August 31, 2010

Lapsing into oblivion

Found this quote in an essay, The Conspiracy of Silence, by the poet Charles Simic in the book, Memory Piano.
 "How everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described, or passed on." - W. G. Sebald (Austerlitz)
Or as the poet, Donald Justice, so eloquently put it in his poem, Bus Stop:
And lives go on   
Like sudden lights   
At street corners

Or like the lights   
In quiet rooms
Left on for hours,   
Burning, burning.
And so it goes.

August 13, 2010

The crack's in me

I seem to have blogged this quote twice before (in 2007 and again in 2009) and I found myself returning to it again today.
"The natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness. I think also that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain than you are only adds to this unhappiness in the end" - F. Scott Fitzgerald, as quoted in Nonconformity by Nelson Algren
I had read the above quote when I read NonConformity some years back. But today, I dug out the actual piece by Fitzgerald. It was a very interesting essay - a three-part self-analysis by Fitzgerald in Esquire magazine back in 1936. What an amazing start to the essay, titled Crack-Up:
Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work -- the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside -- the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within -- that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.
What a find! Going through some personal issues myself and so this really finds a connection with the way I feel at the current time!

Here is another lovely excerpt from the essay:
"Instead of being so sorry for yourself, listen -- “she said. (She always says “Listen,” because she thinks while she talks -- really thinks.) So she said: “Listen. Suppose this wasn’t a crack in you -- suppose it was a crack in the Grand Canyon.”

“The crack’s in me,” I said heroically.

“Listen! The world only exists in your eyes -- your conception of it. You can make it as big or as small as you want to. And you’re trying to be a little puny individual. By God, if I ever cracked, I’d try to make the world crack with me. Listen! The world only exists through your apprehension of it, and so it’s much better to say that it’s not you that’s cracked -- it’s the Grand Canyon.”
Here's another great excerpt from the 2nd part of the essay:
Now the standard cure for one who is sunk is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering -- this is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutary daytime advice for everyone. But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work -- and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day. At that hour the tendency is to refuse to face things as long as possible by retiring into an infantile dream -- but one is continually startled out of this by various contacts with the world. One meets these occasions as quickly and carelessly as possible and retires once more back into the dream, hoping that things will adjust themselves by some great material or spiritual bonanza. But as the withdrawal persists there is less and less chance of the bonanza -- one is not waiting for the fade-out of a single sorrow, but rather being an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one’s own personality…
Unless madness or drugs or drink come into it, this phase comes to a dead end, eventually, and is succeeded by a vacuous quiet. In this you can try to estimate what has been sheared away and what is left.
And this quotable quote:
Trouble has no necessary connection with discouragement -- discouragement has a germ of its own, as different from trouble as arthritis is different from a stiff joint.
In the third and final part, he writes:
This was at least a starting place out of the morass in which I floundered: “I felt -- therefore I was.” At one time or another there had been many people who had leaned on me, come to me in difficulties or written me from afar, believed implicitly in my advice and my attitude toward life. The dullest platitude monger or the most unscrupulous Rasputin who can influence the destinies of many people must have some individuality, so the question became one of finding why and where I had changed, where was the leak through which, unknown to myself, my enthusiasm and my vitality had been steadily and prematurely trickling away.

-- I only wanted absolute quiet to think out why I had developed a sad attitude towards sadness, a melancholy attitude toward melancholy, and a tragic attitude toward tragedy -- why I had become identified with the objects of my horror or compassion.
Does this seem a fine distraction? It isn’t: identification such as this spells the death of accomplishment. It is something like this that keeps sane people from working.
And later:
This led me to the idea that the ones who had survived had made some sort of clean break. .......  A clean break is something you cannot come back from; that is irretrievable because it makes the past cease to exist. So, since I could no longer fulfill the obligations that life had set for me or that I had set for myself, why not slay the empty shell who had been posturing at it for four years? I must continue to be a writer because that was my only way of life, but I would cease any attempts to be a person -- to be kind, just, or generous. There were plenty of counterfeit coins around that would pass instead of these and I knew where I could get them at a nickel on the dollar. In thirty-nine years an observant eye has learned to detect where the milk is watered and the sugar is sanded, the rhinestone passed for diamond and the stucco for stone. There was to be no more giving of myself -- all giving was to be outlawed henceforth under a new name, and that name was Waste.

The decision made me rather exuberant, like anything that is both real and new.
And so we prod on.... looking for that which will set us free - hoping that we have the audacity to make that 'clean break' and move on to what is "both real and new".

August 12, 2010

Why write?

At one point, a public relations guy named Jay asks about the purpose of novels, and Grimes wonders: "What are novels for? Entertainment? Metaphysical inquiry? Chronicling one's times? Could I tell Jay that the world is chaos and an artful novel satisfies our human desire for order, or that the novel excavates meaning from the rubble of incomprehension? That a novel is a thing to be read upon a beach in July for pleasure, or that I was an Iowa Writers' Workshop student and writing a novel was my homework? Or that I never want to die and when I'm writing a novel I believe I never will?" 
That's something the author Tom Grimes wonders about in his recent memoir, Mentor, which is reviewed in the WaPo this month. Later..

For me, writing is a necessity. I exist in sentences. I forget my sense of failure. I forget time. I forget that I'm aging. I forget that one day I'll die. Revising sentences is an act of hope, and connecting with a reader is the only leap of faith I'll ever take.
And this from Grimes towards the end of the book:
I'm a failure as a writer because I've overreached; my ambition was larger than my talent. Yet I willingly accepted that risk.
How many of us can say that we had the chutzpah and the cajones to take that risk and step out an swing!

Echoes: What has escaped us, we bring with us

Having read and enjoyed W. S. Merwin's 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning book of poems, 'The Shadow of Sirius' (Review) in July, I have been reading his earlier poems this month - collected in his National Book Award winning book, 'Migration: New and Selected Poems'. What a treasure trove of poetry from this great poet - the mind reels at the number of poems in this collection! So,  started with some of his poetry from the 1960s: The Moving Target (1963), The Lice (1967) and some from The Carrier of Ladders (1970) and then jumped ahead to more recent poems from The River Sound (1999) and The Pupil (2001). It is like trying to drink from a fountain and overwhelmed, I have set it aside for the time being.

So, couple days ago, I moved on to a book of prose by Merwin: The Book of Fables, which I had picked up at the library recently along with a book of Selected Prose by the poet, John Ashbery. I have not read the essays by Ashbery yet - many are art criticisms; Ashbery in addition to being a amous poet also writes serious art criticism. However, I started with the Merwin book prose after reading a review of the book in the WaPo, where Michael Dirda writes:
...dense, elegant prose shorts that probe dread and threat, shame and fears, and tensions between the material and spiritual worlds. There seems to be no statute of limitations on texts that plumb these competing realities, employing surreal touches and a variety of conceits and dictions, all unfolding in some lush fusion of past, present and future -- a world in whose dark, labyrinthine caverns we humans often lose our way. (emphasis mine)
I thought I was really going to love it! Well....the update after two attempts to read a few different prose pieces is that somehow things are not clicking. A handful of the pieces (most are half to one page long) were good but most are too abstract and none of them snared me with their beauty! Maybe it is just me... maybe I just need to come back to it later in a different mood. Sometimes poetry (for example, some of Ashbery's poems) and abstract prose can be like that -- they exist on a very different mental plane than I am at.

In any case, here is one excerpt from a short piece called Echoes that I did enjoy:

Everything we hear is an echo. Anyone can see that echoes move forward and backward in time, in rings. But not everyone realizes that as a result silence becomes harder and harder for us to grasp -= though in itself it is unchanged - because of the echoes pouring through us out of the past, unless we can learn to set them at rest. We are still hearing the bolting of the doors of Hell, Pasiphae in her byre, the cries at Thermopylae, and do not recognize the sounds. How did we sound to the past? And there are sounds that rush away from us: echoes of future words.

So we know that there are words in the future, some of them loud and terrible. And we know that there is silence in the future. But will the words recognize their unchanging homeland.
P.S. I take the title of this post from the preface to his ground-breaking book, The Lice, in 1967:
"All men are deceived by the appearances of things, even Homer himself, who was the wisest man in Greece; for he was deceived by boys catching lice: they said to him, “What we have caught and what we have killed we have left behind, but what has escaped us we bring with us.” - Heraclitus

August 11, 2010

The Feeling of Awe

I have been reading and enjoying Merwin's poetry lately and started reading some of his prose pieces (The Book of Fables) last night but could not really get into it much. 

So, instead I looked up some critical articles and interviews with Merwin on JSTOR. Reading an interview from 1988, I found this paragraph which I thought was worth transcribing and saving because it really echoes the way I usually feel about human endeavors and ventures on earth!
I don't see that our culture and our species are behaving in a more enlightened and gentle and harmonious fashion now than we were twenty years ago. And the cause of the anger is, I suppose, the feeling of destruction, watching the destruction of things that I care passionately about. If we're so stupid that we choose to destroy each other and ourselves, that's bad enough; but if we destroy the whole life on the planet! And I'm not talking about a big bang; I'm talking about something that is happening as we are sitting here talking about it - the destruction of the seas, the destruction of species after species, the destruction of the forests. These are not replaceable. We can't suddenly decide years down the line that we made a mistake and put it all back. The feeling of awe - something that we seem to be losing - is essential for survival.

August 10, 2010

Our endless quest for understanding

Great quote about fiction.
"A good piece of fiction, in my view, does not offer solutions. Good stories deal with our moral struggles, our uncertainties, our dreams, our blunders, our contradictions, our endless quest for understanding. Good stories do not resolve the mysteries of the human spirit but rather describe and expand up on those mysteries." - Tim O'Brien
Also this: 
"Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story." - Tim O'Brien

I have only read Tim O'Brien's famous (and very moving) title piece, The Things They Carried, but have not read anything else by him. I really need to at least read the whole book - he seems like an author one should not miss!

Not one more refugee death, by Emmy Pérez

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