The Noose and the Sky

The deepest truths about a human being can be expressed only in lies. Nietzsche knew this, Henry Miller knew this. So did Sylvia Plath. Why? Because each human being is the sum of the stories she tells herself: for example the stories about what she desires, and what she has decided to do with her life. And these stories must contradict each other, and so cannot all be true at the same time. To make the stories fit together, lie upon lie is required.

The “bell jar” in Plath’s novel is a metaphor for Esther Greenwood’s own body, which seems a cage to her, imprisoning her in life, in a life without meaning. Whether she is at home in Boston or working and partying in New York, whether she is at school or in an asylum, Esther feels trapped inside herself. She’s decided she wants to free herself, and believes that suicide is the only way to do this. She has made several attempts on her own life by the time she is put into an asylum.

Throughout the first part of the novel, before she is committed to the hospital, she can’t decide what she wants to do with herself. Well in fact she decides all kinds of things, each incompatible with the last: I will spend the summer in Cambridge and take a course, I will spend the summer writing a novel, I will learn shorthand … She wants everything at once, and this is what makes her “neurotic”: “I wanted to do everything once and for all and be through with it.”

The bell jar occasionally lifts, and she can smell the air outside. She is free from herself, her own mind and body that binds her. My favourite line from the whole book describes a moment, shortly after Esther has received shock treatment and is looking at the knife she has just used to crack an egg at breakfast: “I tried to think what I had loved knives for, but my mind slipped from the noose of the thought and swung, like a bird, in the centre of empty air.”

There’s something of the simultaneous hope and heartbreak of this book captured in that sentence. Esther identifies with her thoughts, however sad they make her, and with her decisions, however much they contradict each other. As she says at one point: “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell.” Story-telling, fabricating a life out of her thoughts and feelings, is essential to her, and it is heart-breaking to see a thought slip away from her after her treatment. As a poet she needs her thoughts. But being able to swing and soar in the empty sky from time to time allows in a kind of happiness, an ease that might save her, because it might give her a relief from the thoughts that so often end in thoughts of death. We can see hope in this empty sky.

Reading the novel I was hooked, following Esther this way and that, desiring what she desired in every moment, so that she didn’t seem neurotic to me, she seemed real. It’s the beauty of a novel like this that the realness of the main character means we feel we’re getting a sense of a life as it is lived, with all its contradictions. We’re given a real living story, a path to the truth which is the beating heart of a human being. In Plath’s words: “I am I am I am.”

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New and Old Essays

I’ve added a Publications page to the blog. It’s very short now but it’s grown a bit in the last few days, and I hope it will grow a bit more soon. Last week Empty Mirror published an essay I wrote about William S. Burroughs and cats, and yesterday an old essay I wrote and posted here on the blog 7 years ago about Deleuze and Guattari and May ’68 was republished at NON. So I hope you’ll give those a read.

That’s all for this week, but I’ll have a proper blog post for you next time. Thanks for reading!

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Notes on Charles Bukowski on Writing

Charles Bukowski’s right: sometimes a poem just sounds too much like a POEM. You know it’s been worked up, affected, to make it sound like a poem should. Rather than being its own thing, an expression of something unique and new.

All writing has this problem, however authentic it is. You need to “reach into the ages” for the form that fits, or you won’t be understood. This means using technique, and going over and over it to make sure it’s right.

The thing is not to show your working. It has to seem effortless. And that’s what some poems don’t do: they seem like they’ve been worked over.

The thing is not to show you’re working. Bukowski claimed he just couldn’t work on a poem, couldn’t keep at it, and so what he sent off was raw, a real moment, something that went onto the page then and there and could never be repeated.

George Orwell said that writers are lazy. Right or wrong, they must appear lazy. That’s part of the art, and a matter of survival. Because if it seems they’re working so hard to create so little it’ll just seem depressing. No one much cares for the arts anymore anyway. People will just say “Why bother?” and writers finally won’t be allowed to exist, unless they write for the papers or the television.

Bukowski gives us the only good reason for writing: in order to live. Not in order to make money: at one point he writes he’s only made forty-seven dollars in twenty years. But in order to live: because unless you’re writing you don’t feel alive. And if you don’t need to write in order to live, he tells us: “Don’t do it!”

(I’ve been reading On Writing, which is a collection of letters by Charles Bukowski. It was published in 2016 by Canongate Books.)

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The Subject of the Drama is The Lie: Review of David Mamet’s Three Uses of the Knife

All of your thoughts are bizarre and troubling, says David Mamet. So sit down with a coffee and examine your own head and there’s always something to write about. And if you’re asking yourself “Am I mad?” “Will people want to see this?” then you’re probably on the right track.

This is a passing thought along the way, as Mamet tells us about the structure of drama, the 1,2,3 form that makes a drama pop. Yes, follow those troubling thoughts, but you’re going to need to keep a few rules in mind as you work, if your drama is going to achieve its purpose. (We’ll get to the purpose later.)

I’m making it sound like a how-to book, and it really isn’t that. For all Mamet talks about structure, this particular book gives the impression of a ramble – hopping from discussion of Hollywood to politics to God and back to politics again – with insights fizzing up along the way that will inspire any reader interested in the business of writing. We seem to be listening to a fascinating speaker holding court, following his own mind wherever it leads him. And we’re grateful that we’re here to listen.

But it is only an appearance of chaos, an illusion created by a master dramatist. He has done it to keep us off-balance to the end, to make us wonder what is coming, and excited for the next revelation. In other words, he has created a drama for us, disguised as a book about writing.

A central point for Mamet is that the struggle of the artist is reflected in the struggle of the hero. You can’t have the latter struggle without the former. Unless the writer is struggling as she writes, the hero she’s created just won’t be interesting. Artists create not to produce any effect on the audience, but to resolve their own inner conflicts. They are seeking peace through struggle, but it is an impossible task. Creation is a compulsive process, and compulsion never leads to peace, but only to more compulsive thoughts and behaviours.

A great drama reflects this truth. For Mamet, too much so-called drama seeks a peaceful and comforting resolution: the hero finds the strength to overcome the odds; the villain is caught; and so on. A well-written hero, on the other hand, is compelling because there’s something in her that cannot be resolved, that makes her human – only more so. And we know that the resolution is not going to bring ever-lasting peace.

The common demand for a peaceful resolution is tied up with our deeply-ingrained belief in reason, says Mamet. It’s not that we think that reason can save the world, but that we think it already has, and a corollary of this belief is that doing the right thing in this best of all possible worlds will lead to happiness and peace. To many of us, such schmaltzy resolutions seem false because we have an even deeper feeling that rationalism is a lie, and that things never “come out even.”

And so we come to the purpose of drama. The good dramatist will not try to rationalise the world but will merely “air” the situation, says Mamet. The result will not be happy, but it will be truthful. “The subject of drama is The Lie,” says Mamet, and “At the end of the drama THE TRUTH … prevails.” And though this is a resolution, it is rarely a peaceful one. Everything comes “whole” again when the truth is out, and life goes on, however happily or unhappily. We could maybe sum this up as the old piece of writing advice: “Show don’t tell!” The artist shows us the whole truth about the situation in the drama, for better or worse, for right or wrong, and doesn’t try to tell us what to think about it.

This is the purpose of the drama – to allow Truth to prevail over The Lie – and, as we’ve seen, the aim of the artist is distinct from this. The artist can only follow her own inner struggle and, depending on her skill, will create either great or mediocre art in the process of showing us the whole idea of that struggle. The great artist only airs rather than rationalises the troubling thoughts in her head because she knows she cannot hope for more, and the creative struggle must go on and on.

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Flowers of Paradise: Life and Loss in Christina Rossetti

Poetry means life, and life means purpose. A beating heart. But Christina Rossetti spent a lot of time contemplating what is dead and gone: death, and loss of the beloved.

“Life is gone, the love too is gone …”

says “The Poor Ghost.” And some of the spirits in Rossetti’s poems are abandoned, left to wander the earth in pursuit of the love they lost when the body died. Others find salvation in the end, in the love of God. God who

“… will still be God, when flames shall roar

“Round earth and heaven dissolving at His nod …”

These religious poems have a moral lesson, which Rossetti repeats again and again: fear not suffering in this life, because you will be rewarded in Paradise. But even where this lesson isn’t told explicitly, it comes through in the spirit of the work.

Rossetti deals with morbid themes: the suffering in romantic love, the shortness of life, human weakness and self-loathing. To dwell on such things can be dangerous. Where there is no life, where only a weak spirit dwells in a human heart, whatever is at hand will rush to fill the gap. Morbid obsessions with love and death weigh heavy on those without the spirit to oppose them. But the poet, with the life in her, is not filled by evil thoughts, but rushes to meet them, and herself possesses them, breathing her own life into them to transform them into objects of beauty.

“She bled and wept, yet did not shrink; her strength

“Was strung up until daybreak of delight:

“She measured measureless sorrow toward its length,

“And breadth and depth, and height …”

So that in reading these poems, your vision is altered, and you no longer see in things the things of earth, but the abstract and measureless qualities and vivid colours of Paradise. You view the world now with the eyes of a dreamer. A poet.

“Once in a dream I saw the flowers

“That bud and bloom in Paradise;

“More fair they are than waking eyes

“Have seen in all this world of ours …”

After reading a great poem, you no longer see with waking eyes. You live once again in the dream, close to God like a child. (Who was it who said that children are divine because they have most recently seen the face of God, and have not yet forgotten?) The great vision of Christina Rossetti produced some of the great poems that seem to bring us close to God.

(I’ve been reading Selected Poems of Christina Rossetti, published by Wordsworth in 1995)

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From the Reading Diary: Kenneth Patchen’s Selected Poems

Kenneth Patchen is interested in, among other things, the way the branches move on the trees to create visions and to scratch the surface of the stars in the night sky. He’s also interested in the cruelty that men – mostly rich men with political power – do to their fellow human beings. But his poems seem to come straight from the senses, unmediated by any ideology.

The poems in Selected Poems were originally published between 1936 and 1957. So they precede and slightly overlap the period in 20th century North American literature that I find most interesting: the time of the Beat Generation. And in Patchen’s pages it’s easy to detect some of the influence he had on the writers who came after him.

Many of these poems have a rhythm that to me sounds like Charles Bukowski. I can hear that voice very strongly here, strange because of the sense of Patchen’s lines, a sense of hope, something largely absent in Bukowski. Take Patchen’s What is the Beautiful? for example: beginning with harrowing images (“Needles through the eye. / Bodies cracked open like nuts.”) and ending with a statement of faith in the goodness of humanity (“I believe that every good thought I have, / All men shall have.”)

Patchen is more akin in spirit to Allen Ginsberg than to Bukowski, writing of the mysteries of nature and the happiness for humankind that can come from universal love. A major influence on Ginsberg was William Blake, who also was happy to philosophise in his poems and prophesy a new hope for humanity, and Blake seems to come through on the pages of Patchen too.

Patchen’s poetry is powerful, with something to say. I started reading Patchen because I read Henry Miller’s essay about him (“Patchen: A Man of Anger and Light”), where Miller portrays Patchen as a man who is restless and angry and dissatisfied, and must create fire in the world to protect his own sensitive skin. Reading Patchen finally, I’ve got a feeling for myself of that fire, and also a sense of the hope and beauty that the poet saw in the world.

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Notes on William Burroughs to Allen Ginsberg May 5th, 1951

In a letter to Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs seems to be saying that he’s incapable of envy. Envy arises from a particular kind of ignorance, of which Burroughs has cured himself:

Envy and resentment is only possible when you can not see your own space-time location. Most of the people in America do not know where they really are so they envy someone else’s deal. But this envy is not a universal law …”

Burroughs knows where he is, and to know where you are is to know you can’t be anywhere else in that moment. Envy makes as little sense as wishing you were a different person. Even if you can, over time, change things about yourself, you can’t change who you are, nor where you are now.

“To illustrate my statement which is a law I never saw an exception to: Can you imagine a man in a lifeboat getting envious because somebody somewhere is drinking champagne? No, because he knows where he is. All envy is based on the proposition ‘I could be getting that.’”

The man in the lifeboat knows that now is not the time and place for champagne. He knows he couldn’t get champagne now if he tried. Perhaps he dreams of drinking champagne when he gets to shore. But for now he feels lucky to be alive.

All this seems to rest on Burroughs’s very simple notion of what it means to be yourself, to be “I.” The “I” is defined by its space-time location and that is all. I cannot be anywhere else, nor can I be anyone else. My position in space and time means I have this body in this moment, these possessions, this mind …

But rather than make a philosophical judgement of Burroughs’s stance – based on an evaluation of a metaphysics he may or may not adhere to – I prefer to take it as a description of how Burroughs feels when he is centred and free from envy. He says: if you know your space-time location, then you cannot feel envy. Reverse this and say: when you’re not feeling envy, you’re aware of your space-time location. Burroughs believes he can see the world more sharply and clearly when his vision is not clouded by negative feelings of envy.

Probably Burroughs felt envy and resentment from time to time, same as the rest of us. And isn’t it right sometimes to wish for something other than the status quo? But in his letter, Burroughs is reminding his friend that the starting point for any change is always the here and now, the “I” and its own unique potentials and limitations.

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