Friday, September 22, 2006

On Susan Sontag...On Photography...Again

A collection of quotes and thoughts upon randomly picking up On Photography one evening while killing time…

On being a freak
"The subjects of Arbus's photographs are all members of the same family, inhabitants of a single village," Sontag writes. "Only, as it happens, the idiot village is America. Instead of showing identity between things which are different (Whitman's democratic vista), everybody is shown to look the same."

But in Arbus's sameness, we're really all freaks. Isn't that her message? I suppose it's easy to look at Arbus's photos and think of how separate her subjects are from us. That's a shallow gaze, though. To look into freaks' eyes and see a normal, everyday person--hey, just like me--is the revelation.

The flaneur
“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flaneur finds the world ‘picturesque.’”

This is the joy I always felt when I walked the city with a camera dangling from my neck. Everything was beautiful, sexual, available to my view. I was nothing but a random collector of the odd, the discarded, the scribbles on lonely walls.

“Essentially the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually one’s own.”

Inevitably, especially with the passage of time, when we look at photos or take photos, we traipse through the different worlds of our different selves, looking and wondering, yes, like a tourist. What could I have been thinking? How oddly I dressed back then? Was it difficult to live back then? These are the questions I ask of the wax dummies of historical figures when I tour their homes. My life is suddenly a version of a reality show produced in another era.

Or, I take a photo of a person, and their life is a short vacation, a snapshot, escape.

The present
“…photography offers instant romanticism about the present.”

I suppose it depends on the subject. So much of the present is impossible to romanticize, simply because it exists now. Photos of Bill Clinton might be quite mysterious, worthy of pauses and ponderings, but only twenty or thirty years from now. Now we gaze with such intensity at the photos of Kennedy, or even Nixon. Their lives possess an aura again, no matter how overexposed they might be.

No, I think photography attempts to romanticize the present, but most of the time it fails.

“Photography is the inventory of mortality. …Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.”

Photographs have replaced the stories of our ancestors. It’s enough to see their faces. We don’t really need to know their stories, the details of their lives. It’s enough to see them, as if they’re living, to look into their eyes, to see a person. We are there with them, yet not.

“In a world that is well on its way to becoming one vast quarry, the collector becomes someone engaged in a pious work of salvage.”

This is perhaps where the romanticism of the present comes in. Collecting the present, especially those numinous things that speak of mystery, of other worlds, is the joy, the motivation of any photographer, whether he or she is collecting faces or fauna or flora. To capture the aura of what seems to be original and true and perhaps everlasting—and to desire not to reproduce it too often, to blemish it in any way—defines the impulse toward art, I think.

It is the religion of the salvage collector. Photography becomes a beautiful way to pick up the world’s trash—to see a new beauty in what is vanishing as Walter Benjamin put it.

“The photographer—and the consumer of photographs—follows in the footsteps of the ragpicker,” as Sontag says.

She quotes Baudelaire: “Everything that the big city threw away, everything it lost, everything it despised, everything it crushed underfoot, he catalogues and collects. . . . He sorts things out and makes a wise choice; he collects, like a miser guarding a treasure, the refuse which whill assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects between the jaws of the goddess of Industry.”

Changing the world?
“Marx reproached philosophy for only trying to understand the world rather than trying to change it. Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose we collect it.”

The choice is almost whether to prevent the apocalypse or to try to understand it or to remove oneself one step further and simply watch it.

I’ve thought about how to prevent the apocalypse, but I’m one who either tries to understand it or is resigned, content to watch the world self-destruct. I’d hate to value one choice over another, as Marx might. I think each role is important, even that of us passive ones. It seems that we might see something that others don’t. And if they ask us what we’ve seen, it might just help them.

“We learn to see ourselves photographically: to regard oneself as attractive is, precisely, to judge that one would look good in a photograph. Photographs create the beautiful and—over generations of picture-taking—use it up.”

This statement is true and not true. It’s the crux of our aesthetic position in our media saturated world. Perhaps it’s actually aging, our inherent habituation, which causes photographs to lose their power. A James Dean photo won’t look as cool with each decade’s viewing, yet he’s still a pretty cool guy. The next generation will think so as well.

A sunset in real life might be the corny sunset of a photo, but what happens when these two worlds collide—and, as is sometimes the case, the real sunset is enhanced by the romanticism of the photographed sunset, and life becomes augmented, almost doubled?

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Antonya Nelson

In Antonya Nelson's collection of short stories, Female Trouble, characters are often firmly placed within families or marriages despite the disconnection, if not active rebellion, they feel toward these emotional settings. No surprise the title, I suppose.

The trouble her characters get into is as much against themselves as it is against others. They thirst for love, but they're usually unable to quite give themselves to another. Sometimes they hesitate, as if they have to hold back in order to maintain their wholeness, even if they're so obviously not whole. Other times her characters are jarred back and forth in a game of tug of war--strong muscles of selfishness wrapping around the rope and pulling against marriage or motherhood.

In fact, Nelson's daring as an author particularly shows as she reveals the rather puerile tendencies of mothers in several of her stories. They aren't bad mothers (no need to call Child Protective Services), but they are women drawn as much to the magnet of self as they are to any sort of motherly self-sacrifice or tendency to nurture.

This is most marked in Stitches, when a daughter calls in the middle of the night telling of a disturbing sexual encounter, but even in these deep moments of confidences exchanged, Edith, the mother, drifts in and out of her thoughts, as concerned at times with the though of making a gin and tonic for herself (at an earlier hour than she's ever had a drink) as she is with her daugher's predicament. Consider this passage:
"It was unnerving to be this girl's mother. She was so forthcoming. So frankly had she gotten this way? Ellen felt somehow excluded from the process. She (Ellen) kept secrets--not in drawers or closets or diaries, but in her heart, behind her eyes, on her lips. Tracy's admirable openness seemed not to have been inherited from Ellen, so it must have come from her father."
In another story, a couple make love "like two people performing simultaneous monologues, each with a sense of what had to happen next."

Again, in "Lonely Doll" the lovers can't cross an emotional chasm, even while they lie next to each other. Marco hesitantly reveals himself, but his revelations, despite their vulnerability, make him seem more dangerous than loving. His stories have made a ruin of him, and telling them to a lover won't salve the wounds. Nonetheless, Edith, who doesn't believe in love, tries to love Marco. It is Nelson's characters' tendency to act out against themselves that's always interesting--acting out that is at once impulsive yet quite deliberate, in pursuit of short-term salvation.

It's her characters' consciousness of themselves as severed from others, unlikely to be joined, despite their attempts, which makes Nelson a thought-provoking author. And yet, and yet. She doesn't have the mysterious, arresting voice of Denis Jonson or the piercing intricacy of an Alice Munro story. Antonya Nelson is a good storyteller, but not a great one. She has the potential to be "great," but so often, her stories droop to their finish.

For more, read reviews or profiles from the following publications:

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Novel Is Dead, Of Course

Walter Kirn made a great point recently in his New York Times book review of Cynthia Ozick's latest book of literary essays, The Cannon as Cannon. It doesn't matter whether the novel is dead or not, he contends, because if it is, no one has noticed.

"The form's latest self-styled guardian is Cynthia Ozick, an accomplished novelist herself and a high-ranking literary critic who, along with so many other traditionalists, cherishes the belief, now quixotic, that serious fiction and those who dream it up are still controversial enough to be embattled and 'in danger of obsolescence.'"

The only people wrestling with the dire predicament of the novel's demise are, um, novelists. Just as the people who read literary journals are, well, young writers who want to publish in them (more than they want to read them, of course).

Ozick's precious grandiosity is quite out of touch, to say the least.

"But if the novel were to wither — if, say, it metamorphosed altogether into a species of journalism or movies, as many popular novels aready have — then the last trustworthy vessel of the inner life (aside from our heads) would crumble away," she writes.

It is hard to imagine much crumbling if the novel did die, as much as I love it (and will fight for it until its death, which I doubt will ever truly happen). And, my, the novel is bound to metamorphose into something far beyond journalism or the movies (heck, it's already done that). The next time that Ozick is in a bookstore, she should mosie on over to the graphic novels section, or pick up Grand Theft Auto or The Sims 2.

Kirn's point isn't that we should devalue good fiction or quit reading and rush out to buy Playstations, but that this ponderous struggle with a meaning of the world that can only be represented by the novel is quite useless, if not preposterous, simply because no one is paying attention except for a few readers (writers, book club members, forlorn technophobes, etc.).

We've lost, and so we should enjoy the merits of our failure (a certain creative freedom, to be sure). We novel lovers are a niche, and those of us who write and read literary novels, God bless our souls, need to grow beyond the notions we held as college freshman. This generation of novelists will never be venerated as the singular and sacred voices of their generation. This generation of novelists will probably be lucky to be published.

Still, we persist. I wonder why. Certainly not to save civilization, let along convert a few affficionados of Grand Theft Auto to our superior medium.

Notes on Saturday, by Ian McEwan

Although Henry Perowne appears to be a successful and enviable individual in most ways, with his solid career, loving marriage, gifted children, and elegant house in Central London, Ian McEwan, like any good author, wouldn’t dare construct a main character without giving him faults that not only make him real, but which spawn the narrative tension in the book.

Perowne, despite possessing the smarts required to be an expert neurosurgeon, is an unexpansive and unimaginative individual, preferring facts to fantasy (could he really be unfamiliar with Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”?) and routine to capriciousness. In fact, a significant theme in the book comes from the tension between Perowne’s routine and the disruptions to it (McEwan's message, in short: Can anyone take comfort in routine in a post 9/11 world?).

To accentuate the tensions of Perowne's routine on this particular Saturday, McEwan sagely decides to present the story within the confines of Aristotle’s dictum that the duration of the events represented in a tragedy should encompass not much more than a single day—choosing Feb. 15, 2003, the day when massive anti-war demonstrations took place across the world, to place the story's actions in.

Few authors could pull off the task of constructing a plot around the ordinary Saturday routine of a relatively ordinary man, especially while delving into such interiority, but McEwan manages to make the mundane riveting. Perowne might be fundamentally lacking in lyricism, but McEwan is too focused on telling a good story to let banality interfere with suspense. He’s not about to revel in the sprawling simultaneity of Virginia Wolf or James Joyce; McEwan makes sure that Perowne’s thoughts drive the storyline, interweaving with events in a point, counterpoint style rather than existing independently and apparently randomly as the story itself. There are few, if any, arty flourishes or indulgent escapades into Perowne’s deeper consciousness. Hence the reason Saturday was a best seller.

Routine’s kissing cousin is complacency, and Perowne’s satisfaction with his life, the way he smugly sinks into the comforts of his prosperity, is the other weighty anchor of tension in the novel. He might wrestle with questions of the meaning of life, but his soul is flabby with contentedness. At the same time, McEwan is careful not to satirize Perowne for his bourgeois ways, and properly so, because this is the story of a man’s soul, which is always beyond satire.

In fact, Saturday, which can seem like an easy read on many levels, is a novel that aspires to describe what it means to be a man in the 21st century, as the epigraph quoting Bellow’s Herzog signals. The novel is about moral and intellectual engagement in the world. How does one support, acquiesce, or resist a war, and why? Are facts the only or the best way to understand the world—and with what point of reference should we judge these facts?—or do we need the trivia of fiction and art, as Perowne would describe them, to reach the deeper and more subtle nuances?

Yes, although Perowne can so aptly and almost easily solve the complex problems of neurosurgery, he is often adrift in the complex questions of life, which doesn’t allow for the sure and precise cuts of a scalpel. You can’t just slice away a tumor, clean up, and write your post-surgical report, as the messiness with the war in Iraq and the ordinary messiness of this Saturday exemplifies. There isn't such a thing as a surgical strike.

The messiness that McEwan injects into the novel—transforming the public fear of a plane crash or possible terrorist attack, which Perowne witnesses from his window, into the private fear of an actual attack in his house—runs the risk of violating an age-old narrative rule: don’t make an external event the crisis. McEwan dodges this and substantiates the storyline by making Perowne feel complicit in Baxter’s violent intrusion into his house. He feels as if he abused his responsibility as a doctor by diagnosing Baxter during their initial flare-up after their traffic accident, which humiliated Baxter, and so he must pay for that error.

Also, McEwan is careful to form a sympathetic bond between Perowne and Baxter. They’re almost like odd lovers, fascinated and repulsed by each other. Perowne is intrigued by Baxter’s unpredictable explosiveness, the hopelessness of his life, just as Baxter is both smitten and revolted by Perowne’s comfort and seeming control over his life. This dance of sympathy and repulsion helps transform Baxter’s break-in into an internal crisis rather than an external one. Perowne’s decision to operate on him after he's injured furthers the internal battle, especially because the reader has to wonder if he’s out for revenge or to help. It’s a valid question, not only for Perowne, but for nations like the U.S. who have been attacked. If we have the power to heal, should we seek to destroy?

Perowne seeks to heal, not simply because of his training as a doctor, but because he exhibits an ability to empathize throughout the novel. McEwan obviously believes that art is the principle way to nurture the life-affirming possibilities of empathy, but Perowne naturally possesses them, as much or more than the other characters in the story. At the same time, McEwan doesn’t present empathy as a simplistic trait which could rid the world of its predilection for destruction, for empathy itself can lead to acts of destruction. One of Perowne’s reasons to support the war in Iraq, after all, is because of the stories an Iraqi patient told him of life in Iraq. Perhaps this is where his traits of empathy and his attitude as a surgeon merge: The war is a way to impose control on the world, to slice away one of its cancers, restore health. He begins with this belief, but he doesn’t hold it at the end.

Perowne is a perfect character to represent “contemporary man,” if only because he’s beyond religious faith, condescending toward art, and places such belief in science. Still, even with such fervent trust in science’s answers, there is a part of him, usually well-buried but still accessible (as his daughter’s strident efforts to get him to read the classics attests to), that recognizes that facts aren’t enough as he operates on Baxter. “Just like the digital codes of replicating life held within DNA, the brain’s fundamental secret will be laid open one day. But even when it has, the wonder will remain, that mere wet stuff can make this bright inward cinema of thought, of sight and sound and touch bound into a vivid illusion of an instantaneous present, with a self, another brightly wrought illusion, hovering like a ghost at its centre. Could it ever be explained, how matter becomes conscious?”

Perowne begs the same question that Arnold’s “Dover Beach” does. Who are we and how do we live since “…we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”

In the “ebb and flow of human misery,” the Sea of Faith has receded, leaving us to figure things out for ourselves in a world that sounds an “eternal note of sadness.”

Susan Sontag

The excerpts of Susan Sontag's journals in last Sunday's Times revealed two interesting things about her: a tendency for self-loathing mixed with flashes of insight, especially on the nature of being a writer.

I suppose I know why self-loathing is such a frequent character trait of "greatness," at least if I play the role of an armchair psychologist. Susan Sontag obviously possessed such a powerful need to be accepted on a grand scale--she needed the accolades of brilliance as much as she needed the sustenance of brilliance--and so drove herself mightily and crazily to be a part of intellectual life in the city, and to merit high standing among its secular priesthood.

The excerpts from her journals provided a few good quotes on the nature of writing (and a couple of little life lessons) among the jims and jams of sorting out who she was and who she could be:

Writing and moralizing
"It’s corrupting to write with the intent to moralize, to elevate people’s moral standards."

Writing and egotism
"Why is writing important? Mainly, out of egotism, I suppose. Because I want to be that persona, a writer, and not because there is something I must say. Yet why not that too? With a little ego-building — such as the fait accompli this journal provides — I shall win through to the confidence that I (I) have something to say, that should be said."

Truth and time
"There is no stasis. To stand still is to fall away from the truth; the inner life dims and flickers, starts to go out, as soon as one tries to hold fast. It’s like trying to make this breath serve for the next one, or making today’s dinner do the work of next Wednesday’s as well. . . .Truth rides the arrow of time."

Fear of aging
"The fear of becoming old is born of the recognition that one is not living now the life that one wishes. It is equivalent to a sense of abusing the present."

The American struggle to write
"In every important modern American writer you feel a struggle with the language--it's your enemy, doesn't naturally work for you. (Completely different in England, where the language is taken for granted.) You have to subdue it, reinvent it."

It's certainly refreshing to hear any author recognize egotism as a motive for being a writer, not to mention the love affair with the persona of being a writer. All writers possess both, I'm convinced, as much as any trait.

Both characteristics have motivated me (without payoff, but with satisfaction). In fact, I yearn for the days when playing out the persona of a writer filled up my soul. It's always a wonderful feeling to be able to walk into a room with dashing hopes and reckless confidence, even if you don't have a product to show for it. The problem with age is that you need the product. No one will let you play pretend anymore. You can't say "I want to be a writer," because if you've wanted to be a writer, you should be one by now.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Nelson Algren

When I was getting my Masters in Creative Writing at San Franciso State, I approached the chair of the department, Frances Mayes, for what I thought would be a perfunctory signature on a form allowing me to do my thesis on Nelson Algren.

I had always admired Algren's gritty grotesques, and I especially wanted to analyze how he unflinchingly represented a part of America that few authors bothered with: the beastly condition of America's underclass. Algren was essentially the last working class author. Algren's fame peaked just as Joseph McCarthy began black balling artists who had a socialist conscience, and the idea of writing challenging social realist novels never gained traction again.

After Algren something changed in American literature. Yes, writers still wrote and write about the street, and with a certain bravado, realism, and beauty, whether it's Jack Kerouac, Seth Morgan, Jim Carrol, or Charles Bukowski. But all of these authors were more interested in something else than the feeling of inescapable injustice. They might have writen about a needle going into a vein, but they didn't convey its horror, its sole pleasure in a jaundiced day, a moment of relief just barely able to wipe out the knowledge that there is no relief. In their work, there was always an element of fun or holiness in doing drugs. With Algren, in a book like The Man with the Golden Arm, the pain was the main thing, and the pain was symptomatic of a far greater societal pain.

Of course Algren wasn't a social realist as much as he was a poet. He was a gambler in life, and a gambler as a writer. Political earnestnesss didn't suit him; it was the meaning of life that mattered.

The Man with the Golden Arm won the first National Book Award, but Frances Mayes wouldn't sign the form. I asked her why. "Well, he's a bad writer," she said.

It's nice to see Algren getting his due in a recent article in Salon. One thing I know is that he'd never write cheap travel books pretending to be literary adventures. And if he wrote one that became a popular success, he wouldn't start writing cheap and diluted sequels for more money--and he wouldn't allow Diane Lane to play his characte in a movie! Whether he was a good or bad writer, at least he wrote and lived from the heart.