Sunday, February 21, 2010

Nicht Diese...

Some old fashioned writing this Sunday evening (or Monday morning). A reflection.

There was a time when I kept a journal. As a high schooler, I wrote and wrote and wrote for no one but myself, trying out poetic devices, exploring thoughts on religion and love and politics, rarely, but occasionally, chronicling the day's events. In retrospect there was nothing all that peculiar about this habit of mine; after all, I was a teenager, and aspired even then to be an intellectual because of, and often in spite of, the community of peers that my private high school afforded me.

I say in spite of because there's a certain stigma attached to intellect in our competitive culture. There's nothing quite so satisfying as the smart guy who loses all the same, faced with the hard-working idiot. Mastermind has dark connotations, so too genius, in a more twisted and historical way. At the time - and maybe still today - I was caught in the paradox of intellect. Our culture honors the intellectual, but punishes and chides all the same. We value intellect, but we despise the person who recognizes their own intelligence.

Perhaps, more than anything, we despise the egotism of the self-promoter not because he is selfish - after all, there's a certain synonymity between "selfish" and "conscious" - but because he often refuses to acknowledge that, ultimately, there are always greater minds. In some sense, our fetish for specialization is a rebellion against the great minds of the great generalists throughout history, who strove to know as much as they could about as many different subjects as they could. "How dare they encroach upon my specialty!"

That's not the point, but I'm not sure what the point is. Even though I have become a writer of prose - after one time being a writer mainly of (poor) verse - I still hold a certain lesson from poetry dear: you don't have to have a "point." That's not fair to poetry, because most poems have a point in one sense or another, but there's a kind of beautiful chaos in the endeavor of poetry that prose simply cannot replicate. Even the most pointed and purposeful poetry is clothed, nonetheless, in a poetic diction, a formalism of meter and rhyme, that prevents easy unfolding. A poem may be compelling, then, but hardly in the way that a persuasive essay is.

Not all essays persuade, however. Sometimes they border on poetry. Indeed, John Dryden was one of the founders of the essay, and his Religio Laici, like the majority of his work, is in verse. Though perhaps that's poetry bordering on essay?

It is odd that we draw such a distinction, truly. Poetry comes from the Greek word meaning "to create." What difference, then, between Montaigne and Dryden, Plutarch and Sappho?

Ah, specialization is our specialty. Today we divide not just writing from poetry, but different kinds of writing and poetry from each other. The essay is a form distinct from the story, which is in turn distinct from the academic essay, the memoir, the novel, the novella, the biography, the autobiography, the treatise, the manifesto, the confession. Do we allow more experts, or fewer by such divisions? By that I mean, by splitting our brilliant writers into such camps, do we not maybe lose our brilliant writers?

That's not fair, either. A great many writers straddle such narrow definitions. Indeed, the best writers are the very cause of new terms and genres. The novel sprung into existence as a way to categorize the work of Cervantes, the essay for Montaigne. The same in music, where the Opera became a term necessary to characterize Monteverdi. The same in poetry.

Since I was a high schooler, I have learned a great deal about how little I know. I expect that, now, at a still-young 24, I have a great deal more to learn about how little I know. What is insufferable about intellectuals, it turns out, is not how much they know, but how little. Socrates was killed for it.

A turn of phrase, a turn of phrase. I have collected, in my short life of reading, a great many connections and associations - many of which are historical, and most of which are European, with occasional Hawaiian or Buddhist allusions mixed in - which allow me to express myself without expressing myself. That is another of the intellectual's tricks, and perhaps the heart of the poet's art. T.S. Eliot's Wasteland would not have gotten far without tricky, intellectual allusions. Nor would Joyce's Finnegan's Wake (the longest inside joke in history, perhaps). "Oystery Gods gaggin' Fishy Gods."

For a long time, between high school and graduate school, I stopped writing. Oh, I wrote for classes at St. John's, and I would occasionally pick up a pen ruefully in the time in between then and Stanford. Poetry, never, but occasional essays, arguments for why surfing matters - a concept that only fellow surfers will understand - or a history of the beautiful Platonic romance that closed my Freshman year of college.

Perhaps that is the object of these wanderings. The last of my poetic fervor expended itself in the poems composed for two women. The first, an illusive goddess who rekindled in me the concept of love - albeit in my hoity-toity (spelling?) way - sending me into thralls unmatched by any but my first (and less Platonic) romance. The second, my one-month-from wife, who is so much more real and wise. No goddess - for how long do such relationships last? - but instead a life. There was one poem each way, with Jericha, and that was enough. Indeed, those first poems probably say more about our relationship - even now - than anything else we could write (just as toddlers already display so many of the personality traits they will have as adults).

I suppose, for me, there is too much poetry in living for me to write poetry. I have become polemical, instead, arguing fiercely for a position on education, music, politics, or culture. Usually arguing a position untaken, or untakeable, and explaining why it should not be so neglected. A natural contrarian, I have become, who can turn "because" into "in spite of" and back again. To what end? It profits me little that I oppose so vehemently a great many things which are simply "the way it is." Why oppose, for example, specialization? It leads to such a beautiful, functional world. Why oppose citation? It leads to such easy access to knowledge. If only it were so simple.

I oppose simplicity. Or rather, I suppose simplification, which likely means I oppose myself as a writer. The vast majority of my writing - and probably all writing - is an attempt to simplify, to make expressible the inexpressible nature of being. If writing is an argument, then the most direct, simple argument wins, and the writing that best takes the complex and makes it appear simple will always be favored. I am opposed to sophistry, you might say, even though I will acknowledge that I am as good a sophist as can be found. That's perhaps a bit too self-congratulatory, for there are a great many sophists in this world better than I.

When I allow myself to write honestly - or, at least, without regard for how complicated a narrative I weave - I find that I use the word "perhaps" with astounding frequency. Perhaps. It's a versatile word, but what it does more than anything is act as a crutch. There is no better word for avoiding conclusions than perhaps. Perhaps there is no better word for avoiding conclusions than perhaps. See the difference? One is certain, the other... Perhaps.

Judicious use of "perhaps," (and "seems," and "this suggests," and "I think," and "possibly") might be a mark of intellectual rigor, laziness, or both. Judicious use of perhaps might, also, be my least poetic trait as a writer. Good writers avoid pointless, empty words like "perhaps." It means nothing. Or it means everything.

Now I'm stealing from Demetri Martin* (I run the gamut; Socrates to Important Things), which perhaps indicates that our winding road is nearing its end. What is that end? Hard to say. What the journey? Equally hard.

* To wit: 'Sort of' is such a harmless thing to say. Sort of. It's just a filler. Sort of - it doesn't really mean anything. But after certain things, sort of means everything. Like after 'I love you' or 'You're going to live.'

Nicht Diese Tone, I titled this blog, and though I addressed it in my opening post (gulp, five months and about 60 posts ago), perhaps a return to that theme is in order. The title is German, meaning "not these tones." In retrospect, why a negative? Of all the phrases from Beethoven's Ninth, why this one? I suppose it's the contrarian in me, the intellectual who doubts the value of intellectuals; the liberal who despises the term "liberal;" the musician, astrologer, and student who wants to be everything and, sometimes, just wants to be nothing and play computer for six hours. How to describe these qualities ("and this, and so much more"), how to 'fix myself in a formulated phrase'?

There was a time when poetry was written, and though it is still written, what magic is left after the placing of such lines as "All truths wait in all things," and "It is impossible to say just what I mean." Ginsberg was reduced to a string of "Holy, Holy, Holy ..." Perhaps profound in its own right. Perhaps too self-indulgent.

But we live in self-indulgent times, which I also oppose, and also embody. Maybe paradox is the real lesson. Maybe it always has been. Or rather, maybe paradox and order, chaos and structure, sway ever across some abyss of human meaning. Death, there's the real question, the ultimate contrarian, and the hardest thing for a contrarian to oppose. And yet we have a society built around death (or built around a religion built around death, to paraphrase Nietzsche). Those poems that haunt me and inspire me sit on that precipice. Prufrock, a poem afraid of death, Song of Myself, a poem of celebrating life. Of all the paradoxes of being, that may be the most poignant, and, ironically, the most taboo in our modern age.

In truth, I have little to contribute to such looming questions as "what is the meaning of life?" Ultimately, I resist the question as unsophisticated, at least as it is commonly asked. No, ask it like Eliot, for then it is complicated enough to warrant my austere notice. Or something like that... The true story is, I first recognized the terrible power of the fear of death watching, of all things, Stargate SG-1. How's that for a paradox? What can I say, after all, that is profound?

Nicht Diese, indeed.

1 comment:

  1. If I had never met you, but then I read this essay, I would say, "this guy cleary went to St. John's." I liked this one a lot.