Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Slight Manifesto

My obsessive question of how or what or why one might create in the face of evil, under the shadow of terror and knowing the blackness of our time has led me to the work of Arthur Szyk.



The editorial cartoon (with all that it implies as an illustration of current social and political themes, necessarily topical) takes on more weight over time (providing that it maintains relevance) and approaches the gravity of Allegory. Szyk's work most certainly has this weight, whether it be in "The Anti-Christ" or "Satan Leads the Ball", packed as they are with a Dantean "high gossip" or the more artistically accessible "Book of Esther" or "Uriel Acosta".

I imagine that 2000 years from now, the circles of cultural literacy that contains Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini will be the same ones that, for us now, contains Caligula, Atila the Hun and Ivan the Terrible. Who will remember the particular "horror" of their lives and times? It all fades into a historical caricature, more often than not, inaccurately drawn. It is a sad truth of this immediate Media(-ted) age that so much of the hard-won wisdom of our culture slips over the horizon of understood reference at an ever increasing rate. Who has "at hand" the knowledge of those contemporaries of Dante that populate the Comedia or the layered satirical references in Swift?

The point is that the "art" (those essential core meanings) of the work endures, transcends the occasion of it creation. From where we now stand, upon the pounded earth of a new millennium, the work of an artist such as Szyk reveals, I believe, something of a "transition point" according to contemporary relevance. Although the horror of his subject has not at all become ameliorated by time (it will only be forgotten, never accepted), the beauty of his work is not as deeply overshadowed by the conditions of the moment.

As far as my own current project is concerned (acknowledging its privileged context), this relevance is extreme: if, as George Steiner remarks in Bluebeard's Castle, "in locating Hell above ground, we have passed out of the major order and symmetries of Western Civilization", then the artistic imperative (I stress: for me) is to use Hell's language - be this literal or visual - to indicate a "way out" through the transcendent qualities of Beauty.

Beauty, whether it be in Hell (Bosch) or Heaven (Michelangelo), burns with the same quickening Pulse within us. That I choose to hold high the Beauty of the Skull over the Beauty of the Rose is not indicative of an inner cynicism or pessimism with regard to human "Being," rather it is the hard and relentless understanding that without the dream of Heaven (read: beauty), Hell has no power over the human spirit.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Becoming Finished

Isn't it strange to become "finished" towards a particular author? I always remember a statement by the under-rated mystery writer, Ross MacDonald that he could often "get around" a certain author after a time, see where they were coming from, what they were up to with their words. But, said MacDonald, he could never "get around" Faulkner or Shakespeare.

It takes me a long time to get around an author, especially if they have guided or taught me something vital. It's funny: I kept up a rather one-sided relationship with the most influential teacher I had in high school until he died. (His English Class used S. I. Hayakawa's Language in Thought and Action - essentially a primer for General Semantics. Beautiful.) I clung to Colin Wilson for years after I realized that he was just re-animating the dead-horse of the Outsider over and over. I read all of the galloping ghosts of the vital-will-to-power-Shavian-Life-Force just within the reach of our all too human habituated robot selves. I flogged myself like a true penitent for some time. I still cannot sell off my collection - which is substantial. Turner, Campbell, Paglia, Berry, Read, Dahlberg, Borges, Steiner all hold hallowed places. Their books line my shelves like old friends/teachers. I often re-read these days, mostly with a smile that would make Cervantes proud: How I tilted towards those windmills and kicked the spurs deeper.

After years of working in the book mines, I figure, with typically truistic wit, there are The Books and then there are The Books About Them. Primary and Secondary texts, if you will. (I say this and immediately become Hegelian in considering a synthetic Third Book. Grammars of Creation being such a beast for me.) As much as I have derided the Derridians, I have such a love of the Secondary. Those Who Can't that sing the praises of Those Who Can. A fascinating tension. I have always had a goading shame when I realize that I have read dozens of books about a Book that I have never read.

But to finally read The Book! Ah God, I tell you: to remember hellish scenes from the Aenied, sublime passages of the Divine Comedy, the laughter in the Quixote, elegant tracings in Descartes, Zarathustra and Heidegger, the illuminations of the Gita, Dhammapada, the scope of Les Miserables... I could go on preaching to the choir, if not the Preacher; but it is these read memories that enrich the meaning of my being to the core.

Still I am ashamed of what I have not read: Grossman, Broch, Sholokhov, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Mishima, Kawabata, Mahfouz, Kazantzakis and, even Dickens all gaze down from my shelves with haughty reproach. I deliberately avoid their spiny stares as I sneak through a Gibson, Crichton, Dan Brown or a Dan Simmons. I cannot read more than a few "shallow" books before I am compelled by some internal exorcist to return to the "depths." (The Power of George Eliot compels you! The Power of Goethe compels you!)

Yet, I am such a fool at times. I've probably told you ten thousand times that I define wisdom as doing something stupid ten thousand times and then, on the ten thousand and first time, not doing it. It takes a lot of "experience" for me (more shallow books than I care to admit) before I start back towards the Buddhistic Right Depth.

This "wisdom" that seems to come from simply enduring existence reminds me of the old Chinese curse: may you live an interesting life. All too often these days (the ten thousand iterations having come to term on quite a few items of late), I notice the sticks and paper mache before I see the magic of the dragon. And this is not to say that I haven't found those sticks and colored pieces of paper enormously (in the Strunk and White sense) interesting. But Goddamn, how I long to see the dragon, the real fire breathing, flying, fucking THING and believe...

I hasten to add that I am no cynic: I love the revealing "wisdom" that endurance has brought to me, even more the wisdom of intensely lived existence. However, I have no enthusiasm or energy for the bounding, wide-ranging distractions of my puppy-dog youth - all that ass-sniffing and cat-chasing. An old dog dreams of all the bones he buried and the day he'll dig them all back up. Let the cats fuck all night, it's not even worth a Goddamned Bark.

My immersions and glancings into popular (better perhaps contemporary) culture leave me with the chemical after-taste of snack food in my brain, a near-constant sense of dissatisfaction and still abiding hunger. But I am happy for this. For my mental plate is full of meat and bones. More than I can ever consume/digest in my life. A shipwrecked survivor on a deserted island with the carcass of a white whale. All for me. The oil-soaked brain alone will take me years to chew up.