Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Welcome to the Dreamtime

(A reconstruction of my welcome notes to the UAA MFA Summer Residency 2010, July 10, 2010)

Although I know that Jessica Graves (third-year nonfiction student) likes to refer to the residency as the “geekfest,” I tend to see it a tad differently. I’ve been thinking a lot about this residency and how the time spent here seems to operate according to a different set of rules than non-residency time, or ordinary life.

We are entering a kind of dreamtime.

Peter Weir’s 1977 film, The Last Wave, opens with these words of contextualization:
"Aboriginals believe in two forms of time; two parallel streams of activity. One is the daily objective activity, the other is an infinite spiritual cycle called the 'dreamtime', more real than reality itself. Whatever happens in the dreamtime establishes the values, symbols, and laws of Aboriginal society. It was believed that some people of unusual spiritual powers had contact with the dreamtime."

Here we are in the dreamtime.

Robert Schumann, the 19th century German composer, made music that creates for its listeners a sense of delirious time. It is said that Schuman wrote all his music in a trance.

Writers and the peculiar kind of double life we live: the oft-repeated theory that story is always greater than the writer. Let me try to explain how that works.

You probably know persons who have been consumed by reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the other two extant books in the series. Or, more likely, you are such person yourself. I loved Charles McGrath’s article on Steig Larsson a few months ago in the Sunday NY Times magazine. As is now fairly well known, Larsson was a first time novelist who had stockpiled the three books before submitting them to a publisher. Before the first one came out Larsson died at the age of 52, without having learned what a worldwide publishing phenomenon his work was about to become.

What struck me most about the article was the disbelief a number of his friends possessed as to whether he actually wrote the books. They simply couldn’t believe that this guy, never a prose stylist, who had devoted his working life to writing about working class causes, was capable of such a tour de force as the books had become.

But something in me said that these people were exactly wrong. That, in fact, what Larsson had done is what the artist must do: he had transcended himself.

Throughout his work, Thoreau makes many observations about the doubled self, such as: “However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are.” One way I have of making sense of this doubling is that one of these lives is the writing life. Even if the work is “mean,” i.e. average, it’s still better than we are.

My friend Dan Mancilla was teaching the great Stuart Dybek story “Hot Ice,” when a student, a freshman, observed that water in its liquid, frozen and gaseous states in “Hot Ice” represents the Holy Trinity. According to Dan she said it was so obvious that she was almost too embarrassed to voice it. Was she right? Of course, it’s obvious onceit's been pointed out (note: it’s not obvious). Did Dybek intend it? Doubtful. Dan will ask him soon, if he hasn’t already. But it works brilliantly with the story’s thematic concerns. What can we know, anyway, of writers’ intentions when they don’t voice them, when we don’t have them to ask? It’s art, it’s better than the writer.

Seymour Chatman in Story and Discourse comes up with a somewhat puzzling diagram of the participants in “a narrative communication situation.” In between the “real author” and the narrator is the mysterious “implied author.” Of this implied author, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan say: “its relation to the real author is admitted to be of great psychological complexity and has rarely been analyzed except to suggest that implied authors are often far superior in intelligence and moral standards to the actual men and women who are real authors.”

I was reading a blog entry that Heather Lende (third-year fiction student) wrote describing a public reading of from her new book Take Care of the Garden and the Dogs. She describes this incredible moment of being moved by her own work in a way that she hadn’t been when she wrote the piece. Events had happened between writing the book and that reading that made her see her words in a new light. “Writing,” Heather said, “has a way of happening.”

Probably the most famous literary exercise on this is Jorge Luis Borges’ “Borges and I.” It begins: “It’s to the other man, to Borges, that things happen.” And in about 400 words, concludes, thusly: “Which of us is writing this page I don’t know.”

Now, as we enter the residency, the dreamtime, the trance, I am wishing for you the kind of happiness Henry James spoke of in Roderick Hudson:

“True happiness we are told consists in getting out of one’s self; but the point is not only to get out—you must stay out; and to stay out, you must have some absorbing errand.”

And if true happiness must remain outside our grasp, I am at least, confident that we have set before us an absorbing errand.

(Illustration from RenĂ© Daumal’s Mt. Analogue)