Gaia is the word for "unity-of-life-processes". The experiment here is to unify the various threads of voice and sense of self together into an undivided unity. Spirituality, economics, politics, science and ordinary life interleaved.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

On Authentic Aesthetic Pleasure

The sure sign of authentic aesthetic pleasure is that we forget where we are, lose awareness of what amount of time passed in the enjoyment of the pleasure, and for a blessed moment shuck off the isolated ego. This happened to me four nights ago while reading Chekhov's short story 'The Grasshopper'.

Chekhov set out to write a story about a secular saint. In a way, the hero of this story is the bastard child of Dostyevsky's Idiot of the enopymous novel.

I resisted buying the cheap edition of Chekhov's stories because they featured "short, humorous sketches". Instead, I brought the second of the attractive and unobtrusive three volume Penguin edition, which chronologically arranges his stories around stylistic periods, entitled 'Ward No. 6 & Other Stories'.

I began to read 'Grasshopper' in the vaulted Adelaide Railway Station as Mozart's Jupiter Symphony played over the loudspeakers - it was Saturday night and Mozart has been found to sooth the violence of the drunkards and drug-addicts passing through the turnstiles. It is profoundly reassuring to me that in Australia even the most vulgar can find some useful end satisfied by Mozart.

But in combination with Chekhov the music of Mozart produced a sort of exalted absent-mindedness, a condition which reminds me of nothing so much as the ecstatic fugue preceding an epileptic fit so amazingly evoked by Dostoyevsky in the Idiot - the clear mild euphoria that precedes the aesthetic experience, subtle and pure like life-giving water, the original mind of zen in which insight becomes if not possible then potential.

I don't remember getting on the train. As the train streamed express to Goodwood through the downpour and darkness I finished the story and closed the book and looked around.

Where I am? I wondered. Had the train stopped already? Had I passed my home station? For all I knew at that moment, the train had been moving forever in accordance with the fixed stars.

The next day I tracked down Chekhov's literary child and grand-child in the University library. I could not hold back my eagerness. I read Babel's 'Crossing Into Poland'. I read Cheever's 'Goodbye, My Brother'. A cloud of mozartian grandeur spilled over from divine zimzum, chilled me into reverent silence.That day I got two Cheever books secondhand. It was a day before I spoke about it.

Yesterday to Dan then I showed him Babel's 'Crossing Into Poland'. I asked him to read it, then I explained the aesthetics of trauma - that is, how profound shock in literature will alienate the reader unless it is couched in a kind of ecstatic lyricism. Then we examined the words themselves of the opening two pars. I asked him to listen while I picked out the violent words from the apparently innocent description of the Polish landscape.

"Stop," he said. "It's positively morbid."

Dan's comment was a relief to me. Thank goodness somebody else could see it. I suppose I wanted to reality test the words to make sure the effect was in them and not simply in my imagination alone.

As we went out to dinner I popped into the secondhand bookstore and discovered the very rare Morison translation of Babel's Collected Stories, for only eight dollars. What a treasure!

I feel so blessed.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

On Harold Bloom

I am beginning to get a little pissed off with Harold Bloom's ideas.

Perhaps it would help if I had his astrology chart -- then I could interpret him from a purely pagan and nonverbal perspective and place him outside the veritable cloud of interpretations he surrounds himself with

Bloom as an invoker of haunted figures of rhetoric seems himself haunted with his own figure. He is easy to overdefine or underdefine, hard to evade, subtle to prefigure and alone on the field of a battle of his own imagining.

I have been reading his work for 15 years and I just now seem to be finally arriving at a clear impression of Harold Bloom's ideas. I feel strongly and negatively about his ideas. Specifically, I feel negatively impressed by his faith, negatively amused by his taste, and negatively entertained by his criticism. And I feel the need to put these three aspects back into perspective.

1. Harold Bloom's Atheism.

Mister Bloom calls himself a gnostic. What this means is that he finds athiesm unaesthetic and prefers to pretend to believe that God is absent from reality. In other words, he is an athiest who likes to pretend God exists.

I am negatively impressed by the high spirits of this enterprise. I mean, who gives a shit about the ironic delicacies of Jahweh as they relate to King Lear. But Harold says he is haunted by them, and I suppose it's as good a pastime as any while you wait for death.

2. Harold Bloom's Aesthetics.

The Big Haitch sez in his Western Canon that Joyce memorised a passage of Beckett's Murphy which is so miserably over the top that it is funny.

What I suppose he is aiming at here is the proper sense of the camp aesthetic - the outrageous as the real. The long string of outrageous books Bloom has had published testify to his own preference for the camp aesthetic over the merely sublime or beautiful. But he consistently mixed the camp with the terrible, the unbearable, the monstrous. There is no relief. He persistently appreciates a book or poem's uncanniness.

He says otherwhere ('The Best Poems in the English Language') that poetry is marked by wisdom, aesthetic power, and cognitive strength. Falstaff and Joyce's Bloom are examples of this expansive power. So where is the joyful campery in Harold Bloom? As with Freud, his camp is grimly embedded in his understanding of the reality principle and his reality testing. Never in Bloom does a flight of pure fantasy end well. Never in Freud does a joke end up funny.

I guess what I am trying to say is the Harold Bloom is just not gay enough. I prefer my bad taste to be lovely and sublime, Bloom prefers his bad taste terrifying.

3. Harold Bloom's Hermeneutics.

Let's look at Harold Bloom's hermeneutics in pieces:

The Big H-Bloom compels attention with his refined and superb treatment of the Kaballah of his ancestors in 'Kaballah and Criticism'. 'Kaballah and Criticism' has the advantage of being at once usefully dispassionate for the discerning esotericist, and overwhelmingly left-of-center to the normal run of literary criticism.

I suspect 'Kaballah and Criticism' is Bloom's own stab at canonical strangeness. It reads like the dude's channelling Borges, like a light piece of fantasy metaphysics. It's good fun.

On the darker side, Bloom's Freudian reading of literary criticism in 'The Anxiety of Influence' is enough to induce anxiety just trying to understand it. But there's a punchline to 'Anxiety of Influence': the family drama of writers through time turns out to be just good clean competition. What a relief: literature is really actually sport! Whew. But the lack of laughter in Bloom's literary criticism is revealing: in this literary Olympics we are not dealing for the most part with good sports. And in the process a lot of fun literature loses its joyful humor.

Next, throughout his books on Romantic poets and 'The Western Canon', the H-Bloom delivers for the first time I have seen a full-blooded Yankee approach to literary criticism, with his Emerson-inspired reliance on his own views and experiences as a reader. It's fun and lively writing, full of his fascinating personality and views.

Finally, 'The Western Canon'. Like Henry James and other astute modern American intellectuals, he situates himself between Europe and the United States as a complex, shadow-haunted figure of rejection and acceptance -- he puts himself between the Old and New World like a filtering mechanism, saying (in his imagination) Yea or Nay to which texts cross the Atlantic west into the promised land -- and by standing between the two Worlds, implicitly buys into the idealist and utopian notions of America that fuel the daydreams of political extremists of both the left and right.

'The Western Canon' reads like a season of Big Brother with great writers as housemates. One by one the writers are evicted until only Shakespeare is left winner. And I have to wonder, not that the voting process has been hijinked (I do not doubt that Shakespeare rocks) but whether it is really Willy S. or just the Bloom in sly Shakespearean drag.

We have four approaches to interpretation, the Kaballistic approach, the sport-based pagan approach, the individualistic Yankee approach, and the Canonical reality-tv style. What are we to make of this mess?

Tracing out the H-Bloom's hermeneutics are like doing a study of who has had sex with whom in a gay ghetto in a large American city -- not only it is salaciously personal and intricate, but it is also substantially frivolous.

Investigating H-Bloom's frightening and frightful sense of the camp aesthetic, which he uses to interpret the highest kinds of literary excellence, we discover at the essence a mordant sense of horror such as might excite Stephen King's complete indifference. We can interpret this through Borges or through Freud or through Jahweh Herself should we fancy - but any interpretation suffers from belatedness - that is, the subject of Harold Bloom is already sufficiently fogged up with interpretation, even to the level of becoming useless for the actual work of literary criticism.

Yes, art does relate to politics and gender and class and elites. No, in my opinion we have not clarified precisely what this relation is. But I can draw three major distinctions from things so far:

- Bloom is a pagan, not a Jew (or Christian or Muslim). He cannot be expected to treat non-pagan topics with the same brilliance as he treats pagan matters of aesthetics and competitive poetic excellence.

- Bloom likes the frightening form of the camp aesthetic, not the joyful forms. He cannot be expected to blossom with a life-giving camp, and he can be admired for his gothic charms without wishing he were different.

- Bloom is an American first and foremost, not a European. He cannot be expected to accept the interpretative traditions of Europe and their corresponding European-specific biases. That said, however, Bloom seems to have made significant progress towards an expressly American literary criticism. Harold Bloom's sense of bad taste may be a bit Emily Dickinson, a tad Gothic in his love of the uncanny, but his interpretations are of an all-American individuality, delivered with such a sunny Yankee disposition -- I reckon even Mister Emerson might've approved!


On John Steinbeck.

Either deadpan or straight-faced, Jonathon Yardley in the Washington Post writes:

"The only reason I can come up with for the high esteem in which Steinbeck is still held is his transparent sincerity. It has long been my pet theory that in the popular marketplace, readers instinctively distinguish between writers whose work draws on genuine feeling and those who rely on art or artifice, and that they reward the former while repudiating the latter. From Jacqueline Susann to Danielle Steel, from James Michener to James Patterson, readers have recognized the sincerity of feeling beneath the utter lack of literary merit, and have rewarded it accordingly."

Yardley links Steinbeck's sincerity with his popularity. This implies that insincerity - or more generously, irony, art, rhetoric and artifice - is the realm of great art. Certainly Steinbeck's novels are deeply felt and badly written, but forget the books for a second - Steinbeck himself is considerably more charming than his contemporaries like the preachy Sinclair Lewis.

John Steinbeck's writing interests me only insofar as I get up close and personal with the author. He fascinates. Steinbeck encapsulates the symbol of Pisces, the elusive fish of classical paganism. Divinely dodgy, sweetly two-faced, a successful loser, and an inspirational figure via the agency of his profound inadequacies as a writer - how can we fail to appreciate this man of paradox? I would do him.

The fact that John Steinbeck is assigned to school children is depressingly Leninist - which is to say it lacks even the redemption of bad taste. Who does not find Steinbeck's downtrodden poor folk boring - it's like 'Les Miserables' without Valjean, or Gogol without the jokes.

I am sure others find Steinbeck's books dull, unless soul clap its hands and sing, and they recognise the man behind the melodrama. Otherwise, assigning Steinbeck to school-children in order to increase class consciousness is, as the little darlings say, "completely douche".

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Friday, May 09, 2008

The Aesthetics of a Bad Afternoon

It has been a bad afternoon.

Getting off the train tonight from the working crowd, I smelt the stale smell of men sweating into the aluminium of their carcinogenic deodorants, their rancid lamb chops and coffee bitters leaking into the cotton of their business shirts; I smelt the rotten flowers and putrid spices of the female perfumes conceal the outrageous failure of vaginal hygiene in western women, a yeasty and bloody bloom of which three or four whiffs rose which would make a libertine celibate for a week; I smelt the schoolchildren with their smell of old tomato and soggy lettuce, a mysterious musk of chalky rancidity covering the freshness of their flesh, not yet contaminated by the shit-waves and mud-storms of testosterone and ostrogen.

My gorge rising, I got off and separated from the group as quickly as I could, wishing only for the nausea that the smell of westerners inspires in me to diminish, longing for the company of sweet vegetarian South Indians or the pleasant spice of any other races. By the railway many roses bloom, and I inhaled and held my breath as the last woman stinking of rotten perfume left, her obnoxious high heels and sickening stink of hygiene finally fading in the whole smell of the rose. My nausea faded.

Miserable, I rounded the corner to my house and saw the sunset. The western sky was pink and blue, and suddenly I cried and couldn't contain my relief at the sight of a simply inhuman beauty. I immediately thought of an image...

The sky looked as if Venus were rising as the sun, her pink flesh rosy with love, and murdered before more than he thigh could touch the horizon, so that in the sweet living pink flesh of the goddess was interspersed a morbid blue of dead meat. At once I felt cheerful, as this image reminded me of the dead woman in The Great Gatsby and how Fitzgerald had depicted her with her right breast ripped off. This sadistic touch symbolises the lack of inner nurturance of the jazz generation; it was Fitzgerald's way of biting off the nipple that he had drunk milk from, a symbol for Fitzgerald the alcoholic's loss of soul-milk.

The pleasant contemplation of the sickness of great art, and the awareness of my own perversity, both cheered me enormously, and I wanted only to come home to record the relief with which my numb and weary hatred for the merely ordinary stink of humankind converted into a sense of the actual experience of being alive. It is for such ends that literature makes effective use of violent and sexual imagery: sometimes, to shock the numb and self-centered awake from the nightmare of the ordinary, only violence and sex with suffice.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

On Writing Style: the Realists Versus the Rest of Us.

In regards to questions on style in writing prose, one thing is certain: It depends.

French prose is the start and end of all matters of prose style. Why? Because not only is French as a language more amenable to supple and sinuous turns of style, but it is less hampered by the shackles of the demand for actual substance in writing by an indulgent and fickle French reading public. (One year it is novels as jigsaw puzzles, the next cannibalism as romance... crikey French readership what's wrong with youse??)

The basic dichotomy I perceive is the realistic prose stylists versus the Rest of Them.

The Realists...
Some writer called Flaubert used the concept of a "telling detail". He said you only need the detail that helps TELL THE STORY AND NO MORE. His realistic style proved the basis for French writers for a century.

Now I find Flaubert dull. I found his novel Madame Bovary so dull, you could hire the dvd and not finish watching dull you could fall asleep using the pages as toilet dull that a recital by lesbian midget circus performers in midair juggling flaming sticks would... but you get the idea: boring boring boring man and writing and books. But this is the really cool thing about style - you might pick up Flaubert (play safe) and really enjoy his books.

So the instruction from Mister Flaubert - for those who don't speak French, Flaubert is pronounced 'Phallaeo-Bart' - the instructions for writing realistic telling details in prose, are as follows: for creating telling details is to ask yourself if each detail advances the story, and omit those that do not.

...And The Rest of us.
Style is complex and elusive, because it is related to your fundamental strengths as a writer and abilities as a human. To develop style, read the great stylists, reflect on your strengths and their strengths, and vigorously experiment with your writing.

Start with purchasing and reading every year or two a copy of Strunk and White's legendary book 'The Elements of Style'. Continue to George Orwell's 'Politics and the English Language' (found online with a quick google). Every single writer I know has read and admires both of these.

Then I suggest you push at the limits of modernity. Try the two great trans-realistic prose stylists of the last century, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolfe. Woolfe's prose is simply gorgeous, and Proust's is very very funny. But reading will not take you all the way.

Proust and Woolfe both wrote "pastiches" of other writers - that is, they rewrote their own essays or stories in the tone of another writer. They did this because that gave them freedom over and from the style of the other writer.

As a rule, then, you will see that style is learnt sequentially by imitation, by theft, by imitation and by transforming - the same way children get good at speaking and the way by which adolescents transform language.

Good writers began by recognising and imitating their betters; develop and expand their abilities by stealing from vital equals; learn by vigorously adapting the greats through pastiches; and then the rare great prose stylists become great by innovatively transforming their own merely good writing by infusing it with the vivid awareness of the greatness of the prose of other writers.

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