Suffering Unto The Artist

In Winter Journal, Paul Auster touches upon a highly debated concept: that of the suffering artist.

With nowhere to go and no money to finance a move even if you had known where to go, you stayed on in the Dutchess County house after the breakup of your marriage, sleeping on the sofa bed in the corner of your downstairs study, which you realize now (thirty-two years later) had been your bed as a child.  Three weeks later, on a trip down to New York, you experienced the revelation, the scalding, epiphanic moment of clarity that pushed you though a crack in the universe and allowed you to start writing again.

Some people, like A.L. Kennedy, think that the whole thing is utter nonsense.  Though I have trouble arguing with anything in his article for The Guardian (and I appreciate the feistiness of the tone), I do think there is more to the equation that just a yes or not; an X or a Y.

Kennedy says:

If an artist has managed to take something appalling and make it into art, that’s because the artist is an artist, not because something appalling is naturally art.

He’s he’s abso-fucking-lutely right.  To assume any different is to rob the artist of the value in his/her hard work.  As the Cursive song goes: Art is hard.

I think the whole problem comes more deeply from the idea that talent is something that someone is born with.  This idea is wide-spread, idiotic & fucking insulting.  Artist’s are no more naturally able to create than anyone else.  Yes, some people are born more inclined toward certain activities, but that inclination isn’t what makes them talented, it’s the hard ass work they do that makes them talented.  Picasso didn’t just pick up a paint brush & splish splash there was Guernica.  He spent years paint shitty things to hone his skills.  He learned all of the rules and painted things he didn’t want to paint.  He may have had a natural eye but all that did was drive him to continue pursuing art throughout the fumbling years of learning.  Most people will never read a novelist’s first book, because it’s never published.  It’s thrown away and so is the next & the next.  The first book you read is probably their fourth or fifth effort.  Most musicians write & throw away hundreds of songs before their first album.

It is this idea, that talent comes naturally, which has robbed the artist of value in society.  We no longer look at a man sitting in front of a piece of paper, staring at the walls as working.  As Victor Hugo said: “A man is not idle because he is absorbed in thought. There is a visible labor and there is an invisible labor.”  There was a time when this was understood; a time in history when artists were payed well; a time when they could make a living, like a plumber or a doctor.  There was even a time once when wealthy people supported artists to allow them the freedom to create.

But, I’ve digressed a bit from where I started.  Kennedy is correct, suffering is not necessary to create.  Work ethic & determination are far more important.  But—but—but suffering does have value to the artist.  As C.S. Lewis (who coincidentally Kennedy also mentions in his article) said in his book, The Problem Of Pain, ”[Pain] removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.”  

C.S. Lewis was actually talking about the idea that pain exists to batter men into submission of God’s will.  This is absolutely ridiculous.  The late Christopher Hitchens (who’s words I seem to live with daily) would refer to this as The Totalitarianism of Religion.  As an atheist, the idea god is also ridiculous to me, but it doesn’t frighten me.  It doesn’t frighten me the way that this concept of such a god does.  Is it any wonder that man has enslaved man, when people have come to believe that god will pummel them into subjugation?…and that they have the gall to say it is done out of love too?

Subtracting all of this mythological nastiness from Lewis’s quotation, I take this from it: Pain exists as speed bump.  Without pain, it would be far too easy for us to barrel forward in life with ever growing momentum without any thoughts to why’s or what if’s.  We would accelerate faster and faster to our demise without even realising that we existed; our life a blur of spit on the side window of a speeding car.  But pain, as a speed bump, causes us to slow down; it forces our rebel souls (apt to runaway from us in manic fits) to face the truths that are waving in our faces.

So, of course, this is of value to the artist.  The artist could not create without revelation and some revelations require pain.  But the artist can grow beyond this, the most base & primal form of divination.  They can learn to remember the pain without needing to live continually within the pit of it.  But the one thing that the artist cannot do is create without knowledge of truth.  The artist cannot create without that these truths ejecting themselves out their bone marrow like piercing, jagged shards of light.  One who creates solely for profit & has no burning reality to express is a skilled forger not an artist.  And though the true artist need not continue to suffer, he/she must absolutely be acquainted with suffering.  Pain need not chase the artist like a rabid dog, but the memory of it must haunt his/her mind in the silence as they stare at the walls.  And maybe this is the sacred nature of the artist that we adore, not that they suffer, or that they do what we cannot, but that they bring us truths so that we do not need to do what they have done to learn them; so that we need not bleed as the goat we sacrifice does bleed.

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Memories Like Ghosts

Memory is tricky thing. I’ve been seeing a lot of things recently that prove it not to be as solid as we like to believe. It seems memory is a bit more like a mental apparition, in that it takes on a translucent & evasive ‘shape’ and we must make of it what we can. The mind is constantly rewriting the past through our person biases or combining two separate events into one.

Unfortunately, at times, this leads us to disagreements with people regarding shared experiences. We say things happened one way, they say another. Previously, we would have just called these people liars. Now we must begin to understand that they may truly remember things the way that they say they do and for all that we know, our memories of the events are no more valid than theirs.

The ectoplasmic existence of memories also leads to the dreadful scenario where they disappear completely from our mind. This, of course, is most cruel when our memories of the dead begin to slip through the walls of our minds. It seems we never stop losing them. I’ve lost so much of my grandmother, that I fear one day everything but the concept of her will be erased.

What I have been experiencing lately is a third kind of spirit mind…a haunting if you will. This consists entirely of memories which are nothing but residuals. They are like keywords in a search engine, just fragments subtracted from meaning but once entered bring a flood of information. These breadcrumb pieces do not actively participate in the normal interactions of our brain. They are simply scraps of paper taped to the underside of the desk drawer in our head.

For example, I have a very indistinct memory of a late 70′s early 80′s Public Broadcasting children’s show buried in my head. It’s been driving me crazy because it’s such a fuzzy image that I cannot even describe it well enough to search the internet…though I have tried. I tried the hard way. Like a cop hunting through hundreds on DMV records for one license plate, I search for lists all PBS shows in the 70′s and the 80′s. And I still couldn’t find it. I fear that it is a show within a show like The Bloodhound Gang to 3-2-1 Contact or Mathnet to Square One. Anyhow, in searching these lists I found a lot of shows I had forgotten about like Slim GoodbodyThe Great Space Coaster & All About You.

One of these shows that I stumbled across didn’t sound familiar to me at all but I pulled it up on YouTube anyhow. The second it started, everything came flooding back. The show was Today’s Special. I hadn’t thought about that show in almost 30 years. It never popped into my head once. It never showed up in any conversations. But the moment I saw the store window and heard the first piano chord, I realized I knew every word. And I mean every word. I knew everything that was said before it was said. It was probably one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve ever had. How could I remember it all? It wasn’t a popular show, it didn’t change my life, it was likely never played in reruns, but somehow it stayed with me my whole life. This truly brought home, to me, the concept that children remember far more than we give them credit for.

It happened to me again last night. Flipping through Netflix, I stumbled across Quincy M.E. I remembered that it was a big show when I was younger, so I decided to watch an episode to see if I could remember any of it. I did. Vividly. Once Quincy grabbed the sheet off the cadaver, I knew that all of the cadets would faint or puke. At first it struck me as strange that I was allowed to watch this show as a kid. After all it was a show about a Medical Examiner. The whole show revolved around autopsies & murder. What struck me next was a sudden understanding, or the question of one: Could my having seen this show at such a young age been a contributing factor in why I have always found true crime books & forensic shows so fascinating? (I also wonder if this is part of the reason I love typewriter’s as much as I do.)

What other ghostly mysteries in my head can I solve? In reading Paul Auster’s Winter Journal, I am reminded of one. Winter Journal, as Auster describes it, is a sensory catalog. Part of that catalog includes a list of every home he has lived in. I have lived in a lot of homes of my 35 years. Many during my childhood due to my mother’s financial difficulties as a single mother. We even lived in a motel for a period of a few months. Most of the places we lived, I either remember well enough to be innocuous, or they are so unimportant that they have been entirely forgotten…that is all but one place.

My memories of this specific house have all the solidity of a dream. Nothing about them seem real, but this house does exist. Or I suppose I should say that it existed? I found out this morning on Google Maps that it has been torn down and replaced with two smaller homes. Oddly, I had no address and yet I was somehow able to find it simply by zooming in on Sand City, California. In less than two minutes I found a location I hadn’t been to in 25 plus years.

I have no inane memories of this house like playing in the yard or watching TV on the couch or peeing in the toilet or waking up in my bed. The sum of what I remember about this house is contained in three hazy memories. The first memory is standing in the back of the house looking through the glass doors onto the back patio. I can’t tell if the glass is dirty, or fogged up or if it is simply cloudy outside. I don’t know what I’m looking at but I am looking for a long time and just thinking of it now makes my skin cold. Why would I remember this?

The second memory is of the flakey red see-saw on the side of the house. I remember see-sawing up and down. Which, as I think of it now is kind of strange. I had no friends at this time (as I said we moved a lot) and adults would be to heavy to see-saw back and forth with with a small child. Why can’t I see who’s there?

My third and finally memory is driving away from the house. In my hands are two cassette tapes. One is Michael Jackson’s Thriller & the other is Lionel Richie’s Can’t Slow Down. (This might be the last time my mother listen music that was cool.)

I wonder what those memories mean. Do they mean anything? Is there something that will one day trigger the full memories? Or are they just useless bubbles of information? Did I see something out the window? Or was I just bored, lonely & wishing I could play on a rainy day? I may never know. Try to remember your ghosts…can you?

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Ashes to Ashes

Well that was a busy week.  But one cool thing that I do have to show for it is my new website.

Maybe it sounds strange to say but, I’ve been thinking about websites for a long time.  My intention is to build this site into the type of website that I would be excited to stumble upon.

Any how, enough with the self promoting.  Lets get to the business at hand: The Inevitable.

I had intended to read a larger chunk of this before writing again but Melissa Pritchard’s A Solemn Promise seemed to require some attention all to itself.  That is to say it brought up a subject that requires attention all to itself.

Pritchard’s piece deals directly with the subject of her mother’s death & cremation.  Cremation has always been a mental snag for me.  Sure, I grew up with catholic doctrines like condoms are evil, gays are evil & cremation is a sin…but I’m not a catholic.  I’m not catholic for two main reasons: 1) I think all of their evil-this-sin-that doctrine is bullshit &  2) I don’t believe in the existence of a supreme being.  (I don’t intend this piece to be an anti-theist diatribe.  I’ll save that for a later date.)

Many of you would agree that cremation, for the most part, is the preferred atheist method of body disposal.  After all if one does not believe in the afterlife then the need of an intact corpse for resurrection is nonexistent.  (I wonder if one day someone can explain to me why a god who can raise a millennia of dead cannot recreate a body from dust?)  So, if I am an atheist (which I am) and I don’t believe cremation is a sin, then why don’t I want to be cremated?

I often tell friends, that I don’t want to be cremated.  I wanna be put in a cheap wood casket with no vacuum seal and covered with dirt.  But why?

Because I think we all need to putrefy & rot. The earth & the creatures in the earth gain nutrients from death & cremation destroys all of the nutrients or at the very least of most of them.  We decompose as part of the circle of life.  As Pritchard so eloquently says, “The earth is made of the dust of creatures lived before.  We walk carelessly upon the dead, the world a rounded grave.”

And I suppose I feel it a vanity to believe that I deserve to removed from this system? I am no great than a deer or a sparrow.  Worms should eat me when I am gone the same way the ate our childhood dog that we buried in the backyard.

About a year ago a friend of mine opened the trunk of his car & handed me a small wooden box.  ”Open it.” he said.  I opened the box & inside, snuggly fit, was a white cardboard box.  It had a white sticker on the side with the name of his father.  His father had died recently & had been cremated.  I knew his father when he was alive & now here I was holding his ashes.  These 3 or 4 pounds in my hand, in a cardboard box were once a man I used to know; a man who loved jazz & knew Jack Kerouac in his youth.  The experience was surreal.

What does one do with the ashes of life?  Keep them in a urn?  Scattered them to the wind?  To the sea?  As Pritchard says:

My parents, bagged in grape velvet, like a tacky stuffed animal, sit side by side (sit? repose? lounge? tumble-bumble? decay? What does one say of dust and knobs and shards in a box?) in an otherwise empty chest of drawers in the guest room, guests now, waiting their flight to Honolulu, where, in an outrigger canoe ceremony (as the had requested) my sister & I will sift them like ingredients, blend them into the kelpish, blue-green broth of the Pacific.

All I can say is that I hope never to be entrusted with this duty.  How utterly devastating it must be to see someone you once loved flitter off into the breeze like a cigarette or a barbecue.  I see no beauty in that.  And I think of odd things like: what of the dust remnants within the box or urn.  Can they just be thrown away or washed down the drain?  I think of Donnie’s ashes in The Big Lebowski.

This blog is in no way a convincing argument one way or the other for anything.  This is just a man reasoning out his out thoughts & beliefs & maybe instilling contemplation in others.  So, needing no closing statement, being this is not meant to be persuasive, let me leave you with a passage from Keith Richard’s book Life, concerning his father’s ashes.

The truth of the matter…is that after having dad’s ashes in a black box for six years, because I really couldn’t bring myself to scatter him to the winds, I finally planted a sturdy English oak to spread him around.  And as I took the lid off of the box, a fine spray of his ashes blew out and onto the table.  I couldn’t just brush him off, so I wiped my finger over it and snorted the residue.  Ashes to ashses, father to son.  He is now growing oak tree and would love me for it.

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Silence

I haven’t looked to see exactly how long I’ve neglected this blog.  Pretty terrible to make the promise of frequent posts & then go silent for a week or two.  Should I feel guilt?

Fuck no.

It’s not like I wasn’t thinking about this blog, in fact, you may have noticed, I changed the name.  ”Reading with Razor Blades” was just a touch too limiting; a little too niche.  I need a little more room.

That said, I also am reconsidering the way I have been approaching this whole thing.  I feel like a few of these posts veering too close to “book reviews” & that’s just fucking boring.  The idea’s that pop in your head because of what you are reading is the good shit.  That’s where the meat is.

So…yes, I’m STILL reading The Inevitable.  But I’ve actually got something to say about this last piece I read “Silence & Awakening” by Diane Ackerman…or rather I have something to say because of it.  It brings up something of a recurring theme of conversations & thoughts in the past few weeks: Silence.  From hearing about John Mayer’s doctor imposed silence & Eric Victorino’s recounting to me his similar experience, to the rough, sloppy five paragraphs I wrote about a silent drive, all the way to last night’s mention of a friend’s roommate’s recent silent retreat & Ackerman’s mention of the same thing, I can’t get away from the idea of silence.

📸 Kristina Flour

I’ll won’t lie, I’m not very hippy dippy, but this idea of a silent retreat has always been quite appealing to me.  I find abstinence & self-imposed limitations very inspiring and the thought of no cars, voices or need for articulation is both frighteningly bizarre & logically attractive.  As a kid, I also used to dream of running away to a Taoist monastery (do they exist?) or going to live in the forest like some feral human.

I’m not going to waste time blabbing on about how the world is getting louder & louder. We all already know all about it.  We are all immersed in it together.  What I will do is share this quote by Jean Arp that Ackerman includes in her piece.  It seems to say it all very briefly:

Soon silence will have passed into legend.  Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machine and devices that increase noise & distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation. Tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster his ego.

I can’t help but wonder what kind of thoughts I would have in such a silence.  How would I think differently if I knew for some period of time that I didn’t need to think of anything to say?  You see it’s not just that I wanna get away from the noise of sportscasters & politicians but sometimes I’m just tired of my own damn voice too.

Sometimes I feel like living when & where we do, is like being on stage.  You always have to be on.  You’ve got to perform.  There is no appreciation for solitude.  We revel too much in our social nature.  When someone tells us that they want to be alone, we automatically assume that something is wrong; they are sad, angry or suicidal.  We approach solitude with fear.  The idea of silence scares us.  If someone actually wants to be alone, then they must be in their underwear, covered with petroleum jelly, writing out a shit list in lipstick on the walls.  They must be listening to classical music.  Fucking maniacs.  We can’t allow that.  We must beckon & tease them back into the fold.

When will we stop seeing silence as boring & solitude as mental illness?  Everybody needs a break.  The busyness gets boring.  The busyness will drive you mad.

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Cold Comfort

In reading a second section of Paul Auster’s Winter Journal, I was struck by the vividness of his pubescent memories & more importantly, the vividness of pubescent memories that stirred within me.    I love the humor he used to describe the yearnings of puberty and humanity used in dealing with sexuality. One story (of a French prostitute) is so tender & sweet that it almost seems like complete bullshit. Had every other part of this book not been filled which such obvious honesty, this story would be completely unbelievable. But it is true.  You know that it is.

Oh and the “fireman” between his legs than he contemplated at five, comes back. Maybe this section is more enjoyable to men because laugh knowing we thought & felt it too, but it still damn good precise writing.

Auster is such a pleasure to read because he does not dawdle in masturbatory passages of over-description.  He simply knows & uses the minimal amounts of words required to ignite your imagination. I don’t know that I had consciously noticed this until now, but modern writers write too goddamn much. Blabbermouths with word-processors.  We don’t need to read a whole paragraph describing one jacket. Is it leather? Black? Motorcycle style? Got it. That’s all we fucking need. I don’t give a good goddamn if the sleeves are tattered.  Unless that’s gonna cause a problem later then skip it.  Get to the meat.  Auster is a master of this.  Auster is all meat.

What was is it that Elmore Leonard says? “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Somebody else said (i don’t remember who) that if it’s boring to write it’ll be boring to read.  Maybe that was Elmore Leonard too.

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Winter Of My Distraction

Ok.  The fourth blog entry is a little bit early for my contradictions to be parading in, but here they are.  So, sure, I swore, in my second post, that I would finish reading The Inevitable instead of putting it down for something else.  Well, I’ve made a liar out of myself…sort of.  I haven’t put it down.  I’m still reading it, but…I did pick up another book and start reading it.  I have an excuse—I mean an explanation (notice how my prides dabbles in logistics).

I’m not really reading the book alone.  I’m reading it to someone.  Yup you heard me, I’m reading a book aloud to someone.  No it’s not a bed-ridden invalid.  It’s one of my closest friends.  He is far too intelligent not to be a reader, so I’m subjecting him to a book.  But I promise that I picked an entertaining book, Winter Journal by Paul Auster.

I’m am a huge fan of Auster’s New York Trilogy and when I saw his name in my NPR phone app, I clicked on the program instantly.  The interview is with Fresh Air’s always fantastic Terry Gross.

Winter Journal is, as Auster puts it, “a catalogue of sensory data”.  Translation: the books is made up of small little pieces & memories revolving around Auster’s body.  In the first 25 pages it jumps from the near beginning of his life to the recent past and about 50 places in between.  He realistically & quite tangibly relays the panic & trauma of a car accident, when seconds before he had you laughing at a five years old’s impression of his own penis.”…how fitting that you should have a miniature fireman’s helmet emblazoned on your very person, on the very part of your body, moreover, that looks like and functions as a house.

This ability to turn the reader’s emotions on dime makes for inspiring reading, but one of the most fascinating things to me about the book is the narrative style.  It’s written in Second Person.  What the hell is that, right?  Well, don’t feel ashamed if you don’t know, most of us don’t even learn it in school.  English teachers will tell student’s about First Person and Third Person but usually skip Second Person because it’s so rare.  (The last thing I read in Second Person was a chapter in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad & before that I couldn’t even think of anything.)

To simplify, First Person narration is participating (i.e. I said this, I did that) & Third Person narration is observing (i.e. He said this, She did that), but Second Person narration is commanding (i.e. You said this, You did that).  Way to put the reader in the drivers seat, Mr. Auster!

Ok.  Class dismissed.  Go read a book to someone sexy while you both get drunk.  Maybe you’ll even get laid.

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Read or Die a Slave

I’ve touched on the strange nature of memory before (Memories Like Ghosts) but here I am about to dive into it again.

So, I’ve been reading Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and it’s safe to say that she goes on the list of women I’d sleep with if time travel were possible. (This list may or may not really exist.) But at the same time, I’ve been having trouble finding something to write about. That’s due more to my state of mind than to Didion’s writing.

Today I ran across this passage in her essay On Keeping A Notebook:

‘That’s simply not true,’ the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event. ’The party was notfor you, the spider was nota black widow, it wasn’t that way at all.’ Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.

Does it really matter that we remember events exactly as they happened?

I watched a TED talk with Deb Roy called The Birth of A Word. Roy was a cognitive scientist & MIT Researcher trying to study the birth of words & language in his new born son. (I say was because Roy is now on leave, wastefully chasing the white whale called social media analytics.) For over two years Roy installed overhead, continually recording cameras & microphones throughout his house which he & his team at MIT studied.

My first thoughts, watching this were: Doesn’t this guy jerk off?  Doesn’t he grunt when he shits?  Or dance like an ass when nobody else is home?  Don’t him & his wife argue?  He must be the nicest guy on the planet. I know that if I got into argument about what was said or what happened in the past & I lived in a house that was recording everything, the first thing I would do is pull up the footage.

But there comes an interesting point.  Say I did do just what I described.  How would I respond if I found out that I was wrong?  Most of us would do one one of two things, we would declare the evidence false (Hello, Republicans) or we would say something along the lines of “That’s not the point!”. Why?  Why is it so hard for us to drop the heat of the argument & accept the facts that lie before us?

Because communication & human interaction have little to with facts. They have to do with truth and the truth is beyond the simplicity of evidence. It’s innate within us because of the liquid state of memory. By nature our beliefs mean more to us that our histories, because our beliefs not only interpret our history but they literally re-write the records in our mind. As Ethan Hawke’s character says at the beginning to the 1998 film Great Expectations:

I’m not going to tell the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.

In reality, the past is a concept. We can’t prove that anything actually happened. The universe may have come into existence one second ago filled with false artifacts & false evidence and we in turn could be filled with false memories. But ultimately that doesn’t mean a damn thing. You could not live doubting everything that came before. You couldn’t finish a sentence is you were unsure whether you spoke the last word or just thought you did. So the past, is a possible illusion which we have all chosen to accept. The evidence we treasure is metaphysically suspect, so we must believe. We must use logic to discern what to believe & what to deny. That is why reading & learning are so important. Because the more you are exposed to, the better suited you are to making these choices. Those who chose to remain ignorant, are forced to accept someone else’s reality; someone else’s evidence. They are forced to follow blindly. Read or die a slave.

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