Category Archives: Truth

Human dignity

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.

acetylene
Truth will burn like acetylene.

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

Concrete vs. abstract

big ball
This ball is big! (What the hell are we going to do with it?)

Have had occasion to think, re politics and culture in general, about how we might divide ourselves not into sheep and goats (baa!) but abstract and concrete people.

I don’t mean precisely what the great philosopher Madonna might have had in mind near the start of her career, as she sang “I am a material girl, / And this is a material world.” I’m not talking material vs. spiritual, really. (Many people who profess spirituality, sometimes hysterically, are oddly very material. They are set in the material world and yet profess to be acting and yearning for heaven.)

I mean when we meet and socialize, we tend to talk in concrete terms. Mostly, we tell stories — what we did today, what so and so said, how our best friend is feeling blue. We pile up evidence for the story — data, you might say; concrete and empirical facts; sensory details. For this is the world we live in (thanks, Madonna) — both concrete and material. And what are we ourselves if not material creatures?

Well, many of us begin and end there. We are concrete, set in concrete detail; our feet are set in concrete, like a mobster’s. We talk about the sensory world. We act and work in it, pouring foundations, fixing machines, tuning automobiles, sweeping the floor.

We may rarely if ever make the jump from these concrete details, or data, to abstract conclusions — the kind of thinking, or reasoning, that leaves the physical world and enters the metaphysical or more-than-physical. This is just too big a leap for most of us, who remain moored to our particular time, place, and circumstances.

A good friend from Minnesota, who visited recently, talked about the Black Lives Matter protests in Minneapolis. He was incensed not with the protests themselves, he said, but with their method, for the protesters blocked traffic on the freeway and prolonged rush hour.

He was fastened to the facts, fascinated by the facts of the case, and they incensed him. He did not, could not, make a leap from the facts, the phenomena, to all the possible causes or consequences of this political act. (He only knew that blocking traffic delayed arrival at work and pissed people off.) He said nothing about the oppression of the black community. The violence of white cops. The terrific fear and hatred of the black man that the mere sight of one must inspire in too many of those who “protect and serve.”

Had my friend ever protested in public? I doubt it. He was part of what used to be called “the great silent majority,” who bitch to each other and complain but don’t make a concerted, organized public effort to change things.

But why change things when you have ’em good? The friend is retired from 3M, has investments and a pension, a very healthy retirement income, no wife or kids to look out for. God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world, or his world anyway.

But thinking about his world would propel us into abstractions, true? A metaphysical, philosophical world where the air is rare and most of us go about gasping. Help, help, help!

Street poet

Started out this morning with sixty-five bucks  in my pocket. Now, when I turn the pocket inside out, it’s empty.

  • $20 for driver’s license renewal at the station on Razorback Rd;
  • $5 for coffee, cookie, and tip at the Arsaga’s at the library;
  • $10 toward a tip for a massage at IM Spa;
  • $10 for lettuce and flowers at the Farmers’ Market (the vendors were packing up and hustling off when I got done with the massage); and, last but not least, out of chronological order here but forming the climax of the list (drum roll, please)
  • $20 for a sidewalk poem (tah-dah!).
street poet
Street poet has typewriter, will travel.

By the time I got to the spa and parked in front and plugged the meter, it was 11 am and my wallet was down to $40. What the hell. When the tall young man approached me for his spiel, I knew I was a goner. He said he was a poet and recited poems aloud. He said he was from Santa Fe, and got kicked off a new acquaintance’s couch this morning in Fayetteville after rolling into town last night. He allowed as to how Motel Six was the cheapest bed in town at $41.95. He held out his hand.

All right, I conceded. Let’s have it. And he gave it to me, standing in the street, between my car and the next, something moral and uplifting, this wannabe Rumi recited, about listening to conversations as if they were the final words between a father and a son, for, it turns out (so the poet suggested), they always are.

Point well taken, I said. I like the strong moral, I allowed. Sure, the poet said, that’s why I like it too.

So I handed him an Andy Jackson from my billfold (I had just two twenties now), and he said, No shit! Thanks, man! Hey, would you like to hear a joke?

Why not? I said. I was agreeable. This was an encore, yes? A good return on my investment? Shoot!

Why doesn’t a blind man parachute from an airplane?

Geez, I said. I have no idea. Why?

‘Cause it freaks the shit out of the dog!

Oh, my young fellow! Oh heavens to Betsy! Heavens, I’m falling on the ground! Don’t do that to an old man, young man! Oh my! My eye! Oh my!

At which he sauntered away, smiling, to ply his trade elsewhere, and I went chuckling into the spa, where I submitted my wrinkled flesh to a full hour and a half of pummeling on the part of the young maseuse.

Damn, girl, I said, when she was done jabbing and prodding and rubbing me. That was both sensual and powerful. I bet you could hold off an army with those thumbs, couldn’t you?

Possibly, she allowed, smiling.

 

 

My Struggle

KO Knausgaard
Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose struggle mirrors our own.

You’ve heard of Karl Ove Knausgaard, the Norwegian writing sensation? I’ve read several reviews of his six-part memoir, My Struggle (Min Kamp, in Norwegian, which itself caused great controversy, sounding so much like Hitler’s Mein Kampf), and have finally got round to start reading his work.

It’s mesmerizing, really, his day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour account of his youth in rural Norway, his erotic coming of age, his marriage and vocation as writer in Stockholm, Sweden.

It’s hard to account for the pull and power of this work in some ways, as it’s not (quite) fiction and not (quite) narrative. Rather, it’s a memoir comprising meditation and narrative, a melange of forms that seems to derive power from the minute details of the day and how the author reacts to these stimuli. Things that most of us would not notice, or bother reporting, Knausgaard dwells on and develops. His father’s tics and temper, for example. The details of the rocky, wooded topography near his boyhood home. The subterfuges he and his best friend employed, at age 16, to get out of the house and drink beer.

Things that we would repress, too, he hauls up and examines. Indeed, the first volume begins with a macabre meditation on death, the physiology and anatomy of death, the pooling of blood in the nether regions, the “dark, soft patch on ever whitening skin,” the smuggling of the corpse into the morgue, the hiding away of this dark, dirty secret, “the collective act of repression symbolized by the concealment of our dead.”

After the account of his youth in rural Norway, Knausgaard tells of his struggles as an emerging writer. How he gets up, sleepless, in the middle of the night, in Stockholm, while his wife Linda is pregnant and about to have their first child, and sees the police raid the porno store below him. Knausgaard describes how furtive men, attempting to appear normal both coming and going, file into the basement store and then file out. He thinks of the strange communal ritual, though the men don’t seem to acknowledge each other, of plunging down into this underground, selecting a film and a booth, watching the porno, jerking off, using Kleenex to mop up. This too, it seems, is part of the ritual of repression, of avoiding mentioning or publicizing our drives — and our drives’ end(s).

And all the while he’s recounting his struggle to become a writer, Knausgaard is using details of struggles, others’ and his own, as part of his material. There’s some sort of odd parallel between these struggles, in fact. Perhaps he’s saying masturbation for most men is some kind of equivalent of writing for him, or vice versa? Or, more accurately, the longings and dissatisfactions that most of us may take out on our penis, he takes out on, or with, his pen.

Knausgaard has an office 20 minutes from home and, even when Linda is expecting any time, reports dutifully to his office, unpacks his laptop, keeps chugging along on the novel he’s been writing for five years without success.

Is this novel something that he finally abandoned? Did it give way at last to this dreamy, fiction-like memoir we’re reading now? Is that K’s struggle? While others are pounding their puds or their dismal, vain, unpublishable novels, Knausgaard is pounding his head against the wall trying to find the subject that will make him? And discovers only after years of futility that his subject is, after all, immediately at hand? Is himself, the details of his own life?

Of course, all of us have these details at hand. But how many of us make anything of them? We’re not all gifted writers, or painters, or thinkers. We can’t grasp these fleeting moments, before the blood pools, and make sense of them. We’re ordinary mortals, that’s all, with ordinary lives. If only we knew how to tell these lives, not just dart into porno stores, not just scribble nonsense that who would want to read? Who in his right mind? In his busy, dismal, unpublishable life? Who? Who?

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.