Am reading John Armstrong’s book Life, Love, Goethe, whose short, swift chapters seem to be organized around themes in Goethe’s life, as well as chronology. Ch. 8, “Boredom,” explores how the great writer, in the company of convivial but conventional people, as at the home of a friend, Fritz Jacobi, was bored by the conversation. It was the usual stuff, full of fine and uplifting sentiments — in short, the usual views of the usual people.
Goethe explains what he did in response to such tedious twaddle:
… I was in the habit of making outrageously paradoxical statements in order to provoke the narrow-minded disagreements that people normally get themselves into, and to force them to extreme conclusions. This was, of course, usually offensive to the company and annoying on more than one count….
How often have I found myself in the same position! That is, to stir things up in company, or on Facebook, I’ve taken extreme positions, paradoxical positions, standing or claiming to stand for both A and Z, in order to shake people up, to shape their opinions away from the more tried and true extremes of reactionary self-interest, on the one hand, or PC rectitude, on the other.
Sigh. Provocation is a tough business. Why don’t I let well enough alone and let people ply their dreary platitudes? Maybe because I think that well enough isn’t good enough? Doesn’t provoke interest or thinking of any kind? Or modify our stable, staid, unchallenged opinions?
Because, finally, there’s a value higher than harmony and concord, going along and getting along, for going along and getting along’s sake?
Have several friends who believe in things unseen, and no doubt there’s something to that — things unseen, after all, must easily outnumber things seen in anyone’s lifetime.
I’m talking here not about Christians or other believers in the world’s great religions, though they certainly could be counted among those who trade in things unseen and unproven. I’m talking rather about those who might flee from such religions, having put away the things of their childhood, as they put away old toys and baubles, and run straight into the arms of very crooked beliefs indeed.
Yesterday my wife Jennifer and I had three lovely, lucky guests over for dinner. Jen outdoes herself, on just about every such occasion, in turning the common objects of the produce and bakery aisles into something uncommonly savory and delightful. She is a masterful cook and never fails to transform, even transubstantiate, the common into the uncommon.
Yesterday she transformed the raw ingredients we’d bought shortly before, at Whole Foods, into this menu:
Prosecco and pistachios
Butternut squash soup with crispy pancetta
Pasta al sugo de pomodoro e funghi secchi, plus artisan bread (pasta with tomatoes and dried mushrooms)
Bibb lettuce wedges with gorgonzola and walnuts
Georgia O’Keefe’s apple pecan cake with rum sauce
And after the first course, we washed everything down with flagons of good pinot noir.
Bread and wine, then, at this gathering of friends. The raw and seen was transformed, by my wife’s lovely, capable hands, into the cooked and seen. An aura, if you want to call it that, of the sacramental (ditto) hung about the table. But then I had to prick the bubble.
Two of our guests were a psychologist couple who believe in bioenergetics. I knew they’ve been on this kick for some time, and the husband, let’s call him Thomas, had shown me this “proof” once before of the truth and efficacy of this field of human caring and curing: He held up his hand flat, fingers outstretched and palm open, and invited me to put my hand next to his in the same gesture. “Do you feel that?” he said. “Do you feel the energy?” No, I couldn’t feel anything, including the inclination to assent to such nonsense. But Thomas got the three ladies at the table to assent, his wife, my wife, and a poet friend.
They felt something, I guess, which proved something — that energy can be transferred evidently from one corpus to another and perhaps, in the bargain, effect healing. Thomas (but not his wife) held forth for some time on this subject, and when I interjected my doubts he got pissed, “A little respect, please!”
Yes, I was a rude host, though I can’t say things unseen and unproven are worth a lot of respect. If I were Ambrose Bierce, I might define respect, in fact (R-E-S-P-C-T, thank you, Aretha), as the demand for attention and assent that the facts do not support.
I don’t doubt that bioenergetics is a legitimate field of study in biochemistry and cell biology. (See the Wikipedia article for a brief technical discussion.) And that discoveries in this field might have implications for healing human disease, whether physical or mental. But pseudoscientific extrapolations from the field are all too readily available, in psychology and medicine (pseudopsychology and pseudomedicine), at the hands of those eager for new faiths and/or fast profits. (Again, for a quick overview of this kind of alternative healing, see the Wikipedia article on “energy medicine.”)
Call me a doubting Thomas, if you wish. A skeptic, for sure. Too many flimsy claims are being made on behalf of too many things unseen, unproven, and even impossible.
According to the Atlantic, “In Germany, legislators are attempting to address the spread of hate speech and false information online with a new law that aims to protect ‘human dignity’ on social media.”
Human dignity? They must have forgotten about Herr Freud, in his latter days, cancerous, moribund, stroking his beard, meditating love and hate, Eros and Thanatos as WW II broke out in Europe.
The Atlantic article says, “Article One of Germany’s postwar constitution instructs, ‘Human dignity shall be inviolable.’ This notion means you are not allowed to claim false things about me, because it hurts my dignity,'” one legislator says. OK, so he’s talking about false claims, or lies. But dignity? What makes us dignified? The refusal to tell lies? How about indignant? The telling of lies?
Can we be forced not to tell lies? And if we have to be forced, are we in fact dignified?
Isn’t lying as German as Schweinekotelett, as American as apple pie? Not that lying is good, or right, but it’s inevitable. Not that we want lies told about us, or want to lie about others, but we have the right to tell the truth, and so do they.
I prefer the American approach, with its First Amendment right to freedom of speech, even noxious speech. It’s part and parcel of our idea of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” which is not necessarily a happy, or easy, progress.
Oh, you bully, you offended me! Of course, you did! You’re an idiot! Your idiocy speaks for itself. And there are plenty of us, after all, even in the age of Trump and the far-right parties in Germany, who can speak more fluently and powerfully than you and who will meet your hate speech with truth that burns like acetylene. Eventually, even the no-nothings will know this.
Have gone several times now to a new barber, or barber shop, called Crown Barbers. It’s three hip and/or bearded young men in a shop a couple of blocks off the Fayetteville Square. The clientele is mostly young and (would-be) hip, some with beards, some without. The barbers are Clint, the owner; John, the youngest and newest; and Ben, who cut my hair this morning.
All do a decent job, and then some. I prefer them to my old barber, whose esthetic was confined to “You grow it, I’ll mow it,” and an older woman barber I used a few times, also not far from the square, who kept a pet dog in a cage and the whiff of just quenched cigarettes in the air and who sometimes did a good job and other times was not attentive enough and couldn’t bother.
Crown Barbers. Why Crown? ‘Cause they’re royals? ‘Cause they crop our crowns? Whether nobles or peasant, the three barbers do a good job, as I say. If Jack fell down and broke his crown, they might not be able to help him: they’re not sawbones, after all. But if Jack came in all shaggy and furry, they could do the job.
Clint, the owner, decorates the shop with posters and signs and a couple of taxidermied animals, one a stag with squiggly horns and the second a wild boar with snarling lips and protruding fangs. Did these animals belong to the crown, or to the peasants? It may be the peasants who do most of the hunting these days, as one was shot by a customer, the other by one of the barbers.
Couldn’t get barber Ben to talk much to me, though he did talk to his colleague John about visiting Universal Studios in Florida, specifically the Harry Potter exhibit, where he got a magic wand. This wand didn’t transform him into a scintillating conversationalist, for sure, but then I was a bit more tucked into myself than usual. I did offer a titbit about Halloween, two nights ago, saying if the kids coming to the door were too big I’d query, “Candy or brandy?”
Addendum: a neighbor, aka Ben, appeared in the shop just after I did at 8 am or opening. The place gets crowded, so it’s best to get there early and put your name on the chalk board to reserve your place. As usual, I didn’t recognize neighbor Ben when he greeted me. (He’s seen me several times in public, and it’s always like I need an insistent formal introduction. What’s wrong with me? Do I have prosopagnosia, of the kind that Oliver Sacks discusses in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat? Or would I recognize Ben readily enough if he were a pretty woman?)
Well, I did go backpacking this weekend — only the second time in my life and perhaps the last.
A group of twelve — nine men and three women — hiked from the trailhead to the Cecil Cove campground, in the Buffalo River National River area, a couple of hours east of Fayetteville, Ark. The scenery was, as usual in this area, gorgeous, and the hike was short, only 2.5 miles at most. But my new pack, which is supported by neither external nor internal frame, cut into the small of my back pretty hard and I was in pain.
On the way out, the pack was lighter, for I’d drunk most of the water I lugged in and eaten most of the food. But first, we had to get there!
I knew only two or three of the twelve that comprised the group, and they were all decent sorts. A campfire was lighted Saturday night, which blazed high and kept us warm after we’d cooked our separate meals. But I felt anxious soon after the fire was lit, unable to enter into the conversation, or contribute. I found the topics trivial and tedious — maybe because I was fretting about “doing” something, or getting something done, being productive, or, in short, working — and soon enough lapsed into silence, then retired long before all the others, about 8:30 pm.
It was no easy task sleeping in my little pup tent. Though I had a pad and a sleeping bag, it was damned cold that night, getting down to 23 degrees, and the bag was not warm enough, the ground soft enough. I tossed and turned practically all the night, putting on an extra layer at one point but never able to find rest. I might have slept a couple of hours, earlier in the night.
Though weary, like most of the others, who confessed they hadn’t slept well either, I was cheerful in the morning, getting my coffee and oatmeal going, chatting with everyone. We broke camp about 10 am and returned, most of us, the same way we’d come in, to the trailhead. (Another, longer and more scenic route was taken by the more energetic.)
I want to go back to Cecil Cove to hike the whole seven-mile loop, the short route in and the longer route back. But not backpack there, or anywhere, ever again, could be. I think I’ve packed backpacking in.
So the horns of this particular dilemma on which I’m being tossed are these:
Stay at home & experience all the bliss of home comforts, including our new memory-foam king bed.
Go backpacking & camping with a troupe of pals, into the Buffalo River Valley, and experience the beauty of nature, the rugged exercise of the hike, and the sleeplessness of a night on the cold, hard ground.
Hmmmm, hmmmm, hmmm. A toss-up, you say?
I too am torn, hither and thither. Should I toss a coin? Should I sleep on it? (In my ultra-cushy memory-foam bed?) But, no, if I’m going, I have to pack my backpack, and it takes a good while to get stuff together, doesn’t it? It’s not like slamming a few odd bits in a bag and taking off.
Yes, home is comfy, and home is work too, useful if not always beautiful work. At home, but not in nature, I can read and write. I can garden and organize my garage. I can (at least try to) sew that laundry basket of old, torn, button-popped pants and shirts. (Please, dear wife, can you help me?)
In the Buffalo River Valley, I can gape with wonder at the rocks, the hills, the rills, the streams. I can lug my 35 or 40 pound pack over slipper trails. I can exhaust myself for a good cause, which is to get out of town, get out of myself, out of the purview of earthly comforts to which we habituate ourselves.
Bourgeois comforts, boys and girls? Or the glories and hardships of nature? (Tune in for further developments.)
So this morning, over breakfast, Alexa, the Amazon Echo personal assistant, mentions the actress Gabrielle Union’s new book We’re Going to Need More Wine. I’ll drink to that! I respond, without realizing what the book is about.
(After all, my wife and I resort to wine almost every evening. It’s not analgesic so much as joy. A day without wine is, well, like a day without wine. Our coffee bar testifies to our morning and evening rituals, or addictions, of coffee and wine.)
Union’s title is perlocutionary, isn’t it? It’s clever. It gets our attention, keeps it, directs us to the book. We want to see what she has to say, read a bit, see if we don’t want to purchase it.
On Amazon, I see that the subtitle is Stories That Are Funny, Complicated, and True. So it is, and it’s not, all fun and games. It’s complicated, you see. It’s true. And the puff for the piece explains,
In this moving collection of thought provoking essays infused with her unique wisdom and deep humor [oh, puhlease!], Union uses … fearlessness to tell astonishingly personal and true stories about power, color, gender, feminism, and fame. Union tackles a range of experiences, including bullying, beauty standards, and competition between women in Hollywood, growing up in white California suburbia and then spending summers with her black relatives in Nebraska….
Without reading the book, I would guess that wine enters, whether too much wine or just enough to anesthetize, in the “funny” part of the subtitle. Sure, let’s eat, drink, and be merry — whatever dreary or depressing or difficult truths press in on us. “Deep humor,” yes, might be in the wings if we buy and read Ms. Union’s book. “Unique wisdom”? I seriously doubt it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.