Riff on Not Writing

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

1. Let’s start with this: This is for me, this is not for you.

2. The above statement is not a very inviting invitation to the audience, is it? Sorry. Look. I have the Writer’s Block. The blockage. The being-stuckness. Etc.

3. Writer’s block, for me anyway, is not the inability to write. It’s more like some kind of inertia, some kind of anxiety, some little whisper of doom, hopelessness about the futility of shaping feelings into ideas and ideas into words. (That last phrase is, I believe, a paraphrase of Robert Frost’s definition of poetry).

4. Anyway, sometimes it’s best just to write—and write with the intention to make the writing public, to publish it (even on a blog!)—to put something (the publishing, that is) at stake.

5. (And so I’ve done this before).

6. I’ve read or audited nearly a dozen books this year that I’ve failed to write about on this site. Ostensibly, at some point, writing about books was like, the mission of Biblioklept, which maybe that mission has been swallowed  up by some other mission, some non-mission, some other goal or telos or whatever.

7. But you see there are some books I’ve read or audited that I really, really want to write about! (Sorry for this dithering but hey wait why am I apologizing I already said that this is for me this is not for you did I not?).

8. These books are:

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley

Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus

Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole

Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

Middle C by William H. Gass

Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald

Goings in Thirteen Sittings by Gordon Lish

Not quite half a dozen books of poetry by Tom Clark

The majority of Donald Barthelme.

9. (I am also reading half a dozen books right now, even though I made a vow years ago not to do that).

10. A common theme to some of the books listed in point 8: The difficulty of words to mean, the toxic power of language, the breakdown of communication.

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Gargoyles, Thomas Bernhard’s Philosophical Novel of Abject Madness

Books, Literature, Reviews, Writers

In its English translation, Thomas Bernhard’s 1967 breakthrough novel Verstörung received the title GargoylesVerstörung translates to something like distress or disturbance, while Gargoyles (obviously) evokes Gothic monsters. Considered together, both titles communicate this philosophical novel’s themes of abjection, decay, and madness.

Bernhard explores these themes by dividing the novel into two sections that occur over the span of the same day. In the first section, “First Page,” a country doctor takes his son on his daily rounds in rural Stryia, “a relatively large and ‘difficult’ district.” The son, a mining engineer student and aspiring scientist, is ostensibly the narrator of Gargoyles. He tells us that his father “was taking me with him for the sake of my studies.” Their journey culminates in a visit to Hochgobernitz, the gloomy castle of Prince Saurau, an insane, suicidal aristocrat who mourns his own son’s self-exile to England, where he has gone to study. While the doctor’s son remains the narrator of the book in “The Prince,” the second part of Gargoyles, Prince Saurau overwhelms the novel with the force of his monologue, a tirade that gobbles up all that comes before it. His monologue ventriloquizes the narrator’s consciousness, echoing in the young man’s skull long after he’s left the castle.

The prince’s monologue is a prototypical Bernhardian rant that will be familiar to anyone who’s read The Loser or Correction (and undoubtedly other Bernhard novels I haven’t read yet). Unlike those novels, Gargoyles offers its first section “First Page” as a point of contrast to the monologue that will come later. These episodes are short and digestible, and while hardly conventional, they are far easier to handle than the sustained intensity of the prince’s monologue. The grotesque cavalcade that the doctor and son trek through in “First Page” allows Bernhard to set out his themes — not neatly or precisely, but clearly — before the prince commences to swallow and then vomit them.

Here are the first two paragraphs of the novel:

On the twenty-sixth my father drove off to Salla at two o’clock in the morning to see to a schoolteacher whom he found dying and left dead. From there he set out toward Hüllberg to treat a child who had fallen into a hog tub full of boiling water that spring. Discharged from the hospital weeks ago, it was now back with its parents.

He liked seeing the child, and dropped by there whenever he could. The parents were simple people, the father a miner in Köflach, the mother a servant in a butcher’s household in Voitsberg. But the child was not left alone all day; it was in the care of one of the mother’s sisters. On this day my father described the child to me in greater detail than ever before, adding that he was afraid it had only a short time to live. “I can say for a certainty that it won’t last through the winter, so I am going to see it as often as possible now,” he said. It struck me that he spoke of the child as a beloved person, very quietly and without having to consider his words.

The specter of infanticide and the doctor’s resistance to it haunts the novel. We can also sense a cerebral chilliness in the narrator, who is “struck” by his father’s empathy. The doctor’s empathy repeats throughout the novel; we next see it clearly when he’s brought to attend an innkeeper’s wife assaulted in the early morning “without the slightest provocation” by one of the drunken miners who frequented her inn. Unconscious for hours before police or doctor are even called for, the woman dies. But—

It was of no importance that the innkeeper had not notified him of the fatal blow until three hours after the incident, my father said. The woman could not have been saved. The deceased woman was thirty-three, and my father had known her for years. It had always seemed to him that innkeepers treated their wives with extreme callousness, he said. They themselves usually went to bed early, having overworked themselves all day on their slaughtering, their cattle dealing, their farms. But because they thought of nothing but the business, they left their wives to take care of the taverns until the early morning hours, exposed to the male clients who drank steadily so that as the night wore on their natural brutality became less and less restrained.

As the day unfolds, the “natural brutality” that the doctor is up against evinces again and again in the various gargoyles he attends to. The rumor of the innkeeper’s wife’s murder floats in the background as a reminder of violence and brutality that bizarrely unites this community of outsiders.

Those outsiders: a bedridden, dying woman with a feeble-minded son and a murderer for a brother; a retired industrialist, living “like man and wife” with his half-sister, who devotes “himself to a literary work over which he agonized, even as it kept his mind off his inner agony”; the school teacher whose death initiates the novel; mill workers murdering exotic birds with the help of a young bewildered Turk; an insane and deformed man, the son’s age, attended to and cared for by his sister. And the prince. But I’ve rushed through so much here, so much force of language, so much terror, so much horror.

These gargoyles live, if it can be called that, in abject, isolated otherness. The doctor diagnoses it for his son:

. . . no human being could continue to exist in such total isolation without doing severe damage to his intellect and psyche. It was a well-known phenomenon, my father said, that at a crisis in their lives some people seek out a dungeon, voluntarily enter it, and devote their lives—which they regard as philosophically oriented—to some scholarly task or to some imaginative scientific obsession. They always take with them into their dungeon some creature who is attached to them. In most cases they sooner or later destroy this creature who has entered the dungeon with them, and then themselves. The process always goes slowly at first.

There is something of a warning here for the doctor’s son, who tells us at one point: “Every day I completely built myself up, and completely destroyed myself.” Like Roithamer of Correction, the son is something of a control freak (“Only through such control can man be happy and perceive his own nature”), and, like Roithamer and so many other Bernhardian figures, he has a frail (perhaps suicidal) sister who could perhaps fall prey to his idealism—who might indeed be the “creature who has entered the dungeon” with him.

There’s also the risk, one which the doctor perhaps did not account for when he set out to help his son with his “studies,” that the son might fall into the prince’s dungeon. But perhaps I’m making too much of the doctor’s empathy, of his resistance to brutality and his commitment to caring for those who repel all others. His own philosophy seems coded in misanthropy and failure. “All of living is nothing but a fervid attempt to move closer together,” he says at one point. But also: “Communication is impossible.”

The resistance to abjection is paradoxical—as the doctor points out, the “philosophically oriented” and “imaginative scientific obsession[s]” often lead people deeper into the abyss—as the prince’s monologue will illustrate. Each of the gargoyles presented in the text offers a rare and special talent—art, music, philosophy, etc. Sussing out the novel’s treatment of the philosophies it invokes is beyond my ken, but I can’t resist lazily dropping a few names: Kant, Marx, Nietzsche, Pascal, Diederot (all on the doctor’s reading list), and Schopenhauer, whose philosophy of the will surely informs the text more than I can manage here. (From the prince’s father’s suicide note: “Schopenhauer has always been the best nourishment for me”). And while I’m lazily dropping names: Edgar Allan Poe, King Lear, Macbeth, Dostoevsky, and Francisco Goya—especially his Los caprichos, a few of which accompany this review . (And although he came after, I can’t help but read Roberto Bolaño in some of the more grotesque, horrific passages).

The levels of ventriloquizing and the layers of madness set against the novel’s depiction of radical repression lead to an abyssal paradox, perhaps best figured not in the philosophers Bernhard invokes but in the novel’s backdrop: a dark, enveloping gorge, the yawning chasm that surrounds the high walls of the castle the prince walks with his auditors. These walls are the stage from which the prince performs his monologue; their visceral dramatic emphasis derives from the abyss below. In an ironic note at the beginning of “The Prince,” the son remarks, “From here, I thought, you probably had the finest view of the entire country.”

Upon this stage, Bernhard’s main characters function as asymmetrical parallels (forgive the purposeful absurdity of this oxymoron). The father and his son the narrator are set against the prince and his absent son. In a particularly bizarre episode, the prince recounts a dream:

“But my son,” he said, “will destroy Hochgobernitz as soon as he receives it into his hands.”

Last night, the prince said, he had had a dream. “In this dream,” he said, “I was able to look at a sheet of paper moving slowly from far below to high up, paper on which my own son had written the following. I see every word that my son is writing on that sheet of paper,” the prince said. “It is my son’s hand writing it. My son writes: As one who has taken refuge in scientific allegories I seemed to have cured myself of my father for good, as one cures oneself of a contagious disease. But today I see that this disease is an elemental, shattering fatal illness of which everyone without exception dies. Eight months after my father’s suicide—note that, Doctor, after his father’s suicide, after my suicide; my son writes about my suicide!—eight months after my father’s suicide everything is already ruined, and I can say that I have ruined it. I can say that I have ruined Hochgobernitz, my son writes, and he writes: I have ruined this flourishing economy! This tremendous, anachronistic agricultural and forest economy. I suddenly see, my son writes,” the prince said, “that by liquidating the business even though or precisely because it is the best, I am for the first time implementing my theory, my son writes!” the prince said.

Note the strange layers of narration and creation here. The prince’s son, a creation of the prince, exists in the prince’s dream (another creation) where he creates a manuscript. All this creation though points to destruction—of the father, of the ancestral estate. The prince’s impulses signal self-erasure, suicide as a kind of radical return of the repressed (here, Austria’s inability to speak about, reconcile, admit its complicity in the horrors of World War 2).

The doctor contrasts with the prince, perhaps representing an order, health, and sanity that serve to sharpen and darken the abject decay of the crazed aristocrat. “My father goes to see the prince only to treat him for his insomnia,” observes the narrator, “without doing anything about his real illness . . . his madness.” But can the doctor really treat the prince’s illness?

Both fathers in their respective philosophies signal the possible paths that might be inherited by their sons (and, if you like, by allegorical extension the sons could represent Austria, or perhaps even Western Europe). How to live against the promise of suicide, against the perils of infanticide, against the kind of “natural brutality” that leads to murder, insanity, the abyss?

This problem is encoded into Bernhard’s rhetorical technique. The prince’s devastating monologue consumes the narrative, reader and narrator alike. By the end of the novel, he’s infiltrated (and perhaps infected) the narrator’s consciousness, highlighting the dramatic stakes here—of being ventriloquized, possessed by the diseases of history and authority—an illness that trends to self-destruction. It’s worth sharing a passage at some length; the following section highlights and perhaps even condenses what I take to be the core themes of Gargoyles:

“Whenever I look at people, I look at unhappy people,” the prince said. “They are people who carry their torment into the streets and thus make the world a comedy, which is of course laughable. In this comedy they all suffer from tumors both mental and physical; they take pleasure in their fatal illness. When they hear its name, no matter whether the scene is London, Brussels, or Styria, they are frightened, but they try not to show their fright. All these people conceal the actual play within the comedy that this world is. Whenever they feel themselves unobserved, they run away from themselves toward themselves. Grotesque. But we do not even see the most ridiculous side of it because the most ridiculous side is always the reverse side. God sometimes speaks to them, but he uses the same vulgar words as they themselves, the same clumsy phrases. Whether a person has a gigantic factory or a gigantic farm or an equally gigantic sentence of Pascal’s in his head, is all the same,” the prince said. “It is poverty that makes people the same; at the human core, even the greatest wealth is poverty. In men’s minds and bodies poverty is always simultaneously a poverty of the body and a poverty of the mind, which necessarily makes them sick and drives them mad. Listen to me, Doctor, all my life I have seen nothing but sick people and madmen. Wherever I look, the worn and the dying look back at me. All the billions of the human race spread over the five continents are nothing but one vast community of the dying. Comedy!” the prince said. “Every person I see and everyone I hear anything about, no matter what it is, prove to me the absolute obtuseness of this whole human race and that this whole human race and all of nature are a fraud. Comedy. The world actually is, as has so often been said, a stage on which roles are forever being rehearsed. Wherever we look it is a perpetual learning to speak and learning to walk and learning to think and learning by heart, learning to cheat, learning to die, learning to be dead. This is what takes up all our time. Men are nothing but actors putting on a show all too familiar to us. Learners of roles,” the prince said. “Each of us is forever learning one (his) or several or all imaginable roles, without knowing why he is learning them (or for whom). This stage is an unending torment and no one feels that the events on it are a pleasure. But everything that happens on this stage happens naturally. A critic to explain the play is constantly being sought. When the curtain rises, everything is over.” Life, he went on, changing his image, was a school in which death was being taught. It was filled with millions and billions of pupils and teachers. The world was the school of death. “First the world is the elementary school of death, then the secondary school of death, then, for the very few, the university of death,” the prince said. People alternate as teachers or pupils in these schools. “The only attainable goal of study is death,” he said.

Such searing nihilism here—the prince angrily mourns the grotesqueness of the world, the lack of agency of people to control their own fate, to be but players, dummies mumbling someone else’s script. And it all leads to death. For the prince, dialogue is impossible in the face of this death: “All interlocutors are always mutually pushing one another into all abysses.” But the prince, notably, is his own interlocutor; he pushes himself into abysses of his own contrivance.

Neither is love a solution for the prince:

“We face questions like an open grave about to be filled. It is also absurd, you know, for me to be talking of the absurdity,” he said. “My character can justly be called thoroughly unloving. But with equal justice I call the world utterly unloving. Love is an absurdity for which there is no place in nature.

And community?

We see in a person frailties which at once make us see the frailties of the community in which we live, the frailties of all communities, the state; we feel them, we see through them, we catastrophize them.

But is this necessarily the essential view of the novel? I don’t think it plausible to argue that the prince’s monologue be read entirely ironically, but it’s worth bearing in mind that both his auditors understand him to be mentally ill and terribly isolated. The guy is histrionic, a drama fiend holding forth on his stage. And while his acerbic misanthropy and nihilism may scorch, it’s also very, very funny. I chuckled a lot reading Gargoyles.

But yes—the prince is sincere in his pain. “We assume the spirit of the walls that surround us,” he declares near the end of the novel. He’s a a prisoner in his own gloomy castle, the dungeon he refuses to leave. He resents his son’s self-exile to London, but also longs—literally dreams for—his son to return to destroy that dungeon.

Of his family: “But probably all these creatures deserve ruthlessness more than pity.” I think that But is important here. The doctor, like the prince, also situates everyone on an axis of ruthlessness and pity. The doctor is full of cruel observations about the gargoyles he encounters. But: But he gets up, goes out, does his rounds, tries in some way to mitigate some of the “natural brutality” of the world. And he tries to show this world—and this method—to his son this as well, for his son’s “studies.” In the room of the lonely, dying woman, the son remarks of his father: “I noticed that he made an effort to stretch out the call, for all his eagerness to leave.” The son, in thrall to the prince’s monologue, perhaps fails to notice that his father also stretches out his time on the castle wall despite an eagerness to leave the prince.

By the end of the novel, we see the prince’s consciousness inhabiting the son’s thoughts:

In bed I thought: What did the prince say? “Always wanting to change everything has been a constant craving with me, an outrageous desire which leads to the most painful disputes. The catastrophe begins with getting out of bed. 

The pessimism and sheer despair here erupts into black comedy with that last line, one echoed in Bernhard’s later novel Correction: “Waking up is the always frightening minimum of existence.” If to simply get out of bed (which, of course, is where the son is as he work’s through the prince’s ideas) is to invoke and invite disaster and despair, it’s worth noting that this simple action—getting out of bed—is what the doctor performs each day, even if it means he wakes to a dead teacher, a boiled infant, a murdered wife. While hardly a beacon of optimism or hope, the doctor nonetheless figures an alternative to the prince’s abject madness. If we “assume the spirit of the walls that surround us,” the doctor understands that it’s important to leave those walls, to not seek out dungeons—and drag others into dungeons with us.

Gargoyles is by turns bleak and nihilistic. It’s also energetic, profound, and at times very, very funny. Its opening section will likely provide an accessible introduction to readers interested in Bernhard, with the prince’s monologue offering the full Bernhardian experience. Dark, cruel, and taxing, Gargoyles isn’t particularly fun reading—except when it is. Highly recommended.

A Lazy Riff on the First Three of Álvaro Mutis’s Maqroll Novellas

Art, Books, Literature, Writers
The Jungle by Wilfredo Lam

The Jungle by Wilfredo Lam

1. Last year on this blog, my friend Dave Cianci reviewed Álvaro Mutis’s collection of seven novellas, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. That review got me to eventually pick up the book and start reading. That review is better written and more accomplished than what I’ll likely end up doing here.

2. There are seven Maqroll novellas; I’ve read the first three. They are excellent.

3. Let me steal from Cianci’s review. He describes Maqroll the Gaviero as

a fleshed-out character, as well as the embodiment of an ideal: the knife fighters and Viking poets idolized by Borges, a mixture of Robinson Crusoe, Sam Spade, and Don Quixote. He indulges fantasy but prepares for disappointment. He lives between lawlessness and acceptability.

4. The Gaviero—the lookout—is a picaro, a roguish but poetical sailor. Mutis’s book is picaresque, carnivalesque, a river—or maybe a maze—of storytelling.

5. This is maybe what Maqroll is about: storytelling. Each Maqroll novella is framed as another’s story, or a found document—you know this trick, you’ve read Borges, right? 

6. The book is crammed with stories, stories that lead to other stories, that recall other stories, that tell their own stories—or cover over other stories.

7. A line that might instructively illustrate point 6: In Ilona Comes with the Rain, Mutis unpacks the life of a minor character, a sea captain named Wito. Consider his opening gambit:

His life deserves an entire book. It was so full of adventures, some of which he hurried over as if they were hot coals, that one became lost in their labyrinthine complexity.

The life described here could just as well be the Gaviero’s.

8. Well of course, that’s what Mutis is doing, channeling and conveying and expressing Maqroll’s life, a life of picaresque adventures (and titular misadventures), of loss and gain, of love and despair, drinking, sailing, scheming and plotting—a life full of allusions and hints and digressions. Mutis’s technique is marvelous (literally; he made this reader marvel): he gives us an aging (anti-)hero, a hero whose life is overstuffed with stories and mishaps and feats and enterprises and hazards; he gives us one strand of that life at a time in each novella—but then he points to the other adventures, the other serials of Maqroll that we would love to tune into if only we could.

9. To illustrate point 8: Consider Maqroll in Un Bel Morir, doing some time in prison: His consciousness floats to other prisons, other countries: Afghanistan, British Columbia: And then we get those stories, miniature epics—and nested within them, their own characters tell stories.

10. There’s a wonderful timelessness to Maqroll, a sense that the adventures exist somehow before the postmodern world, that they belong to the pulp fictions of jungle adventure…

11. (Indeed, re: point 10: In Ilona, we find one character who is unstuck in time, taking a Naopleonic lover during a transcontinental voyage…)

12. I’ve already noted the Borgesian quality of Mutis’s tales, brought up their picaresque scope (a la Cervantes), so let me lazily compare Mutis to others: let me note the sprawl of his storytelling, which recalls García Márquez—only more compact, more precise. Let me suggest that there’s something of Kafka in there too—indeed, the first novella, The Snows of the Admiral seems to me a reworking of “Before the Law.” (The tale is also conspicuously quixotic; tilting at windmills and all that). Conrad of course, but also something of Melville—the grand (Moby-Dick) and the sly (The Confidence Man). And hell, also something of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s high adventure, or even, dare I say it, the better parts of the Indiana Jones films.

13. Lazy as I am, I’ve failed to quote Mutis at any length—a shame, because it’s wonderful prose (translated by Edith Grossman, by the way). So here’s a little morsel—one that I think captures why we tell stories—from the appendix to Un Bel Morir, the last of the three novellas I read; before I offer it up I’ll conclude my riff by saying how happy I am that there are four more of these Maqroll novellas to read:

All the stories and lies about his past accumulating until they formed another being, always present and naturally more deeply loved than his own pale, useless existence composed of nausea and dreams.

In Which Bret Easton Ellis Finally Comes to Understand Women

Books, Writers

Bret Easton Ellis took to Twitter last night to share some more of his profound insights.

Here, he sets the stage for us and delivers a powerful thesis (all in under 140 characters!):

And of course, some supporting details (including a bit of biology):

Mr. Ellis even replies to one of his followers! (I like the touch of self loathing):

A rousing conclusion statement:

And a fitting epilogue:

Bravo!

Reading The Tree of Life

Art, Film, Movies

I saw The Tree of Life four times in the theater this year. Few things made me happier than those experiences of sitting and soaking up that movie. Conversely, few things this year were as frustrating and draining as all the conversations I inevitably found myself in after the movie, where some asshole put me on the spot, demanding that, since I loved it, I was supposed to explain it to him or even somehow make him not hate it, or at least justify myself, as though I am a paid museum tour guide who must explain the importance of the Mona Lisa at the drop of a hat. But because I’m a sucker, and easily convinced to talk, I almost always took the bait and would stand there, in whatever bar or party and spend far longer than said asshole had really intended, earnestly trying to convey my personal enjoyment of this movie. It was all pretty useless in retrospect. I guess I can’t always know everyone’s intentions, but I’ll guess nine of ten times it was more like a worthless political discussion, as though someone walked up to me and said “I’ve voted Democrat for ten years, convince me to vote Republican in the next ten minutes.”

I’m winding up to something here.

So basically I saw the movie four times and talked about it for god knows how long, thought about it for at least twice that length, and I honestly do think I have come across a few things: call them “ideas” or “perspectives” that I actually think can help make the movie more enjoyable, or possibly more coherent, or something.

At the risk of sounds incredibly defensive (can you tell I’ve been in yelling matches about this already?) I will preface all of this by saying that obviously it is only my opinion. Terrence Malick has done us all a huge favor by completely staying out of the conversation about this or any of his films. I think this is a favor because it allows me to have my opinions without there being any definitive source out there to contradict it. The movie is only what is up there on screen and all my thoughts about it are basically derived only by the amount of time spent actually watching it. So I do not intend to speak for Terry or presume to know what he would say if I could ask him to verify all of my ideas or whatever. You get the point.

And there will be spoilers . . . I guess. Can you actually spoil this movie? Does anyone give a shit at this point? There are dinosaurs—oops! Sorry. Spoiled that Big Surprise. Anyhow, yeah I will be talking about key details from the plot, so be prepared for that.

The quickest, easiest thing I can tell you I learned about The Tree of Life by watching as many times as I did is that there is a simpler more coherent synopsis one could give the film that would sort of situate the story in a different way for most viewers. Just as a reference this is the official synopsis (from Apple trailers):

From Terrence Malick, the acclaimed director of such classic films as Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950′s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Through Malick’s signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life.

This sounds fine and all, if a little intimidating. If you saw the movie I imagine you saw all of that stuff in there. It was certainly “impressionistic” enough and I agree that Brad Pitt played the father. But in terms of setting up the viewer for the “story” I’m not sure this is as fast as it could be and it’s certainly not going to fend off any accusations of “pretension.”

Instead, try this one out:

“On the anniversary of his brother’s tragic death a man goes about his day flooded with memories of his childhood and thoughts about mortality and the afterlife.”

The images and characters in The Tree of Life exist simultaneously as both literal and symbolic elements in a complex narrative, and I’m not saying that the movie should be boiled down to something as simple as my one-sentence summary above—only that it can be. And that for all the people that so excessively badgered me about this movie “Not having a story,” here it is:

Jack (Sean Penn) wakes up. It’s a shitty day, the shittiest day of his whole year, every year: it’s the day his brother died (substitute this for: the day they found out he died, or for his brother’s birthday. The movie is obviously unclear and any of them could work). It’s been nearly twenty years since that tragic death but it hasn’t gotten any easier. His wife knows what day it is too and even though they’ve been having their problems recently, she can tell she should back off today and give him his space. So they spend that morning sort of avoiding each other, neither sure what to say and eventually Jack sits down to do the only overtly emotional action he ever brings himself to do on this day: he lights a candle in memory.

So he heads to work that morning with the weight of all this on his mind; it’s his own personal 9/11, the biggest single event that helped shaped his life. He loved his brother but their relationship was complicated. And Jack has a good memory. As the oldest of three boys Jack can remember what it was like to be the the sole recipient of his mother’s love. He experiences flashes of the conflicting happiness and subsequent jealousy after the birth of his first brother, and now,  as an adult man with his own life and his own problems and his own job, that memory makes him feel like an asshole.

He’s an architect at a major firm in Dallas and they just landed a big city contract to redesign the public transportation system or something and Jack is in charge of the whole thing. In fact, he’s got a lot of important meetings coming up and plenty to think about that doesn’t involve reliving the past. Because who wants to be dealing with fifty years of history when you’ve got work to do? Never mind your coworkers rattling on about their problems and the general chaos of the office, with so much going on it’s a wonder he can get anything done.

A little while later he’s about to head into an important meeting when his phone rings. If all the rest of it weren’t enough now here’s this: The Call. The one he gets every year on this day, the Low Point: His Father. The guy is pushing 80 at this point, living in that huge house there on the coast with plenty of money from the patents he eventually sold, eating at the country club with the rest of his pompous old friends but on this one day you’d think he was a monk wearing burlap and whipping himself. What does he get out of this? Every year he calls and every he says the same line,

“Do you know what day this is?”
“Yeah dad I know what day this is.”
“He was a good boy.”
“Yeah dad he was great.”
“Playing Bach on the guitar when he was eight years old, don’t see that everyday.”
“No I guess not.”

And on and on and on . . . why can’t he just focus on the good things he’s had in life? The guy has had a long career, a beautiful loving wife, and hell, it’s like he doesn’t have two sons still living! Christ, look at me? Am I not good enough? Look at everything I’ve done in life, everything I’ve accomplished, and yet if I had died at 19 would he mourn this much for me?

But in the meantime he has a meeting with the senior partners. He’s trying to be polite with his dad, and sensitive to the man’s pain but business is business. So he cuts him a little short.

“Dad I really want to talk to you but I really have to go.”
“Oh I see this isn’t important to you.”
“No dad it is, but I’ve got to go in a meeting right now.”

The secretary walks up to him and tells him that they are all waiting for him inside.

“Listen dad I gotta go.”

And there, he hangs up on him and goes into the meeting. Of course his mind is elsewhere. Like usual, talking to his dad has brought out all the worst thoughts in him. Even though in his daily life Jack tends to affect a calm, peaceful demeanor, talking to his father brings up some of the darker thoughts in his mind. He remembers all the pain and confusion of his childhood, the soaring emotions and chaos and frustration, the simultaneous guilt and innocence that everybody must feel at that age, right? I’m not alone right? I’m not the only one who thought about killing his father, I’m not the only one who hurt his brother on purpose, I’m not the only one who said horrible things to his mother, or who stole, or who lied . . .

So Jack sleepwalks through the rest of the day. He’s on autopilot, but for the most part his coworkers can’t even tell. Jack’s good at this; he’s had practice being a human. He’s learned to control the volatile emotions of his youth, the reactionary side of him; the side he associates with his father has been muted in his adulthood and he chooses every day to try to be more like his mother, to keep things to himself and attempt to be kind to people. Which is why for all his anger and frustration, as much as he doesn’t want to go there again, he calls his dad back and apologizes for his earlier behavior. He sucks it all up and takes a little more of the old man’s trademark passive-aggressive bullshit. “This guy never changes” Jack thinks to himself. But despite everything Jack loves his father and knows that in his own stubborn way his father loves him. So they say this to one another over the phone, they reconcile for now, as they’ve done so many times before, son forgiving father, father forgiving son.

And with what’s left of his day Jack thinks about all of this: about forgiveness, about redemption, about pain and suffering. About how he isn’t even unique in any of this, how he can spend his entire day completely consumed in himself and his own pain—but isn’t he just one person? Doesn’t everybody have this same experience every day in some way? Sure, this may be the anniversary of his brother’s death, but what significant day is it to any one of the other six billion people on this earth?

The entire planet had to be formed and every living organism had to evolve and change and grow over millions and millions of years to create the perfect set of circumstances that would put Jack in this very moment—but that’s true of everybody, any body. And somewhere in all of this there’s hope.

And just like that, it’s six o’clock. Where did all the time go? Jack steps out into the world again, in the middle the swirling chaos of life and is amazed by everything that can happen in a day, even if it’s all internal—and is there really any difference between the internal world and the external one anyway?

*    *    *

Wow, what a non-story that was. I can’t believe those characters were so one-dimensional. Sean Penn’s inclusion in the movie really was pointless, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t you rather have had his role cut out entirely? None of those images really fit together in any meaningful way did they? I mean each taken on its own may be pretty and all, but I for one would prefer it if the film coalesced into something more grounded and specific. Like I said before, I like stories in my movies, I don’t want just a random sequence of images.

Okay, obviously I am being a sarcastic asshole in that paragraph. But if you happened to be one of the people who said one of those sentences to me I hope that looking at the film through the perspective I outlined might aid you in getting over some of your issues.

Of course that is assuming you even want to get over your issues. Maybe you would rather persist in using this beautiful film as a punching bag for the rest of your life. I guess I can’t stop you there. But if you want to argue with me and tell me that my version of the movie is not what was up on-screen when you saw it, I will tell you that I didn’t see this version of the The Tree of Life the first time I saw it either. I didn’t quite see my version of it the second time, but by the time I finished it for the fourth time I swear to goodness that the “story” I told you above is exactly the “story” I saw and still do see in this film. And unlike some bullshit Christopher Nolan DVD special feature that “unlocks all the secrets of the film” I have no “objective” source to tell me I’m right or wrong—mine is only an interpretation, but I think it’s one that the film can support and certainly one that answers a lot of the criticism.

As a film-goer, I am more than happy to watch a random sequence of beautiful images (seeing Baraka projected in 70mm remains a favorite viewing experience for me). When I saw The Tree of Life the first time I was absolutely ecstatic with my experience and needed nothing more from the movie than what I got. It is no exaggeration to say that I could have watched a two-hour version of the creation of the universe section, with no dialogue or characters and still have been happy and moved. I don’t give two shits if there is a “story” in The Tree of Life. Which is partly why my early arguments about the film were so fruitless, imagine this conversation over and over:

Them: Why did you love the movie?
Me: Because it was beautiful.
Them: But it had no story.
Me: Maybe you’e right but I didn’t need one.
Them: But if it doesn’t have a story, then it must be a bad movie.
Me: I disagree with you. I thought it was great.
Them: Well I disagree with you because I hated it.

And because of these arguments, I was more surprised than anybody when I found my version of the “story.” It was something that occurred naturally, and I guess I want to stress again that I still think the movie supports layers of meaning, but when I think about the movie now it is almost entirely in these terms. The film doesn’t even seem abstract to me at this point. It’s kind of like Mulholland Dr. in that way, (although I think David Lynch did that film specifically as a mystery to be solved) where, once I figured out how the film works, I never quite see it as the random, crazy, seemingly unconnected series of scenes it appeared to be upon first viewing, (even though in the case of Mulholland Dr. as well, I was totally fine with that).

In some way I kind of resent that it all comes together so easily. I kind of like an endless montage of beautiful images with no story, (although hell even Koyannisqatsi and Baraka seem to each have a thesis; it’s not like the director grabbed clips with his eyes closed). There is a larger, more complex discussion to be had here about the human brain and pattern recognition and our basic, innate desire for Order instead of Chaos and how our brains will basically create order, even where there seems to be none, just basically so that we don’t go crazy.

Which when you think about it is sort of what my version of The Tree of Life is all about anyway. It’s just a day in the life of this one guy, and his desperately trying to come to terms with the chaos of his mind, to give it a structure and an emotional arc, some kind of resolution, if only to just get through it all.

And I do think we all do this. I think every day of our lives is more like The Tree of Life than it is to The Dark Knight. When your life appears to you as a fragmented mess of images and memories and music and sadness and glory and guilt and love, you just deal with it—what the hell else are you going to do? Like Jack, you get through your day and move on. But when you are confronted with that same chaos in the form of a movie, you have the freedom to just throw it away, toss it out of hand and never think twice about it. But allow me to suggest in all humility that there is  more to enjoy in The Tree of Life in subsequent viewings. Maybe you can find a different story than I did. Maybe even a better one.

“It’s No Accident that Civics Isn’t Taught Anymore” — More from §19 of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King

Books, Literature, Writers

(Help yourself to some context (or not)).

Let’s look at some more of  §19 of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King. Our interlocutors, all IRS agents, stuck in an elevator (methinks), direct their attention toward the decline of civics education (“‘Civics is the branch of political science that quote concerns itself with citizenship and the rights and duties of US citizens,’” we learn) in America and link this decline to the 1960s—

‘I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty.’

‘We’ve gotten soft, you’re saying.’

‘I’m saying that the sixties—which God love them did a lot for raising people’s consciousness in a whole lot of areas, such as racism and feminism—’

‘Not to mention Vietnam.’

‘No, mention it, because here was a whole generation where most of them now for the first time questioned authority and said that their individual moral beliefs about the war outweighed their duty to go fight if their duly elected representatives told them to.’

‘In other words that their highest actual duty was to themselves.’

And down a bit—

‘The sixties were America’s starting to decline into decadence and selfish individualism—the Me generation.’

‘There was more decadence in the twenties than there was in the sixties though.’

‘You know what I think? I think the Constitution and Federalist Papers of this country were an incredible moral and imaginative achievement. For really the first time in a modern nation, those in power set up a system where the citizens’ power over their own government was to be a matter of substance and not mere symbolism. It was utterly priceless, and will go down in history with Athens and the Magna Carta. The fact that it was a utopia which for over two hundred years actually worked makes it beyond priceless—it’s literally a miracle. And—and I’m speaking of Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Franklin, the real church Fathers—what raised the American experiment beyond great imagination and made it very nearly work was not just these men’s intelligence but their profound moral enlightenment—their sense of civics. The fact is that they cared more about the nation and the citizens than about themselves. They could have just set America up as an oligarchy where powerful eastern industrialists and southern landowners controlled all the power and ruled with an iron hand in a glove of liberal rhetoric. Need I say Robespierre, or the Bolsheviks, or the Ayatollah? These Founding Fathers were geniuses of civic virtue. They were heroes. Most of their effort went into restraining the power of the government.’

‘Checks and balances.’

‘Power to the people.’

‘They knew the tendency of power to corrupt—’

As I said in some earlier posts about  §19, I don’t really have any great thesis to share about it: I really just want folks to read it. I think it’s a thoughtful and sometimes funny discussion that seems especially relevant against the backdrop of current American politics, which seem to be infected by a terrible case of the reactionaries, a very vocal contingent that does not seem to believe in civic duty.

Most reviewers have remarked (rightly) upon Wallace’s grand theme of boredom in The Pale King, but I don’t know how much attention has been paid to the way the book tries to measure the costs of existence (namely, death and taxes). Wallace squares boredom as both symptom and affect of a postindustrial existence, a post-democratic existence, an existence that has the leisure, or at least the means and the common vocabulary, to hash out the finnicky sinews between rights and duties—or, in turn, the leisure and means (and entertainments) to psychologically deflect or otherwise ignore those costs. His characters in The Pale King—and not just these guys stuck in the elevator, but, hey, their colloquy is especially instructive—his characters are in many ways are trying to find meaning, a sense of duty, against terrible, soul-crushing boredom, a boredom that capitalist culture fosters and with one hand and then assuages with the other, like a heroin dealer stringing along a junkie for all he’s worth. (There’s an intersection here with Infinite Jest, of course).

It seems that “civics” is a dirty word now, or even worse, a word unattached to any real concept in the American hivemind. It’s pretty much a given (and “given” in the sense of, like, “submission”) that our politicians are wholly corrupted by power, part and parcel of a corporatocracy that thrives on manufactured desire, on the promotion of “lack,” constantly feeding into the basest instincts of a populace easily motivated by xenophobia, paranoia, and the sense that a creeping dark “other” is destabilizing America’s “natural” progress to some great grand glowing telos in the sky. The great lie of the past few decades has been to perpetuate the ideal of a cost-free existence, a metaphysical out, an endless deflection of our rapid consumption. We live in a world where the leading Republican candidates for the 2012 election race are basically cartoons. We live in a world where headlines from The Onion seem more the work of prescient prescription than outright satire. We live in a world where an honest assessment of who-pays-what-taxes can only come from a comedy show.

Perhaps I’m ranting; perhaps this post is too hyperbolic. Sorry. I’ll return to Wallace’s language and that opening line: “‘I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty.’” Americans are being told that they have no duty to other Americans, that they should not have to have any relationship with other Americans, that, essentially, there is no civic duty to one’s country, to one’s fellow Americans—there is only a duty to one’s ruggedly individual self, only a duty to one’s bootstraps, which you must always pull up by yourself. The corporate-advertising-entertainment-industrial complex perpetuates the illusion of rugged individualism and politicians reinforce it with their empty rhetoric, blasting at any element of a public, civic corpus that isn’t part of the American war machine (which remains of course untouchable; perhaps the greatest signal of cognitive dissonance I regularly see on my commute to and from work are the cars in front of me that somehow bear anti-tax bumper stickers right next to calls to “Support Our Troops”).

Wallace perhaps rightly links the genesis of this cognitive dissonance when it comes to civic rights and civic duties to the 1960s, when the baby boomers, finding power in sheer numbers, were able to assert a generational agency unseen in this country’s history. His elevator talkers here are at the precipice of the Reagan ’80s, post-Watergate disenchantment, but also post-Carter malaise, a time when the boomers are oiled and primed for the complete ideological failure that should forever mark their generation.

There’s more rant in me, of course, but I’ll save it for more excerpts from  §19.

A Few Thoughts on (Not Teaching) The Canon

Books, Literature

Today I attended the first day of a two-day College Board workshop meant to provide additional training to teachers of Advanced Placement English Language and Composition. I’ve been to a number of these over the years, and College Board’s trainers tend to be better than the average presenters we get in education. The workshops also provide an opportunity to see what teachers at other schools are doing with their students.

Anyway, the only reason I bother to write about this is because of an interesting conversation/confrontation that happened almost immediately at the beginning of the session. As per usual with these things, we were to introduce ourselves–how long we’d been teaching, where we teach, the grade levels we teach, etc. The presenter also asked us to identify the book we most enjoyed “teaching.” That was the verb used–”teaching.” We were in a circle; I was one of the last people to have to introduce myself, and I heard repeatedly “I like to teach Gatsby” or “I like to teach Night” or “I like to teach To Kill a Mockingbird” or “I teach Faulkner.” I was getting a little antsy. Here’s why: 1) I don’t teach books–I don’t even know what it means to teach a book, 2) I rarely have my students read a complete book as part of their curriculum–I abridge almost everything, and 3) I’d been in this same situation more than once, and I knew that saying this was going to rub some of these English teachers the wrong way. And of course it did rub wrong, in particular two musty hags of the old school, one of whom cut me off condescendingly in mid-sentence: “So you’re saying that your kids never read a whole book?”

As pleasantly as possible, I tried to explain that I aim to expose my students to a multiplicity of voices and themes and rhetorical styles and methods, and that I didn’t see my primary job as fostering a love of literature; rather, I believe that the main duty of the English teacher is to facilitate the development of reading, composition, and thinking. I tried to explain that, even in my AP classes, most of my students are not avid readers and most of my students do not read at their grade level, and therefore struggling through 4 or 5 novels or plays over the course of one year didn’t seem as valuable to me as working through over a hundred different writers writing in a variety of styles for a variety of purposes. I tried to explain that reading a selection on slavery from 1789 by Olaudah Equiano in conjunction with a 2005 UN report on human trafficking, and then responding to these text was a far more valuable skill than wading through a dusty “classic” hunting down “universal” themes (whatever those are…).

The response, predictably was: “You mean, your 11th graders don’t read The Scarlet Letter? They don’t read Gatsby? That’s terrible!”

Why? Why should The Scarlett Letter or The Great Gatsby be so reverently “taught” to sixteen and seventeen year olds in this country? I like both of these books–I really do (although I think Gatsby is possibly the most overrated and over-read book ever published, and I’d take Hawthorne’s fabulous short stories any day over dreary Dimsdale and Hester Prynne)–but what purpose is there in making kids read them? Are they truly that relevant, or important?

I should be clear here that I am in no way at all against students reading these books; I wish that they would read these books, in fact. Only, I wish that they would love reading so much that they would be inspired to read books that they’ve heard are great or classic. But here’s the thing: I don’t think that telling a student they must read a book and that that book is a great work of literature and that they should enjoy or be inspired by that book is in any way a fair proposition. It leads only to anxiety, frustration, boredom, and then defeat.

Instead, English teachers should recognize that literature is just one part of reading and writing, and that most of our students are not going to go on to be English teachers or fiction writers. We should focus on a heteroglossic range of voices, styles, and purposes in introducing texts into the classroom. Students should be taught to respond to a variety of texts across a variety of disciplines, not to a few canonical authors. What happens more often than not in English classrooms is something like this: students are forced to read a work too complex for them to comprehend; they rely on the teacher’s interpretation to guide them through the novel (never having been taught a close-reading method that might give them access to the text); the student then writes a meaningless recapitulation of the teacher’s own “universalist” interpretation of the literary work, to the egotistical delight of the teacher who is enthralled that the student has “got it.” What’s lost is the opportunity to engage in relevant, “real-life” writing, writing that enters into an ongoing conversation in a meaningful way.

This is has been a straight-up rant–I’m sorry. I think that the following scene from Freaks and Geeks says it all better than I just did. Kim Kelly (Busy Phillips) critiques On the Road: