Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Crime and Punishment

"On an exceptionally hot evening early in July a young man came out of the garret in which he lodged in S. Place and walked slowly, as though in hesitation, towards K. bridge."

 A ratty old paperback with a cold title, cover sloughing off, coffee stains and cigarette burns.  The previous owner had begun reading with a vengeance, highlighting and underlining and scribbling coded notes in the margin, grown tired around page 100, and had given up altogether by 200.  I found myself analyzing those marks as much as the words beneath, and it became plain that they were the droppings of a psych student, who had undoubtedly been enticed by Freud’s blurb that “Dostoyevsky is second only to Shakespeare”, and who had likely abandoned the project once it was realized that Dostoyevsky wrote literature.  It made the novel more dreary, gave it a harder edge, knowing that it was abused in this manner, with red lines scratching through and psychobabble around the perimeter.  People were reading this book the way med students read cadavers.

There’s good reason for the abuse.  Roskolnikov is inside and out the most psychologically real character that’s ever jittered through the pages of a novel.  The battle between the intellect and the soul, the corrosion of the latter beneath the weight of the former, the hunt for absolution while grasping at justifications – Roskolnikov is a case study with life breathed into it.  Dostoyevsky has such a clear grasp of his character that he seems to be manipulating the atoms of the brain with one hand and describing the actions of the body with the other.  Nothing is out of place.  The entire novel grows out of the seed of anguish in Roskolnikov’s consciousness. 
But – it’s also just a damn good story.

The whole of it revolves around a moral dilemma, what you might call the moral dilemma: Is it alright to overstep the moral code in pursuit of some greater good?  Or, Can "great men" or "great actions" be justified regardless of the moral toll?  Sounds like a question whose answer might dribble out of some dreary philosophy paper, but Dostoyevsky gives it to us on a knife's edge and the tension only ever builds.  The axe drops in the first chapter and the head never hits the ground.

Roskolnikov is immediately recognizable as that bit of your brain that's never comfortable at dinner parties, the part that recoils at the crowd.  He's that piece of you that pauses and mutes the world for brief moments, and thinks, I'm either a creep or king, because I sure as hell ain't one of these assholes.  It's the ego and the self wrapped up in alienation, on the outside looking in, squirming.  And he condenses this fog into a clear picture, defines it with a single act.  To lift his righteous self from poverty and debt, he decides to murder an innocent (albeit unproductive) old woman, whose gold and trinkets will surely provide the catalyst for his greatness.  He is a man apart, and justified in the end.  A king.

What is disturbing about his crime is its intellectual nature.  He thinks this sucker out on a metaphysical level and comes back with an axe in his belt.  It isn't passion, it isn't desperation - it's calculation.  Somewhere in that battered brain, sprung out of the primal and universal emotion of alienation, killing an old lady with blunt force trauma to the head becomes a morally right action.

But he can't argue away the guilt.  It's a pendulum swinging over him for the rest of the novel. 

What I confidently call the greatest scene in all of literature takes place about halfway through Crime and Punishment, as Roskolnikov's soul bleeds right out of his eyes and onto the muddy streets of St. Petersburg.  A man is run over by horse and cart and a crowd gathers.  While everyone shows concern, Roskolnikov is absolutely manic.  He takes out his wallet, begs for the best physicians in the city, he'll cover any expense.  Take him to my lodging, he says, give him my shirt, my shoes.  His sincerity is too vigorous, his demonstrations of philanthropy too desparate.  In a psychotic inversion of "He doth protest too much," Raskolnikov annihilates himself before the crowd, begging for the right to save someone, squealing for absolution.  I read this scene from the comfort of an armchair, and I remember looking around and thinking, this isn't right.  I can't be warm.  The chair is a lie.  I can't witness this destruction with my feet to the fire.  I flipped on the porch light and read the rest of the book in the February cold.  Dawn was hovering when I found the last word.  I had to peel my fingers from the binding.

I have no conclusion.

If you like the blog you might like the book.  Link's over there  ------>      

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Bible?

The Bible!  I’m one of the relatively few that’s actually read this sucker (well, most of it) and my rants could fill a thousand unreadable pages.  My parents made an honest attempt at raising me Lutheran – they actually succeeded in getting me confirmed – but I never believed a word that came out of the Good Book or the pulpit.  I could never tell the difference between Zeus and Jehovah, the contradictions were obvious and not all that mysterious, and the whole affair seemed more like a compulsory display of social obedience than a thoughtful contemplation of the unknown.  And the fact that some of the people around me actually believed this stuff – it scared me.  Either they were crazy, or I was, and there was only one of me.

                I’ll limit myself here to my favorite tale.  It comes right out of the gate, early on in Genesis.  I’ve forgotten the chapter and the names, but the story doesn’t need them.  God’s chosen people, the Abraham Jews, were out wandering in the desert, and they saw a town that needed sacking.  In this town lived a bunch of nice people who had never met the Abraham Jews much less wronged them.  So God’s chosen tribe gives the town a fair deal, saying to the townspeople, “Oh ye people who dwell in this down, God is generous and will spare you.  Provided, of course, that you cut off the tips of your penises.”   And strangely, instead of telling these fetishistic Semites to eat dirt, the townspeople accept the offer without much ado.  They accept the God of Abraham, proving their sincerity by mutilating every penis they can find.  And stranger still, the following day the children of God go back on their word and sack the town anyway, murdering with ease the laid up men, and probably raping the women and children.

                When I think of this story, I like to imagine that it’s one of the few Biblical stories that actually happened.  I picture the little town, which given the time and place is little more than strategic piles of stone and dirt, sitting on a hill in the sweltering desert sun.  It’s pocked with hovels, maybe a modest marketplace near the center, some oxen and sheep meandering about.  Up marches this stinking, travel-weary hoard from the depths of the desert, and they send forth a single envoy.  The town is on pins and needles, wondering if these are marauders or honest wayfarers.  The envoy reaches the gate and delivers his message:  “We have recently acquired the ability to talk to God, and he says you should all snip the folded little bits of skin off your dicks.  If you don’t, he’ll be very angry.”  The envoy leaves in a dirt cloud of dignity, and the townspeople are equal parts baffled, frightened, and amused.  They decide to hold a meeting.

                “This is obviously a joke,” the wheelwright says.  “They’re having a go at us.  If we do this, they’ll spread the word from here to Babylon, we’ll be a laughing stock.”

                “But what if they speak true?” comes the inevitable doubt from the wheat-puncher.  “Where have they come from?  Surely, if God is anywhere, he lives in a cave in the desert.”

                “If we do this, I think the duty should fall to each man’s wife,” a woman dares.  She, like every other woman, is often misused, and relishes the idea of cutting just a bit too deep. 

                “Perhaps, if we cut the tips from the fingers of the women, and present them to these men . . .” the dirt-watcher trails off.

                “Yes,” utters a wise old lecher, “but if I were them I’d ask to see our cocks.”

                “Maybe we could peel the skin back when we show them?”

                “Why would God make cock decrees?”

                Eventually it is settled.  The risk of God outweighs the risk of embarrassment.  The shears are sharpened, the deed is done.  And the next day they all get slaughtered regardless.

                It was in my second semester at the university that I read this and other Biblical Tales in a class called The Bible as Literature.  More or less agnostic at the outset I was full gallop atheist before we ever got to Solomon.  For though I had never believed it, I had always taken it for granted the Bible was at the very least a collection of fables and morals which in summation had a genuine message to convey.  It ain’t anything of the kind.  In fact, there are a multitude of atrocities committed on the name of God that are so bizarre and creative that I never could have dreamed them up on my own.  The Bible is much better described as a depiction of the tribalism, brutality, and insanity of humankind sans knowledge, and it is useful only as far as it warns us against the pitfalls of ignorance.  An honest Bible comes with this preface – “Here lie the paths of ruin.  Know them to shun them."

                By the way, if you ever have the opportunity and the unction, read the Book of Revelations in a dimly lit sauna while listening to experimental jazz.  It’s a trip. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Old Man and the Sea - Merely Sublime

My eighteenth summer is completely detatched from the rest of me.  As a memory, as an event, as anything else that could possibly boast extension in the world, those months don't exist.  Instead, they're floating around in a haze, suspended, formless, and dreamlike.  I had "dropped out" of high school, quit my first job after two weeks, didn't have anything approaching a trade skill, and I was blissfully unaware of the concepts time and money.  So I did what came naturally - I buried my face in books.  It was the summer of Shakespeare and Hemmingway.  A Midsummer's Night Dream, Hamlet, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises . . .

But it's the Old Man and the Sea that stands apart.  I read it one morning as I sipped at my first cup of coffee, waiting for the afternoon to roll in and bring with it the GED.  It was warm, the coffee tasted like dirt, and Santiago dreamed of lions.  He awoke that morning, took a piss behind the shack, and walked up the road to wake the boy.  They talked about Joe DiMaggio.  He set off in his skiff with the sunrise and the Gulf was blue and gray.

Watching the rest of the novel unfold, I remember two distinct sensations.  The first I imagine is universal - I became completely saturated with Santiago's identity.  For those of us that enjoy the novel, it goes well beyond any weak notions of empathy or the human condition.  We just are Santiago for those few pages, adrift in the ocean and looking for something we can't see.  The second was a small but fierce pang of jealousy, because at least Santiago knew what he was looking for.

It's that first sensation, I think, that causes intelligent readers to mistakenly say that The Old Man and the Sea is full of symbolism.  The starkness of Hemmingway's language also tends to lend the imagery a surreal and looming quality that sometimes tricks the mind.  But there is no allegory here, no this-for-that sort of puzzle, no hidden message.  The lions don't mean anything, the sharks don't mean anything, the birds don't mean anything, and the carcass isn't partuclarly meaningful.  It would in fact destroy the integrity of the novel to find out that there was an equation driving it, or a moral behind it.  The Old Man and the Sea is merely sublime.  The elements of the story, the pieces of Santiago's experience in this world, are so well defined and so painstakingly apt, that without any effort at all the reader transcends the words on the page and sees his own experience reflected back at him.  We fill the ocean with our own darkness, we exchange the marlin for a woman, we fight off the bankers and the panhandlers and the layerofferes and the cancers and the depressions and the addictions and the bad bets and the binges - and we come back empty-handed.

Every fuckin' time.

(Just in case you're thinking, hey wait a minute, that's an allegory -- You're wrong.  It's something else.)

So I finished the book and drove down to an ugly pale brick building to take the GED.  (If you're not familiar with the acronym, it's a General Education Diploma, and you go and take this test and get a piece of paper that stands in for a high school diploma.  Those of us that have one usually call it the Good Enough Diploma.)  There were about ten of us in a little science classroom, and I was the youngest by at least a thousand years.  Two of them I remember very clearly.  One was a huge, hard-edged, hard labor type of dude with a bald head and Yeti shoulders.  Filling out the little circles on the card he looked like a bull trying to thread a needle.  The other was an absolutely worn out woman who looked about eight months pregnant and looked at the papers in front of her as if the were in Greek.  I was a little embarrased by my presence there; I felt like a spoiled prick on a lark in the midst of real people who had to fight for the things I pissed on.  It was a fleeting feeling, though, and I was quite proud of myself when I finished the six hour test in two and strutted out the door.

The scores came by mail a few weeks later, and along with some good ACT numbers they got me in to St. Cloud State University.  College.  I can't remember my expectations with perfect clarity, but they were probably something like - O that glorious haven of thoughtful minds, where the patrons of the morrow dwell . . .  It's fun remembering thoughts like that.  All that naive stuff that you try to edit out later on.  What glories my pen shall etch, what victories attain!  Which sky shall see, which hour ordain, the rise of mighty me?

Alright, enough emasculation.  Hemmingway wouldn't have it.  Lost the thread here anyway.  I'll end this installment by quoting Bob Dylan:

"Sometimes it's not enough to know what things mean;
sometimes you have to know what things don't mean."


If you like the blog you might like the book.  Link's over there ---->

Monday, May 28, 2012

LOTR: Walking Out for Frodo

"When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton."

My first encounter with Lord of the Rings was unexpected and brief.  It was a random pull from the shelf in the high school library, and I had barely learned a thing concerning hobbits before a certain Mr F (who put me on to An American Tragedy and All the King's Men) ambled by, raised an eyebrow, and said, "Don't get lost in there."  Having no idea what Lord of the Rings was, or why I might get lost, the comment was mysterious to me.  I read on for a bit, discovered that hobbits lived in holes and didn't like Big People, put the book back on the shelf and forgot about the whole thing.

Three years later I was legally barred from that particular library, but I managed to stumble across Tolkien again at the local used book store.  Thinking it a strange coincidence I parted with my ten dollar bill and toted Middle Earth home in my 95 Dodge Neon.  I was lost before the day was out.

This happened the day before I started work at a cabinet factory.  Freshly thrown out of school, with no skills to claim, my dad forced my hand by getting me a job on the floor.  I remember laughing when I saw the Special Qualifications box on the application -- I wrote "I have functioning motor skills" and that proved impressive enough.  It was ten hour nights, cutting and stacking wood, Chuck Wagon sandwiches, smoking in the road, sanding the wood that was cut and stacked, another smoke in the parking lot, stacking the wood that was sanded, and going home.  My first real job.  I still had a hippie mop of hair and a healthy stoner glaze, and to the convicts and rednecks I worked with I must have looked like a queer city ghost.

And after every shift I beat ass home to rejoin the great adventure of the Third Age of Middle Earth.  (After stopping by the McD's drivethru for my standard $12.34 order, which I gag to recall.  I believe it was a number one with an extra McMuffin, an extra hashbrown, a sausage McGrittle and two burritos with picante sauce.)  Covered in sweat and sawdust, belly full of grease, I'd grab up Lord of the Rings from its post by my alarm clock and read until the sun rose and spelled me into a sleep.  Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil, Strider -- they were equal parts vivid and surreal, walking an invisible line between this world and others.  The encounter with the Wights on the Barrow Downs and the naked frolicking afterwards was something straight out of the mists of someone else's dream, seamless and strange and peaceful.  And the Council of Elrond, where characters popped out of every corner of Middle Earth -- they seemed so real because they came and went without ado, so ephemeral for the same reason.  The whole edifice was built at the crossroads of the Epic and the Myth, and my dreams were dark and colorful.

I'll never be able to separate the smell of sanded wood from Middle Earth.  The memories are linked for good.  While I was pushing marked cuts of wood through the table saw my head was in the Shire or Rivendell or Moria, and while I was reading those pages I reeked of wood and varnish.  The knots in the wood began to look like the back of Frodo's head, or a muddied map of Bree.  And when I looked around the factory, at the metal teeth of the machines of industry, I couldn't help but think that I might be slaving for the wrong side of a different war.

All of that, and I only worked at that place for two weeks.  The third Monday rolled around, they told us that we'd be working twelve hour days instead of ten, and that was the end of it.  I remember exactly what I said to the floor guy: "Hey, man.  I'm not cut out for this shit.  I'm gonna go."  He agreed with me before I even got the words out.  I'm not sure how I justified it to myself at the time -- probably something like, "I'm too awesome for labor" -- but looking back I know exactly why.  The previous night I had just witnessed the fall of Gandalf at the Bridge of Kazadum, the fellowship was entering Lothlorien, and I had to see Frodo through to the other side.

"Don't get lost in there," some guy told me once.

Well, so I got lost.  Lost in Fangorn, lost in Rohan, lost Helm's Deep and the Dead Marshes and Pellenor and Cirith Ungol and Minas Tirith.  Call it escapism if you want; I call it the raw creative force.  Every other book that I've ever read, I can imagine it once as an empty page.  I can't do that with LOTR, the same way I can't figure my way through the big bang.  Frodo just IS.  How could he NOT BE?  Whatever forces are driving the universe, I think the same one hammered out us that hammered out Middle Earth.         

If you like the blog you might like the book.  Link's over there somewhere ----->


Monday, April 23, 2012

The English Paper from Hell

This post isn't quite about a book.  It's about a paper written for a high school composition class by yours truly.  I include it because its omission would ring false -- like blank pages where the crisis goes down.  I figure Copperfield got thrown to the workhouse, Griffiths got lit up and crashed a car, and I got expelled from high school.

High school, for those of you who don't know or prefer to forget, is the public vat of puberty.  It's that strange place between cuteness and alcoholism, where adolescents are hammered into more usable and less thoughtful shapes.  Three lessons are incidentally conferred in this limbo.  First, cheat with precision, and equate the ability to cheat well with the ability to have abilities.  Second, Hollywood edits out all the funny noises and awkward laughter.  Third, the most efficient way to deal with authority is with a bowed head and a forged apology.  These three in combination light the path toward modest success, which is the desired effect of public education.

Whether I was too smart, too dumb, too high, or too lame to come into this knowledge, my seventeenth year came and found me wanting.  I didn't care enough to cheat, I was still terrified of girls, and it was too much fun to piss people off.  Without the ambition or wherewithal to raise hell, I went passive aggressive and voiced my dissent through the assignments I managed to complete.  In health class I wrote a paper defending cigarettes; in speech class I advocated legalizing it; in philosophy I achieved, with some difficulty, a zero percent on a true or false test; on the biology final I soliloquied the frog, etc.  Probably the most telling stunt I pulled came in homeroom, where every Friday somebody was designated to bring in treats.  Most brought Twizzlers and Pepsi, a few brought homemade cupcakes and juice, I came with a loaf of bread and a jug of water.  A simple gesture, but it accomplished two things that were important to me at the time:  it extended the prison metaphor, and it let my classmates know exactly what I thought of them.

These and other antics often earned a sideways look or a tired shake of the head, but they never landed me anywhere near expulsion.  They were just innocent pranks, really.  My ticket to freedom would require something altogether more ridiculous -- I would have to wax rhapsodic about masturbation and the devil.

Anyway, here's the paper:

Adam Spieman
Hr 7
Comp 11

Life, as I perceive it, is naught but a jumble of apparently meaningless experiences that, when pieced together as a whole upon the termination of any particular example thereof, can be interpreted as an ocean of endless possibilities, or as an endless ocean lacking every possibility.  For some, the waves of single experiences form currents of growing thought and enlightenment, and the currents circle the world of the Self and formulate the equation of life's ideal.  Others become lost behind the wakes of giant, thought-compressing ships, such as organized religion, politics, or mental illness.  Personally, I would like to think that I am one of the former -- that my mind is open and, as I proceed through life, I learn from the scenes before me without bias or indifference -- that I am willing to accept the far-fetched idea and able to question the popular opinion -- that my only goal in life is to understand that which I live.

I am currently seventeen.  I am young and ignorant of many things (the most hindering of which is my own ignorance).  Presently, I am completing the junior year of my high school career in Sauk Rapids, MN; and I would like to take this opportunity to inform the reader that public schooling is a sham.  I have learned nothing within the walls of that school; all that I have learned I have learned in spite of that school.

To turn to the topic originally assigned:

How have I changed over the past year?  How am I different?  It is hard for me, as myself, to observe these things, for I have no constant with which to compare the variable; I have no point of reference.  As a rule, I must change with myself; there is no part of me which is left behind.  When I change, it is impossible for me to recognize it soon afterwards, for I feel like I am still the same person I was, although I may not be.  Therefore, I must complete this assignment as someone who is not me -- someone with an outside perspective and hence a point of reference, the elements necessary for such observations as are herein required.  I must take on an alter-ego, a him who is not I.  I will call him now.

He answers thus:

Hello, my name is Mud.  Adam Spielman has called upon me to share with you the different ways in which he has changed over the course of this past year.  I will begin with him at the beginning:  He was a good boy, a well-groomed boy.  His friends liked him; he had no enemies.  Life was a happy, joyous field of magnolias for Adam Spielman -- an endless field of the purest of joy and unfiltered adoration for the simplest of pleasures.  He lived and he loved and he loved to live.  Breath filled his lungs and opportunity his hands.  And he read -- many books he read -- and he learned from what he read and was commencing his own ocean of thought and wonderment.  Yes, things were looking bright for Adam Spielman.

Enter:  [teacher's name removed]

Hate -- an unadulterated lust for death and destruction, an uncontrollable urge to kill -- rage -- rivers of flame, pools of knives -- fingers lacking flesh, body lacking soul.  That is the best I can portray the thoughts of Adam Spielman as [name removed] entered his life in the form of a composition teacher.  "Satan!" he cried, but no one would listen.  "That is no teacher of English!  Can you not tell demonic entities from high school staff members?  It is Satan, I tell you, Satan!"  Slowly and steadily Adam's outlook on life deteriorated from fields of magnolias to a pestilence of leeches and bullfrogs.  Day after day and vomit-inducing day, Adam was forced to endure the distorted words and foul teachings which poured forth from the leering mouth of Satan - the leering mouth of [name removed].  The ruthlessness of the beast -- of the machine -- battered Adam's happiness and slaughtered his innocence.  Yes, things were looking dark for Adam Spielman.

Enter: the brave new world of masturbation.

Then one day, amidst those terrible days above mentioned, Adam had an idea.  He liked his idea, and when he tried it out, he really like his idea.  Soon this was all he lived for; he forgot about [name removed] and her evil ways; he knew only the exquisite pleasure that resulted from the daily exercise of his new idea -- his brave new idea.  He never told his composition teacher of his idea, for fear that she might steal it from him.  And so he's been, from the birth of his idea to the present, masturbating constantly and neglecting his English homework.  Well, Adam Spielman, you're not back to even, but it's a start.

At the time I wrote it and handed it in, I was oblivious to the quirks that might raise more than an eyebrow.  It was a lark.  The progression from the ocean metaphor to the split personality to the devil to masturbation was simply absurd and beneath consideration.  Inappropriate as always, but certainly not worthy of revulsion.  But looking at it now, for the first time in a good chunk of years, there are a few things that strike me and I can't help empathizing with the decision to boot me.  For one thing, to say that "currents" of water "formulate life's ideal" is very poorly done.  You've taken a strange turn when your ocean is calculating formulae.  And, though it may not be outright impossible to simultaneously know and not know a thing, saying that you are aware of the ignorance that hinders your awareness is a little strange.  Perhaps most importantly, a second personality is not a unique perspective and can solve neither the Identity Paradox nor the Uncertainty Principle.  That is just plain bad reasoning.  And since it's the pivot of the paper, it really is an egregious lapse of judgment.

So the house phone rang one morning and a voice told my parents there had been a disturbance.  That afternoon found us all in the principal's office, where we talked about pipe bombs and sexual harassment.  Later that week I received a letter that said if I ever came within so many feet of school grounds they'd arrest me forthwith and bring me to the nearest magistrate, from whom wouldst erupt  a mighty castigation in accordance with Statute 517 of the Code.  Then, about a month later, another letter came saying I'd missed too many days of school, and if I didn't come soon they'd declare me a dropout.  Finally, say a few weeks later, I received my last high school report card.  Fs and Is were scratched into every box save one.

I got a B in Composition.  

If you like the blog you might like the book. Link's over there somewhere. -------->


Sunday, April 8, 2012

An American Tragedy and All the King's Men

These two books are American Classics, they were written in the same century, they both put a microscope to the greasy spots on America's face, but their similarities end there.  They coexist here because of a high school teacher who told me that they were the first and fourth best American novels ever written.  He never said which was which, and I neglected to ask about the second or the third. He had a writer's heart, so I guess that Warren sat first, that Mark Twain and Kerouac shared second, while Dreiser crept into fourth.  However it went, I read 1 and 4 over freshman year.

Which was also the year I was introduced to weed and skateboarding and Grand Theft Auto, ditching school, parking lot hacky-sack, my middle finger, and the whole sad world of suburban counter-culture in general.  It was a strange confluence.    One particular afternoon, again on the deck with a cherry cola, I was following Clyde Griffiths through his uncle's factory and sharing his wonder at the guts of industry and progress, when around the corner of the house loped three shady dogs with half-open eyes and boards on their shoulders.  They asked me what I was doing, I said "I'm reading An American Tragedy," they said "Fuck off," and we went down to the middle school to film ourselves as we jumped from things, broke other things, and smoked stuff.  The school had a special dumster for grease and fat waste and we held our heads inside until we gagged or vomited.  The loading dock was a four foot drop and we broke ourselves on the gravelly tar until a bleeding scrodum forced us to relent.  After pooling our resources for two cans of soda from a vending machine the day was out, and I staggered back home and rejoined Clyde in the factory, no longer remembering why he was there or who the other guy was. 

This sort of thing happened frequently, and I remember entertaining the odd conceit of a double life.  Adam Spielman, smoke-head by day and great-reader-of-books by night.  The conviction that my awesomeness was unprecedented seems natural enough, but I do wonder at the gravity I gave my ability to read books.

At any rate, it might be noted that this is an imperfect method of absorbing literature.  I object to that note.  Whether by accident or because a certain Mr. F was savvier than he looked, these two books at that time provided a context for the angst and the futility and the hopelessness I felt everywhere around me but couldn't give a face.  Watching Clyde struggle through the echelons of society, working so hard and wanting so badly to grasp that top rung, pulling against the inertias of class and human nature, letting all that ambition warp him to the point of murder -- and drifting along with Jack Burden, from hotel to hotel, tethered to this big charismatic corrupt bastard, just falling through and falling through until finally a bullet stopped the train -- they were the face.  I was a counter-culture anti-whatever with Anarchy tattoed on my cotton T-shirt; there was nothing to be against and I was against it anyway and Dreiser and Warren put a form to my half-baked discontent.  School was no longer bullshit for the sake of saying bullshit: it was bullshit because the heirarchy was entrenched and the middle class was the new peasantry and the public educational system was set up to manufacture a workforce.    Capitalism was just another way to keep you down, democracy was a carnival, the American Dream was a slave with a house. 

It's the system, man.

There was a whole body of work dedicated to the unrest I felt, to the apathy that seemed like the only sane response.  The Grapes of Wrath and The Catcher in the Rye, which I read around the same time, added more fuel to a growing conviction that the text book narrative was propaganda at best, that working hard was for suckers.  The system pushed Clyde over the edge, the system corrupted Willie Stark, the system starved the oakies.  The only way to avoid the system was to emulate Holden's misanthropy.  At the time that meant long greasy hair, smoking weed between classes, listening to anything with explicit lyrics, burning history text books, banging out power chords on an electric guitar.  Anything to get through unsullied.  The system can't kill what the system can't find.

At least, that was my thinking as far as I remember it.  The descent to that place was inevitable, and the first and fourth best American novels were a steady patch of ground in a vague and shifting landscape.  The broader context they provided, and the scope of American Tragedy in particular, is part of the reason I didn't get completely lost.  I think I pulled myself out of that funk sooner and with more alacrity having witnessed Clyde's destruction, than I would have without it.  Which doesn't have to make sense if it's true. 



Saturday, March 24, 2012

Don Quixote

Don Quixote was a birthday present and I sallied forth on my fifteenth summer.  I made battle with the enchanted windmill, freed an ungrateful chain gang, pined for my tavern wench on a solitary mounntain top, and dutifully harangued all unwary passersby.  From the opening sequence to the closing paragraphs, through all the absurdities and profundities, I got it.  I just plain got it.  And while academia has since tried to endow me with a six dollar interpretation, it doesn't even come close to a fifteen-year-old's two penny epiphany: "Fuck it - I'm a knight."

Before you accuse me of being thickheaded, or suspect me delusional, I'd like to unpack that little nugget.  It's been lodged in my brain for some time now, crossing signals and bridging synapses, and it's had some effect on me.  First, there are two very distinct and mutually exclusive world views that evoke the fuck it.  One is merely pessimistic and defeatist, the other is a more nuanced acknowledgement of the arbitrary and the absurd.  The defeatist's fuck it lays its foundation in futility, where existence is of no importance and its constituents are hopelessly invested, and the only intelligent response is apathy.  The absurdist's fuck it founds itself in relativity, where every perspective is more or less true despite the surface contradiction, and the only intelligent response is creativity.  Though they celebrate the same motto, they derive it through irreconcilably different means, and these two champions of fucking it could not be more estranged.  The defeatist languishes, the absurdist thrives; the defeatist sighs, the absurdist laughs; the frowny-fran dies with a shrug, the wanking-wally exits with a bow.  To state the difference more viscerally: Some say fuck it because the world is a drifting tomb, some because the world is a mad circus.  I, and I believe Master Quixote, are in the latter camp.  We roam undefeated because we paint the world with our eyes.  Second, the claim that I'm a knight has nothing to do with ego or mental stability.  It is a reflection of the same arbitriness that inspires the precursing fuck it.  I am also a fish, a rainbow, a sailor, a king, and a chamber pot.  In the arbitrary world even my identity is a shifting and transmutable thing, so why not throw it this way or that?  Who's to say I'm not the Mastodon of Fertility or the Goddess of Rock'n'Roll? 

Fuck it - I'm a writer.

Anyway, that was all rattling around in my head in some form or another.  Mostly it was vague and immature, but it was there.  I leafed through Don Quixote's exploits on our newly built deck, in the shade of a box-elder tree (which was really an ash tree) drinking cherry cola and wearing a shit grin.  If Dickens introduced me to the magic between the lines, Cervantes showed me the power of the ideas behind them, and I've been defying the Enchanter ever since.

[The preceding is a restoration of a scrap of paper discovered in an unmarked chest that once belonged to Amadis Gaul, purchased at an estate sale by an anonymous Protestant for thirteen dollars.  Though the surviving text is in English, several peculiarities have prompted scholars to suggest it may in fact be a translation of an older, now lost, document.  The casual vulgarity has led some to believe it has a French origin, while the laziness of the opening and closing paragraphs have given rise to the Italian School.  Still others point to stylistic disparities - the stoic clunkishness of the middle paragraph, the sleepy nostalgia of the closing remarks, etc. - and claim that the work has several authors and as many translators, at least one of whom is either Russian or German.  There is no hope of consensus.]                       

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