Wednesday, July 26, 2006

I must warn you, reader, that I am at this point of my life far more a collection of pretensions than a man of mature intellect, and though I have put off publication of my musings for many years while attempting to improve my thinking and knowledge or to find some area of life for which I might have a talent, I confess today that I have given up. There will, I fear, be no returning to the coherence and projection of force that my mind had attained for a few happy months during the annus mirabilus when I was four; nor even, it appears, of the periodic flashes of penetration or recognition of some aspect of existence that arose sporadically from that age up until I was around 26 or 27. It has been ten years now that my brain has been sinking steadily into a sludgelike cocoon with no obvious prospect of invigorating activity; and I feel compelled to summon any residue of sensibility or refinement left by my education at once as a matter of public record, that I might justify my petition--my plea--to be readmitted into some society of the Vibrant, the Attractive, the Clever, the Wise, etc. before all hope is irretrievably lost.
I must confess as well, that as my reading and displays of erudition when I was four won me the attentions of people not easily impressed, and a reputation of genius among such as are, it is not to be wondered at that I have carried those ancient habits with me wherever I have gone, even into the blind and ever darkening alley where I currently find myself. I am a great collector of books, which I store in oak cabinets with curved glass panels and skeleton keys with decanters of whiskey set on lace on top of them (my cabinets remind me of the austerity period of postwar Britain, The End of the Affair or Books do Furnish a Room, supposed to be very awful, real cold and hunger, but the stripped down, impecunious sort of real refinement that existed in it appeals to me greatly). I have actually even read most of the books I possess, though I remember few of them well, and probably could not upon oral examination show myself to understand more than a handful, in which claim I think I am not overconfident; for anyone of modest intelligence is bound to stumble across something in the arts that they understand at an intimate level if they dwell enough amongst them. My pretensions to be learned, nonetheless, constitute the primary joy of my life. If I am able to take dinner with so much as a jug of Carlo Rossi, a bag of garlic bread set on a cutting board, and some disc of Debussy or Puccini humming just below the level of discourse, I consider myself as good as on the terrace of a villa at some seaside in Greece surrounded by the best wits and beauties of my own age, and myself making one of their number. Needless to say, efforts are undertaken by those around me to avoid such opportunities for these reveries; music during meals at home has been effectively banned, as has my former habit of pulling down some Greek or 18th-century author during dessert to illustrate some idea I have presented with a usually tenuously related passage.
In foreign countries and in our own great culture-cities in North America I am a born tourist, wholly without purpose or capacity to offer anything invigorating to either the elevated or mundane life to be found in such places, when deviated from the itinerary laid out in my guidebook. Nonetheless, as with learning and the arts, the spectacle and the possibilities inherent in competently undertaken travel have taken a rather obsessive hold upon my mind. And so long as any quality of personal excellence on my part is not paramount, I am fairly adept, with inanimate objects at least, at finding or making an approximation of the atmosphere I would desire to live in if I were a more vital person, if I can be said to be adept at anything.
My greatest pretension of all however, and probably the greatest in modern Western man generally, is that of my having an artistic temperament, and, indeed, artistic pursuits. This in spite of being at the same time the type of person who is perfectly ripe, whether at 17, or 21, or 25, or 30, for being informed, and believing absolutely, that he belongs to a population of humans--perhaps the only one on the entire earth--that has no serious and legitimate culture, and whose individual members have little hope of ever attaining any. Naturally every time I was forced to concede this I determined within myself to single-handedly bring my people--Americans generally when confronted by foreigners, the white suburban middlebrow subset of it when dealing with a fellow citizen either outside or successfully escaped from that group--culture and raise them to the human status enjoyed by apparently every other polity on the planet. I was also ripe for being informed that the version of the English tongue employed by myself and others of my type for basic communication did not belong to me in a way conducive to the sort of profound cultural significance that forms the normal human relationship to language, and consequently could not really be considered for such purposes as a legitimate language. Knowing my own mind as I do, this seemed plausibly stated, especially when pronounced by such foreign-born linguists as wielded our suburban tongue like they were playing with a child's plastic blocks. Thus I resolved to bring my people a beautiful and civilized language to speak to each other with as well.
As I had neither training nor ability in painting, sculpture or music, had proven ill-suited to philosophy, was too overwhelmed by the logistics of filmmaking, and did not think the general tone of my life and mind had prepared me to undertake poetry in the manner I would like, literature, specifically in the form of the Anglo-continental novel, seemed to beckon me. Never one to resist a pretension so solidly within reach, I set to work and after 9 years wrung out an 802 page work about a twenty-six year old boy who cannot generate so much as a drop of sexual, intellectual or economic tension in the world and whose deservedly low status in the meritocracy is just suddenly crystallizing before his horrified perception, like the foolish boys in Pinocchio when they discover they are become donkeys. I am still waiting to make the impression on the influential cultural figure who will bring this work to the notice of the general public. And of course, my pretension being so powerful as it is, so much more than truth, I could not stop at this, but continue to gather materials for a second book, an ironic sort of story about a dreary married bourgeois who materially and aesthetically already has more or the less the life he wants, except that he has a meaningless job, of course, and that he is unable to find any satisfaction because his wasted youth and his limited intellect are appalling and repulsive to him. The working title of this book is "Bourgeois Surrender", though at the moment it is almost entirely formless, I being generally an organic sort of writer rather than one who is conscious of an actual point to make. I know this gives scientific and other hardheaded types a low opinion of literature and its practitioners generally, and I can only say that I envy them the high contentment their minds and worldviews are able to afford them, vis-a-vis their fellow men at least, but as I have not the scientific background to derive enough satisfaction from its truths to swear off literature's forever, it appears I will have to stick to the latter's inferior ones, apparently increasingly alone, for the remainder of this life at least.
Of course while I was immersed, Causabon-like, in straining to produce the definitive artistic summation of my age, sweeping technological and geopolitical changes were rendering me and most others attempting to drag forth new works in forms that would have been recognizable in the 1940s even more miniscule, obsolete and ridiculous than we had already been. However, my despair at these developments is of a somehwat more phlegmatic nature than what I would have expected. I have never lived in a time or a place, except for the city-block size college I attended (at which I was able to attend at few serious conversations and sexually charged encounters except as a spectator anyway) , where literature--as well as art, music, philosophy, history, those desire-arousing, breast-swelling sirenlike words held the great primacy in men's thoughts they are supposed to have had formerly in more numerous and more important coteries of society, so the threat of finding the world ever more unsympathetic to my tastes and unappreciative of my particular expertise, while not encouraging, does not forbode a drastic change in my social circumstances The possible disappearance of the kinds of books I enjoy holding in my hands as sensual surrogates for the bohemian girls and Mediterranean journeys I lacked the manly vigor to have--as is already happening in the case of encyclopedias and other large sets like the Oxford National Biography--elicits a sigh, though to my mind the sensual qualities of reference books, like the bodies of female pop singers, have diminished considerably as the forms have gradually attained perfection. The difference between a grainy black and white photo of a Grecian urn in a dingy 1950s museum case is to a digital version of the restored and brightly lit same approximately as Doris Day is to Shakira. The romance and subtle charms of imperfect understanding and presentation have been corrected and expunged, leaving nothing for the amateur but a passive and not particularly interested awe at what he can add nothing to himself. What I crave, in short, is a sort of intellectual camaraderie, but such camaderie is not possible in a world where every man in every endeavor has to be an expert and final authority or be excluded from the conversation altogether. But I suppose it has always been thus. The attempted expansion of the great achievements of humanity into the middlebrow consciousness in the postwar period was obviously an ill-conceived and absurd idea that can only lead to pretentiousness and a cheapening of genius for those to whom it is a proper area of study.
The determination to begin a blog, which I have nourished now for several years, received the decisive nudge recently as I have been reading the old Spectator, which is really a sort of proto-blog itself, and which as it ran for about 21 months and was discontinued, eases my mind on the idea that it is something I should have to keep up for an untold period of years. My intention is to address matters relating to culture, tourism, education, literature, and the general interests of the middlebrow that are not adequately discoursed upon elsewhere. As I have not the bloodlust nor the righteousness for political argument that afflicts so many people to such a great extent in these times I will follow the example of the Spectator (the product itself of a time of rabid political animosities) and abstain from long discourses on events and refutations of others' ideology such as can be found pretty much everywhere else, unless it naturally insinuates itself into some more important subject. I say this only because politics as an intellectual topic appears to bring out the best in very few people, especially imaginative writers (and if one thinks this is because of the mediocre talents of modern authors, I would refer him, as a start, to the career of Milton). Writing well on the subject, let alone in a truthful, illuminating manner, seems to be an extremely rare talent. It involves, it appears to me, understanding what people want and why they want it, as well as what is actually taking place and why, and having the ability to cast a judgement on all of these and make some objective determination as to what the reality of the situation might require, which latter categories call for the mind of the philosopher. But for my part, though my training was in philosophy I was a dismal philosopher, the cult of genius holding me too much in awe to take any violent offense at a famous book. Mill, Rousseau, Marx, Freud: all seemed amiable and clever enough to me on the page, and I was grateful to them for having written celebrated books and given me some idea to be wistful upon, with no idea or care as to their possibly being wrong, which I had entirely failed to grasp might be the most important thing, as no one had informed me that it was. My political sensibility I am afraid is even more crudely developed than this. I only want the system in which I will have, and appear to have, the greatest status and field of attractive activity, while knowing that at my level of society and with my personality, the system probably has less effect on me than just about anyone else in the country, because I do not do anything.
I would love nothing more than to devote my blog to settling disputations and writing disquisitions on points of Greek and Latin grammar and literature, but unfotunately I never succeeded in learning those languages either.