“I am turning over a new leaf but the page is stuck.” -Diane Arbus
The Arbus show would have been perfect if everyone else had stayed home. The show is closing in a week or so, and if I had been smarter I would have picked a time other than a Sunday afternoon to see the exhibit. But I had my reasons. If certain days are more susceptible to depression than others, then surely Sunday would take top honor. Around the first of the year I finally admitted to myself that for a few months I had been submerged in a minor depression. I took some responsibility for its lingering, and promised myself to get out of house more often, especially on Sundays.
I tried my best to wander through the museum and avoid hearing everyone around me yammer on about the art. But by the time I reached the Arbus exhibit on the fourth floor, the crowds were shoulder to shoulder. Her photographs and the subdued environment of the exhibition seemed tailor-made to introspection, but that was nearly impossible.
But I was distracted long before Sunday. This is a very earnest post, and many people are allergic to earnest, so you’ve been warned.
There have been a few periods in my life that feel like (forgive the word) awakenings, when I had been shaken out of tedium and set down spinning like a top. In my third year of college I discovered “postmodern” art. This was 1992, and I had no idea what “postmodern” meant (I still couldn’t give you a definition, but that’s part of its questionable charm). In the library I had come across a photograph by Cindy Sherman, one of her early “Untitled Film Stills”; an image of a woman leaning against a door in a long, dark hallway. The woman was Sherman herself, who in the series of “Film Stills” dressed up in characters and captured herself in images that evoked obscure film noir and other B-movies. I read more about Sherman and postmodernism, which in turn led me to other artists. I ended up focusing one of my independent study projects on Sherman, Barbara Krueger, and Jenny Holzer. Early on in my research, I felt as though someone had slipped amphetamines into my coffee; I was excited to be in the library, I couldn’t read enough. That was the beginning of my love for research. (This is an ongoing passion and problem for me, problematic because I can get too caught up in the research, forever postponing my own writing). I was energized by the ideas that I was absorbing. I was also stuck in Sarasota, Florida, so naturally I was both stir-crazy and culturally deprived. I think, in retrospect, that it was all the “meaning” contained and deconstructed (another postmodern buzzword) by this art that had me obnoxiously amped. I had been writing poetry since the fourth grade. I was a meaning junkie from the get-go.
There were other awakenings. Last year, on a friend’s advice, I had rented the “Power of Myth” interviews with Joseph Campbell. I know that it’s uncool to enthuse about Campbell now, long after his opinions have reached the masses. (It’s clear by now that I’m usually behind on everything). But it was new to me, and I literally bounced around on my bed watching these interviews. Campbell said many things which I found inspiring, some of which I’ve already posted here. But there was one thing he said which I’ve taken to heart, and which helped inspire many of my recent decisions about my future. Once you’ve found your bliss, he said, lean into it, and don’t let anyone shake you off.
Campbell didn’t believe that we are searching for meaning so much as the experience of being alive, experiences that resonate within us so that we feel the rapture of being alive.
“Awakenings” implies that one has been asleep. Which isn’t too far off the mark. I’ve spent countless hours since I started this site surfing the Internet. Which means exposure to dangerous levels of media and popular culture. And let’s face it; popular culture is not structured around the search for rapture, it’s structured around its ugly stepsister, which is what, entertainment? Is it possible that anyone reading this weblog has not seen an image of the Madonna/Britney staged kiss? We all know it didn’t “mean” anything; that it was a fake experience. And yet it’s still one of the most talked-about events of 2003. (And here I’ve added to the stinking mound of commentary.) My favorite fake image of 2003 is the one of George W. carrying a plastic turkey on a serving tray to a group of hungry soldiers in Iraq over Thanksgiving.
These images beg the question “why?”, but as anyone would tell you, there’s no point to that question. I still can’t help myself. Why do I know the names of the entire “Real World: Paris” cast? Why do I know about the entire string of J-Lo’s failed marriages? Why, as Tyler Durden said in “Fight Club”, do I know what a duvet is?
I have yet to get into a fistfight. For now I have books to whack me awake. One of the best books that I’ve read in a long while is Carol Bly’s Beyond the Writer’s Workshop: New Ways of Writing Creative Nonfiction. It’s one of the first books on writing I’ve read that spends more space and energy on WHAT to write, rather than HOW to write. Most writing instruction is structured around the idea of a two-stage draft. Stage one is the inspiration, the initial first draft. Stage two involves the literary “fixings”; the cosmetic improvements that spruce up that initial draft. Bly argues for a stage to come between these two; a long “psychological” stage where the author reflects on the writing and asks herself if there is more to say. This stage is all about capturing that full experience of life; discovering and including all of it, instead of just the initial impressions and reactions.
Bly uses other tools to talk about writing, including neuroscience and psychology. As a way to push the writer beyond aesthetic concerns, she uses stage development theories to make her point. First she presents a few theories on stage development by others, like Schiller:
1. You are inclined to physical practicality.
2. You get the idea you could plan to make your own life beautiful. Your mind focuses on beauty.
3. You deplore what is horrible and become interested in governance in order to correct one or another cruelty.
And George Orwell:
1. Vanity and careerism
2. Pointless love of and efficacy in things aesthetic
3. Interest in reportage
4. Dislike of injustice
Then she presents her own:
1. One is at a premoral utterly selfish stage.
2. One is still selfish, but at least one sees that there are others out there, and one decides they have a right to be selfish, too.
3. Whatever seems to win strokes from the crowd is the highest good.
4. Whatever authority says is right is right.
5. One has developed one’s own code of rights and wrongs, which one applies universally – such as honesty, hospitality, murder: one supposes that everyone in every culture should be honest and hospitable and eschew killing people (Stage 5 people may be cultural relativists so far as styles of honesty and hospitality are concerned, but the content, the underlying principles, apply to all).
6. One has to disobey one’s own code of rights and wrongs in order to make the best judgment in a given predicament. For example, one would like to the Gestapo in order to save innocent lives. One can’t remain a clean-cut Girl Scout.
Bly’s book was both an affirmation and a challenge. An affirmation of feelings I’d already had, which is that art needs to go beyond questions of pure aesthetics. And a challenge that I wanted to answer. I’ll figure that out as I go along. But I’m growing weary of my own apathy, and the apathy of others. The ideas that have been distracting me all take the form of questions, which lead to more questions. Why, after my second trip to Nicaragua in high school, did I decide that caring about our foreign policy was too painful, too pointless? Why don’t I trust my own opinions, why don’t I feel comfortable sharing them here? Why do I care what others think of me? Why do I continue to apologize for so many of my beliefs? What is the point of blogging? Is there more that I and others can do with blogging than to provide cultural commentary? Why does it so often feel like we are rearranging the deck chairs while the Titanic sinks? Why do so many of us gay men still treat woman as accessories? Why do I get depressed when I read popular sites that are geared around gossip and irony? Why have some of my favorite bloggers quit, and why do I continue? Am I being earnest or just naive? What good is an MFA going to do for me? How do I care about these things and still make money? Why does it seem that simultaneously everyone is angry and nobody is angry? What’s worth writing about? Why am I funnier in real life?
Some of these I’ve already answered, if only to myself. But they won’t stay answered for long. I just want to wake up. I want to avoid the onslaught of our stupid culture. I want to find others who feel the same. I want to remember Virginia Woolf’s advice, that we should never cease thinking, that we never stop asking ourselves “what is this civilization?”
Act-UP is dead. Kurt Cobian is dead. Elliot Smith is dead. Diane Arbus is dead. MLK and Ghandi and Kennedy are dead. Joseph Campbell is dead, and Virginia Woolf is dead, too. Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs are dead. Baldwin and Wilde and Isherwood are dead. Paul Wellstone is dead. Tennessee Williams and Joe Orton are dead. Jung is dead. We can’t go back. So what is our duty today?
The ones who record for us what we would not see otherwise. The ones who won’t dress and moisturize the disinterested king. The ones with blue ink tattooed on their faces. The ones who gave themselves to something bigger. The ones who pack themselves odd little lunches. The ones with blackberries blooming on their skin. The ones who found doors in posted dead ends. The ones who get up on Sunday morning. The ones stirring dinner through the bombing. The ones who’ve kept their hearts in their bodies. The ones who cut themselves from the trough. The ones who stay awake at the wheel. The ones with delusions of grandeur. The ones taking a bus cross-country. The ones who take it personally. The ones who talked to us after class. The ones who do it anyway. The ones with glitter on their face. The ones who are fine except obsessed. The ones who look a little off. The ones who walk for water. The ones who speak metaphor. The ones who fail the system. The ones who torture themselves. The ones who bring it to life. The ones who cry in public. The ones who kiss the dying. The ones who were caught by it. The overly sensitive. The inappropriately dressed. The ones who would not submit. The ones who crawl from ruins. The ones who remember. The ones with wings of wax. The ones who speak softly. . The ones who acted up. The ones who broke a heel. The ones who keep losing. The ones who worked the piers. The ones who close their eyes. The ones who tell their age. The ones who walk at night. The ones who try again. The unemployable. The ones who never win. The ones who saw it. The ones who can’t stop. The ones in the dark. The ones who reveal. The ones who worry. The ones who clean wounds. The ones who left home. The slightly deranged. The flagrantly flawed. The suicidal. The solitary. The ones who grieve. The singular. The obscure. The insane. The tender. The mismatched. The freaks.
Here’s to fewer apologies. Here’s to being too big for your britches. Tens, tens, tens across the board!