Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Game of Art, Part 5

At the next level of the game we get to the high moderns, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, perhaps Chagall. These painters have the status of being names widely known to the more conscientious end of the general museum-going and Europe-touring public though how accessible their actual art is to the intellects and sensibilities of the same is even more widely thought than usual by the experts to be open to conjecture. It is not uncommon to overhear people express excitement upon reading that a certain church they are going to see has a Chagall window or a museum a substantial Picasso collection, though in many instances the works inspiring these effusions would appear to be among the least of the artistic attractions at these sites. I cannot disparage them however, for with the exception of Chagall, whose horses and circuses rather annoy me, I become excited myself at the prospect of intimacy with the aura of this generation of painters. Not, I am afraid, for the works themselves (we are well past that part of the Game for me), but because I anticipate that I will find a crowd that is by my standards very good-looking, affluent and elegantly dressed, excellent hors-d'oeuvres wrapped in grape leaves, and perhaps even port, wherever these works, or a strong association with these artists are to be encountered.

Whatever their youthful struggles may have been, I think most people associate the high modernists, and certainly those who catapulted them to undying fame, with a very desirable mode of living, in many ways a sort of bourgeois heaven. Prime ocean view real estate on the Riviera before the masses (or was it the Americans?) ruined it. Your mistress and your second mistress (your wife being conveniently back in Paris)--both beyond gorgeous and intellectually beyond any humanities grad student currently living--grappling and pulling each other's hair in contest for your affection on the carpet at your feet. The apartment on the Quai--I forget what Quai exactly, but you know what I mean. Dissipation and free love with the Bohemian crowd in the same (maybe this is only my heaven). Food and drink of excellent quality at all times, taken among scenes and with beautiful people who can appreciate it. Lovemaking of a titanic quality. And, of course, there is still something tantalizing about Art tangibly embodied in persons, or environments, or scenes, and the modernists were very gifted at presenting this image in every aspect of their lives.

The peculiarly insidious strand of professionalism that has infected the collective psyche of the western world over the last twenty years, combined with the apparent decline of humanistic education, appears to have killed off this very attractive spirit, which has not gone unmissed. Many professionals, including some at a very great level of wealth, amuse themselves by attempting to re-create such lively and satisfying scenes as the lives of the Artists were thought to have consisted of, mainly through gourmet dinners, stylish furnishings, select and attractive company, expensive pictures and other objets. Perhaps they are even well-satisfied with their efforts; the accounts one reads in the papers indicates that they are, though evidences of deep learning, artistic achievement or sensibility, or wit are always in scant supply in them in comparison with those of professional and material success. These latter have come almost to be accepted as surrogates for any other type of quality, at least in the realm of culture, that a person wishes to be possessed of. This is why the French protest so vehemently when 55-year old American millionaires decide to set themselves up as gourmets and wine connoiseurs. These are qualities of one's mind, of one's entire approach to and outlook on life, that must be lived and immersed in and thought upon from early youth. One may acquire a taste, or study the matter as a hobby later in life, of course, one may even become a patron and a very respected and knowledgeable one relatively, but one cannot become the thing itself, however much money one spends, and it is ridiculous to imagine otherwise. This is an attitude, I know, that Americans find obnoxious, and maybe money and the willpower that accompanies it is too strong to brook protest on the matter, but I think there is something in it, which the whole cult and culture of Art especially seems to bear out.

I wanted to do a bit on the Cult of Picasso among a sizable part of the elite college/business crowd in the U.S. which has always struck me as rather odd, but I think I will publish that in a bonus supplement.
Another Johnson Interlude

An interesting contrast to the authors discussed in the last post, here is a very brief assessment (in a footnote nonetheless) of Johnson's romantic character:

"Let not my readers smile to think of Johnson's being a candidate for female favour; Mr Peter Garrick assured me, that he was told by a lady, that in her opinion Johnson was 'a very seducing man.' Disadvantages of person and manner may be forgotten, where intellectual discourse is communicated to a sensible mind..."

He goes on to relate some tidbits regarding Johnson's proclivities for a couple of ladies, the perhaps overly pious Hill Boothby, for the notice of whom he engaged in an unfriendly rivalry with George, Lord Lyttleton (the Poetaster), and the delightful Miss Molly Aston, all rather moving and at the same time ludicrous in its own way as all romantic attachments I suppose are.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

White Male Novelists--Having Macho Sex?

For those who missed it, the NY Times Book Review did a piece last Sunday on the memoirs of one Alice Denham, with whose name I had been previously unfamiliar. Ms Denham, accompanied with a 1962 photo of her handsome self in a negligee with a open-lipped, closed teeth come-hither sort of expression is mainly noteworthy, it appears, for having been very hot and having slept with a lot of literary figures in the 50s and 60s, nearly all, as far as I can tell, white American males (though I am not certain about Anatole Broyard). This last fact was made an especially big deal of by the reviewer (Stacey D'Erasmo--don't know her) as if the very idea of straight white American male writers being taken seriously or as artists, toughs, arrogant egomaniacs, desirable sexual partners or anything slightly dangerous in general were too ludicrous to conceive of. The opening sentence of the review is "Ah, for the days when the Big White Guy Writers roamed the streets of Manhattan, swooping down on comely maidens in the Cedar Tavern and carrying them off to their lairs for a bit of ravishing in between reciting lines from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Why not? It sounds like a far more enjoyable way to pass an evening than anything likely to happen there now. But in a world where even prominent and sexy authors such as Mr D.F. Wallace denigrate writers of these earlier times on the basis that his "female friends" find them revolting, it would almost be in bad taste for a wafflng, confused, half-educated gentleman to demur from the judgement of a strong, intelligent, well-educated woman, as ones suspects Ms. S D'Erasmo must be. However I am going to follow my instinct and do so for the sake of practice.

The immediate impression that is made however is that a certain class of male author has lost a serious amount of esteem over the past 25 or so years with its particular female type, which has the adverse effect of further lowering its status among society in general. To put it another way: athletes, fraternity studs, cocky businessmen, doctors, Australian adventurers, etc, besides acting in ways desirable to many women, maintain a standard of quality and an expectation that association with them must quickly come to a crisis of sexual decision that women submit to in a proportion of numbers highly favorable to the limited number of males in these positions. Many male writers, apparently, have surrendered any such expectations or demands, which, if the desire to be such a bastard is not quenched with it, is going to result in some very pitiful and lifeless art regardless of medium. This is not the same as repression or frustration, and it is certainly not an indifference to sexual matters but an acquiescence in one's own sexual irrelevance, a voluntary castration, in exchange for...what in exchange for actually? Comfort? The hollow title of Writer, stripped of all its power? Where men become thus etiolated that they cannot assume any privilege for themselves in their dealings with women their work will be stillborn regardless of the endeavor. I cringe to say it myself, lest some pretty lady writer get infuriated and unleash her condemnation on me; but I have deferred to the lady writers for too long and only received contempt from them anyway. There is no future, I am afraid, in playing pleasantly.

I am not actually a particular fan of most of the writers named in the article, though I have always retained a soft spot for Goodbye, Columbus. (Phil Roth, by the way, was rated "on fire" as a lover. I bet he was!) I certainly could done without knowing that James Jones had an abnormally small penis (what does that mean anyway? Length? Circumference? Mass? The girl really regrets taking you on?). Like most modern writers, myself included, they probably thought and wrote about sex too much. Indeed, they probably had sex too much, and certainly invested it with too much intellectualized egoism to be healthy for clear-headed artistic work. This attitude has got much of literature on the whole into a bind which it seems not to know its way out of anymore. Everything is reduced to a question of the author's personal sexual success, or more often his failure, and everything else in the world must answer to this single struggle.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Literary Interlude

For about the past month I have reading Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, as may have been discerned by several references on this blog. I am generally only able at this time to read 25-30 pages of literature a day due to my young children, the constraints of paid employment and so forth though to be honest I do not mind going at a leisurely pace through such books. I have been wanting to read this book, and to have read it, for many years, especially since I read some of Johnson's own work and visited his birthplace at Lichfield, but I waited for its turn to come up on my list. I intend to write a couple of long and indulgent essays with regard to my thoughts about these men and books later on, but being now a little more than halfway through I wanted to put down some impressions I have had.

Before the age of 17 or so I had no real sense of what made a book Great or not great, though I was interested in the idea that certain books were supposed to be better than others, and sought them out. Still, I primarily judged them by how amusing I found them. For about 10 years starting around age 17 I became more receptive to the qualities of a Classic and I was frequently, for the lack of a better expression, deeply impressed by many masterpieces I came across in this time. Since turning 30, however, I have found much abatement in the intensity of these experiences. I believe that in part this has to do with the anticipation I have for Classics now. When I read Plato or War and Peace as a 20 or 23 year old I had no expectations of what I was going to get. I knew nothing substantial about either the authors, or the contents or nature of the books. I had done enough reading however, and was at a receptive enough age that I was conscious of my understanding of the possibilities of life, of language, of morality, of virtue, constantly expanding and improving. I had the good fortune to encounter very many excellent works before this sense of expansion and improvement began to be exhausted.

I was 34 when I finally got around to tackling Remembrance of Things Past. We had translated the first couple of pages of Swann's Way in my college French class, when I had been very innocent even of mainstream canonical literature and susceptible to its impressions, and I was anticipating an elevating experience of the first order. And indeed I did get one; only, to my mind, confined to particular episodes and isolated images. As I read further and further into it I thought the book repeated itself too much and could have easily lost 500-1000 of its 3000 pages without regret. It is still a superior book, full of brilliant dialogue and many unforgettable scenes and images that I will carry with me forever. The hotel and beach at Balbec, the conversation of St-Loup and Monsieur de Charlus, the sight of the airplane over the bluff where they have taken an outing, the earnest digression over whether the fashions people wear to go motoring will improve--these are all wonderful delights for people like me who to a certain extent live to find life portrayed in such terms. Yet I could not help throughout having a nagging sense that I had missed the great point, the real brilliance of the whole. The parts about the book I found to be enjoyable were nothing that would excite a real philosopher or intellectual much, and yet such people have been excited by the book. I understood it as an attempt to transform actual human experience, through the ostensible vehicle of the memory, as wholly as possible into art. He succeeds in this to a high degree too, though like all literary authors he can only rise to such heights as his imagination ultimately will bear him, and his imagination at times is unable to support his memory. Still, there is imagination of such an extent, and so relatively near to our own time, as to induce an acute nostalgia for the manner of life which it describes. I feel its absence heavily in my own life, for all the prodigious goods and achievements that our society has produced just in the short span of my adulthood. I genuinely find it rather depressing however to live in a society where the smartest and wisest people are reckoned to be economists, and the sign of an educated man is the ability to think like one as closely as possible. As a civilization, what we once sought with art we are apparently now going to attempt with biology, the results of which I am somewhat curious to see, though the early returns as regards things like plastic surgery and steroid enhancement do not indicate that we stand to gain as much wisdom or aesthetic sensibility as might be hoped. And while cognitive enhancements sound tantalizing, what does this mean? I have read something of the contents of computers being downloaded into people's brains, which has if any advantages a utilitarian one, though I suspect most people would just as soon do without it, and I have also read about gene selection or upgrading for IQ (and I suppose other vital qualities like willpower, energy level which are the supports of the thriving intellect). I have a lot of skepticism about this though, for reasons which I hope will be hinted at in my bit about Sam Johnson, which I will get to now.

To return to an earlier theme, Boswell's Johnson is one of those Classics--and there aren't too many left for me at this point--that I really anticipated as possibly affecting my life even at age 36 before I read it. I still felt that, despite everything else I have read over the last 12-20 years, I could not fully consider myself really and truly a serious devotee of English Literature, but that having read this book, I would really be pretty much there. I had quite loved what I had read of Johnson's own writing (perusing his Preface to Shakespeare the other day I was struck by how many of his points I had internalized and put forth in my own recent essay about that author), and this was supposed to be better than any of his work. As such, I found myself on page 400, enjoying the reading but at the same time ominously questioning whether this were really one of the Greatest Books of All Time, or, as the dust jacket of my edition states, one of the four pillars of the literary tradition of the anglophone world, along with the King James Bible, Shakespeare, and the Pilgrim's Progress. The book is dependent on the vividness of the Johnson character and the particular milieu that he inhabits for its charm, and it takes a long time for that to begin to be established, a lot longer, to be honest, that most modern readers are probably willing to endure, especially if they have no extensive familiarity with or affection for 18th century England and its literature and culture, or if they are women (this is a man's book about men). A lot of very great books build themselves up so slowly and so minutely such that their greatness does not really seize you fully until you are 700 or 800 pages in. I suppose this harbors ill for the continued significance, or assuming this to be already gone, revival of literature as a major force in the lives of the best minds of the future.

There are certain periods in English history--the Elizabethan, the 18th century, the Greene-Waugh-Powell-Orwell between the wars generation--when the nation's educated classes burst forth with a particularly attractive combination of confidence and wit vis-a-vis both other nations and the weight of history. In these eras even the national efforts in music and painting are not regarded with the same oppression of inferiority that they inspire in other periods, and likewsie the general system and results of the national education do not produce the sense of horror and despair (mainly regarding the rest of one's fellow citizens). Whenever I read an author from one of these periods I always regard it as an antidote to the damning, dismissive, insuperably learned and logical works of modern Germanic authors which I have an unhealthy attraction to and which nearly convince me that there is absolutely no point in continuing to live, for the likes of me especially (this may enhance their value in the minds of some readers). Here is Boswell on Good Friday in London, 1778:

"It was a delightful day: as we walked to St Clement's church, I again remarked that Fleet Street was the most cheerful scene in the world. 'Fleet Street (said I) is in my mind more delightful than Tempe.' JOHNSON. 'Ay, sir; but let it be compared with Mull.'

There was a very numerous congregation to-day at St Clement's church, which Dr Johnson said he observed with pleasure."

It is a simple passage, but it gave me a certain joy and restored to me a hopefulness about the prospects of life that I rarely find even interspersed in the writings of modern intellectuals. It even inspired me to seek deals for a brief jaunt to London to restore my spirits in the Boswellian fashion (I can't go, but Go-Today.com has some excellent combined air and hotel packages for the budget tourist, especially when one factors the price of London accomodation [Poor Uncle Giles from Powell would be hard-pressed even to maintain his shabby hotel room in Bayswater nowadays]. Round-trip flight, transport to and from the airport and 6 nights hotel for $500-$600 a person for a double, $700-$800 for a single through the winter). Of course there are the passages where Boswell defends the African slave trade, and Johnson offhandedly dismisses the Indians and Chinese as barbarians, and the indigineous peoples of America and the East Indies as savages, where the collective feminine intellect is regarded as incapable of undergoing serious study or thought; these positions will surely render the book's authentic delights impenetrable to most modern readers, as probably the positions staked out by many of the modern European as well as various anti-western intellectuals render their particular glories impenetrable to me. And I do doubt whether Boswell or Johnson, remarkable as the latter was, have a universal appeal, but merely a limited one, to a type of person whose cultural position in the world, at least, appears to be on the decline.

The other observation I wanted to make was that much of the appeal of Johnson is that he leads what we would call a collegiate lifestyle while being undoubtedly a serious and substantial adult in his society. By this I mean he rises late, lives with a number of housemates who are not related to him, lingers over meals and sits late into the evening talking with friends and various interesting people, spends several hours every day in a library or other study, as well as walking in town, has the time in the summer to go touring or stay with friends for weeks or months at a time. This is not apparently an uncommon lifestyle among European and Middle Eastern intellectuals even today, and I must say I am a little jealous of them, as I have not been able to do most of these things, and the others only in severely truncated spaces of time, in many years. Of course I went to the writer's conference, but I failed to make any figure there and was disappointed in the social aspect of the thing.

I will close this too long essay (my inability to be concise has already been my death, and I must accept the fact) with some more wisdom from Johnson.

"You may be wise in your study in the morning, and gay at a company at a tavern in the evening. Every man is to take care of his own wisdom and his own virtue, without minding too much what others think."

Thursday, November 16, 2006

I am going to try again to write a short one.

I have a great love for the word toys, which being perhaps the most unserious and inoffensive word in the English language, must reveal something unflattering in the character of a 36-year old man. Nonetheless whenever I see it written or otherwise spelled out in an elegant or poignant context I am able in that instant to come to some peace with the world for the purity of experience, or attachment, or hopefulness, or whatever it is that I have come to associate so strongly with this word (Old Eng. toye meaning dalliance according to my excellent 1965 Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary). A few years back when I used to go down to Brookline, Mass every week for French lessons, there was a very small store near Coolidge Corner on one of the big streets there (Franklin Street perhaps?) that was always closed in the evening, and always dark, but which one could see through the window was packed ceiling to floor with all kinds of stuff, one of those cramped, narrow-aisled, 40s or 50s type set-ups, that had an brown and white awning around the door that had TOYS written on it and nothing else, a lone streetlamp shining on it, and that was what caused me to think "what a lovely little word" for the first time.

Monday, November 13, 2006

I am Going to Try to Write a Short One: Thoughts on Some 1980s Teenager Movies That Have Unduly Affected My Psyche

1. Can't Buy Me Love. This is the one where the pitiful nerd pays the blonde cheerleader type $1,000 to pretend she is his girlfriend for a month. For his expense he is not allowed to lay so much as a finger on her though presumably she gives the muscular types whatever they want for free on a regular basis. I was struck at the time that this was an excellent illustration of the desexualization, demoralization, emasculation, what have you, of the nominally intelligent but utterly dominated and personality-less state of modern suburban maledom. He never feels himself in a position of power, and indeed is quite grateful that the object of his desire accepts his money after she initially wavers over his harsh condition that she sacrifice some of her social status for his perverse gratification, which I suppose is the point of the movie. The real point of the movie, however, is that he, and others like him in his generation, have surrendered all sexual claims upon women whatsoever, have simply ceded that entire area of their lives to women's discretion and mercy, and accepted their judgements on the propriety of their own desires and conduct. The character in this movie had no understanding that a man's status among women and his insistence on maintaining his own sexual prerogatives and privileges cannot be separated, that one cannot negotiate the privileges in exchange for the status. The situation reminds me a little of Bunuel's Obscure Object of Desire, in that the male desirer allows his frustrated sexual obsession to reduce him to a kind of animal fury. But at least he tries to rip off the impregnable corset and has to be confined in a cage before his love can freely cavort with another in front of him. Our suburban fools apologize to women when caught in a look that suggests they might be having such a thought.

When I was at the height of my own desperation, around age 17-20, I frequently thought about offering $1,000 to various girls I knew in school to have sex with me. I suppose I thought the sum would indicate that I was "serious", as well as explicitly lay out my real objective. A series of dates might not achieve the result I wanted, and I was not confident that I could even get the dates in the first place. The girls I was planning to offer the money to besides were not girls I especially "liked" as far as companionship, nor were they very hard-to-get or unreceptive to boys who knew what they were about. They tended to go to colleges that were a hundred times more famous for partying than they were for intellectual rigor. In other words I thought my offer might have a shot, with the money providing a more convenient excuse for them to say yes, so that they did not have to pretend they liked me, and give up all their power. Unlike going to a prostitute, who advertises and makes no discretion between men beyond who can pay
the fee, I imagined this would not really be about money, that I would simply be showing especial favor on someone of my own choosing, who I kind of liked, which would be our little secret, and who would still be in a sense "exclusive" to me as opposed at least to other losers at my school. Obviously I never carried out any such scheme, but the most interesting of these teenage movies are the ones where the plot is simply an acting out of the ridiculous ideas and thoughts that occupy the minds of hopeless boys...

2. For example, Zapped!, surely one of the rawer manifestations of the true adolescent psyche ever brought to light, in which the protagonist comes into contact with some kind of toxic waste or something and emerges with the power to kinetically make women's clothes fly off any time he wishes. What more can really be said about this film?

3. Encino Man. While I would have liked to have introduced this as the undisputed masterpiece of Pauly Shore, he is actually an insignificant force in the film, which of course centers around a couple of nerds who dig up a block of ice in their backyard (in southern California) in which is contained a man from the Paleolithic period who turns out when the ice is thawed to be both alive and still a teenager. Though the caveboy has no language, prefers to eat out of the dog's dish rather than at the table and has little propriety as regards his bodily functions, he has long hair and rippling muscles, so naturally the nerds enroll him at their high school, where his barbarism is not only indistinguishable from most the other students, but is considerably more attractive. When he sees the cheerleaders walk by he is totally unrestrained and immediately moves to grope their breasts and attack them right in the school's crowded hallway, but he is such a hunk and so up front and in command with his desires that naturally they love it. The caveman in fact in almost no time has become the most popular kid in the school, all the while completely unconscious of where he is and what he is doing (I think he casually beats up the school bully in instinctive defense of his friends, which makes him immediately an awesome figure in the collective mind of the student body). A large number of the hottest female students openly declare a desire to have sex with him. I believe one of the underlying themes being hinted at is that in the raw and untamed state of humanity we discover something essential to the condition that is sensually very attractive, and that the spirit of the typical modern suburbanite is so molded in the image of the plastic which is the dominant feature of his world that it is not capable of being a serious force in any aspect of life, including that of the shell in which it resides. For several days after seeing this movie I told myself that I must act like the caveman at school and parties, and surely I would get some action. But this was hardly a reasonable persona for me to even imagine adopting.

4. Hamburger: the Motion Picture. I begin by saying that I have only watched the 1st ten minutes of this abomination of the human spirit, which stars Dick Butkus, of all people! One can only hope he really needed the money. The plot of this film centers around a guy who is due to inherit about a zillion dollars, with the stipulation that he must get a college degree 1st. (There was another movie starring Judd Nelson and Andrew Dice Clay which I forget the title of, but had the same theme of the inheritance riding on the character's getting a diploma. Is this a common condition in the wills of incredibly wealthy people who only have a single very indolent young man as a plausible heir?) The guy keeps flunking out of college however, I kid you not, because every time he attempts to go to class he ends up having sex instead. If he tries to take a shower two sorority girls immediately jump in with him and compel him to go to town. If he tries to slip down the back staircase a medically diagnosed nymphomaniac with D-cup breasts and clothing that has shrunk to half its original size in the college dryer on will be lingering on the next landing. Even when he is called to the dean's office to receive word of his expulsion, the secretary tears her shirt off and jumps on him while he is waiting to be received. In a word it is quite possibly the stupidest narrative ever produced for the consumption of human beings and yet...

This was around the time when sex addiction was in the news a lot, and men in varying degrees of trouble would confess that they suffered from this terrible affliction whereby they were powerless to resist constantly having sex with different women. To a 20-year old who cannot get any girls to save his life and who can daily sense his mind becoming irreparably deranged as a result, this is the most fascinating idea in the world. "There are people--men--who can't stop having sex with woman after woman after woman even if they want to?" I never believed any of the self-proclaimed sex addicts were the least bit sincere in their regrets, though the phenomenom remained awesome to me. When I was in college there was a fellow who was such a ladykiller and stirred up such violent jealousy and general havoc among the ladies on one floor that the administration had to ban him from going there any more, and one report said that they requested him as well to try to refrain from seducing anyone else at the school for a couple of weeks at least, which of course would hardly be a challenge for most people, but for this guy to make it through one weekend, which he did, I think out of a sense of the comedy and also the furious envy and hatred it must produce in all the inferior men, required an almost extraordinary effort, for naturally a decent bulk of the school's friskiest ladies rallied to his defense when the loss of emotional control he had produced in some of their rivals became public.

Mr Spectator naturally had wise, if not comforting, observations on this matter, delineated in no. 602, October 4, 1714:

"...there is no Sett of these Male Charmers who make their way more successfully, than those who have gained themselves a Name for Intrigue, and have ruined the greatest Number of Reputations. There is a strange Curiosity in the female World to be acquainted with the dear Man who has been loved by others, and to know what it is that makes him so agreaable. His Reputation does more than half his Business."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Travels of a Born Tourist, Chapter I: Emotional and Literary Origins

Long before the revolutions in politics, technology and aviation over the past fifteen years that have made travel to formerly remote and strange nations common and to familiar ones so routine as to hardly constitute the name any longer, I was composing my first lists of cities to visit on a great future tour I intended to take, in anticipation of meeting up with fellow travellers or idle free spirits and beautiful women and having adventures. These adventures were to follow the pattern of the road stories ubiquitous in literature--in my case not so much Kerouac as the Oz books, or perhaps The Pickwick Papers, or Tom Jones, or Humphrey Clinker--in which any dangers would be such as a boy of my origin possessed of a little pluck and genuine good nature would be able to find his way out of, even if they should arise in an alley in Detroit or along the side of the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Anyway, such dangers as I might encounter would be requisite for the achievement of the Goal; which it is not hard to imagine was conceived by me as becoming cool enough to get action with girls and to be able to move up to a cleverer and more imaginative and worldly social milieu than I had known theretofore. I thus early on had an intimation that travelling would be for the likes of me a game no less than art was; and in time I came to see that also like art it was a game that I could only have a chance to win if I played against myself. I would never be able to defeat other competitors, living or dead, who sought the same social advantages from these pursuits as I did. Plenty of others might perpetually lose alongside me with varying degrees of ineptitude, it is true; but a shared void in the mind or spirit provides no common ground for meaningful friendships to take root.

I had settled upon the idea of forming my lists of places to go out of associations with authors by the age of 14 or 15, as I had already determined that literature more properly suited my temperament and sensibility than any other serious field, so that such cities and places as had numerous connections to famous writers must appeal to me. That this method was likely to favor long-established and over-touristed cities rather than the newly vibrant, the tumultuous, the exotic or the naturally stunning was not of any concern to me. There is a quote in Boswell's Life which I have looked for but am unable to find (it is a big book) in which Johnson says something along the lines that he would much prefer to walk a hundred miles to encounter one wise or mentally energetic man than to walk 5 to see some glory of nature. My attitude was somewhat similar to this. That tens of millions of people had gone to London or Rome and drunk and made love and commented on the relics of former times already was of no moment, for I had not gone there and done those things, and it was these places of ancient renown and the mythical institutions and monuments of humanity associated with them, as well as the sorts of people I imagined must still go there and live there, and who must have some element of spirit convivial to my own, that fired my imagination.

My earliest list was a simple record of the cities or towns of birth of all the writers with a work featured in the literary supplement in the back of every volume of the Illustrated World Encyclopedia, a 1960s publication aimed, I presume, at adolescents. This list of books, off which I read quite extensively through high school and still experience a little tingle of satisfaction if I come across one of its many out-of-print titles in an antiquarian store, consisted primarily of novels, familiar classics as well as bestsellers of the 1900-1950 era, followed by plays, long poems and autobiographies. It did not have a single black author on it, and its non-Western titles were limited to the Arabian nights and something by Rabindranath Tagore, which I must confess I did not get around to reading. (I do remember that Tagore was born in Calcutta, however, along with Thackeray. Throw in Kipling and Orwell, and I had to plan for a mini-tour of India, at least). The latest book on the list chronologically was Doctor Zhivago, which was published in the U.S. in 1958. On the positive side, this list was stronger, or at least deeper, in good 19th-20th century Continental writers than most comparable lists one finds today, especially in French, German and Scandanavian writers. The list was decidedly light on modernism, with the exception of Ulysses, as the books were supposed to be accessible to earnest Americans trying to supplement their educations alone and in their free time. As with most American-based literary lists based on birthplaces, the cities with the most representatives were London, Paris, Dublin, New York and Boston, with a second team of Moscow, Athens, Edinburgh, Rome and Cambridge, Mass. At one point I expanded the list to include title characters of various works based on real people (Abraham Lincoln, Cyrano de Bergerac, Shakespeare's various kings and Romans) and actual sites that featured in titles of works (the Alhambra, Notre Dame cathedral). Some of the early and abortive adventures I undertook with this list in hand will be recounted in later chapters of this short work.

As I got older and went to college I decided that this list was a little too limited and contained a few too many inferior authors (about many of whom it was difficult even to get basic biographical information). Also as the aimless wanderings and loneliness that proved to be the results of my initial journeys had convinced me that I needed more specificity upon entering even the greatest cities, I decided to collect information on the actual houses or addresses where my subjects were born, as well as the sites of their graves and any museums associated with them. Though this method of touring, particularly among nondescript people, is mocked by the sort of people whose cultural status I aspire to have, it has a long tradition in the West going back at least to Alexander the Great paying homage at the tomb of Achilles, and I have taken some consolation in carrying on in the manner of so many illustrious predecessors. Besides which it is a necessary mechanism for me to direct myself as near as possible to spots that might be expected to possess the atmosphere and people I have forever sought, to many of which I would certainly never have gone to otherwise, apart from the general educational value that I remain in such a state as to be capable of deriving much benefit from. The sites and monuments nonetheless merely constitute a structure; if a troupe of actors or a bewitching woman were to alight on me while I was wandering about looking for Voltaire's birthplace and pull me in some other direction I should naturally deviate from the list until my adventure exhausted itself, at which point I would pick it up again from wherever I should find myself. Time and money, of course, were never taken into consideration in the formation of these plans. They were essential to them and one must have them, but as how to get them is the great mystery of life to most people I did not think it in the proper spirit to allow their lack to hinder my conceptions of what could and should be under ideal circumstances.

As regards the lists, I have always toyed with the idea of doing a compact six-month to year long tour based on the Britannica Great Books series, which is a fairly small number of authors, few of them modern (Freud being the most recent in the original set, though there was an update in 1991). This tour would have a heavy Mediterranean focus, with many sights being in Turkey, Egypt and Israel (though I have never found a satisfactory way to determine which Biblical authors and figures get on the list and which have to be cut. If one includes the whole Old Testament, Amos, Obadiah and such names as this, the list becomes very unwieldy and expansive). In November 1994 I began working through all the books that appear as questions or potential answers in the GRE English literature test guide, because it seemed pretty comprehensive and had a randomness to its order that I liked. After 12 years of continual reading I am about halfway through through the second of the six tests, which leaves me on pace to finish this list in 2045, when I will be 75 years old. This list is very thorough on the English classics, meaning lots of poetry, Restoration plays, belles-lettres like Chesterfield and the Spectator, 18th-century novels. It is fairly light on American writers (who don't come off so well as a group once you read a lot of British lauthors) and anything foreign with the possible exception of the French. The most recent work I have encountered on this list is Nadine Gordimer's A Sport of Nature (1987) (which I must say held my interest and had some definite qualities as literature, though the beating middle class Americans take at the hands of our author, being portrayed as childish, sexually retarded (there is no other word for it) frivolously educated and disgusting in our material security, while African Communist revolutionaries are presented as significant and serious men who know how to make love to beautiful strong-willed white women, was difficult to take sitting down, even if evidence suggests that the sexual part, at least in my case, is true beyond a doubt, though otherwise the book traffics extravagantly in fiction, though it is often no less charming for that. Meanwhile on the subject of serious travel, the heroine Hillela demonstrates how it is done: when she goes to a beach it is untamed, devoid of commercial activity, full of brilliant, gorgeous, politically committed hardbodies antagonistic to the United States and everything it stands for who frequently engage in mind-blowing sex and either don't need money or live for weeks off tiny or infrequent payments for revolutionary newspaper articles, afterwards moving up to such arenas as war, social change, statecraft, economic policy. There is no compelling need to see the Mona Lisa when one leads such a life as this. Her trip to the United States to try to procure money [why else would anyone go there?] for her causes has very much the air of a visit to the regions of the dead. There is nothing for a person of spirit to do there at all. Note: in the print edition we should put this parenthesis in a footnote.)

With regard to the travelling list, I have been adding authors, subjects and places as I read them, which is beginning now to grow a little large, especially since I have only been getting to 2 or 3 sites a year over the past half-decade, while adding 30 or 40 to the list. I have currently 53 things to see in London alone, and over 150 in all of England, though I did make 3 journeys there between 1996-2001 and have "done" maybe 50 sites already. Still, if one had the time and so forth it would not be unmanageable, but as I get older I am not sure that the time for having "adventures" has not passed, unless I adopt a Don Quixote-like persona, nor if this particular list serves any purpose any longer, though for now I am keeping it up to date. But at age 36 one is not likely to be formed much by touring any more, and it becomes a matter of what one has to bring to the places one goes when stripped of youthful energy, beauty and hope, even if I never had excessive quantities of any of these. I have primarily melancholy, emotion and nostalgia, with which reception is certainly to be found in many of the legendary and formerly great sites of Western Europe if one can get nothing else from them, and which certain parts of the U.S.-Maine, Vermont, upstate New York, the old mountain and mill towns in Pennsylvania come to mind--are able to inspire and reciprocate as well. But this is generally accepted to be an inferior way to live as well as motivation to travel. I have nothing more to give at the moment however and the desire, or something like desire, to look at things and feel things--even in an inferior manner--remains.