Monthly Archives: January 2015

Writing in the dark

Franz Kafka, 1883-1924, was consumed with themes of loss, death, and family dysfunction.

Met last night, at a local bookstore, with a new group of local writers.

Four of us thronged the long table and pulled long faces at the start.

No, we didn’t know each other; in fact, had never met before. We were shy, introspective,  examining our navels.

Trouble was the founder and leader of the group did not show up, as promised. So there we were, on each other’s hands, in the semi-dark of this book-lined room, and how to proceed?

As a pretty gregarious person and former college writing teacher, I prodded the multitude to introduce themselves. We had D, who tried to write short stories, but they turned out to be poems. (The stories “weren’t going anywhere,” he said.) We had M, just returned from eight years of bumming around Europe and Asia teaching English as a second language. We had S, who offered she wanted to write a book about enlightenment. (I assured her there was plenty of darkness to dispel.)

M read a poem from a book he was assembling about his experience teaching in Alaska. S immediately asked whether this was a dry village. (Alcohol was not in the poem.) And if the natives used sealskin canoes. (No boats or seals were in the poem.)

I read the first page of a story I wrote about a year ago, and brushed up just that day a bit, about patricide, you might say, called “Who You Daddy?” Or maybe it’s about fraternal longing and fecklessness. You may kill off the daddy, in other words, but then when you’re in charge you’re still wondering, Who you daddy?

There is plenty of darkness to go around, all right. We write out of darkness and hope for the light, including of course the light of publication. We sweat and wrestle and doubt ourselves, and fall willy nilly into depression and despondency. What athlete wants to train in the dark, forever, without the chance to get on the field and play the game and hear the crowd roar?

Well, art, if we’re talking art writing, is not necessarily about winning. In fact, I’ve heard, on more than one occasion, it’s about losing and failing. I don’t mean the writer doesn’t want to publish: of course not. I mean he or she writes about failure, as Kafka wrote “The Hunger Artist,” dramatizing the dying artist in a cage of straw at the circus, the crowd sweeping by, ignoring him entirely, for they’ve come to see the lions, tigers, acrobats, and clowns. Or as Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina, about the beautiful woman of the title, who commits suicide in the face of her society’s judgment and hypocrisy. Or as Atwood wrote The Blind Assassin, where narrative itself is elegy, for “taken to its logical conclusion, every story is sad, because at the end everyone dies.¨

So why write? Why not just play golf? Or go to the bar? Plenty of darkness there, too.

Hypnosis and family roles

RD Laing
RD Laing, Scottish psychiatrist, writes persuasively about the power of hypnotic suggestion in the family.

I’ve been dipping once more into RD Laing’s book of essays The Politics of the Family. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist (1927-1989), is known for his views that it’s not just the patient who presents symptoms, when he or she comes to a shrink, but the whole family.

Maybe you have dwelt, as I have, on the roles that children are assigned in the family. In my large Catholic family — seven kids, spanning some 20 years — my parents expressed a desire, from early in their marriage, for many children. When they came along — 1, 2, 3 … then, after eight years, 4, 5, 6, and 7 — however, they were not so sure what to do with them.

I’ve always thought that the fate of the two black sheep in the family — my younger brother, who died of alcoholism almost 20 years ago, and a younger sister, who has lived with two adult sons, like a “three-headed monster,” a friend suggests, for many years — was a kind of emotional abandonment. Vis-a-vis me and my youngest sister, the black sheep were simply abandoned on the mountain top of parental neglect.

But Laing has a subtler, and more powerful, view. When a patient “presents,” Laing suggests, he presents not only himself and his symptoms but the whole neurotic / psychotic ball of wax that the family is. He puts the dilemma of the child singled out for treatment in terms of hypnosis. “How much of who we are,” he asks, “is who we have been hypnotized to be?”

It’s not that our parents say, Do this or do that! Laing contends. Rather, they say, be this or be that! Or, more powerfully still, you are who we suggest you are!

You are a bad boy, or a sluttish girl! There’s no escaping your fate! After all, they might say, if they had but the insight to realize it, we too, in our turn, were hypnotized by our parents to do what we have done and be who we are — martinet parents,  dour fatalists, familial fascists.

So, if I hypnotize you, I do not say, ‘I order you to feel cold’. I indicate it is cold. You immediately feel cold. I think many children begin in a state like this.

We indicate to them how it is: they take up their positions in the space defined. …

Art and drugs

Read an Adam Gopnik New Yorker article the other day about an American sociologist, Howard Becker, living in Paris. Unlike French intellectuals, he believes in agency, which is to say the ability of people to be actors and accomplish things. (The French post-structuralists would have us believe that everything is determined, including agency, and so we are not responsible actors either in the world of flesh or of ideas.)

A rival of his, a Frenchman named Bourdieu, has suggested that

all social relations [are] power relations, even in a seemingly open world of “free expression” like the visual arts. For Bourdieu, whose book “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste” (1979) remains a classic text on the sociology of culture, a dominant class reproduces itself by enforcing firm rules about what is and is not acceptable, and creates a closed, exclusive language to describe it: those who have power decide what counts as art, and to enter that field at all is possible for outsiders only if they learn to repeat the words that construct its values.

You can see how this kind of critique would fit into determinist views like Marxism. A Marxist would explain the corruption of art as owing to its place in bourgeois society and values. The rich philanthropists and collectors who make museums and high art possible determine what is art and what is not, what fits in and what does not. The artist must be able to pronounce the magic words, in so many ways, the shibboleths that let him into art’s temple and make the entrance lucrative.

But Becker sees the art world in empirical terms, like the Chicago jazz and drug worlds in which he grew up. In fact, he makes a startling and revealing link between art and drugs. Art is not something produced by a lone Romantic figure, Becker argues, but a collaborative enterprise. Just as the jazz musician smokes reefers because every other musician does so, so too does the artist produce art in a wide social context. Art is in fact

… a social enterprise in which a huge range of people played equally essential roles in order to produce an artifact that a social group decided to dignify as art. Art, like weed, exists only within a world.

Mack Truck
My artist friend Diane Stinebaugh’s Mack Truck. What was Diane smoking?

Of course, it’s far easier to see music, performed music, as collaborative art than solitary enterprises like writing or painting. But even if we go up garret and write our poems and some day publish them, we do so through the help of a lot of other people: the editors who accepted our poems, the readers who read them, and in fact all the people in our daily lives who contributed to the poem however directly or indirectly. (Or, in the case of nature poets, flora and fauna in general.)

Even as smoking dope is (or was) seen as a deviant activity, so too art. Not everybody does it. Not everybody who wants to get and go along. To say they see things the way most other people do. But when an artist gets his or her buzz going, hey, who cares about the squares?

You better watch the things you say

orwellAlmost 70 years ago George Orwell wrote “Politics and the English Language,” an admonitory essay that foreshadowed his dystopian novels 1984 and Animal Farm.

Orwell warned against the loose use of language or, more exactly, the weasel use of language. As in saying one thing and meaning, deviously, something altogether different. Weasel uses, he suggested, are especially prized in politics, for they give the ruling classes the linguistic and psychological tools they need to brainwash the general population.

… if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow.

These examples are very familiar to anyone who’s sat through a politician’s or an executive’s or a bureaucrat’s speech.

But I think of Orwell now especially in this season of renewed political discussion — the start of the 1916 presidential race, almost two years ahead of the election — because the air is already full of political bullshit, pardon my French. (Why do we always blame the French for forthright speech, pace Charlie Hebdo?)

When we hear political phrases, newly popular, like “Citizens United,” the Koch Brothers’ PAC to separate and further emasculate the citizenship (by conferring personhood on corporations) and “Right to Rise,” Jeb Bush’s PAC to keep the underclasses, all of them, in their place, a group we might more accurately call “Right to Trickle Down from Dives’ Table,” can we stop vomiting?

Where politics is just another product we pick off the shelf, something we buy in the meretricious market where slogans pose as ideas, who notices? What harm is done? Simply to the way we think, and be, and interact with our fellow man, if we grant such thing — beyond our solipsistic zone — as fellow man.


Charlie Hebdo

We’ve seen tumult, terror, and protest throughout France and Europe this last week, following the deaths of a dozen journalists and others at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.

A chilling illustration of the serious aims of writing and graphic expression.

Here in the US we may not tend to pay much attention to these freedom of speech liberties. We fritter them away, I mean, in such silly satires as The Interview, the movie just released, by a trembling Sony Corp., mostly via online streaming.

In this flick, a bumbling duo from a TV talk show fly to North Korea, meet the dictator Kim Jong Un, pal around with him, get laid, and then, a la the familiar delusional Rambo formula, get violent and succeed in assassinating the bad guy.

Everything in the film is improbable and juvenile too, from the fart and fuck jokes to the violent denouement. The movie is made for the usual crowd of 20-somethings, it appears, who know little and care less about politics and the real issues of the written and spoken word.

Of course, the film’s actors, director, producer have not been assassinated, unlike the Charlie Hebdo editors. And heavens forbid they should be! The kind of free speech our forefathers had in mind, now widely adopted throughout free world countries, is much more serious in intent and responsible in action than The Interview creators had in mind.

Nous sommes tous Charlie, n’est pas?



So what do you want to be when you grow up, sonny?

Many friends have written on Facebook, in response to one of those unavoidable interrogatory games (“What career are you meant for?”), that they were meant to be writers.

One friend in particular put his finger on this desire or direction: “… perhaps we are all like-minded individuals, artistic and expressive as well as communicative with thought and feeling. We tend to gravitate toward others of the same ilk. Which accounts for why we are all friends. You ALL could be VPs at Walmart climbing over the backs of others! Scrambling and headbutting your way to promotion!”

But then, aren’t you glad we are not?

The salary could be comforting, yes. But the scrambling and headbutting, no thanks.

Reminds me of Wordsworth’s lines in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” his neo-Platonic idea that we all start out in another, better place and that our childhood is our zenith:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Shades of the prison house indeed! Wordworth must’ve been looking at the bills piled up on his desk, even in his Lake District cottage, surrounded by nature and attended by his sister Dorothy. Oh well, he didn’t have Walmart to contend with anyway.

Writers can indeed be “artistic and expressive as well as communicative with thought and feeling,” and where in the corporate world do you get that chance? Let’s be frank, fellow neo-Platonists, heaven is a long long way from the Walmart vice presidency. There’s the Muse, as one friend has put it, and the Meatball, and evidently we’re meant to choose between ’em.

Beware that Mozambique beer

Today’s newspaper carries a little item about tainted Mozambique beer.

So far, 56 folks attending a funeral in the island nation have been killed owing to the spoilage.

The traditional beer is called pombe, and it’s made from sorghum, bran, corn, and sugar.

But in this case, someone laced the drink, during the funeral itself, with crocodile bile.

So when you visit your area’s microbreweries, it might be prudent to test for contaminants. In particular, ask about crocodile bile. And be very cautious about sneaky looking people who may bear a grudge.

Gods forbid it could turn out to be your funeral too.

(A newer report suggests that 69 have died … and that crocodile bile may, or may not, be complicit in the deaths.)

Facebook and its discontents

If we’d all invested in Facebook at the start, we’d all be rich. And have no need to scribble for a living.

On the other hand, scribbling, in whatever form, can be fun.

Ask your friends and neighbors, who may spend way too much time on Facebook, where you can cop a plea for sympathy or attention now. Or send an IM that explodes on your world with the force of an IED.

Such scribbling isn’t necessarily publishable in any other form. It’s not the kind of writing that goes on your resume. Or establishes you as a serious writer or communicator.

Yet serious writing and communicating, too, can be fun. It doesn’t have to be dull or packed with jargon or cliches. It can be alive to the needs of the moment and the needs of your particular audience.

Having written for many years, and taught college writing too, I have strategies for making your communications fun and effective, whether you write them yourself or enlist the aid of a pro like me.

Let’s start by brainstorming, shall we? Wasting time together in one of those paradoxical playful sessions that rewards itself many times over.

You first! Put down a word. Think of another. Think of your audience — that grateful beast. And then another. (Don’t worry. This is not yet for publishing! Play on!)