Saturday, October 19, 2013

"Writer's Block?" Pffffff.

“Writer’s block” is the ultimate first world problem.  I deny its existence.  Laziness, procrastination, misplaced priorities: I am well-acquainted with these.  And, sometimes you’re (i.e. “I”) just not smart enough to solve in language the problem you have set out for yourself.    But “writer’s block?”  Pffff.

I was walking down the street in Berkeley the other day when I discovered a typewriter repair shop.  Sweet. I was able to acquire a typewriter ribbon for my Olivetti lettera 22.  Also, I saw the exact same Royal, with the specific gravity of a small tank, I used in undergraduate school.  I had typed out a line from Coleridge, my first literary love, and taped it to the machine: “Should Sloth around me throw her soul-enslaving leaden chain!”  The line come from Quae Nocent Docent, which translates to “What hurts, teaches.”  (Coleridge was very Nietschean, eh?).  Of course, if I was at the typewriter I was already not being slothful.    I should have taped it above the television.  But then, in the years I wrote on that typewriter I didn’t own a television.    I must have just been spending a lot of time staring off into space.

Nancy Please, the film by Andrew Semans (2012) appealed to me greatly, but maybe you had to have “been there.” It’s about a graduate student in English who has a serious case of “writer’s block.”    Thus, it’s really about weakness and neuroses.  But it’s pretty funny and spot on.  The guy “can’t” write his dissertation because the “key” to it is a copy of book that his ex-roommate is holding hostage.  Actually the film might function as a good wake-up call to anyone who thinks she or he is suffering from  “writer’s block.Check it out, if that shoe fits.

Back in Illinois we had a priest, Father Pricco, who I think was not necessarily always a gifted speaker.  But once he said simply “Do your work.  Say your prayers.” Somehow, this was exactly what I needed to hear.  Sometimes it’s that simple. I’m grateful to him for that.  I think this actually embodies the crazy blend of Roman Catholicism and zen that Kerouac was onto (yes, Kerouac: still on my mind though my writing on him is done.  I am reading the Kerouac/Ginsberg letters now and once again Jack has me under his spell!  I cain't quit him, he gotta hold on me).

Pynchon.  Pynchon of all people.  Pynchon of the contemporary doorstop masterpieces Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon.  Pynchon who seems to have all the output of Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King and exponentially more linguistic energy.  Pynchon had, typed out above his computer (or typewriter—can’t remember which): “Eschew Sloth.”  I think he capitalized it, as in, one of the seven deadly sins, a subject he actually wrote about.  He eschewed it, all right; he must eschew it every day.

So, let’s go then, put your shoulder, queer or otherwise, against the wheel.  The page is blank and you are not “blocked.”

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Notes toward an essay on Kerouac

                        Frontmatter to: "Kerouac in (and mostly out of) California"

Just in the last month, well after I set out to revaluate my own dwindling appreciation of Jack Kerouac at least four prominent Kerouac-related articles appeared in the national news. The first was a review of the Library of America edition of Kerouac’s poetry by Bruce Bawer in The New Criterion.  To give you the gist of that critique I will cite a couple of the more entertaining passages.  Bawer says, “the best way to get through Kerouac’s poems is to approach them not as literary texts but as private ramblings of the sort you might find in the files of a psych ward.”  Further, speaking of the Beats in general, Bawer observes “ . . . with their glib contempt for capitalism and mainstream society, their romanticization of criminality, drug abuse, and the tragedy of mental illness, and their narcissistic rebranding as virtues of their own shiftlessness and dissolution—they would turn out to be, to an amazing extent, the seed of pretty much everything that was rotten about the American 1960s and their aftermath.”  I was also amused by his description of Neal Cassady as a “footloose priapic young psychopath.”

2.  In the September 6 New Yorker Ian Scheffler researches biographer Joyce Johnson’s question: “Did the effects of cumulative damage to the brain over Jack’s lifetime contribute to his deepening alcoholism and depression?”  Johnson was Kerouac’s girlfriend when he showed up at her door broken and beaten after a drunken episode in a Greenwich Village tavern.  The beating included Kerouac’s head being smashed repeatedly against a street curb. Scheffler tracks Kerouac’s traumatic brain injuries, mostly from football, and concludes that most probably he did indeed suffer from Chronic Traumatic Encephalitis as a result of so many violent concussions.  The most prevalent of all CTE symptoms is depression, but also impulse control (which leads to substance abuse) and memory loss, which Kerouac began complaining of while in his late twenties.  This is the affliction that plagues former National Football League players who just won a ¾ of a billion dollar judgment from the league.  But CTE can only be proven by physical examination of the brain itself, so this foray into forensic literary diagnosis must remain somewhat speculative. 
            I am reminded here of William F Nolan’s essay on Hemingway titled “Last Days of the Lion” published in 1974.  Its second very long paragraph listed the traumatic physical accidents Hemingway endured including several before taking the 237 pieces of shrapnel in World War I down to the two plane crashes, both in 1954 that he miraculously survived. We think of the tragedy of his suicide, but Nolan’s conclusion was that he was physically exhausted, there wasn’t much left.

3.  The death in August of Beatrice Kozera, or as she was portrayed in the On the Road Terry, the Mexican girl.  She was 92.  She had only known for three years that Kerouac had written of their relationship. When the writer Tim Hernandez, discovered her, Bea’s daughter said to him “ “She doesn’t know any famous writers.  She’s not of that world.”  By that time, 2010, she wasn’t quite sure of his name “Jack, or John?”   She said she knew nothing of about a writer named Kerouac. After her death, her son searched her library for signs of Kerouac’s books and found none.   The passage describing Kerouac’s abandoning Terry the Mexican Girl has always struck me as one of the saddest moments in the book.  

4.  Finally Carolyn Cassady “ the grande dame of the Beat generation,” died just a few weeks ago at the age of 90.  She had been the second wife to Neal Cassady and slept with Kerouac, writing about it all in her two books Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal, and Off the Road, My Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg.  She her the book as a “sobering corrective to what she considered the essentially unhappy lives of these men.”  This an assessment with which I will essentially agree in the essay that follows.

Although I do fully intend to make good on my promise to discuss Kerouac in California, particularly in the California as portrayed in the many iterations of On the Road, I will begin by disclosing that what I’m really concerned with is Kerouac’s influence.  That is, his enduring influence on American culture and his waning influence on me.

These are three notable moments in my on my road to disenchantment with Kerouac:

1)     Teaching On the Road to my lower division general education literature class was basically a disaster.  I have always been slow to teach books I love most.  Why?  I think that “love” of a book is deeply personal and hard to articulate. Some books I don’t even wish to reread (much less try to teach): I want the memory of my first reading experience to last.  I don’t wish to be woken up to the fact that I was sentimental reader, naïve, beyond belief, filled with youthful notions long outgrown.  I don’t want Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s prophetic line “Don’t let the past remind us of what we are not now” to become an unheeded warning.  Suffice to say that in teaching the book the women students in the class were unimpressed by both the portrayal of women and the male characters’ treatment of them.  This is of course further complicated by the book’s genre, which is best described, I think by one of his earliest biographer’s, Anne Charters, phrase,” confessional picaresque memoir.”  I couldn’t think up an adequate defense.  Talking about this later with the writer Rebecca Solnit, she generously let Kerouac off the hook: “He was writing in a decade that wasn’t so favorable for my gender.”

2)     The late photographs of Kerouac.  How I wish I hade never seen them!  Ginsberg sums up his last photograph of Kerouac at their last meeting in 1964, three years before his death:  "Jack Kerouac on visit to Manhattan, last time he stopped at my apartment 704 East 5th Street, Lower East Side, he then looked like his father, corpulent red-faced W.C. Fields yawning with mortal horror, eyes closed a moment on D.M.T. visions.”

3)     The new (2012) Walter Salles’ adaptation of On the Road to film.  On the Road has always felt to me to be a particularly American novel, and I think the film succeeds in its peculiar Americanness.  And yet, I can’t erase, from my mind, just like I can’t erase the image of the bloated alcoholic dead-in-life long before his time, the facts of the film’s making: the fact that its director is Brazilian, that two of the three leading actors are British and that the American landscape filmed in Argentina, the interior scenes shot in Canada.  The America that Kerouac wrote about surely doesn’t exist today; I wonder if it ever did exist.  As the credits of the film role down the screen there are scenes of the Neal Cassady figure walking down railroad tracks in the desert.  These, of course, are prefiguring his death just one year before Kerouac’s own death at 47, in his mothers’ home of internal bleeding which was complicated by cirrhosis of the liver, the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking.  He was drinking a glass of whiskey and malt liquor and writing notes about his father’s print shop when the bleeding began.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Journal: Nepal, October 6, 2012

Saturday, October 6, 2012  Overland from Kathmandu to Syange

7:00 a.m.  We, that is––the staff–– load the equipage to the top of Toyota Land Cruiser.  In addition to Karma [our Sherpa guide] we have a driver and two porters.  None of these people have names; we must be on a need-to-know basis (a vestige of the caste system?).
            We begin winding our way on nameless roads, stopping for gas coupons, then gas, and then we’re out of the city on a paved road.  Our driver is good, but it’s still scary between the other manic drivers and steep roadsides.  We only see one truck overturned on the road, its rice bag cargo stacked alongside like sandbags against a flood.
            We stop to stretch our legs, the stop dragging on until we suspect that the driver has some unstated personal business in the village.  Other trekkers are stopped here as well.  A long fruit and vegetable stand lines the road, its roof of blue plastic tarps held in place by logs.
            In Beshihar we stop again for lunch this time and again the driver disappears , this time we laterare told there is some mechanical-related problem that he is working on. In Beshihar the trekkers are walking through town and it sinks in that the road we are driving on is the actual Annapurna Circuit for trekkers (here navigable by vehicle).  Not very appealing for walking, it’s highly–rutted with lots of water.
            From Beshihar the road is a rocky roller coaster ride and I doubt we get above ten miles per hour very often.  Sleep is impossible. (Note: I have been asleep for much of the seven-hour drive up to this point).
            Lots of domestic animals on the road.  Women carrying gargantuan stacks of greenery (what is it?) much larger than their small thin bodies.  The little teahouses begin to appear regularly & I can see now the casualness of the planning borne out: here, or there, no difference.
            By the time I get to Syange I am done—between the car-sickness (inevitable) and the bug in my stomach, (not to mention the mélange of drugs ingested to combat both), I go straight to sleep (5:30 p.m.?).
            In the dining room of the teahouse waiting for Karma to arrange for the rooms.  A team of porters is watching a soccer match on television in rapt silence.  I don’t remember this until the next morning when I am trying to sort dream from reality.
            Karma awakens me (when?) to look at my down jacket to assess whether it will keep me warm at 6,000 meters.  I think he says it will be insufficient but I insist it will be fine.
            John is in and out of the room, his headlamp moving around the room like night burglar or underwater explorer.
            My dreams are vivid and somewhat Macomb-based, though I couldn’t say what about them had anything to do with Macomb [a town in the Midwest I moved away from four years prior].  They included: a large party uncomfortably over-crowded with people, being told we won a million dollars and then having it not be true.  Finally, a conversation with my father [passed away six months prior] in which he inquires whether I have bargained hard enough for my salary in a job interviewer- (it is unclear whether this is anew job or some past job).
            All night the river rushes through my dreams and in the morning I see that our tea house is perched over the it and we are staying at the New Waterfall Teahouse, Syange, Room 114.
            The trekkers have been much-dampened, presumably today, and their shoes sit out in from of the rooms, tongues open to the air, shirts hanging from balconies to dry.