Old, eccentric, tuo zio

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The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili
is thought to be by Franceso Colonna, is considered one of the most beautiful books ever published, and also the most bizarre and inscrutable. It is an astounding example of bravura typography only half a century after Gutenberg, the work of Aldus Manutius in Venice in December 1499. (Manutius is also the inventor of Italic type.) Intended for Quattrocento aristocrats, it also draws from a humanist tradition of arcane writings. The text is written in a bizarre Latinate Italian full of mysterious invented words based on Latin and Greek roots. The illustrations include Arabic and Hebrew words, and the author invented new languages when the ones available to him were inadequate. The story, set in 1467, consists mostly of precious and elaborate dreams within dreams of courtly love.

Helen Barolini has written informatively about it in Aldus and His Dream Book (Italica Press, 2011) and has herself written an interesting collection of stories entitled More Italian Hours (Bordighera, 2001), poetry, essays, and a book on courtly love.

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: “The Strife of Love in a Dream”
More Italian Hours & Other Stories


This is, I will suggest, the first artists book. Of course, virtually every manuscript book before it might count — books of hours, the Lindisfarne Bible — and perhaps Gutenberg’s own Bible. But I ask you to notice the difference, indeed the chasm, between the work of Aldus and Colonna and what we now call by the name of artist’s book. I ask you to notice the ambition of this book and compare it to the nakedly capitalist livre d’artiste.



I ask you notice the little art of our times — the starved and etiolated writing of Raymond Carver (compare that other minimalist Hemingway), the meager efforts of new MFAs constrained by foolish and timid injunctions to “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” as if we were all in kindergarten and had been on summer vacation to the next village. I ask you to notice the imitative and derivative bricolage of our theatre and ask you to compare it to O’Neill or Ionesco. I ask you —
Nertz. Get thee to a monastery, and meditate on these things.
But wait. Without attempting to make a special case for Aldus’s book, what is the status now of the values it embodies? I’ve been re-reading Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! What strikes me is how much my own writing owes to Faulkner, and how often my writing has been disapproved of for that very reason. This is not your Elmore Leonard “Ten Rules for Writing” stuff. This a taste for elaborate expression, words and wordplay, for their own sake. This is not Walter Gropius, this is Antoni Gaudi. This is the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.
There’s another issue. So many people want to write these days — well, perhaps they always have, but with the advent of e-books and self-publishing, now they do. And they do it before they have learned anything of the basic craft of writing. Yet they all want to begin with a novel, the hardest and most complex fictional medium. It’s as if someone who did know how to hammer a nail were t set out to build a mansion. As if someone were to pick up a book of Dickenson’s poetry and say “Heck, this doesn’t look so hard.” Or, as so many people did say in the early days of Abstract Expressionism — “My kid could do that.”
And perhaps those are more common ideas than we might think. The underlying and controlling assumption in so many wannabe authors is that writing is easy. Anyone can do it. And they expect to teach themselves how to write in their spare time. I have to ask, what did they do to do the job by which they get their living? Some years getting an education and then an MBA, perhaps? An apprentice period, and then time working their way up the employment ladder in order to have enough free time to even consider writing something? And — and here we get to the mud — what have they read? Elmore Leonard? Maybe a little Hemingway (who is way harder and more complex than he looks). Fifty Shades of Gray? The da Vinci Code?
Faulkner? I don’t think so. The Hypnerotomachia Poliphili I don’t think so.
Come aaahn. I’ll save the jeremiad for later. Live a little.

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On Reshelving Your Library

Friends: I never thought it and I wish it hasn’t happened, but my science fiction novel E has become a prescient critique of the threat to democracy we now face. It may be crass of me to use this crisis to sell a book but the fact is an old man in a wheelchair has to stand up somehow, and this is what I can do. The book is on the sidebar of this post and I hope it scares the daylights out of you because it’s supposed to. I must and need to say something for democratic values and this is my statement.


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You can turn off the background music with the button in the upper right corner. One button is the Chinese character for chi, breath or life. The other is a crushed chi.

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You can quote me on this

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You can quote me on this

library school

You can turn off the background music with the button in the upper right corner. One button is the Chinese character for chi, breath or life. The other is a crushed chi.

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The basic fundamental basics of fundamental basics

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There are a great many things people natter about where novels are concerned. When the covers are closed and the monthly meeting of the book club has finished the chocolate cake and the discussion is about to begin, two topics are sure to come up early: the characters and the plot.

I will have to take up characters another time. People will persist in regarding characters as people, like themselves. They talk approvingly of strong characters (especially women) and others (frequently men) who are weak or otherwise deplorable. If a novel does not have a strong woman and a morally disabled man in it there will be outcries. It doesn’t take much reflection on the genre of autobiography and memoir, writing which is centrally concerned with the self, to discover there is no such thing. A self is a particular sort of character which vanishes when the person who imagines he owns one (a self) tries to explain what it is. People write autobiographies for this purpose, to explain (and probably justify, or excuse) why this or that regrettable occurrence has been falsely attributed to himself, or why some achievement has been regrettably ignored — or worse, falsely assigned to some other self. Autobiographical selves are also subject to another peril. Real people who talk about themselves a lot, or assume some importance to their actions, are often called narcissistic (especially by other people who prise anonymity, caution, fear and trembling). This rather disables the whole enterprise of autobiography. I would say that a creature which prides itself of no self indicates lunacy rather than narcissism.

The illusion that characters are people leads readers to reconstruct them just as if they were husbands whose dinner time stories were in need of correction, whose grasp of the facts were deplorable or perhaps deluded, or who ought to pay more attention to the guests. How rude, she says when they are alone, and threatens divorce. The reader rubs her hands in delicious anticipation, having made up something really much better than the author.

I will have something to say about the supposed existence of “facts” another time.

The other feature of a novel which will invariably come into the conversation is the plot. It will come as no surprise to you when I say there is no such thing, because as you well know that is what I say about everything: whatever it is, there is no such thing.

The story

In life, things happen one after another. Which things is limited by our perception — we can’t see all of what is going on everywhere. Given the series we observe, we desperately want to believe that the first causes the second. Not to believe that entails believing instead unhappy things — there is no causality anywhere, there is causality but for some reason we have not been privileged to see it, or else we’re too stupid to recognize it, the causality we see is unpleasant or horrifying and so we look for a different one, which entails… etc. There have been philosophies built on all of these possibilities. What a novelist would do is simply, for whatever reason, choose one. The sequence of events plus the rationale, weltanschauung, or whatever for the asserted sequence then becomes the “story”.

The narrative
The author is then free to scramble, confuse, re-order, add a polysemy of other patterns of cause or sequence or choice of events. The then becomes the “narrative” — what the reader is confronted with on the page and has to disentangle.

These are the essentials of story-telling. The author’s discretion consists in the choice and sequencing of events and in the narrative. But there must be in all cases at least two events, a sequence, and a narrative.

1. Something happened
2. to someone (it could be a rock but that wouldn’t be very interesting)
3. with consequences (the second event, and noting that ‘consequences’ are constructed and in a sense create the sequence, so that the process is recursive)
4. that we are told about. (If we aren’t, whatever it is, it isn’t literature. The nature of the teller is a fundamental issue but secondary to these four conditions.

Now where shall we say the plot is to be found? In the suppositious order of events and the equally suppositious claim that they have anything to do with each other? After all, we only know (think we know) these things because the narrator told us so. And not even the author, mind you, but a character created by the author for the purpose of giving his version of events. Such a person’s veracity is not to be trusted. (See above, re dinner table conversation.)

In the narrative, then. Worse and worse. Here we see the narrator openly fiddling with the story, his hands busy with the levers and buttons of fantasy. When we say that a novel is well plotted, do we mean that the narrator has demonstrated his cleverness in getting us to approve of something which is patently false?

I will have to take up this matter of true and false another time, though as you know already what I will say perhaps you won’t bother to read it. The plot is terrible.

In Memoriam Umberto Eco, 1932-2016.
Six Walks In the Fictional Woods

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Books by Charles Brownson 

In Uz

The Figure of the Detective

And these (click on any link or the cover image)


Posted in Craft, For a new novel, How to write, narrative, Novels, sequence in fiction, Stories, storytelling | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The reader’s responsibility to the writer

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One: An author with no readers is silent

Communication is a two-ended process. Message sent, message received. Inevitably garbled and noisy, as Claude Shannon showed in the 40s. Clear communication is impossible. What we take as clear is the result of cleaning and descrambling, first of all. Then there has to be a negotiation between the parties to agree on such things as the semiosis of the message. Without these things there is no communication. In order to communicate, the author needs the reader.

Two: The reader who doesn’t listen silences the author

Communication is a two-ended process. Message sent, message received. Inevitably garbled and noisy, as Claude Shannon showed in the 40s. Clear communication is impossible. What we take as clear is the result of cleaning and descrambling, first of all. Then there has to be a negotiation between the parties to agree on such things as the semiosis of the message. Without these things there is no communication. In order to communicate, the reader needs the author.

Three: The reader’s bargain with the author is asymmetric

The reader who rejects the offer of communication remains in ignorance. But, says the reader, I can pick and choose. This is true. It is also true that in order to choose it is necessary to communicate. The buyer must examine the merchandise on sale.

The writer who rejects the offer of communication loses a chance to impart what he knows. But he does not lose all chance. He is mute but not silenced, and he does not forget what he knows, for it is written for all to see who will look.

Four: The reader has more at risk

The sensei knows that when he accepts a student he accepts the responsibility to speak. Otherwise it is better to remain silent. The sensei also accepts the responsibility to speak the truth. Having spoken, his responsibility is discharged.

The student knows that when he asks to hear the truth he accepts the responsibility to listen. Having listened, his responsibility is not thereby discharged. Those who first listen must then understand. Learning is a two-way process. Inevitably garbled and noisy, to clearly speak the truth is impossible. The false sensei who speaks less than he knows cheats the student. The student who gives less than his full effort cheats himself.

Five: The reader as supplicant

Wittgenstein said: Of that about which we cannot speak we must remain silent. Heidegger said: knowledge is genealogical, and requires ancestors and progeny. No sex, no knowledge. No desire, no sex. Desire can be communicated in many ways. Desire can be accepted in only one. Even the trees talk to each other.

Six: The writer decides for himself

The relationship between readers and writers is asymmetrical. But writers do have one responsibility solely their own — shut up. Those who worship at the feet of the Logos had bloody well consider what they are doing.

Seven: The writer’s isolation

Most authors don’t get to talk to their readers, unless they’re Mom and Dad. The writer’s audience is imaginary. All the writer has to go on is books sold, hoping some of those buyers will actually read the book.

Eight: The writer’s screen

The author wrote the book, but it’s the book talking. Turn the situation over. The reader asks the same question again and again and gets a different answer every time. All of them are true. Now we know we’re talking to a book. The author should hope to make a book which can speak many truths at once, for truths do not come singly.

Nine: The writer’s first responsibility is to his book

I wrote a book which I hoped would speak the truth. For a long time I did nothing to publish it, until I decided that I owed it to the book to give it a chance to speak. So it was published, and my responsibility to the book was discharged. One who thinks of reading it owes no responsibility to the book, takes no risk, invests no wealth. Which of them is most likely to profit?

Ten: The writer’s first friendship is with his book

Nobody listens to me. I’m that schmuck with a glass of soda water standing in the corner trying to look intelligent. But people talk to my book, who is a more fun person than me. So I’m happy for my book, and sometimes we sit out on the patio with some good wine and talk about where’s the best place to retire. There isn’t one. There’s something wrong everywhere.

Some people think there’s more to it than that. There isn’t. It’s the people who think there is who are writing all those boring stories.

Eleven: Commitment brings vulnerability

There is a bibliographic law that if a paper is not cited within the first year of publication it never will be. I find this ineffably sad for the lonely spurned paper and for the author who tries to add something to the conversation and is simply ignored, talked over. Publishing (or trying to) is an emotionally dangerous enterprise for some people. You have to be driven by some power, some great need, to risk it. It’s so much easier not to.

Twelve: Writers who refuse commitment will be lonely. Readers who refuse commitment are condemned to solitary confinement.

Humans are one of the most gregarious beings on Earth. That need cannot be satisfied with party talk, platitudes and formulas. Boring stories are written by people who won’t take risks.

Thirteen: Writers risk their enlightenment. Readers risk their chance at enlightenment.

People wonder why Zen provides no moral guidance, no precepts. If you are enlightened you will do the right thing without precepts because anything else will destroy your enlightenment. The analogy with storytelling is exact.

Fourteen: Writers can choose to make it new. Readers must choose life or death.

An author can re-invent the form or he can do the usual so meticulously and intelligently that it rises up. Consider which has the more value: a new person brought into the world or a dead one returned to life. Lazarus is of importance to no one but himself. Having written his thirty-first piano sonata Beethoven had the good sense not to write it again.

Fifteen: Writers control their language. Readers control their literacy.

Ezra Pound said: make it new. The Cantos have very little in them which is new, and yet they are new. How is that done? We needed to learn how to write, not corner an agent at a party. The reader needs to learn how to read. The reader needs to learn the language, not simply to stop strangers in the street and point to his mouth or his ass.

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Books by Charles Brownson 

In Uz

The Figure of the Detective

And these (click on any link or the cover image)


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Detecting poetry

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Detecting Poetry

In my book The Figure of the Detective I made frequent use of the concept of warm and cool knowledge. What did I mean by that?

In a recent book by Steven Weinberg, To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science, he writes “Unfortunately, string theory has yet to produce any results that can be tested experimentally, and as a result theorists … are keeping an open mind as to whether the theory actually applies to the real world. It is this insistence on verification that we most miss in all the poetic students of nature, from Thales to Plato. Even as Thales and his successors had understood that from their theories of matter they needed to derive consequences that could be compared with observation, they would have found the task prohibitively difficult, in part because of the limitations of Greek mathematics.” (p 14-15)

Earlier Weinberg quoted a line of Dylan Thomas, remarking of it that “we do not seek verification, but take it rather … as an expression of sadness”, and the direction of his thought in what I quoted above is that it is, in explaining music, the verifiable observations concerning the vibration of strings which produced new insights in Greek mathematics. An interest in music per se, and what we call musicality, is apparently beside the point.

Weinberg is here making use of the warm/cool distinction. Knowledge is made possible by observation and verification and the application of rational thought. Knowledge is cool. Warm, emotional thoughts like those of Dylan Thomas, which cannot be verified, are not knowledge.

When we say that if a person believes such and such about the world then he will tend to behave in such and such a way, on what basis do we take such statements to be true or false? It is on the basis of experience. It is the program of psychology to justify this experience-based perception as knowledge. In this it has notably failed, and in search of “proof” has been driven to the use of findings from other disciplines such as biology and genetics. This failed program is part of the reason for a long-standing suspicion of the claims of psychology to the status of a “discipline”.

Amongst detectives, Holmes’s procedure is to observe features of the material world and to verify them as facts by a process of testing (verification) which is the scientific method approved by Weinberg as leading to knowledge; that is, which transforms information into facts (knowledge). Maigret also begins with observation, but in his case it is observation of behaviors, which cannot be tested in this way as the origin of the facts of what actually happened (events). Courts do not recognize a link between behavior and event as evidence, so Maigret is obliged to use his initial observations as indicators of where to look for the sort of clue which would be the beginning of Holmes’s procedure.

The noir detective abandons this quandary by abandoning the legal definition of proof. We assent to the success of his result (even if the criminal does not) because of our experience that behaviors are consistent with beliefs about what is true, and that, crucially, such beliefs need not be articulated to drive the connection between belief and action. The connection is “emotional”, and statements derived from it are what Weinberg would characterize as “poetic”. That is, meaningful but not to be characterized as knowledge.

The hard-boiled detective agrees with Weinberg that the supposed connection between belief and behavior does not qualify as knowledge because it is not verifiable by experiment (testing) but not the noir detective’s belief that the connection is nevertheless true or real because of our experience with such situations. For the hard-boiled detective, the only proof of guilt is the confession of the suspected criminal. This confession is to be elicited not by reasoning from observation (cool knowledge) or from experience as wisdom (warm knowledge) but simply by asserting that such-and-such is the case, and proof consists in the absence of assertions to the contrary. This is precisely the procedure that Weinberg condemns in Thales and the Greeks generally as foolish, unempirical, and unproductive.

Thus, in Weinberg’s terms, a sympathetic definition of poetry would regard Sam Spade and Philip Marlow as poets. An unsympathetic definition would regard Mike Hammer and Spenser as illiterate.

Is this an adequate definition of poetry, that it is meaningful but not true, and that judgments on the worth of a poem do not count as knowledge because they are verified only by consensus or, in the hard-boiled system, by the pronouncements of gatekeepers?

If so, it should be no wonder that in a scientific society poetry should occupy a respected but inferior status, enjoyable but of no consequence, and that religion (particularly the religious right) is suspected as hard-boiled (a judgement which the religious right resents and to which it responds by rejecting scientific evidence, such as that for global warming).

Some people think we can engineer ourselves out of trouble. That is, I think, part of the trouble.

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Books by Charles Brownson 

In Uz

The Figure of the Detective

And these (click on any link or the cover image)


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Hard books revisited

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Life 07-08 marriageOriginally posted Feb 28, 2014

Your reader complains that your sentences are “convoluted” – the definition of which is coiled, twisted, complex. This of course assumes you have any readers, which is unlikely, no? With sentences like that.

Proust is a master of the long and complex sentence. Few French readers would object to this. One of Proust’s achievements was to use the French language in a new way to reveal new powers of expression in which the reader delights, and with which there is no need to struggle.

In English, Henry James is another. An early novel, Washington Square, contains on its first page several sentences which might be called convoluted. One contains 56 words and consists of two independent clauses, the second of which includes two dependent clauses and a parenthetical. The word order is not everyday, either. The sentence begins “Though he was felt to be extremely thorough”. Now I quite understand that some readers have difficulty with semicolons and would like to break this sentence in two. The first clause could also be broken, so as to read “The doctor’s patients thought he was extremely thorough. His explanations were to the point.” – substituting this last phrase for “uncomfortably theoretic”.  But is this the right thing to do?

Yes, you may say, if you wish to sell books – implying that your would-be readers have no patience with variety of speech, refuse all effort to understand or use a dictionary, and regard the author’s transgressions as overbearing and arrogant. The ideal (paying) reader is assumed to be largely ignorant, unread, and uninstructed, lacking in curiosity, easily distracted to the point of attention deficit disorder, and intellectually supine. Is this a fair characterization?

 Yes, you may say – of some readers. But presumably, with such deficits, not big buyers of books? In that I suspect you would be wrong, as an inspection of the bookstore shelves in the category of romance (by far the best selling type of fiction) will convince you. This being the case, there must be two sorts of obscure and difficult prose – the bad sort, which airheads and fools pay money for, and the good sort, which enrages aficionados of the other sort and which no one will pay money for because, not being fools, they are poor.

 So: do you really want to  find your reader as you are so often told to do? Maybe you oughtn’t look, for fear of the roaches and spiders.

 The presumption is that your readers abound, and will welcome your efforts, if only you would accommodate them. So-called “hard books”, according to those who call them so, have no readers and so cannot be found. If you persist in writing of this sort you will have to do the obvious, which is to find work in the government.

Once you start turning out the beans and franks, finding your reader is a thing of titles, cover design, market placement, targeted advertising, brand name, and such. Congratulations. You’re on the way to finding your reader.

Books by Charles Brownson
The Expatriate
As Told To
In Uz
The Sea

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Find your reader (again)

Who do I write for?  Other people or myself?  Do I give myself problems to solve and work out ingenious solutions for my personal amusement?.  Do i really care when readers don’t understand?  — these are questions I get a lot from people who just want to know why I keep pushing the envelope (as they see it) instead of just telling a simple story in ordinary language.
They have it upside down. In the first place, as I’ve said many times, the writer’s obligation is to make an audience, not to find one. For that reason the work has to be as inclusive anr available as possible to anyone who wants to invest in it. Who were Joyce and Woolf writing for? Their brilliance is undeniable, but what is more than that is the universality of their work and their ability to persuade people to believe in it. The question of who one’s audience is, is phony. Would a great author aspire to be a coterie writer? No. Would a great writer do unworthy work out of an adolescent desire to be popular? No. The case of Dickens is always brought up here. Dickens was himself from Pickwick. He discovered that as he discovered at the same time that he had the tools to take people with him as he expanded his reach. What about the case of Melville? He likewise expanded his reach as he became more himself. Bartleby and Benito Cerino are works as great in their own way as Moby Dick. When Lawrence pointed that out, the scales dropped from our eyes. Melville would not have been great if he had continued to write Omoo. It was we the readers who were wrong.
However, aiming to produce work at this level is not the same as actually doing it. Failure is virtually guaranteed. If you are going to fail, why fail small?
Which brings me to the second clam being made here. I certainly do give a fig when people, among whom especially I include my friends in three writers groups, don’t follow along. This means I have failed in my central task, which is to persuade readers to believe in me. Readers can be bellwethers. Writers who don’t navigate by them are not serious.
Not too long ago I brought a story to the one of these groups which nobody quite understood until one man — an Australian ex-biker — gave a thorough reading of it which, while it did not convince the group as regards the details of the story, did raise their alertness. The point here is twofold — one’s readers can be found in unlikely places, and the success of the story lay in its being written in the way I thought it should be, not in the way of who I guessed would be my readers, because I guessed wrong. Writers usually do guess wrong.
Among the poets one could find many examples of these ideas. Among the painters also. Did de Kooning have an obligation to convince you of the value of his work? For many he hasn’t, I know he hasn’t. But if he had not tried to be de Kooning who would he be? One might cite Beethoven as the musical counterpart to Dickens — a man who drew people to himself by being himself. The great mass of us are tiny, stupid, incompetent. One must begin from the premise that one is so, oneself. If one discovers otherwise, the praise is to to the effort of discovery and the large measure of luck which lies behind it (luck which is useless to those who are not trying) and not because one happens to be a smidgen taller, brighter, and competent than others.
Posted in Big art and little art, How to write, Shibboleths (for writers), Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Honest art

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Two weeks ago I posted some remarks on “intellectual honesty in fiction” — I called it that because someone else called it that because someone else called it that. Accurate but pompous, as this topic often is. Anyway, the question was what that meant, for a novelist to write honestly. I re-iterated some of my old themes: acknowledge the irrational component, reject any ideology of realism, stop talking and start reading. (If I followed that advice I wouldn’t be blogging. Hence the occasional poems and excerpts of novels you see here.) Regular readers will know that by the ideology of realism I mean any dogmatic insistence on the supposed facts of the real world, on the rules of narrative, on clarity too easily won.

Some people who  read that piece focused on the “principle of concealment” — that writing derives its energy, its imaginative power, from something hidden, something I’ve been calling resonance. These readers supposed that what I was saying was that one of the writer’s purposes is to bring this hidden component out into the light where it can be talked about, put to work. What I was saying was just the opposite, that this insistence on clarity, on knowing and explaining every last thing, produces only little art, art which is good for something, akin to the commercial compulsion to monetize everything.

I thought these ideas deserved to be restated.

+BirchWalkWhat I can’t say often enough is that big art cannot be put to work. It does not create jobs or bolster the economy. It is not worth anything, meaning that it can’t be converted to some other currency. You can’t pawn a story for six grams of relevance, a tablespoon of enlightenment. You can’t invest it at 4% while you go to the beach and tend to your sunburn. Big art can’t be explained, only experienced. Big art is a koan which can’t be talked about except in pre-rational language, and if you don’t know what that is you need to go away and not think about it for a while.

A monk said to Joshu “This stone bridge is famous, but I find only some stepping-stones.” “You do not see it?” Joshu replied. “What stone bridge?” the monk asked. “It lets donkeys cross over,” Joshu said.

teco 2 klausI’m just finishing up proofreading a big science fiction novel about, among other things, the birth of god. When you think about it, the CEO of most religions is a narcissistic adolescent who, being immortal, won’t admit to making a mistake. He’s also, like a great many people, a control addict. (This accounts for the popularity of thrillers and cozies. Think about it.) Everywhere you look, god is in charge. You may think you have free will, but all that means is that you are free to take the consequences of whatever decisions you make. This is the burden of the existentialist idea of good faith. In other systems of thought the mechanism of punishment may be more remote (karma) or involve the pacification of an autistic god who gets into inexplicable rages and needs to kept drunk and comatose with a continual supply of first fruits, virgins, and so forth. Some gods get dozy but can be counted on to do the dishes eventually. Other gods, the mathematical one pre-eminently, are micro managers who punish every action from the trivial (stick your hand in the fire and you get burned) to the cosmic (do anything at all and it will start up a whole new universe).

There is one human activity which is free of this obsessiveness, if the writer will let it alone, stop playing god, and act like an adult. Underneath all the plots and rules an whatnot impedimenta (green is the complement of orange) there is something which, in a world of dictionaries, cannot be talked about.


Continue reading

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Intellectual honesty in fiction

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Recently a question was raised within my hearing as to what intellectual honesty in fiction was. My first response was that it means something else than fidelity to the facts of the real world. It means taking responsibility for what you’ve written, trying to understand its consequences in the fictional world. It’s a moral concept.

Later, at a meeting of one of my writer’s groups I raised some questions about narrative form which led to a metacritical moment in which I said that the best criticism is to say nothing at all. This met with some incredulity and was, I think, regarded as rather spoiling the fun.

Some days afterward I was reading up my Heidegger and came across this bit of his aesthetics — I paraphrase: A work of art holds open a region of the world by unearthing something that stubbornly hides itself, refuses to be drawn out, something that matters so profoundly but is so close we can’t recognize it or comprehend it. If this thing is brought out of concealment then the artwork loses its power. Intellectual honesty in art (fiction) would according to this consist partly at least in recognizing this principle of concealment and an admission that at the core of an artwork lies something that is both essential to its existence and inaccessible to rational thought or criticism. And that one of the tasks of the artist is to embed that thing, and to do so entails acknowledging (being honest that) he is not a fully rational being.

It seems to me that these ideas are loosely related to Charles Olson’s idea of open form. Poetry, he said, is energy transferred from where the poet got it.

Some years ago I was trying to explain what I found so important in a piece of music (I think it was Beethoven) and making a hash of it. After a bit I realized that I was trying to translate from music into English, and that in order to talk about music I had to speak music, a language in which I am not competent. At a certain point there is nothing to say about a piece of literature except to point and say “read it”.

Life 07-08 marriage

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