08 December 2003

Sellouts, Cheaters, Embezzlers, And Other People I Admire

Maxfield Parrish: Sellout 

Dear Greg:

It dawned on me yesterday that the preservation of written correspondence has another vital aspect: the preservation of our true history. I started thinking about this while I was watching the extra features on "The Gangs of New York" DVD. The dramaturges and historians who contributed to the script were telling how they put together the history of the Five Points area, an area that was a virulent slum back in the 1860's.

The squalor of the Five Points area is mentioned in the writings of Dickens and Whitman, but other than that, there were no truly reliable sources. Newspapers of the day were wholly based on sensationalism and hearsay. Imagine if you will all the New York City newspapers being earlier incarnations of supermarket tabloids that we have today – yes, even the old tombstone, The New York Times. Sources weren't cited, stories were fictionalized either in whole or in part, photography wasn't prevalent so there was no sort of verifiable picture evidence, etc. Now bear in mind the fact that much of our history to this point is gleaned from popular newspapers of the day (or their equivalent) if there is no other source available. If it were not for archeological evidence and personal correspondence, we would have no accurate history of the Five Points area, or of life in the Roman Legions, for that matter.

So to flog my point even further, our situation today is that most of our personal correspondence exists as tiny magnetic impulses in some netherworld. All it takes is one good electromagnetic pulse and our voice–on–paper, the self–history of the common man from 1992 forward is erased. So that means that the only thing, or rather the only people who are writing our history right now are the same douchebags who write USA Today. Granted, modern journalism is a damn sight more reliable than the journalism of the Five Points era, but in my opinion, it is wildly inaccurate in giving a portrayal of the mind or language of the common man of today. I think that newspapers and magazines are more a reflection of what the average person will buy, and not what the average person actually thinks, or which events are of most importance or urgency to the world as a whole.

I'm not one of those people who wholeheartedly agrees with Noam Chomsky, either. From having worked in the news media, I know that news services tend to put the most emphasis on what they think will sell, as I mentioned above. Chomsky comes up just short of saying that there's a well–oiled conspiracy that turns the cogs of popular opinion. To wit, the New York Times' coverage of the situations in Cambodia and East Timor after the Vietnam War. Chomsky would like us to believe that the NYT was implicit in helping to direct attention away from the situation in East Timor because the United States was embarrassingly instrumental in supplying arms to a government that was practicing genocide. My view is that the NYT probably never made the connection between East Timor and our arms sales. Let me put it this way: the American public had been hearing about Southeast Asia and our involvement there for years. We had seen maps of the area behind Cronkite's head every night for a decade. We had 58,000 of our citizens die there. Now would you think it was easier for the NYT to sell papers to the average news consumer with headlines about Cambodia or East Timor? In fact, do you think that the average person, nay, even a person who was fairly well–informed could find East Timor on a map? The New York Times isn't stupid. They know their audience and they're in the business of making money, not of being some sort of Guardian and Disseminator of capital–The capital–Truth. But by the same token, it is the front page of the New York Times that informs the writing of our history. It will also wind up being the only perspective on our history if we don't leave some sort of verifiable artifact of our real history, and the only way we can do that as far as I can see is to preserve the art of personal correspondence.

Which brings me to the illustration that I put at the head of this letter. If it weren't for the intercommunications of the common man, I believe we would have lost the art of Maxfield Parrish. Parrish not only revolutionized painting technique, he expanded our color palette as well (Parrish Blue). Parrish was reviled by the press and hated by fellow artists. He was viewed as a sell–out and a cheater (for using photography in his work). He was also arguably the first truly commercial artist, which could be viewed either positively or negatively I suppose. If it were not for the spread of his popularity by word of mouth (read: personal correspondence), Parrish would not have reached the size of audience that he eventually did. By 1912, 25% of the houses in America had a Parrish print hanging in them. If it were left up to the papers and the art critics, Parrish would have been forgotten by history, or remembered as just another commercial artist hawking Jell–O.

A somewhat related tack: I'm beginning to realize that the general conception of historically famous persons, especially those in the arts and sciences, is misinformed. I think I told you in a previous letter about Jean Piaget, who is known as a child psychologist famous for the theory of the Stages of Development, which is widely accepted in psychological practices today. The fact of the matter is that Piaget was never a child psychologist at all, he was a biologist. Moreover, he was engaged in what sounds like some of the wildest science I've ever heard of: the search for morality in the fabric of the living cell. The Stages of Development stuff was just a by–product. But I've rarely found him introduced in any text that I've read as anything other than a child psychologist. If the truth be told, child psychology didn't exist as a science during the earliest part of Piaget's work, so I don't see how it's possible that he was a child psychologist. But that's just a temporal issue, perhaps. What I'm really getting at here is that those who write our history tend to classify things in a way that they believe will most easily digested or understood, not with an eye to what will be the most truthful.

O. Henry: Embezzler

Here's another example. Bill Porter was a recalcitrant bank teller of the same era of American history as M. Parrish. His greatest achievement during his early adulthood was embezzling $15,000 from his place of work, a feat which earned him 5 years of hard time in an Ohio prison. The boredom of prison life led him to try his hand at writing to pass the time. As legend has it, he began writing short stories and passing them along as correspondence through his local ward guard, Orrin Henry
[2]. By the time he was released from prison, William Sidney Porter had become O. Henry, and by the time of his death was arguably the world's most famous writer of short fiction, and a primary architect of the short story form as we know it today.

I submit Porter's story as an example of a contribution to history that was made possible only by correspondence. Perhaps if it were the fact that Porter wasn't in prison and was actually trying to make it as a short–story writer, nothing would have happened. Perhaps there was a certain drive or urgency underlying his stories because they were his communication with the outside world. It is perhaps this subtext of ardent honesty, the need to be understood, that same sort of energy that drives all correspondence – perhaps that is the occluded spark that makes Porter's work what it is. Anyone can write ironically if they're trained well enough. So why is it that we use the phrase "O. Henry ending" as a universally understood term for a particularly exquisite type of denouement?

And of course all of this brings the discussion around to me, which in my neurotic inverted–prickly–pear world is what it's really all about. I find as I get older that my neuroses take on a more solid form (something like bas relief, actually). I see this as a positive thing, because they're easier to pin down, describe, and even criticize. I often see in my mind's eye one of my many cerebral homunculi guiding a pack of art students through a forest of Corinthian columns, the capitals of which are decorated with bas relief of each of my neuroses. The homunculus stops and directs the attention of the class to each carving with a slender olive shoot. They crane their necks and scribble notes as the homunculus lectures in condescending tones on the ridiculousness of the cognitive distortions inherent in creating such artwork, but also points out that the whole of this phalanx of columns also bears up the whole weight of the granite roof above them, and if the gross integrity of the structure were to be compromised by removing one of the capitals, they would all be squashed flatter than Nebraska. Salient point: they are not without function. The class nods slowly as a dawn of realization breaks over them. Then they move along.

I have no gauge of my daily progress toward any particular goal. The only thing I see is the interior surface of the feed bag in front of me, and the only thing I feel is the alternately mounting and cresting anxiety that it will become empty, and there will be no one around to refill it, nor will I be able to refill it myself. The feed bag is an allegory for any one of a dozen things: my future, my studies, my paycheck, my talent. It is a truly miserable mental life, but on the other hand, it is a mental life distended to such Chekhovian proportions as to seem hilariously ridiculous even to me.

So I look at guys like Piaget, Porter and Parrish and I find that what they became in history had almost nothing to do with where they were going in their lifetime. I feel a compunction to do something not just good, but great. I feel that I must, that it's expected of me, and if I don’t, my life would have been nothing more than one long parasuicide. Since I have no idea how to accomplish that, in the meantime I'm hand–wringingly disconsolate to some degree or other every day, wishing that something or someone would come along and decide for me how that was going to happen. Inasmuch as I can observe this behavior and understand it as ludicrous and hyperbolically neurotic, I'm okay with that. So I guess if anyone were interested, I could some day be eulogized very simply: "He was completely miserable every day of his life, but he was very happy about it."

Cheers, and give my best to Marie,

[1] A trove of correspondence between Roman soldiers and their friends and family back home has been uncovered in Northern England near Hadrian's wall. They were mostly asking the folks at home to send them money, sweets and underwear. And they bitched about not receiving enough mail.

[2] For accuracy's sake, please understand that this is only one explanation of Porter's pen name.

05 December 2003

Novelist Richard Powers: He's A Dessert Topping And A Floor Wax!

Oh fer Crissakes, Dick!
Get off yer ass and do something
brilliant already, wouldja?
 Posted by Hello

Dear Greg:

I was reading The Paris Review last night (I know you find that astounding) and came across an interview with a novelist by the name of Richard Powers. I had read an excerpt from one of his novels that was published in the same issue. The first paragraph struck me as a bit much – what seemed to be a protracted description of daybreak over Washington, DC on Easter Sunday, 1939. Something about "magenta coating marble" and so on that I thought was really laying it on a little thick. But as I gradually discovered the intent of the piece - which was to recall the day that Marian Anderson, the famous African American contralto, sang in front of the Lincoln Memorial – the emotional mass and speed of it increased until it seemed that the prose that I thought at first was florid wasn't nearly enough to contain it.

I don't know if you're familiar with Marian Anderson, but she was the toast of Europe at a time when she wasn't allowed to sing in most American concert halls because she was black. She wound up singing at the Lincoln Memorial that Sunday morning because the Daughters of the American Revolution had somehow disallowed her from singing in the usual venues in Washington, DC. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a member of the DAR at the time, withdrew her membership. Then the Secretary of the Interior, a fellow by the name of Inkes, stepped in and used his jurisdiction over the parks and monuments of DC to schedule the event at the Lincoln Memorial, thus sidestepping segregation laws. The DAR retaliated by sending an order to the Secretary of the Interior for 200 tickets, obviously hoping to "shut out" the performance by holding the tickets and not showing for the event. The Secretary sent a message back saying that he couldn't hold 200 tickets for them as the event was free and open to the general public, performance conditions that New Deal Era racists often referred to as "nigger heaven". Ironically, a small slice of heaven is what it turned out to be. On Easter Sunday morning 1939, Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of over 25,000 (arguably the largest performance in American history to that date) that was so varied in composition of race, sex and class that it could only be described as America.

I read the interview, and it turns out this guy Powers has written six novels, all of which have been nominated for the Book Critics Circle Award and/or a National Book Award. He was also the recipient of a Macarthur "genius" grant. Number of books sold? Dick. Now here's the interesting part. He's a Cognitive Scientist. He's at the computer science end of the field, and uses his skills to build what he calls a "war chest" with his earnings to buy him time to write books. His strengths were math and logic. All of this gives me a great deal of hope. As I said to you previously, I believed that there were no good science writers, and although that may still be true, here's a guy who's a scientist who writes some pretty damn good prose that more often than not deals with scientific issues. (Of course, the Marian Anderson piece isn't one of those, but his other novels do deal with scientific issues like artificial intelligence either in whole or to a degree.)

Here's part of the interview he gave in The Paris Review. I think it gives a perspective of racism that is very rarely heard, or at least one that I hadn't thought of.


We often think that racism is driven by a hatred of difference, a fear of difference, and a desire to annihilate difference and create a kind of sameness. Surely those things are inherent in racism. But just as important is an understanding of the degree to which racism is driven by a fear of similarities. We love and hate and we embrace and we mistreat and we exclude, not as a function of how little the other category overlaps with us, but as a function of how close the boundary is. If what looks so different from me is not that different, what happens to my sense of uniqueness?


Which leads to violence.


I think it's a strong contributor. Destroy that thing that would destroy our own uniqueness. Once you formulate it that way, and you take a look at this sense of how deeply motivated we are to preserve some illusory uniqueness that was never there, suddenly there's this great sense of lightness to the realization that losing yourself might not be all that bad of a thing. It is one of the glories of this country to realize that no matter how badly we've bungled this issue for four hundred years, the present is permeated by this possibility of losing yourself in something that isn't you, of culture becoming mongrel in all the best and richest possible ways.

I know this is taking a bit of a leap off the subject, but I feel the issue of having my uniqueness destroyed most keenly when it comes to participating in popular culture. For instance, reading the same books that everyone else does. I just tried reading Jonathan Franzen's hugely popular novel "The Corrections", and found that I couldn't bear it. The prose was good, but the whole time that I was reading it, it's almost as though I could feel the weight of the opinions of others, as though what I would "get" out of reading the novel had already been quantified, as if there were a right and a wrong way to interpret it. It felt confining. I think that any work of literature needs to expand, needs to be left alone and not overexposed so much that popular consumption and the mass of like opinions of it begins to limit its scope and meaning for the individual. That's why I read a literary quarterly that has a circulation of 2,000 and is mostly written by nobodies (with a few well–known authors thrown in to keep the coffers full, I suppose). Don't get me wrong. It's not that I think that popular writers like Franzen or Michael Chabon aren't good. It's just that I don't feel compelled to read something that feels like it has a popular opinion that comes with it, ready–made for me to adopt. I guess I developed that sentiment early via my unconventional tastes in music (thanks to you). Here I was, eight or nine years old, with a musical palette that included everything from Wild Man Fischer to Sinfonia Antarctica, when my friends were exclusively listening to the Osmonds because everyone else did. The Osmonds were shite and I knew it, and I wasn't about to change my tastes just because everyone else like them. Perhaps it’s the same sort of agency that we talked about before, only this time it's about maintaining authenticity and independence in one's own tastes rather than in one's art or talents.

I guess that's going to be all for now. I'm having one of those days when I can feel that "poisonous fog" closing in, and am going to go do something about it before it takes too strong a hold.
Cheers, and give my best to Marie.

02 December 2003

Suckled At The Teats Of Woolly Nuns, High In The Windblown Sierra Nevada

Italo Calvino > Me Posted by Hello

Dear Greg:

I've concluded that there aren't enough hours in the day to write letters. I've been limiting myself to one per day, and I've limited the length to four pages. Still this doesn't seem to be enough. It's as though all the letters that I didn't write over the years are suddenly coming to the surface like some sort of suppressed memory.[1]

I got another issue of The Paris Review yesterday. Teresa has had to put up with my mewling and wretchedness over having an almost three–week literature drought. When she saw the package in the mailbox, she threw her hands heavenward and shouted "At last! A reason to live!"

I'm currently reading the correspondences by Italo Calvino (The Castle of Crossed Destinies, If On A Winter's Night A Traveler), letters that he wrote home while he was a Ford Foundation Grant Recipient and living in New York City in 1959. He has fascinating observations about American culture in the late 50's, some of which make me think that our current political situation is simply our natural mode of state which is occasionally interrupted by such humanists as Roosevelt and Kennedy. Calvino talks about the climate of McCarthyism, but with a noticeable lack of criticism or surprise. Remember, this guy had just come over from Franco's fascist Spain. However, his remarks about American capitalism are priceless; he uses terms like "propaganda" without any pejorative overtone, and recommends that anyone who was going to have their children schooled in America should first send them to Merrill Lynch to study for two years, and then on to college to study the arts and letters. (Merrill Lynch, by the way, does have a student program, or at least did in 1959.) He marvels at the size of American automobiles, which at the time were sporting impossibly–sized fins (even the cabs, he says), and entertains the idea of hiring [renting] one just so he can feel more American. What really made me laugh was his description of the beatniks, whom he continually refers to as "filthy". He gives especially palpable descriptions of Allen Ginsberg's beard and mode of dress. There's one passage about how one of his Ford colleagues, a twenty–six year old writer from France who was wretchedly poor and sported a frightened little beard that clung to his chin for mercy (my description, not Calvino's) got taken back to Ginsberg's apartment. Ginsberg and his "wife" of course attempted to seduce this poor little guy, who later reported to Calvino that Ginsberg lived in a great deal of modern style, kept a tidy apartment, and only got dirty and dressed in mismatched thrift garb when he went out to the coffee houses. The more I hear stories like that, the more I believe that Kerouac and Ginsberg and the rest either inspired a generation that was nothing like themselves, or they manipulated a generation into a style of living that they did not share at all. Either way, they knew the beats, knew their tastes, and knew how to capitalize on them, that's for sure. They were champions of a culture that fancied itself disenfranchised, a culture that they also concurrently participated in outwardly and despised privately, as the evidence indicates.

I was going through all the writing samples that I have scattered here and there all over my computer, looking for a few pieces that might be representative of my body of work. After a while it became apparent that I have no body of work, that most of what I have completed sucks, and the mass of which is unfinished. I don't mean to sound like I'm getting down on myself, because there's nothing that I can really do to undo all the crap I've already committed to paper, other than to write more material that's better, and thus redeem myself. I think that it's an evolutionary necessity, this aversion to one's own work. Konrad Lorenz talks about intra–specific aversion which causes members on the same species to spread themselves around the available habitat if only to stay out of each other's way and avoid wearing out the ecosystem in one spot. I can see parallels in the life of writing. Not only is writing a solitary pursuit, but writers have a sort of bifurcated drive that keeps them away from other writers (through the application of stinging and unsolicited criticisms and whatnot), and away from their own works through endogenous loathing. And of course there's the other corollary: a writer, dropping a manuscript and moving away from it is akin to say, bears crapping around the perimeter of their domain. Or beatniks bathing in their own filth. I digress.

So I've come to the conclusion that all my previous works simultaneously sucks and blows, which is a party trick I thought was reserved for brass players who were short on money. ("Five bucks says I can keep bubbles coming out of this straw for fifteen minutes!") My only recourse, or penance if you prefer, is to create a lot more work that is markedly superior. Since I haven't enjoyed any sort of success or fame with my fiction to this point, then I can safely avoid association with anything that I've written previously, or at least burn it all, and have no one be the wiser. Moreover, I can look like I sprang into literary history fully formed, like a sort of Venus on the Half–Shell, albeit with a sagging belly, an appendectomy scar, and a frightened little beard. Once I'm famous, I can tell everyone that I never put a word to paper until I was forty one. I'll tell them that previous to that, I was a feral man–child who communicated through a complicated series of gestures, grunts and farts. Then one day, as my story shall continue, I was beaten with a copy of The Paris Review by a disgruntled coffee house owner who found me rooting in the garbage. The rest is history. I think this is a brilliant plan, and it obviously requires your complete cooperation and sworn oath of silence. Better yet, you should play the part of my only–slightly–more–developed feral brother, and limit your responses to single syllables if approached by the press. Tell them we were raised by Episcopalians in the wild, and suckled at the teats of wooly nuns high in the windblown Sierra Nevadas.

Drat and blast! Now I'm out of time. I have to go do something stupid and meaningless, like work. The sooner I get out of this having to work business and get on with doing what I want to do, the better. Like Confucius said, the man who finds a job that he loves never has to work a day in his life.

Cheers, and give my best to Marie,
[1] Suppressed memory, such as the term is used by pop psychologists and defense lawyers, is something that I do not believe in. Just wanted to be clear on that.