A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Susan Sontag’

“Pay attention…stay eager.”

In Life, The Examined Life on April 17, 2013 at 6:00 am

#1.) I bow before the zen master: “My name is Doug and non-distraction is my practice.” Or so my imagination plays. It seems to me that if one were the master of non-distraction one would be the master of everything. I do not believe in “multi-tasking” and maybe I have said as much previously. But it warrants saying again. Refine your focus, concentrate, do one thing well at a time. “Concentration is the secret of strength,” said Emerson. Be strong.

* * *

#2) My absence (here at the “…house…”) cannot be well explained. Something is afoot, a sea change. I’ve observed this phenomeon before and when it happens, this shift, everything gets exciting and boring simultaneously, if you can image such a thing. I had a (sort of) vision a few days ago–I know, a vision!–and in it a massive mud-caked bubble burst through the earth’s core and exploded. And when this happened I realized the limitless continuity of all things….

This is not my given way of explaining things and appears squishy and unseemly–but I said that something is afoot.

* * *

1 + 2 = Susan Sontag:

“Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

I Have Great Slack.

In Dogs, Wisdom, Writing on March 13, 2013 at 6:15 am

I’m suffering from what Susan Sontag called slack mental condition. I have great slack.

Every morning holds promise–and with it, usually momentum. I got up at 5:30 as I always do, which, by the way, is a hell of a thing, up so early every day. I don’t set an alarm, I just wake up–even with daylight savings time and darkness again in the morning. Tangent: How does Daylight Savings save anything if the day begins in darkness? My day is front-loaded, mornings making the difference. With DST, I’ve saved nothing, indeed, by this man-made intrusion on my cicada rhythm I have lost dawn to darkness. I can’t blame the shortage of morning light on my slack condition, but it does not help.

I don’t believe in forcing a thing, be it a nut rusted on a screw thread or a word on a page. There is that wonderful Taoist metaphor, inviting one to be the river flowing downstream. Encountering a boulder, the river does not attempt to move it, but simply flows around it, continuing. That is my philosophy. I’m done moving rocks. Flow is my current state.

So, I won’t force the words. Instead, dear reader, you are being subjected to flow. It’s not a writing exercise so much as a state of being. There are natural limitations, Montaigne reminds us, that not even wisdom can overcome. Wisdom is in shortage around here, but even if I had enough to employ I would not waste it on words, as I know words are the least efficient method of exercising it. Anyway, wisdom’s a thing more akin to active verbs, and by definition slack lacks the active.

Lucy–now there is wisdom, curled up on a bed. No force. No slack. Pure intention: a good nap. As you are aware, I turn to dogs for guidance. You must see where I am headed, yes? Of course you do…

Writers on Reading

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writers, Writing on February 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

It strikes me as cheap and lazy to happen across a page of quotes, a quote being the fastest exit on the highway such that you don’t have to drive any longer. Despite my distrust of the quote, I enjoy reading them. And, yes, I plug them in with abandon, being if nothing else, too often cheap and lazy. Montaigne said somewhere that he includes a quote in his work because someone said previously better what he stuggles to say now. Or something like that, I should look up it.

So, given reading as a subject, a worthy subject we often consider here at “…the house…“, I have transcribed below quotes on the subject from those who know it best, writers. I hope you enjoy.

Truman Capote:

I have a passion for newspapers…read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions of several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at the newstands. I average about five books a week…the normal length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies.

John Barth:

The great guides were the books I discovered in the Johns Hopkins Library, where my student job was to file books away. One was more or less encouraged to take a cart of books and go back into the stacks and not come out for seven or eight hours. So I read what I was filing. My great teachers (the best thing that can happen to a writer) were Schederazade, Homer, Virgil, and Boccaccio; also the great Sanskrit taletellers. I was impressed forever with the width as well as the depth of literature–just what a kid from the sticks, from the swamp, in my case, needed.

John Dos Passos:

[Hemingway] and I used to read the Bible to each other. He began it. We read separate little scenes. From Kings, Chronicles. We didn’t make anything out of it–the reading–but Ernest at that time talked a lot about style. He was crazy about Stephen Crane’s The Blue HotelIt affected him very much. I was very much taken with him. He took me around to Gertrude Stein’s. I wasn’t quite at home there. A Buddha sitting up there, surveying us. Ernest was much less noisy then than he was in later life. He felt such people were instructive.

Gabriel García Márquez:

One night [at college] a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went bck to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed, I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect….” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.

Susan Sontag:

Well, literature does educate us about life. I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I’m thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.

Katherine Anne Porter:

All the old houses that I knew when I was a child were full of books, bought generation after generation by members of the family. Everyone was literate as a matter of course. Nobody told you to read this or not to read that. It was there to read, and we read. I grew up in a sort of mélange. I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets when I was thirteen years old, and I’m perfectly certain that they made the most profound impression upon me of anything I every read….We had a very good library of–well, you might say secular philosophers. I was incredibly influenced by Montaigne when I was very young. And one day when I was about fourteen, my father led me up to a great big line of books and said, “Why don’t you read this? It’ll knock some of the nonsense out of you!” It happened to be the entire set of Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary with notes by Smollett. And I plowed through it; it took me about five years.

E.B. White:

I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read….It is a matter of some embarrassment to me that I have never read Joyce and a dozen other writers who have changed the face of literature. But there you are. I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.

Don DeLillo:

When I was eighteen, I got a summer job as a play-ground attendant–a parkie. And I was told to wear a white T-shirt and brown pants and brown shoes and a whistle around my neck–which they provided, the whistle. But I never acquired the rest of the outfit. I wrote blue jeans and checkered shirts and kept the whistle in my picket and just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen. And this is where I read Faulker, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. And got paid for it. And then James Joyce, and it was through Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a life and a history. And I’d look at a sentence in Ulysses or in Moby Dick or in Hemingway–maybe I hadn’t gotten to Ulysses at that point, it was Portrait of the Artistbut certainly Hemingway and the water that was clear and swiftly moving and the way the troops went marching down the road and raised dust that powdered the leaves of the trees. All this in a playground in the Bronx.

Thanks for reading.

d

Tools of Paying Attention

In Creativity, Life, The Examined Life, Wisdom on February 22, 2013 at 6:00 am
Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

The action of paying attention is best practiced with a tool. The musician and his keyboard, the photographer and her camera, the meditator and her cushion, the writer and his notebook. There is an acuity of experience when traveling a city with a camera in hand that, without, is otherwise absent. All the tools of paying attention function this way: they enhance and, when loved properly, force experience in bold directions. Love is not too strong a word. There is not a devoted musician alive who does not love her instrument.

I once observed a master naturalist in the field make sketches and take notes which later in the day, around the fire, were  transcribed into elegant observations and artful renderings of the day’s work. Paying attention is a two-step process. Most people do not understand this. First comes the observation, then the transcription; first comes the practice, followed by the performance; first comes realization, then implementation. First you wash the dishes, then you stack them and put them away.

Susan Sontag, in an essay reviewing the career of Roland Barthes, wrote “[Barthes work] even begins and falls silent on the same subject–that exemplary instrument in the career of consciousness, the writer’s journal.” Let me repeat: “that exemplary instrument in the career of consciousness.” The journal as exemplary instrument. For the writer, the journal is the tool best loved. The landscape photographer loves her wide-angle lens, while the pianist loves the action of the Steinway. The tools of paying attention are as numerous as the ways in which we choose to practice the craft of paying attention–for that is what it is, a craft. If you become really good at it, great perhaps, you become the artist. Be mindful, however, there is no art where there are no tools.

One might aspire to great things–but one must, to be a realized being, aspire to something beyond the adequate. (Note: might is optional, must obligatory.) To aspire does not make it so. There is no course of human accomplishment that does not require a fashion of tool. This was lost on me for many years, as I was not, until recently, fully educated in the career of consciousness. I pass along this knowledge in the hope it will save you time. Good luck.

And have a nice weekend.

d

OS v1.0

In Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on February 20, 2013 at 6:00 am
Jim Harrison's new book.

Jim Harrison’s new book.

In his new book, The River Swimmer, Jim Harrison says the most succinct and astonishing thing:

“How wonderful it was to love something without the compromise of language.”

This is an observation in direct opposition to something I wrote many years ago (1992) and (re)published here recently in a post called In The Beginning Was the Word:

“It is said that we do not readily store memories until we have language; consequently, we cannot remember a pre-lingual existence with accuracy. If we were a computer we would be functioning without an operating system. The switch is on, but the screen is blank. Words are the difference; the well-written word is altogether different again.”

Harrison is, by his own reckoning, a poet first, and this comparison of quotes supports Osip Mandelstam‘s observation that “What may be meaningful to the prose writer or essayist, the poet finds absolutely meaningless.” Where Harrison calls language a compromise, I deem it functionally necessary, like an computer operating system–call it OS Version of Being 1.1. Harrison is an example of what Susan Sontag calls the “poet as elevated being.” He runs OS 1.0, the original and unadorned Version of Being.

* * *

OS Version 1.0, the Version of Being the poets run, functions on what Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 – 1941) called the “insatiability for the genuine.” Perhaps it is captured in an algorithm. Most of us run the “upgraded” version, OS 1.1, which fixed this perceived bug. Who wants to be “insatiable,” regardless of how provocative it sounds? Consequently, we non-poet mortals find ourselves sated 24/7. There is a profundity to a Russian poet that I cannot fathom, but I once watched Harrison drink in a bar in Michigan and he didn’t seem so elevated, though I was assuredly mistaken. He did, now that I reflect on it, prove to exhibit a high degree of the genuine, however. They say the Buddha taught for forty years after enlightenment. Elevated insatiable beings walk–and drink–among us.

* * *

I experienced a phase

Of writing poetry a year or so ago.

It felt good and right, but I stopped.

If someone were to tell you: Do this thing,

You will become an “elevated being,”

You would likely do it,

Wouldn’t you?

One would think.

Most of the time I don’t know

What’s the matter with me.

* * *

Here is a video of Harrison reading. He is asked “What language do you speak when you talk to animals?” “You just squawk,” he says.

Oblivious

In Creativity, Photography on March 27, 2011 at 9:01 am

While All About Me

I continue to develop film exposed a year or so ago, discovering pleasant surprises, along the way. As a writer, I know that putting a manuscript away for a while, letting it breath, is a good thing. Coming back to it weeks, months or more later, affords perspective. The same holds for photography, perhaps is true of all creative efforts. (This begs the question, obviously, of how one goes about getting that perspective while working in the immediacy of digital and its instant feedback. But that is another matter.)

So, as I said, I’m developing film I exposed months ago. This image, taken at the Old Port Festival, was made about ten months ago. I made three exposures of this scene. I remember composing it, knew there was a good shot here as I was making it. (In looking at my photographs, no matter how old, no matter how many years ago I pressed the shutter, I remember taking it. It is the only aspect of my memory I truly trust. Susan Sontag said that photography is the single creative discipline where the viewer experiences the perspective of the artist (ouch, that word–artist–makes me flinch). I understand that.)

I like this image for a number of reasons. My aesthetic leans to the complex, reflecting my opinion of the modern existence. That is to say, creative efforts, from literature to photography, are the more satisfying the truer they track (modern) experience. To this end, the panoramic format is my current tool of choice. The panoramic works like the eye, like our experience: It lets in vast amounts of information, giving the viewer the opportunity to scan a scene, of having an experience, not just seeing an image.  That is the first thing. Secondly, given the type of photography I choose to practice, I want to see something of the human experience expressed. “Above all,” said Robert Frank, “I know that life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference.” Also, I want depth of field. When the eye looks over a city street or into the window of a crowded cafe, it sees everything in focus. Yes, shallow depth of field can direct the viewer to a subject with precision. But for the photographer of the urban dynamic, the subject matter is everything and everywhere. The image should exact a toll upon the viewer-reader, not letting the eye rest easily. (Again, reflecting modern existence.)

It’s not in my nature to wax on in theory. With respect to visual aesthetics, I tend to either like a thing or not like a thing. I am shallow that way. But after many years, I am slowly beginning to understand why I like a thing, or think otherwise. There is some pleasure in knowing a thing or two truly.