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.]                       

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


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

An Edgar Allan Poe Christmas

After David Copperfield I spent the next several months devouring the canon.  I didn't know it was the canon, but I knew they were the "important" books, the ones that time couldn't kill.  The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Sawyer, Gulliver's Travels, Tale of Two Cities, maybe a few others.  I read them, like Copperfield, without analysis, with the assumption that they were the paradigm and I was experiencing pure awesomeness.  (I had a professor in college who said the best way to read Shakespeare is to assume that Shakespeare is perfection, and that his plays reach a depth you can only hope to glimpse.  Whenever he said it, which was often, it always made me think of those first tomes I discovered.)  And, like Copperfield, only bits of them remain with me.  Lilliput and the small end of the egg, Gulliver pissing on the capital city; peasants trying desperately to slurp spilled wine from the mud, everyone calling each other Jacques, whatever-his-name-was making my heart rise on his way to the guillotine; Tom watching his own funeral from the rafters (or was that later, in Huck Finn?), the abandonment of the white fence . . .  They were all above me and I was only peeking under their skirts.  Never saw their faces.

When Christmas rolled around that year, and my parents asked what I wanted, I said simply, "Books."  They might have asked me what kind of books, and I probably said, "Really good books."  A difficult charge, but they carried it.  Under the tree that year I found the complete works of Shakespeare, some Mark Twain, an Alice in Wonderland, several I can't recall, and four collections of Edgar Allan Poe.  It was these last that would really captivate me.

When you read Poe for the first time, you come away with the impression of having just walked through a mist and catching a glimpse of a shadow.  The shape of the shadow is strange, and it's gone before you can focus your eyes.  Sometimes you're not even sure what the story is about, but you can feel the dampness of it, the darkness in it - you can sense that you're trapped in someone else's otherworldly tomb.  You don't have to know what Gothic is, you don't have to read Poe's essays on mood, you don't have to know that the Murder at the Rue Morgue is the first modern detective story, (or, by the by, that Poe is credited with being the first person to suggest that the universe is expanding) - you don't need any knowledge whatsoever to experience the dank woods of Weir or the inevitability of Montressor.  The language itself has a texture, and it's cold to touch.

I read most of it, but just two short stories and one poem have really stayed with me: The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amantillado, and The Bells.  The Fall because of its quiet strangeness, its shadowy unreal dreamscape, and because one of my first short stories (The House on Quamba Lake) ripped it off completely.  The Cask because the tension in those Italian catacombs clawed at my brain and I remember squirming in my chair as Fortunato was slowly - so slowly - immured.  The Bells because, if I hadn't read these lines -

Hear the loud alarum bells,
          Brazen bells!
What a tale of terror, now, their turbulency tells!
    In the startled ear of night
    How they scream out their affright!
      Too much horrified to speak,
      They can only shriek, shriek,
          Out of tune,
In a clamorous appealing to the mercy of the fire,
In a mad expostulation with the deaf and frantic fire,
      Leaping higher, higher, higher,
      With a desperate desire,
    And a resolute endeavor
    Now—now to sit or never,
  By the side of the pale-faced moon.
      Oh, the bells, bells, bells!
      What a tale their terror tells
          Of Despair!
    How they clang, and clash, and roar!
    What a horror they outpour
On the bosom of the palpitating air!
      Yet the ear it fully knows,
          By the twanging
          And the clanging,
      How the danger ebbs and flows;
    Yet the ear distinctly tells,
          In the jangling
          And the wrangling,
    How the danger sinks and swells,—
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells,
          Of the bells,
    Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
          Bells, bells, bells—
  In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!

- I might still be entirely sane.  Which I hold to be evidentially useless.  I also have the wonderful memory of reading The Bells for the first time as thunder rattled the house; the lights went out and I finished it by candlelight.  I spent the rest of the night looking out into the storm, listening between lightning strikes for the groaning of the bells.

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