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Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Difficulties of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"

I just finished re-reading Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" and found it just as difficult to read as I did in both undergraduate and graduate school.  I am not quite sure why this novel has emerged as one of the tough ones for me, but I suspect there are elements in its distinct period language that act as a thin veil of (no pun intended) darkness that impedes my progress and understanding.  I doubted whether or not I would even write about my re-read here, mainly because I have little to say about it other than what I have just pointed out.  As a result, I have decided to type here my overly pretentious paper I wrote back in 1997.  I wish I didn't have to retype it but the file seems to have disappeared with the many floppy disks I had to throw out for lack of a drive to copy them into my new computer.  If the paper seems as incomprehensible to you as the text of the novel seems to me, it is no coincidence.

In Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," the protagonist Marlow and the infamous Mr Kurtz act as bipolar extremes to the overall meaning of the narrative.  One of the main reasons why these characters appear in such a disparate stance is because the different ways in which they absorb the environment around them; and, in particular, their very different interpretations of black and white.  It is this difference in interpretations of black and white images that in the end proves fatal for Kurtz while, on the other hand, Marlow survives "the horror."  The general association of images of blackness (dark) with savagery or evil behavior, and whiteness (light) with rightfulness and advantages of civilization are inherent in colonialist and imperialistic periods--one is rationalistic, intellectual, optimistic and religious; the other is sensationalist, materialistic, pessimistic and irreligious.  Marlow is somewhat plagued by these periodical assumptions of racial and cultural disproportions, but in contrast to Kurtz, these assumptions have a very different result on the man who does not "want to bother [the reader] much with what happened to [him] personally" (5).  Unlike Kurtz, who tends towards extremist moral illness, the unselfish Marlow is a Jamesian pragmatist at heart.

Marlow survives his experience of the darkness because of his pragmatic construction of the images he encounters in the jungle.  His interpretation of the values behind light (white) and darkness (black) stands in the middle ground between what William James calls "the tough-minded" and "the tender-minded" approach; this is precisely what helps Marlow survive "the horror" of the alien environment he encounters (4).  In contrast, Kurtz' extremist treatment of black and white, and his obsession with material gain represent what William James calls "the tough-minded" philosophy--a strictly empiricist column in the pragmatic stance (4).  This paper will explore the idea that Marlow's survival comes as a result of him adopting a pragmatic approach, while Kurtz' demise comes as a result of his one-sided obsessions.  Also, this paper will examine ways in which the pragmatic reading of Marlow helps elevate Conrad's novella above what Chinua Achebe denounces as a "racist and depraved book" (8).

The pragmatic approach, as per William James, holds that "[a] new opinion counts as 'true' just in proportion as it gratifies the individual's desire to assimilate the novel in his experience to his beliefs in stock.  It must both lean on old truth and grasp a new fact; and its success... in doing this, is a matter of the individual's appreciation" (25).  The notion of pragmatism in "Heart of Darkness" develops early; Conrad's construction of Marlow's morality depends on it.  Marlow's inherent whiteness (old truth) accepts the African notion of blackness (new fact) without sacrifice of his European consciousness.  For example, he objectively find the red patches on the map of Africa good "because one knows that some real work is being done in there" (7).  And although Marlow understands that most imperialism is "robbery with violence," British imperialism is categorized and differentiated from French imperialism from the very start: "What saves us is efficiency--the devotion to efficiency" (4).  The use of the term efficiency--a scientific term--by Marlow is further evidence of his devotion to grasping the "cash-value" of an idea without sacrificing the subjectivity of its truth.  Marlow's statement defines in part the Mid-Victorian work ethic mentality.  John Stillinger states in "The Mid-Victorian Period (1848-70) Economic Prosperity and Religious Controversy" that "[t]he aristocracy [of the period] was discovering that Free Trade was enriching rather than impoverishing their estates; agriculture flourished together with trade and industry" (895).  While the first part of the Victorian Age was plagued with unfair labor practices and a struggle between manual laborers and technological advances, the Mid-Victorian period seems to have made a compromise between the rationalist and the empiricist vision of truth.  James states that in truth, "[one] must bring out each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of [one's] experience.... [T]ruth in our ideas and beliefs means the same thing that it means in science.  It means nothing but this, that ideas (which themselves are but parts of experience) become true just in so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relation with other parts of our experience, to summarize them and get about among them by conceptual short-cuts instead of following the interminable succession of particular phenomena" (21,23).

Marlow's perceptions of white (light) and black (dark) often transpose and challenge the traditional assumptions of the era.  Marlow states that Africa is no longer a "black space... a white patch" on the map he used to daydream while a child, "it had become a place of darkness" (5, bold mine).  Marlow's recognition of Africa as a "white patch" seems problematic when applying European cultural assumptions of superiority (whiteness as civilization).  Nevertheless, the pragmatic approach allows Marlow to construct a yin and yang-like representation of Africa and Europe.  "Yin and yang," states E.D. Hirsh in "The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy," are the "[t]wo forces of the universe... yin is the passive, negative force, and yang the active, positive force" (112).  Thus, both white and black blend in Marlow's perception to yield an Africa which suffers an "uncivilized" darkness inflicted by European "light."  Similarly, Patrick Brantlinger states in "Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy Myth of the Dark Continent" that "Marlow is right: Africa grew 'dark' as Victorian explorers, missionaries and scientists flooded it with light... [and] light was refracted through an imperialist ideology" (185, bold mine).

The darkness in Conrad's masterpiece is represented by the jungle, which, assisted by peripheral devices, includes all of that which Kurtz' obsessions succumb to, and that which the responsible Marlow pragmatically approaches.  This binary stance between the characters offers a starting point from which to argue for the pragmatic stance of Marlow.  These two different "columns" are clearly depicted in James' idea of pragmatism.  In the chapter from "Pragmatism" entitled "The Present Dilemma in Philosophy," William James presents a model of columns which epitomize Marlow's and Kurtz' positions:

"The Tender-Minded"                          "The Tough-Minded"
Rationalistic (going by principle)        Empiricist (going by facts)
Intellectualistic                                    Sensationalistic
Idealistic                                              Materialistic
Optimistic                                            Pessimistic
Religious                                             Irreligious
Free-willist                                         Fatalistic
Monistic                                              Pluralistic
Dogmatic                                            Skeptical

While Marlow shifts between both columns during the narrative and ends up absorbing both, Kurtz' position aims more towards the tough-minded.  Kurtz is not "physically" present for most of the narrative, but once the story winds up, the reader is aware of Kurtz' complete immersion into the tough-minded mentality.  But Marlow depends on this immersion in order to realize his position.  Donald M Kartiganer states in "The Divided Protagonist: Reading as Repetition and Discovery:" "On'y in contrived coexistence, in being situated as parallel [and opposites], can Marlow and Kurtz have meaning at all.  Each protagonist mediates and reenacts the other, each is a tenor and vehicle for the other.  Marlow appropriates Kurtz' adventure in the jungle as image for his own encounter with the darkness of meaning; at the same time Marlow submits himself as image through which Kurtz' actions can become intelligible--and in turn useful as image (163).

Possessing both the tender mind and the tough mind, Marlow's idealism and sensationalism are clear: "[w]atching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma.  There it is before you--smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, Come and find out" (10).  In contrast with the use of the "efficiency" earlier, Marlow's use of the word "enigma" evokes pragmatism's constant pursuit of truth by using both rationalistic and empiricist approaches.  James' proposal of pragmatism "primarily as a method of settling metaphysical disputes which otherwise might be interminable" again comes to mind--before pragmatism, all answers are possible (18).

Marlow's perception of the coast depicts a personification far from unfamiliar; it mixes the negative (black) with the positive (white)--the light with the dark.  The coast remains unknown to Marlow, but he is able to describe the coast quite eloquently, and even ascribe a "voice" to it.  Ironically, as the coast of Africa becomes more and more distinguishable to Marlow, he is unable to build on his earlier description of it.  In other words, Marlow is unable to produce a definitive description that takes permanent position between the tender-minded and the tough-minded.  The map of Africa on the wall from which Marlow develops his earlier constructions of meaning remains the same as he encounters Africa in real life.  Marlow states: "Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast.  There wasn't even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush.  It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts.  Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts.  In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent" (11, bold mine).  The man-of-war is not, under the circumstances, firing into something as large and as dark as Africa hoping to impose its will upon it; Marlow understands this.  Marlow's contemplation of the coast borders on a stream of consciousness narration.  In "An Inquiry into the Good," Japanese philosopher Kitaro Nishida states: "The will often takes action as its goal and accompanies it, but the will is a mental phenomenon that is distinct from external action, and action is not a necessary condition of the will" (20).  If the external action (firing of guns) operates independently from will as a mental phenomenon--something which could be interpreted as ideology--then Marlow's blending of both elements in his observation of the coast is truly an amazing pragmatic feat.  The ship is firing at all that Africa embodies; the prospect of enforcing intangible European ideology (will) and tangible material gain (external violent action).  Pragmatically speaking, while Marlow does not see the firing of the gun as an action entirely devoid of paradoxical absurdity, he is able to merge the empirical action (firing the gun) with the idealistic attitude (shelling of a possibly desolate area in order to prove an idealistic point) into one idea and abstract some truth from it.  Marlow believes that firing the guns at the continent is absurd because one will never be able to kill it; but he sees the symbolic action to the whole affair.  Along the lines of pragmatic interpretation, Anthony Easthope states in his book "Literary into Cultural Studies" that "'firing into a continent' is surely classic irony for it speaks of the action of the ship and the gun firing but, since strictly you cannot fire into a continent, it really implies a more general meaning: the uselessness of trying to subdue by mere force of arms a whole continent where millions of people live" (87).

Compared to Marlow, Kurtz' characterization takes on the proportions of a bestial man; yet, this bestiality holds an aura of sacredness to those who see Kurtz as a superior being.  The extremism with which Kurtz succumbs to the jungle epitomizes "the tough-minded" characterizations of William James' pragmatist critique.  In the article "Mr Kurtz, I Presume: Why Do Most Scholars Think There Was No Real Kurtz?  Zaire Is Full of Them," Adam Hochschild states: "A month after the voyage [into Dark Africa via Rio des Belges] ended, Conrad--suffering from malaria and dysentery, and with his view of human nature permanently altered by the brutality and greed he had seen among the white men around him--quit his job and started back to Europe.  He had come to the Congo expecting to find the exotic Africa of his childhood dreams; he found instead what he later described as 'the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience" (40).  Kurtz embodies a "disfigured human conscience" and in doing so plays the opposite of Marlow's pragmatic driving force.  In this sense, Marlow and Kurtz also resemble a Hegelian bipolarity; nevertheless, the synthesis cannot find a place in pragmatism because pragmatism does not believe in the triadic movement.  While some of the traits included by James under the banner of "the tough-minded" are not--by any extension of interpretation--negative, the way in which these traits are applied by Kurtz in "Heart of Darkness" can be seen as such.  Yet, these negative traits Kurtz possesses hold a fascination for all the characters which speak Kurtz' name.  For example, the harlequin states: "He [Kurtz] declared he would shoot me unless I gave him the ivory and cleared out of the country, because he could do so, and had a fancy for it, and there was nothing on earth to prevent him killing whom he jolly well pleased" (51).  Kurtz is beyond the rationale of other whites in the pursuit of ivory.  At the time, the collection of material goods from Africa was justified even if the end result of the profit included the massacre of entire tribes of natives.  However, because "[one] can't judge Mr Kurtz as [one] would an ordinary man," the action of killing a white man for the acquisition of material goods is justified.  What is behind the fascination Kurtz imposes on others that, even at the risk of death, men chose to follow it?  Perhaps the harlequin is a Shakespearean fool, in the midst of an irrational, desperate act comes to deliver the maniacal statement that turns out to be the missing link of the plot.

After his conversation with the harlequin, Marlow realizes that the fascination with Kurtz veers into the negative.  The welcoming sign for Marlow as he approaches the subject of his drive and obsession is a set of "round knobs [that] were not ornamental but symbolic" (52).  Pragmatism allows Marlow to see the factual objects (shrunken heads) as something with an ideological value (symbolism); yet, Marlow recognizes that "there was nothing exactly profitable in these heads being there.  They only showed Marlow that Mr Kurtz lacked restrain in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him" (53).  Nevertheless, Marlow's obsession with Kurtz remains strong: "I was anxious to deal with this shadow by myself alone--and to this day I don't know why I was so jealous of sharing with anyone the peculiar blackness of that experience" (59).  These passages are reminiscent of another great literary work which explores the damaging effects of men who can exercise power over others, and the thorny minds of those who fall victims to it.  In Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," Ahab states: "What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare?  Is Ahab, Ahab?  Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?.... But heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass and Fate is the handspike.  And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! (592).

When Marlow finds Kurtz is missing, his words convey the voice of a pragmatist:  "What made this emotion so overpowering was--how shall I say it?--the moral shock I received, as if something altogether monstrous, intolerable and odious to the soul, had been thrust upon me unexpectedly.... the usual sense of commonplace, deadly danger, the possibility of a sudden onslaught and massacre... which I saw impending, was positively welcome and composing.  It pacified me, in fact, so much, that I did not raise an alarm (59).

Much like Ahab's situation with the whale, Marlow's following of Kurtz is the result of the helplessness of his position.  The protagonist's statement after Kurtz' death binds him for life to an image of darkness: "He lived then before me; he lived as much as he had ever lived--a shadow insatiable of splendid appearances, of frightful realities; a shadow darker than the shadow of the night.... the heart of a conquering darkness" (68).  Again, Marlow blends the two columns and derives truth from it.  From that moment on, the "splendid appearances" (tender-minded) live within the "frightful realities" (tough-minded) of the protagonist.

Marlow is tied to Kurtz even after the latter's death.  Pragmatism helps Marlow survive the corruption that Kurtz' philosophy offers, but it does not help the protagonist avoid lying to Kurtz' fiancee.  Does Marlow lie to Kurtz' fiance because at the time it seemed like the thing to do?  As Marlow prepares to visit Kurtz' fiancee, he takes again into his absorption of the environment in order to survive the experience: "The tall marble fireplace had a cold and monumental whiteness.  A grand piano stood massively in a corner; with dark gleams on the flat surfaces like a somber and polished sarcophagus" (68).  Furthermore, Marlow's perception of "the heart of a conquering darkness" is a "vision [that] enter[s] the house with [him]" (68).  Yet, the ever-heroic Marlow fights against the vision and wins with "an invading and vengeful rush which, it seemed to [him]... [he] would have to keep back alone for the salvation of another soul" (68).  The protagonist realizes that he does not need salvation; he is saved inasmuch as pragmatism has saved him.  It is Kurtz and his fiancee who need salvation.  This salvation is in part non-deliverable for Kurtz because the latter is far gone into "the tough-minded" philosophy.  Marlow realizes that Kurtz statement, "[l]ive rightly," implies that he himself could no longer do so (63).  Marlow lies to Kurtz' fiancee, but in doing so, he is only exercising his ability to put into practice the extraction of "cash-value" of ideas in order to offer her salvation from what he considers "would have been too dark.... too dark altogether...." (72).  In short, the "cash-value" of Marlow's idea to lie to Kurtz' fiancee is based on truth.  "[A]n idea is 'true,'" states William James, "so long as to believe it is profitable to our lives" (30).  Marlow's lie yields the most benefit--in his opinion--of a very unfortunate situation.  As a result, Marlow's lie, in a sense, becomes truth.  Fred Marden states in his essay "Marlow and the Double Horror of Heart of Darkness," that "by the act of lying, [Marlow] admits to himself that he is corruptible and, by implication, mortal" (79).  But Marlow does indeed survive because, after all, "[t]he heavens do not fall for such a trifle" (72).

Pragmatism fails to elevate Conrad's novella about the racial criticism because, as a story-teller, Marlow fails to use pragmatism as a tool to rid the narrative of unfair, prejudicial stereotypes.  As stated earlier, the inherent racism of the period sets the fate of the novella as propagating unfair constructions of race.  This is evident in Marlow's use of sexual undertones connected to women and the exposure to the unrestrained darkness (black) of Africa: "Girl!  What?  Did I mention a girl?  Oh, she is out of it--completely.  They--the women I mean--are out of it--should be out of it.  We must help them to stay in that beautiful world of their own, lest ours gets worse.  Oh, she had to be out of it" (44).  Marlow's tone bespeaks an underlying threat to the purity of the "tender-minded" white woman: the "tough-minded" black man.  In this case the columns are unable to meet; Marlow won't allow so.  This is one "old fact" that Marlow will now allow merging with "new values," for the old European establishment would not allow him to do so.  Europeans and Westerners "see Africanism," states Toni Morrison in "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination," "used as a fundamental fictional technique by which to establish... unrestrained potency and degenerative sexuality" (80).  In other words, everything that steps out of the darkness of Africanism does not come forth to share the light of civilization, but rather to corrupt it.  Similarly, in her essay "Taking Tarzan Seriously," Marianna Torgovnick examines the abundance of abduction and implied rape of white women in the William Borrogh's classic tale: "Everyone involved in it--Terkoz [the gorilla that abducts Jane], Tarzan, Jane, the reader--anticipates Jane's violation, referred to, discreetly, only as 'Terkoz' intentions....'  Scenes like this suggest certain rules: qualities like lust belong to animals and blacks, not to Euro-Americans, except when they are renegade, outcast; flirtations with miscegenation, especially between white females and nonwhite males, must never occur" (53).

Marlow's pragmatic moral inclination collapses after closer examination of his unbending "old truths;" they are simply embedded in his consciousness; he suffers from selective judgment.  The protagonist is able to blend old truths with new facts, but the European tendency of holding old truths as only truths emerges in the end.  It is not enough to say that pragmatism fails to show Marlow as a level-minded individual, or that it helps Conrad's construction of color borders against the numerous accusations of being racist; the defense of the text collapses due to historical racist assumptions.  The overwhelming evidence is simply too much.

Marlow's voice is torn between compliance to the call of European "superiority" and compassion for all that he sees as injustice.  Passages like, "They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now, nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom," echoes with Conrad's own perception of African conquest as "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience" (14, 40).  Nevertheless, critics like Chinua Achebe--who incidentally argues for Conrad's novella to be dropped from the Western canon--concentrate on passages which, in his rightful opinion, perpetuate the stereotype of Africa not only as inherently dark, uncivilized and savage, but also as "the antithesis of Europe and therefore civilization.... a place where a man's vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality" (125).  Achebe condemns the following passage as utterly racist: "We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet.  We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance.... a burst of yells, a whirl of black limbs, a mass of hands clapping, of feet stumping, of bodies swaying, of eyes rolling under the droop of heave and motionless foliage.... The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying on us, welcoming us--who could tell?  We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings... as sane men would be before the enthusiastic outbrake in a madhouse.... The earth seemed unearthly.  We were accustomed to look upon the shacked form of a conquered monster, but there--there you could look at a thing monstrous and free... and the men were.... No they were not inhuman.  Well, you know that was the worst of it--this suspicion of their now being inhuman (32).

Conrad's construction of color borders--which in turn represent the struggle between civilization and savagery--abandons pragmatism and juxtaposes European rationalist thought and African irrationality and sensationalism.  In terms of literary formula, James Snead's comments of racial divisions in literature come to mind.  Snead's categories could be used to determine how true Achebe's indictment is:  "1--Economy of stereotype: This allows the writer a quick and easy image without the responsibility of specificity, accuracy, or even narratively useful descriptions... 2--Metonymic displacement: Color coding and other physical traits become metonyms that displace rather than signify... 3--Metaphysical condensation: Allows the writer to transform social and historical differences into universal differences.  4--Fetishization: Especially useful in evoking erotic fears or desires and establishing fixed and major difference where difference does not exist or is minimal.  Blood, for example, is a pervasive fetish: black blood, white blood, the purity of white female sexuality, the pollution of African blood and sex."  Using Snead's categories, the reader can determine that Conrad's construction of white (light) and black (dark) breaks well beyond the mark of the European racist ideology of the period; the pragmatic voice of Marlow is then left behind, nowhere to be found.  The answer is then clear; pragmatism does not save "Heart of Darkness" from being categorized as a racist portrait of Africa; it only saves the protagonist.  Nevertheless, there are more promising options to Achebe's extremist approach of dropping "Heart of Darkness" from the canon altogether.  Toni Morrison closes her study of race in American literature by saying that [literary racial studies] are not about a particular author's attitudes towards race" (90).  Whether truthfully pragmatic or not, Conrad's construction of color boarders lives within the confines of the author's historical experience; that is to say, he is not alive today to blend his old truths with new facts.  Authors should not be condemned for what they wrote--further even, for what they failed to write; it is an "extraordinarily wrongheaded way of reading them" (128).



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Monday, January 18, 2016

"Staying Up Too Late: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche" by Gordon Theisen

In 2008, I wrote a blog entry about Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," the iconic painting of the late night diner and the characters inhabiting it.  I wrote my entry mainly directed at the composition of the painting rather than its overall symbolic meaning.  I've always felt lacking in my art appreciation skills; what little I can summon to make cross-examinations between literature and philosophy, I cannot translate to my interpretation of art.  I am not sure why this is so, since I have been widely accused of having a "gift for gab" when it comes to academic topics.  Nevertheless, I love visual art in all of its forms and writing about it here is a good exercise.

Back in 2008, when I was still within the safe confines of academia, a colleague found out I was writing an entry on "Nighthawks" and recommended a relatively "new" book on the matter.  I did not go out and purchase the book right away, but I read some reviews online and made a note to find it and read it eventually.  Fast forward to 2015... out of academia and slumming around used bookstores, I come across a hardcover copy of Gordon Theisen's "Staying Up Too Late: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche" for a mere $1.  The book was heavily annotated by someone who had obviously enjoyed it, and I took that as a good sign.  I found the book informative and passionately written.  The volume occupies itself with its title subject, but also delves into the works and lives of many other artists--it also covers a variety of overlapping topics, a broad swat of ambitious intellectual composition.  This, I respectfully believe, is what dooms parts of the book.

The introduction's pace is furious.  Theisen writes intelligently about American culture, history and folkore.  The problem stems from the fact that the author cannot conceal his politics (not that he is obligated to) and shows his bias a bit too forcefully.  Some of this authoritative bias is understandable enough--it is his book, after all, but at times even the most subtle instances of it strike the reader as obnoxious.  The fact that Hopper was "staunch Republican" strikes the author as odd, but it comes across as if Hopper, being an artist, was suffering from a type of intellectual or political leprosy.  I think Theisen's interpretation here is unfounded.  The so-called Republican Party "intolerance" of liberal arts, arts in general, etc. is a modern caricature conceived by pundits and political "experts."  Back in the late 1920s and 1930s, the Republican Party was not the iconic intolerant, conservative, super-religious, backward organization it is represented as today.  Both parties during the lifespan of Hopper's life had bigger "fishes to fry" other than engaging in petty "culture wars."  The fact that Hopper grew up in a conservative household may have more to do with his reserved, painfully conservative politics and ideas, not simply the fact that he "carried the label" of the Republican Party.  I am not defending a political ideology or even a party, but this type of what one can only assume to be "unintended bias" seems to have run its course during the Bush, Jr. years and now it sounds tiresome and only alienates those who see it for what it actually is.

I am sure Theisen did not set out to make it so, but the introduction is alarmingly depressing.  His treatment of American optimism from a historical perspective also shows his bias.  Our religious heritage has been damaging to American history; the Founding Fathers were blindly optimistic while ignoring the plight of non-white peoples; our economic system is based on optimism composed of thinly veiled lies, and so forth and on.

Once the book returns to the title subject, the core of its content is both entertaining and educational.  Biographical details about Hopper are well-researched and presented here clearly, and the non-chronology meshes well with the analysis of Hopper's work.  For the most part, the analysis of the art work is clear and informative; only in a few places does the language turn esoteric, and the analysis seems more like a stretch than insight.

I enjoyed the book tremendously.  Perhaps my negative comments come from the fact that life outside academia is different; one doesn't have the luxury anymore to believe that analysis and interpretation "matter."  Out here, a painting is just a painting and a late night diner just a late night diner.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

"The Mindful Writer" by Jan Marquart

I have written sparingly about books dealing with writing.  The last time I did, I got some nasty comments for my criticism of a famous writing guru who mixes writing with neo-esoteric/mystical themes.  My premise then was that one needs not to get so overly complicated about the writing process, or delve so deeply into the non-tangible to be successful.  I think my repulsion to these types of writing techniques in those days was due to my full-time teaching position.  Semesters are based on producing material (good material) leading to a finish product for a grade of some sort, and I was so centered on this philosophy to care about anything else.  I left teaching in 2009 and never looked back.  As a result, my opinion on the matter has changed greatly since, and I have come to appreciate every type of technique, no matter how over-the-top or unique.

"The Mindful Writer" by Jan Marquart contains the right combination of biography, philosophy, practical advice and exercises.  This is fairly rare on these types of instructional book.   The parts of the book that are narrative in nature are clearly marked from those intended to be instructional, yet the seamless border between them makes the text easy to read and approachable.  There are no "do it this way" rules and the biographical passages are simply included to personalize the effectiveness of what Marquart is trying to get across.  There is a persistent tone (a gentle one) on creating the kind of confidence that the reader will hopefully take to his/her own blank page later, and this alone sets this book apart from many others intending to foster the personal journal techniques to heal and understand one's own past.  As a result, most of the exercises yield deeply personal (at least in my case) entries which often do the most to clarify one's mistakes, pain and unresolved heartache.  The prompts of the exercises are open-ended in a way that allows the student writer to find his/her own way through the map of experience; they are general in context and deceivingly universal once the writer engages them.


This is a carefully and beautifully written book by a writer who knows the healing and the power of writing as a self-examination tool.  I highly recommend Jan Marquart's book to anyone seeking advice on creating positive healing spaces for themselves on the blank page.  


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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"Eight Pieces for the Left Hand" by J. Robert Lennon

Picking up a volume of "The Best American Short Stories - 2015" edited by Michael Chabon, I came across this gem by J. Robert Lennon.  "Eight Pieces for the Left Hand" is written in the form of brief episodes that illustrate amazing twists of fate, random switch of circumstances and an insight into real human fragility.  The one piece that impressed me the most was one relating the story of a poet of "considerable national fame" who had just finished a collection of poems.  The collection was delayed during the revision process and awaited by the publisher and fans with some anticipation.  The poet is arrested for drunk driving and his car is impounded.  With the only manuscript of the work inside the car at the time, and the car and all of its content now owned by the police department (the legality of such matters escapes me at the present time, so I will just suspend my disbelief/skepticism), a long legal battle ensues to recover the manuscript from the car.  In the meanwhile, the poet dies.  After some more years, the publisher comes to an agreement with the police department to have the poems read to an editor over the phone with the idea of having the editor write them down by hand.  The phone call takes place, the poems are set in book form and published to vast critical acclaim, ensuring the poet's place in the cannon of contemporary literature.

Some years pass and eventually the poet's family wins the protracted legal battle against the police department rescuing the original manuscript.  After careful examination, everyone comes to realize that the poems published in book form bare little resemblance to the ones in the original manuscript.  The story conclude this way: "It was not long before a city policeman confessed to having improvised much of the manuscript during its telephone transcription.  His only explanation was that he saw room for improvement and could not resist making a few changes here and there.  Almost immediately, the policeman was asked to leave the force, and the acclaimed book was completely discredited.  The true manuscript was published in its entirety, to tepid reviews."  

And that is how you write an amazing story of real human depth.  I read through the rest of the pieces and they were just as brilliant, but for some reason this one stayed with me.  It would be an understatement to describe it as "clever," for it is far beyond more than that.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"A Tranquil Star" by Primo Levi

"A Tranquil Star" by Primo Levi is one of those books one picks up at a bookstore mainly due on the strength of the author.  I must confess that what interested me the most about it was the tantalizing fine print on the cover: "unpublished stories."  My experience with Primo Levi was strictly limited to non-fiction, primarily his holocaust books "Survival in Auschwitz" and "The Reawakening."  The cover flap insde "A Tranquil Star" bills the stories as newly translated into English (the first effort since 1990).

The stories follow a chronology and they depict the early conventional narrative style and the more experimental one later on.  "The Death of Marinese" and "Censorship in Bitina" build up and resolve quite conventionally with the draw, pitch and conclusion of stylistic narrative.  Since I had never read any of Levi's fiction, it was hard to detect a specific stylistic voice to them; they could have been written by anyone.  The later stories reflect a more experienced Levi, one that has honed his craft and created his own narrative voice.  The stories "Gladiators," "Fra Diavolo on the Po" and "The Girl in the Book" force the reader to suspend certain levels of disbelief much in the same way that "magic realism" does in the literature of the Latin American boom.  In "Gladiators," Levi offers the readers the tale of warriors doing battle against automobiles in vast arenas, and in "The Girl in the Book" he offers a tale of surrealist quality, blending temporal and symbolic elements nicely.


Often times, readers are hesitant to observe narrative/stylistic qualities of specific writers when the works are translated.  This can be a very tricky and misleading belief.  Although my Italian is limited to the extent of my fluency in Spanish, I looked up the originals in Italians to make comparisons on specific passages that initially felt odd.  I can say with confidence that both Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli did an amazing and miraculously job translating these.  Not only did they capture the full meaning of the stories, but inasmuch as the "early" and "late" stories are concerned, they were able to capture the development of Levi's style with both precision and clarity.  This is probably the most difficult thing for a translator to do and they both pulled it off flawlessly.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

I first saw this painting during an introductory art appreciation course in college.  My exposure to art had been very limited up to then, but the timing could not have been more perfect.  At the time, I was in the middle of a mental renaissance; I had just finished my military service and landed right in the middle of an intensive liberal arts curriculum that became the center of my life.  The professor was very good and "broke down" the painting progressively, pointing out the obvious and later delving into complex theories of interpretation few of us had thought about until then.  What fascinated me the most about the double portrait was the amount of detail included.  When examined in close detail, the amazing attention to the smallest articles in the room and the characters is simply amazing.  Later, when we realized the portrait measurements were only 2' 8" x 2' the sense of surprise led to that of absolute wonderment.  How can an artist put that much detail into a painting that small?

The composition is simply enough.  A husband and wife standing in a room showing the comforts of home.  The professor explained (based on my notes which I still have and from where I am typing most of this) that the composition was rare in "early" art because of its orthogonal perspective, a technique not usually practiced during van Eyck's time.  Along with this complex composition setting, van Eyck also employed the use of a mirror in the background which leads to a sense of space and depth to the confined portrait.  Two standing figures in a room with angles (orthogonal) that split the image through its center-middle is hardly a difficult one to understand.  The simplicity of this composition allows van Eyck to then incorporate the narrative of the Arnolfini's life with lush material details.  The furniture, the attire and practically every single item inside the painting tells a story of a young married couple embarking on their life together.  Giovanni Arnolfini was a merchant of some distinction at the time, and the exquisite detail of their attire is presented to depict their socio-economic status as much as their other fine possessions.  van Eyck creates luxury in every fold of the fabric, especially that of Mrs Arnolfini.  The pet dog is another sign of affluence, as is reported few people were able to keep such luxuries.  The fine mirror depicts the stations of the cross around the center mirror piece, no doubt a religious obligation from the time.


The story of the marriage in the portrait is a complicated one.  Some experts theorize that the woman in the painting is not Constanza Arnolfini, but a second unidentified one.  Very few details remain from the time, but it is commonly held that the portrait was done a year after Arnolfini's wife, Constanza, had died.  Other theories speculate Constanza Arnolfini being pregnant in the painting, and that the painting was done in honor of her having died during birth giving.  The story is very much unclear, and as such in the art world where stories such as this one lead to interesting (often false) narratives.

The painting resides at The National Gallery in London since 1842.  The rest of the provenance is nearly impossible to trace unless one has access to the records in London.

I consider this painting my introduction to art appreciation.  There are times when I realize how little time I dedicate to this part of my life-long learning, but I do take time to remember the joys that class introduced me to.  For me, it was the beginning of appreciating things more than just looking at them.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

What We Write... How We Heal

I read somewhere that most people who write journals often end up writing about the same thing over and over again.  I may be very guilty of this offense.  I've begun the process of typing up my Moleskine notebooks, and have become fully conscious of the cyclical patterns in them (the picture below is an example of the last couple of years worth).  This could feel like an exercise in patience or a colossal waste of time.  There are some bright moments, to be sure, but most of us who write for self-examination/healing know deep inside that most of what we write is both repetitive and in some ways useless.  Yet, something keeps pushing us to do it, to put pen to paper and finish notebook after notebook.  It is not hypergraphia, or at least I do not think so, but the desire to write is real, albeit inconsistent from time to time.  This whole thing is a careful balance between desire, discipline and avoiding the call (to write), and the process can lead to inactivity and frustration.  I'm okay with it, or at least I think I am.

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Monday, July 20, 2015

"The Principles of Uncertainty" by Maira Kalman

I've had this book for a long time (it was presented to me as a gift the very week it was published) and I never took the time to read it right away.  I certainly appreciated "The Principles of Uncertainty" by Maira Kalman the moment I picked it up.  It is a heavily constructed volume.  While it is only 336 pages, for a book it's physical size it feels like holding a heavy encyclopedia volume in your hand.  My guess is that the hardcover can withstand nuclear Armageddon and not have a scratch on it.  The physical feel of the book is perfectly emblematic of its content.  Simply put, Kalman's book is one of those rare ones that fits John Updike's description of a book perfectly ("A book, in every relation to the human mind, hand, and soul, is a perfect thing.").

What awaits the reader inside is a combination between art and thoughts that will encourage a soul to take pause and simply rest.  Many of the entries are based on family biography, but Kalman writes simply and beautifully about these characters and they appear warm and familiar.  There is no doubt Kalman is a great artist and this volume also depicts an insightful and thoughtful writer.  Many of the entries are carefully balanced between a stream of consciousness and artfully crafted compositions.   A year is simply not enough for Maira Kalman's beautiful artistry and vision.  I will be looking at her other books soon.


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Friday, June 12, 2015

"Hotels, Hospitals and, Jails: A Memoir" by Anthony Swofford

"Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails: A Memoir" by Anthony Swofford should be the last book I pick up at the present time.  Nevertheless, I picked it up and read it voraciously with the love of literature only tragedy and pain can bring.  We all read to escape, and there should be no shame attached to that fact.  I consider myself testament to that fact.  Anthony Swofford is best known as the author of "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War," later a fairly uneventful film at the box office.  He has been treated unfairly by the critics after his first book, and as a result, quickly took on the unfortunate label of "one hit wonder" among the literary circles of both the east and west coasts.  I remember finding his second book, the novel "Exit A: a Novel" on the remainder stacks just a few months after it was published.  The reviews were not only unfair, but tragically written by critics who obviously failed to veil their personal contempt with anything resembling a fair language.  This is as unfortunate as it is unfair.  Swofford is a great writer.  He delves into personal and psychological traits of tortured people with the same delicate touch as he does fragile details of young love and other emotional topics.  His description of the Saudi Arabian desert, among with the terrific exposition of emotion/stress and heartbreaking disappointment in "Jarhead" should be considered as classic as Hemingway's famous description of the Italian retreat from Caporetto... but then again, that's just my opinion.  Aside from my education, writing and literature teaching career, I'm just a bitter former U.S. Marine that's proud of his Marine brother making it big. 

"Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails" redirects attention from the glamor of literary success to the everyday struggle to keep a promising career afloat in the fact of personal and professional missteps.  Swafford is as brutal with his own family members (his father in particular) as he is with other topics regarding his own behavior.  The telling of his postwar memoir reads like a travel guide to the fifth circle of hell.  Is Swafford a reckless drunk who turns to the pen to air his dirty family laundry with complete disregard for the consequences?  Swafford describes the long drive from the west coast to a mid-west college to attend his niece's graduation.  Along for the ride on the rattling RV, his aging father, almost immobile, a bitter drunk, a master manipulator of others and a thorn on the author's psychological side.  They argue bitterly about the past.  They reconcile and then fight again.  What is revealed here is not a typical relationship full of heartbreak and emotional baggage, but a tug of war between two people who love each other greatly and cannot face the fact without trying to destroy it first.  This is a highly-accentuated psychological dilemma and Swofford puts it down on paper with clarity and candor.  I can't even begin to image how painful writing something like this must be.  To have to relive events from years ago and retell them with detail and in a manner that reaches the reader with palpable pain must have been exhausting and damaging. 

Similarly, Swofford retells/relives his relationship with women (before and after his success) among a mixture of drugs, alcohol and emotional recklessness.  The healthy aspect of all this wreck-like emotional menagerie of pain is that Swofford emerges with a clean voice at the end.  He is the writer who can point to himself and confess his shortcomings without sounding fake or unrepentant.  Critics may miss this level of sincerity and truthful writing, but those of us who know disappointment and pain (both the pain we cause and the pain others cause us) can definitely tell the difference.

"Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails: A Memoir" is classic Anthony Swofford.  All that is left for Swofford to do is to translate this type of brutal writing to the past-postmodern, contemporary fiction of today.  With luck, the critics and reviewers will come to understand that Swofford's voice is full of real talent, and is one to be reckon with.

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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Life Ends... And There is Nothing We Can Do.

Life ends... There's nothing we can do about it.  At that time, we must lock ourselves up in a tiny place and take refuge away from others... take refuge in literature, art and music... away from everyone, from everything.



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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Cuando Un Amigo Se Va" - Alberto Cortez (When a Friend Leaves)



Cuando un amigo se va /  When a friend leaves
queda un espacio vacío  /  only an empty space remains
que no lo puede llenar  /  that cannot be filled
la llegada de otro amigo.  /  with the arrival of a new friend.
cuando un amigo se va  /  When a friend leaves
queda un tizón encendido  /  there only remains a bright light on
que no se puede apagar  /  that cannot be extinguished
ni con las aguas de un río.  /  with all the waters from a river.

Cuando un amigo se va  /  When a friend leaves
una estrella se ha perdido  /  a star is forever lost
la que ilumina el lugar  /  that used to light the place
donde hay un niño dormido.  /  where a little child sleeps.
Cuando un amigo se va  /  When a friend leaves
se detienen los caminos  /  all the paths close
y se empieza a revelar  /  and it begins to reveal
el duende manso del vino.  /  the gentle elf-spirit of wine.

Cuando un amigo se va  /  When a friend leaves
queda un terreno baldío  /  a space is left barren
que quiere el tiempo llenar  /  that time tries to fill
con las piedras del hastío.  /  with the rocks of boredom.
Cuando un amigo se va  /  When a friend leaves
se queda un árbol caído  /  a fallen tree is left dying
que ya no vuelve a brotar  /  that won't flower again
porque el viento lo ha vencido.  /  'cause the wind has defeated it.

Cuando un amigo se va  /  When a friend leaves
queda un espacio vacío  /  a space is left barren
que no lo puede llenar  /  that cannot be filled again
la llegada de otro amigo.  /  with the arrival of a new friend.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"American Pastoral" by Philip Roth

The protagonist of Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" should be listed as one of the great tragic figures of American literature.  Seymour "Swede" Levov is a literary character like many people I have met throughout my life.  His story is complex inasmuch as we understand quiet suffering and normalcy bias to be complex--like the type of people who come across as if nothing ever happened in their lives other than perfect success.  Internally, however, the story is incomprehensibly tragic.  As a young man, "Swede" Levov is Newark's super athlete, a young man whose success in the baseball/football field and basketball court is both record-setting and instant legend.  The Jewish community looks up to him as a cultural savior, and showers him with admiration often reserved for professionals or politicians.  "Swede" doesn't let it get to his head, the narrator tell us, and his calm demeanor, patient and collected posture assures everyone that his future is to be one full of success and greatness.

The narrative is driven by the voice of Nathan Zuckerman, the famous Roth protagonist/character.  Zuckerman is a few years younger than the "Swede" and looks up to him, admiring him just like everyone else in Newark.  But the years pass, and when "Swede" Levov and Nathan Zuckerman meet again, Zuckerman appears as a harsh critic, condemning Levov's seemingly "perfect" life.  Zuckerman seems to think that "Swede's" life was too bland, nothing that happened after his athletic career came to an end (military and business success, marries the beauty queen, etc.) is good enough in the eyes of the narrator.  Zuckerman walks away feeling that the famous "Swede" turned into a bland, mere mortal, not a fitting end to a figure of mythical proportion.  Later in the story, Zuckerman finds out what ails the "Swede" from Jerry Levov ("Swede's" brother, his best friend in school).  In addition, the narrative point of view is complex, changing and varying point of views appear throughout.  Zuckerman's criticism of "Swede" is more disappointment than character judgment, so the reader doesn't seem to take a stand either for or against him.  

Historically, the novel takes place through a stretch of years in which America was socially transformed; this adds to the upheaval and confusion the characters experience throughout the narrative.  From World War II years to the chaotic late 1960s/early 1970s, the chronological line doesn't seem that long, but considering the change and mutation of American values over the course of 20 to 25 years it appears as a lifetime.  The "Swede's" life is turned inside out by his daughter Merry, who goes from a sweet, little girl with a speech impediment, to anti-war activist and political terrorist.  Throughout the narrative, the superhuman effort by the "Swede" is to conceal his pain, hold his life together and run his business successfully.  This passage, I believe, carries the real meaning of the novel as it appears not only to "Swede" and Zuckerman, but to anyone whose heart was painfully squeezed by the story: 
"That people were manifold creatures didn't come as a surprise to the Swede, even if it was a bit of a shock to realize it anew when someone let you down.  What was astonishing to him was how people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever the stuff was that made them who they were and, drained of themselves, turn into the sort of people they would once have felt sorry for.  It was as though while their lives were rich and full they were secretly sick of themselves and couldn't wait to dispose of their sanity and their health and all sense of proportion so as to get down to that other self, who was wholly deluded down to that other self, the true self, who was a wholly deluded fuckup.  It was as though being in tune with life was an accident that might sometimes befall the fortunate young but was otherwise something for which human beings lacked any real affinity.  How odd.  And how odd it made him seem to himself to think that he who had always felt blessed to be numbered among the countless who had always felt blessed to be numbered among the countless unembattled normal ones might, in fact, be the abnormality, a stranger from real life because of his being so sturdily rooted."  

"American Pastoral" is not a lineal, traditional narrative.  I can imagine that many readers might feel disappointed by the end of the novel, but the "hold-your-breath-nothing happens" effect is not really what this novel is about.  There's a certain amount of inference required of the reader, not just your run-of-the-mill "trust the author on this one" type of reading, and this might present a challenge to the inexperience Roth reader.  Nevertheless, "American Pastoral" is one of those books whose lessons remain with you, a clear and classic example of how literature can help us understand the raw emotions of life and leave us better for it.

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Sunday, March 01, 2015

"Boredom" by Alberto Moravia

"Boredom" by Alberto Moravia is one of those novels that remains undetected until a big series of republications bleeps it out into the literary radars.  I picked it up at Barnes & Noble for $4.95 in a reprint from the New York Review of Books "classics" series.  I wasn't planning on reading it but after finishing "The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker I sort of fell into the "drone" of the hyper-introspective male narrator voice, and wanted more of the same highly intellectual, philosophical, hair-splitting story-telling.

The story revolves around a middle-aged artist who has decided not to paint.  He is filled with boredom, which he describes as his inability to have any connection to real things.  Most of the novel revolves around the definition of boredom with the action and descriptive pull of the story as the fuel to that drive for definition.  He becomes involved with a young model named Cecilia and uses her as a laboratory rat for his "travels" in and out of boredom.  What he doesn't count on is her extreme elusiveness.  The young woman is a master of the art of lying, and the long stretches of conversation among them (more like interrogations by the jealous artist) are an example of amazing artistry on the part of Moravia.  Here, as in the many long passages on the nature of "boredom," Moravia "splits hairs" about the seemingly most insignificant matters, but at the same time revealing the intellectual pleasure of delving deep into psychological and philosophical matters that otherwise would appear, well, boring (no pun intended) on the page.  The narrator eventually finds out that the young model is being "unfaithful" to him with another man, an actor named Luciani.  The narrator's drive to find out the truth appears to him as a deterrent to his boredom, but unfortunately it is entirely the contrary. The entire definition/redefinition/classification and reclassification of the story elements make the narrator appear as a very confused chess player trying in vain to make sense of a irrational match.


The narrator does not know where to find the truth, and even as his own eyes appear to deceive him, he resorts to his obsessive thought-process.  But the only thing of which I was not capable was resigning myself to Cecilia's elusiveness, accepting it, and, in short, calmly sharing her favors with Luciani.... so did I seek to console myself by telling myself that, while I knew that Cecilia went to bed with the actor, the latter did not know that she went to bed with me.  In other words, I now found myself, in relation to Luciani, more or less in the position of a lover in relation to an ignorant husband, and no lover was ever jealous of a husband, precisely because knowing, in certain cases, means possessing and not knowing means not possessing.  It was a wretched consolation, but it helped me to pass the time with calculations of the following kind: I knew about Luciani and Luciani did not know about me, consequently Cecilia had been unfaithful to him with me and not to me with him.  Finally there was the question of the money, as there had been with Balestrieri: I gave her money and Luciani not merely did not give her any but spent my money with her; therefore she was making me, not him, pay her, and consequently was in a way unfaithful to him with me.  However, it was not impossible that she was going with Luciani for love and with me for money, therefore she was being unfaithful to me with Luciani.  But Cecilia attributed no importance to money.  Money therefore had perhaps a sentimental significance between her and me, and since the actor did not give her any money, perhaps she was being unfaithful to Luciani with me.  And so on, ad infinitum."  

While the plot runs throughout with passages very much like this one, the novel is driven by a subtle amount of action that does not interrupt the inquisitive stream of consciousness-like thought process of the narrator.  This is where I believe the artistry of the novel resides... Moravia is able to (much like Nicholson Baker in "The Anthologist") straddle that line between the useless "hair-splitting" and the philosophical examination and get it down on paper in a very pure state.  To engage the reader at that level, and to get readers to continue passing the page while at the same time putting down these type of passages of deeply introspective ruminations that could potentially bore the average reader... well, to do that and to do it well is art exemplified.

There is no real revelation for the protagonist/narrator at the end.  Yet, having said that, this novel drives itself by the mere force of its art and its amazing depiction of the obsessive human mind at work.  Perhaps that is exactly where the core of existence resides... that we may struggle for meaning and definition while the continued examination never really ends.  "Boredom" is Alberto Moravia's "Ulysses" but with a far better and more traditional plot.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

"The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker is regarded by many people in literary circles as a quiet genius.  "The Anthologist" might just be the biggest proof of it.  Baker does not stand out outside of literary fiction circles as other massively popular writers; perhaps this is one of those immeasurable gifts to devoted readers of the genre.  I only knew Baker from a non-fiction perspective "The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber", despite having copies of "Vox" and "Fermata" that I have never gotten to.

"The Anthologist" is an intimate story.  Paul Chowder is a poet seemingly obsessed with proving to the world that the basis of all poetry is the four beat count.  He is struggling to write the introduction to an anthology of works that he believes will prove his theory.  Amid the daily ordinariness of his life, Chowder struggles with everything from procrastination to personal relationships, and the reader is taken for an intimate look at the psyche of a very (and I mean very) delicate individual.  Paul Chowder may be obsessed with his four beat theory, but he's one of those fictional characters that make us look at ourselves and the mass of inexplicable factors who make up personality and psychology.  The illustrations of absent-mindedness and never-ending rolling thoughts, the ease with which he branches off into a million different directions of distraction captures procrastination is like nothing I've ever read before.  This is just one of the many charms of this book, along with the numerous examples of poetry Chowder dissects to show his theories of rhythm.

Chowder also injects an incredible amount of information about literature and poetry into just a few passages of the book.  Nicholson Baker is amazing this way.  The intricate details of poetry and any other literary variables come into play in the narrative with powerful displays of what appears on the surface as "useless information."  To the "trained" eye, of course, these passages are the building blocks of making a genius come to life on the page.  Baker fleshes out Paul Chowder in just this way, and the result is simply perfect.  In regards to the popular latin phrase Carpe diem, Chowder explains, "Horace didn't say that. 'Carpe diem' doesn't mean seize the day--it means something gentler and more sensible. 'Carpe diem' means pluck the day. Carpe, pluck. Seize the day would be 'cape diem,' if my school Latin serves. No R. Very different piece of advice.  What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day's stem, as if it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your finger, which knows how to not crush easily crushed things--so that the day's stalk or stem undergoes increasing tension and draws to a thinness, and a tightness, and then snaps softly away at its weakest point, perhaps leaking a little milky sap, and the flower, or the fruit, is released in your hand. Pluck the cranberry or blueberry of the day tenderly free without damaging it, is what Horace meant--pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day. Don't freaking grab the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it. That's not the kind of man that Horace was."  Of course many people would read this passage and complain about the unnecessary splitting of hairs, but there is something deeper here, and Chowder (through Baker) hit the proverbial nail dead-center on the head.  What is represented here is the thought process of genius at work, and the difficulty of getting it down on paper again and again through the novel is just what makes this novel so amazing.

There are numerous passages like this one, and they vary with the ordinary moments of Paul Chowder's life.  The bulk of the narrative feels like a train wreck about to happen, for Chowder is facing a great deal of unknowns with each passing day he does not complete the introduction to his anthology.  His lover leaves him, he is not writing poetry or submitting for publication, and things simply do not look good for Chowder.  The reader, however, is not just rooting for Paul Chowder... the reader becomes (and is) Paul Chowder in many, many ways.

The novel is charming due to its lovable character, but there is an under-current of meaning and literary detail here that goes beyond its 243 pages.  It is the core of its simplicity--the flow of a narrative full of descriptive detail, literary insight and even psychological perspective-- that makes Nicholson Baker a master of the form and a genius of a curious and rare kind.

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Thursday, February 05, 2015

"A Rumor of War" by Philip Caputo

The impact of a book like "A Rumor of War" is forceful in many intimate ways.  This is not just a "war story," but a story of a truth so devastating few of us would look at it directly without blinking.  The narrative is personal and its honesty so palpable as to leave the reader wondering whether (if given the opportunity) he/she would write so openly about a topic so profoundly wounding.  I am not sure if Philip Caputo set out from the start to delve into the deepest pool of honesty, or if the narrative was carefully constructed by hinting and tapping the ugliness of the experience just enough to get it down on paper... what comes across, however, is one of the most bare and sincere books I have ever read.  Philip Caputo opens up about his experiences in Vietnam in a way that leaves him completely vulnerable and naked.  The courage it takes to write it all down in this fashion is astonishing.  Few men would readily admit to even a microscopic fraction of what Caputo embraces as his reality and his experience.  "A Rumor of War" is simply the best book on the Vietnam war; its excellence is without equal.  I have had this book for years and just this past week decided to finally read it.  I am still trying to get over the remorse of not having done it sooner.

I was 14 years old when "A Rumor of War" was turned into a television movie.  The book had been published in 1977 (I own a first print copy I purchased a few years ago), just two short years after the fall of Saigon.  The movie left a bitter taste in my mouth due to the fact that we lost two family members in that ill-conceived war, and my father and mother watching with me that night were divided in opinion, going back at each other regarding the spectrum of politics.  I remember that was bothered me the most was not my parents' comments but the fact that the personal story was lost to both of them.  The movie was not about the shoot'em up, run-between-the-raindrops, dash and stab action of most war movies from previous conflicts.  "A Rumor of War" was the first narrative to come out of that war to embrace the personal, the emotional, the recognition that something had reached a higher-level of insanity in the ridiculously insane act of war.  There is, of course, little a made-for-television movie can do to convey the message of the book, but even at the tender age of 14 (when nothing was more important to me than getting to 17 so I could join the Marine Corps) I understood that the idealism behind what push men to die for God and country was a fragile idealism, a dangerously thin crystal that could shatter at the softest of air drifts or bumps.  I never forgot the experience of watching the movie, and even when the "barrage" of Vietnam movies began to flood the movie theaters in the mid to late 1980s, it was always "A Rumor of War" that stayed with me.  I did join the United States Marine Corps before finishing high school, and left for boot camp less than a week after graduation.

Caputo's story grows and branches out into vast realities.  The ugliness of the war is there, vivid, palpable and without compromise... so is the suffering of the men.  As a young lieutenant, Caputo is forced to lead men into the madness of seemingly suicide missions against an enemy they couldn't see or find, in an environment that would drive most people mad in just a few days.  What Caputo does best in this book is to balance that ugliness with how it affected him and the men around him.  There is a strand of the story that is clearly psychological and here Caputo captures it raw--it's as if we have been asked to look into a microscope and into the psyche of men at war.  The reader can't help to stop at points and ask "how is this even possible, how could someone survive this?"  The truth Capote exposes is that they really didn't.  The dead died horrible deaths (which Caputo retells in detail as he is sent to HQ to become "the officer in charge of the dead," responsible for writing the after-action reports for the killed in action and other casualties).  Men also died horrible emotional deaths, psychological wounds that are still bleeding to this day.  His bitterness boils over and the beginning of this shattering idealism takes a hold of him as one of his duties is to write the statistics on a board at headquarters so the higher-ups could decide which encounter with the enemy was successful and which one was not.  It all became a game of statistics and ratios--the entire war did.

Caputo shows how the entire machinery of war functions just like a private sector enterprise.  You have career-driven people who care about nothing more than advancing their own path, even at the expense of other people's lives.  You have these same people obsessed with liability, the ones who are always on the look out to make sure that the paper trail never leads back to them, that their names are never associated with any disaster... "What do you mean? I delegated that to so-and-so... I had nothing to do with that."  I think this was probably the most difficult part of the book for me to read, really, not because things like that happened to me in the Marine Corps, but because they certainly happened to me in the private sector.  The details of ground combat operations, of seemingly suicide patrol missions and the inconveniences of the environment (monsoon season, extremely hot temperatures, the variables of field pain-in-the-ass everyday bullshit) were not as painful to read as those parts where Caputo unmasks the "faceless high-command."

The last part of the book, the part dealing with Caputo's potential court-martial is excruciating.  I am not going to recount it here but only to repeat what I started with regarding the honesty of the narrative.  How could anyone write so honestly about something so damaging, so painful and make it be so unwavering and unquestionably true is frankly beyond me.  Philip Caputo's ordeal at the end of his role as a platoon leader in Vietnam, and his ability to recount what happened with such openness is mind-twisting.  I don't think I have ever read an author leave himself so completely open and vulnerable as this section of Caputo's book.  His integrity and his courage are without equal.  He's not asking for us to "forgive" him because, after all, it was the war that did it... the war made men do things they would otherwise never do.  Caputo takes full responsibility for his actions.  The fact that at the end of it all the military bureaucracy comes to the conclusion it does seems to me a fitting end to the bitterness and ugliness of what Vietnam was, and how the higher-ups played a bloody game of chess with the lives of so many young American men.

This is a brutal book, a book that will shatter many misconceptions about the historical reality of Vietnam.  Americans have a funny disposition to make things less terrible as time passes--the usual "oh-that-happened-so-long-ago-and-it-wasn't-as-bad-as-I-remember-it."  "A Rumor of War" is a book that reminds us it REALLY was that terrible and certainly we should NEVER forget.

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Saturday, January 31, 2015

"The Journals of John Cheever" -- Painful Truths as Enlightenment

My fascination with John Cheever's work and life began with a photograph of the author in "The Writers' Desk" by Jill Krementz.  The photograph shows Cheever at his typewriter and is taken at a strange angle, as if the photographer was standing above the writer perhaps taking leave from him.  At any rate, the photographs in the book by Krementz come with a little blurb by the writers regarding their writing habits and desks.  John Cheever's words impressed me and since I first read them I haven't been able to shake them off.  I later went on to read Blake Bailey's biography "Cheever: A Life" while visiting Japan in 2012.  It wasn't a cheerful book to read, but Bailey's style and amazing capability for the facts made it an excellent biography and introduction to a complex subject.

I began "The Journals of John Cheever" as an experiment of sorts.  "The Stories of John Cheever" was a lengthy masterpiece; a book that ranks far above anything Cheever's contemporaries put out.  I knew that ahead of me were "The Wapshot Chronicle" and "The Wapshop Scandal" but these days are full of time-constraints and personal issues and the luxury of really delving into a book as these two volumes deserve seems like a distant memory.   So I "tackled" the journals instead expecting an entertaining and inspiring experience, sort of what I felt reading all three volumes of Christopher Isherwood's diaries.  The complexity of John Cheever "the man," far overshadows "the writer" throughout the journals.  It is not a book for the faint of heart, or even for someone with a propensity for melancholy or depression.  I do not say so in a negative way; rather, it is a sort of warning that this is a book to be approached seriously and with iron-like nerves.  It is inevitable to feel sympathy for the man.  Cheever's personality comes through not only because of the sincerity of his words but also because there is no way one could tackle the subjects he did, the way he did, while at the same time darkening and shadowing and covering up the "unpleasant" things of every day life.  I came to the journals hoping to learn something about the writing process of this magnificent genius, only to walk away thinking I sort of violated some mental health ethics principle by reading Cheever's psychologist/therapist's files on him.

John Cheever's son, Benjamin writes an extraordinary introduction in which he explains the process of how these journals were published.  He recounts the moment his father addressed him about the issue of publishing the journals after his death.  Candidly, Benjamin writes about the first reading of sections his father gave to him, and the tearful moments that followed.  "The Journals of John Cheever" explicitly follow the development of Cheever as a complex personality--not exactly from his youth (although he relates and philosophizes a great deal about how his past shaped him) but from the mature man struggling with his sexuality; with a marriage that was as complex as the two individuals involved; with the menacing presence of alcohol and his slow spiral towards alcoholism.  Throughout the journals Cheever tackles his sexual attraction toward men referring to it as homosexuality, despite many instances where he explicitly declares his preference for women.  He writes about sexual encounters with both men and women often times in great detail, and feels that generally his infidelity appears justified by his wife's coldness.  I don't really know what to make of this part of the journals because I don't have his wife's position on the matter.  A lot of these passages strike me so full of emotional pain that it makes me wonder why Cheever did not end up like Hemingway (a topic he refers to lightly as an enigma to be solved).  Of all the difficult passages to read regarding this matter, the one that moved me or reached me the most (in a painful way) was this one:  "I am the immoralist, and my failure has been the toleration of an intolerable marriage.  My fondness for pleasant interiors and the voices of children has destroyed me.  I should have breached this contract years ago and run off with some healthy-minded beauty.  I must go, I must go, but then I see my son in the orchard and know that I have no freedom from him."  I don't believe Cheever means anything negatively about his son in this passage; it's more like an acceptance of his own shortcomings more than an indictment of others.  There is another passage in which he compares his advances towards his wife in the marriage bed as trying to breach a castle under siege; a far more painful passage that I neglected to underline and cannot find presently.  It is difficult to point to Cheever's unhappiness in his marriage but the clues he gives are that of a man who is unhappy with the lack of intimacy in his marriage.  Whether it is because of Cheever's demands of his wife, or because his complex management of his bisexuality might remain unknown forever.  Of course this unhappiness, when combined to the demands of the writing life, leads to a painful alcoholism that robs Cheever of a great deal.

Then of the writing process there is very little.  John Cheever seems to have kept his writing process private, and whatever was left there by the editor of the journals (Robert Gottlieb with the assistance of the Cheever family) appears limited in scope.  There's more about "Falconer" in terms of the writing process and germinating of ideas, but even that is very limited.  What is on full display are Cheever's amazing powers of observation with the sharp writer's eye: "At the table on my right is a family.  The woman must have been pretty and is pretty no more, but she carries herself well and has her self-possession.  He is perhaps fifty, and there is no trace of what he must have been as a young man.  They order a moderately priced meal.  They have either agreed or been taught not to ask for the filet mignon.  Spaghetti and meatballs; the tuna-fish casserole.  They say almost nothing to each other during the meal, but they seem not in the least uncomfortable.  The daughter is pretty, but I can't see the fourth member, a son, until they leave the table, and when they do leave I see a cruelly crippled spastic whose smile is broad and maybe convulsive or maybe genuine.  Make him twenty.  Many of the other customers are women with children.  Does daddy teach a seven o'clock class?"  What we see here are the seminal moments of a story, a kaleidoscope turning and turning until it becomes the desired random design.  I got so much from this passage in terms of how one must approach observation and imagination and the creation of fiction that I wish I could find a way to train my eye in the same way.  But there is not methodology to this type of genius--you either have it or you don't.

"The Journals of John Cheever" are not for everyone.  If you are a literary history buff, you're better off with Blake Bailey's book.  If you are looking for the inside view of a complicated genius, for the way the mind of a tormented soul is able to operate and be fully productive despite its struggles, then the journals are for you.  Be mindful, however, that where the journals resonate with echoes of your own experience, the pages might become nearly unreadable.  I think that most of all the journals were a "literary experience" for me--a way of connecting with a man who, above all, fought for his artistic and human survival and won.

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