Never Say Nevermore: A Reappraisal of Edgar Allan Poe

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If Edgar Allan Poe—and his writing—has not aged well and seems more than a little passé for 21st century sensibilities, it’s not entirely his fault. Like others who have done things first, and best, it’s likely we grow more impatient with their imitations than the original.

In any event, Poe was a pioneer in almost too many ways to count. If his work and his life (and most especially his death) seem clichéd, dying young, debauched and with too little money was not yet the career move it would eventually become for other artists. With vices and an intensity that would give even a young Charles Bukowski pause, and would have buried the punk rock poseur Sid Vicious, Poe managed to be for literature what Miles Davis was for jazz: he didn’t merely set new standards, he changed the course of subsequent art, perfecting entirely new paradigms in the process.

Some might claim Poe gets too much credit for perfecting (if not inventing) the American short horror story and detective story. The fact is, he doesn’t get enough.

Perhaps the best way to gain historical perspective on the proper scope of Poe’s achievements and influence is to consider an abbreviated list of legends who stood on his doleful shoulders: French poet Charles Baudelaire (who both championed and translated Poe), H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Arthur Conan Doyle, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and a trio of tolerably impressive non-Americans: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Oscar Wilde and Sigmund Freud. Suffice it to say, if your work has any part in shaping or inspiring authors who make significant contributions to the canon, your status is more than secure.

Arguably, no American figure has influenced as many brilliant—and imitated—writers as Poe. The entire genres of horror, science fiction and detective story might be quite different, and not for the better, without Poe’s example. More, his insights into psychology, both as narrative device and metaphysical exercise, are considerable; he was describing behavior and phenomena that would become the stuff of textbooks several decades after his death.

He also happened to be a first rate critic, and his insights are as astute and insightful as anything being offered in the mid-19th Century (his essay “The Poetic Principle” comes as close to a “how to” manual for aspiring writers as Orwell’s justly celebrated “Politics and the English Language”). Oh, and he was a pretty good poet, too.

When assessing Poe, 150-plus years after he died, it’s imperative to interrogate and untangle that fact that not all clichés are created equally. Or, put another way, we must remember that before certain things became clichés, they were unarticulated concerns and compulsions.

When we talk about old school we typically call to mind an era that was pre-TV and even pre-movie. Well, Poe was writing in an era that was pre-radio and practically pre-daguerreotype. With no Snopes or MythBusters, encyclopedias not readily available and religion the common if inconsistent arbiter of moral guidance, Poe was not after cheap frights so much as uncovering the collective unconscious. Put more plainly, this was a time when being accidentally buried alive was something that could conceivably occur.

The reason Poe remains so convincing and unsettling is because he doesn’t rely on goblins or scenarios that oblige the suspension of belief; he is himself the madman, the stalker, the outcast, the detective and, above all, the artist who made his life’s work a deeper than healthy dive into the messy engine of human foibles, obsessions and misdeeds. He stands alone, still, at the top of a darkened lighthouse, unable to promise a happy ending and half-insane from what he’s seen.

Here we celebrate Poe’s ten greatest tales, but first, a brief sample of tales that don’t quite make the cut, but warrant attention and approbation.

First and foremost, the almost unclassifiable (and Poe’s only novel-length work) “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket”. Jorge Luis Borges loved it, Jules Verne was undoubtedly influenced and without this model, we may not have gotten our great (white) American novel. If it’s good enough for Melville, it’s good enough for everyone.

“Berenice” and “Eleonora”, two character studies of doomed women, both epitomizing some of Poe’s most persistent fixations (teeth, premature burial). There’s also the whole “cousin thing”.

The type of story O. Henry would make a career of, “The Oval Portrait” is an early “shocker” even though contemporary audiences will see the conclusion coming a mile away. Like “Pym”, this one makes the cut if only for the eventual masterpiece it influenced, in this case Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

It might be a stretch to say that “Hop-Frog” presaged all the slasher dramas of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but it’s definitely a quite satisfying prototype of the abused outcast getting his revenge, equal parts Michael Myers and (Black Sabbath’s) Iron Man—with grating teeth.

Finally, “A Descent into the Maelström” is rightly credited as being an early attempt at a proper science fiction study, and the technique of an older, wiser sailor recounting his tale as narrative is an obvious antecedent to Conrad.

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10. “The Gold Bug”

You almost have to transport yourself back to a time without electricity to fully appreciate Poe’s achievement here. In terms of influence, Robert Louis Stevenson merrily declared he “broke into the gallery of Mr. Poe” (for the creation of Treasure Island), and the bug bite instigating heightened awareness anticipates both “Spiderman” and “The Fly”. The extensive use of ciphers—cryptography being a big fad of the time—also may have inspired Zodiac (the killer and the subsequent movie). Even the appallingly dated dialect of Jupiter is a prelude for the cruder moments of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The sheer effort of imagination alone in seeing this one through requires that it be regarded as an important work.

9. “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

Another one that must be properly appraised as a product of its time, the fact is that, upon publication, this tale caused a public uproar because it was sufficiently believable. This tale employs the ostensibly scientific case study of a hypnotized patient who, in his mesmerized state, is able to exist in a surreal, inexplicable condition where he’s dead but… still alive. Once again, as preposterous as this sounds, today, and as outlandish as it clearly was, even in 1845, it’s a credit to Poe’s masterful description, pacing and use of suspense that he actually pulled it off.

8. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

Celebrated as the first modern detective story, Poe’s hero C. Auguste Dupin is featured in two subsequent tales, “The Mystery of Marie Roget” and “The Purloined Letter”, but “Rue Morgue” is the most famous, and best of the three. One of the many Poe efforts made into an inferior, and terribly dated, film, it works best on the page. Using his powers of deliberation, Dupin is an undeniable model for Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Poe is in full command of his considerable powers here, employing the process of investigation and discovery, cleverly employed humor and terror, and a character who proves he’s smarter than everyone else.

7. “William Wilson”

It seems impossible to prove that Dostoyevsky was directly influenced by Poe, but it’s difficult to believe early novel The Double was not in some way informed by this compact tale that manages to invoke class, the concept of the doppelgänger, split-personality and the self-corrective of one’s conscience (all themes Dostoyevsky would make his calling card, culminating in his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov).

In only a handful of other stories was Poe so deftly able to balance shock and humor, albeit of a very dark variety. Cognizant that the narrator is a scoundrel, it’s difficult to pity his plight even as we shudder at the humiliation he suffers. Although not often described as such, “William Wilson” is a tour de force psychological case study of an unreliable narrator tortured by a deservedly conflicted sense of self.

6. “The Pit and the Pendulum”

Darkness. Torture. Rats. Any questions? How about a slowly descending, foot-long razor ever-so-slowly descending from the ceiling, giving you plenty of time to think about how it will eventually (and ever-so-slowly) slice open down the middle? And that’s just a basic summary.

Here is a one of Poe’s most fully realized attempts at “totality”. Poe creates a complete atmosphere of terror, where the narrator and reader understands it’s not random, his captors are very aware of the conditions they’ve created, making the tension difficult to endure. Where other stories describe, in often excruciating detail, the anguish inflicted on an overly sensitive individual, in this one Poe makes the reader acutely aware of their own senses: unable to see inside the pit, smelling the rats as they gnaw at the ropes, hearing the deliberate hiss of the pendulum, feeling the sweat frozen by the fear of death.

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5. “The Tell-Tale Heart”

Another one that’s easy to imagine Dostoyevsky studying, this time in the construction of his underground man (Notes from Underground): an unreliable narrator, or a narrator so reliable – -and truthful—that he indicts himself in the attempt to be understood, and pitied. As a study of horror, “The Tell-Tale Heart”, perhaps Poe’s most (in)famous story, seems tame to contemporary audiences. But as an examination of obsession and psychosis?

An amazingly compressed rendering of a pathology pushed to irrational extremes, Poe laid the groundwork for everyone from Fantômas to Norman Bates. The real fear an adult can derive from this story is not the narrator’s brutality or even innocence, but his insistence that he’s sane.

With understated irony, Poe decodes the self-deceived stratagem of our most dangerous sociopaths.

4. “The Masque of the Red Death”

Although if only considered an unrivaled allegory of death (and its inevitability), that somewhat superficial analysis still sells this one short as a blistering critique of social stratification. Here Poe uses a rampant disease to illustrate not only the behaviors but attitudes of the haves toward the have-nots: actively walling themselves inside a fortified castle while misery wipes out the countryside, the superbly named Prince Prospero and his court can’t be bothered with empathy for the afflicted, they have lavish masquerade balls to attend.

A masterful clinic of the Gothic aesthetic ensues as different-colored rooms are described, the air of revelry undercut with hourly reminders of mortality, courtesy of the ebony clock. Finally, there’s the spectacle of a silent intruder who mockingly moves from room to room, until finally confronted by the unfortunate prince.

And then, comeuppance courtesy of one of the great closing lines in literary history: “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all.”

3. “The Black Cat”

Self-loathing? Poe, at times, makes the Grunge and Goth movements look like an ecstasy-addled rave. His irredeemable spiritual desolation was rooted not in anything like the info-overload pressure of too many choices we confront today, or finding the perfect partner or job, but fear of poverty, hunger and the unremarkable ailments that preyed upon humanity for so many centuries before sufficient medical advancements were made. He lived in a time when even libraries might not have the information you needed, so you wrote it down or took to sea or went insane as a matter of principle.

In “The Black Cat”, when the narrator’s abuse of the bottle becomes unmanageable, it seems not autobiographical so much as an expression of the author’s greatest fear: that his appetite for alcohol would poison his personality and override his ability to create. It’s also Poe’s first extended interrogation of PERVERSENESS (all caps here, just like the story), which is described as an “unfathomable longing of the soul to vex itself—to offer violence to its own nature.” The image of the corrupted narrator, hanging his beloved cat with tears streaming down his cheeks, remains among the most pitiful, and genuinely haunting images in the Poe catalog.

Once more, it’s tantalizing to contemplate the ways Dostoyevsky may well have been developing the possibilities of an irresistible perversity driving one to self-defeat (which Poe himself expanded upon in “The Imp of the Perverse”) in both The Double and Crime and Punishment. “The Black Cat”, while quite successful as a spooky tale with an outrageous ending, presents Poe the psychologist at his most incisive—and unsettling.

2. “The Fall of the House of Usher”

If “The Masque of the Red Death” features one of the all-time great closing lines, “The Fall of the House of Usher” contains one of the most sublime opening passages: in one extended paragraph containing 417 words, Poe provides an enduring showcase for his “unity of effect” theory. Practically every image, every action, every word is dedicated toward the invocation of dread, and the suspense careens toward a conclusion that is literally shattering (in several senses of the word).

The tale concerns itself with the narrator and his childhood friend, Roderick Usher, as well as his twin sister Madeline. And yet the main character is the house itself. The narrator feels a palpable sense of dreariness and decay as he approaches the family mansion, a foreboding that comes full circle as the house collapses into itself in the final scene.

It’s the effect the house has on its tenants, however, where Poe couples supernatural suspense with a human frailty to devastating effect. Sensitive to the point of intolerance to sound, Roderick has become an imploding specter of nervous energy and despair. As he confesses to his friend, “I feel that the period will sooner or later arrive when I must abandon life and reason together, in some struggle with the grim phantasm, FEAR.”

With astonishing economy (this story could—and likely would, by a lesser writer—have easily been stretched into a novel, albeit with lesser impact and effect), Poe manages to invoke his enduring preoccupation of live burial, split personalities, ruminate on the sentience of inanimate objects, and complicate the notions of art imitating life and vice versa, all while steadily orchestrating the ultimate confrontation (twin vs. twin, brother vs. sister, human vs. house, life vs. death). Tragic and absurd as the events become, the narrator is content to leave it as a family matter, hastily escaping as the history of the house and its occupants sink into nothingness.

1. “The Cask of Amontillado”

We’ve discussed a perfect opening section and a perfect closing sentence; “The Cask of Amontillado” is just perfection, period. It represents the consummation of so many of Poe’s aesthetic innovations, crafted so each sentence builds upon the next (like an expertly tiered stone wall…), amping up the humor, irony and, finally, horror. Not a word wasted, an image unnecessary, a line of dialogue inessential and yet, despite the formal symmetry at its heart, a mystery.

What is the insult that drives Montresor’s homicidal rage? It’s never clear, and that only adds an element of menace. Is Montresor, like many of Poe’s most inscrutable murderers, more or less insane? Put another way, it’s difficult to fathom, since he and Fortunato are still at least superficially cordial, any offense that would warrant live entombment.

As with “The Masque of the Red Death”, Poe nimbly operates on multiple levels: there’s an element of class disparity and resentment seething within the dialogue. When Montresor insists that he is, in fact, a mason (one of the delightful ironies, as he pulls out his trowel), it’s easy to overlook Fortunato’s offensive disbelief (“You? Impossible! A mason?”).

There’s also the not inconsiderable matter of Montresor’s family crest, wherein “the foot crushes a serpent rampant whose fangs are imbedded in the heel.” It’s simple to imagine Montresor is the foot smiting the serpent, but it’s possibly more appropriate to consider Montresor as the snake, refusing to die or, if he’s to be defeated, fighting to the death. The motto “Nemo Me Impune Lacessit” (You will not harm me with impunity”) is at once appropriate for his character, yet repugnant.

A writer has succeeded if, in creating a story, a single unforgettable image is imprinted within the reader’s mind. How many such scenes exist in this one short tale? The image of a drunken Fortunato (that name!), in motley—playing the clown, being played for a clown—insistent on proving his expertise, as he’s drawn deeper into the catacombs; the aforementioned passage concerning whether Montresor is, in fact, a mason (producing the trowel, one of the great incidents of foreshadowing in fiction); Montresor, the mason, hurriedly piling brick upon brick; Fortunato, finally comprehending his plight, screaming inside the depths of his crypt, only to have Montresor, full of malevolent confidence, screaming back at him (no one will hear us down here, my friend).

And finally, the most cold-blooded line in Poe’s collected works: “My heart grew sick—on account of the dampness of the catacombs.” Is it, finally, the pang of human remorse? Or is it one last twist of the trowel, one final act of impunity to repay the insult made more than 50 years before? Like the insult itself, we’ll never know.

 

*Originally published at PopMatters on 10/29/15.

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Mark Twain: The Big Daddy of American Letters (Revisited)

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On April 21, 1910, author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, died in Redding, Conn.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.
Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of congress. But I repeat myself.
‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.
The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out the conservative adopts them.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.
Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Mark Twain was the heavyweight champion in a time when giants roamed the earth and our color commentary was written in ink. Twain, along with Melville and Hawthorne, represents the holy trinity of 19th Century American fiction: the great white hope. But Twain was arguably the archetypal American writer; certainly that was William Faulkner’s assessment. And if Faulkner says Twain was the “father of American literature” than Twain is the father of American literature, end of discussion. Even still, he was more than that. A lecturer, a satirist, critic, commentator; a genuine public figure and ambassador for the well-examined life.

Twain’s influence is like history itself: impossible to deny, informing everything that comes later. It’s difficult to imagine Upton Sinclair, H.L. Mencken, Paul Theroux and Christopher Hitchens existing without the model laid out by their white-haired progenitor. Has anyone mixed accessible fiction, social commentary (caustic and comic) and travel writing with more elan than the peripatetic Twain? Is anyone, with the possible exception of Oscar Wilde, more deliciously quotable? Mark Twain remains the Big Daddy; distinctly American to be sure, but American in a way that invokes the better practices and habits we used to take for granted. Twain embodies an era when exploration (physical and intellectual), engagement with the world and an insatiable appetite for experience were not rites of passage so much as imperative points of departure.

Of course it was, in many regards, a simpler time: no movie stars or radio-friendly pop singers (no radio, for that matter), no prime time news anchors sensationalizing the story of the day. But to be certain, there were still opportunistic hacks and peddlers of propaganda: as long as art remains a viable avenue of commerce and politics exist, the world will never have a scarcity of these charlatans. So what? Well, would it be too quaint by half (or whole) to propose that writers in general (and poets in particular, per Shelley’s dictum) were indeed the unacknowledged legislators of the world? Expertise earned in the field and conferred via the discipline of expression. The best writers could acquire an old-fashioned kind of authority; the type that conferred upon an individual the honor (and obligation) of expressing truths not beholden to party lines or privilege. The type of sensibility that was capable of creating Huckleberry Finn, for instance. Mark Twain, in short, seamlessly incorporated many of the aspects we lionize in our leaders: a populist impulse, an instinctive aversion to prejudice, skepticism of power and an unabashed zeal for democracy. This is Twain’s legacy: his country did not define him so much as he helped define it. If Hawthorne wrote about what we had been (and, in his despairing eyes, always would be), and Melville wrote about what we could be, then Twain wrote about what we were, and what we should be.

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In Defense of Stephen King

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FACT: STEPHEN KING, the most successful author of our time, arguably toils more diligently than any other writer. For this alone he deserves recognition and respect.

To the haters: Yes, it’s unlikely any of his works will ever be dissected in graduate seminars. But ask any writer, in whatever genre, about their ultimate goal and the honest, simple answer is to be read. On this score, King has achieved what few authors, of any time, will. For this, too, recognition and respect—however grudging—is warranted.

To the savvy social media hipsters: How many likes did you get on that pithy post? You have how many Twitter followers? Keep channeling that energy into tweets, cultivate your online presence to evanescent perfection. King just wrote another novel while you refreshed your screen.

Here’s the Thing about King: he is so incredibly, so preposterously productive it’s not unreasonable to imagine the thousands (millions?) of trees that would still be standing if he’d at any time decided to take his foot off the throttle. Then again, how can we do anything but admire an artist for shutting out the very distractions we love to lament? How much reality TV time do you think King is racking up? How many hours is he wasting on Facebook? Sure, he’s afforded himself the luxury of not needing to pay the bills, so he gets up every day and punches a different kind of clock, and his time seems regulated not by machines but the engine inside him. This drive—it can’t be for money, it’s unlikely he craves more fame—keeps him engaged and, if it gives him no rest in the superficial sense, it’s provided him peace.

If he won’t be accused of being a craftsman, he should be celebrated for putting on his boots every day, without exception or excuse, and killing more trees. Stephen King is the Paul Bunyan of fiction, America’s literary lumberjack.

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It’s actually not that difficult to imagine some of King’s novels getting the grad school treatment; at the very least they may be ripe for undergraduate-level exegesis: “English 301: Stephen King and the Pop-Culture Apotheosis”. Here, let’s give it a shot.

Salem’s Lot can be interpreted as an extended metaphor about the increasing cycle of parasitic capitalism, forcing blue collar folks to feed off the blood of the upper classes, until egalitarianism is achieved, at last, through eternal predation. (But no, it’s just a book about vampires rampaging through a small New England town.)

Cujo was written, so the author claims, while he was putting more blow up his nose than Tony Montana in Scarface. Perhaps we can reconsider the mucus-coated muzzle of the St. Bernard as an extended allegory regarding the danger and disempowering potential of hard drugs. Or greed, or power, or any vice. (But no, it’s just a book about a big rabid dog rampaging through a small New England town.)

Christine: a car possessed by the soul of its original owner, or a car that possessed the soul of its original owner, who now possesses the car that possesses the soul of its new owner: a Borgesian labyrinth deconstructing the self-abnegation and reincarnation inherent in the act of creation? (No, it’s just a book about a car rampaging through a small New England town.)

Is it exhausting reading this? It’s exhausting just writing it. Plus, the uninitiated could simply watch the movies. Though, in fairness, even the better movies are worse than the most mediocre books (yes, for my money that includes the overly saccharine and sentimental crowd favorites Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption). Again, one thinks of the recurring theme of carnage and the inestimable tonnage of trees…

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Stephen King has been a bit more defiant in recent years, and he’s earned the right to be a tad truculent about his influence. Selling more than 350 million books and making multiple generations of readers into fanatics is undoubtedly gratifying and something a fraction of writers will ever experience. And he can boast penning at least three novels that anticipated colossal cultural trends: he made vampires cool again (a few decades ahead of schedule), he conjured up a delusional sociopath jump-starting a nuclear apocalypse before Reagan took office, and envisioned a devastating pandemic before AIDS became front-page news (‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and The Stand, respectively). This trifecta alone earns him street cred that should extend beyond literary circles. Yet clearly, the critical backlash accumulated over the years sticks in King’s craw. As an éminence grise who, it might also be pointed out, paid his dues for many years before his “overnight” success, he is aware he’ll always be a tough sell for the lit-crit crowd.

In his recent, extended interview in Rolling Stone, King is candid, calm, and not above throwing a few haymakers at some usual—and a couple of unusual—suspects. He gets his licks in on the insufferable Harold Bloom (who went out of his way to savage King when the latter won the National Book Award in 2003), whom he describes as taking “(his) ignorance about popular culture as a badge of intellectual prowess”. Fair enough. If King’s ghastliest work injures the eyes, it doesn’t quite deaden the senses the way Bloom’s sacred cow shenanigans often do. As such, King’s bitter tea tastes pretty sweet on the page, and he is justified for calling out people who dismiss him out of hand.

King correctly connects the dots between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jim Thompson; he rightly invokes Twain and delivers some welcome insights on the ways we are conditioned to receive and respond to different mediums. And his commentary begs necessary—or at least worthwhile—questions regarding labels and poles, high-brow and third-rate, and whether the twain shall meet (they always do, of course, as Mark Twain himself proves). His observations, for instance, on Jaws—and how movies are capable of attaining a credibility seldom afforded to popular fiction—offer a refreshing alternative analysis regarding what his work is, who it serves, where it appeals, and why it will endure, in its way.

And then, with a chip on his shoulder as Big as the Ritz, he takes a curious swipe at Fitzgerald, who probably spent more time polishing a paragraph than King takes to write a rough draft. He also sets his sights on Hemingway, and his remarks underscore how simultaneously disarming and exasperating King can be. “Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific,” he shrugs, gauntlet thrown.

These comments are not as sacrilegious as they may seem, at first. It’s difficult to deny that Hemingway—and much of what he epitomized—continues to age poorly, and some of his novels are as overrated as some of King’s are unfairly maligned. On the other hand, The Sun Also Rises establishes sufficient evidence of Hemingway’s brilliance, and many of his short stories are more indispensable than anything King has written (particularly his own short stories). For all the hype and possibly deleterious influence of Papa’s minimalism, it does serve as an aesthetic antidote for King, a writer who edits his tomes the way weeds regulate their growth.

King asserts that he has elevated the horror genre, and few would disagree, even if some might say: “So?” He compares himself to Raymond Chandler whom he credits with elevating the detective genre. It’s clear that what King covets is more respect. His disdain for the Literary Industrial Complex is understandable, but—unfortunately for him—the people he loves to loathe are typically the arbiters of these matters. On one hand, he can point to his sales stats and declare victory (that’s what Hemingway might do; it’s also what Tom Clancy—whom King hopes to distance himself from—did). On the other hand, all the clever arguments and eyebrow-raising one-liners can’t accomplish what his work must do on its own accord. If sales and celebrity are what distinguish hacks from legends, in the end it’s always the writing itself that must outlast or endure the hype.

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Let me tell you a story.

Stephen King has been very good to me. If I haven’t read anything he’s written since the late ‘80s, I sure as shit read everything up to that point. I first encountered him in grade school: I saw ‘Salem’s Lot, then I read it. Ditto Carrie. From then on, he was always there for me, a new book every time I needed one. By the time I caught up with the back catalog, he was on his early-to-mid decade roll, cranking out Cujo, Christine, Different Seasons, etc. It was also around this time that every King effort was made into a movie, so in many regards it was all King all the time for a while there.

It was the Ulysses of my adolescence; that novel contained the universe (known, unknown) to me, circa 1987. And if it transfixed me, then, I can still admire the adrenaline and drive, the ambition and sheer endurance it takes to attempt—much less pull off—such a project. When we found out, in 1985, that he was also pumping out product as Richard Bachman the scope of his capabilities became apparent. He was Beethoven: inhuman, unreal, too prolific to adequately measure in logical terms, teenager-wise.

It was my Holy Grail; even as a sixteen year old I suspected nothing could ever be the same, I stoically anticipated the inexorable comedown: How can he follow this? How can I? Coincidentally or not, soon thereafter I went to college, girls became more than a yearning concept (where they had heretofore been mostly unimaginable, even dangerous, if not quite able to start fires with their minds able to confound and incinerate my own illusions). An undergraduate no longer requires whimsical nightmares via fiction; he is too busy instigating them in real life. Above all, I read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time. Hemingway, too, of whom it can succinctly be stated: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” conceivably has more heft than the best 100 pages King’s ever typed. In sum, I grew up. That’s not to suggest King is more suited for children, it’s to relate that the more widely I read, the more acutely I realized ten lifetimes would scarcely present an opportunity to cover the menu I was compiling.

And yet. King made me want to write. He made me want to be a writer. He was the one who consistently made the magic happen. He cracked the furtive code of storytelling: creating memorable, occasionally indelible characters, and, through the use of words and imagination, making our world more vital, more real. (And, importantly, he has never taken himself too seriously.)

Stephen King remains as relevant as ever, as a concept if nothing else. While we behold the ongoing implosion of the traditional (and often dysfunctional, elitist, undemocratic) book publishing industry, we should commend a multi-millionaire who is still, somehow, an underdog. King is an unacknowledged legislator of sorts, the man of the people most politicians pretend to be. Accuse him of anything, but no one can say King does not care—about his characters, his readers, his craft. Quick: how many artists of any kind, regardless of rank or reputation, roll out of bed and get busy every day, including weekends?

Even if the quality is forever debatable, King’s picture could hang on any aspiring writer’s desk. Not enticed by (more) money or accolades, King goes about his business without distraction or depletion: he puts pen to paper and does the work. That King is still driven by those demons and finds his faith (in writing, in himself) intact after all this time makes him a hero of sorts. Toward the end of the Rolling Stone interview he describes his vocation as only the luckiest and most blessed amongst us ever will: “It fulfills me,” he says. “There are two things I like about it: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.” There is a peace there, something that combines Zen and the certainty of a difficult job, dutifully done. It is, in the final analysis, good to be The King.

*This essay originally appeared at The Weeklings on 3/31/2015.

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Art vs. Life and Death, Again (Revisited)

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Wow, look at the New York Times, today, on the complicated legacy of Roberto Bolano, here.

Money quote(s):

Few writers are more acclaimed right now than the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, who died of an unspecified liver ailment in 2003, at the age of 50. His posthumous novel, 2666, appeared on many lists of the best books of 2008, and interest in him and his work has been further kindled by his growing reputation as a hard-living literary outlaw…At the same time, some of Mr. Bolaño’s friends in Mexico, where he lived for nearly a decade before finally settling down near Barcelona, Spain, are questioning another aspect of the life story he constructed for himself…Regarding Mr. Bolaño and drugs, numerous Latin American and European critics and bloggers have taken the side of his widow, accusing American critics and publishers of deliberately distorting the writer’s past to fit him into the familiar mold of the tortured artist.

This, as they say, is a propos. Where my previous post focused more on the ways in which critics (and fans) have their own reasons (sometime legitimate, often selfish) for propagating the romanticized image of the decadent artist, there is no question that some artists are very invested in their own mythologizing. I was more concerned with the idea of the posers who are probably not artists at all (i.e., the ones who will corner you at a party and talk, endlessly, about all the projects they’ll get around to working on, someday), but of course there are the ones, ranging from obscure (James Frey) to already established (Bolano) fabricating an entire autobiography based on a deliberate embellishment. Or, to put it more bluntly, a lie. And this could warrant considerable examination, but I think the bottom line is, it’s a mutually rewarding endeavor for writer and publisher/editor when this sham works. It creates the dangerous aura the writer can cultivate to generate interest (and sales) and it creates a buzz about the writer, which generates sales (and interest in future books). The blame game–so typically American–only commences when the author’s work (or bio) is definitively exposed as fiction (see: James Frey) and you have editors scrambling to cover their asses (or idiots like Oprah Winfrey who, personifying the prurient American reader who is taken hook line and sinker by the outrageous, over-the-top exploits of the bad-ass artist, shifts from huckster to soap-box admonisher overnight, just to save face). This is a tricky dance: some editors are genuinely duped, some are simply disingenuous, and find that their usually infallible bullshit detectors tend to malfunction at the first promise of a potential best-seller. The agents, editors and publishers who are shocked to discover that they were taken tend to protest too much.

But in the final analysis, despite how despicable and petty the business side of publishing is, once the silk curtain is pulled back, the fact that artists lie (or feel it’s a good business decision to lie) and publishers turn a blind eye says more about the collective audience who sits back and laps it up.

If you are going to create your own persona, at least do it transparently, and with some measure of self-deprecating humor. And, always, elan. Like Donald Fagen did with his immortal, tongue-in-cheek ode to aggrandizement, Deacon Blues. But then, he really was a rock star.

You call me a fool
You say it’s a crazy scheme
This one’s for real
I already bought the dream
So useless to ask me why
Throw a kiss and say goodbye
I’ll make it this time
I’m ready to cross that fine line
I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
And I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues

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Art vs. Life and Death, cont’d (Revisited)

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Here’s the thing: one wonders how many of these artistic types are producing anything worthwhile? How many worthwhile artists do you run into who are even comfortable talking about the fact that they create? It’s certainly a generalization, but in my experience, those who talk much, do little (that’s actually true of just about any endeavor, but it seems almost axiomatic when it comes to artistic inclination). It would be amusing to make a documentary entitled “The writer at work”, and the camera pans in on some dude in his boxers and dirty t-shirt, sitting on the floor with a legal pad, rubbing his cheeks and shaking his head, staring at a blank legal pad. Moments pass…silence. WAIT! He is writing….he stops. Rubs his cheek; shakes his head. Crosses out what he wrote. Moments pass. Silence. After 90 minutes the words “To be continued” flash on the screen. It would be the most insufferably boring, but true documentary ever created–and it would disabuse countless dreamers and posers of the notion that being a writer is something you can cultivate or assume, the way you can learn a foreign language by being immersed in another culture.

Martin Amis: a writer who can write about writing

Martin Amis: a writer who can write about writing

But lest you think–understandably–that I wish to put the bulk of the blame on critics and article writing assistant professors, let’s acknowledge an immutable fact: these prurient tell-all tomes would not continue to be written if they did not consistently sell. So the onus is…on us. Seriously. The collective “we” are increasingly more familiar with the lives of the writers than the words they wrote. And this distressing tendency is at its apex (or nadir) right now, with the reality TV bonanza. Lest that sound like whining, or tilting at the inexorable windmills of commerce, I recognize it, I accept it, and I try not to worry about it. It’s not like America has suddenly retarded its collective ability (or desire) to think and read and engage. Or, if it has, it’s a very slow erosion and each generation has predictably lamented the idiocy of the age it currently suffers through. Same as it ever was.

I’d say that with some notable exceptions, I tend to be most fully satisfied reading criticism of writing done by writers (particularly fiction writers) and while it’s more rare, reading about music by people who make music tends to maintain the balance between insight and expertise. Put more cynically, everyone puts pen to paper with an agenda. No artist worth a damn would begrudge any honest reader their right to interpret the work as they see (and experience) it. Some critics mean well and just can’t manage to convince; some critics mean ill but can’t help being brilliant. Ultimately, it’s only when someone comes to the table with an agenda, but happens to be ignorant, that a disservice is done to the art being commented upon.

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Art vs. Life and Death (Revisited)

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Subj: art

Date: 11/28/98 12:55:40 PM Eastern Standard Time

From: BULLMURPH

To: BULLMURPH

Question: If artists are inherently not normal, but the goal of analysis is more or less to overcome abnormalities, is treatment of psychological problems likely to inhibit the subjects’ creativity?

Answer: I don’t know.

This is a fascinating conundrum.

(Something only artists are interested in? I don’t think so. Particularly since books about writer’s lives sell better than the books the artists wrote. The more sensational the life (or death), the more popular the book. As always, this says a great deal more about contemporary readers than writers.)

I think more often than not the artist who gets “help”, whether it’s from medication or analysis (or both) is able to retain the creativity but concurrently enhance productivity. This is significant, and in many ways a best case scenario, not only for the writer, but the family and friends whose lives are invariably made more challenging through their association with a troubled artist. Have we, at long last, finally debunked the romanticized notion of the disenchanted individual (see: tortured artist) churning out masterworks in spite of, or because of, their affliction? This has been an especially egregious construction of lit-crit vampires and prurient pundits, most of whom have no actual insight regarding the association between creativity and mental illness. Hence, we get academic treatises depicting the requisite “abnormal” consciousness that compels creation. It isn’t so much that this is wrong, although it does smack of the worst tendencies of aloof and austere thinking so prevelant in the academy and the church. It is at once condescending and patronizing, in ways ceaselessly unique to tenured professors and clergymen.

Nevertheless, many artists are inspired to create because of a fundamental dissatisfaction with reality and how it is defined, and/or perceived by the masses (is there a better way to say this? The average folks? The normal folks? The consumers? The quietly desperate?). It is rather well documented, often by the artists themselves, that a Van Gogh or a Woolf or a Hemingway would produce in the manic frenzies that either followed or preceded the excruciating lows, or, more often, during the focused, methodical industry of a mere mortal (in other words, during the alternately infrequent bursts of intense production or the more typical–and boring–hours when it’s work, with all the drudgery that entails). And it’s the down times, often exacerbated by alcohol or drug abuse, that stymied their work, not stimulated it. Just ask Bukowski.

I think it’s a good thing that options are more readily available today. Above and beyond the restorative effects of medication, we are seeing a gradual but hopefully inevitable demystification of some of the more unfortunate stigmas attached to chemical imbalances that cause depression. Simply put, these options were not available for many who came before us. As always, awareness is arguably the first and most important step toward improvement: for the artists, and anyone who cares about what they create.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Sex (In Fiction)

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WRITING ABOUT SEX is like engaging in sex: it’s hard.

Or, it should be.

It’s that time of year again, where we can count on three things: shopping-related stress during Thanksgiving, family-related stress during Christmas, and in between the two, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award conducted by London’s Literary Review. The 22nd annual honor was awarded last week and Ben Okri takes top prize for the suitably horrific scene in his novel The Age of Magic. More on him and the runners-up here.

This event is not a lark, or limited to third-tier writers. Some legit semi-heavyweights have taken this crown, including Tom Wolfe, David Guterson and (shocker) Norman Mailer. Amusingly—and appropriately—John Updike won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008; astonishingly, Philip Roth has never reaped what he’s blown, though it’s undeniably not for lack of trying. Take this passage (please) from The Dying Animal: “…with my knees planted to either side of her and my ass centered over her, I leaned into her face and rhythmically, without letup, I fucked her mouth.” (This and other of Roth’s overly penetrating portrayals were wonderfully cataloged by Christoper Hitchens in an epic, scathing 2007 piece for The Atlantic.)

Here’s the, um, climax of this year’s best worst passage, according to the intrepid readers and judgers at Literary Review: “The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” Okay, that’s pretty terrible. Or awe-inspiring in its awfulness. How about an incriminating précis of reigning champs from recent years? Here’s a portion of 2012’s winning bit, by Nancy Houston (from Infrared): “oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alteration, never will I tire of that silver fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water.” That’s impossible to outdo. No it isn’t. Check this, from 2010, courtesy of Rowan Somerville (from The Shape of Her): “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.” It can’t credibly get worse than that, right? Wrong. Rachel Johnson raised the lowest of bars in 2008 with this (from Shire Hell): “he holds both my arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as to not miss a single drop.”

A pattern emphatically emerges, even with this, er, small sample size. They are all aesthetically offensive, cliché-ridden, and suffer from self-consciousness—either too much or a total lack thereof. Regardless of taste or tact, few readers—or few folks with a modicum of experience either fornicating or writing fiction about it—would quibble with how excruciating these excerpts are.

Yet in 2010, Laura Miller at Salon took exception to the glee with which these dishonors are doled out, the entire affair a combination of prurience and the puritanical impulse that has ever afflicted our upper classes. She posits that we are a bunch of snobs when it comes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup proposition of combining sex and literature. I think she (wisely? cynically?) uses the occasion of the Bad Sex Award to make a larger point about what we talk about when we talk about sex (in fiction): she’s all for it. She does, however, utilize a bit of a Straw Man to complain about the Literary Review’s annual endeavor, suggesting that more self-aware readers have—or should have—no qualms about moments of ardor (and the moments those moments lead to) artistically rendered.

I think the issue is not so much that these scenes exist, but that they’re invariably so uninspired or unintentionally ridiculous. Or, readers aren’t saying not to include sex in novels, but that writers should do everyone a favor and 86 the 69, or any scenes that make a mockery of the function so many people hold sacred—at least in theory. After all, the mostly unspoken calculus that occurs under cover of intimacy compels relationships and builds or destroys marriages, even families. In other words, it’s noteworthy. Indeed, for more members of our species than we may care to admit, the deed (the thought of it, the desire for it, and the lack of it) influences almost every waking moment. So, perhaps this award offers a welcome—and by the abundance of material to choose from each year, often unheeded—admonishment for those who would kiss and tell: proceed warily if you must.

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Is this too much to ask?

Let’s face it: convincing sex scenes happen seldom enough in real life. How—or why—do we expect them to occur in literature? Especially when most writers (the honest ones would admit) are not exactly Lotharios, unless you count the hackneyed rite of passage so frequently painted, involving the professorial seduction of the over-achieving undergrad. And these scenes, even though the authors don’t realize it, are less erotic than confessional—and more than a little embarrassing for all involved. I’ve unfailingly seen the most accomplished authors flummoxed while attempting a basic depiction of consensual love. Or lust.

So how do you do it?

Sex scenes, that is.

Anyone who has a passing acquaintance with the act, much less the art, of seduction and surrender understands that successful sex is like almost any human enterprise: you don’t need to talk about it if you can do it—whatever it is. Or, the people who speak (and write) the loudest are probably not the people you want beneath you or on top of you, and they certainly are not the ones you should be paying to be your creative tour guide.

A personal favorite comes from the immortal Richard Burton writing about the immortal Liz Taylor. “Apocalyptic,” was how he described her breasts. “They would topple empires before they withered.” That’s not even a sex scene, and Burton was, of course, an actor, but there are novelists whose collected works don’t contain a line that perfect.

I’m not sure when, or if, The Canterbury Tales started to make sense, but I know things got interesting when I realized everyone apparently was shagging one another, albeit in a difficult-to-understand language. In hindsight, I suspect my professor was hoping to make the material a bit more uh, titillating to easily-distracted students, but I came away with the notion that Chaucer was a bit of a Player. “The Miller’s Tale” alone is practically a medieval sex manual.

Exhibit A: “When Nicholas had doon thus everydeel/He thakked hire about the lendes weel/He kiste hire swete, and taketh his sautrye/And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodye.”

Exhibit B: “And prively he caughte hire by the queynte/And seyde ‘Y-wis, but if ich have my wille/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” (Google queynte.)

Of course an entire essay could be devoted to virtually any play by Shakespeare, who arguably combined passion, humor and lasciviousness with more élan than any writer, in any language.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the sacrosanct tenet we’re taught in English class around the same time we are(n’t) being taught Sex Ed. And except for the masters (in art; in life) who actually did it and are speaking from experience, the rule should always apply. The exception can—and should—be made for the ones who are able to put it plainly because their prose is essentially a declaration: I did it, this is how I did it, and if you hope to do it you might imitate my expertise. Put another way, I learned more from Milan Kundera and his understated field notes during my formative years than I ever did from any of the more cocky and forthcoming Locker Room Don-Juan wannabes. And the less said about our more celebrated purveyors of purple-prosed nerd porn like Updike and Roth the better.

Everyone knows most writers are long on word and short on action, with the exception of Ernest Hemingway. He allegedly got plenty of action and instigated lots of excitement, but a contrived—and increasingly pathetic—code of masculinity was the white whale he chased, in his fiction and in his life, until he got too old to make it or fake it. (A Freudian could have a field day with what his minimalism actually signifies.) Perhaps our best semi-contemporary practitioner of doing in print what he did—or wanted to do—in the bedroom, is Charles Bukowski. A dirty old man and making no bones about it, he nevertheless expresses so many thoughts and emotions sex imbues with the requisite comic, tragic and prosaic elements it merits, in reality.

And when all else fails, experts have informed me that’s what the Internet is for. Nevermind books and even movies. If music, or conversation—that old fashioned and unforced chemistry called charm—or a competently cooked meal can’t get you to the Promised Land, you may as well cast a line into the weird, wild web. And, if you are irretrievably old school, seek salvation in one of those books with Fabio on the cover. If you want the genuine article, suitable for a certain type of reading, why settle for half-assed posturing  when you can get your Harlequin on?

In the final analysis, the wisest way to handle any conquest, real or imagined, is to imitate the great ones and act—or at least pretend— like you’ve been there before. And for us literary types, it’s worth recalling the words of wisdom offered by the (fictional) intercourse aficionado Jackie Treehorn: People forget that the brain is the biggest erogenous zone.

Again, writing about sex is hard. Except when it’s not hard enough. And therein, as The Bard reminds us, lies the rub.

This piece originally appeared in The Weeklings on 12/10/2014.

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Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead: The Play’s The Thing (Revisited)

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Spoiler alert: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die.

They are, in fact, already dead. And they always have been.

But you knew that already, right?

Another spoiler: You, too, shall die one day.

Here’s the rub: they didn’t know when or why, and neither will you.

But you already knew that, didn’t you?

Extended, circular interlocutions about the fragility of life or the meaning of reality or the existence of meaning itself were certainly more fashionable in the late ’60s, when this play was first presented, but you need not be obsessed by existential angst to enjoy this slippery mind-screw. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is not an instrument used for scratching those metaphysical itches; it is the itch itself. On the page, like so many plays, it is sufficiently delightful, but brought to life (like the best plays) it sparkles. Of course, even the best plays sometimes suffer from casts, however game, that are not worthy of the material they are provided. Fortunately, this one not only made it to the pretty-big screen, it attracted two of the best British thespians of their time: Gary Oldman (who was known mostly for his role in Sid and Nancy) and Tim Roth (not really known at all, at least outside the UK, circa 1990). Perhaps most miraculous, it also features Richard Dreyfuss, who manages not to be insufferable, perhaps for the last time in his career.

Anyone familiar with Hamlet well recalls that there is a play within a play that takes place: “The play’s the thing –wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” So how about a play about a play within a play? That is what Tom Stoppard attempts with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. He pulls it off, but also achieves many other extraordinary things in this meditation on life and art, art vs. life, the meaning of life, the meaning of art, the meaning of words, the meaning of…meaning, free will, faith and fate. In other words, he explores the sorts of Big Themes that are usually capitalized.

One of the best scenes occurs when the two protagonists play a game of Questions. This bit qualifies as catnip for the overly literate; for anyone who actually gets excited about art, this is intellectual porn. (Like the play itself, it works well on the page, but is considerably improved by the audio and visual qualities of real people doing real things in the service of artifice. On aesthetic and literal levels, the young Gary Oldman channels intelligence, physical beauty, mental acuity and the fey insouciance of a player being pulled on a playwright’s strings, which is precisely what he is. Also, all of the questions inherent in the play –and in the two men’s confused existences– are artfully woven into this ingenious little scene.)

A play (and movie) this excellent, if semi-obscure, has been reviewed well (and well-reviewed) enough times that a summary of the plot –such as it is– is not necessary. Certainly, a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare’s greatest work would seem obligatory, although the screen version could arguably be enjoyed on its own terms. For me, Stoppard’s true triumph here is not the surreal masterstroke of making marginal characters the main players, or scrutinizing the role of free will (in art, and in life) or in presenting a narrative where the conclusion is telegraphed from the get-go and still making it suspenseful, although those are all remarkable achievements. And, while it is convincingly rendered, he shouldn’t receive too much credit for reinforcing the obvious, if facile reality that we are all the stars of our own story, regardless of how inconsequential our thoughts and actions are in the proverbial pages of history (“All the world’s a stage”, etc.). The enduring impact of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead might be the manner in which Stoppard takes on the Big Questions that philosophers, poets, priests and everyone else have agonized over for centuries and arrives at an explanation even The Bard would likely endorse: it’s not so much that there aren’t any answers (there aren’t) but that we ask the questions at all. By asking the questions, we see the silliness, we hear the humor, we observe the awful and we eventually come to understand the most important thing, the only thing that matters: we are alive.

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Sui generis on the rocks: Christopher Hitchens (Revisited)

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The best way to compliment a writer, as a reader, is to recommend their work to others. That I wholeheartedly do, and have done.

The best way to compliment a writer, as a writer, is to recognize, with neither regret nor resignation, that on your best day you will always stand in awe of what they achieved.

Reading and responding to The Hitch is ceaselessly inspiring and seldom less than exhilarating. More, it is an instigatory experience: it compels you to get involved more deeply with the world around and inside you. Reading any worthwhile writer is an act of celebration, a shared reaction to the act of creation. More, it is an exercise in how to write, read, think and live.

The best tribute I can offer to Hitch is that even when he infuriated me (something he did often when he wrote about politics after 9/11), he excited me. I’ve never read a writer who thrilled me as consistently and thoroughly as Hitchens did. He is one of the very few writers who could write about virtually anything and I’d want to read his take. Even, or perhaps especially, when I disagreed with him I came away a more informed and better equipped. In this sense, Hitchens –who at different times could accurately be described as a Marxist, a contrarian, a reactionary and an iconoclast– provided lessons for how to engage intellectually and spiritually (yes, spiritually) with the world. And think about those four words (and there are many others I could use): how many public figures could conceivably, much less convincingly, be described thusly? If Hitchens had sold out, his ostensibly contradictory stances might seem like a case of cognitive dissonance. In actuality, it was the evidence of his ongoing evolution, as a thinker, writer and human being. Evolution is never static, and Hitchens was always moving forward: ravenous, curious, ornery, insatiable. Above all, he burrowed into the world with the glee and intensity of a converted soul. His salvation was not religion; it was the simple and profound act of existing: I think, therefore I am.

Hitchens combined the range of Twain, the erudition of Mencken and the irreverence of Hunter S. Thompson. Of course he also had the political courage of Orwell, the acerbic wit of Cyril Connolly and the adroit literary acumen as his great friend Martin Amis. Of all the writers whose work I’ve worshipped, Hitchens was the most fully-formed summation of his influences; as a result of his monomaniacal addiction to knowledge, he produced an insight that is at once all-encompassing and wholly unique. At his best, Hitchens could remind you of any number of geniuses; at the same time, nobody else is like Hitchens. The Hitch is sui generis, on the rocks.

Here’s the deal: even as I felt intense discomfort for how cozy he became with the architects of our recently-concluded (?) quagmire, it was difficult to write him off. For one thing, he never stood to profit in any sense of the word, and I believe he was inexorably affected by what his mate Salman Rushdie endured (when he was notably one of the few artists willing to stand up and defend Rushdie). Over time he came to –wrongly in my view– perceive a very gray (and shady) situation as black and white. It wasn’t like he ever turned tail and apologized for being a liberal (like some of his ersthwhile allies did); he certainly did not embrace his new “friends” on the Right in any meaningful way. He was cocksure, inscrutable and resolute to the end; if he was a big pig-headed at times, in my estimation he was never opportunistic or craven. How many legit famous people can we say that about?

The best way to compliment a person for the life they lived is how they choose to die.

That seems to cute by half, but I can’t think of a better way to put it. Of course, few of us have the opportunity to choose how, or when, we die. For the unfortunate folks who contend with cancer, the choice is made for us. The true measure of the courage of one’s convictions is how those convictions hold up under duress. Hitchens promised he would never “find” religion once he was diagnosed with what turned out to be the ailment that took him out. True to his word, as usual, as ever, he was unflinching to the end, even as the hideous disease made him emaciated, weak and fried inside-out. (A bit more on how that happens, here.) True to his nature, he not only refused to give quarter, he took every opportunity to reiterate the feelings he had about all-things religious. (A bit more on that, here.)

People who live the right way are living lessons on how to exist, aspire and inevitably, to perish. Hitchens, through his example, will remain a vivid and unquenchable exhibit for how to suck the marrow out of this life, as Thoreau admonished us to do. The mind-boggling body of work he leaves behind will ensure that this world is never without him. Which, in the final analysis is a relief, because the world is already a poorer place without further input from this unbowed, inimitable piece of work.

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A Week of Americana. Part One: Moby Dick

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As our nation prepares to celebrate another birthday this week, it seems like an appropriate time to revisit some posts that celebrate art, American style. The first one, fittingly, is my tribute to the great American novel (and yes, it is the great American novel), Moby Dick.

This is an especially opportune time, since so many people are headed to the beach, or on vacation, or looking for a suitable summer book. Well let me tell you: Moby Dick is the ultimate summer book. And it’s also the great American novel (so, for that matter, is The Great Gatsby, as well as Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. This country is big and awesome enough to have more than one epic novel to claim the number one title, at least the way I look at things).

Subsequent posts will look at some movies and music; for today let’s get after it. I consider it a personal victory and a triumph for writing (in general) and Melville (in particular, and I hope he is resting in peace and I truly hope he is, somehow, some way, aware that the book that won him little attention in his time is now considered a masterpiece) anytime I can encourage someone that not only is this book approachable and edifying, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave around them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God!
Moby Dick, Chapter 26

When it comes to the state of the American novel, there is nothing — or at least, not very much — new under the sun. And this is not entirely a bad thing. Not when most avid lovers of literature reluctantly acknowledge that the prospect of reading all, or most of the great works of fiction in one lifetime is an unattainable ambition. Sad, but true, and because of this incontrovertible actuality, a well-intentioned or would-be aficionado must aim to separate the proverbial goats from the sheep, and ensure that the books that really matter stand at the top of the list.

For instance, when’s the last time you feel in love with an author and went out and spent a month, or a summer, or a decade devoting your attention to their oeuvre? Even when, like in love, you are lucky enough to find that soul mate of an author, how often do you get the chance to indulge yourself? And then there are the authors you should want to absorb. Have you read all of Dostoyevsky? (Shame on you). All of Shakespeare? (No? Then get thee to a video store). All of Faulkner? (Don’t worry, no one else has either).

The point is, as Tennyson proclaimed, art is long and time is fleeting. And it would seem that because of unexceptional high school and college teachers, the prospect of actually reading a novel is accorded roughly the same anticipatory anxiety as a root canal. This is unfortunate, and the authors of these great books should not be punished simply because most professors are unable to convey the joy that can, and should, accompany the act of reading for pleasure.

Good music and good literature have always seemed to intimidate, or bewilder otherwise open-minded individuals. This is doubtless at least in part due to teachers and critics seeking to justify their own intellectual enterprise by conferring upon art an ivory halo that renders it unreachable by average, simple-minded citizens. Rather than regarding, say, Jazz music or a 19th Century novel as sacred relics conceived by sullen saints, perhaps it would be beneficial to acknowledge, even endorse the actuality that most of these works were produced by individuals whose lives were as conventional as their creative minds were exceptional. Or, reduced to more practical terms, if Jazz music is gumbo — and it is — the archetypal American novel, with Moby Dick as its progenitor and arguably its apotheosis, is a chowder.

Chowder?

Listen: so many novels are meat, or potatoes, or broth, or milk (often watery milk that becomes increasingly rank and repellent as it stands on the counter, or in the bookshelf as the case may be), or a smattering of vegetables. It is the rare and precious novel that is able to (indeed, one that even seeks to) satisfy on multiple levels, aesthetic as well as technical, a work that amuses as well as inspires, a book that informs as well invigorates — a novel that augments or reaffirms one’s belief in what the novel, that most indefatigable form of artistic expression, can do.

Can novels do this? Yes.

What type of novel? Moby Dick.

It is exceedingly ironic that in an age where cantankerous crusaders of classic literature are defending that increasingly endangered species, the not-so-great white male author, there is a text that actually exists which can satisfy both the hegemony-in-a-haystack-hunting Derrida disciples and the pugnacious proponents of tradition: Moby Dick.

The book’s author, Herman Melville — despite getting the unfair (and unjustifiable) tag of boring old white guy, author of the quintessential boring old white guy book about a boring old white whale, not to mention a handful of equally impenetrable short stories (while most high school students are instructed to read Bartleby The Scrivener, most of them — at least partly due to the unfortunate baggage associated with its author — would prefer not to) — is, in fact, quite accessible. Really.

But accessibility is often the enemy of integrity. Why not then celebrate the all-too-infrequent instance that proves to be the exception to the very rules it rewrites? Like any truly lasting piece of expression, the writings of Melville not only have stood the intractable test of time, they incredibly — miraculously — are as viable and valuable to today’s dissolute and desperate, but not altogether dissimilar world. Perhaps resulting from the ever-mercurial moods of the left-leaning academic aristocracy, it has become ironically admissible to dismiss Moby Dick as it once was to venerate it. This would be an unexceptionable development but for the fact that for all the right reasons, this classic American text is also pioneering in its puissant, often sardonic assaults on institutions ranging from the patriarchal status quo, to slavery, to the Puritanical thought-police who cast a long, lamentable shadow on early U.S. history. This book celebrates our itinerant American roots and the notion of positive, peaceful diversity not as an apologetic ideology, but as an empowering, imperative axiom. Melville empathized with the underdog and more important, he understood them — he was one — and his real life experiences help inform the poetic prose that allows these otherwise unrenowned heroes to sing the songs of themselves, proceeding Walt Whitman’s masterpiece by a half-decade.

So: a novel that fulfills on almost every conceivable level, a meditation on our individual essence as well as the push and pull of our similitude as human beings adrift in a turbulent universe that not a little resembles the untamed sea.

If the current, confessional model — a facile forgery not even attempting to entertain, or engage in the possibilities the novel provides — is a bouillon cube: add water (or, the easily-invoked tears of an undiscerning reader) than we might recognize the depth and substance of the real novel. No short cuts, all ingredients carefully chosen, cleaned, cleaved, and combined, simmered slowly over the steady flame of inspiration, seasoned with erudition and integrity, stirred with the passion of purpose (a purpose opposite of navel gazing), and served with the unwavering arm of a confident and direct desire to communicate. It’s that simple, that impossible.

And yet, even the richest, most savory bowl of chowder can sustain one for a limited time, one meal per person. This is why art is sustenance for the soul, a benevolent gift that keeps giving. Find a novel and you’ve found a friend for life, a companion that should lend support and inspiration for any earthly endeavors.
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(Speaking of Americana, if you’ve never heard of the amazing Blind Tom Wiggins, check it out, below, and here. One of the most fortunate musical finds for me this past decade, courtesy of the indispensable Oxford American magazine, was Blind Tom. Which in turn led me to John Davis, who has done heroic work to spread the word and resurrect the legend of this largely unsung and unknown hero. More on that here. Picking up a copy of Moby Dick and procuring John Davis Plays Blind Tom –which you can and should do: MP3 download is ony $7.99 at amazon.com– might be the most satisfying thing you do all summer. More on Davis, and Blind Tom, here.)

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