, but of many. The truth is, Socrates, that these regrets, and also the complaints about relations, are to be attributed to the same cause, which is not old age, but men's characters and tempers; for he who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition youth and age are equally a burden.

Well. In those terms, I suppose it's no wonder that so many of our most famed authors -- whom we celebrate for their dizzying, rapturous accounts of their seminal romances and twentysomething vision quests -- were generally very unhappy people who wrote books tinged with sadness and eventually drank themselves to death. Neither should it come as any shock that these should be the representative bards of a nation that prides itself on its passion, energy, and freewheeling WE DO WHAT WE WANT spirit while begging frequent reassurances that it isn't over the hill, like an insecure single woman in her late thirties discovering another patch of crow's feet.

For the record, the last few sentences in the Republic are:

Wherefore my counsel is that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way and follow after justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus we shall live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remaining here and when, like conquerers in the games who go round and gather gifts, we receive our reward. And it shall be well both in this life and the pilgrimage of a thousand years which we have been describing.*

Tune in next week for a new comic strip! Blood will be spilled.

*This, of course, is Greek for "win the future."

Monday, January 17, 2011

Of spiders and sublimity

Dreary days. Most everyone passes through ups and downs, but I'm willing to bet -- and not to boast -- that my ups are a rung higher and my downs and notch lower than most. It's been one of those weeks where I get up, hit the snooze button until I've squandered all my time for a shower or breakfast, drive to work, and go back to bed as soon as I've put in my time. Sure, there are reasons for why I've been blue, but you aren't interested in reading about them and I don't feel like writing about them.

A few months back I offered to take over the Saturday morning shift that had until then belonged to Roy, the old man down in shipping. Roy is seventy-seven years old, dying of lung cancer, and can't afford to retire. The very least he deserves at this point is a free Saturday morning and a five-day workweek.

I went to bed Friday night feeling awful and woke up Saturday morning feeling empty. All the snow on the roads and trees had melted since Wednesday's snowstorm, and the skies were overcast. I woke up to gray -- everything in the visible world bleached out, salinized, tired January gray.

No calling out sick, no coming in late this morning. After three or four days opting to sleep an extra half-hour rather than shower or groom, I looked wholly unpresentable. I killed the alarm; groggily dragged my feet into the bathroom (white walls cast gray), shut the door, and glanced toward the window -- and there it was.

I'm not sufficiently versed in psychology to understand why certain familiar things at certain times become invested with the startling appearance of the uncanny. The thing on the windowpane was only a spider -- a fat, black thing the size of a dime with stubby legs -- but for a dilated half-second it looked wholly unrecognizable. I only wish I could describe how it seemed to me at that moment. The sight of it simply didn't add up. It was like one of those peculiar instances when you look at a simple one-syllable word and the letters and their significations unexpectedly uncouple, and the word becomes a bizarre, nonsensical thing that shouldn't mean what it does. It was as though this were the first spider I had ever seen in my life.

Against the clear glass it seemed suspended in space; a dark aberration supernaturally eclipsing the pale, coma-gray of the neighborhood beyond. A perfectly symmetrical and starlike life, so radically divorced from myself, my work, my daily considerations and experiences. It was an object of which I could have never dreamed on my own -- the phenomenon of a form behind the facade of the physical; the realization of a primordial idea beyond my capacity to understand.

When I moved in to examine it more closely, its buttonhole eyes (six of them!) perceived my looming shadow. It stirred its legs cautiously -- eight limbss working in adroit composure, coordinated by a brain the size of a breadcrumb. It was no more able to comprehend the massive presence approaching it than I could account for its marvelous and mysterious living body on the window on this gray January morning of my life. And I felt it impossible, miraculous, that such a thing should exist, should share its being in this world with me and my own...

Then it ended, and thing was only a spider again, and I had to shave, shower, and get out the door before I was late. By the time I had dried off and dressed, the spider had wandered away.

All terrestrial circumstances, no matter how seemingly banal, have their profoundest underpinnings in the wild and strange.

When I came home that afternoon, I stayed out of bed.

ADDENDUM: After typing this up, I thought of a piece from one of Jack Collom's books. I'm afraid I do the piece and the poet a disservice by presenting the stanzas in a linear format, but Blogger doesn't give me much alternative.


Nature is more obvious
in the jagged ghetto
than in the suburbs -- but the suburbs
are larded with it.

Nature is
more obvious in Basquiat than
in Wordsworth--but Wordsworth
is full of it.

The very sidewalk
of Nature; all
stinks are wraiths of Nature;
the fear of Nature is

the dismissal of Nature is like
the whisk
of a tail
over a horse's ass.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Matters of Art

Salaam and 'sup, citizens.

Sorry for the radio silence. Things have been a little hectic here. Spreading my self too thin across too many projects. Beyond employment and whatever I have that passes as a social life, there are three major things on my plate at the moment. One is an SMPS piece I need to finish by the end of the month (this one's a popular request that's been long overdue). The other two are a bit more ambitious, or at least I'd like to so. One is a new novel -- a story about love, addiction, and self-annihilation that will certainly be a great hit with the half-dozen or so people whose arms I twist into reading it. The other is a new webcomic for which I'm trying to lay the groundwork. It would be a fully-illustrated (by someone other than me, of course) 8EB spin-off focusing primarily on artists and the art world, spoofing both by way of gross exaggeration. It if does end up happening, it's still a long way off. The ball has to be sculpted before it can get rolling.

Sometimes when I'm working on multiple projects, the streams get crossed and ideas from one start bleeding into the others. Some of the considerations for the comic found their way into the novel. There's a conversation in which one character questions the value of art. She anaologizes art as the mucus of society -- a byproduct of civilization. It is necessary (she says) that a certain amount be produced, since it acts as a kind of lubricant. A society in which there is no art whatsoever (does such a thing exist?) is a society whose people are despondent, unmotivated, and uninspired.

An overabundance of mucus signifies a problem within the body. Likewise, a society's producing a great deal of art is suggestive of a social malady.

People generally dedicate themselves to producing art out of narcissism and an inability to content themselves or find meaning in productive, useful occupations or social activities. A society that produces a great many people who feel that the expression of their own thoughts and feelings takes precedence over all other concerns is a society with an underlying problem. The same can be said of a developed society that fails to offer its members intellectual or spiritual satisfaction through participation in commerce, civics, or service. When there is more art being produced than the public has desire or time to consume, or when a society cannot offer its participants anything more than personal comfort and spending money, something is not well within the body politic.

What about the consumers of art? What do we say about a culture whose subjects dedicate the greatest portion of their leisure time to aesthetic hedonism rather than education, exercise, or self-improvement? Does it suggest decadence? Misdirection? Apathy? Does the popular prevalence of escapism through art indicate that members of a culture are hard-pressed to find meaning, pleasure, and interest in their day-to-day activities, occupations, and interactions with families and neighbors? Does it suggest the majority of the populace is unwilling or uninterested in participating in civics, public service, community engagement, or activism?

Thanks to advances in communication and information technology, there is possibly more art, more entertainment, more self-expression for its own sake being created and disseminated than ever before. Is this a good thing? Could it possibly be symptomatic of a problem within society that needs to be addressed?

It's great fun writing stories whose characters espouse viewpoints I don't necessarily share. But this time, I feel myself a little too taken in by my own devil's advocate. (Perhaps this whole thing was inspired by some of the ideas espoused in parts II and III of The Republic, a book which I've finally come around to reading.)

I'd like to know: how would you respond to these suggestions? What is the value/purpose of art in the 21st Century? What should be the role of the 21st Century artist?

(My apologies if this comes off as disjointed or if I'm producing a non-argument or non-sequitur without realizing it. Feeling a bit scatterbrained this evening. Please, rip it to shreds.)

EDIT: You know, I just remembered that Mr. Ambrose Bierce defined art in a Devil's Dictionary entry. Let's see what he has to say!

ART, n. This word has no definition. Its origin is related as follows by the ingenious Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J.

One day a wag — what would the wretch be at? —
Shifted a letter of the cipher RAT,
And said it was a god's name! Straight arose
Fantastic priests and postulants (with shows,
And mysteries, and mummeries, and hymns,
And disputations dire that lamed their limbs)
To serve his temple and maintain the fires,
Expound the law, manipulate the wires.
Amazed, the populace that rites attend,
Believe whate'er they cannot comprehend,
And, inly edified to learn that two
Half-hairs joined so and so (as Art can do)
Have sweeter values and a grace more fit
Than Nature's hairs that never have been split,
Bring cates and wines for sacrificial feasts,
And sell their garments to support the priests.