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.
Let’s talk infelicitous combinations of artistic form. I’m thinking in particular of Philip Glass’ musical adaptation of Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony,” which I saw last night. Setting? Small, intimate, and great. Cast? Pretty good. But in the end, both props and players could only benefit so much from the raw material available to them, namely, Glass’ score and libretto.
It’s not that the music and lyrics themselves were bad*– it’s just that this particular composer, given the singularly thick nature of his work (even when it’s being minimalist!) never should have tried to set such an efficiently-told tale to music. Frantic, repetitive crescendos, musical signals that something ominous is taking place: it’s all OK for a soundtrack– especially of the American variety– but all the elaboration and padding that must of necessity go into operatic productions… well, they’re all wrong for that unique brand of sparse-yet-laden weirdness Kafka’s so good at.
Could anyone do a good job putting this story into musical form? I don’t think so; it just wasn’t made, say I, to handle forms of sensory input ancillary to the word. I could maybe, maybe envision “In the Penal Colony” existing as a well-executed short film– but even there, I don’t feel comfortable with the possibility.
The piece reminded me of other literary greats that should have been, or should be, left untouched by film directors; I found On the Road predictably disastrous, and I’m terrified to think what’s going to happen to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, if filming really does come to completion on that project. Infinite Jest? Please. Based on what he did with The Tempest, I can see Peter Greenaway having a self-indulgent go at it, but I hope he doesn’t get any ideas. If someone could make a cinematic version of Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves as scary and intelligent as the book, I’d be thrilled– but again, there should be some sort of test one must pass before even thinking about doing such a thing.
Ah, well. In short, there’s usually a reason why music or the visual arts can convey some things so much better than any number of words– but then again, there’s often no substitute for spoken/written language well-used. I’m glad I got to see the musical venture I did last night– but I won’t be sad if the notes fade from memory altogether, never to be reawakened.
* OK, there were times when the words seemed to be exemplifying how the theater of the obvious should function, but overall, they were no worse than those of any other musical.
|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?