Tuesday, August 29, 2006

So I have returned from the writing conference. Actually I was at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. Can you believe it? This overt confession may land my blog on someone's search, and attract a curious viewer or two to the site, but we writers must take risks, mustn't we? Since the conference is still pretty fresh in my mind I will file a report on it, maybe a little series if I get any momentum going. Don't worry, I am not going to recount the program of lectures and readings. I know that is not what my audience is interested in.

From the literary point of view, first of all I have no problem saying that the quality of the fiction writing--which was my area of concentration--among the samples I read was actually quite good, though most people, myself doubtless included, tended to lack any kind of artistic swagger. This may not be essential to good writing, but it would help to create more of an aura, an urgent sense of an intellectual atmosphere, even if a bit contrived, that the old Europeans were so adept at creating. Not to mention that the women eat that kind of thing up. But I am getting ahead of myself. The writers there seem generally to be looking to succeed within the existing system: getting a few stories published in small magazines (short story writers seem to outnumber novelists at this place), possibly finding an agent, putting out a slim, tightly written, narrowly focused novel or two, I suppose finding a sinecure. Would I not like to do this myself? Well, it is preferable to the job I have now certainly, and at least at writers' conferences I would have something resembling status among the amateurs, assuming Thomas Pynchon or Solzenheitsen or somebody didn't decide to show up, but in our culture this kind of adhering to the system doesn't really seem to work as far as producing vital and historically important literature goes, and ultimately, pretentious as it sounds, that is what I spend most of my time thinking (worrying?) about. Of course, limits and parameters with regard to form have been always been imposed upon authors, particularly in poetry and the drama, and of course to content in totalitarian nations in all genres, and great and beautiful works have emerged nonetheless, so if market or cultural forces dictate that writers must write 200 page novels and 10 page short stories to have a prayer of getting published, then a man of real genius ought to be able to see his way all around that form and out the other side and making something exquisite of it, no? Perhaps it is this that bothers me, that compromises are only applicable to those without talent, or will, that the visionary will always see his way through whatever he is given...

But actually all this angst aside there are a number of quite charming and enjoyable things about this conference that I will try to remark upon in my next posting...

Saturday, August 19, 2006

For everybody who has been wondering where I am, I doing that ne plus ultra bourgeois activity, attending a writing conference. I will write more about this when I get home (tomorrow).

I had wanted to tell a story before I left home that had made me have some faith in the world, as so much of this site and apparently my other writing is mired in negativity and despair. Like many people I often do searches on the Internet for old schoolmates and other people I once knew who interested me, many of whom I never spoke to. I did such a search a few days before leaving home on a girl who had gone to my college, the sort of girl who when one was in high school he imagines he is going to meet everywhere when he gets to college, only to find upon arriving there that she is neither so common as expected, nor is he good enough to meet her and probably never will be. She was not the sort of babe that is unattainable by design, who enjoys having a lot of men groveling about her and competing for a thing they are never going to get. She was lustrously blonde, intelligent, mature, voluptuous enough to overwhelm the thoughts most men at age 18 or 20 would have upon approaching her. She would not have necessarily have won a swimsuit contest, but one would very much have liked to see her in a swimsuit, which one never did. She was terribly dissatisfied, as far as I could tell, with almost the entire life of our school: the curriculum, the faculty, the attitudes and beliefs, and of course, almost none of the boys, if any at all, held any interest for her. Some people speculated that she was a frustrated undeclared lesbian and so forth but I do believe there are some people (though I am not of them) whose dissatisfactions are not entirely related to sexuality. Nontheless she made one feel one's inadequacy immediately upon entering her presence, usually by refusing to acknowledge or engage him in the slightest. Despite all this she stayed four years and graduated.

Now recently our college sent to the alumni a new promotional DVD in which, contrary to the attitude of the previous 60 years, the professional and financial successes of alumni was given a huge emphasis, which is an enormous change even in the fifteen years since I was a student. Every graduate of the college featured had a high-paying and prestigious job. My problem with this is that there is no balance even to give honor to the life of the mind if it is accompanied by modest renumeration. No priests or seminarians (we must have one of the highest percentages in the country among specifically non-religious colleges at producing men of the cloth); no teachers or professors, though for generations the college has been dependent for its very existence on the outstanding quality of its faculty, none of whom are rich people (unless by marriage or inheritance) but many of whom have had such learning and understanding that they remained models of how to live and organize one's mind to students throughout life, though those students may have far surpassed them in income. No parents of children using the wisdom of their education to contibute to society that way of course, or aid workers, or forest rangers, or soldiers (again we must be certainly overrepresented in the military compared with other liberal arts colleges of our type) or people leading otherwise interesting but impecunious lives in every corner of the globe. All these groups just named are probably more representative of the alumni base than film directors, advertising executives, Wall Street moguls and lawyers depicted in the new propoganda, with the exception of the lawyers; the legal profession has become such a fallback for so many of my old schoolmates who seem to go into it more out of status desperation than an innate love of justice or grappling with the foundations of society that one has to question whether the college is succeeding in its presumed mission any longer. I seriously doubt that the founders of the program would be pleased to see it degenerating into a training ground for comfort-seeking lawyers, which must be the destination of 20-25% of graduates in the classes of my period.

Which brings us back to our subject. This lady I was speaking of is now in early early 30s, and is employed in a school in a very poor ex-Soviet country. She almost cetainly does not make more than $10,000 a year (I have worked in a similiar type of place in a considerably less poor ex-Communist country, and know that one does not do such a thing for the money). She appears from her writings on the school's web site, to be happy, to be among people she respects and to feel a purpose in her life. Halleluja! I am sad that she could not find such peace in America or among us; but I know that when I was abroad for a long time I was very sad at the prospect of coming back, that the interesting people and situations one encounters almost habitually as an American staying for an extended period in a foreign country, especially a poorer one, would not replicate themselves at home, that many of the qualities that gave me interest and importance when abroad would dissipate. I do not know if this is in what her happiness lies; I suspect not. She could have gone the lawyer or Phd route quite easily enough, used this to continue to hold herself aloof from people, and still been unhappy. Indeed I had expected it of her. I am proud of her and happy for the sake of our school and the advocacy of education for its own sake that she did not. The world is better for it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

They sure don't write poems like this anymore:

"Design, or chance, makes others wive;
But nature did this chance contrive;
Eve might as well have Adam fled,
As she denied her little bed
To him, for whom heaven seemed to frame,
And measure out, this only dame."
--Waller, Of the Marriage of the Dwarfs

Or this, one of my favorite couplets of all time, from an author whose name I forget commenting on the popular new wood of the early 1700s:

"Odious! Upon a walnut plank to dine?
No! The red-veined mahoggany (sic) be mine!"

Here is a good one regarding the jollities to be had in a good dining club:

"He that of honour, wit, and mirth partakes,
May be a fit companion o'er beef steaks.
His name may be to future times enrolled
In Estcourt's book, whose gridiron's made of gold."

Estcourt was a well-known actor, and apparently the leader and provider of festive dinner parties.

One thing I like about the 18th century is that even disfiguring and possibly fatal diseases could be called into the service of light verse. Our modern ladies probably will not care much for this snippet of Goldsmith, from a poem called The Double Transformation, in which a haughty beauty learns to behave modestly after an attack of smallpox ravages her complexion:

"No more presuming on her sway,
She learns good nature every day:
Serenely gay, and strict in duty,
Jack finds his wife--a perfect beauty."

My wife, who has excellent taste and a more modern sensibility than I do, such that she need not fear to encounter even the best of the modernists (or even the postmodernists) as equal intellectual creatures, does not share my amusement at this kind of writing, and has judged the specimens here in varying degrees from silly to insulting, taking especial offense at the poem about the dwarves, which at the first reading I laughed out loud. This inclination to be humorous however I have always taken to be the single distinguishing factor of English language literature, including most of what is best in our American literature, where we are often led astray into seeking grander themes and demons than perhaps naturally present themselves to the sorts of minds our educated classes at least have developed. One must be able to fit whatever language he possesses to his real ideas, and his real perceptions, as precisely as possible, to contribute anything to literary culture. But without a well-developed sense of poetry in one's own language, (at the very least) and of the peculiar characteristics and powers (such as humor) which one's language has developed to broach and clarify more difficult and refined ideas over many centuries, there is no possibility of communication, either serious or pleasant, between man and man, or author and reader.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

I have to keep working to get the knack of this blogwriting, so today will be another sort of practice run (nobody is visiting my site yet anyway so I have this luxury).

Like would-be cosmopolitans stuck in the provinces have since the development of popular magazines and newspapers (and a provincial petit bourgeois) around 1700 or so, I still maintain a Sunday subscription to the New York Times even though the Internet makes this wholly unnecessary, besides the circumstance that most of the articles in this paper that I read--those being the arts/lifestyle type pieces--have run in recent years into a particularly unappetizing combination of the smug, the ridiculous and the exasperating/maddening depending upon the individual quality of one's choler. The purpose of these parts of the paper, I understand, are to provide amusement and validation for those connected to the vital life of the city, and to arouse jealousy and longing in the hearts of the hapless provincials. However matters seem to have reached the point where the only cause for jealousy emanating from the Manhattan elite and intelligentsia, at least as reported by the paper, is their extravagant wealth. I want to read about people who I can be confident are reading much smarter books than I am, engaging regularly in wittier conversations, having more interesting, art-inflected sex, are capable of generating the joie de vivre sort of fun the lack of which traditionally makes bourgeois life so culturally deadly. For this however, one apparently has to time-travel now.

One of the more annoying (to me) recent pieces in the Times was a feature on some lawyer's mansion outside of town, with an especially aroused effusion about his 9,000 bottle wine cellar, which last was what set me reaching for my revolver. I am not opposed to this excess as a blanket principle. If Louis XV, or the Great Gatsby, or Puffy Combs, or somebody who might be expected to host spectacular social events on a regular basis needs to maintain such a cellar, I can see where such a thing might be reasonable. But a guy who drinks two glasses by himself a couple of times a week and clearly exults in showing off his collection to the press and his peers, must forever miss the point, and somebody must step forward and point these things out. I am not a renowned connoisseur of the grape, and I have not been blessed with the type of sensitive palate that is apparently the culinary equivalent of a 160 IQ or a 99mph fastball, but I understand that the contents of a wine bottle are like enough to those of a book, that both are of little service to a man or a company resting unimbibed on a shelf. Such subtle insights as this of course have no place in the demonstrations of worldly prowess--primarily financial--that we are supposed to understand as constituting some kind of refined wine culture today.

Look at how long I have gone on already, and I've got so many more irritating topics to go(!) How about the story that appeared last Sunday about the persons of culture employed at the modern art museum to assist those who are not too perceptive where modern art--and by extension one must assume all art, by my thinking--is concerned. You know the type of philistines we are talking about, the ones who look at the masterpiece of a great modern genius and see a scribble that a child could have done and so forth. The general skepticism of the ability of the vulgar public to progress very far in their understanding of this work that is central to the advanced mental life of our times that is expressed by the tutors raises some questions about the sincerity of this effort, which strikes me as more an attempt to reinforce an aura of esoteric intimidation in the minds of the audience rather than a good-natured gesture of education. These are, after all, the same people who are wont to taunt museumgoers who seek out Brueghels and Rubenses as recoiling from the confrontation and challenge represented by crayon scribbles. I know these arguments have been raised for decades with no apparent effect on the most influential high culture brokers in society, but I still subscribe to the maxim of--I believe Aristotle--that the highest artistic genius consists in making that which is difficult to comprehend simple. Or if not simple, then at least in presenting something in such a way as alerts a reasonably endowed mind to some elevated possibility or idea that it likely would not have been able to form so cohesively on its own. Or as Addison, a reasonable and cultivated man, if out of fashion today, puts it in the 315th Spectator of March 1, 1712

"In a Word, besides the hidden Meaning of an Epic Allegory, the plain literal Sense ought to appear probable. The Story should be such as an ordinary Reader may acquiesce in, whatever natural, moral or political Truth may be discovered in it by Men of Greater Penetration."

An excellent example of this type of genius in modern (Post-1900) literature, which has tended to be overwhelmed by demonstrations of the author's superior intellect and cleverness, is to be found in the works of Franz Kafka. While the literal sense may not appear probable, the stories are told with such a beauty and authority of having been in some significant manner experienced that they appear, when read, almost obvious, and one's impression of reality itself impossible without them. I may elaborate at greater length on these ideas in future and less harried posts.

I will have to continue my dissatisfactions with the New York Times at a later date also.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

As you can see, I have not yet attained comfort within the form of the "blog". I had envisioned this working as a sort of series of essays but even a short essay seems to be too long for the form. Besides the "Game of Art" there was to be in the original set of essays a piece on literary tourism, something about the phenomenom (at least with me) on not discovering any favorite films after the age of 27 or so, as opposed to books and music and art, in which I still discover new favorites occasionally, something on the cult of Picasso among a certain type of educated American, something on why Salinger remains a popular author in 2006 (I didn't think it was because kids today love/identify with Holden Caulfield), something on the devolution of baseball into just another obnoxious/pushy parent sport, periodic essays on particular works of art, as well as a series called "Diary of a Born Tourist" in which I rehash the various degrees of failure I have experienced in tourist destinations, especially the great hero-cities and iconic spots of our culture. I had also planned after establishing my persona to write a series of critiques of my education and my school, which I thought might be of interest to any general readers who may, like me, have become discouraged regarding these matters in recent years and allowed themselves to think in dark moments that any schooling that does not elevate one to the level of PhD studies under the personal tutelage of a Nobel-level mentor is effectively a waste of time anymore.

However, I have found that the form of the blog requires more brevity and spontaneity than these topics, as I had foreseen addressing them, allow for. Also as the title of my blog implies, I have allowed myself to become caught in a life that allows very little time for writing of any kind, none of it without distractions, except for a few days around midnight, at which time I have already been awake for 15 hours, and am reduced to writing more in desperation than inspiration. I know respectable manhood, and that includes all those areas of life I longed to take part in but never was able to do, do not tolerate whining, and I have tried to bear up and acknowledge my failures and inferior qualities and improve myself to some tolerable condition. But the fact remains that I only grow ever more desperate and lost, my intellectual capacities, once reasonable, appear to be deteriorating at a truly alarming rate, my artistic sensibilities have deserted me entirely, and every day I lose more and more contact with the world of the educated, articulate and capable, and am more and more enveloped within the horrifying "prole drift" (Fussell) the tide of which is decidedly biting at the heels of those of us who were formerly middle class but were unable to keep up with the demands of history. And yes, it is my fault, entirely my own fault, but good God, I never thought it would come to this.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Game of Art Part 3

The general Dutch masters, the De Hooch, kitchen garden type painters, must come next. Their very origins after all were in the service of the bourgeois and the markets, and to the general museum-going public they represent ubiquity, the avoidance of controversial themes or techniques, comfort, such technical virtuosities as can be pointed out and enjoyed with satisfying ease. In our times they are able to inspire novels sold in airports and Wal-Marts about the imagined lives of their obstensible subjects, a status formerly restricted to the Impressionists. Rubens and Brueghel, as well as the more exquisite aspects of Vermeer must rate a little higher. Among their more interested general fans we are approaching the realm of the semi-educated here. While associated among the masses primarily as an aficiondo of fat women, one who is willing to examine a few pictures will know that Rubens tackled grand subjects in a grand manner, and even smaller ones with an eye and boldness that distinguishes him from the more mannered craftsmen of his age. The Chapeau de Paille, such a favorite of Anthony Powell's that I felt compelled to go look at it the last time I was in London (a long time ago), is one of those paintings for me that is so entirely different when one sees it in person as to constitute a transformative experience. Not such as makes one an artistic spirit or interesting at cocktail parties, alas, but which nonetheless becomes imprinted on the mind as a permanent part of one's experience of life. Some other artistic works which have made this impression on me: The Birth of Venus, which I had thought of as a cliche almost but which is truly spectacular to see in person; the Florence Duomo when it appears before you; Villon's Ballade des Dames de Temps Jadis, the most perfect short poem ever written;Blake's Jerusalem; the Gymnopaedie of Satie; one of Debussy's impressionist pieces, I can't remember the name. These are what immediately come to mind. Novels and long books are in a different category because their impression is not so immediate.
Brueghel has managed at least to inspire poems by the likes of Auden, as well as William Carlos Williams, who must outrank Tracy Chevalier in the annals of literary admirers.
I don't have the slightest idea where Rembrandt fits in. As a youth my main experience of him was as the comparative figure most referred to when some serious person was trying to get across to the mass American public how inferior Norman Rockwell and Andrew Wyeth were, though in recent years Picasso seems to have been tapped to fill this role. This makes good sense in that museumgoers seek out Picasso as often as they do Rembrandt without displaying much genuine enthusiasm for either's work that I can see. These two seem to be the Milton and Beckett of the art world (which would make Rockwell and Wyeth approximately J.D. Salinger and Sylvia Plath?).
The Renaissance masters--Da Vinci, Michaelangelo, Raphael--though obvious, generally require a trip to Europe to see them and revel in the ecstasy their work can produce in aesthetically constricted and frustrated Americans, which, while not the barrier it once was, still carries some clout in the Game. Caravaggio ranks higher because most Impressionist fans can't distinguish between him and Corregio, and a surprising number of committed snobs remain devoted to him as if he were still their own secret, oblivious that the word of his status has gotten out in force among the middling-bourgeois in recent years.
We're getting there.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Game of Art Part 2

In the current climate, however, I take Van Gogh, of all the artists widely accepted as Great, to be at the bottom of the scale for one attempting to dissociate himself from a middlebrow persona to adopt as an object of passion. On the one hand of course there is nothing more ridiculous than this man with his squalid, wretched, turbulent visions of life being an icon to the comfortable, overfed, risk-averse, unimpulsive and passionless mass of humanity that constitute the classic art fan base in modern America. On the other he is pathetic and cowardly in a peculiarly bourgeois way that is rarely associated with Great artists, whom we are accustomed to thinking of as berating and domineering over their hapless assistants, bedding teenagers and the wives of their lesser associates well into their eighties, continually bursting with fresh ideas and lacerating opinions, on occasion perhaps getting upset and killing someone in an argument (though this is primarily left to rappers now, the list of poets/artists/murderers in Western cultural history up to around 1700 is decidedly impressive. Caravaggio, Villon, B. Jonson, I think perhaps Malory just for starters). With Van Gogh all this baggage of additional superiority is blessedly absent, and the torment and sense of beauty as something achingly unattainable to sensitive human beings that activate his paintings and largely constitute the modern soul speak to democratic, secular man, however hazy the message is received in terms of articulate ideas.

I have noticed that the PBS-ur-middlebrow travel guru Rick Steves devotes several segments of his programs to Van Gogh-related sites museums in Arles and in the Netherlands in which he discusses with much exuberance the visible fury of the master's brushstrokes in his nature paintings, the melancholy symbolism of the lonely bedrooms and cafes, and so forth. This is not to say I dislike him, or his audience, of which I make at a certain level a part. Steves, if he possesses any snobbery, directs it upwards to the sort of people who shudder at the idea of the middlebrow masses attempting to tackle art, and not always from a position of pure ignorant bliss. He had training, apparently somewhat serious, as a musician in his youth, and I have often found musically trained people to have a better understanding than most that art, travel, mathematics, religion, etc are supposed to enrich people's lives, by generally enabling them to be more vividly, dynamically, virtuously, wisely and hopefully pleasurably lived, however intellectually inferior one may be to the best critic or how dark human nature is revealed to be. Any true work of art, however grim its subject, cannot succeed, or earn the name of art if it does not in its own form and execution demonstrate an opposing nobility and assertion of the possibility of grandeur, redemption, beauty in human life. Of course one must have confidence that his intellect, or, to use a quaint term, his soul, renders his life capable of being enriched in a meaningful way. I fear that many modern practitioners of the arts lack this confidence, and that this is why they appear to be in decline. They deny us the catharsis that our essential unpleasantness as humans requires us to undergo to attain all of the nobler qualities. The sciences and other rational areas of study have this effect of confidence on the intellect, and so it is to them we increasing look to enrichment. However taken by themselves they seem to have the effect of allowing a narrower range of acceptable activity for enrichment than I find in those who have studied music, or some genuinely thorough and rigorous humanities education, which if it is to be found I still consider on these grounds alone to be an excellent recommendation for it. But I have strayed from my topic.

Coming up in Part III. The Dutch Masters

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Game of Art Part I

The last time I entered an art museum, sweaty in short sleeves and hunched over a baby stroller, the distracted, no longer young man emitting the air of a person not at peace with himself who was working the front desk took one look at me, handed me a brochure and an audio recording and said "Rembrandts to the left, Impressionists to the right. We close in half an hour". Perhaps if I had been a few years younger I would have protested that in fact I had just come in, having waited even for my little boy to fall asleep and all, to take a quick perusal of the Fragonards and Watteux of which I was pretty certain this museum (it was the National Gallery in Washington) had several particularly famed examples. However I forewent responding to this challenge, and declined as well to attempt to inflame the atmosphere with any of that danger and intensity of an antagonistic personality such as serious art appreciators are supposed to crave above all else, and dutifully went to wander through the Impressionist rooms as was expected of me. Naturally within ten minutes I was as unthinkingly soothed and comforted as the director of the gift shop could have expected me to be, with only an occasional passing flurry before my mood that to be soothed and comforted so breezily without the electricity an encounter between a pair of superior minds could be expected to generate was to be missing the greater purpose behind the production of such work. Badly.

After this I became interested in the hierarchical designations which certain artists represent to the general museum-going public, as that is no doubt a large part of the pleasure of the experience. The range of my examinations of this game extends from that part of the middle class which has a certain pride in being humanistically educated but for whom doing anything that one might think typical of a humanistically educated person (such as being attentive to rules of grammar, or studying) appears singularly uninstinctive, to that portion that has actually attained a highly refined aesthetic life, without quite having taken on a truly artistic one. True artists of course have their own exquisite games, being marked however by the highly individual personality and taste of such people, which are virtually impossible for those who are not of their number to get at well enough to explain. But as several astute commentators have pointed out, there are enough quasi-hip and attractive singles hanging around the cafes and string quartet performances at the MoMa to make the effort to become a reasonably well-informed aesthete not entirely a waste of time.

The Impressionists, I believe, are generally the first painters other than Norman Rockwell and famous children's book illustrators with which the earnest, perpetually nonplussed type of American bourgeois inquisitive about culture engages with some enthusiasm. The common explanation for this is that compared with almost everything else in the European tradition, the Impressionists do not require much in the way of either education or knowledge of the world to feel that they are kind of sexy and that one has gotten somewhere with them right away. As those of us who enjoyed limited sensual affection in our adolescence and early manhood are forever loyal to those couple of pretty girls who allowed us to touch them whatever dreadful things the world may say about them, Americans of a certain kind are loyal to the Impressionists, as anyone who has attended a Manet exhibition or attempted to tour the grounds of Giverny can certainly attest. All this popularity, needless to say, cannot but make the truly sophisticated wary, to the point that even purchasing an original Degas for millions of dollars invites a certain condescension in serious art circles, such expense often being explained away as the flailing about of new money in a milieu which it is only interested in and can only understand upon its own terms of investment and dollar value. In all of this of course it is not so much that the painters themselves whom one wishes to degrade and distance oneself from, but the grossly voluptuous, substantially empty wine and madeleine-misted Francophilia that they have a tendency to inspire. I myself used to be convinced that if I could ever become fluent in speaking the French or any other major cultural language I would impress sophisticated people and beautiful women and that my life would change, and it is still one of the disappointments of my life that I was never able to do this. It is however typical of the half-developed ridiculousness of mind that creates a market for Vincent Van Gogh playing cards, and which actually brings a certain happiness to the purchaser of said cards upon seeing them in his desk drawers nearly ten years after his purchase.