A Journal of Life Pursued

Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

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.

Thursday Theme day is Postponed.

In Life, Memoir, The Examined Life on February 7, 2013 at 6:00 am

It is Thursday and “theme day” here at “…the house….” I have a topic–the examined life. The post is written, but cracky dry. If it were to have texture I’d propose sandpaper, grade: fine. It’s an important topic, perhaps the most important topic, but I’m not in the mood to get all philosophical and academic today. I trust you understand. If you wish to file a complaint, so be it. You know where the office is. Regardless, Thursday Theme day is officially postponed.

It’s not as if something came along to recast my imagination, to de-rail theme day. I have no excuse, especially with the heavy lifting completed. I’ll lay it on you soon enough, maybe next Thursday, if that day finds me less cantankerous. Simply put, I think being cantankerous is a thing to run with when it hits you, especially if it hits on a day you feel a compulsion to break the rules–which is being coy, really, since the only rules here are the ones I’ve created. Yes, that would be, if not a degree of coyness, then disingenuousness.

And speaking of: Disingenuous–it is word I used to like. (See yesterday’s post for another favored word.) It is a word I tossed accusingly at a person when I was feeling aggressive and lacking in grace, a verbal grenade lobbed over the barricade. I did this once to a young man, branding him as disingenuous, and sadly he didn’t know what the word meant, and, though I did not ridicule him, I made him feel less about himself in a way that brought him close to tears. I look back at this incident and place it solidly in the category of being a jerk, a complete and utter asshole. It brings me no pleasure to think I behaved this way. I was a man competing in the world of business, a combatant, and unfortunately that world occasionally solicited a side of me that I now, upon reflection, find troubling. As I said, it’s a word I used to like.

That is the way of life, isn’t it? Trying on different clothes, going for a new look, you stand in front of the mirror, studying, preening. You turn to the side, trim and expectant, taking high measure of your appearance, only to realize later what the fool you must have looked, what a jerk you were. Yes, Lordy, grant me basic grace.

I’ve given myself free rein here (today is different from any other day how?) and could ramble like this too long but for my temperance with respect to your patience. I’ve already violated my unspoken (unconscious?) rule–yet more rules!–related to transgression and propriety and even the hoped for trust between reader and writer. If this were theater we would consider the forth-wall penetrated. So be it, I stand satisfyingly rambled. A high degree of the cantankerous has been exercised. Too, a bit of examined life revealed. Perhaps we didn’t stray that far from the syllabus, after all.

Thanks for reading–and indulging me. You are most gracious and for that I am grateful.

d

I’m a blogger. (Aggh!)

In Life, The Examined Life, Writing on February 1, 2013 at 6:00 am
Hello, and what do you do?

Hello, and what do you do?

I was at a social event recently and was asked that most annoying of questions: “What do you do?” There are so many tempting answers: “I breath in, I breath out.” “I walk the dog.” –and so on. However, we know it is not a literal question and I resist–barely–this temptation. The real question, as I understand it, is “How do you make a living, how do you make money, pay the bills?” Or, the expansive take on it: “How do you economically justify your existence?” Sorry, I know I am being cynical (I am of the tribe of Diogenes, after all). There are other ways to interpret this question–What do you do?–and they are all equally annoying: “Are you an interesting person?” “Show me why I should talk to you?” and so forth.

My basic good nature always takes over. I don’t respond as a smart-ass, though it’s tempting. In this instance, I said, “I’m a blogger.” I could have easily said, “I’m a Maine guide.” or “I’m retired.” or “I’m a kept man.” But I said, “I’m a blogger.” (I’m on record as disliking the words blog and blogger. (It must appear today that there is much over which I’m annoyed.) But blogging, despite the ugliness of that word, is the description most people best understand.) (I also like the aspect that “I’m a blogger” does not address the core unstated question, How do you economically survive? I enjoy points for evasiveness.) My response prompted the follow-up question, “What do you blog about?”

What I didn’t say is: I blog about ———-. What I did say is: I blog about books, literature, travel, nature, basically anything that enters my pointy little head. I wish I’d been concise and replied that I blog about ———–. That is what this whole damn thing is about–this thing being “…the house…“–though I’ve never come out and stated it so bluntly. (The writer should always seek a degree of obfuscation.)

The books we talk about, the adventures we describe, the philosophy we explore–these are all keys we turn in the lock to release our essential being. At the core of it all is our quest, you know to ——–. That is the territory we explore. But then you must know this, dear reader. Yes, of course you do. Please excuse me for talking down to you. You are brother and sister, companion and friend. You understand, I know. Thank you.

Let us agree, we never ask the other, “What do you do?”

Thanks for reading,

d

We are the Tribe.

In Creativity, Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life on January 30, 2013 at 6:00 am
Diogenes and members of the tribe.

Diogenes and members of the tribe.

We are the tribe of Diogenes. Through the village darkness he leads, lamp held high, peering into the blackness of night. We seek not the one to deliver us from darkness, that is not our quest. Rather, we seek companions to walk with us toward the dawn.

We push through the slumbering village herd. We hear their night talk, their groans, smell the stench of the herd. At dawn they will rise and charge off in search of food and water. They eat as the herd, shit as the herd, procreate as the herd. The herd is monolithic in ignorance. The herd is to be avoided. Danger lurks within. An individual becomes lost amongst them, or worse, witless and crushed by the stampede. The herd will always stampede. Press on.

We collect other pilgrams. You make the camp. You build the fire. You collect water. Together we rest. At nightfall we tell stories, and as some of us slumber, others stand watch. The master’s lamp is never extinguished. The journey never ends.

______________________________

According to Plutarch (ca.45 – 120 C.E.), it was in Cornith that the meeting between Alexander the Great and Diogenes took place. They exchanged only a few words: while Diogenes was relaxing in the sunlight in the morning, Alexander, thrilled to meet the famous philosopher, asked if there was any favour he might do for him. To which Diogenes replied, “Yes, stand out of my sunlight.”  Alexander then declared, “If I were not Alexander, then I should wish to be Diogenes.”

"Stand back, Fancy Pants. You're blocking my light."

“Stand back, Fancy Pants. You’re blocking my light.”

Zen and Being

In Life, Philosophy, The Examined Life, Wisdom on January 28, 2013 at 6:00 am
Chinese character for "Tao" -- the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

Chinese character for “Tao” — the way. A gift, as it hangs on my wall, from Zen Master, Sunim Potwah

I used to study Zen with a Korean Zen Master. He said a lot of things I did not–do not still–understand. For instance:

“Any single word loads all sorts of connection and is always valuable as the wholeness of the truth.”rightcol_banner_art

and

“Mistake or error is still good.”

A Zen Master will typically give the student a koan. A koan is like a riddle without an answer–at least most of us would think it is without an answer. The Master, however, might differ. Most likely, the Master would not consider it in such terms. Here is the first koan my teacher gave me:

A Monk asked Zen Master Yunmen the following: “When not producing a single thought, is there any fault or not?”

To which Master Yunmen replied: “Mount Sumeru.”

It would be bad form to discuss it here. That is a matter between teacher and student. But you are welcome to pick it up and noodle it. Mount Sumeru, indeed!

I like Zen in its austerity. Zen has no doctrine, no sacred texts, no gods, saints, or sinners. There is no heaven, no hell,  devil, or superstition. There is simply the practitioner and the meditation cushion. Despite all that, I don’t practice any longer. I cannot explain why. It is the koan of my life, the way I plunge into a pool, dive deeply, then dry off and never swim again. Like I said, some koans have no answer.

_________________

I opened Alan Watts’s classic, The Way of Zen, the other day. Watts was a

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

The Way of Zen, by Alan Watts

friend of Ginsburg, Burroughs, and the Beats. He was also a scholar. His book on Zen is considered a classic introduction to eastern philosophy. This passage caught my eye, in particular:

“Zen Buddhism is a way and a view of life which does not belong to any of the formal categories of modern Western Thought….It is an example of what is known in India and China as a “way of liberation,”…a way of liberation can have no positive definition. It has to be suggested by saying what it is not, somewhat as a sculptor reveals an image by the act of removing pieces of stone from a block.”

To pull Watts’s metaphor, the working sculptor, a smidgen down the road, let us consider sculpting in clay and sculpting in marble. One day you, the artist, arrive at your studio, lets say, and want to create something three dimensional. You grab some clay and start molding, adding a piece here, a piece there. You form it to your vision, building it, smoothing it, building more. That, it seems to me, is how we live. We build on existence until an object conforming to our vision is created. We call it our life. It is a process of addition. I note that this method does not conform to the Zen Master of New England‘s  admonition to simplify, simplify, simplify.

David, as released from the stone.

David, as released from the stone.

But, should we turn to marble, that is altogether a different matter. That is a process of subtraction, of chiseling away, of polishing and removing until the form is revealed in the rock. Michelangelo looked at the block and saw his David locked inside. As “a way of liberation,” David must have been grateful.

What is inside? is the question. It is the opposite of What should be added? Eastern thought asks the first question, Western thought the latter.

For me, after years of working in clay, building an image to conform to my vision, I wish to turn to the marble block and attempt to release its contents. Now where did I put my chisel and hammer? (Boy, I love exhausting a metaphor!)

Thanks for reading

Would Nabokov think you a “good” reader?

In Books, Creativity, Literature, Writers, Writing on January 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

“A hundred years ago,” wrote Vladimir Nabokov, “Gustave Flaubert in a letter to his mistress made the following remark: ‘What a scholar one might be if one knew well only some half dozen books.'”

Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

My sophomore year in college found me in a comparative literature class. I didn’t know what comparative literature was, but it sounded up my alley. My introduction to the discipline was ill-fated, learning quickly that the serious student was the one reading the texts in the original language. That makes sense. I was fated with the knowledge that with my genetic indifference to languages not womb-embedded, I would be better served building on my tenuous hold of the known, and forsake aspirations foreign. The course, however, instilled in me a keen interest in world literature that continues to this day. For that I am grateful.

The comp-lit class was taught by an associate professor. He was young and enthusiastic and brimming with energy. It did not take him long to introduce us to Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), the reclusive writer, whom our young professor had once interviewed in Montreux, Switzerland, where the master was spending his autumnal days. I did not know of this Nabokov, but my curiosity was aroused. I soon consumed all things Nabokovian.

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A half-dozen years later Nabokov published his Lectures on Literature. The writer had, for nearly twenty years, flexed his substantial literary muscle in the classroom, first at Wellesley then Cornell–and here were his lectures. According to Lectures, this is how “the course” opens:

“With a pleasure which is both sensual and intellectual, we shall watch the artist build the castle of cards and watch the castle of cards become a castle of beautiful steel and glass.”

With that, Nabokov launches into his lectures. One former student of the course, Ross Wetzsteon, recalls Nabokov the teacher advising, “‘Caress the details,’ Nabokov would utter, rolling the r, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue, ‘the divine details.'”

Here is the syllabus:

I’ve read several of these books with Nabokov’s notes at my elbow. It is not unlike, I bet, sitting in a masterclass with Yo-Yo Ma.

Let me share with you an extended passage by the master from the introduction, Good Readers and Good Writers:

“One evening at a remote provincial college through which I happened to be jogging on a protracted lecture tour, I suggested a little quiz–ten definitions of a reader, and from these ten the students had to choose four definitions that would combine to make a good reader. I have mislaid the list, but as far as I remember the definitions went something like this. Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

  1. The reader should belong to a book club.
  2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
  3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
  4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
  5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
  6. The reader should be a budding author.
  7. The reader should have imagination.
  8. The reader should have memory.
  9. The reader should have a dictionary.
  10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance.”

Nabokov’s approach was sailing against the winds of the popular literary criticism movement of the time, deconstructionism. We won’t wade into that pool here, but suffice it to

Nabokov's notes on Kafka, with bug.

Nabokov’s notes on Kafka, with bug.

say, his approach to literature was not de jour–but it was lasting, thankfully. A quick perusal of Lectures on Literature reveals one major tenant of Nabokov’s appreciation and understanding of literature: the visual. He teaches to sketch major ideas. Draw Kafka’s bug, or map Leopold Bloom‘s perambulations through Dublin.

Nabokov's copy of Madam Bovary

Nabokov’s copy of Madam Bovary

Also, read with a writing instrument. And use it:

I’ll leave you with this thought, also from the introduction:

“Incidentally, I used the word ‘reader’ very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot ‘read’ a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why…”

I think, with that, I will be obnoxious and make you seek out the master’s answer as to why a good reader is a rereader.

I only wish he had taught Moby Dick. Class dismissed.

Thanks for reading,

d