Objectifying matters

Joined a writers’ group of a dozen odd people about four months ago and have read every week from a novel I’m attempting or a book of short stories I’m finalizing for publication.

It’s a good group, attentive and encouraging, whatever the merits of the particular writer or her particular story. (I’m the only guy in the group, which I sometimes call, tongue in cheek, 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) There don’t appear to be overt hostilities or agendas. They will see and say what they think about your piece.

But I read a story yesterday, written some years ago, called “The Bathers.” It’s one of a series of stories that involves male voyeurism, if you want to use that word, or, less tendentiously, a man seeing a woman naked. This man may have an artistic interest or vocation, or at least admire painters whose subject matter includes female nudes, for example, Manet, Renoir, Titian.

Actaeon and hounds
In “The Death of Actaeon” by Titian, the goddess Diana has transformed Actaeon into a stag and his own hounds tear him apart.

The protagonist in the story compares himself implicitly to Actaeon, who spied upon the hunter goddess Diana naked at her bath and was ripped apart by her hounds. After I read the story and the women reacted, I joked about the (poor) male writer being ripped apart by feminist readers, and these feminist readers chuckled.

The comments about the story were helpful, most of them. They concerned formal matters I might not have handled convincingly. In the draft I read, why does the protagonist attribute an interest in art to the wife, not himself? (The wife works for an insurance company.) Why is the goddess Diana mentioned early in the story when the reader doesn’t yet know that the protagonist has looked on his friend’s wife naked?

These and other questions of form are fine. They are occasions for learning about your art
— what you have and haven’t done to put together your discrete ideas into a seamless whole.

But questions about life values and morality tend not to be helpful, I think. One of the readers said the male is “objectifying” the female here — the friend’s naked wife is presented as a cut of meat, in effect, the usual banal feminist objection.

First, the comment is not accurate. The female character is seen naked — a plump and muscular woman — but she’s seen also as a friend and as a professional, a zoo vet who knows how to keep animals healthy and repair them when they aren’t, and that may include the male animal.

Second, and more important, objectification is a fact of daily life. We all see each other first, and maybe even last, as objects. We are subjects, and we look out on a world of objects, and that world is defined by what we see: fat or thin, tall or short, fair or dark, hesitant or bold, blonde or brunette, quick-witted or stolid — kind of like the series of choices we’re presented at the eye doctor’s during the exam, “This one? Or this one?” Not simple polarities, finally, but narrowing and defining choices that correct our vision and comprehension too about the objects we’re considering. We also make our worlds via what we hear and through the other senses, all the senses, before we can begin to make a whole of the parts, or an abstract or moral  world out of all the puzzle pieces.

To call a character or author “objectifying” is a remark out of a moralistic system. And whether the system is feminist or Marxist or Christian or whatever, a system manufactures labels which are applied then, lazily, to the objets d’arts at hand — you know, those art objects that are objectified by criticism.

A system, in the hands and mouths of most adaptors, becomes rigid and derivative. It uses and reinforces cliches. If I’m a feminist, I don’t need to know more than the few standard phrases produced by feminist criticism. If I’m a Marxist, I will trot out “The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.),” to use the now rather dated examples supplied by Orwell in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”

But it’s Orwell who hits his bloody head against the nail of the trite and predictable. It’s politics in his view, and other forms of ideology, that corrupts language, that makes thinking in any new, fresh, significant way impossible. We belong to a political party and speak its language, its code, its cliches, its drivel. And if we do, we are in the service of that political party, in fact, not art or truth.

There’s another, prior problem too. How can any criticism of a creative piece be other than derivative? Doesn’t criticism, vis-a-vis creativity, tend by its nature to be incommensurable? It speaks another language and, in fact, another system. It appraises, evaluates, judges. But can it be creative in itself? (This is a big question, and I’ll come back to it.)

“The Bathers,” at any rate, belongs to a collection of my short stories called “Not Calling Margaret and Other Tales without Redeeming Social Value.” Redeeming social values are matters for churches and political parties to promulgate, not art. Not my art, anyway. If I want morals or politics, I’ll go to church or a party meeting. If I want art, I’ll make it — by the sweat of my brow, the blood in my veins, the pride even hubris that I take in my originality.

 

The Writing Life

With this blog entry, I do a turn — not 180º but perhaps 120º, devoting this blog, and this website in its entirety, to the writing life — the life of a writer, that is, and everything he or she might be interested in, including readers.

Young Zeck or, more fully, Young Zeck Image Communications, was the name of the little corporate communications consultancy I operated for about 25 years. It was, every now and then, successful in producing corporate jobs like company brochures, annual reports, and websites — and the income that goes along with such jobs.

The consultancy was not as successful as it might have been because I never fully devoted myself to the corporate life or corporate lie, if that’s not too extreme. Let’s put it this way, rather: the institution (corporate, governmental, academic) has a belief system that prefers money or a consistent code of values above all else. As someone trained in the humanities, and from the earliest age, how could I give myself to this kind of groupthink? The focus on money, and system, mean truth was an easy prey and beauty not far behind.

Gay Talese Writer's Life
Gay Talese’s Writer’s Life is said to be “a cracking good read.” So let’s get cracking, readers and writers.

Yes, companies will hire you to produce plausible representations of their business and business methods, and you can write and design attractive products that both you and the client can be proud of. But when I did so, I would always think, what now? What new job must I be hunting for? What new values in life?

Since the mid-1980s at least, I’ve been writing stories and poems, and they’ve been accumulating in my drawers (computer drawers or folders). I’ve published a few, but not many. There’s very little  money in publishing in little literary magazines, and, yes, money is a consideration if not the main consideration. There’s very little ego confirmation when the stuff you’ve sweated over so hard is rejected by these magazines.

Most literary writers, I think, publish for exposure. They want their names out, their creativity on display. They want to be read and, yes, admired. They don’t quit their day jobs, most of them, and they shouldn’t. But always in the back of the mind the idea lurks that they could make it someday as a writer.

Make it, as in making a living. Make it, as in getting a life. Make it, as in doing just what they’ve always dreamed of doing but were afraid to ask or try.

I retired from college teaching and corporate communications about six years ago when my wife Jennifer and I moved from Minnesota to Northwest Arkansas. Since then, I’ve tutored kids and done a little webmastering, but have continued to write stories and poems … and now and again the beginnings of a novel.

About four months ago I joined a weekly writers’ group, the Dickson Street Writers. We meet every Monday afternoon at Nightbird Books, an indie book shop in Fayetteville that accommodates us and other groups. Our facilitator, Linda, is writing a group biography about Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, and that gang. Most of  us are writing fiction, a few poetry.

We bring a printed copy of what we’re working on to the store and shop it around among ourselves. We read our own piece, that is, and the others mark and muse the typescript, then comment on it orally. More than the specific comments and directives, which are often helpful, it’s the mere example of others who are doing the same kind of thing and honoring the same direction, that is invaluable.

Yes, I’ve been in other writers’ group before, but somehow they didn’t last long. They were beset by divisions, competitions, lack of interest, ennui, lack of comprehension (I have no idea what you’re trying to say, or why you’re trying to say it). The Dickson Street Writers are older, for one thing, and more mature. (No spring chickens peck this barnyard.) They’re more tolerant of differences — one of which is that I am the only male member! (Sometimes in jest I call the group 12 Old Ladies and 1 Old Man.) Linda has remarked, on more than one occasion, that I’m brave to read what I do — a man’s fiction, perhaps, among so many women. Or fractious fiction, could be, among more conventional MOs. (I’ll take up this topic of courage in writing in more detail later.)

So here, at last, to the writer’s life. Raise your glasses high. To something of a meaning and purpose for your later years, if that’s what they’ve come down to.

 

And being trolled in turn

Like many people I spend too much time on Facebook. It’s fun to tease and banter with online “friends,” and it’s easy to “friend” someone, as Facebook calls the process. (In the old days, in the real world, we “befriended” people.) So now I have 370 “friends” online, but regular exchanges occur with only 10 or 20, I suppose.

The other night I posted a thread about President-elect Trump (shudder!), who promised all sorts of reforms during the campaign, for example, that he’d “drain the swamp” of Washington and its entrenched, corrupt political powers. (He was talking mostly, but not exclusively, about the Democrats.)

Trump monster from black lagoon
Donald Trump starring in a remix of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (2016)!

I put up the picture (left) of the monster from an old movie, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and said this is Trump. He’s the swamp creature, and we need to drain him!

A FB “friend,” and a real-world acquaintance whom I met biking last summer, commented that Trump will indeed drain the swamp — of the communists in the White House! Now the Democrats may be leftists, some like Bernie Sanders socialists, but they certainly aren’t communists! What a laugh. This “friend” is a small business owner, and I’m sure he has the usual mind-set of petty-bourgeois business owners (yes, let’s use Marxist jargon here!): he’s doing all the work and not reaping the rewards. He’s a producer, not moocher, and yet the rewards are being spread to welfare recipients who spend their time making babies, taking drugs, shirking work. 

God almighty, spare me these tiresome alt-right tirades. And spare me, certainly, the cesspools of misinformation like Fox and Breitbart from which they draw their “intelligence.”

I told the dude he would not be able to pass a basic freshman English course with such nonsensical misrepresentations. “Truthiness” is too good a word to apply to such paranoid  McCarthyite outpourings.

When the “friend” called me a liar because I claimed Trump paid no income taxes, I unfriended him.

Life is too short. Who needs such “friends,” who buy into poisoned wells? I could cite the New York Times report on Trump’s failure to pay income taxes, after a huge loss in 1995, but the “friend” would only dismiss this story as the rantings of the “liberal media.” Ditto for Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who says Trump’s cabinet picks suggest not a draining of the swamp but the adding of alligators.

The “friend” suggests my responses make me an enemy of free speech. No, everyone has the right to get up on his bandbox, but I don’t have to listen to toxic nonsense — especially not on my own front porch.

Trolling the alt-right

I have a bad habit, on the Internet and in real life, of deliberately nudging or testing people, usually when their beliefs and mine are at variance. This, I learned recently, is called “trolling.”

trolling
You wanna go trolling? Or aren’t you interested in stinking fish?

Sometimes the habit is innocent enough. Too many Facebook posts I’d characterize as “pious,” whether of a religious or psychological nature. Cliches, really, or maxims from deservedly obscure self-help gurus (not to be confused with writers like Shakespeare, Goethe, or Ambrose Bierce). If people can’t recognize the difference between a genuinely profound idea, or sentiment, and something superficial or bogus, I’ll be glad to call their attention to the matter, though it wins me no popularity contests.

In real life, as we say, in the quotidian, where we live and exercise and breathe, I will troll my alt-right acquaintances at the gym I attend. These are the dumbbells that love guns, hate minorities, and have no room at all for reading or thinking. So I’ll say stuff like “I sure hope Pres-elect Twatwaffle will put an end to welfare!” And when they rail against the lazy moochers — welfare mothers with many mouths to feed, fathers with multiple baby mamas — I’ll say, “You mean niggers?” And they’ll say, “That’s what I was thinking.” And I’ll say, innocently enough, “Well, let’s call a spade a spade!”

And if they say, anent the latest violence on the news, “They kill students at Ohio State?,” I’ll respond, “Yeah, it’s another crazy Somali. Why don’t they restrict immigration to white Europeans?” And they’ll say, “Sounds like a good idea to me.”

Meanwhile, the world whirls on, and if we aren’t getting any smarter in the “first post-literate presidency,” we can at least get sassier.

Anne Frank

My  wife Jen and I recently saw a University of Arkansas production of Anne Frank, a dramatization of the diary, which prompted us to pick up a copy of the diary itself.

Image result for anne frankSomehow I’ve not read it, ever, except for excerpts here and there in anthologies, but reading it now I see how enthralling it can be both for historical and literary reasons. Frank records the Nazi persecution of the Jews as it spreads from Germany to Holland, where the family fled in 1933, and she confides in her diary as to a friend, her BFF, in fact, for her motive in writing, she says, is to discover and describe just such a friend.

Fabulous that she would begin such an enterprise and push it forward by and for herself! The diary was not discovered till after the war, after the Franks were hustled off to concentration camps. Anne Frank died in the Bergen-Belsen camp; her diary was saved, back in Amsterdam, by a family friend and employee.

Frank called her diary “Kitty” and confided in it, as you would to the best friend you didn’t have and might never have. It’s charming to overhear these confidences, starting with the friendly address of the diary. “Dear Kitty,” Frank wrote, again and again, telling of her fears and joys and terrors.

I’m reading the diary now and should like to use it as something of a model for the young students I am tutoring, who are writing journals. Frank, after all, deliberately supersedes the idea of recording only “a series of bald facts … like most people do.” She has more important things on her mind — political, psychological, and yes, erotic, things to consider, as any adolescent would have on her mind but few would commit to paper like this. Frank not only writes down her thoughts, she uses writing as a means to transcend the painful and the lonely here and now.

Sound familiar, writers?

Tutoring is more than child’s play

Since I retired and moved to Arkansas five years ago, I’ve been doing a little tutoring. Yes, I tutor kids and adults too in reading, writing, and language.

The word “tutor” comes from the Latin for protector, so a tutor has a privileged and responsible position vis-a-vis his tutees, a position of trust and confidence. In the case of children, the parents entrust the child to the tutor so he or she can grow in knowledge and critical thinking abilities. He will know how to take on the world on his own.

lar, lares
The Wikipedia article on lares, a type of Roman tutelary spirit, shows a “Lar holding a cornucopia from Lora del Rio (Axatiana) in Roman Spain, early 1st century AD (National Archaeological Museum of Spain).”

In ancient Rome, tutelary spirits guarded the household, protecting and defending the inhabitants. They cast a protective shade over the huddle of family. They acted almost like a talisman, or charm, and so too the tutor can provide such magic to ward off the dangers of the world at large.

With kids, it’s great fun to see them develop as readers, thinkers, and writers. They are naturally curious and fidgety, and so our lessons may at first resemble squirrel chases inside a cage. I get them to sit down and read a bit, and they do. But pretty soon they are fidgeting, cracking knuckles or looking at the ceiling. I put a pen in their hand, and they resist its power. Oh, the pain of this business of thinking and translating thoughts into words!  They can talk bushels, but writing is a different monster altogether.

What’s most difficult is to convert all the diffuse energies of childish play into something logical, linear, disciplined, of course. It’s a conversion that most adults have not yet made, if we can judge by such phenomena as our recent presidential election. Who needs logic and reason when we can have games and carnival? When creepy clowns beckon in the guise of wise men?

For man doth not live by bread alone. Nor do we protect ourselves, and stand our ground, with guns alone. It’s ideas that protect and transform us. It’s the ability to digest, combine, and reformulate others’ ideas — and to make of them some kind of intellectual and spiritual life of our own.  Woodworking and flower arranging are great hobbies and talents. Soulmaking is of another order.

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The huddled masses yearning to be free

In the wake of the election of President Trump, we have to acknowledge that there was great anger on the part of the electorate and great yearning too.

statue_of_liberty-cr
Lady Liberty holds the torch of freedom for all — the high and mighty, the weak and oppressed, the billionaire, the redneck, the wetback, the elite.

I think of the Emma Lazarus lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, think ironically of these lines, for today’s wretched, huddled masses, it seems to me, who may be counted by virtue of my education among the moralists and elitists, are the rednecks and other uneducated white working class (WWC) folks who elected Trump.

Our yearnings are theirs too. Who among us doesn’t want freedom, however we define it? Freedom from fear and want? Freedom from oppression by the government or other institutional forces who may despise and/or underestimate us?

The WWC have long disdained the long arm of the law and government that tells them what to think and how to express themselves. They can’t express their doubt or anger in their limited vocabulary (and whose vocabulary is not limited?), so they vote for the anti-PC candidate.

As Andrew Marantz writes in the New Yorker, Mike Cernovich, whom I profiled last month, became a prominent vessel of pro-Trump populism by saying unconscionable things on Twitter. “This election was a contest between P.C. culture and free-speech culture,” he told me the day after Trump’s victory. “Most people know what it’s like for some smug, élite asshole to tell them, ‘You can’t say that, it’s racist, it’s bad.’ Well, a vote for Trump meant, ‘Fuck you, you don’t get to tell me what to say.’ ”

In this yearning for freedom to say what one thinks, whatever one thinks, however “unconscionable,” whatever anyone else thinks of what one thinks, the wretched masses are like artists.

For if the essence of art is the yearning for freedom, so too the votes of the WWC. Now, the WWC may not have the skills or materials to be actual or actualized artists, but they do have human voices and human dignity and are worth listening to. Worth closing our yaps for, just a minute, and listening to. Not to worry, we’ll have our chance to talk again. And we’ll have our chance, again, at the ballot box. Our chance to vote and perhaps to vote for a candidate who’s more to the liking of a greater number of the people as a whole.

Meanwhile, it may be time to learn a little humility and bear up under the weight of what we might think of as our own oppression. For there is art in suffering, too, and learning. We don’t want to end up, after all, like Robert Frost’s runaway boy, in the first poem of his Boy’s Will (1913), who concludes, in perverse, puerile triumph,

They would not find me changed from him they knew —
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Veterans’ Day

Veterans’ Day.

And I myself am a veteran, a viejo.

Not of the same foreign wars that many old patriot windbags blow on about, but of the psychological wars of living and dying in America.

Of seeing my older brother live and die in America.

Of the indifference and contempt in which artists are held in America.

No place for them, for they will not put their artistic, or queer, or simply reluctant shoulders to the capitalist wheel.

Produce, don’t mooch, motherfucker.

Be useful, sad fuck. Make a tire, make a house, make a creampuff, whatever.

This art of yours — Useless! Subversive! Communistical!

Take these bizarre ideas of yours and shove ‘em up your ass.

And get to work, you clown, for the greater good and glory of society.

Moleman thinger
Moleman is the story Gerry created in the 1970s in Minneapolis at a time when his study was located in the basement. This must have been the entryway to the underworld — and many discoveries not imagined by the richer upper world of the bourgeoisie.

 

Touchy, touchy, touchy

A funny but not ha-ha funny thing happened to me today on the bike trail. I took a ride of about 20 miles, starting on North St, and moving south to the end of the Razorback Greenway, then back north. I must’ve gone just 2-3 miles when the trail came to an abrupt, if temporary, end. Suddenly the asphalt gave out and a patch of white rock began, on the road where workmen had excavated the asphalt and a few feet on either side. A sign proclaimed, “Trail Ends.” As I put on my brakes and came to a halt, I saw a young woman jogger stopping ahead of me. “End of trail!” I called out, as much to myself as to anyone.

She turned to look at me — a slim young woman, 20 or so, I’d suppose — and said, “I can read. You don’t have to read it to me!”

“Whoa!” I countered. “Aren’t we touchy?”

She turned toward me a couple of steps and spat out, “I know your kind!”

“What kind is that?” I inquired.

But she wouldn’t say. Just continued to sputter venom. So I muttered, half under my breath, “Idiot!” — and sped away.

sex offender
Jesus, is this what I looked like to the girl?

I was hoping that was the last of her, but though I went to the end of the trail, and detoured also 2-3 miles out of the way, I came upon her again, going north, just as I hit North St. I’d just gone by a young jogger, but didn’t think this was the crazy lady. But it was! She ran by me, wearing white jogging pants and a chartreuse top, as I waited at the light to get across the street, and then, when she was 30 feet down the street from me she turned to me and hissed, “Sex offender!”

So that’s the kind I was! A sex offender in her mind!

“Fuck you!” I returned, and went on my way.

Syria and freedom of expression

Adonis, Syrian poet
The Syrian poet Adonis, in a French cafe.

In a recent issue of The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Guyer interviews the exiled Syrian poet Adonis (see “‘Now the Writing Starts’: An Interview with Adonis”). Though I had never heard of him before reading this interview, even though he is a perennial candidate for a Nobel Prize,  I was intrigued and fascinated by the wise man’s words. He is in Paris because of the civil war going on in Syria since 2011, when the people began to rise up against the dictator Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the presidency, we might say, from his dictator father a few years ago. In other words, Assad is the usual bloody tinhorn dictator in the Middle East, the kind that the people began rising up against throughout the Arab world in the “Arab Spring” of 2011, starting in Tunisia.

In a country with no democracy, no freedom of expression, repression is bound to occur. And the people of Syria were sick and tired of putting up and shutting up. They demonstrated, in the spring of 2011, for basic freedoms, and Assad shot them down, literally, with soldiers and crushed them with tanks. Then all hell broke loose, and a variety of revolutionary groups sprang up, some organized around religion and ideology, others not.

Adonis says among other things that poets and novelists belong to no religion and no institution. They are beyond politics and the identities we forge with specific religions and national states. They are wise men, and how many of them do we have? (He is not talking about writers who are out merely to entertain, but those who are thinkers and worth their weight in gold, in sincerity. Most writers are just trash-mongers, he suggests, and he’s not wasting his time with them.)

Adonis recognizes that religion is the problem in the Middle East. Here’s what the sage says:

Nothing has changed. On the contrary, the problems are bigger. How can forty countries ally against ISIS for two years and not be able to do a thing? Nothing will change unless there is a separation between religion and the state. If we do not distinguish between what is religious and what is political, cultural, and social, nothing will change and the decline of the Arabs will worsen. Religion is not the answer to problems anymore. Religion is the cause of problems. [Emphasis mine.] That is why it needs to be separated. Every free human believes in what he wants, and we should respect that. But for religion to be the foundation of society? No.

Imagine that we lived, in the US, in a theocracy, where religion, a state-established religion, was the rule. How free would we be to express our views — that we were atheists? Or agnostics? Or, for that matter, believers of another stripe (say, Catholics or Hindus or Jews)? When we think of our own history of religious utopias, they are just about all transient failures — the Puritans, who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620 and barged into Indian territory; the Transcendentalists’ Brook Farm in Massachusetts (1841-1846); the Oneida Community in New York (1848-1880), which practiced “Communalism, Complex Marriage, Male Continence, Mutual Criticism and Ascending Fellowship”; and such flash-and-fizzle religions as Jim Jones’ Jonestown cult, which ended in the murders and suicides of its followers in 1978.

Even the few utopian movements that survive, like Joseph Smith’s Mormons, can’t be said to be other than aberrations. In the 1830s and 1840s, at founding, Smith and his followers encouraged dissension wherever they resided, and were routed to the deserts of Utah in 1847. Since that time, they’ve had to renounce some of the founding practices, including polygamy, in order to make peace with the United States government and be accepted into the Union. But they are hardly a model of tolerance and plurality. Rather the opposite.

We see the threat of religion today in American life especially in the influence of conservative Christians. They seek to impose their own version of sharia (a strict, literal religious law) on the US, and would outlaw abortion, homosexuality, alcohol, you name it. These righteous prigs would have everyone believe and be like them. No thanks. If push came to shove — let’s hope it never does — would we stand up against this tyranny? Would we rise in arms, even as Syrians and Arabs have risen again Bashar al-Assad?

American freedom is founded not on the belief of the Founding Fathers in Christianity but, rather, on the fundamental separate of church and state. The state will not sponsor any religion, nor will it oppose any. Many of the Founders were doubters and skeptics, or theists, who believed in an Enlightenment version of the Universe, run by a benevolent but withdrawn God, who ordered Earth and the planets to move like clockwork.

Adonis despairs of those revolutionaries in Syria who would oust al-Assad but establish, in his place, another institution, religious or bureaucratic.

Look, the revolutionary must protect his country. He fights the regime, but defends institutions. I heard that Aleppo’s markets were totally destroyed. This wealth was like no other, how do they destroy it? The revolutionary does not loot museums. The revolutionary does not kill a human because he is Christian, Alawite, or Druze. The revolutionary does not deport a whole population, like the Yazidis. Is this a revolution? Why does the West support it?

We need our markets, our museums, our way of life. If you’re not interested in the market, don’t shop there. If you have no respect for museums, don’t go. But you have no right to blow these things up because of a religious belief or any other insane ideology.