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.