Amar Bakshi was about five years behind me at my high school in Washington DC, but he has my dream job, traveling the world to author a blog for the Washington Post, taking on the charged topic, “How the World Sees America.” I started reading it because of the high school connection (Amar is a friend of my little brother’s), but I’ve become an avid reader of it over time as Amar follows in the footsteps of some of my favorite traveling journalists: Jon Lee Anderson, Paul Theroux, and, of course, Ryszard Kapuscinski. Unlike those masters of the form, Amar also carries a video camera with him to further chronicle his experiences. Since starting in May, he’s been to England and India, and now he’s back in the States hashing out plans to travel farther afield. It’s an interesting experiment from a young writer. Worth a read if you’re looking for another blog to follow.
“If an ox begins to sicken,” Cato the Elder writes in his treatise on Roman farm management, “give him without delay a raw hen’s egg and make him swallow it whole. The next day make him drink from a wooden bowl a measure of wine in which has been scraped the head of an onion. Both the ox and his attendant should do these things fasting and standing upright.”
This passage has stuck with me, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, since the time I first read it, whenever that may have been. I’m less interested in the questionable medicine it prescribes than in the image of the ox and his attendant — who, on the farm described by Cato, was most likely a slave — together: the attendant going about his work, the ox patiently enduring his ministrations. The two at once familiar and yet gazing across an unfathomable distance of incomprehension as they stand facing one another, both unfed save the ox’s hen’s egg and measure of wine.
I’ve been thinking of the passage often lately, as my novel, That’s Not a Feeling, is, to my surprise, filled with animals. The novel is set on the rural campus of a boarding school, so it isn’t entirely unexpected that animals should appear. But a brief catalogue of non-human animals seen and discussed in its pages would include deer, bees, ducks, a turkey, cats, a caterpillar, a goat, a pig, some chickens, an owl, two wasps, a peahen, horses, bats, some birds that are not further identified, and a snake. This seems to me, if not quite excessive, then at least curious. It’s the kind of thing I try not to think much about while I’m writing, but now that the book is in its final form, I don’t really see what harm it can do.
In the eighth of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the poet contrasts animals’ way of being in the world with that of people. “The creature gazes into openness,” he writes, in A. S. Kline’s translation, “… and when it moves, it moves / in eternity, as streams do.” Humans, however, are always looking inward, “our eyes are / as if they were reversed.” I’m sure that making this type of distinction is not what I was up to. First of all, I find it too romantic, too idealized. And the animals I’ve written about aren’t the free, sure beasts described by Rilke. They are often frightened, in the wrong place, or sick, like the ox in Cato.
In this way, they are mirrors of the human characters in the book, who are also often unsettled, ill at ease, or worse. And these characters’ confusion and anxiety is analogous to the opacity that, it seems to me, exists between people and animals. “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him,” Wittgenstein says. I take this to mean that a lion’s life, his experiences and concerns, are so foreign to us that even if he shared our language, we wouldn’t know what he was talking about. Just before making this point in the Philosophical Investigations, a point I think we can safely assume applies to all animals and not only to lions, Wittgenstein discusses the transparency, or lack thereof, between people. He says, “…one human being can be a complete enigma to another.” And, Freud might have added, a complete enigma to himself or herself as well.
This begins to feel more like what I may have been after, populating the margins of my book with unsteady animals. They stand (or crawl, or fly) as reminders that proximity doesn’t dispel mystery. Just as Cato’s ox and his attendant can live and work together without claiming to know one another completely, we can live among animals and among people without assuming that we comprehend them. This is less a philistine’s incuriosity about his surroundings than a degree of humility as regards the limits of our understanding. Just as psychoanalysis shows us how we are always telling the truth though we do not know the truth, and can be ourselves — can’t help being ourselves — though we remain strangers to ourselves. And yet we are never so resigned that we stop trying to find out more. I like the way animals in books, what John Berger called “animals of the mind,” can serve as emblems of this. From the meadows and the trees, they gaze out at the human characters, who cannot help but wonder what it is the animals see.
I know that some folks out there are interested in the travels of our friend Cem. But because he is currently somewhere near the border of Thailand and Burma, it has become difficult for him to update as often as he (or we) would like. Therefore I have taken it upon myself to excerpt some of the emails that we have been exchanging. I do this partly because it’s another way to keep track of this wily character but also partly because I always find talk of travels to be a good igniter of interesting discussion. So, lets leave it at that for now. His last email bore some good news for Realistic Records (from halfway around the world no less!!) as well as the sort of scheming that would make Maqroll and Bashur proud ( You should really read this book! Gabriel Garcia Marquez loves it. And frankly, I think it might be the best book I’ve ever read. I gave it to Cem to read while he travels around the world. You can see how it has already attached itself to his psyche):max,couple things.1.a qoute from my friend kevin, a serious music junkie and collector, whose taste in music i respect more than anyone i know. this email was sent to me before i told him to buy your record:”music-wise, soulseek is still saving my life. i’m watching out for the RIAA these days, though. $150,000 a song! http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/internet/07/01/download.music.ap/index.htmlmy top 8 albums in 2003 so far: (no particular order)junior senior : d-d-d-don’t stop the beatdelgados : haterecoys : rekoysdat politics : plugs pluspostal service : give uporanges band : all arounderlend oye : unrestbroken social scene : you forgot it in people”thats right fooo! realistic up an runnin![2 is of little interest to you, faithful reader, so let’s move on to 3.]3.i think that ill be following maqroll, thanks very much. as you know and i now fear, this will mean going dead broke and having to figure a way out of it. i have already begun the most basic level of planning for a small import venture involving Burmese laquerware from Mandalay and/or ethnic textiles for sale in small markets and possibly wholesale to shops. i need to speak with Thibault. i am not kidding max – the stuff is beautiful, cheap, pleantiful, and there is noone selling it that i can find in the US. you will hear more on this later – i really think that it might work.. if it aroused your interests, Mr Bashur, we could both perhaps share in the success.all for now,cem.Indie Rockers kan rede 2Cem’s friend Kevin and his fantastic list of this year’s best indie rock reminded me of, what else, a book. If you walk down the music aisle in any bookstore you will see shelves and shelves of books about the Beatles and the Stones and their compatriots in classic rock. There will also be bulging shelves of books on jazz, blues, and even world music. Punk rock, once the vanguard of the antiestablishment even warrants it’s own chunck of shelf space (Please Kill Me by Legs McNeil is by far the best book on punk, by the way). But what about indie rock? Should a fan of this lowly but noble genre of music go without adequate reading material? No longer. A couple of years ago music journalist Michael Azerrad put together a book called Our Band Could Be Your Life that chronicles the rise and fall of thirteen seminal indie rock bands. Detailed chapters on Black Flag, The Minutemen (whose line from Double Nickels on the Dime supplies the title of the book), Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Husker Du, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Fugazi Mudhoney, and Beat Happening, effectively constitute the history of rock and roll for a generation of music fans.Hey Hey L. A.I’ve been in LA for almost 3 years now, and it long ago lost it’s shiny newness for me, but it’s still a big enough place that it continues to reveal itself to me bit by bit. The other day I was driving home from work and something I heard on the radio reminded me of the way radio stations in other towns that I’ve lived in used to do spoof versions of popular songs to make them refer to something going on in that city; like when I was growing up Washington DC and the morning drive guys were always playing Aerosmith songs that had been turned into spoofs of Mayor (for life) Marion Barry and his crack habit. For a second, whatever I was hearing on the radio made me think that they were playing a goofy made up song about LA. Then I realized that I wasn’t listing to a spoof song, but a real song, probably a song that’s very popular among the kids right now. It just so happened that this song, subconsciously almost, heavily references Los Angeles. The more I thought about this and the more I let it inform my music listening and TV watching and movie viewing, the more I realized that a huge portion of American pop entertainment consciously or, more frequently, subconsciously references Los Angeles in such a way that you could only really be aware of it if you have spent a decent chunk of time in this odd city. The implications of all this are somewhat startling. Many folks get upset that America’s monopoly on popular entertainment results in a monopoly of American values and beliefs. The reality, though, is that America’s popular effluvia is simply the values of Los Angeles and its accompanying entertainment culture masquerading as American culture. It’s possible that because I am simultaineously a Los Angeles insider and a Los Angeles outsider I am particularly apt to find this disturbing. Nonetheless, I can’t shake the feeling that this is not a particularily good thing.A couple more quick notesYesterday when I was out driving, I saw a car with this vanity plate: FAKE TAG. I gave a chuckle and then decided that it’s only funny if the plates really are fake.
Remember a little more than a month ago when I implied that spring had arrived in Chicago despite the insistence of the natives that I was being laughably optimistic? Well, the natives were right, and I was wrong. Since then we’ve had our fair share of plunging overnight temperatures and frigid rainy mornings. But now I’m hoping I can safely say that spring is really here, and our first brutal Chicago winter is behind us. Since leaving Los Angeles, where weather is stubbornly perfect 95 percent of the time, I have enjoyed the seasons despite the difficulty getting acclimated to bad weather. In LA it’s green all the time, but here watching the leaves appear on the trees has been an enjoyable novelty. And yesterday, which may have been the best day of the year thus far, I decided to dust off my tree books, unused since I left the east coast for California five years ago. I was curious to see what kinds of trees line our street, and what’s living in our back yard. (I was partly inspired to do this by the Talk of the Town piece in this week’s New Yorker about the guy who’s running New York City’s “tree census.”) So, using my National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees and Trees of North America, I discovered that we’ve got a Northern Catalpa and an American Elm in the front and some kind of Maple in the back yard. If the thunderstorms stop today, I might go back out and see what else is growing around here.
“The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness–he explores himself, he tries out all the poisons on himself and keeps only their quintessences.” So wrote a Paris-based Arthur Rimbaud in a letter to his friend Paul Demeny in 1871. Nearly one hundred years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the artist David Wojnarowicz followed a parallel path on the streets of New York.
Both men had itinerant fathers–Rimbaud’s was a military man and Wojnarowicz’s, a sailor–they suffered at the hands of their parents and escaped their households at a young age. In Paris, Rimbaud slept under bridges and in army barracks, and was likely sexually assaulted by soldiers. Wojnarowicz, too, lived on the streets and worked as a child prostitute. By the age of fifteen he’d suffered an unimaginable list of abuses, including being “drugged, tossed out a second story window, strangled, smacked in the head with a slab of marble, almost stabbed four times, punched in [the] face at least seventeen times, beat about [his] body too many times to recount, almost completely suffocated.”
The two men shared a romance with violence and danger. Rimbaud was shot in the wrist by his lover, Paul Verlaine, as he tried to break off their affair. Wojnarowicz was shot at by a drag queen who mistook his knock at her door for the arrival of an unfaithful lover. Rimbaud, the poète maudit, and Verlaine were detained and questioned by the police after fabricating a story at a train station–they were murderers who had just escaped from prison, and spoke loudly enough for fellow travelers to overhear.
Wojnarowicz begins his memoir, Close to the Knives, with tales of roaming hot city streets with a friend, while carrying meat cleavers stolen from Macy’s and looking for someone to mug. And in his book Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, he describes his hunger for violent men: “I’m attracted to living like that, moment to moment, with very little piling up of information, breaking windows of cause and response.” Rimbaud and Wojnarowicz were aligned as miscreants, meddlers, thieves, deranged to the point of seeing, i.e., visionary.
Je est un autre. Another phrase Rimbaud famously wrote, “I is another.”
Similarly, Wojnarowicz wrote, regarding waking up in an altered state, or site, of consciousness: “The ‘I’ of my self had crawled through the thickness of memory and consciousness to some other place in the structure of the brain and emerged within a new gray coil.”
Wojnarowicz was deeply aware of the trajectory he shared with the youthful and precocious Rimbaud, with whose debauched and dangerous life he identified, and tried to align himself. One thing Wojnarowicz couldn’t have known in his late teens and early twenties was that he, like Rimbaud, would meet an untimely death, from AIDS.
In the late ‘70s, the young Wojnarowicz photographed a series of portraits of a man–a friend, perhaps–wearing a paper cut-out mask of Rimbaud’s face. This Rimbaud skulks through the settings of Wojnarowicz’s New York, alone. He sits in a graffiti-covered subway car, loiters outside movie houses, wanders under piers and through abandoned buildings, with a needle in his arm, with a gun to his head, in a passionate embrace, pissing in a toilet. Wojnarowicz’s photo series Rimbaud in New York 1978-9 distills the rawness, pain, and deprivation of living on the street to a beauty of mythic proportions. The youthful delicacy of this body is surrounded by weary decay and distanced by the mask, in what could otherwise appear a living hell.
To quote Wojnarowicz, “ Hell is a place on earth. Heaven is a place in your head.”
The mask obscuring identity–literally making this figure an “I” who is another, the savage poet who suffers to the point of seeing–recalls the lover in the Foolish Virgin/Hellish Bridegroom section of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell:
I saw the whole decor he surrounded himself with in his own mind: clothes, sheets, furniture. I lent him weapons, another face. I looked at everything in relation to him, as he’d have liked to create it for himself. Whenever he’d look absent-minded, I’d follow him into weird and complicated strategies, far out, good or bad–I was sure I’d never get into his world. Next to his gorgeous sleeping body, how many hours I used to spend awake at night, wondering why he wanted to escape from reality so badly. No man ever had such a wish. I realized–without any fear for him–that he could be a threat to society.–Maybe he’s got secrets to change life?
“That he could be a threat to society,” resonates even more clearly following the removal of Wojnarowicz’s video Fire in My Belly from the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. In December, the government-run Smithsonian, under pressure from the Catholic League, removed his video because it depicts ants crawling over a crucifix. Much has already been written about this. The attention drawn and cacophony of protests have obscured the work by Wojnarowicz that remains present–a series of four devastating images from the Rimbaud in New York series. Images were like words to Wojnarowicz, he placed them against and within each other, in still life or video, “to construct a free-floating sentence that speaks about the world I witness…. A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history.”
In his contribution to our Year in Reading series last year, Joseph O’Neill, author of Netherland, began, “Prompted by a writing assignment, I’ve been re-reading the novels and stories of Saul Bellow for the first time in years – and I’m completely smitten all over again, only more deeply.” I was curious to know what that assignment was, but my digging at the time turned nothing up. Now, however, I have an answer. The new edition, coming in November, of Bellow’s 1997 novella The Actual will include an introduction by O’Neill.