Essays: The imagination of disaster & Notes on “camp”

Sontag’s 1965 essay, The Imagination of Disaster, (collected in Against Interpretation) is her look at sci-fi films in the era of worrying about the atomic bomb. The dialogue in these films makes them “wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like ‘Come quickly, there’s a monster in my bathtub,’… and ‘I hope it works!’ are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust. Yet the films also contain something that is painful and in deadly earnest.” The films are about disaster, “one of the oldest subjects of art.” And in the films, disaster is always viewed extensively, a question of scale, a matter of “quantity and ingenuity.”

The aesthetics of destruction are the “peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess.” We are “treated to a panorama of melting tanks, flying bodies, crashing walls, awesome craters and fissures in the earth, plummeting spacecraft, colorful deadly rays; and to a symphony of screams, weird electronic signals, the noisiest military hardware going, and the leaden tones of the laconic denizens of alien planets and their subjugated earthlings.”

“The theme of depersonalization (being ‘taken over’)… is a new allegory reflecting the age-old awareness of man that, sane, he is always perilously close to insanity and unreason. But there is something more here than just a recent, popular image which expresses man’s perennial but largely unconscious anxiety about his sanity. The image derives most of its power from a supplementary and historical anxiety, also not experienced consciously by most people, about the depersonalizing conditions of modern urban life.”

“Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.”

“The interest of these films, aside from their considerable amount of cinematic charm, consists in this intersection between a naïve and largely debased commercial art product and the most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation.”

The films force us to “think about the unthinkable.”

“In the films it is by means of images and sounds, not words that have to be translated by the imagination, that one can participate in the fantasy of living through one’s own death, and more, the death of cities, the destruction of humanity itself.”

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Notes on “Camp” (1964, also collected in Against Interpretation) is another useful essay as I’m trying to crack what it is about terrible movies that I enjoy so much. Movies are one of the first things she notes as “campy,” calling out Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933) as an example.

“One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp is usually less satisfying.”

“In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance.”

“The reason a movie like On the Beach, books like Winesburg, Ohio and For Whom the Bell Tolls are bad to the point of being laughable, but not bad to the point of being enjoyable, is that they are too dogged and pretentious. They lack fantasy. There is Camp in such bad movies as The Prodigal and Samson and Delilah, the series of Italian color spectacles featuring the super-hero Maciste, numerous Japanese science fiction films (Rodan, The Mysterians, The H-Man) because, in their relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy—and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.”

“One cheats oneself as a human being if one has respect only for the style of high culture, whatever else one may do or feel on the sly.”

“One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that ‘sincerity’ is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness.”

“Detachment is the prerogative of an elite; and as the dandy is the 19th century’s surrogate for the aristocrat in matters of culture, so Camp is the modern dandyism. Camp is the answer to the problem: how to be a dandy in the age of mass culture.”

She quotes from Oscar Wilde (father of Camp) throughout the essay, including A Woman of No Importance: “I adore simple pleasures, they are the last refuge of the complex.”

“Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste… The discovery of the good taste of bad taste can be very liberating. The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure; he continually restricts what he can enjoy… Camp makes the man of good taste cheerful, where before he ran the risk of being chronically frustrated. It is good for the digestion.”

“Camp taste is a a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation, not judgement. Camp is generous. It wants to enjoy. It only seems like malice, cynicism… Camp taste is a kind of love, love for human nature. It relishes rather than judges the little triumphs and awkward intensities of character.”

“The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”

 

A Handbook of Disappointed Fate

There is nothing disappointing about Anne Boyer’s uncategorizable work. Poetry, philosophy, humor, jammed together in a sandwich of words. Plato rubs shoulders with the Occupy movement who wave at Bo Diddley who muses about the genius of Willie Nelson who sings about Colette.

The flashes of genius will surprise you and make you giggle, like her Difficult Ways to Publish Poetry, wherein she suggests various ways to make poems more scarce and thus worth more (shoot poetry through pneumatic tubes to world poetry capitals like Oakland, Brooklyn, Tallahassee; choreograph whales’ blow holes to look like words from above; hack traffic lights to blink out morse code poems; put poems on post-it notes slapped to the back of mourners at a funeral, etc.)

She writes of cancer treatments and sweating on the bus in LA, writing a poem about Mathew Barney’s shit sculpture show as an excuse to sit longer in the air conditioning: “maybe Normal Mailer on a river of shit is the art that we deserve.” There are pieces on reading and writing and poetry and art. “To read a book is to acquire the manifest of a ship full of trouble.” Her book of choice while battling cancer is the perfect companion, The Magic Mountain, but in Mann’s world the character can simply sit in the Alps and recover while Boyer must try to earn money in order to afford her chemotherapy.  “Cancer cells refuse to die, proliferate wildly, take over every territory they can… Their expansion—that wild, horrible living—has as its content only the emptiest death. ‘Like capitalism,’ I tell my friends, and mean, by capitalism, ‘life as we know it,’ and I mean, with ‘like capitalism,’ that among other things, ‘it’s dead inside.’ ”

I’m tempted to copy wholesale some of my favorite parts, like Click-Bait Thanatos (luckily already written out elsewhere):

As much as capitalism’s humans seem to generally suspect we should or will die off and take the world with us, many of us also want to live, at least in a manner.

We spend our days searching the engines that search us back. We look for instructions, click-baited by fear and trembling, propelled by whatever force allows the ruins of rust-belt factories to be taken over by vetch, the landfills to be filled with rats and sparrows.

Poetry, which was once itself a searching engine, exists in abundance in the age of Trump, as searchable and as immaterial as any other information. As it always has, poetry experiments in fashionable confusions, excels in the popular substitutive fantasies of its time, mistakes self-expression for sovereignty. But in making the world blurry, distressing, and forgettable, poetry now has near limitless competition.

Verse poetry once served a social function as memory structure and didactic aid. Its songishness was useful to memory, and memory was necessary to a kind of cultured thought. This memory-use began to fall away with the printing press, then crumbled underfoot with screens. Changes in memory and the human relation to it under industrialization corresponded to changes in poetic form, which underwent multiple rearrangements in the 20th century as social cognition was also rearranged. Our minds were exteriorized to the paperwork, then indentured to Silicon Valley’s safety-blue empire. As thinking fled mnemonics, so did poetry, and the new poetry of fracture, parataxis, and ragged complexity, if it had anything to do with memory, seemed to always be saying one thing about it: “Don’t remember me.”

And there’s this from Questions for Poets:

“Is the trial of today to flood ourselves with the vast oceanic tides of the marketplace and false feeling and scripted hellos and the aerosolized and the ambulatory and shipping containers and social practice and smile scanners? Is it the vital and great, the epic, or the minor, the depreciated, the commodious,the scatological, the blithe or the charming? Is it a trial of weaponized data entry? Is it the testimony of pdfs?”

Disaster Movies: The Cinema of Catastrophe

Research for a project I’m thinking about, or perhaps just because I’m interested in the 1970s disaster movie genre. Stephen Keane starts his exploration of disaster flicks with the earliest of cinema, saying the silent films from Italy lead the way (1908 + 1913 Last Days of Pompeii, 1910 Fall of Troy, 1912 Quo Vadis), where the visual spectacle even without sound showed the power of those images to translate across the world. Audiences watch rapt, safe in their cozy theaters, removed but entertained.

Keane makes the point that disaster movies are born out of times of “impending crisis,” the tension of what’s in the air helping to draw in audiences. Thus 1930s and 1950s were ripe, but Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima’s actuality crowded out the need for faked disaster. The movies in the 1970s brought disaster films into the present time (1930s was about the ancient epics/Biblical/Greek/Roman, 1950s about future with sci-fi). With the shift to present day, people more apt to believe it could happen to them.

He relies heavily on analysis from Nick Roddick’s ‘Only the Stars Survive: Disaster Movies in the Seventies’ from 1980, quoting Roddick: “A sort of post-Watergate depression, a national inferiority complex after the Vietnam debacle, even a ‘bread and circuses’ attitude caused by ‘the erosion of democracy and the Western materialist way of living’…” as contributing to society’s need for these films.

Another Roddick-ism is calling out the elemental forces at play: “the threats arise without exception from earth (Earthquake), air (Airport, Airport 1975, The Big Bus —which ends up hanging over a precipice, fire (The Towering Inferno, The Hindenburg) or water (The Poseidon Adventure, Juggernaut, Airport ’77).” I can think of an exception (Two-Minute Warning).

Discussing Airport, Keane calls it “disaster as therapy” where the movie shows you the path to living a better life. Other points to consider: how traditional roles/patriarchy is used to reinforce middle class values; how religion is used.

All disaster movies seem to follow the formula of using big name stars in their spectacle. It’s a shortcut for having the audience to feel something about the characters—they know Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as good guys already. There’s also a type of game audiences play when they see all the archetypes on display—which ones will die, which will survive. A bingo card of deaths awaits.

I liked the call out of how today’s movies employ green screens but earlier ones meant you KNEW the actors had worked hard in those scenes.

Also discussed: The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake where apparently Walter Matthau had a cameo; he appears in the credits under his real name: Walter Matuschanskayasky and all he does through the film is drink toasts to film stars (need to rewatch this!).

Disaster movies morphed into action movies in the 1980s (he does a nice segue with the Die Hard franchise) and then had a resurgence in the 1990s (Titanic, Independence Day, Armageddon, Volcano, Twister, etc.).

Rough Beauty: Forty Seasons of Mountain Living

Is my insistence on reading certain books to the end healthy? This book lured me with the bait of lyrical descriptions of nature and (best of all) spending time alone appreciating the seasons. If it had stuck to that path, it may have been worth the effort, but she attempts to mine her own biography for details that I simply didn’t care about. Ho hum, a tomboy whose military family bounced around a lot and whose abusive dad ended up splitting the family. Yawn, her obsession with trusty dog companion (although this reminded me of Anne LaBastille’s Woodswoman) who she loved more than her dying mother. Zzz, sleeping through her tales of dating in a small Colorado town and especially snoring once she finds true love on OK Cupid. She deals with a cabin fire in the beginning, and I wonder how she chose to structure it as such. What if she built up to the fire and described the calm and the seasons, then peaked with burn drama and wrapped with lessons learned from getting rid of all your possessions?

Bottom line, there are much better memoirs and much better hymns to the natural world.

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions

I wanted this book to be as interesting as the interview the author gave to Ezra Klein (“Is modern society making us depressed?“). Unfortunately it falls short, Hari being a much better interview subject than writer. It’s not a complete waste of time, though, as it reinforces his message over hundreds of pages: society now makes us isolated and has us focused on the wrong values, which end up making us depressed. To solve this, don’t just pop an anti-depressant but dive to the root of the problem—connect with your neighbors, find meaningful work (e.g. bike shop co-op), practice loving kindness and meditation, stay off the internet and stop watching as much TV. Exercise, because we’re animals. Get out in nature. Universal basic income. You know, the usual proscription to solving modern ills.

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Excellent book by Richard Rothstein detailing the systematic, de jure segregation imposed on America by its institutions (not de facto but rather de jure, or enforced by law). He layers example after example on you, each page weighing the argument more and more, drumbeats that refuse to back away from this egregious history. Citing examples in San Francisco, Richmond, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, etc. he builds his argument from decades of research.

Lots of other crazy bits are inside, like the 1917 campaign promoted by the Department of Labor in response to the terrifying 1917 Russian revolution: an “Own-Your-Own-Home” campaign where “We Own Our Own Home” buttons were handed out to schoolkids and pamphlets distributed saying it was a patriotic duty to stop renting.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”

Zora Neale Hurston tried to get this published in her lifetime to no avail, and here it is almost 100 years later that it finally gets printed. She interviewed Cudjo Lewis (Kossola, his African name), the last survivor of the final shipment of the illegal slave trade right before the Civil War broke out. The best parts of this were when Zora inserts herself into the story, obliquely, unobtrusively. She ends up bringing him gifts like peaches and ham and watermelon and they become friends chatting in the shade of a hot Alabama afternoon as he leads her down his memory hole to what life was like in Africa, how he was captured, what life became for him in Alabama. The hardest part for her was coming to grips with the fact that Africans themselves sold out other Africans to the slave trade.

Everything is Flammable

Is Gabrielle Bell always this whiny? I’ve read several of her graphic novels which detail her autobiographical dilemmas, best of which is Truth is Fragmentary: travelogues and diaries, but I don’t remember feeling annoyed by her tone in those. Maybe it’s my mood.

There are good parts, like the bus ride wherein she’s trapped with an ex-con who’s a bit too talkative and her seatmates all combine to ignore this guy, “as if the 3 of us were arbitrarily given the task of babysitting a large, unpredictable, scary, nasty child who should have been aborted.” The story tips from coast to coast as she travels from New York to northern California to help her mom after a fire wiped out her mom’s cabin. Luckily her mom’s community comes to the rescue, and she’s donated clothing and various supplies. Gabrielle helps her find a tiny home and the guy who’s living on the lot helps her build a bathroom extension. There are bears and dogs and PTSD from abusive relationships in California and tomato plants and homeless bikers camping in her backyard and friends who donate dish racks that are carted across the country in New York.

Why Art?

Eleanor Davis pokes and prods at the question of why we need art in a book you can zip through in 20 minutes, introducing us to various artist types and then spinning a world wherein the creators are manipulating their creations but to what end? Not a book for anyone looking for a meaty answer, more of a frothy jaunt contemplating this major question in the manner of a daydream.

Conversations with Kafka

Gustav Janouch’s beautiful and odd memoir of his walks around Prague with Kafka when he was a young boy and his father worked alongside Kafka at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institution. Janouch was a budding writer himself and took careful notes of their meetings which later resulted in this book. Naturally you can’t assume these aphorisms dropped perfectly formed from Kafka’s lips into this book, but his spirit infuses this naturally flawed account of their relationship. Translated by Goronwy Rees, it’s choc-a-bloc filled with pithy sayings and wisdom. Apologies in advance for cribbing so much to paste in here.

Speaking of the writer Paul Adler, Janouch asks Kafka what his profession is. “He has none. He has no profession, only a vocation. He travels with his wife and the children from one friend to another. A free man, and a  poet. In his presence I always have pangs of conscience, because I allow my life to be frittered away in an office.”

“It’s not Treml, but I, who am in the cage… not only in the office, but everywhere. I carry the bars within me all the time.”

“For human beings the natural life is a human life. But men don’t always realize that. They refuse to realize it. Human existence is a burden to them, so they dispose of it in fantasies.”

“The false illusion of a freedom achieved by external means is an error, a confusion, a desert in which nothing flourishes except the two herbs of fear and despair. That is inevitable, because anything which has a real and lasting value is always a gift from within. Man doesn’t grow from below upwards but from within outwards..”

“You don’t realize how much strength there is in silence. Aggression is usually only a disguise which conceals one’s weakness from oneself and from the world. Genuine and lasting strength consists in bearing things.”

“Can one predict how one’s heart will beat tomorrow? No, it’s not possible. The pen is only a seismograph pencil for the heart. It will register earthquakes, but can’t predict them.”

Discussing poetry vs. literature, “Poetry is a condensate, an essence. Literature is a relaxation, a means of pleasure which alleviates the unconscious life, a narcotic… Poetry is exactly the opposite. Poetry is an awakening [that tends towards prayer].”

“We live in an evil time, that is clear from the fact that nothing is called by its right name any more… It’s as if ideas had lost their kernel and were simply manipulated like empty nutshells… We live in a morass of corroding lies and illusions, in which terrible and monstrous things happen, which journalists report with amused objectivity and thus—without anyone noticing—trample on the lives of millions of people as is they were worthless insects.”

“Most men indeed don’t really live at all. They cling to life like little polyps to a coral reef. But in doing so men are far worse off than those primitive organisms. For them, there’s no firm barrier reef to ward off the breakers. They haven’t even a shell of their own to live in. All they can do is to emit an acid stream of bile, which leaves them even weaker and more helpless, because it divides them from their fellows.”

I’m always interested in how authors/philosophers overlap, so I loved what Kafka said: “Schopenhauer is an artist in language. That is the source of his thinking. For the language alone, one must not fail to read him.”

On whether people matter as individuals: “The level of the masses depends on the consciousness of individuals.”

“We are going through a hopeless decline. One look out of the window will show the world to you. Where are the people going? What do they want? We no longer recognize the metaphysical order of things. In spite of all the noise, everyone is dumb and isolated within himself. The interrelation of objective and personal values doesn’t function any more. We live not in a ruined but a bewildered world. Everything creaks and rattles like the rigging of an unseaworthy sailing ship. The misery [that you see] is only the surface expression of a much deeper distress.”

On Taylorism, the measurement of time and division of labor as enslavement of mankind: “Such a violent outrage can only end in enslavement to evil. It is inevitable. Time, the noblest and most essential element in all creative work, is conscripted into the net of corrupt business interests. Thereby not only creative work, but man himself, is polluted and humiliated. A Taylorized life is a terrible curse which will give rise to hunger and misery instead of the intended wealth and profit… One can say nothing. One can only scream, stammer, choke. The conveyor belt of life carries one somewhere—but one doesn’t know where. One is a thing, an object, rather than a living organism.”

“As a flood spreads wider and wider, the water becomes shallower and dirtier. The Revolution evaporates, and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy. The chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape.”

“Language clothes what is indestructible in us, a garment which survives us.”

“Lying demands the heat of passion. For that reason, it reveals more than it conceals. I am not capable of that. So for me there is only one hiding place—the truth.”

“Happiness does not depend on possessions. Happiness is a matter of attitude. That is to say: a happy man does not see the dark side of reality. His sense of life suppresses the gnawing woodworm of the consciousness of death. One forgets that instead of walking, one is falling. It’s as if one were drugged.”

“It’s a direct offense to be asked after one’s health. It’s as if one apple asked another apple: ‘How are the worms which the insect bites gave you?’ Or as if one blade of grass asked another: ‘How are you withering? How goes your esteemed decomposition?’… Inquiries about one’s health increase one’s consciousness of dying, to which as a sick man, I am particularly exposed.”

On his job at the Insurance Institution: “That is not an occupation, it is a form of decomposition. Every really active purposeful life, which completely fulfills a man, has the force and splendor of a flame. But what do I do? I sit in the office. It is a foul-smelling factory of pain, in which there is no sense of happiness.”

“The buttresses of human existence are collapsing…. Our consciousness is shrinking. Without noticing it, we are losing consciousness, without losing life… We all live as if each of us were a dictator. And thereby we sink into beggary.”

“My imagination is always breaking out of the four walls of my office. But that doesn’t make my horizon any wider. On the contrary, it contracts. And I with it. I’m just a bit of waste matter and not even that. I don’t fall under the wheels, but only into the cogs of the machine, a mere nothing in the glutinous bureaucracy of the Accident Insurance Institution.”

“The most valuable thing [about travel] is that one should be forced, even for a short time, to cast of the chains of one’s old habits—to present an inventory of the much depleted portfolio of one’s life. Wherever one goes, one only travels towards one’s own misunderstood nature.”

Dickens was one of Kafka’s favorite authors, “for a time the model for what I vainly aimed at.” What did he like about Dickens? “His mastery of the material world. His balance between the external and the internal. His masterly and yet completely unaffected representation of the interaction between the world and the I. The perfectly natural proportions of his work.”

“Flaubert’s diaries are very important and very interesting.”

“Let evil and unpleasantness pass quietly over you. Don not try to avoid them. On the contrary, observe them carefully. Let active understanding take the place of reflex irritation, and you will grow out of your trouble. Men can achieve greatness only by surmounting their own littleness. Patience is the master key to every situation. One must have sympathy for everything, surrender to everything, but at the same time remain patient and forbearing.”

Columbine

Dave Cullen unravels the myths and falsehoods that swirled around the 1999 school tragedy that ushered in a new era of terror for children. For those of us who haven’t followed the twists and turns over the years, you probably have the idea that the media pushed at the time, a couple of loners who were angry at the jocks and wanted to shoot them all. Well, no. Eric Harris was a certifiable psychopath who had been planning an even bigger bombing than McVeigh’s OKC event, and he pulled Dylan along with him, the poor depressive kid who had planned on killing himself before the event actually came to pass. (Evil Eric and Depressive Dylan is how I’m keeping them straight in my head).

Beyond the inner workings of Eric’s mind, we see things that set the plan in motion in the months leading up to April 20: E & D steal things from a van and get caught, have to do some sort of juvy probation program, start stockpiling weapons, but still find time to go to prom and pick up chicks. Yes, they had bowling class but that’s not what they did the day of, sorry Michael Moore. Meh, overall, unless you’re completely nerding out about gun control and just want to feed your frenzy.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

This story was more bonkers than I realized. Besides the willfully deceptive insistence that their fake product worked, there are seamy tales of hiding the bizarre relationship of Holmes and her much older, pudgy, Indian boyfriend from the board, the strained relationship of grandfather & grandson Schultz, the egg on the face of many pseudo-respectable figureheads on the board who were mesmerized by Holmes, a suicide prompted by impending grand jury testimony, and direct consequences to patients who had tests done by these fake pinprick sticks. Despite what seemed to be excellent reporting by Carreyrou, I can’t help feeling like there’s a bit of smacking of the lips, people enjoying this story a bit too much because of the meteoric rise and fall of this woman. Surely the Travises have participated in similar fraud? The investigative reporter must have mentioned Holmes’ preternatural deep voice over a dozen times. Bonus points for the fact that the fraud charges continue to pile up as everyone flips the pages of this book.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

Another one from Deep Focus’s Novel Approach to Cinema wherein writers deconstruct, analyze, roll around in the playpen of a particularly kitschy film (see previous post where Jonathan Lethem takes on They Live). This covers the hastily put together sequel to the classic Bad News Bears, a 1977 movie where the team hits the road to play in Houston’s now exploded Astrodome.

I’d have to say that the author’s father was my favorite part of the book, reaching through the telephone to dump doom and gloom on his son when he was looking for a personal recollection of how they dealt with the 1977 NYC blackout but instead his dad talks about the limits of capitalism and how the global economy had reached the end of its post-war boom in 1977: “The mid- to late-1970s were the beginning of an unstoppable decline.”

Wilker picks apart all the continuity mistakes, the new actors cast into roles that rolled over from the previous movie, the flimsiness of the sequel itself. I think this is a less interesting book than Lethem’s mostly due to the movie comparison; They Live is a commentary on what we’re dealing with now whereas Breaking Training takes us back to a simpler time where racism and misogyny were normal and kids could play unsupervised even to escape in a custom van on the road.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

This was a good book to read, living up to the reputation that proceeded it from the lit nerds on Twitter, and a great choice to devour during Pride month. It’s a mix of writing and life advice, a memoir about surviving some terrible things as a kid and as a gay writer, some musings on gardening, 9/11, “The Election” (and what’s the point of continuing in this world?), friends dying of AIDS, apartments rented across NYC, dressing in drag in SF for his first Halloween, the terrible jobs picked up along the way (waitering, cater-waitering, tarot card reading), teaching writing, handling success, and more.

I think I first came to Chee’s writing from his essay on having Annie Dillard as a teacher which is included in this collection. He distills her wisdom into a dozen instructions:

  1. Put all deaths, accidents, and diseases at the beginning.
  2. Don’t ever use the word “soul.”
  3. Never quote dialogue that you can summarize.
  4. Avoid describing crowd scenes (especially party scenes).
  5. Vivid writing comes from precise verbs. Bad verb choices bring adverbs.
  6. All action on the page happens in the verbs. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time.
  7. Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader. If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt.
  8. Avoid emotional language. She isn’t angry, she throws his clothes out the window. Be specific.
  9. The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat. If the beginning is not found around page four, it’s often found at the end. Sometimes if you switch your first and last page, you get a better result.
  10. Take a draft and delete all but the best sentences. Fill in what’s missing, making the rest reach for those best sentences.
  11. Count the verbs on a page; circle them, tally the count for each page and average them. Now see if you can increase the number of verbs per page. In each case, have you used the right verb? When did this happen in relation to this? And is that how you’ve described it?
  12. Go to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, and put your finger there. Create the space for yourself. Visualize it.

Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round: Commentaries on The Ring of the Nibelung

I grabbed this book from the stacks without any guidance, hoping it could serve to steady me through a week of performances of The Ring. In it, Lee lays out the synopsis of each opera scene by scene (in Das Rheingold) or Act by Act (in the other three longer operas). Then he muses on philosophy, art, Schopenhauer, Liszt, Wagner, etc.

Wagner got the story from bit here and there, a little bit of medieveal myth, Norse/German saga, early pagan sources mixed in with his thinking awakened by Schopenhauer’s Will and Representation. Some parts originated with him, like Alberich’s stealing of the Rhine’s gold. “The idea for the Ring, then, did not spring full-grown and armed, lke Athene from the brain of Zeus, from Wagner’s endlessly seething, outsized head.”

Thomas Carlyle called the Ring “our northern Iliad” and cautioned European to see its opposition to materialism as a way to save industrialized nations from the insane power grabbing wealth hoarding path they were on.

Famously, Wagner wrote the texts in reverse order, starting with the 3rd and then writing the 2nd and 1st to fill in the gaps of the story. He took five years to just write the words, publishing them in 1853, then began to set them to music which ends up totaling about fifteen hours.

The fundamental insight of the Ring, Lee argues, is that everything that exists has evolved from one primal substance and that man had to separate himself from nature by evolving into consciousness.

Lee claims that half an hour into Act II of Die Walküre the music shifts to become palpably pessimistic. It’s at this point that Wagner began obsessively reading cheery old Schopenhauer, and it affects the rest of the music. The world is an illusion. As Wagner writes Liszt, “the world is evil, fundamentally evil!”

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Myself, I wonder how feminists are able to sit through this non-stop worship of the patriarchy. Women being used as currency to pay for Valhalla’s building. Freia’s humiliation in the act of her body erased by the sacks of gold in exchange for her freedom (and by the way, why on earth does she seem to yearn for Fasolt, her captor who has just released her? Stockholm syndrome?). Why couldn’t Loge’s character be a woman? These are just some thoughts while listening to Das Rheingold last night after enduring the disparaging remarks of the huge elderly man squeezed into the seat next to me about how Wagner is pompous and how he prefers Italian and French operas. Great thing to hear right before settling in for fifteen hours of German opera! I’m excited about tonight’s Die Walküre but less enthused about Friday’s Siegfried after reading this book (Lee: “Long stretches of dialog fall in musical invention below the level of anything in the other parts of the cycle. More than two hours elapse before we hear a single female voice, and then we hear only an occasional chirp from the forest bird.”)