Sunday, July 27, 2008
Because I’m teaching it in a short story class this fall (advanced undergraduate, but not that advanced), I’ve been re-reading Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. It has been a long time since I’ve read Borges and it was certainly a pleasure, although how well I’ll be able to get that pleasure across to students is one of the issues I’ve been considering in relation to this book.
It’s clear to me why he’s compared so often to Poe (who I’m also teaching in the class) and Kafka (who I’m not, in this class anyway, mainly because his work doesn’t highlight any key shifts in the development of the short story). As much as I love the work of all three, I think that at least on my personal list, Borges may be third. He’s a much more profound philosopher than Poe, of course, although that has something to do with his writing a century later. He shares with Poe an interest in bifurcations of identity, but doesn’t offer that much insight into character or the social dynamics that might underpin such bifurcations, while Poe’s extreme flights of fancy nonetheless point to real problems in the history of power, wealth, history, love, guilt, and families. Not that Borges doesn’t raise those specters too. But he’s not very interested in character, not that for me he has to be automatically.
Characters, for Borges, when he bothers with them at all, are much more purely part of a philosophical game, one in which opposites are often revealed as two parts of the same thing, or there’s an absolute rift between what is said about an event and what actually happened, or multiple narrative possibilities create instability in any notion of fact or truth. The idea of character is therefore on some level simply deceptive. Any sense we have of our own uniqueness as individuals is mainly illusion.
The literary games that Borges plays are based in a genuine dread of the endlessness of time and space and a wise skepticism, but for the most part that dread happens on the level of ideas and not in the narrative itself as such. Even when Borges’ characters are experiencing or expressing dread, the tone of the story doesn’t create dread. Instead, the dread comes from contemplating the philosophical puzzle the stories present. Although his writing style is often stunningly sensual, in total opposition to Poe he doesn’t allow much in the way of passion into the stories or the characters. In the stories that do more highlight emotion at the center of passionate events, like the need for revenge in “Emma Zunz” and the rage at cowardice in “The Shape of the Sword,” the narratives may be less than fully convincing on the level of emotion. More often though, his characters exist in a state of passive contemplation. I can see why some people might prefer this, and at moments I do too, but the feeling of removal and distance in Borges’ work remains consistent.
And while he shares with Kafka a love of the parable, Borges’ parables aren’t necessarily quite as compact, even while compactness is one of the traits his stories are famous for. The just slightly meandering quality has something with the level of learning that most of his stories display (even when the texts he’s mentioning are game-playing inventions) and which is certainly one of the pleasures of reading his stories, although I imagine it would be a pleasure mainly for other lovers of books and learning. His constant references to books and writers and historical contexts might be tough going for some people. There’s something more insular about a Borges story, even while he’s a much more detailed historian than either Poe or Kafka.
But these are just a few casual impressions as I think about which of his stories to teach and which not. My longtime favorite, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” may not make the cut. One of his most fascinating puzzles, the story definitely relies on the idea that literature itself is fascinating. I agree that it is, of course, but I’m not sure how well the story will work with people who are not yet convinced that there’s any value in literature. The story relies on a belief that literary minutiae is a subject worthy of discussion, even while it shows, of course, the way that literary minutiae can be a gateway to much grander problems of time, history, and identity.
Have any thoughts on Borges? I know the issue of his politics (not in the stories, but as a man in the world) is complicated, but I’m not enough of an expert to have any insights on the subject. Any experiences with teaching Borges, at any level? Is it just possible that in a context like this class, his work might fly like a lead balloon? The other writers I’m teaching are very different (I’m pairing him with Sandra Cisneros in a section on postmodernism and multiculturualism) so I’m not worried about the course overall. But I have the feeling that he may be the toughest sell of anyone I’m teaching this semester, and I don’t want to scare students back into realism before they’ve had much chance to know what else is out there.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Kristin Prevallet’s [I, Afterlife] [Essay in Mourning Time] is one of the most fascinating and powerful elegies I’ve read in awhile. Part poem, part essay, occasionally a work of visual art, I, Afterlife gathers and revises a series of pieces written from 2000-2006 as a meditation on the death of Prevallet’s father. The book engages readers on the level of cultural theory, aesthetics, and individual emotion without any of the three dominating the others. I, Afterlife succeeds both as an elegy and as a work that questions the structure and content of elegy.
Elegies are often vexed by the issue of the meaning they make of the death of the person or people that prompted the elegy. That a person in pain would look to make sense of that pain seems human and unsurprising. But as Prevallet suggests throughout the book, an elegy that wraps up the problem of meaning too neatly is less likely to be making sense of loss than to be imposing sense upon loss. Hiding loss through incantations of meaning may inflict a further sense of loss, one made perhaps more devastating because it remains unacknowledged. The attempt to fill in loss, to make the pain of absence go away by putting some kind of presence in its place, especially perhaps the presence of elegy itself, is both central to the drive of elegy and also a great risk:
“Never believe maxims because all they do is comply with a sentence structure that is formulated in such a way as to come off as assured, wise, and mentally strong; they give those looking to fill empty spaces with words something to read.
Believing that holes can be filled with language is dangerous—only space itself occupies empty spaces.
So with this in mind, beware of being absorbed by an essay that is grieving, because you will lose your place and be eradicated...” (10)
It’s easy to imagine that being aware of the limitations of elegy might lead to a distanced, purely theoretical approach that avoids the pain that prompts elegy in the first place. But while Prevallet remains committed to exploring problems in the concept of elegy, she doesn’t shy away from the pain that led her here:
“Note that because certain words are removed from view, certain words therefore appear.
The words that appear important to you are the ones you should follow.
Angles are sharp and part of the line.
Don’t turn corners too sharply or you might run over something you once loved.
I remember when my father was happy, and I remember when he began to disappear.” (8)
As involved as this book is both with theories of elegy and the real pain of recent loss, Prevallet also approaches these concerns through a number of aesthetic lenses, recognizing that how we write about loss and what can be said of it is an issue that’s crucial to confront when through writing we try to understand someone’s death. These works, mini-essays, poems, and brief narratives by turn and in combination, always show us a writer coming towards loss again, wondering how to approach it and express it without believing that the expression can replace it or make it go away.
Never is that issue made more clear than in the works of visual art and accompanying text in the section of the book called “Crime Scene Log.” The visuals are abstract, dark, murky, void of clearly seen objects. The caption-like texts that accompany them consistent of flat, practical statements from the police report of a scene of suicide, phrases such as “Fire/Rescue accessed the vehicle by breaking out the passenger door window with a spring-loaded punch’ (21). In juxtaposition, the visuals and captions release upon each other, and upon readers, interacting senses of absence amid a search for meaning. The emotional meaninglessness of the objective facts of the report cannot begin to reveal the emotional conditions that they are at least partly expected to uncover. And the palpable sense of physical presence created by the concrete fact of the visuals crumbles as one looks in them for something specific to hold onto other than shades of shades and the emotions implied by them. Facts that cannot reveal what happened; texture and mood without defined object. Both seem to promise, then to deflect, access to the truth.
When the cause of death is suicide, as in this case, the need to uncover the truth can see particularly pressing. Trying to understand the reasons that prompted suicide seem unavoidable. At the same time, those reasons are always some combination of unsurprising (depression, a reaction to the medication for depression), however troubling, and unknowable, since it’s impossible to recreate what a person must have been thinking. What Prevallet understands though is that the reasons a person commits suicide doesn’t necessarily make that person entirely different from us, but in many ways shows their likeness to us:
“I too am occupied by all the questions of my father, and like him I wonder if the void is too great, if time is too vast, if humanity is too imperfect; and like him I sometimes wonder if it isn’t all remarkably futile, if enduring the persistence of fear and disappointment in our lives makes sense in the quest for an overall purpose.” (31)
Prevallet knows that loss can also be a source of creative energy, that something will always be made of it, but that what that thing is and how the creator feels about it is related to the issue of how the creator who grieves continues to live. She explores this problem in relation to the concept of the shrine. As she notes, the concept is well known to psychologists, so much so that a handout that the police give to the grieving about how to respond to their grief features a section on shrine building “which stated that in order to get through the twelve stages of grief, with maximum efficiency, one should dispose of any shrines” (58). The implication is that a shrine holds on to grief, tries to make it concrete and unmoving in a way that can trap the person who makes it in an unchanging grief that will prevent them from engaging with other parts of their lives. And Prevallet admits that a shrine can indeed do that, while she also questions notions of progress-oriented efficiency that the idea of “twelve steps” implies; mainstream psychology seems to teach that grief, like alcoholism, is something to overcome. The question for Prevallet becomes how to acknowledge the ongoing and evolving nature of grief without getting stuck in a static representation of it. The result is that she makes a shrine, but in this case one “Which has no closure. Which is constantly being rearranged” (58).
It feels odd to review a book of elegy, even when it’s as powerful as this one. The reviewer can easily turn into a voyeur experiencing fascination at a person’s pain and extend that voyeurism by suggesting the book to others. Promoting a work of elegy seems perverse. Yet [I, Afterlirfe] [Essay in Mourning Time] is a book that has a great deal to show people, whether those who have suffered a similar loss and wondered what to do, or those who have not and for that reason may be even less able to understand how grief changes those who go on living. It has a lot to teach us about what writing is, what it can and can’t do and how it can situate itself relative to traumatic events. What’s remarkable about the book isn’t always that it provides new answers to the questions raised both by grief and elegy, but that it asks those questions so honestly and thoroughly, revealing one writer’s focused commitment to never lying to herself even at a time when she’s searching for comfort.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
Friends in town this weekend, one of whom brought me a copy of the Roy Eldridge Mosaic box, containing his famous session with Dizzy Gillespie and a lot of other lesser known material, including some early late 40s/50s jukebox sides. I haven’t had much chance to absorb all that yet, although we’ve been listening to it. In the last few weeks I’ve been playing a lot of another Mosaic set, Classic Columbia, Okeh, and Vocalion Lester Young with Count Basie (1936-40). Most serious jazz fans will have much of this material already, if not all the alternate takes, but the amazing sound of the Mosaic set makes it worth it for those of us who think some of these songs are among the absolute highlights of jazz.
I’m not a musicologist, and I and other friends are still waiting on written comments about this set from our influential afficionado Doug Lang, who will know things about this material that no other human being does, and for reasons that are unfathomable. In the meantime what I have is some trivia, as well as a few reflections which I hope might provoke a bit of discussion from those of you interested in the subject.
First a bit of personal trivia. In this house, Lester Young is also a Pacific Parrotlet (Forpus Pacificus). If anyone is in charge around here, it’s him. He is perhaps not as virtuostic as the human musician after whom he is named, but he comes close, with a rather astonishing set of riffs and tones for a musician of his diminutive size, including the ability to say and whistle Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” in three different registers. He began recording before he was three years old.
Lester Young the human was not recorded until the age of 27, even though he had been a well-known musician for some years before that.
In fact a number of his most famous musical moments don’t exist on record. There’s the 1933 cutting contest with Coleman Hawkins, in which the then little known Young was said to have outperformed the man considered the premiere tenor of the day (note: as far as I know, unlike slam poetry contests cutting sessions were never judged, so it’s not entirely clear how “outperformed” would have been determined here other than that many people said so). Then there’s the disastrous stint with the Fletcher Henderson band that followed, when Young briefly replaced Hawkins in the band and Henderson’s other musicians hated him because he wouldn’t play more conventional chord structures and essentially drove him out of the band. Does anyone know whether this recording is really of the 1936 short wave radio broadcast from Kansas City’s Reno Club that jazz critic John Hammond heard and followed up on by helping the Basie band come to Chicago? Frankly I doubt it, and the only reviewer who responded to it on Amazon agrees. I don’t think there’s any recording either of the December 1937 performance of “Sweet Sue,” for which Young improvised 83 choruses, flooring all listeners. Neither you or I can hear any of these famous moments, and therefore separating the fact of the music from the legend of it is impossible. Young shares in that with the earliest generation of jazz musicians, people whose fame even more than his rests on oral legend rather than verifiable musical achievement.
Young literally held the tenor sax in a way no one else did, sideways and out to his right, almost at the angle of a flute though not quite. In this and many other ways, in the world of flamboyant jazz personalities he stood out as eccentric from the first.
He was essentially Modernist; depending on how one defines these things, the first great Modernist of jazz. Although he remains lyrical, his lyricism works outside and around typical chord progressions of the era. Although his greatest moments are solos, there are some Basie songs in which Young plays the whole time, commenting on what’s happening and adding unexpected textures. The relation of jazz to Modernism is of course complex, since even earlier New Orleans jazz is bound up with the Modernist era. It’s more than arguable that much of Young’s originality is based on his close understanding of trumpet players Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke. But Young’s solos are amazing not only for how they participate in the Basie band but also how they stand out and away from it as a kind of counterpoint, adding to the uniqueness of the band’s interplay (revolutionary itself at the time) and changing what jazz had been up until then, opening up the idea of the solo in a way that Charlie Parker would later transform much further. Even at fast tempos, Young’s solos were not only complex but also relaxed and always powerfully evocative, combining technical innovation with emotional profundity.
In relation to the issue of his role in the band, as great as his work with Basie was, Young also often felt held back by the band and left it after not too many years. Quoted in the Mosaic notes is a 1949 Down Beat interview with Young done by Pat Harris, in which Young says, “But Basie was like school. I used to fall asleep in school, because I had my lesson, and there was nothing else to do. The teacher would be teaching those who hadn’t studied at home, but I had, so I’d go to sleep. Then the teacher would come home and tell my mother. So I put that down. In Basie’s band... You had to just sit there, and play it over and over again. Just sit in that chair...”
Artie Shaw on Lester’s clarinet playing: “Lester played better clarinet than a lot of guys who played better clarinet than he did.” Shaw’s comment is one of many about Young that raise the issue of how many people felt his playing was better than that of more conventional virtuosos.
Does anyone know that much about Lester Young’s supposedly life-changing experiences in the U.S. Army? Arrested in early 1945, he was put in the brig in Georgia. Many stories about him say that he was “never the same after that,” although it’s hard to pin down exactly how he was different and how much of that difference was related to his jail experiences and how much to the growing alcoholism that would kill him at age 50. Stories have it that after the war, he was much quieter and without his earlier exuberance, and that in conversation he increasingly mumbled his own original lingo that very few people could decipher. But what exactly happened to him in prison? It doesn’t seem that anyone knows, although the implication has long been that he was the victim of some sort of white-on-black assault. Certainly there’s no way that it could have been pleasant for a black man who had been a music star in Chicago to find himself in a South Carolina prison.
I think I’ve finally come to a better understanding of the critical split that exists on the subject of whether Young’s music was never again as good after the Basie band. Some critics assert it almost absolutely (for instance the writers of the Penguin guide to jazz) while others deny it in various degrees. What I’ve noticed is this. For the most part, he never consistently played with musicians of the caliber of the Basie band again, although there are a number of obvious exceptions, the session with Teddy Wilson among others. Young, listed as leader on many of these sessions, is thus more often the central focus, with longer solos, something he wanted, while he’s simultaneously surrounded by less interesting interplay. He has also slowed down somewhat, with as much power and mood as ever, in fact maybe much more, but less fast-paced compactness and startlingly original phrases. He stretches out at greater length, plays less notes and holds them longer. This issue has been said to connect with the problem of the jail experience, although exactly how is impossible to say. But it also reminds me of many artists and sports heroes who as they age cut back on the pyrotechnics, something often considered worthwhile because it’s less about flash and more about substance. By the late 40s and early 50s, alcohol problems are taking their toll. Although all the way through the 50s Young still sometimes plays overwhelmingly powerful solos, he’s more and more frequently unfocused and stumbling, although the intensity of mood he can establish even while botching notes puts him in common with Billie Holiday as one of the musicians whose late work can be technically rough but sometimes emotionally devastating. His late playing might even be called “shambolic,” a term that is a dividing point among jazz and rock listeners even to this day; the issue involves how one thinks about the technically flawed but powerfully emotive performance. It is often said that his last great solo was on the 1958 “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” in a session that mainly shows Young on the verge of collapse, someone recently out of the hospital who will be dead in a few months.
Add it all up, and Young is the first great eccentric Modernist of jazz, stranger and more original than his contemporaries, at times as much legend as reality, but also capable, simply, of some of the most powerfully memorable moments in the history of his genre. I’m sure I don’t know anything about Lester Young that the real afficionados don’t, but thinking again about his music has reminded me how much writers can learn from artists in different mediums.
Sunday, July 6, 2008
I like many blogs, and I like many of the people I know who write blogs. If I’ve gotten to know you through blogworld, you can be sure I like you, even if we’ve never met or have only barely met.
But that’s not what I’m going to write about today.
A post on Stan Apps’ blog last week raised the issue of why so many blog comments are hostile. Speaking for myself, I think I do a pretty good job, if not a perfect one, of not putting hostile notes in blog comment boxes. But that’s not because I don’t feel annoyed at other people’s blogs. Believe me, I do. I feel a lot of annoyance at blog posts sometimes. Sometimes I’ve left hostile comments on people’s blogs, maybe even on your blog, but mainly I succeed in not doing that.
It’s quite likely that you’re a better person than I am, I’ll grant that up front. But maybe you feel annoyance at blog posts sometimes too. So examining some of the reasons I feel annoyed about blog posts might be helpful both to me and to others. It’s important to be open about things when it might be helpful. As with much else, when it comes to SAID, we’re only as sick as the Internet secrets we can’t say. But I have to warn you that doing that this will require investigating some troubling psychological dynamics. I understand why none of us, including myself, would want to do that. So feel free to stop reading now. If you read on, you only have yourself to blame.
The problem is, a lot of blog posts really are annoying and some are quite actively stupid. Comments about blog posts are often particularly annoying and stupid. When I’m in the presence of something annoying, it makes me feel annoyed, and when I’m annoyed, I want to say something annoying. Ditto with stupid: when somebody says something stupid, I want to say something stupid back. And by the way, I know that calling something “stupid” implies a questionable value judgment that nonetheless I often make when somebody says something stupid.
And it’s not simply that blogs and comment box responses can be stupid. It’s also that they can be wrong, inaccurate, self-aggrandizing, ignorant, willfully ignorant, slanderous, paranoid, deluded and dangerous.
When I’m reading blogs, it’s often because I’m too tired or distracted to do anything else. At those times, I’m more easily annoyed. In fact feeling annoyed can be a way to get my energy back, although hardly the most healthy way.
I moved a few years ago from Washington, D.C., where I knew many poets and saw them frequently, to the San Diego area, where I know a few poets and see them only occasionally. I have many less opportunities these days for getting annoyed face to face with my poet friends on a casual, daily basis. So on a Tuesday night after work, instead of being out somewhere with friends getting annoyed by them, and they by me, I’m often reading blogs. I take the annoyance I used to feel at my friends and transfer it to blogworld. All that annoyance has to go somewhere. Otherwise it just festers.
While blogs can create a sense of community and I’ve had many good exchanges on them, nonetheless the physical alienation of the Internet is real. You can’t get to know people that well even when it seems you are. It can be frustrating to feel this alienation and that can lead to being annoyed.
That alienation also fosters a sense of being left out. All these things going on that I’m not part of. That’s annoying. Of course some things I wouldn’t want to be part of. But that’s even more annoying: to want to be part of things but to not want to be part of the things that are actually happening.
Besides, and this is one thing that everybody knows, it’s easier to say something annoying to someone when you don’t have to look that person in the eye.
I have a lot of feelings. But my excellent training in contemporary normative American manhood means that of all those feelings, anger is the one I’m most comfortable feeling and expressing. I express anger mainly as a response to feeling threatened, and I feel threatened a lot. Responding angrily when threatened helps me feel like I’m protecting myself. When I express other emotions, whatever the situation, I feel less protected. Sometimes when I’ve told people I like them, for instance, it turns out they don’t like me back. That hurts. Although anger is often a response to feeling hurt, it also protects me from that feeling. Saying something annoying on someone’s blog can feel like a way of protecting myself.
I feel more comfortable expressing anger around men than around women, since men are more likely to recognize my anger in themselves and to respond angrily, while women are more likely to dislike and fear my anger and respond with silence, even when they also recognize it in themselves, although it’s hard for me to know how often they do since they tend not to tell me. I mean, I can see that many women are angry, but often they won’t tell me directly. When women respond with silence, that makes me fear that women don’t like me, and I feel afraid when women don’t like me. This makes me angry about women and tempted to leave angry comments on their blogs. But I recognize that I have to restrain my anger if I want women to like me, so when I’m annoyed about something that a woman has posted on her blog, I’m more likely to want to leave an angry comment on a man’s blog. I’ve noticed however that other men don’t necessarily restrain themselves this way.
Besides, anger has been a very productive and creative emotion for me. Anger can really get me going. Add to that the fact that alternative arts communities respect and give a lot of credit to anger as long as it’s seen as the right kind of anger, and all in all, I’m pretty consistently rewarded for anger.
Often, not much else is going on when I start checking blogs. I’m bored. I work long hours at a job that is only sometimes rewarding, and when I’m done I still don’t have anything interesting to do. Wow, does that ever make me annoyed, and right at the time when I start checking blogs.
And once a controversy gets started as a result of annoying comments, which doesn’t always happen but does sometimes, something does seem to be happening. Writing can be lonely and isolating. All these words potentially addressed to a void. But in controversy, people are responding. Their emotions are engaged. I’ve said something and they’ve reacted. Their responses may make me annoyed, but at least I know that something I’ve said has caused a real reaction in a real person, even if I’ve never met that person. It’s very exciting to me, by the way, to have caused a reaction in a person, especially one I’ve never met. Who is that person, I ask myself.
All that said, I disagree with Stan when he calls the phenomenon “elective annoyance.” I look forward to discussing this with him over our blogs and proving to him that I am correct and he is mistaken. It can be very helpful to prove that others are mistaken when I believe they are, and it’s especially helpful when they acknowledge it, which admittedly they don’t often do. Sometimes the inward conviction that I have proved myself correct has to be enough. What proving that I am correct allows me to feel is that I know what I’m talking about. Sometimes I do feel like I know what I’m talking about and it’s great to confirm that, with myself and others. Other times I feel confused and uncertain and vulnerable, and those moments can be turned around by proving that I know what I”m talking about.
I disagree with Stan because I never find that I choose my annoyance. In fact I am almost always annoyed before I have chosen to be annoyed. I read something and I’m annoyed and that’s that. Admittedly, I can choose not to respond with hostility in a comment box, and maybe that’s what Stan means by “elective.” But annoyance often comes on me with very little individual volition. So I’m going to call this problem Selective Annoyance, because as much as some of us might want to, it’s literally impossible to be annoyed at everything that’s annoying. Besides, the term “Selective” is better than “Elective” because it leads to a much cooler acronym. What’s better on the Internet, by the way, than a hostile exchange about terminology?
But what I’ve just said isn’t always true. Maybe Stan does have a bit of a point. Sometimes when I’m annoyed already I go to particular blogs that I know I will find annoying, because when I’m annoyed the feeling of being annoyed is very powerful and I want to experience it. So I go to a blog expecting to be annoyed and I am. What’s amazing though, when I do this, is how often I get even more annoyed than I was prepared to be. So if Stan does have a bit of a point, he hasn’t pushed this point far enough. I look forward to elaborating for him the points that he has neglected and proving to him that he has not thought deeply enough about this issue.
Perhaps most of all, I’m quite convinced that the things and people I’m most angry about are things and people to which I’m not really able to respond. The Internet isn’t simply personally alienating, it’s caught up and extends the structures of the capitalist alienation of labor. There are people at my job that I can’t be angry at openly, or at least too openly, because they have the power to fire me. I’ve sent angry e-mails to George Bush but all I get are polite form letter responses. We all know that George Bush neither saw my letter or responded to it. Like that guy cares what I have to say. There are people in the world suffering much more deeply than I am and I feel frustrated about that, but sometimes it seems that on a given day, or many given days, there’s not much I can do about it. And sometimes I don’t care about anybody else’s suffering, I only care about myself, and that makes me feel guilty and then frustrated and annoyed. So sometimes it helps me siphon off my frustration to know it’s possible to call somebody an asshole in a blog comment box or say a point that person has made is stupid and that person will hear me. Unfortunately for me maybe, I don’t really think that other poets I know caused the war in Iraq, even when they work for universities, so I’m often still aware that I’m not attacking the right person. But the continued annoyance from that leads to further opportunities for leaving annoying blog comments on people’s annoying blogs with all their annoying comments.
All in all then, it’s a good thing that I’m able to resist my own worst Internet tendencies. If you have bad Internet tendencies too, you’ll know what I mean. Maybe, working together, in exploring the causes of SAID we can learn to mitigate its effects.