Category Archives: art

Happy hour

Dreamed last night that I was given an assignment, evidently at school, to write something about happy hour. Maybe the assignment was conveyed to me by a classmate and I lost something in translation, because I had to ask, in class, whether everyone had to write about the same scene or situation. I think the answer was yes, and so I was redirected toward a more neutral scene, perhaps having nothing to do with happy hour.

Mom and Fred
Mom, Mary Zeck, and her younger brother Fred Curtis, back in the happy day and happy hour.

But this idea, and phrase, has deep meaning for me (is cathected, in psychoanalytical language, the way “our song” may be cathected for a happy couple, or a once happy couple, who upon hearing the song wax rhapsodic or nostalgic about everything it means to them. In my family, happy hour was the time from four to six, or five to six, in which we sat down together, as adults, Mom and Dad and the kids, sharing a few drinks and telling family stories.

“Happy hour” is also a reminder that our time on earth is short and our time to be happy as fleeting as the hours. Life is our happy hour, the only hour we have to be happy, and if we miss out on it then we miss life.

Perhaps, I’m thinking, this assignment to write about happy hour is from the ego itself. If I, in my brief life, as brief as yours, am to fulfill the mystery of why I’m here, I must write about happy hour. About my family, that is, and my place in it. About the pleasure of sharing drinks and stories (see entry above about the kinds of stories we told). About the fragility of these times together.

Happy hour. The briefest of hours. The most pleasurable too. It will not last, unless you grasp and form it in memory, or recollection. Unless you write it down, where others too may share its magical and transient charms. This happy hour begs to be a drama, that is, a play. No matter that I’ve written poetry and fiction but not drama. The genre is of no moment, and all moments. And don’t I have plenty of play left in me still?

Punctuation lets not let it stop us

Read an Ian Parker profile in The New Yorker, on the “public intellectual” Christopher Hitchens, a Brit who lived in the US for many years and died in 2011 of cancer. (He was addicted to both booze and cigarettes, at one time a three-pack-a-day man.)

Hitchens is known for a couple of things primarily: 1) his shift from socialist to right-wing hawk (he became an advocate for Bush II’s Iraq war) and 2) the blazing speed with which he wrote his columns.

As for his celerity, Parker puts it this way:

He writes a single draft, at a speed that caused his New Statesman colleagues to place bets on how long it would take him to finish an editorial. What emerges is ready for publication, except for one weakness: he’s not an expert punctuator, which reinforces the notion that he is in the business of transcribing a lecture he can hear himself giving.

We can all envy the man’s speed, and sureness — even his obliviousness to punctuation.

It occurs to me — I taught English writing and grammar for many years and became a pretty expert “punctuator” — that there might be bliss in this kind of forgetting. Rather than worrying the bone of punctuation, and punctilio, Hitchens blazed through his essays and reviews with the sureness of conviction and the rightness of genius. Why let the niceties of punctuation, for gods’ sake, slow us down? Why interrupt the phosphorescent flash of thinking and so risk missing a deadline?

Roman copy of a Greek sculpture of Hermes. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Roman copy of a Greek sculpture of Hermes, in the Vatican museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Hermes must have been Hitchens’ patron, the god of speed, desire, and, yes, trickiness. Like lightning, Hermes flew between the gods and men, carrying messages. Like a fox, he tricked whoever would be tricked. And isn’t it some kind of trick to spurn the civilized niceties of punctuation — and all that it implies about structure and behavior — to let our thoughts fly, like arrows from a bow, or notes from a lyre (Hermes invented the instrument)?

To let our thoughts, like a brand, press, hissing, on the cattle of mere pecuniary considerations, as Hermes branded the cattle he stole from his brother Apollo, the rationalist, the calculator.

Hermes was here! the singed brand says, hissing still. He beat you to it, slave of reason, beast of proper form!

For any of us suffering from writer’s block, or insufferable slowness, I can recommend, on the example of Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P., a certain ignorance or disdain of punctuation. Damn, it slows the quick thinker! (Isn’t there always time later, sober and repentant, to crawl back and proofread our blazing sheets?)

 

Journaling

So I have asked my tutees, or students, to keep journals — and I figure I’d better do so too. Better resume my journaling, or blogging, that is, for the sake of the practice if not perfection it might lead to.

In fact, if practice makes perfect, that’s certainly not the aim of journaling. It’s, rather, the achievement of fluidity or fluency, making a daily habit of writing as if you were water flowing and could no more help flowing than a river can.

This journaling is a habit I used to keep back in the day — way back in the day, say, as long ago as 45 years, when I was starting out teaching English in Detroit (Wayne State University). I can plunge now into my closet and find dusty journals from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. To me these records have historical and sentimental value, and may have utilitarian properties too, as I’ve thought often enough of mining them for story (fiction) or art (collage) ideas.

The downside of keeping a purely private journal is obviously that it’s private — written in the dark with no audience besides yourself and your carping conscience or niggling vanity. And we all know that performing in the dark, however much practice squints toward perfection, soon palls.

Journaling is fluidity, fluency, yes. Practice makes if not perfect then flowing and going toward some sort of outcome and delta. Writing becomes not something to shirk or avoid, but precisely to pursue, no matter how much in the dark you may find yourself, no matter how trickling the effort may seem some days.

And if my tutees must do it — go, and go with the flow — so must I.

Doubt and mystery

Jeannine Massmann

Funeral February 21 in frozen Minnesota of my first cousin, Jeannine, who grew up in Minnesota, married in Colorado, and died in California, at age 51, of a sudden aneurysm. Didn’t know this first cousin, once removed by time and again removed by place and then by death. Had met her just once or twice, last at the funeral five years earlier, in Minnesota, of her niece Rachel, who died at 21. Jeannine’s visitation and mass were at St. Raphael’s, in Crystal, Minnesota, a large Catholic church, with rich wood, stained glass, brick and stone. A registered ICU nurse, Jeannine had been well loved and admired by peers as well as patients — kind, concerned, empathic, and moved by faith and love.

Father Marty, a family friend, who had married Jeannine and her husband Tom some years ago, presided at the mass. He gave a good homily about faith and mystery, not the usual spiel of a minister who hadn’t known or cared about the deceased. He talked about life’s journey and its mysteries, how agonies like death may open new vistas and opportunities, even for those who suffer great loss. Faith is tested, he suggested, and strengthened by loss.

Still, he lost me, a humanist, inevitably, along the way, as my mind wandered into peripheral pastures, where I thought of life’s journey and mystery. Of the marvelous technological age where most of us live cosseted by technology but ignorant of how it achieves its ends, and so we exist in willing and unproductive mystery. (See March’s National Geographic, “The War on Science,” about the layman’s resistance to scientific evidence.)

If the aim of science and technology is to know, to banish uncertainty, then mystery is where most laymen dwell, whether stubbornly and stupidly or, somehow, productively. For mystery can be productive too, I think, and lead to creativity. I thought of the poet John Keats’ idea of “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

We all need creativity in life, whether we think much about it or not. Need to enter into mystery, yes, and question authority — whether priest, president, scientist, parent — if authority asserts certainty and omniscience. Plunge into that kind of uncertainty where creativity can pool and spread. And admit that death too is part of the creative pool, in both a larger biological sense, where one generation makes way for the next (Jeannine and Tom had three children), and a personal sense, in which we mull our own place in existence.

Perhaps we don’t mull so much as muddle our way through life, most of us, or are muddled, like mint in a mojito. We are pounded and stirred (shades of the priest-poets G.M. Hopkins and John Donne!), and come to some sort of resolution if not clarity, and that’s that, without irritable reaching after fact, logic, certainty.

Were the half-pints in church questioning authority, also, when they wandered into play? The two year old girl with a pacifier in her mouth, the four year old reading a jungle story with her mom, the five year old bending over backward in the pew and making monkey shine? I had to chuckle, seeing how lively these kids were, how unformed and unimpressed by ritual and ceremony, how the quality of their inattention differed from that of the adults, many of whom were looking idly around, or holding hands, or staring down at their feet, going through the dull adult motions.

Yes, play is a form of questioning. Just as after the service, at my first cousin’s house and his wife’s, Jeannine’s father, Dan, and mother, Mary Ann, a little boy was playing with a plastic rosary, swinging it around, and his father reprimanded him, saying, You have to show respect for the rosary. For plastic Jesus? Why? To squelch all play? And why make the Jesus plastic? Why make it in the form of beads or balls, which invite our fingers to fumble, our thoughts to stray? For, adult or child, we use a rosary as an abacus, don’t we — counting beads, praying beads that we fumble in order to forget time’s surge and abrasion?

We fumble afterwards, after death, after ritual, with our memories of she who is now gone and can be recovered only via memory. Take out the photo albums. Delve into joke and story. Tell ourselves she’s now in a better place, for this is a line we’ve heard many times and find easy to remember. No negative capability there.

Writing in the dark

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

Met last night, at a local bookstore, with a new meetup.com 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.

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?