Tuesday, June 30, 2015

To Write is an Act of Life: On One Paragraph in The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

There isn't much I'm prepared to write about in Maggie Nelson's brilliant new book, The Argonauts, because I simply have not spent the requisite time and close reading to truly unpack her treatise on gender, love, birth, death, parenting, and a whole host of other loaded, nuanced, and ambiguous concepts, all handled with Nelson's particular knack for productively not answering questions. To put this another way, Nelson is a writer to re-read. That said, as in Bluets, Nelson is somehow also able to construct crystalline moments that connect directly to my life and reading experience. Depending on who you are and how you read, those moments can be few and far between, but, for me at least, they are always present enough to impart momentum or even motivation for that longer, more rigorous process of internalization described above.

One paragraph in The Argonauts connected to or articulated something I had been thinking about for a long time, not a theory really, but just one of those concepts that rattles around in your head like a burr, until it finally gets stuck on some passing animal. Here's the relevant animal:
Most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea, which makes it hard for me to know which ideas feel bad because they have merit, and which ones feel bad because they don't. Often I watch myself gravitating toward the bad idea, as if the final girl in a horror movie, albeit one sitting in a Tuff Shed at a desk sticky with milk. But somewhere along the line, from my heroes, whose souls were forged in fires infinitely hotter than mine, I gained an outsized faith in articulation itself as offering its own form of protection. (p123)

I don't think the world needs more writers. I'm not about to stop anybody from identifying as a “writer” however they want to define that identification, but “not protesting the existence of” and “demanding more of,” are very different stances. However, I do think the world is in desperate need of people who write. To put this another way; those who identify as “writers” aren't the only ones who can benefit from articulating their experience through writing. It is not about having good ideas or bad ideas, good experiences or bad experiences, good stories or bad stories, it is about the process of “articulation itself” acting as a force of revelation for what is being articulated. Here's why:

Writing Forces Your Brain Into a Dialog: The language part of your brain and the emotional part of your brain, regardless of how the neurology shakes out, are different. If they are not quite distinct, they at least have distinct voices. When you write about an experience or emotion, you transfer that experience from the feeling part of the brain to the language part of the brain and create a dialog between the two. One interrogates the other as you strive to accurately translate something that isn't inherently an act of language into an act of language. And dialog, even if it is just between distinct voices, can only improve your understanding of, well, pretty much everything, including your own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Something is always revealed when a second (or third or fourth) voice engages an idea.

Writing Organizes Your Thoughts: There has to be a first word. Whether you're trying to write grammatical prose, poetry, or are just spewing language into a receptacle, there has to be a first word. And that first word must be followed by a second and a third. Even if you go no further, even if your moment of writing is just a string of words that string is order from chaos. Prose, even first draft, mistake-laden grammatically crippled prose, imposes a systemic method of thinking about whatever happened to you and whatever you feel about it. Even the most fluid, free-form, experimental poetry is order for chaos, system for random, substance from void. Regardless of the type of writing you use, writing forces you to make one decision over and over again: what to write next and the process of coming to that decision inherently creates systemic consideration of your topic. And the result is an organized thought.

Writing Creates an External Object: Once you've written something, you now have that writing outside of you to interact with. You have externalized whatever you were writing about into something stable. It can just stay with you, like a diary or a journal. You can let someone else read it and get their perspective. (Remember that whole dialog thing) Even if you don't plan to share it with the public you can still edit it. You can add to it. You can cross out indiscretions. You can burn it, frame it, enshrine it, decorate it, slowly and methodically tear it into confetti while your rage dissipates into a more manageable smoldering mass of anger. And, of course, you can read it. You can literally (literally) look down on your thoughts from a new perspective. (And probably discover you're being a selfish idiot, but, maybe that's just me.)

Writing Slows You Down: Thoughts and emotions can cascade with such speed that you can actually lose track of what it is you are thinking and feeling. Writing slows you down. Even if you're scrawling at a frantic pace, desperate to get it all down before the language evaporates, you've still slowed the electric pace of your brain to the manual pace of your scribbling or typing. You are probably sitting down. You are probably relatively still or in the process of becoming still. And if you take a moment and just sit after you've gotten whatever you need out of you out of you. And then if you read what you've written. And then if you take a moment to think about what you've read. I'm not saying this would be a miracle cure for most of the world's problems, but I am saying a lot of stupid phone calls, Facebook posts, and tweets would be avoided, to everyone's benefit.

I have had experiences, ideas, and emotions that I have simply not understood until I've written them down, usually in a poem. Sometimes those moments of writing as an act of self-understanding form the base of a piece I try to get published (after a rigorous editing process through which a conversation with the self is transformed into a conversation with the world, because if I didn't do that the poem, usually, would be meaningless drivel to everyone else) but most of the time, those moments have done their job. They have given language to something that did not have language. I imagine my relationship with language is somewhat atypical, but I still think the value of articulation is intrinsic.

The astute reader will note, none of what I just cataloged is actually in the quoted paragraph and, in the context of the book, Nelson's project in this paragraph is much different from my project in this blog post, but Nelson is getting at the inherent value of articulation, the idea that articulating/writing something gives you a new, and otherwise unavailable, type of power over whatever it is that you are articulating. My thoughts and Nelson's on this topic, meet only at this one point and then continue in their independent trajectories, but, that, to me, is one of the reason's why we read. Sometimes the briefest, glancing convergence and impact of thoughts and words is enough to solidify what was once vague in the reader's mind. And so through Nelson, I can write, “The act of writing protects you from your own bad ideas,” and though it is very different from Nelson's point, it is indebted to Nelson's own articulation.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Wrong About Fahrenheit 451

As I've pointed about before, books that exist long enough in the cultural memory create entities outside of themselves that members of the culture can interact with. Even those who have never read the actual books can get most popular culture references to those books and even form, hold, or convincingly pretend to hold, opinions about those books. Like Fahrenheit 451.

As happens, I got through my formal education without having read Fahrenheit 451, and, as so often happens with those books ensconced in high school syllabi, I never got back around to it until recently. I offered to present in one of my friend's high school English classes and they were reading Fahrenheit, so, though I wasn't going to be discussing the book directly (I talked more generally about the nature of reading) I wanted as much of it in my head as possible. As a bonus, it became (partially through my own advocacy) the book my book club restarted with. And, as with The Odyssey, All the Kings Men, and pulp fiction, my preconceptions of Fahrenheit 451 were totally wrong. Here's how.

Fahrenheit 451 is Super Angsty: I've read my share of Sci Fi over the years (both the good and the bad, the art and the entertainment) and nearly all of it has something of an emotional distance. It's not that the writers don't write emotional events or scenes or have emotional moments or characters, but, pretty much all of them reserve their emotions for those particular moments, rather than let them permeate the prose itself. But Guy Montag, the protagonist and primary perspective of Fahrenheit 451, is one moody motherfucker. In part, I think this contributes to Bradbury's grander point about the nature of emotional maturity in a world without books, but moment by moment, it is jarring. Every experience Montag has, from those that one would expect to be traumatic to the smaller moments that follow from his semi-awakening, is at the emotional volume of a teenager consoling themselves over a break up by blasting The Cure and transcribing Morrissey lyrics into the lined pages of a trapper keeper.

And this makes sense. He did learn to feel emotions from the teenage manic-pixie dream girl Clarisse, and has he hasn't had emotions in many years—initially he doesn't even remember how he met his wife Mildred—so he should have an adolescent's expertise with emotions. But it's not just Montag, or rather the angstiness is not limited to Montag's thoughts; it permeates the entire book. The result of this emotional on-11-ness is often very beautiful, like reading Romantic poetry and only feels out of place if you read it with the expectations of other science fiction.

For a Classic Work of Science Fiction There Isn't Much Science Fiction: Kerosene. Sure, there's the Hound and the interactive TV room and the ear buds that allow direct communication and the fire proof houses, and, sure, Mildred receives an entire blood supply transfusion, but the most important, most definitive, most characteristic piece of technology in the world of Fahrenheit 451 is a good old fashioned kerosene fueled flamethrower. The other technology is barely even part of the scenery of Montag's emotional turmoil, and when it does present itself, it almost always just a slightly futuristic version of what existed in Bradbury's 1950s.

Sci Fi doesn't have to be in love with its own futuristic technologies (though it often is), but even in those works where futuristic technology is presented through a skeptical (or even paranoid) gaze, it is a major part of the decisions and actions of the characters. But Bradbury doesn't seem interested at all in the new technology he imagines (even as some of it turned out to be remarkably prescient). Which, like the moodiness, makes sense. Bradbury isn't writing about humanity's relationship with new technology, but humanity's abandonment of an old—but successful—technology.

Not About Government Censorship: Farhenheit 451 is one of those books that always get trotted out during Banned Books Week. (I've expressed opinions about this before.) It seems natural, right? I mean, it is about burning books after all. But unlike Banned Book week itself, Fahrenheit 451 has very little to do with government censorship. In many ways, Fahrenheit has nothing to do with a fascistic government, though there certainly appears to be a fascistic government, and everything to do with what happens in a democracy when its citizens hide from the intellectual and emotional difficulty of self-governance. The world of Fahrenheit 451 is a world without books not because some government in the past sometime decided to get rid of them, but because the people of the culture itself rejected the difficulty books presented in favor of the easy of uncritical life.

The lesson from Fahrenheit 451, then, is less about protecting people from a government, and more about protecting people from themselves. It is less about the oppression of a government and much more about the seduction of the easy.

It's Not Really a Celebration of Books: One of the traits of Fahrenheit that I had heard so much about in all the years before I read it was the people who were books, those who acted against the rest of society to preserve the difficulty contained in books. But they are not a major part of the story. At most, they are part of the epilogue, practically a footnote, whose only contribution to the plot (and the society) is catching Montag and those like Montag after they fall out of society.

Before we meet them, there are only two other truly bookish characters; Faber and Beaty. Faber's greatest trait is not his intelligence or his courage or his strategic thinking, but, ultimately, it's his honesty in admitting his own cowardice. Not really a ringing endorsement of the bookish lifestyle. And Beaty, of course, is as close as the book gets to a personal villain and most of his statements (whether from his own memory or fed to him by an umentioned earbud) are quotes from books that argue against the efficacy of books. He might be the most well-read character in the entire book and the course of his reading convinced him (at least in terms of his outward actions) that the world without books is the better one. It's as though Bradbury is looking past books, to something more primal, to a void in human consciousness that pre-dated books, but that books, ultimately filled.

The result is that Fahrenheit 451 is one of those perfect novels for adolescents; it speaks with their emotional volume, with a directness of prose and concept that doesn't insult the intelligence of the reader, and with enough gaps in the events for a wide range of interpretations that can foster conversations at many different levels; for example, interpretations that wonder what Montag will do after the city has been destroyed and interpretations that explore the contradiction presented by the number of books Montag seems to be hiding. It is one of the perfect books for shepherding a young reader towards adulthood.

There is something interesting in this wrongness. It's like how the line “Play it again, Sam” doesn't actually happen in Casablanca. When something gains a certain amount of momentum in a culture, it reaches a critical cultural mass and begins drawing other stuff into it, not because that other stuff is necessarily related or relevant, but just because the entity is so large it can't avoid gathering stuff to it. I guess this is just an unavoidable aspect of culture, but I wonder if there is some danger there. How much of our cornerstones of literature are actually composed of shit that got stuck to them over the years of their consideration, rather than being composed of their actual content. Or worse, (maybe just different) what if, like the people who became books (who didn't even formally memorize those books, by the way), what we understand about these canonical books is often based in misinterpreting compelling images by encountering them out of context? At this point, can we really say that we study Shakespeare or Homer? If we can't what does that say about reading and literature? But, that, as I would assume Bradbury would argue, is part of the power of books. They wait for you. The correction is always there. There is always an opportunity to learn, to understand, to reassess, to grow. You can be wrong about a book for most of your life, but, unlike most of the other problems in life, being wrong about a book is an easy problem to solve. You just read it.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Cartography of Literary Movements

I was writing a review of the history of Dada when an idea came to me. Dada as an art and literature movement has always fascinated me, but defining it, almost by definition, is impossible. You could attribute key traits, key figures, and major works, but Dada itself asked for multiple often contradictory definitions. Sometimes within the same manifesto an artist or writer would offer a handful of definitions none of which agreed with each other. The author of the book organized it geographically, focusing on the specific cities where Dada was most active, rather than telling the story chronologically or organizing it around Dada's prominent practitioners. Though the author never said it, his structure gave me an idea, an image that helped me pull together my various strands of thought on Dada. Dada is a place.

The bad thing about blog posts is that they are often un-third-party-edited pieces written in the heat of the moment without a lot of research and reflection and the good thing about blog posts is their "first draft" nature allows you to essentially workshop an idea before sinking all of that time and effort into pursuing it. They represent a public starting point for an idea that may or may not go anywhere. They can be that moment at a party, where you say, "Hey, I want to run this idea by you guys," and you just see what happens. Or, along a similar lines, that moment at a party where you say, "I have to get this out of my head so I don't end up dead in the bathtub from an aneurism." They can begin a conversation or they can be met with a few moments of awkward silence before somebody shifts the conversation back to something people actually want to talk about, like Deflategate or the Republican presidential field or how cultural context and privilege can allow for the mainstreaming of outright goddamn fucking insanity. Long time readers of my blog (if there are any) could probably categorize nearly all of my posts as either "conversation testers" or "aneurism preventers." This post is the former. 

Just like most young American couples, my partner and I spend a lot of time casually chatting about the transition from and distinctions between post-modernism and whatever it is that's happening now. Though I feel like we have some decent ideas or at least plausible theories, this is still a tricky consideration in part, because post-modernism is still happening. There are still plenty of authors *cough* *cough* writing in the narrative and stylistic space opened by post-modernism. But there are also plenty of (probably many more) writers working in the narrative, thematic, and stylistic space created by modernism, and, depending a bit on how you define terms, there are plenty of Romantics still kicking around. The true breakthroughs in human expression that we tend to describe in terms of literary movements create far more potential than can be fully explored by the generation that made the breakthroughs themselves, and so they linger, persist, or even dominate literary discourse (as I would argue modernism has) long after new ground has been broken. So the chronological brackets we often use to differentiate literary movements, are at best incomplete terms of convenience and at worst factual inaccuracies or misunderstandings.

But defining literary movements by who we consider to be a member of said movement has pretty much the same problems as the chronological definitions. We think of Joyce as an avatar for modernism, and rightly so, but he also wrote Finnegans Wake, which I don't think is a modernist work at all. (It might not even be post-modernist, or post-post-modernist, but that's a discussion for another post.) Nabokov's Pale Fire might be one of the pinnacles of post-modernism, but none of his other work really fits squarely into any of the available movements and his absolute faith in the authority of the author, even when, in Pale Fire, he ceded so much control to the reader, really prevents him from being a true post-modernist no matter how much his work twisted, bent, and deconstructed language. And then there's David Foster Wallace, far more conscious of where he fit in terms of literary movements than the others, whose great post-modern epic, Infinite Jest, was also very much striving for, looking forward to, working its fucking brains out, to get to something beyond post-modernism. Where would you put him? Sure, many authors intentionally fit themselves in or work to create specific literary movements, but many others flutter between bordering movements, don't work with any intentions at all around movements, or are only subsequently associated with movements by critics.

But what if, instead of thinking about art movements chronologically or membershipically, we think about them cartographically? What if it's not just Dada? What if all movements are best thought of as places? Think of them as cities carved out of the wilderness by daring explorers, that, once established, can be inhabited or visited, can become a core part of an artist's identity or be just another stop in a long itinerary of adventure. Or can be skipped entirely. And works can travel just as easily from city to city as artists can. So you have Ulysses, which was a pinnacle of modernist literature and began to scrape a shovel over the ground that would eventually become Post-Modernism City.

With all due respect to Deflategate, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy: A Gentleman, is arguably the greatest post-modern novel ever written, if, for no other reason, than it is able to embody all the narrative, stylistic, linguistic, and formal experimentation and freedom that made post-modernism important, without all of the paranoia, irony, and cynicism that so limits post-modernism's enduring value. In some ways, you could argue that David Foster Wallace, in Infinite Jest, and, potentially in The Pale King, was writing towards a self-aware joy in the mundane that Sterne so beautifully captured. (Must have been nice, writing before the Cold War.) So Tristram Shandy has always raised something of a problem for our understanding of post-modernism and, of the course and development of Western literature, but only if we set rigid borders of chronology and membership on literary movements. If “post-modernism” is just a place, Sterne just happened to get there first and it was a long time before anyone else was able to rediscover it. Think of him as a Leif Erikson of Western literature.

Finally, the image of a city allows for the kind of sub-division and categorization that I think can be useful in understanding and getting something out of a work. Cities, despite often presenting unified identities, are not homogeneous. Telling someone you live in New York City, does give them important information, but only up to a point as vastly, vastly different experiences can be contained in “New York City.” Even telling someone you live in “Brooklyn” or “Manhattan” or any of the other boroughs only goes so far. Some literary movements, post-modernism for example, are similarly fractured, containing vastly different, but still somewhat unified, forms of expression. And just as with cities, some literary movements present more unified and specific identities. And, of course, places can “declare independence” from each other. And you bet literary movements can be colonized, as Surrealism did to Dada.

Of course, this is just a metaphor, but the way we talk about things and the terms we use to describe them affects how we think about them. I, personally believe (at least with all of the rigor of a blog post) that the language and image of place leads to more productive and satisfying thoughts and conversations about art and literature, in part, because it lets us use the structure of “literary movements” more fluidly as a tool for understanding and describing a specific work without all the baggage of imposed historicity. The image of the city is a lot freer than some of the other terms. The membership is more open. If you can get there (i.e. create a work that fits in with its neighbors) than you belong in the city, no matter who you are or when and where you create. (Hell, Tolkein wrote the greatest medieval epic.) Nor are you confined to that city once you've arrived. You can write a Romantic novel, a modernist short story collection, and a post-modern epic poem if you want to. And, for me at least, I think this more accurately describes the creative process. Sure, some artists intentionally create to fit in, explore, or exploit a particular movement, but I suspect, even with those intentional works, the process of creation lead them there first and it was only after they discovered their own story, idea, message, interest, that they focused their work in a particular vein. Finally, I think the city image more accurately describes the inter-textuality of works of literature, allowing for community and conflict, references and relationships, identity and politics. The city is a complicated place to be a human in, and yet, most of us succeed at least on some level in doing so. I think that human success in space is a powerful analog for the literary successes in art that end up being identified as movements.

But, what, I have to ask myself, does this matter? What does it matter how we talk about literary movements? I've said this before in other contexts and I'll say it again here; there is a difference between literacy and reading, and the structure of our education system (despite the best and often successful efforts of individual teachers) is not good at teaching reading. In short, the most important aspects of literature, the benefits of literature that contribute to emotional understanding, media awareness, and political faresightedness, don't fit into pop quizzes. (Or multiple-choice quizzes, or, often, even short essays.) And, of course, our learning about and through literature doesn't have to stop at graduation. Anything anyone who loves literature can add to the conversation, that helps more readers actively engage with the aspects of literature that contribute to more empathetic, nuanced, and multi-step thinking and decision making will benefit our world. Will my image, explored with all the rigor of a blog post, help? Doubtful, but if you don't try...