Archive for the ‘me’ Category
What else does the novel, by the very nature of its elemental form, teach us than that there is some relation, or at least should be, between our internal subjective states and the world in which we move. Foreground / background. Protagonist / context. Romance / history. The family / the city. Wires run between the one to the other, from the outside in and back again. Almost every name of a novelistic subgenre or period movement (realism, naturalism, modernism, postmodernism, to name just a few of the recent ones) names a different mode of wiring. Shifts in genre represent new ideas about how to write the machine. How tangled or untangled it is, how many wires run hither and how many yon, what buttons there are to push to control the voltage and wattage of the link up, how much bandwidth in total is carried.
Has there ever been a “terrorist attack” as uncanny as the one that happened yesterday in Woolwich? And uncanny is the right word – utterly familiar (tropes of beheading, tropes of “bringing the fight back to the oppressor,” the visibility of violence) yet at the same time utterly not (the refusal of both escape or self-immolative martyrdom, the implicit invocation of the laws of war when it comes to “innocent bystanders,” the further refusal to “let the event speak for itself,” or be spoken for by leadership organisations far away and ex post facto, or through pre-recorded statements aired after the event, and the immediate extinguishing of the fear of further attacks, at least by the same actors, as per Boston). With this one, we seem to slip from the genre called “terrorism” to something else: a gruesome morality play about the calculus of war, the algebra of carnage. Street theatre allegory that trades the fake blood for the real.
So was it the “genre shift” that explains the strange reactions of the bystanders who observed the attack and its aftermath? Women reportedly ran over, in the course of the attack itself, to attempt to help the dying or dead soldier, thinking that the three actors in this play were rehearsing an all-too-common everyday scene we call “a car accident.” Who was it, and why was it, that someone stayed to film a man whose arms were drenched in blood, who carried a knife and a cleaver in his left hand, while he delivered his final soliloquy? What to make of these recorded conversations between the killers and their audience?
Is there a better answer than that a genre had been disrupted or reinvented, and thus the rules that normal apply (murders try to escape, bystanders flee, etc) were unavailable for consultation?
Genre is also another name for myth. While it sometimes postures as science, it has far more in common with superstition. Throw salt over your shoulder, and lucky will occur. One character says something, the other, naturally, touches wood. We now, in our pharmacologically-lexiconed period, are far more likely to call superstitious practices the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. One has to check, and check again, that the water’s not running in the bathroom before one leaves the flat. Push hard three times on the front door to make sure it’s locked… or else another storyline will ensue, the one that has an evening return to a gaping door, the laptop gone, the bedroom drawers dumped. This is literally it – some sort of chemical depletion or superfluity occurs, some traumatic event takes place, and then an almost mystical belief in certain irrational storylines takes over. To disobey the mandates of genre is to open oneself to an unhappy ending.
Last night: this news-story. On television and especially on the web. Fraught conversations about the arithmetic of death. And then a phone call. Bad news of the sort that late night phone calls usually bring. The trope of the middle-aged son and the ailing parent. The novel teaches us to think of the one thing as related, if complex, to the other. At least metaphorically, or even just formally. What is happening out there of course is a prelude to what is about to happen right in here, in the space of the family home and especially the skulls (and bodies) of those that inhabit it.
Think of the script. The call in the night in the movie. The early middle-aged son who ignores the call momentarily, caught up as he is in an argument about the gruesome news on television. The politics of violence, the physics of the world system. The cigarette whose space allows a second thought, a second glance at the mobile phone. Ominous – we can imagine what will happen next. The film that will play out from its start in a graphic sequence of news images morphs into a dark family drama. How does one cope when the worst comes home to roost?
A fallacy (a word quite close to “myth” and “superstition”) that doesn’t have a name, one that is hardwired into the DNA of the novel as a form. I’ve tried to name it in things that I’ve written, in seminars that I’ve led. Sometimes it seems to have more to do with temporality. What happens after what, or at the same times as each other. We could call it presumptive fallacy. Retro-prospective fallacy. The fallacy of coincidence. Sometimes it’s simply about the structural mandate that the foreground be read in the light of the background and vice versa. Contextual fallacy? Flaubert, disrupter through over-fulfilment of so many genre mandates, so early in the game, was aware of the problem. Think of Frédéric waiting for Madame Arnoux while the revolution kicks off a few blocks away in L’Éducation sentimentale. The New Critics liked to label fallacies on the part of the reader. I am more interested in the fallacies inherent in artistic forms themselves, even though obviously these can turn into the former and often do through the sort of training that novels provide.
But of course, myths are also true in a very serious sense. I don’t simply mean that what we believe we are. What we think is the only thing there is. Although that may well be true. In this case, it is also useful to think of myth or superstition or even fallacy as a customary practice, a mode of operation, running orders against confusion. The world, as we know, lives out the demands of its many operative genres every single day. Perhaps now as much as ever. A myth is habitus, generated by practice, an operating manual written and re-written each time we act.
The novel makes us stupid in one sense, solipsistic, tends to make us look for our angle on things, what does this mean to us? What were the attackers yesterday, in both his words and deeds, and deeds both during and after the attack, trying to say to me? Or at least us? There is a counter-instinct, for those disciplined a certain way, to try to climb up the ladder of transcendent wisdom, to disavow the inwrought narcissism of our conditioned response. To gasp and yell when the news commentators reduce a global to a local question, an a serious question to a matter of insanity or unanchored spite. They might think what they want, but they have no right to act it out here. To force us into these stringent attempts to adjust the genre back to something we’re comfortable with.
But the attempt to climb out of the fray of self-interest, however complex, however Wallace-ianly convoluted and self-reflexive, is of course a trope in yet another sort of story, another sort of myth, one that – we need to remind ourselves – has the deepest affinities with an imperial mindset, one that takes the world panoptically, one for whom impersonality is a transferable skill.
What retards political development – and really contemporary thought as a whole – more right now than an inability to come to terms with the relationship between the self, located wherever it might be, and the world-system as a whole? At least here where we are? What are we, sequestered in the posh uptowns and suburbs of the global system, meant to think or say when we are in the wrong jurisdiction? We know not to fall into the ethical mode, charity is of no use, but there may be an exitless cloverleaf, a highway cul de sac, ahead if
Despite all the complicities of the novel, these generic demands and the demands of its sub-genres, the promise remains that the bad faith strictures themselves make space for revelatory manipulation, clarifying detournage. They even, potentially, lead us toward the formulation of simpler questions, question more pressing in their semi-solipsistic simplicity. Like this one, that with the little revision, some shifts in seemingly inevitable consequence, the script I outlined above could be made to ask:
Who has to die in the prime of life, and who is afforded the luxury of death that comes at an actuarially appropriate stage?
1. Strange. I seem to have, through canniness and sheer force of will, sorted out some major problems in the last week, short term ones and long term ones. I am somewhat remarkable in a crisis. What will! What energy! What absolute drive to solve problems and not stop until they are solved. That’s not what’s strange. I knew about that already. (In a sense, this is why I have been successful on the job market. The job market, remember, is just one big crisis.) What’s strange is that sorting it out has left me a little bit – OK a lot bit – depressed. Almost as if I miss the stress, the joy of stress. Almost as if, despite the misery I’ve been through over the last ten days, there’s a part of me – OK a lot of me – that actually loves to live that way. Lives to live that way.
2. Mrs. Ads says to me, Yes, but we need to learn to enjoy life a bit. But we she means me. She procedes to cry rather interestingly and perhaps symptomatically through the terminal and real split-up scenes in the climactic episode of Mad Men Season 3. Telling the kids and all that. Keep in mind, and spoiler warning, it is of course Mrs. Draper who is driving this split. At least locally. On the show I mean. Hmmm… Don’t jump to conclusions – it’s way more complicated than that, as marriage always is, especially once kids and jobs are involved.
3. Art follows life. The climactic episode of Mad Men Season 3 is all about precarity, omifuckinggod precarity, and then turning it around on the bosses just before they fire you. They consolidate to save labor expenses, you heroically rise up to fuck them over by bravado and skill. Our fantasies, ourselves. For those who do not understand Americans and how they respond to things (I’ve encountered at least a few recently, as you might be able to tell) this episode would be a very good primer. Especially the temporality involved. Literally the second that shit starts to go wrong, they get down to business, chosing conspirators, stealing files, organizing a coup.
4. Someone today read the first chapter post-introduction and described it as “very sexy.” That’s a nice way to put it. Phew. Someone else (OK – Mrs. Ads) just said that there is so much of me in this book, really a ridiculous amount for an academic book. Not a single mention of me, of course. ** I think this has something to do with why it was so hard to finish. It is the most impersonal memoir imaginable, but memoir it in fact is. People say this sort of shit all the time, but it’s rarely all that true. In this case it’s true. Others have understood in a sense without reading the book: Why did you write about X, when X is the thing that is absolutely impossible for you to handle, even for a minute. As they knew, they’d already answered their own question.
5. Part of the reason that it’s a memoir, but only part, is that about 75 percent of me is made of But what do we make, really, of the style indirect libre? Sounds bleak. Part of me wishes that meant I was dry and academic, boring and office-hugging. Unfortunately it means exactly the opposite of that. These questions are hard, and running from them can take you along way in life.
6. Now that Mad Men is over till next August (oh jesus) we have to find something new to watch. I glanced at the HBO website to see what we’ve been missing and found this. It’s a precis of a series called Bored to Death:
Jonathan Ames, a young Brooklyn writer, is feeling lost. He’s just gone through a painful break-up, thanks in part to his drinking, can’t write his second novel, and carouses too much with his magazine editor. Rather than face reality, Jonathan turns instead to his fantasies — moonlighting as a private detective — because he wants to be a hero and a man of action.
The offbeat comedy series ‘Bored to Death,’ created by Jonathan Ames (author of several books, including the acclaimed graphic novel ‘The Alcoholic’), follows the misadventures of a fictional Jonathan Ames as he pursues his quixotic dream of emulating his heroes from classic private detective novels.
[post edited because I was being a dick and was rightly called out for it by someone, well after the fact… I apologize… Half of point 6 is now gone, as is point 7…]
8. Someone suggested that I ask anyone, you know, like your father, to copy-edit my manuscript. Hahahahahaahaha! What sort of world ended I up in? I told him there were only three books in our house when I was growing up, aside from the World Book Encyclopedias I begged them to buy me and buy me they did. The first, and oldest, was Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I assume a wedding present. The second was what some have called “the best business book ever,” Barbarians at the Gate which (from a highly us-centric angle) chronicled the first brush with precarity that I can remember (my dad is an extra in it, not named), and The Joy of Stress, which may or may not have been a gag gift at some point.
9. So my dad can’t copy-edit my book, no. In fact, I sent him an email to look over yesterday before I sent it, a highly important one. It took him an unreasonable amount of time to read it – like 20 minutes for a 500 word message. I sat on the phone while he did so I know. But he did, I must say, copy-edit it just the right way, taking out one line, changing a certain word. Because, readers, I won today with that message. Just wish that I could, you know, enjoy winning. But really it only makes me miss the game itself.
By winning, let me me clear, I mean that things seem to have returned simply to relatively frantic normalcy. Nothing more exciting than that.
Both the ability to win and the inability to take winning to heart, both of these things are mine because I am the conscientious only-son of an interesting man whose definining traits are his insatiable need to be anxious and his incredible ability to look calm and charismatic in a crisis.
** In fact, in the previous iteration there was a tiny, 5 pp segment on how I came up with the project before and after 9/11, and how 9/11 inflected the development of the book. Wasn’t cheesy, trust me – and involved a rather smart archive-driven history of the emergence of the phrase “the new normal.” (I should actually go back and cut that out and expand it and publish it… hmmm…) This was mentioned in a reader’s report, and made the editor flip out, rather unreasonably I think. So I’ve eradicated every drop of “I” in the new version.
Sisyphus commented on my post from last night:
Why do I think that the real story of what’s going on is hidden in those ellipses?
Well, sure. And further, what’s going on not only between the dots and other punctuations marks but even between every single letter of every single word that I write on here, is the fact that I suffer from some sort of strange and intense malady that I can only call night loneliness. I’m not sure (for all the therapy and self-centric thought!) where it comes from, when it started, really anything at all about it and its etiology.
All of you, if you’re regular readers, are aware of the symptoms that come of this malady. Logorrhea, incessant posting – that is to say, compulsive writing that brings with it the possibility of communication almost instantly.
Recurrent dark fantasy, waking soft nightmare. I am alone in the world. I have never been alone, not really for a minute, so I have no idea what it would be like. But when I imagine it, I imagine a dingy flat with a futon and a television. And I imagine myself making dinner for myself alone, heating up things wrapped in plastic. Or perhaps not heating up anything at all, just not bothering with dinner. (I am one of those people, awful, who has to be reminded – no, really, implored – to eat, who simply will not eat if left to his own devices. I will smoke right through the hunger, smoke the hunger right into null.
Anyway, I am alone and when I come home from the office, I eat or don’t. Perhaps I make my way through the newspapers that I haven’t yet finished. And perhaps after that I check the internet to see if anyone has written. No one has, or only the wrong people have, people whom I don’t really want to write back. After that is done, I switch on the television, but there is nothing on and so I stare at the endless loop of news or some godforsaken sports highlight show. And then I go to sleep.
I do this every single night, without any variation at all, over the course of my life alone, over the course of my dark fantasy.
I have always stayed up late at night, for as long as I have been allowed to determine what time I go to bed. When I was a teenager, I would stay up well into the morning, sitting in my basement smoking and typing on a typewriter and sometimes chatting (Prodigy!) or talking on the phone. The basement, with its low hanging pooltable lamp sans pool table, must have reeked in the morning. I still today use aluminum cans for ashtrays.
Was there really a time when I did real work at night? Perhaps during college, when my wife and I lived in a two-room apartment across the street from a very very famous 19th-century female poet’s house. Two rooms, but no bedroom. We had a futon that we slept on in the living room; the other room was a kitchen. I remember being very, very happy, but also worried. Would I get into grad school? Would we live in New York? We wrote our papers together, night by night and day by day. There was a room in my college’s library that was ours – a little cubicle on the third floor that no one else seemed to know about. And our computers were shit, ancient and basically good for nothing but word processing. For fun, we went to movies once or twice a week. These were the glory days of the art house stuff, the moment when the conglomerates were just catching on to the profitability of the small picture.
But what did I do at night during college? And during the first years of grad school? It’s getting dimmer and dimmer. I don’t remember feeling particularly panicked. When we finally did get to New York, and our tiny apartment in Brooklyn Heights, things start to get a bit clearer. At night, I sat in the kitchen with the window open, smoking and working on a novel. It was called The Amateurs, and was terrible. It was about a woman who became something of an amateur porn celebrity. It was terrible. I wrote it wanting primarily to make enough money to buy an apartment – this was 2001, 2002, and things like that seemed totally possible in the hopped-up, cash-rich mediascape of the only just then collapsing tech bubble.
People don’t talk about it all that much, except in the intimacy of parent-on-parent conversations, but one of the things that happens often enough when you have small kids is that dad gets ejected from the marital bed, finds some other place to sleep. This is because little kids sleep very badly, often enough, and often enough want to sleep with mom. Mom doesn’t sleep well to begin with, given all that’s going on at night, and so it’s just easier to settle into a separate bedrooms situation for the time being. It’s not good, and I’m sure that like everything else that has to do with parenting, we’re doing something very wrong, something that The Nanny would disapprove of were she to visit our North London terraced house.
If you have two children, as we do, there’s a strong possibility that just as you’ve gotten one child sorted out in the sleep department, the new one comes along and starts the cycle all over again.
Usually I get the lovely guestroom on the top floor. But when people are visiting, as my parents are now, I settle for the living room couch.
I have downloaded a shitload of films that my wife doesn’t want to watch. They include The Parallax View, Mysteries of the Organism, Crash, Gommorah, and a few others. I could easily settle down in my bed (wherever it is) and watch one of these a night, or watch until I get tired and save the rest for the next night. But I do not watch the films as that doesn’t feel enough like work to be tolerable. Blogging feels like work, work in the best sense.
When I was a very small child, or even a larger small child, I had a hard time sleeping. Obviously, there was no booze around to usher me into the arms of Oblivion. What I can remember, quite clearly, is the sound of the hockey games, the announcers of the hockey games, that my father would watch, night on night, downstairs. That and worrying about whether or not I was going to go to hell. The discovery of masturbation, when I was twelve, didn’t help with the later preoccupation, but this is cliché, rote, too boring to mention.
You can give yourself programs, plans, to accomplish at night. You could, for instance, work on learning a language, one lesson a night in a Teach Yourself book. They’re quite good – I have a smattering of Italian and Spanish (in addition to the French and German I took throughout university) because of them. For awhile, I knew enough Mandarian to do things like order dinner but now it’s gone. You could, alternately, work on a novel – promise yourself a certain page or word count per night. Or obsessively read 100 pages of something, night in night out.
But why can’t I just go to sleep, like a normal person? It’s a great mystery to me too. Some part of it has to be genetic, handed right down my mother’s side of the family. My maternal grandmother doesn’t go to sleep until she has to, and my mother was the same until the disease that she’s had (or that’s had her) since just before the time of my arrival on the scene has made it manditory that she goes to sleep at a decent time. When we’re all in Canada together, which is rare but does sometimes happen, my mother and my Nan will stay up extremely late, sitting and talking at the kitchen table. I have a sense that my first daughter has inherited the same gene – she’s just waiting, already at the age of four, for the minute that we stop monitoring her bedtime. She’s ten or so years away, and I can only imagine what she’s be up to at night when night’s are permitted her. Overly optimistic, but I’ll only be 43 when she’s 14, and perhaps just the same as I am now, and so perhaps we’ll be up together, typing into our computers, looking for the flash of light that makes all of this insomulence worthwhile, worth it. Overly optimistic – the words of a father of a four year old, I know.
The irony is, of course, that this condition requires at once a pining after late-night attention combined, perversely, with a drastic need to be alone for several hours after the sun has gone down.
At night, I can hear the trains – commuter trains and also the faster, longer ones bound for Yorkshire and then Edinburgh – rattle past my neighborhood. If I look through the window in my topmost bathroom, I can see the light standards illuminating the tracks.
Starting tomorrow, I will do something different with all of this, though I am still, as of now, not sure what.
Not really funny, more sad:
I have somehow lost, one by one and/or in clumps, almost every book having to do with my summer’s project, which happens to be the project that I’ve been working on since oh about spring 2001. I have lost (and repurchased) all of my Lefebvre. Now I notice that I’ve lost every book that I have that discusses Lefebvre’s work. I wouldn’t have posted this until I just now remembered that a few months ago I was asked to review another monograph on roughly the same topic as my own, told the editor not to bother sending the book as I had it, had read it, it was right here…. And then I had to write her back asking her to send me the fucking review copy in the mail. None of these are in my stack at home and none of these are in my office.
Maybe there’s a hole in my bag, a hole perfectly proportioned to allow only the relevant, pertitent, and manditory to fall out.
Sadly, I know very little about classical music. This is because I am American and because I have rather uncultured parents and for a long run was rather shoddily educated, especially as far as non-fundamental topics like music and art went. The only lessons I ever got in playing an instrument were those mediocre group affairs called school band. I played the trumpet like all the other boys except for the one drummer and the single saxophonist, got just past “Jingle Bells” and then gave the thing up. Eventually, during college, I sold the slightly-dented instrument at my hometown music shop when I was hard up for book and Taco Bell money.
The girls played flute or clarinet, and thinking back, I bet their choice of an instrument indexed much of what was to come for them in life, though each in her own particular way.
I do have a feeling, however, that I may be the person who has listened to Glen Gould’s rendition of the Goldberg Variations more than anyone else in the world. I can’t remember why I first picked up a recording of it – must have had something to do with some book or other. But it basically has served as my work soundtrack for fifteen years or so – I am working well, generally speaking, when I am working with this on the stereo or playing out of the computer…
I took a helpful introductory course on music during my last semester of university (the same semester I took Greek I – fun, unuseful term that was….) But I still lack the vocabulary to say anything substantive about this piece of music or Gould’s performance of it. But I think that what it handles, what it productively preoccupies, is my brain’s (my mind’s?) anticipatory faculty. I have a jutting, clambering temporal tendency – I am no good at sitting still in the moment. This goes for work as it does for non-work (though, also, possessing or being possessed by this bad temporality has a tendency to make non-work feel an awful lot like work, too…) My mind’s always on what happens next with X, where this goes from here… I would love to label this a form of romantic idealism, or classical virtu, but really what it comes down to is a heady mixture of inheritances, perhaps one simply the abstractly psychological face of the brutely neuro-chemical underpinnings. I’d rather not spell them out here, but one has to do with an adaptation to capitalist social organization and the other with addiction – two faces of the same thing, really.
But listening to Gould, as I mark papers or type away at my book, has the feeling of box ticking, of boxes being elegantly and repetitively ticked. It feels like the invisible hand inside my head that normally points elsewhere, over there, with ever greater insistence, and then which gets frustrated, over there! over there!!!!, and then when it senses that I am simply not understanding the stakes of all this, makes a fist, knocks, bangs, breaks one knuckle and then another on the inside of the skull but just keeps knocking despite the throbbing pain… It feels like this hand is empenciled, ticking boxes on an infinitely scrolling roll, a standardized test sheet made of piano notes and thus busy for the moment and leaving me alone to work and think.
And so, just to broaden this out a bit, if I am against capitalism in any sort of visceral way (the other ways to be against it seem to me untrustworthy at best, inefficient at midbest, and complicitly hypocritical at worst) it is because capitalism fosters in a not-simply-metaphorical way the evolutionary development of body parts where they shouldn’t be. Hands in head, heads in cocks, hearts in eyes, and so on and definitely vice versa. It is an open and worthwhile question the relationship of the aesthetic in regard to (in treatment of) the sort of socio-genetic defect. The preoccupation of the parts that get in the way works to two ends – more than two ends – at once. The Goldberg Variations and similiarly constructed works serve as a form of local anaesthetic (like the shots of cortisone the ballplayers take to keep them on the field) that permits me to disobey the pain-signals coming from the knocking and scratching of the hand, such that I can be momentarily free…. but free to do exactly what other than slightly more calmly follow the prescriptions of this part that spurs me on?
If you have recommendation for other things I should listen to given the above (ha!), the comment boxes are yours for the ticking and typing.
Auden sat down to write his verse . . . . He got a bare table at the end of a dark, smelly corridor. We were now bursting at the seams, and the last corner available was in what was inevitably called “the back passage”. It ran parallel with the theatre, where films were constantly being shown. At one end, a bunch of messenger boys played darts, wrestled, and brewed tea.
At the other end, Auden, serene and uncomplaining, turned out some of the finest verse he has ever written. As it was a commentary, it had, of course, to fit the picture, so he would bring sections to us as he wrote them. When it did not fit, we just said so, and it was crumpled up and thrown into the waste-paper basket! Some beautiful lines and stanzas went into oblivion in this casual, ruthless way. Auden just shrugged, and wrote more.
I’m going to pin this passage somewhere prominent as I get started on my summer work over the next week or so, once the exams and papers are finally marked. I’ve had it with my tempermentalism, my sensitivity to work environments both material and psychological. I can’t work when X happens, I can only work in situation Y, and unless A, B, or C are positioned on my desk / available for consumption / aligned just the right way, then it’s useless even to start. I’ve gotten into some deeply bad habits with work, you have no idea.
On the other hand, quite a lot of this neurotic tempermentalism is attributable to a general failure of belief. No, not in myself – don’t be silly. But in the disciplines and genres and media in which I do this work. So I’ll have to either sort that out too or simply remember to stop caring and do it anyway.
Ah, for the first time in nearly a year, there are two empty wine glasses next to an empty bottle formerly filled with shitty white wine on the coffeetable. (Jacob’s Creek, 2006. Was an excellent year for swill.) This is because for the first time in nearly a year she is drinking again, given the fact that she is post-partum enough to buy herself an hour or so without an infant either a) inside of her tum or b) mewling to be fed, right this instant.
Thank god for small mercies, we needed this today. The distribution was approximately 90% me and 10% her, but still, lovely. I missed this sort of thing. A lot.