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.

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