Monday, October 13, 2014

On Google Street View

One of those dull afternoons where you're stuck in a Wikipedia loop. Not out of interest, desire, or any kind of pointed effort, but just as one of those places you arrive at when a torrent of sheer information-- whether it's Wikipedia, Youtube, Facebook, whatever-- seems to be the only thing keeping you going.

Itt was thus that I arrived at the entry for “mobile home.” History of. Geography of. Inclement weather and. And suddenly, I see a picture of my hometown.

It was one of those photos-- the kind you see almost daily in the press in the Midwestern states-- of a mobile home struck by disaster, in this case, a flood. I remember this part of town, and even this vista quite well. The meandering path of the Skunk River through riparian woods, a mobile home park, where, in a sad attempt at a bucolic mode, the developer named the streets after songbirds, kids in t-shirts with Stone Cold and Mankind on them darting about on bikes, women in neon tank tops leaning into screen doors with lit menthols.

But was that my memory? Or was that me superimposing a stereotype onto my memory?

And so, perversely, I went to Google Street View, to cycle through the part of town down along the floodplain of the Skunk River, to wide streets and chain restaurants with big plastic signs, tiny, rundown houses on flat lawns, an enormous sky.

And I realized not only that this was how ugly my town really was, but how people who don't grow up there conceive of the image and shape and light of the American Midwest.

I noted every forgotten detail-- the fan eternally spinning in an attic window, a gingerbread porch, the steel oblong structure behind the power plant that I called “the sarcophagus,” because that's what they called something that looked similar at Chernobyl on TV.

And rather than a warm nostalgia, they evoked a stark disgust, that these details, so associated with an ice cream and a sweaty brow on a summer afternoon, with a drunk teenage walk home through the snow, so often intimate and even cherished, were in a setting this bleak and flat and wide.

Our memories of early life are of course eternally veiled in golden gauze, even if they're sad. This is not only because of the temporal and spatial distances we have between ourselves and our childhoods, but because of the intrinsic nature of childhood perception, which is intuitive, holistic, immediate, impressionistic, and unsystematic, lack any of the exterior reference points that we have acquired and cultivated in the meantime.

And so when we see the images of our childhood rendered in the stark relief of analytic adult perception, especially through a computer screen, there is a disconnect. We can't reconcile who we are with who we were, and for those of us who have wandered a bit, where we choose and where we're from.

We try to justify the disconnect through countless techniques: the aforementioned nostalgia, ironic distance, lyricism, contempt. Some of us go into therapy. Some politicians try to impose their nostalgia into an idiotic politics of regression. Some musicians make shitty revival records.

Thomas Wolfe once assured a 16 year old me that you can't go home again. I loved his elegant descriptions, paired with the sense of loss and alienation of a North Carolina mountain kid adrift in New York, frantically scribbling on top of his fridge, unsure how to express his pining, and so going into radical modernist stream of consciousness-- something I admired immensely as an adolescent looking forward to clutching onto some modernist alienation myself.

And it took Joan Didion a lifetime to realize that California was a late-capitalist nightmare not only in her middle years, but from its earliest inception.

We try to organize the narrative arc. Reality eventually slashes it to bits.

And all the lies we tell ourselves eventually come to a head, at times like this when you're staring at your laptop, at a picture of an asphalt street with a willow tree on it, 3000 miles away.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Books of Our Lives: A Mollusk's View

I was recently, asked, in the Facebook poll that's been going around, what 10 books influenced me. Being a bit salty, and a couple beers in, I gave a cagey meta-non-answer, rather than doing the straight-faced thing.

This honestly wasn't an attempt to sound cleverer-than-thou. As someone who holds the act of reading in such reverence, so much more than I've ever been willing to muster for any other religious system or other institution or ideology, it's hard to reduce yourself in this way.

I could have winnowed down a list, I suppose. But what was expected was a list of 10 books of the sort you read in your normal reading life-- novels, poetry, biographies, maybe a little critical theory if you're feeling fancy. And it should probably include a variety of books that reflect different parts of your preconceived personality, or that influenced you at different times in your life, and you want to avoid the obvious ones, the Catchers in the Rye and Old Men and the Sea that most other literary-minded people held in such high regard as teens just discovering the literary endeavor. And it should ideally include a curveball or two to impress the readers, and offer them something they might not necessarily be familiar with. And probably at least one children's book, to be cheeky, to prove how unpretentious you are. Wink wink.

Nowadays, in our social media-inundated world, the whole thing seems like a horrible Buzzfeedization of the act of reading. But I'll save that diatribe for another day.

But if we are to get to the root question, of how and which books influence us, I can't answer. The books that made the strongest impression on me are buried deep within early memory, the books that forged by aesthetic and intellectual perspectives and preferences. I don't even remember the names of most of them, yet I remember their images, the feelings they evoked, the corners I read them in and how those corners smelled with such intense warmth and intimacy.

There were the coffee table art books my parents kept, each painter seeming to be the author of a different world. The dreamlike take on bourgeois livingrooms in Magritte, primitive fields of color in Klee, lonely American streets in Hopper. Repeat for Gauguin, Modigliani, Orozco.

There were the library books about witchcraft and paranormal events, that seemed to promise that the adult world didn't have as many answers as it claimed to, and that if you pierced through the veil, that darker, more intuitive truths hid beneath. Not that I remember the names of any of them, who they were by, or most of their claims.

And most importantly, the antique reference books, atlases from the 1920s, textbooks from the 1870s, encyclopedias from the 1960s, hidden in libraries and in the backs of classrooms, filled with grainy photos and delicate lithographs. The latest Packard coming off a Detroit production line. The newly discovered headwaters of the Nile. The World Festival of Youth and Students saluting Comrade Brezhnev.

And this doesn't count the endless magazines found in doctor's offices, maps, telephone books, cookbooks, colorful diagrams, newspaper clippings, instructional pamphlets, catalogs, liner notes, and all the other fragments of written language that accumulate in an industrial society. Things not meant to be especially permanent or moving, but that often haunt me in their shapes and turns of phrase.

The real implications of any of this were of course completely unfamiliar. As a child you have very concrete images, embedded within an impressionistic and deeply egocentric awareness of how those things string together. The real implications of calculus, Sikhism, or the Trotskyist alternative were alien to me. All I had was a parabola, a turban, a fiery-eyed man in glasses.

And while my world has become more nuanced, those images, and the perceptions that I've associated with them persist, expressions of a photographer's whim, an editor's metaphor, a printer's choice of font, an idea as represented in Cartesian coordinates.

Because perception, while it is so often fleeting, doesn't occur by itself, but in concordance with previous experience. Like mollusks, we view the world from the shells we've built for ourselves.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Bohemianism

I recently moved house, to an apartment with high ceilings and teak floors, with a patio leading down, through a curtain of potted palms, to an antique swimming pool, where, on sunny Sunday afternoons, sirenic French and Japanese women lie out on wooden deck chairs.

I know. C'est très décadent, n'est-ce pas?

But, not long after, the anxieties took over. I can hang out poolside, but I'm possessed by the sort of self-loathing that define the American relationship to our own bodies, and, what's worse, the immense phobia, that, stubbly and hairy, half-concealed by the palm fronds, that I'm perceived as a creep and a weirdo, the lone masturbator in the bushes.

And the pool-- a tropical pool set in a garden, as perfect a symbol of idyllic living as one can imagine!-- is mainly a source of exercise for me. It's not for playing in, now is it? It is for a dutiful 20 laps after a day's work.

Or I sit out as the sun dips below the Indian Ocean, my feet washed in the froth of the sea, a cold gin and tonic in my hand, and think “well, that was fun, I'll feel so much better when I go in on Monday.”

An uneasy relationship to the flesh and a suspicion of indolence. Two of the strongest marks of the frigid Northern culture of the land I come from. The term “Protestant work ethic” has been much-abused and overapplied and overanalyzed and mangled since Max Weber first unleashed it on us over 100 years ago.

This isn't to say that I had some kind of horrible Calvinist-Oedipal childhood marked by austere diets and grim penitence in a rough-hewn prairie church. And yet the attitude that marked the Midwestern spirit was always that labor is the essence of being.

Now, I'm glad that I developed a work ethic early-- I hated and resisted my chores, as all children do-- but it's a work ethic is something I've learned is a great strength, and something I've very consciously tried to cultivate. And married to a political leftism, it becomes a remarkably virtuous worldview, fostering a militant egalitarianism, a deep respect for workers, and a suspicion of the showiness and flash of the capitalist class.

As I've gotten older, I have-- like countless other arty Yanks-- consciously sought out cultures that do it differently. The sensuousness and emotion and otherworldliness that mark the American images of Asia and Latin America and the Mediterranean draw me in. In college I fell in love, in turn with Fellini, Rushdie, Mishima, Almodóvar. I read Italo Calvino on a stairwell on a sunny June evening in Montmartre. I got blessed by an old woman in a Cambodian temple ruin. I smoked a lot of weed on a lot of beaches.

But, try as I might to escape from the lens of work, I viewed all of these through the lens of productivity. Introspection and adventure and culture were means of self-improvement, and I didn't necessarily opt to take these experiences out of sheer delight and wonder. And furthermore, as someone who had a comfortably middle class two-Toyotas-and-a-mortgage American upbringing, I felt that I had a responsibility to experience things because so many people lacked the socioeconomic freedom to do so.

It's an odd variation on the Protestant work ethic. Traditionally-- and, as seems borne out on my Facebook news feed, seems to be the case for a lot of folks today-- I should have gotten the career-track job, had the kids, gotten the Toyota and the mortgage, things I absolutely ran screaming from. But in my ostensibly bohemian sort of life, I've found a similar one-directionality both in myself and in my peers, and oftentimes a conformity as rigid and unforgiving as that of a salaried manager in a Richard Yates story.

Because no matter how hard we try, our early conceptions of things will eternally nag us. It's often said that we can't escape our roots. What's not often said is that we never know when they will remind us of that fact.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

On Celebrity Suicide

The Internet announced it was in mourning. It was in mourning for a comedian and actor whose work I honestly didn't appreciate for a long time, until I recently, within the past couple weeks, really, discovered his early stand-up career, before he became associated with a long string of what I always considered to be dreadfully sentimental films.

And I have to wonder why and how the hive mind mourns. It has always bothered me how people's lives become metaphor, and in the case of a suicide, the suicide becomes the central metaphor. If the person has enjoyed some level of fame, the media coverage of their death turns a complex and remote experience into something “personal” and “sincere” for the general public, a tidy little pill we can swallow. Take two after dinner to feel pathos.

In this case the central metaphor of his personality-- in public, that of the clown, privately maybe not so much, as intimated in the now-famous Marc Maron interview-- is hijacked and transformed into a Pagliaccio figure, the clown carrying inner pain, which, of all tropes in the media, is one of the laziest and most played out.

The notion of comedians as being funny on stage, but also depressed, addicted, or just generally fucked up should be a notion we're used to by now, 40 plus years after Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce made their mark. And it becomes too easy to construe comedians as inherently fucked up, or conversely, to view damage and darkness as a natural and necessary conduit for humor. This is a variation of the old conflation of personal disaster and creative genius, the fetish of countless teenage boys (self included) and a plotline that has somehow retained its mystique since Goethe and Keats introduced it.

Other sectors of the Internet mourning community have taken the opportunity to claim that depression is a disease like any other. Now, there is a certain truth to it (yes, it fits our definition of a disease) and a pragmatism to it (it's good to demystify mental illness, and to treat it as something that can be handled clinically). But it becomes too easy to medicalize our problems, to reduce thorny and difficult problems to something easily treatable with pharmaceuticals, which in empirical practice seems to only be sometimes useful, but is deeply in line with the American desire for quick fixes. And yet this line of thought, which should be more productive and more empirical, winds up leading to another form of mystification in the public consciousness. We take something difficult, and relegate it to the realm of expert knowledge, beyond comprehension. Which is perhaps, why, in eternally unsmiling and practically minded Hong Kong, the falling suicide of megastar Leslie Cheung was reported as “due to chemical imbalance.”

We don't want to confront the fact that at the end of the day, we are merely speculating, merely projecting fears and worldviews onto the unknowable and scary when it is suddenly thrust into the public spotlight. Instead of asking deep, serious questions, we impose our narrative on the material event, and damn the places where they don't synchronize.

I know that by writing about it, I am imposing my own narrative, taking this sort of cagey, oblique, postmodernist approach, out of my morbid curiosity about everyone else's morbid curiosity.

Which, like so many meta-approaches, leaves me with a sense of cold disconnectedness, of being trapped in an infinite mirror maze of language and sign and discourse. And I'll leave it there. I could extrapolate that to what the point of writing is at all, to what the world is, but I know well enough to leave those issues alone. I simply arrive at this point in said mirror maze. I feel like I'm somewhere important, but everyone probably does.

Monday, July 28, 2014

My Corpse

An industry of sorts has grown up around the memory of David Foster Wallace. There are the books of interviews, of B-side essays, the (rather dull) biography, the (repugnant and cloying) blank-page art book version of his Kenyon College commencement speech, the hundreds of thousands of views of his Youtube interviews, the accompanying comment threads.

Of course, I'm guilty of having consumed a great deal of it. As for so many of my generation, he has become transfigured as Saint David of Illinois, the secular beacon for the mopey and literary, someone we can project our angst and desire for sincerity onto, a figure-- as with all secular saints-- we can use to embody our perceptions of certain elements of ourselves.

However, he is by no means alone. All of us, anyone who makes some kind of impact on the world through having children, through art, etc., has to face the reality that, ultimately, other people will invest our death and a full-scope view of our life as a metaphor, and for all intents and purposes, use our corpses as puppets for their own egos.

A nightmare: from above, I see an open-casket funeral. I cannot see a face on the body, but I'm certain that it's me, embalmed and half-transformed into plastic, my body cavity stuffed with cotton, fluids replaced with formaldehyde and methanol, a doll version of myself. Some people look sad, most look bored. People who brought their kids who'd rather be at home playing Xbox.

Of course, there are also the more modern traditions. The modern funeral is supposed to be about life and the all-pervasive word “dignity,” not about death per se, I'm told, which strikes me as truly gruesome. In logical extension of the Protestant work ethic, my countrymen have turned catharsis into productivity.

The violation of one's own body and memory are, for oneself, completely hypothetical circumstances. By definition, you will never consciously experience either. And yet they produce this deep-seated primal nausea, something ancient and atavistic.

Much is made of the human desire for immortality, and this feeling seems to be a sort of variation on that. The notion of immortality, exclusively through the terms of others, seems like a long-term postmortem slavery. So we try, in life, to align how we will be remembered with the value systems we hold dear, whether that's through religious ritual, organ donation, or leaving one's assets to beloved children or worthy charities or what have you.

But why should I expect anything more from death than I have in life? It's not like I live my life on my terms and mine alone, or that anyone does. If none of us have a monopoly on how we are perceived in our lives-- try as we might-- why can we expect the same in death?

Alternatively, we can take the opposite route, to try to be forgotten-- common courtesy in certain Amazonian societies which forbid even saying the names of the dead, but harder in the contemporary Western world. A less extreme example is found in the funeral practice of Mongolian lamas, who, in a final act of compassion, have their corpses dragged to mountaintops to feed the birds of the steppe.

All of this being said, death is by its very nature an abstraction, something we can come close to, but never touch until the absolute moment. Try as we might, we can never control it-- even suicides rarely go as planned. And the people who have the healthiest relationships to death probably recognize this, whether consciously or not, and accept its abstract nature.

And so my line of analysis leaves me back where I started, with a void. Which, in turn, is all I can ask for. An emptiness that I have to learn to be comfortable with.

Monday, July 14, 2014


There has been barely a day in the past few months that I haven't, for some brief moment, thought of the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki's foray into nonfiction, In Praise of Shadows, a 50-page meditation on aesthetics written in Japan's dark days of the early 1930s, as the nation stood on the verge of political and economic collapse. It haunts me especially in the early evening, as I walk home to my empty apartment and I can see the fading light of the sun through my grimy window, the tired, red sun of East Asia that bears so little in common with the sun I grew up with, regardless of whether it's the same star.

If I was to reduce Tanizaki's essay, I would say it is an ode to a traditional aesthetic system full of darkness and shade, and against the neon-ization of the country already well underfoot by then. But to say that is to suggest that it's a coherent and ascertainable aesthetic system. Rather, it's everything that Tanizaki conceived of as associated with shadows and candlelight, from gold-flecked cups in the half-light to old styles of sushi made with persimmon leaves to the blackened teeth of Meiji concubines to his own skin tone.

And while there's nothing to pinpoint-- cultures always change, old nations die as new nations are born, traditions are little more than ideological expressions-- I can see how his analogies hang together, difficult to perceive but not impossible, like a massive spiderweb in the dark. His perceptions come to the surface as I lie in bed in the summer heat, with the air conditioning off, a thin layer of sweat on my brow, as I press the fruit as I'm making a thick liqueur from ripe lychees, as indirect sun hits my writing paper, as I make a pot of black tea, thick and dark, the leaves blended with smoked camphor.

Two or three weeks ago, my power went out at about 9:00, and I lit a couple of candles. Reflected in my bedroom mirror, they produced much more light than I would have expected, and yet it was of a totally different character. The veneer on my wooden bedframe. The green bottle on my desk. It extended beyond light into all senses. The air took on a new warmth and velvety thickness, and my apartment was as still and silent as the first snowfall of the winter.

And it occurred to me that the same sensibility Tanizaki described was equally present in Flemish still lives. Never mind that the symbolism was different-- Calvinism instead of Shinto, splayed rabbits and peeled lemons instead of tea bowls and sakuras. It is the interplay of light and dark that is the same, the same focus on the odd little artifacts.

 The unnameable aesthetic forces that dance around the edges of our consciousness are by no means spiritual or universal, as a Jung would have it, but the effect of countless images, compositions, natural patterns. What I see and feel in the writings of Junichiro Tanizaki, in these paintings of the breakfast tables of long-dead Dutchmen, in the taste of the camphorous tea, is the residue of old perceptions.

It's like this. You come to an unfamiliar place, and you don't know why, but it reminds you of someplace else, someplace familiar. What is it that ties you back to your reference point? Is it the way the leaves shine silvery in the afternoon light? The leap of a cat from a roof onto a garbage heap?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial

I recently reread Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, a meditation on an archaeological site published by the sadly rarely read, but always revered Thomas Browne in 1658. I don't reread books often-- there seem to be too many things I haven't read once to get around to reading something twice-- but it's quite short, and things were slow. The clouds were gathering over the city, in more ways than one, and it seemed the perfect time to read something dark and quiet and half-remembered.

I can remember so distinctly when I first read Thomas Browne, when I was staying for a week at a couple of friends' apartment on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. And I can remember the way the light cast down on the paper, the Italic headings in an old 19th Century copy of Browne's complete works from the library. The recurring mental image was of two men, with pointed beards and black cloaks, on a chilly autumn morning, with ravens in naked trees on the flat plains of Norfolk, standing before an open pit in the black earth, a broken ceramic jar at the bottom lying in a pool of stagnant water, maybe a workman with a rough country accent digging through the sandy soil. Browne-- or at least the face engraved on the frontispiece-- staring up at a gray English sky, watching the birds fly upwards. His melancholy, his facing the tombs of dead pagans, immediately confronting his faith in the Protestant God and the emerging scientific practice that marked the dawning Age of Reason, which he believed to be symbolized in the eternal quincunx, the latticed form that he believed marked the soul of all things.

It was about a year after that cold day in Seattle that I stood in a field on the Plain of Jars in Northern Laos, with the first burial urns I recognized as such, or rather things generally figured by the archaeologists to be burial urns-- the local people believed them to be where the gods and giants kept their lao khao, the harsh, grainy rice wine of Laos and Thailand, which I'd drank that morning, scalding hot from a still.

Did I think of my image of Thomas Browne in his field on that day? Or was the sunlight, the clang of cowbells on high mountain meadows, the high spirits of a holiday, even in a necropolis, strong enough to dissuade me?

And when I think, now, of Thomas Browne, I am not thinking of him amid ancient ruins. My thoughts wander in that direction on days when the sunset seems sickly, when there's a sourness in the pit of my stomach, when my apartment seems a sepulcher.

And was that image based on anything? For all I know, Browne could have visited his urns on a bright summer day, with skylarks instead of ravens and trees full of flowers. My image of Thomas Browne is more informed by his followers-- the morose wanderer W.G. Sebald, the blind librarian Jorge Luis Borges, the sensitive suicide Virginia Woolf. And on the whole, images of death, such as this, are probably more at home in Hollywood than in our lives.

I did feel a distinct sense of death in the jars, as I walked delicately along the margins of rice paddies. This area, a plateau in the Lao highlands was made briefly infamous by Lyndon Johnson's clandestine use of the local Hmong people as a proxy army as part of America's decade-long folly in Southeast Asia. The burial urns now share space with minefields and caved-in Pathet Lao trenches. Missile casings are turned into fenceposts, hotels keep rusty Kalashnikovs as souvenirs. The death I felt there was not cosmic, but immediate, the very real possibility that I would meet a sudden, violent end if I strayed from the marked path.

Which tells me how separate death is from its avatars. We dress up death in images, turn it into mossy churchyards and widows in black crepe. Death is irrational, unbounded by human metaphor. It is the full catheter and labored breathing of a much-loved relative in a chilly hospital room, the idiotic expression of a corpse by a roadside, half-seen through a car window.