web counter VISITORS SINCE JUNE, 2006

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Christopher Isherwood, AGAIN... but this time his fiction

Yes, I spent a great deal of last summer and into the fall reading the mammoth "The Diaries of Christopher Isherwood - 1939 to 1960," all 1,130 pages worth of. I am man enough to declare it one of the most fascinating books I have ever read. When I finished, I felt as if these people (primarily Isherwood and his partner the artist Don Bachardy) were long lost friends telling me of their experiences since the last time we had met. What was particularly odd was the fact that I had never read any of Isherwood's fiction, and even more odd the fact that I couldn't find any of it at he local mega bookstores or even the used "mom and pop shops." At first I thought as I usually do when I find that one of my favorite writers cannot be found in a used bookstore. That is to say, authors like Paul Auster's and Haruki Murakami's books are books people keep and not donate or sell to the aforementioned businesses. But Isherwood, why? I asked some of my closest friends and colleagues if they knew something about Isherwood. Roughly 70% of them remembered the name but couldn't place it. About 20% remembered his work as the inspiration for the musical "Cabaret" (later made even more famous by the film starring Liza Minelli). The rest never even heard the name or cared to know. I even had one of my colleagues say, "Gay literature? Thanks but no thanks," which was a surprise to me since colleges and universities are usually strong holds of anything and everything resembling a liberal stance in argument. At any rate, Christopher Isherwood is under-appreciated and needs to come back to a position of prominence in modern literature.

I wrote an e-mail to Katherine Bucknell, the scholar who edited Isherwood's diaries and the world's foremost Isherwood scholar regarding the Volume 2 of the diaries (I imagined that after reading Volume 1 there should be a second volume). The first of these (1939--1960) was published in 1996. This fact made me believe that probably the project for Volume 2 had been abandoned or something of the like. Little did I know that Ms. Bucknell had been hard at work and that her e-mail came with outstanding news: Volume 2 scheduled to see the light of the world in November 2010!!! This calls for a celebration... any excuse to drink hard liquor is a welcome distraction to the demands of academia, at least for me it is. Now, I know some of you are thinking, "wait... 1939-1960 was 1,130 pages and now there's a second volume... did this man do anything else but write a diary?" That's the fascinating thing about Isherwood; his description of the most ordinary event or personage is so amazingly illustrated it's as if we were reading one of those pop-up books for children. Things and people come alive like very few writings of this type. In short, it is not hyperbole to qualify Isherwood a master of modern literature. Perhaps that is the very reason why I couldn't find his books in used bookstores.

Well, I am presently engaged in reading Isherwood's "The Berlin Stories," which are comprised of "The Last of Mr. Norris," and "Good-bye to Berlin," the commonly known story of Sally Bowles turned musical in "Cabaret." This being the first time I've read Isherwood's fiction, and expecting (probably unconsciously) that the narrative would be like, well, what else? a diary, I was slow in warming up to the first few pages of "The Last of Mr. Norris." Yet, I stuck it through and found one of the most amazing pieces of fiction I've read in the last five years or so. I can't put this blessed book away, and last night sleep finally won over around 3 AM. This is the powerful descriptive and engaging dialogue Isherwood is famous for. The initial conversation and meeting of Mr. Norris and Bradshaw seems slow to take off, but by the time they arrive in Germany. What follows is a turmoil-filled and at time angst-fueled friendship in which not only does Bradshaw fail to know and understand Norris, but also ends up rubbing elbows with the Communist party at a time when the Nazis were gaining political ground but had yet come to power.

Isherwood writes with confidence and a great deal of resourcefulness from his own experience. He is a master at descriptive passages and makes the world of the 1930s Germany (particularly those dark corners of the gay underworld) come alive with unique artistry. Here's a man writing gay literature before "coming out of the closet" (a phrase with both charms and fill others with indignation) was a matter of vogue. I don't think that I can express how much I recommend Isherwood's work, whether fiction or biographical diaries, and how fulfilled the reader is at the end of these remarkable stories. Make another notch on column--Isherwood is a GREAT writer!

Labels: , ,

Monday, August 23, 2010

On Phenomenology and Abstraction, PART 002 (with added Surrealism and other Required Existential Nutrients)

I've begun to feel an exaggerated sense of experience in the months since I left the Academy. I never completed a post I began before leaving, but somehow I had prophetically entitled it "Farewell to the Academy." As I celebrate today a simple victory I won August 23, 1989, I am reminded of how much our present experience is seasoned with our past. These days I walk into the classroom with a sense that only 10% of the lecture time belongs to me; as opposed to having an open check to experiment with how my students respond to literature. It's okay, though. I am lucky to be where I am and I think there's no better day than today to reflect on the long road behind. The last thing I believed that day in 1989 was that I would be in the position I am right now. Perhaps that is a common experience, a universal one that infects people in unique ways. Taking a look behind me I only see the dark shadow of time past--looking ahead I see young people looking at me (some of them). Some of them are so young that their "long ago past" is still very much lit, immediate and paved with "milk and honey." No, this is much more than the proverbial walking 10 miles to school barefoot. I wonder, is this generation learning anything from their so immediate past? How does this fit in the classroom today? How can I help them develop their own sense of "narrative," of "story?" Gone are the days of starting the semester with that morbid "in-class" assignment I learned from the legendary Terry Martin: "Write your obituary." These days, it seems to me, a more appropriate assignment would be "If you had all the money in the world, how would you spend it?" Yes, I bid farewell to my wonderful Academy, and with it, it seems I had to leave behind all of the so-called "impracticalities" of a Liberal Arts Education, as per Mark Edmundson. There's no space for the great questions of a positive existentialism, nor for the examination of Virtue and its role in our lives. I spend more time covering "objectives" (even at the college level where I presently am) than pursuing the Life of the Mind. 10% and with it I have to divide my time as professor and alchemist and turn gold out of copper.

August 23, 1989 was the starting line for me. I had some tools, very limited, and I had no idea what to do with them. Music had expanded my horizons, but I had to now walk on my own and find a new path. Most of that time I spent (if I remember correctly) trying to experience everything at full--no shortcuts, not one. Perhaps I embraced more than I could chew at one time, and my first semester as an undergrad was less than stellar. Yet, I was learning how life spent itself, how hours and hours and days, months and years went by with the speed of a bullet train. What I experienced was, in retrospect, so intense I wonder how I did not get burn before my time. Then came logical fallacies, arguments, Plato and the rest of the "gang," professors who really cared about my education.... literature saved me and illuminated the way that made my past doubly dark, my military experience, my loss of faith in humankind. I not only couldn't turn back--there was no past to speak of, and I began to feel that half of my experiences had evaporated into thin air. The few days between undergraduate and graduate school saw me turn from student to teacher (T.A.s were more like adjunct, miserable pay and no benefits: a great savings for that corporate institution known as higher education). I was thrown in the classroom with an anthology and was told to teach students how to think for themselves. Looking back after 15 years I now realize that only the time before 1989 is in darkness--the time after has remained illuminated by my role as teacher. There have been good and bad students, good and bad colleagues, good and bad administrators, good and bad classrooms, but never a bad day.

The abstraction in all of this rests on the fact that no one can predict (from one day to the next) where this so-called "New Economy" is taking us. Between consumerism and long stretches of forbearance of student loans the young do a precarious balancing act that takes up all of their time. Freshmen today pick and choose from a menu of courses that gives them the edge when they are ready to internship or graduate, whichever comes first. More and more "elective" liberal arts courses are being canceled for lack of enrollment, yet not even a single space is to be found in courses like "Business Ethics and Risk Management."

I feel (as I said in my earlier post regarding phenomenology and abstraction) I am still at that skating rink, far away yet close to the security blanket of institutional organization. What I see in the classroom and what is required to do seem to be pulling in different directions. I still go round and round trying to find a balance. The dark clouds and the strong, cool, humid air predicting rain are still here with me. A shared sense of isolation--a contradiction, a paradox, a no win situation. God help us all.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Patti Smith's "Just Kids" - One of the Best Retrospectives and Studies (not to mention Love Story) of the late 1960s

This book addresses quite a few questions regarding the process of creation and artistry in general. The fact that these two--Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe managed to accomplish all they did together (and separately) during the most challenging times in this country is a testimony of their collective commitment to art. This narrative of two lives destined to shine is blindingly beautiful prose, difficult to identify to anyone else but the author. It is obvious that Patti Smith put her soul and heart into this book; to do anything else would have been insulting to Robert and all the other great artists, poets, and musicians with whom she shares the stage of the narrative. I really didn't think personal accounts of this sort could ever reach a more poetic and musical form with words--Patti Smith is a poet, an artist, and a great musician. Her development as all of the aforementioned is neatly detailed with each passing page, and, more importantly, not losing the larger picture of her wonderful and loving relationship with Mapplethorpe. "Just Kids" is a wonder to read, and a lesson of love and art.

What impressed me the most was the wonderful pattern the book followed regarding Smith's lyrical style. Every single part of the narrative (not chapters, but simple breaks) ended with a wonderful poetic line(s) that invite the reader to continue reading and reading and reading. Some of the one's that really got to me were: "I wondered why he devoted so much time to me. I reasoned it was because we were both wearing long coats in July, the brotherhood of La Boheme..." and "There was something of us that he saw in a movie but I wasn't certain what. I thought to myself that he contained a whole universe that I had yet to know." and "... I would someday hold his ashes in my hand" and "There was something about that jar. The shards of heavy glass seemed to foreshadow the deepening of our days; we didn't speak of it but each of us seemed inflicted with a vague internal restlessness." and "David Flavin had conceived his installation in response to the mounting death toll of the war in Vietnam. No one in the back room was slated to die in Vietnam, though a few would survive the cruel plagues of a generation." There many more I cannot continue to write here--go get the book and read it.

The books is peppered with photographs taken by Mapplethorpe. One thing that this book is full of is hope. It's amazing to me how confident of his (their) success Robert Mapplethorpe was. I think it does hold water that common dictum of dream big... but to have so much hope in an era of so much confusion and destruction is really a testimony to all Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe achieved together and in their own right.

There are mentions of the entire famous (infamous) crowd at the Chelsea Hotel in New York from 1968 to the latter stages of the decade and into the 1970s when the hotel lost its luster of artists and Bohemia. Nevertheless, those who are mentioned appear like a list of "Who's Who" in the late 1960s. Of particular interest to me was the person of Maxime de la Fallaise, a French model and later New York socialite whose photograph I first saw in an early issue of "At Random," a photograph I cut off and hung in my college dorm room because she looked exactly as my mother looked in her early 20s. Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan appear, but Patti Smith does a great job of not making it sound like a name-dropping episode in the narrative. One humorous story is that of how Allen Ginsburg bought Patti Smith lunch on account that she looked like "an attractive young boy," to the poet of the generation.

I got this book because, aside from being reviewed in the NYT, I felt I could learn quite a bit from it about the creative process. The book did not disappoint when it came to its didactic qualities. Again, how these two managed to be so assured of success, supporting each other through one of the most turbulent of ages of our nation is a testimony to the power of art, literature and music to overcome all.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, August 09, 2010

The (Agonizing) Sorrows of an American, by Siri Hustvedt, part 002

I mentioned earlier how much I wanted this novel to be good, to be excellent. I think I ended up putting the carriage before the horse. This novel was just about everything but good. If I may be humble, the reason behind my harsh review might just be my inability to understand the undercurrents of this novel. I love everything I have read from Siri Hustvedt, and I went into this book with high expectations. The problem for me was more of the same, the same of what I explained in the previous entry for this novel. I lost most of my time trying to figure out where and when had all the characters come in, or bailed out. The second half of the novel was a touch and go of subplots and retrospective visions that seemingly fell flat. The protagonist's relationship with Miranda, however, proves to be one of the best elements of the entire novel. While the protagonist, Erik Davidsen, is obviously erotically attracted to Miranda, his tenant/artist/friend, the suspense regarding their relationship is kept at growing expectations throughout. He "plays" family with Miranda and her daughter, Eggy. Miranda's ex-husband comes into the picture with stalker-like behavior. He collects several pictures of Erik which he later uses for a public exhibition of his work. I found it masterful the fact hat Hustvedt did not allow the relationship to reach the expected result that, at least for the reader, would have been convention. Miranda and Erik do not end up together.

Along with all of this, there is a trip to Minnesota (Erik's hometown) to try and find out details about his father's past. His companion on this trip is his sister, Inga, a character with her own set of particularly disturbing problems (widow to a "cult" like writer named Max). At any rate, in Minnesota they find a person who seemingly knows the past. The past for these Minnesotan women was being "told" in a series of homemade dolls--highly detail and lifelike albeit the size. Some of the dolls are for general consumption, but there are "pieces" called "The Legacy Pieces" that are not allowed to be viewed by anyone, not even the caretaker of the elderly woman who makes the dolls. Along with that sub-plot, there's another smaller sub-plot developing Erik's "no attachment" relationship to a longtime friend. While the relationship sub-plot is only touched lightly, these scenes appear cliche-ridden, and, most problematically, underdeveloped and drawing, not adding to the general plot. In addition, Inga and her daughter Sonia are fighting the release of letters written by Inga's late husband, a situation/problem that includes its own set of personae dramatis. This includes an old friend of both Inga and Erik, a poor man who suffers from hyperhidrosis, a restless reporter, a has-been movies star with whom Max had had an affair and fathered a son, and a hard, self-interest biographer of Max that ends up in bed with Inga.

In the last few segments of the novel, the flashback/fast-forward technique blurs the path to a satisfactory resolution, and the end, when it comes, feels anti-climatic.

Another reading of this novel would yield (perhaps in the future) a better understanding of what Hustvedt intended to do. Right now, I have to push forward with my reading list, and with the end of the summer session just a few days away, I cannot sit down to decipher the many issues herein.

Labels: ,

Friday, August 06, 2010

Teitur - You Get Me

Labels: ,

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

On Phenomenology and Abstraction, PART 001

This is a personal piece; don't let the title fool you into believing some extravagant academic lecture is about to take place.

“My memory of the past often takes me to places that seem odd; no matter how many times the memory comes back to me. I remember that during that desperate time, I wrote about a distant memory whose own absurd abstraction still makes me feel solitude and downright phobia of the surreal. Of course, I did not see that moment in that way at the time it took place. I was lost in my own world. It felt as if I had separated from the rest of the human race. The feeling was not unlike that of “The Little Prince.” I was in another world, at some exact time feeling fear and joy, elation and panic. Perhaps I am over-examining the memory of that place. As an adult, I can create all sorts of interpretations, recreating the event and giving it additional meanings. But the time and place—what really happened that day and the feeling of complete isolation were kept in some corner of my brain. Why do I still remember that day? Did I experience what Kitaro Nishida calls “Pure Experience?” Technically, the memory simply includes the setting, knowing that my parents nearby but not with me, the weather—I remember vividly that it was very cloudy and the air gave the distinctive feeling that it was about to rain. So where’s the absurdity? Where’s the surreal image? Perhaps the image is what stuck to my mind, waiting for me to reach adulthood and a have the intellectual capacity needed to defeat the symbols of that absurdity. That is not to say I needed to read Freud or Jung to make sense of this episode and scenery, but it does help to know the potential of this being a universal feeling or experience, one of those things that happen to people every day. It is not what happened, really, but the feeling that the moment was important and meaningful in a way I might never be able to explain. Of one thing I am certain: if I seek back far enough, I will find the appropriate, if not adequate theory to go with the interpretation I have formulated.

“I hope I am not giving the impression that this event has haunted me, rendering me incapable to defeat the fear/phobia and reach an understanding of it. What makes the memory come to life in picture? The weather, the fact that my parents were a few hundred yards away but I still felt incredibly lost, and, perhaps the most important or ridiculous part of the experience: I was on a skating rink with skates on. I forgot to mention that the beach was also a stone throw away; hence, my parents at a fishing pier not within eye sight but close enough. So, if I combine all of those things, and feel the experience was meaningful in some deep level of understanding, where do I begin to unravel its meaning, its significance, the real meaning behind all of those symbols? Of course, I hear myself loudly enough about how I am making more of this than I should. This is not as if I was trying to decipher a dream; that, I suppose, would be a little less complex. Could I look at it as it were a dream from long ago? Possibly, but I would not be able to do that without robbing it of something essential: the fact that I am looking at an actual event in my life and not some sort of activity in my brain while in the deep recesses of slumber. This happened on the outside; it was perceived and retained, and now meaning seems to be forcing itself on the memory. See, if it had been a dream, then it would go without saying that meaning would creep up on it by the fact that dreams, by default, seek meaning. Books have been written about it (Freud, again). Why tackle this now? Why not leave it at what I wrote about it back in 2005? Why? I’ve become a different person in the last five years. There are still many of the same emotions I had then in my “present-mindedness,” and I cannot overlook the fact that I am a more stable person today. And it is this stability that allows me to look at the past in this way. Would I be able to look at this very event in the same way? Suppose I return to it 20 years later, what would I say about the feeling of complete abstraction? I mean, we are not talking about an event that visually resembles a Guernica; it is simply what it is: a childhood memory.

“I suspect that there’s danger in going to opposite way and pretend that the memory means nothing. I do not subscribe to the idea of nothingness—even thoughts and memories embody substantiality. Millions of cells do “their thing” in order to bring the memory as a picture. That, even at the molecular level the picture/memories have substantial, matter-like meaning. I know that the memory means something, that the symbols embedded in it are there for a reason and that I need to interpret them in my own way. Nevertheless, I should try and avoid “trading” one interpretation for another as the years continue to pass. I know I said earlier that by default I create different interpretations with every year that passes, but the seductive power of the status quo can be strong—let’s just leave things the way they are. Jean Paul Sartre said as much, “Things are exactly what they are, and behind them there is nothing.” Of course, I have to steady the memory itself and the impact it continues to have on me by giving it its proper value, quality and characteristic. I mustn’t, however, seek for over-simplifications (Sartre was often accused of obfuscating the topic at hand if he did not know enough about it). The skating rink as a symbol of going around in circles and making the same mistakes again and again is a valid interpretation, but what if there’s much more than that and by accepting that I neglect other approaches, other theories? Could different interpretations of the same event survive side by side? What if they contradict each other? How do I select one over the other and know I am making the right choice? What I have neglected to say here is that all I have done with this memory/picture is to study it from a phenomenological stance, a manifestation within a manifestation. That is to say, above all different meanings behind the actual visual memory, the simple act of having experienced that moment in that place and at that time is textbook phenomenology. It also goes without saying that I could never experience that again, anymore than I could experience Marine Corps boot camp any other different way.

“Going back to the skating rink, were it to be different if I remembered the date of the occasion? For example, I remember the date and time of the first kiss I gave a girl in the seventh grade. The fact that I remember the date seems to solidify the memory; it seems to stabilize it but not in an ordinary way. The date and time give the experience a framework to depart from—so 29 years ago, when I took that girl in my arms and kissed her remains in my mind as “Pure Experience.” “Pure Experience,” as per Japanese rational philosopher Kitaro Nishida stipulates that experience can only be pure (its highest state) only when judgment of said experience is superseded the experience itself. For example, I see the color red. When did I see that color for the first time, and when was I told that the color red looked that way (in all its variations)? Well, the time I saw the color red before there was anyone there to explain it to me is, as per Nishida, “Pure Experience.” With the memory of the skating rink I would have to say no (because of the fact that I knew what the skating rink was, and what I was doing there was known to me). But a little more digging reveals the impossibility of “Pure Experience” interpretation. By remembering a date and time, we subscribe the memory/picture to a man-made concept: the Gregorian calendar, so that the experience becomes memory by means of a day of a month of a year at a specific time of that day, invalidating both “Pure Experience” and phenomenology. Another example of this is how people experience history. There is a large movement in the United States of people who gather to recreate Civil War battles. Is the experience of recreating an experience more real/valid than watching, say, Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” on PBS the first time it aired? We can’t go back in time, so we engage in simulacra (not exactly play “pretend”) and call it experience.

“I still wonder what it was about the skating rink that burned the memory in my brain. Was it the weather that set the mood, the dark clouds gathering with the promise of a summer storm? In some way I believe it did. Would I remember and see that moment the same way if it had been clear outside, the sky so bright and sunny it hurt my eyes to look at it? I think I am making progress. My personality—from a very early age—has had the propensity for the melancholy. The process of that memory (visual and philosophically) was branded in my mind by means of a deep feeling of self-awareness (perhaps the first I ever had in regards to emotions). Self-awareness of one’s own physical existence happens much earlier. The memory of the skating rink is something I believe to be metaphysical. It gave me the first glimpse into the world of thought. It was impossible to realize what was happening at the time; these were issues beyond my maturity. It is only later that we can begin to ask, what are we suppose to remember? What do we do with a memory that is more than a glimpse to the past? Should we mold and shape our lives by the discoveries we make looking back and philosophizing the memory? What are these symbols? The skating rink, me going in circles, the weather threatening, my parents (far away as if in another world), and that split second of self-realization?

Labels: , , ,