Saturday, March 5, 2011

Confessions Of A Self-Ordained Monk

I used to describe myself as an urban Thoreau. The cheap studios and one-bedroom apartments I lived in were my cabin by Walden Pond. It was a Walden Pond of the imagination: a sanctuary of books and unbridled reflections unsullied by the noxious ambitions of money and power. I lived austerely, but comfortably. I did not choose austerity because I enjoyed asceticism. I didn’t. I don’t. The truth is, I lean toward the sybaritic. I lived that way because I had a passionate need to write. And the best way to solve the problem of eating and shelter while consuming hours bent over a desk writing prose and poetry with no commercial value was to work part time.

Since then, the urban Thoreau analogy has withered. Life has become more drastic. What little community still endured to support the intellectual life in mainstream contemporary culture is now so thinly marginalized as to be no more than a ghost, a stratospheric wraith of dissipating cirrus. Hardly a contrail. Even the dinosaurs left footprints. The legacies of Emerson and Dickinson and Thoreau have nothing whatever of value for the Hilary Clintons, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world. These people all crave power. Even their philanthropy smacks of power. The 70s, despite disco, were still imbued with the jubilant idealism of the 60s. The 60s now seem as historically distant as sepia tinted daguerreotypes of Civil War officers posing in front of their tents. So do the 70s. Today’s pestilent Zeitgeist begins in 1980. With Ronald Reagan.

The real Walden Pond still exists, thanks, largely, to Don Henley of the Eagles, who initiated the WaldenWoods Project to prevent the area around Walden Pond from being developed.

It was my imaginary Walden Pond that dried up.

In today’s world of capitalist predation, ignorance, illiteracy, and endless war, I think of myself as a monk. It is pertinent that the word monk, which comes from the Greek word monachos, means “single, solitary.” My solitude, however, is of a particular kind. We have all heard that expression about solitude in a crowd. That’s what I’m talking about. Solitude in a crowd.

Married, and living in a one-bedroom condo, collecting social security until the Republicans take it away, my quality of life has improved markedly. I never go hungry. I eat quite well, in fact. My wife is a terrific cook. My newly found status in monkhood has nothing to do with food, or shelter, or piety. It has everything to do with an audience. That is to say, the non-existence of an audience. There is something quintessentially monkish about devotion to an art for which there is no audience.

I feel a profound sense of fraternity with those robed, tonsured old men tending vineyards and making illuminated manuscripts in the drafty hermitages of the Dark Ages. Marriage dilutes the analogy, but my sense of affiliation with that group has more to do with intellectual isolation than celibacy. It also has a lot to do with the Dark Ages.

This sense of isolation pertains chiefly to the domain of poetry, and a very eccentric poetry, at that, though sometimes the writing (my writing), the writing that dribbles and oozes from my hand in sentences and subtleties designed to engage the eyes of a refined, non-existent reader, erupts into a shrill, opinionated rant, as now. Isn’t this really what the blog was invented for? To provoke? To engage? To jostle the sensibilities of people whose opinions differ sharply for yours? Or are in sync, but with critical shades of difference? Differences whose urgency, whose significance, whose interestedness, require a comment. That’s the beauty of the blog: comments. Readers who are so engaged, they chime in with writing of their own.

It’s a fabulous community, but unless your name is Ariana Huffington, or Julie Powell, you are not going to get paid for it, and it may take years before you attract a readership. The kind of readership that translates into a movie deal, like Julie and Julia.

Don’t knock anonymity. It may not be the kind of social currency that garners an audience, but think of the freedom. The broad, exhilarating margin you have to imagine, and write about, anything.

And what better place to find anonymity than a blog. If a writer, poet, or investigative journalist (another profession well on its way to extinction) lacks the cachet of a big mainstream publisher, the gloss of a magazine like the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly or Harper’s to fit one’s writing into their Elysian of the gatekeeper blessed, one needn’t perform fellatio, literal or metaphorical, in order to score publication. You’re on your own, bub.

I suspect the few people who consist of my “pageviews” are people who Googled their way here by accident. I doubt that they linger here. Why would they? Who reads other people’s poetry? Definitely not other poets. They’re far too occupied with writing their own work and finding a venue to publish it. Why should they be bothered by reading anyone else’s poetry?

Very few people read anymore to begin with. Unless, perhaps, the text is dished up in some spectacularly lush and high tech fashion, like Kindle, iPad, Smartphones, and Laptops. But even then I find it hard to believe that anyone consumes more than a paragraph before they begin rubbing their eyes and gazing out of the window. Or - who knows? - resting their eyes on the spines of a shelf-load of books put on display in a coffee house somewhere, relics from a bygone era when people took time to craft a well-written sentence.

And so my thoughts turn toward the fall of the Roman Empire, circa 411 or so, when that population took a turn for the worse and sought entertainment by feeding Christians to lions. Not a good time for monks. Let’s fast forward to, say, 800 A.D. Christians are doing a little better.

Am I a Christian? No. Not really. I attended a Unitarian Church when I was fifteen. My parents made me attend. When they relinquished me to my own volition, I ceased going. My feelings about religion remain relatively neutral. I am not an atheist. I find it hard to believe that there is a large, robustly muscled man in the sky with a long flowing beard who was responsible for putting this universe together (and if He is responsible for Infinity, how do you finish that? How do you begin a phenomenon that has no beginning? And what sort of being makes a platypus, or mosquito?), but I also find it hard to believe that we (all living creatures) are here merely to reproduce. That is a tautology, not a reason to exist. To go through all the hardship of living (finding a job, filling out tax forms, driving a car, finding a clean rest room in public, etc.), and the misery of dying, all for no reason other than joining your DNA with someone else and producing another sorry creature to go through the same shit is stark indeed. No comfort there. I may not believe in an afterlife, but I’m not ready to give up on the possibility of it.

But yes, I write, don’t know why, it’s a compulsion, a need. Got to do it. Putting words down on paper, or tapping them into pixels on a computer screen, is an eternal fascination.

Gertrude Stein said “I write for myself and strangers.” I feel that way. But I would amend that, a little, to say “I write for myself and myself.” I indulge in unabashed, intellectual masturbation. And I heartily recommend it. It’s good for the soul. Nobody gets pregnant, nobody gets jilted, and no books get sent back to the publisher from Barnes and Noble, or languish on the shelves of an independent bookstore teetering on bankruptcy.

It’s comforting to think of those monks in the dark ages bent over a desk making those beautiful illuminations. Beautiful calligraphy. Radiant artwork. Fabulous flora. Fabulous fauna. Saints and angels and a loving (though sometimes wrathful) benevolent God. For who? Hardly anyone was literate. It was a time quite similar to ours. The majority of people given to superstition, delusions, illiteracy. The times were brutal. People were brutish. Rape, pillage, plunder, oppression were daily occurrences. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

I have searched the internet trying to find writers who wrote during the Dark Ages. How did they cope with illiteracy? Imbecility? Infantile beliefs?

I wish I knew. I haven’t had much luck. Why would I? They don’t call it the Dark Ages the Dark Ages for nothing. If anyone bitched about their time, and wrote it down, the chances are they were driven out of their village, or burned at the stake.

No doubt they kept to themselves. That’s the smart thing to do. Whatever they wrote, they wrote for the joy of writing. Sometimes the best applause is your own silent satisfaction.


Steven Fama said...

Way to roll, Friar John of Queen Anne Hill!

However, I don't think the Dark Ages ever were.

And believe there are millions of people who read, even if the written word's particular enchantment seems less embraced in an age of widely available and riveting moving images and reproduced sounds of undeniable rapture.

The particular enchantment of written poetry, alas, is not widely, deeply and/or adventurously indulged in by many people. Maybe that's the same as it ever was, but maybe it's more so in our current age, when (1) it is impossible to read all or even most of the poetry published in one's own geographic region, let alone the country, let alone the world, and (2) the intensity of the poem (the good ones) seems profoundly at odds with the more easily appreciated entertainments and arts (music, movies, TV, etc) that saturate the culture.

John Olson said...

Thank you, Steve. You are an ebullient Robin Hood to my sour Friar John.

Harald Striepe said...

You would not be the first poet, writer, artist, or musician, who does not enjoy a wide spread audience until after his death. But you should be in no hurry there - monks need the power of patience.

What you need is an iPhone app - that should be the ticket!!!!

Harald Striepe said...

I was going to suggest social media, and found your facebook page. You should use it and twitter to spread the word through your loyal fans.

Perhaps that's the ticket?

Wasn't that phrase in JS Bach and the Celery Stalk?

Anonymous said...

I, Audience. Aye.

Mickey O'Connor said...

I loved reading this, John. I identify with so much of what you say here. Thanks.

John Olson said...

Thank you, Mickey. You're one of the coolest monks I know. Did you know that the poet Pierre Reverdy actually became a monk? Benedictine. Shortly after his affair with Coco Chanel.

Mickey O'Connor said...

I knew that Pierre Reverdy became a monk. I did not know that he had an affair with Coco Chanel. I love that woman's aesthetic. Minimal. It's true ? They had an affair ?

John Olson said...

Yes, it's true, they did. And to further complicate things, Reverdy was married at the time. There is also some speculation that Chanel had an affair with Igor Stravinsky, though this is doubtful. Stravinsky & his family stayed in Chanel's mansion, but Stravinsky suffered consumption at the time. Chanel had an affair with a German general during WWII, who allowed her to stay at the Ritz during the occupation. When the war ended, she was forced to flee to Switzerland, because of the ensuing hostility toward her on the part of the French. I haven't seen the movie with Audrey Tautou. I wonder if that's in there.