Here’s a topic: the literature of exhaustion. That genre may cover numerous varieties of collapse, whether physical, mental, emotional, spiritual,… Maybe, as in my case, all of the above and more come together into a welter of hopeless confusion that may leave everyone ready to throw in the threadbare towel and creep into a subterranean cranny until the onset of either miraculous recovery or total global destruction.
Whether or not readers feel like tackling these sorts of messes, I’ve known quite a few writers (myself included) who have few, if any, coping skills outside of putting words on the page. Exhaustion is enough in itself to make a person feel as if she’s losing it– but I wonder how or whether that heavy state of fatigue might have contributed and/or been related to the long tradition of substance-induced literary output, from DeQuincey to the Beats to Hunter S. Thompson and more. Sure, sure: we’re all well-versed in the ineffectual escapes many a desperate person will sample in the face of despair– but I’m wondering if, say, the benzedrine that pushed Kerouac to bang out (large parts of) On the Road in a continuous scroll helped induce not only a burst of mind-addled energy, but the editor-killing exhaustion necessary to just let it flow– and in expelling all those words, dislodging as well huge chunks of anxiety and restlessness and complete cluelessness as to how to live a life.
I’ve been pondering the literary uses of exhaustion over the last week, wondering if and when my own interior floodgates will finally burst– when my emotional infrastructure will be unable to bear anything else, and will release in bare, truthful fashion all the words repressed and piled up over decades into some coherent and elegantly executed narrative. With much less sleep than usual and many a stress egging one another on of late, the super-quick long-distance trip I took this weekend was probably inadvisable, where physical health and the resilience of my neurons were concerned. But I’m wondering if the much-needed burst of camaraderie and dancing with old friends, squashed in between transportation flubs, power naps, and an upcoming meeting, might end up providing some sort of trigger that will bring down vulnerable barriers and force me to follow the continual, nagging imperative to vomit out the Platonic ideal of a novel or short story or whatever that’s been staring accusingly at me ever since I learned how to read.
Back in a period that was so dark I resorted to The Artist’s Way as a potential source of well-being, I became sort of convinced that author Julia Cameron might have been onto something when she alleged that the production of great literature does not require drugs or booze or horrible behavior. It’s not that I haven’t held on to that possibility– and I’m certainly not going to dive into some trite underworld of slow destruction in the hopes it’ll make me a Real Writer– but I can’t shake the reality of the related fact that bouts of burnout and inebriation are usually the only times I speak fluently in a foreign language– that the worried perfectionism shuts off, and I can just have a free-flowing (if probably stupid) conversation.
Where writing is concerned, I have become more comfortable over the years letting people read what I put down on the page– a development not synonymous with not caring what my readers think, but rather with a growing conviction that just producing something may be more important than receiving accolades for it. Here’s what may be the rub, then, after all this pondering: getting to a place where the words flow with honesty and freedom may have less to do with heart and brain being under an external influence, and more about attaining the conviction, however that’s achieved, that you have nothing to lose. And when all your defenses are too tired to stand up for themselves, you may be pretty close to that coveted position.
Oh, dear. I have the probably harmless tendency of developing crushes on dead writers, fellas who were most likely, or in some cases on record as being, wrecks at human relationships. Kerouac was my first affair of this sort, and from that high school-through-college infatuation, I moved on to Kierkegaard, Walter Benjamin, and Zbigniew Herbert. And now look: on the narrowing edge of forty, the madness hasn’t ceased; here comes poet James Merrill to make me simultaneously swoon with delight and seethe in mad envy at his wordplay.* “The Broken Bowl” is too long to reel off here in its entirety– and the version I have, found in From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976, seems to have been redone in later collections, and not, to my manner of thinking, for the better. But the unsentimental way in which Merrill moves, without your even suspecting it, from the consideration of a shattered glass container to the wholes love can construct out of the fragments left behind by battered lives, is quietly stunning– and the first time I read it out loud, I ended up in tears.
Here are the last couple of stanzas:
No lucid, self-containing artifice
At last, but fire, ice,
A world in jeopardy. What lets the bowl
Nonetheless triumph by inconsequence
And wrestle harmony from dissonance
And with the fragments build another, whole,
Inside us, which we feel
Can never break, or grow less bountiful?
Love does that. Spectral through the fallen dark,
Eye-beam and ingle-spark
Refract our ruin into this new space,
Timeless and concentric, a spotlight
To whose elate arena we allot
Love’s facets reassembling face by face,
Love’s warbler among leaves,
Love’s monuments, or tombstones, on our lives.**
Well. At least I have the words to keep me company. Throw in some Chet Baker, and we’ve got ourselves a mood…
* My selection of love objects seems to be getting increasingly futile; in addition to being dead, Merrill didn’t even like girls. There goes any possibility of ghostly sweet nothings. N.b., most times this barrier of gender preferences-at-odds popped up in the past, my dreamy ardor tended not to take no for an answer. In one instance, after spending a semester in college making an infatuated ass out of myself with a linguistics professor, it was revealed to me that my true love was gay. At my sheepish look of incredulity, a Southern belle classmate of mine tried to comfort me with, “Oh, don’t worry, honey, he’s European; you couldn’t have known.”
** James Merrill, “The Broken Bowl,” in From the First Nine: Poems 1946-1976 (New York: Atheneum, 1984), 7.
So, a repeat interview on NPR this morning with poet Stephen Dunn had me returning to a question that recirculates in my head every now and then. At Dunn’s admission that he “was not a particularly good student,” I couldn’t help wondering if excellent writing has some necessary link to its creator’s having not really bought into the whole school thing. And that proposition woke a semi-regularly occurring flurry of concern– because, and this is said without the pride one would think should attend such a statement, I was a kick-ass student. I dutifully did all my assignments, often slaving to a disturbing degree to please whoever was at the receiving end of those formulas and essays and exams. I loved imbibing knowledge and memorizing dates and putting it all together, from kindergarten right through to my doctoral exams. But at some point in high school, I started to feel a sneaking suspicion that I was turning into some sort of caricature, or at least some pigtailed irritant out of Mark Twain.
When I first entered college, the best I could come up with, in terms of addressing that suspicion, was pretending not to care about grades, throwing out unoriginal phrases such as “D for Diploma,” in an attempt to be accepted as a normal human being. (In addition to all the usual reasons that particular plan was stupid, it was also doomed to fail, since I kept on studying like a maniac, even while assuring people I was just, to quote Dazed and Confused‘s Wooderson, “l-i-v-i-n.”) And secretly, I worked at what I’d always wished I could be good at; I kept writing bad poetry and little bits of stories, and kept getting frustrated at the fact that everything felt stilted and maudlin and overwrought, and that I could never possibly show anything of what I produced to the truly easy-going writers who showed up to class half-awake, smelling like stale cigarettes and without a clue as to what they were supposed to have read. (One of the benefits of age, I’m realizing, is that all the supposed brilliance that came from the pens of those people I was assured at eighteen would be the next big literary thing– well, it was most likely just as crappy as what I was putting out, just less ashamed of itself.)
But I kept going with my day job: I kept churning out dutiful academic treatises, because that was at least a route to a pat on the head, even while the only things I truly loved were beautiful fantasies by apparently not-very-nice people who at the very least laughed at duty, typically defined: Henry Miller, Kerouac, Nabokov. What did they need twenty years of official education for, when they could so clearly portray everything around them, both out in the open and unwillingly revealed? Theory and impeccable grammar would have killed it all– would have turned it into something I’d written.
In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron assures her faithful readers that writerly success does not necessitate drug addictions, alcoholism, lack of sleep, & etc. My general feelings about that handbook will have to be saved for another day, but I’ll just note here that I don’t remember her saying anything to negate the possibility of having educated oneself out of a creative writing career, or of destroying the prospect of achieving authorial skill by squandering one’s abilities in youthful conformism.*
As I said, this bundle of anxiety only rears its weird head every now and then, and I’m not truly concerned anymore about churning out the Great American Novel. And I’ve also just chosen to accept my love of learning, and the dorkdom that goes with it. But I do have to wonder: what might I have become, if I’d taken trig functions and the periodic table and Strunk & White just a little less seriously in my formative years? Fortunately or un-, forward is the only way I can go, and I’ll just have to leave the past to muddle over itself.
* N.b.: none of this rule-following, on my part, at least, equates to being a good person; the discussion of what the differences are between doing one’s assigned duty and acting in truly ethical/moral fashion is an old and daunting conversation, to be taken up another time. For a personal glimpse, though, I’ll just say that I pass at least a dozen homeless people every day without sharing anything with them, even a hello, and feeling like a complete asshole. For another thing, while even a snippet of the Eric Garner video empties my stomach and boils my blood and starts tears flowing faster than I can even identify what’s happening, here I am blogging in my living room, having signed a few petitions, while people are out for the third night in a row marching in the streets. Bergman could so easily have used me and my guilty Protestant conscience in any number of features…
I’m in terrible need of going back to re-read Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and “The Nose”; walking along this morning in sub-zero wind chills and sensing that I might unwittingly have entered into a fistfight with occasional gales, I was very aware of and grateful for the miracle of modern science otherwise known as my L.L. Bean super-deluxe, cold-defying coat. I’ve lived before in areas with real winters– but the heavy hand of Canadian-borne blasts native to my new region has made me feel an affection for good outerwear I’ve never before experienced– and has also made me think that revisiting these stories from a point of greater climate-based understanding might lend an even deeper appreciation to tales I enjoyed the first time around. (Note: I’ve selected “The Nose” for further consideration, not necessarily because it’s really topical, but because, in my parka hood that makes me look like an ambulant periscope, that was the only part of my body of which I was particularly aware.)
Over the course of a few years in my twenties, I focused my travel around places that were important to Jack Kerouac’s life and, hence, to his literature: the San Francisco area; Lowell, Massachusetts; New York; a planned, but ultimately canceled, grant opportunity in Mexico. The first two were especially evocative: seeing the waves and wind crash along the highway to Big Sur, I was retroactively creeped out by a scene in his novel of the same name, in which the author wakes up to find himself surrounded by massive rocks and sea force. Witnessing the Merrimac River smashing its near-spring way beneath a bridge made Dr. Sax that much deliciously darker; walking through lower- and middle-class neighborhoods in the one-time mill town brought isolated scenes to new life. (And although it’s off the beaten path of my theme, I was truly entranced when, after going in search of Kerouackian relics in one of the city’s museums, empty of visitors on a bleak day, a guide was so happy to see my enthusiasm that he took me into a non-obvious corner to show me the writer’s backpack and camping accoutrements, letting me snap a giddy picture or two. The actual things he’d used on the road! It was like a collection of new-world icons.)
For all the exquisite power of words, I, at least, can’t avoid the fact that the Original– a structure, a person, a tree, a force of nature– maintains a bit of elusive something that may not be able to find its way into even the best of narrative set-ups. Touching a desk at which novels were dreamed up, feeling the heft and scratch of a jacket that shaped the experience of its owner: little gateways to some otherwise-incommunicable form of being or state of mind, or even, maybe, a distant soul. That wind in my face this morning? Words can have me imagining that first moment of breathlessness, but I’ll have to admit, there’s nothing like the real, unmediated thing to knock you off your feet.
Of course, if we take that path all the way down to its extremities, there are considerations such as the gulag, the concentration camp, non-geographical locations such as addiction and utter desolation that one would think could (should) never be fetishized as a chunk of desired truth or a sort of tourist opportunity to Experience the Real Thing. We could go off now into a discussion of how/when memorials blend into profanation (on what part of the spectrum does Lithuania’s Soviet Bunker theme park fall, for example, both in terms of “authenticity” and of respect for those who had to live it out the first time?), but that’s an entirely different discussion I’m probably not qualified to undertake at this point in the day.
So anyway, I’ll end this by going right back where I began: with the wind, which seems petulant about not being let in through my windows, and makes the stalwart things creak. With my appreciation for a variety of protective mechanisms that place a barrier between me and the elements. With a chance to know a formerly unfamiliar situation more in depth. I guess that final item is the first part of a path down which a good book can set you– so I’ll go jump under the covers, and see where the next story I’ve got lined up will lead.
|Jack Kerouac. Courtesy Tom Palumbo.|
I’m sort of straying from the reading path here and offering my two cents on the recent film adaptation of On the Road. As one of my favorite books (and given the fact that I was a Kerouac junkie in my twenties), it was with an odd, eager trepidation that I looked forward to viewing the thing. That low-grade sense of dread came from the conviction that this book simply should not be filmed– not necessarily because it’s some sacrosanct piece of mid-century Americana, but because I can’t think of a way to do cinematic justice to that weird mix of poetics, action, and camaraderie.
As expected, the celluloid (OK, I guess it’d be more accurate to say “digital”) version was a pale reproduction of the pen-n-paper original. Much of the casting was weird (except for Viggo Mortensen as Bull Lee/William Burroughs) and the dialogue stilted (again, you have another problem there with the transition to film: actually making moving, visible characters talk like a book is a risky venture). What I will say the project added to all the written encapsulations of the Beats and those who tried to follow in their footsteps is some evidence of the toll all these men and their kicks took on the women involved with them– and the ways in which a solid portion of these partiers didn’t really take women as much more than vessels to attend to their sexual and sometimes financial needs. The film did do a good job of bringing some of these ambiguities to the fore, so I’ll at least applaud it for that.
Still, I’d advise anyone to stick with the book.
Other works that fall into the hands-off category, where movie directors are concerned? Hopscotch (Julio Cortázar), Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace), The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen– although I think this one’s already under contract, or has had the rights bought, something). Anyone have any other thoughts on books that should stay books?