Every day we see our lives play out in miniature what the universe does at large. The day rises, a scattering of clouds flare into gold, the sky goes from a twinkling black to a lighter and lighter blue, activities gain traction, grow, people interact, floors are swept, money exchanged, coffee poured, food eaten, cars started, traffic entered, curses shouted, insults hurled, acidities endured, jobs worked, products shelved, houses sold, ideas taught, civilities exchanged, dates made, the sun grows higher in its trajectory, then slowly, imperceptibly begins to lower, the shadows lengthen, the sun moves toward the western horizon, then (if you happened to be watching) the last portion of sunlight fades from view and night unfolds from the sky, the darkness diffused by streetlights in the city, an ocean of stars in the country unpolluted by light.
We follow the same pattern. We rise, get out of bed, and begin a trajectory that will lead us through a chronology of pumps and bumps and exploits and joys. There will be an arc to our day. We will do what the sun does but do it in miniature. We will attain a certain fullness of being and then feel the tautness of that being relax bit by bit until we return to bed and pull the covers over our head and vanish, enveloped by oblivion.
Losing consciousness is a delight. It always is. Don’t ask why. I don’t know why. The reverse is less pleasant. Entering into consciousness has never been an entirely pleasant experience for me. It varies, depending on circumstances. How much sleep I had, what lay ahead of me in the day.
I suspect everyone has their own way of doing it. Mine is most often prickly. It’s a delicate operation. If I’m not careful, I get the DTs.
Doesn’t matter. I get the DTs anyway. The DTs are unavoidable.
By DTs I don’t mean delirium tremens. I mean Donald Trump. The DTs happen when I have a moment or two of forgetfulness, a nice blithe somewhat foggy insouciance as I run water to shave or open the refrigerator for a jar of blackberry jam. And then it hits me. Creeps back into my blood like a virus, dyes my red blood with a black ugly bile, grows into a mass of panicked awareness and crashes around in my head like an Iberian fighting bull bristling with banderillas, rivets me to the ground with the dead weight of a thousand dying suns: that face, those jowls, those freaky little hands. I remember that this unevolved, loutish, lumbering man-baby billionaire is president, and he and his billionaire cronies are looting the government, and taking away health care, and taking away science and education, and destroying everything good and decent and caring, and turning everything to shit.
How is this even possible? Nothing rational can explain it. I lose hope. But I don’t give up. I don’t succumb completely. I learn to develop an attitude, a reinforcing mindset writer China Miéville calls “undefeated despair.”
What a marvelous phrase!
Hope is over. Forget hope. Hope makes things worse. It leads to denial. You start to hope for hope and then feel duped. Doped, dumped, duped by hope. So you let despair happen. You make art, you persist, you keep going. It works. Despair is a lousy feeling, but it’s real, it’s more affordable than health care, and it’s not that bad. It doesn’t kill you. It’s not strychnine. It’s just despair. It’s the stuff of great novels by Cormac McCarthy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Hope is fragile. It needs to be coaxed into existence and assiduously maintained. Hope requires a lot of work. Not despair. Despair has a built-in invulnerability. That’s why I often feel so weirdly protected when I’m feeling it. Optimism is Norman Vincent Peale’s idiotic grin on West 29th Street. Pessimism is a femme fatale in a sexy black gown offering you a shot of heroin.
I’m most susceptible to the DTs in the morning. It figures. I’m vulnerable. My mind is still afloat in that foggy milieu of being half-awake. Once everything gels, once I begin forming sentences and making plans and figuring things out, that’s when the bad comes rolling in with the good. I put the heat on. The water starts to boil. The day begins to roll.
There is also the narrative arc of our lives. We follow a pattern similar to that of the sun on its pilgrimage across the sky, but without the fanfare. We arrive in blood and mucous. We are dropped or tugged into life. Screaming. But we begin. We grow, we develop, we evolve in much the same way as wine maturing in a cask, we season in nuance and character, our lives become complex, conflicted, ambiguous, huge. And then, imperceptibly, we weaken, we diminish. Some are struck by disease and go more quickly than others. Others go and go getting wrinklier and wrinklier and hobbled and awkward and barely coherent until at last they let go. Which is what we do. What we all do. There is no getting around it. We let go. We have to. There is no other choice. You can’t cling to life. There is nothing to cling to. It’s not a merry-go-round. There are no poles. You simply let go. At least, that’s what I’ve seen people do. Both in real life and in the movies. They let go. They shut their eyes and something vague and important sighs out of them.
I apologize for these generalities. These descriptions have the balance and simplicity of allegory. Nothing that lives is ever that simple, or balanced. Most of life is a huge, chaotic mess. But it is the model, the central narrative for sentient, mortal beings. The trajectory is as certain as it is ancient.
Our main injunction in life is to reproduce. I failed at that. I chose not to reproduce. In the same way I got out of the draft, I got out of reproducing. I didn’t want to kill people and I didn’t want to bring people into this world. I knew very early in life that what I wanted to do is write books and that writers, generally, do not make much money. Some writers make a lot of money. Most writers do not. I don’t know that the formula is for making a lot of money at writing. It’s probably a lot simpler to make money by making movies or telling jokes on a stage to a crowd of people but for whatever reason I chose writing, or writing chose me. In any case, I did not reproduce. I made books. I will leave books behind. But whether people read them or not is a huge uncertainty.
The good thing about books is that you do not need to save money to send them to college, or support them in their endeavors, or invite them to your house on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The great frustration of books is that they require readers. I can read only so many books. I write books and hope for readers. Some writers don’t care if they have an audience or not. It’s enough just to write. That is, of course, the ideal situation. To write, to enjoy writing, to find and fulfill oneself in writing, and not need an audience. What a heavenly situation that would be.
I’m the kind of writer that craves readers. The bigger the audience, the better. The words don’t even seem fully alive until someone else reads them. Until that happens, the words are ghosts. Wraiths of intention, wreathes of desire. This means that 99% of my life is spent in frustration. The one per cent happens when someone enjoys reading or hearing something I wrote. It is that one percent that drives the other 99% to continue doing what I was born to do, which is put words together.
Which I do as weirdly and bizarrely as possible. I write carnivals. I write crazy sideshows. I put words together so as to maximize their enigma, their possibility to make meaning, to make worlds out of nothing.
Why? I could lure an audience much more easily by writing about drugs and sex and murder and violence. But I don’t. Not directly, anyway. I don’t cater to that stuff. I cater to the weird and surreal. I like constructing sentences that get up and walk around like birch canoes on a surgical table.
I like phantasmagoria. The bizarre. The ineffable. I like putting words together in odd assemblies of syntax and grouping so that meaning erupts in flares of fluky association and the words jut out in the crudity of their being like outcropped rock. “Civilization,” observed Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, “consists in giving something an unfitting name, then dream about the result. And indeed the false name and the real dream create a new reality. The object really becomes another, because we turned it into another one. We manufacture realities.”
Manufacturing reality out of words is a difficult but highly stimulating project. It also demands a lot more effort from the reader. Most people want an easy ride. I know I do. When I go to an art museum and see a painting of a barn that looks like a barn and a mass of color and form that doesn’t look like anything other than what it is - a mass of color and form - it is the barn that looks like a barn that I have the easiest time appreciating. It is the intensity of detail that brings the reality of that barn into the barn that is my brain where I can mingle it with all my memories of being in a barn, the smell of straw and burlap and cow manure. The weight of things. The experience of things. Horns, udders, massive bone. Old, rotten wood. Daylight bursting through little cracks and holes. I’m on familiar ground there. I’m experiencing a barn. The artist has done something to renew the phenomenon that is a barn.
Or owl or awl or lonely midnight street. It doesn’t have to be a barn. It might be a Roman ruin, Thomas Cole’s Ruins in the Campagna di Roma, Morning, 1842, which is a rendering of the Torre de Schiavi (Tower of Slaves), casting a broad shadow over a shepherd and his sheep while an intense blue and golden light suffuses the sky and planet with its bountiful grace.
A mass of color and shape such as Convergence by Jackson Pollock or Canticle by Mark Tobey requires something different from me. This is work that requires an openness to the immediacy of things, to the immediate presence of color and shape before it has been worked into a familiar image. The public now knows what to call this painting: abstract expressionism. But it still stumps a lot of people, including myself. Is it supposed to be beautiful? Or is it ok as something ugly?
Either of these paintings would sell in the millions. How that process happens, I do not know. The commercial valuation of art stumps me completely.
I do know one thing. If you’re starting out, it’s a hell of a lot easier to make money getting people on board with what is recognizable, with what they can understand, than something that makes no reference to anything with which they’re familiar. No one likes to be in a position of feeling dumb. Or clueless. But I can’t help it. I like doing what those abstract expressionist guys liked doing. Throwing things, splattering things, creating happy accidents. I like to put words together so that they fling themselves into the air and bruise the mind with ineffability.
I like reading things I don’t completely understand. I’m drawn into the intellectual challenge of trying to figure things out, finding layers of meaning, sometimes paper-thin like the layers of an onion, and sour, wonderfully sour, or thick like the layers of pasta in lasagna, chewy, toothsome, fulfilling.
The public is different. The public likes Disneyland. And Harry Potter and the Da Vinci Code and Fifty Shades of Grey. Treacle, trash, garbage. Sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Public, but your taste in things sucks. Go listen to NPR. You can have American Idol. I’ll take Moby Dick.
Intellectual endeavor has never done particularly well in the United States. Anti-intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter goes into the history of this. It’s a well-written book, a good read.
I got hooked on intellectual creation early in life. Maybe I did so to help disguise the fact that I’m essentially stupid. I don’t know. But by age fifteen or so I loved Aldous Huxley and Edgar Allan Poe and William Shakespeare and Jack Kerouac.
It was still possible in the 60s, and even the early 70s, to make a living as a writer. A writer of quality literary work. Wild, crazy, idiosyncratic work. There was an appetite for that. People weren’t so one-dimensional. They had a sense of adventure. They didn’t dismiss work they didn’t immediately understand. You didn’t have to dumb it down or fill it full of garish sex and violence. You could sell a literary product based on the merit of its style alone. People were well-read and despite the advent of TV circa 1947 (the year I was born) people liked - and continued - to read. They were able to appreciate a well-crafted sentence.
The Internet has totally destroyed that. The Internet does not respect readers. There are, of course, exceptions. Some wonderful can be found on the Internet. But by and large, the Internet’s ubiquitous pop-ups and advertisements that suddenly begin blaring when you’re immersed in a text (…where the fuck is that coming from?) and pages that jerk up and down while you’re trying to direct your attention toward something do not make for focused, concentrated reading. Not to mention the awful grammar and infantile shallowness of most the writing that is plopped, flung, and deposited there.
By the late 80s, writing had begun showing signs of obsolescence. There were a few authors such as Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates and Danielle Steele who still sold books in the millions and made a good living, but writers like Richard Brautigan, whose suicide in 1984 underscored the growing abyss between commercial, mainstream writing and the already severely marginalized writing of a more experimental or higher literary merit. It was a dark premonition for the future of writing. Midlist writers were being dismissed from mainstream publishing and urged to submit their work to the burgeoning small press arena. It was easier to get published in that world, and the readers were more sophisticated, but you could not make a living. Literature emerging from the small press arena was a labor of love, never a commercial enterprise.
Even journalism was dying. Newspaper circulation has been declining precipitously since the 80s, at least. It’s extremely difficult to make a living as a journalist. The implications of that are pretty disturbing. Chris Hedges discusses this in depth in his book Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.
Nevertheless, I persisted. I’m a writer. It’s what I do. It isn’t denial. I don’t know what it is. I can’t explain it. Why am I like this? Why do I chase chimeras?
Am I on the wrong planet? Is that it?
Was I born on a planet that was in the process of being destroyed and my parents put me into a capsule for travel in outer space and set my craft to travel to a planet they thought might be favorable to my survival and well-being? I don’t know if this is the planet they had in mind, but I don’t have superpowers. I don’t even have tights. Just a drawer full of Fruit-of-the-Loom underwear.
Earth is, in many ways, a beautiful planet. It offers lots of water and blue skies and ocean surf and strawberry jam. But I don’t feel that I belong here. I feel like I’m the wrong kind of animal for the wrong kind of terrain. Maybe I would’ve preferred being a bird.
I was eight when the Broadway musical Peter Pan with Mary Martin in the lead role appeared on television. I was quite taken with Peter Pan’s ability to fly. It seemed completely feasible. I spent an entire day jumping off of a knoll in the attempt to take flight. I could feel the possibility of flight. It felt as if I put enough passion and will power into it I would just naturally take off and fly around the neighborhood. This didn’t happen. I finally gave up and surrendered to gravity and the human condition.
My father flew. He was a pilot during WWII and continued to fly gliders late into life. I could’ve learned to fly. I could still learn to fly. But the sensation I hunger is better satisfied in the action of putting words together and watching them pound their way into reality. I don’t know what to call this sensation. Transcendence sounds too serious, a little pretentious. It comes from Latin, transcendere, meaning to climb over, to step over, to surpass. The mania I feel vibrating my nerves has nothing to do with stepping over anything. It has to do with penetration. Immersion. Feeling my subjectivity dissolve into the largeness of things, the universe. What do you call that?
Ineffable. From Latin ineffabilis, meaning unutterable. Your mouth can’t make the right sound with the right meaning for a body of sensation that feels simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. This is how Zaum came into being. Zaum is a Russian word coined by the Futurist poet Aleksei Kruchenykh and translates, roughly, into “transreason,” “beyonsense,” and “transration.” It can be defined as an experimental poetic language characterized by indeterminate meaning, a transrational language that crashes its way out of the chains of the rational to become something fully, insanely, maniacally ACTUAL.
These words fail: I am not suggesting that logic is bad and madness is good. I am not anti-science. What I’m trying to get at is an intensity of expression that derives from eccentricity, incongruity. Sparks flying out of welded contrarieties.
There have been other literary endeavors as well, projects calculated to transcend the bind of logic and attain heights and intensities of experience: Dada, Surrealism, Futurism, Symbolism, or just plain jism, the language of ejaculation.
Zaum, Zoom, Zinnia, Zipper. I celebrate all combinations of sounds, all inflammations of language that vivify experience in mutant volatility. Anything that builds a horse out of vowels and a gnu out of glue.