I have long admired, even loved, the French but I don’t think I ever quite understood why until I read Victor Hugo. Their commitment to liberty inspired two revolutions – America’s and their own – that created the best of the world we live in today. They are more responsible than anyone for the evolution of government from hereditary monarchy to a system that exists to serve its people, not the other way around.
Their culture, their devotion to beauty, their appreciation of romance inspires artists and lovers everywhere. Their lust is not simple desire, but desires, eternally mingled with playful affection. In addition to their reverence for fine wine, cheese, and bread, they have an appreciation for the peculiar wonders of femininity and masculinity that aren’t chained to rigid concepts of gender. Makeup, wigs, and high heels were always for men as well as women.
Love is not a rigid concept either. It flows. It mutates. It entices. It satisfies a hunger that even the finest meals cannot. In this passage from Les Miserables, Victor Hugo produces a fine reduction of the love between an old blind bishop and his adoring sister that could easily translate into the love between parent and child, or between lovers:
To have continually at your side a woman, a girl, a sister, a charming being, who is there because you need her, and because she cannot do without you, to know you are indispensable to someone necessary to you, to be able at all times to measure her affection by the degree of her presence that she gives you, and to say to yourself: She dedicates all her time to me, because I possess her whole love; to see the thought if not the face; to be sure of the fidelity of one being in a total eclipse of the world; to imagine the rustling of her dress as the rustling of wings; to hear her moving to and fro, going out, coming in, talking, singing, and to think that you are the cause of those steps, those words, that song; to show your personal attraction at every moment; to feel even more powerful as your infirmity increases; to become in darkness, and by reason of darkness, the star around which this angel gravitates; few joys can equal that. The supreme happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved; loved for ourselves – say rather, loved in spite of ourselves; this conviction the blind have. Are they deprived of anything? No. Light is not lost where love enters. And what a love! A love wholly founded in purity. There is no blindness where there is certainty. The soul gropes in search of a soul, and finds it. And that soul, found and proven, is a woman. A hand sustains you, it is hers; lips lightly touch your forehead, they are her lips; you hear breathing near you, it is she. To have her wholly, from her devotion to her pity, never to be left alone, to have that sweet shyness as your aid, to lean on that unbending reed, to touch Providence with your hands and be able to grasp it in your arms; God made palpable, what transport!
Going into the event, of course Joseph would have preferred success to failure but the final verdict on something like that can change over time. The important thing was for the event to take place. There was no way things could continue the way they were. There would be violence and possibly, even likely, war. If war came the judges would no longer be able to enforce the law.
Joseph was as prepared for the event as he would ever be, to the point that he was growing impatient, as if the longer he waited now, the longer the odds of success.
The judges had been set for a while. The weather looked clear for the foreseeable future. Nobody was getting any younger.
“Now is the time,” somebody whispered and that was all it took to start the event.
Joseph looked around in a sick panic until he saw Sara. He made a slow, determined path to her. Whatever the event was going to be, he wanted to go through it with her. “Now is the time,” he said.
“I heard,” she said.
The judges had heard too, so had mobilized to observe, record, analyze, and pass history’s first judgment on the event.
“I’ve been living in a dream,” he said.
“We all have,” she said.
The event spread from its epicenter at rate halfway between a crow and the speed of light. It enveloped Joseph and Sara in mid-breath.
Of all the people in the world who I don’t know personally, there is no person who has had a more profound and long-lasting impact on me than the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. His novel Slaughterhouse Five is one of the first novels I read and whenever I am asked to name my favorite book it is the first one that comes to mind. I found it, or it found me, at the time in my life when I was changing from a dependent boy to an independent man. I was becoming many things – atheist, pacifist, vegetarian, musician, writer, lover, pothead, drunk, and left-winger – that I still am today, more or less.
The latest addition to the Vonnegut library, and one them I am up to my eyeballs in, is called Letters. It is a fascinating glimpse into a life deeply marked by tragedy and humor. His mother committed suicide while he was home on leave before being shipped off to fight in the second world war, where he would become a POW. The thoughts he shares about these incidents with those closest to him, as well as reflections on his marriage, fatherhood, divorce, depression, infidelity, professional accomplishments, and the deaths of those he loves, including himself, make for reading as satisfying as his novels.
My understanding is that I am so odd emotionally and socially that I had better live alone for the rest of my days. During my last years with Jan, there was a formless anger in me which I could deal with only in solitude. Jane did not like it. There is no reason why she should. Nobody likes it. What is it? Well – if I had to guess, I would say that it was caused by a combination of bad chemicals in my bloodstream and the fact that my mother committed suicide. I have finally dealt with that suicide, by the way, in the book I just finished. My mother appears briefly at the end, but keeps her distance – because she is embarrassed by the suicide. And so she should be.
The great appeal of Vonnegut’s writing goes beyond his direct style that reads like a letter from an intimate friend. The simplicity of his humanist message, like Christ’s, makes the truth impossible to deny: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Christ’s came with the promise of heaven; Kurt’s did not.
I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without any expectation of reward or punishment after I’m dead.
Kurt Vonnegut, like me, was a white man. People who aren’t white, and a lot of us who are, want to hear new stories from other perspectives. Fair enough. We have hogged the cultural conversation for centuries. But the greatest artists in any field illuminate eternal truths that transcend gender, nationality, “race”/culture, sexuality, income level, and age. Finding and sharing those universal truths is the artist’s only job.
One of those truths is the great equalizer, Death. Kurt died in 2007, and left this thought behind for the end of his days:
If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.
If, instead of carving messages in stone at the end of our lives, we were given little gold plaques at the beginning, with a message for the lives ahead of us, this one from Uncle Kurt might be a good place to start:
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’
I was introduced to Tim Tomlinson’s writing through his poetry, which I recommend highly to those who love poetry, and even more highly to those who don’t. You might find your distaste for poems is relieved after reading a few of his. Tim’s poems often feel like fiction, so I thought I knew what to expect when I picked up This Is Not Happening To You. I did not.
These are not easy stories to read. They are raw, pungent, and brutal, but tinged with the humor and beauty that lurk in the most unlikely places. Ranging from 2 to 30 pages long, they don’t feel like stories so much as 19 glimpses through the slats of a fence viewed from a moving train – startling and better comprehended after some digestion.
Like an expert marksman, the author draws a bead on each protagonist and does not blink until after each story’s final word. The characters are drawn with such attention to detail that the reader will almost certainly recognize some of them from their own lives. Their circumstances can be so real that they transcend truth, as in this excerpt from The Motive for Metaphor:
“Six weeks later he moved to Los Angeles where the red-haired woman belonged to a repertory company that welcomed Maris. The New York edge, they told him, is what they’d been missing. Maris told them he was from Montana, which was half true, but he didn’t remember which half. You reach an age, he told them, when the lies become the truth and the truth, it never mattered anyway, at least not as much as you thought it did.”
These stories cover a wide range of narrow insights, from painfully intimate first-person confessions to third-person observations of murder and rape that are told with almost clinical detachment. Two of the stories included in this collection, including the title piece, are written in the second-person. This rarely used perspective offers a unique relationship to the reader/protagonist. These two paragraphs from the title story are a perfect illustration of the book’s charms and dangers: the first one reveals the dark underbelly that hides the even darker underbellies of addiction:
“Approaching the corner of Dauphine and Touro, you discern the sickening deposits of last night’s bacchanal percolating throatwards. Clutching the sticky trunk of a banana tree, you hurl. Violently, agonizingly, remedially. Even as you discharge, you think. You are thinking, you are a thought machine. It’s a juxtaposition this time that commands your ideation, the juxtaposition “pink-green vomit and brown-black Louisiana loam.” You are not certain if “loam” is the correct term, horticulturally speaking. You are not certain if horticulture is the correct term. You are certain that you don’t give a fuck because although your gastro-intestinal distress has been somewhat alleviated by the reverse peristalsis, your head now hurts worse. A bit of a pain in the Gulliver….And there in the pink-green, brown-black gloop of yester-eve you spy the barely dissolved, barely discolored Extra-Strength Tylenol caplets, the very thing that enabled this excursion. Two conflicting impulses obtain: disgust at the puke and the objects of relief that lie therein.”
This second excerpt captures the impossible dream of every struggling artist, and of some successful ones:
“Some persons, you reflect, many even – that vast horde of unstout souls, might, at this time, experience the first stirrings of remorse, depression, self-recrimination. Not you. This is not happening to you, it is happening to the Undiscovered Genius, the character you’ve created to play you in the tragi-comic farce you know as “your life.” The talents of this Undiscovered Genius have yet to manifest in any recognizable form that might ultimately be remunerated by an institution, a governing body, a critical faculty, a network or publishing house, or rewarded by an adoring public. Its nebulosity, you understand, is part of its genius: the suspense! What form will it finally take, you imagine the public you have yet to seduce wondering? As far as forms are concerned, you have already conceded painting; painting is a form for which you demonstrated little if any aptitude. This was evidenced early on and most acutely by the F you took, and deserved, in ninth-grade Studio Art, the year you gave painting the brush. Singing, dancing, the violin…these, too, have been purged from your schema. You are practicing the process of discovery through elimination, one step at a time.”
I have reached the conclusion, after many years of pondering, that there is no such thing as “good art” or “bad art.” A work of art either speaks to you or it doesn’t. The 19 stories in This Is Not Happening To You resonate with me to a depth that is almost uncomfortable. Their unavoidable intensity should ring true to anyone with some experience of life. This is writing that will not just grab but hold the attention of any reader interested in contemporary literature. If you’re not careful, you might even find some pieces of these stories popping up in your memory, as if they had been happening to you.
We live in an age of short attention spans and sound bytes, which would seem to suggest shallow imaginations but it might signify something very different: an increased ability to absorb more information in less time. One example of this optimistic interpretation is the fact that we are living in a golden age of poetry. Nothing quite distills the human experience to its essence as well as poetry.
James Baldwin didn’t write a lot of poetry – only one book of his poems was published in his lifetime – but his prose captures the complexity of existence with the same density as poetry. He once said that “every poet is an optimist. But on the way to that optimism ‘you have to reach a certain level of despair to deal with your life at all.’ ”
In his novel If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin suggests that if we are absorbing information more rapidly than our ancestors, we might come to regret it:
It doesn’t do to look too hard into this mystery, which is as far from being simple as it is from being safe. We don’t know enough about ourselves. I think it’s better to know that you don’t know, that way you can grow with the mystery as the mystery grows in you. But, these days, of course, everybody knows everything, that’s why so many people are lost.
There have always been some people who processed information at a higher capacity than others. James Baldwin was one. Here is the information he imagined being absorbed by a young woman on the subway:
I looked around the subway car. It was a little like the drawings I had seen of slave ships. Of course, they hadn’t had newspapers on the slave ships, hadn’t needed them yet; but, as concerned space (and also, perhaps, as concerned intention) the principle was exactly the same. A heavy man, smelling of hot sauce and toothpaste, breathed heavily into my face. It wasn’t his fault that he had to breathe, or that my face was there. His body pressed up against me, too, very hard, but this did not mean that he was thinking of rape, or thinking of me at all. He was probably wondering only – and this, dimly – how he was going to get through another day on the job. And he certainly did not see me.
There are two main characters in If Beale Street Could Talk. One is Fonny, an artist of a different type than Baldwin. This description of the sculptor’s process shows how all of art, like all of love, is one thing:
Fonny is working on the wood. It is a soft, brown wood, it stands on his worktable. He has decided to do a bust of me. The wall is covered with sketches. I am not here.
His tools are on the table. He walks around the wood, terrified. He does not want to touch it. He knows that he must. But does not want to defile the wood. He stares and stares, almost weeping. He wishes that the wood would speak to him; he is waiting for the wood to speak. Until it speaks, he cannot move. I am imprisoned somewhere in the silence of that wood, and so is he.
He picks up the chisel, he puts it down. He lights a cigarette, sits down on his work stool, stares, picks up the chisel again.
He puts it down, goes into the kitchen to pour himself a beer, comes back with the beer, sits down on the stool again, stares at the wood. The wood stares back at him.
“You cunt,” says Fonny.
Hi picks up the chisel again, and approaches the waiting wood. He touches it very lightly with his hand, he caresses it. He listens. He puts the chisel, teasingly, against it. The chisel begins to move. Fonny begins.
The other main character is the narrator, Tish. It might be a bit of a stretch from writer to sculptor, but nothing like a man trying to imagine how it feels to be a pregnant woman. Baldwin’s portrayal might be as close as a man’s ever gotten to accuracy in this scene with Tish and her sister:
I realize, for the first time, that the bar is loud. And I look around me. It’s actually a terrible place and I realize that the people here can only suppose that Ernestine and I are tired whores, or a Lesbian couple, or both. Well. We are certainly in it now, and it may get worse. It will, certainly – and now something almost as hard to catch as a whisper in a crowded place, as light and as definite as a spider’s web, strikes below my ribs, stunning and astonishing my heart – get worse. But that light tap, that kick, that signal, announces to me that what can get worse can get better. Yes. It will get worse. But the baby, turning for the first time in its incredible veil of water, announces its presence and claims me; tells me, in that instant, that what can get worse can get better; and that what can get better can get worse. In the meantime – forever – it is entirely up to me. The baby cannot get here without me. And, while I may have known this, in one way, a little while ago, now the baby knows it, and tells me that while it will certainly be worse, once it leaves the water, what gets worse can also get better. It will be in the water for a while yet: but it is preparing itself for a transformation. And so must I.
James Baldwin must have spent a lot of his time writing this novel in contemplation of pregnancy and of the differences between women and men.
Only a man can see in the face of a woman the girl she was. It is a secret which can be revealed only to a particular man, and, then only at his insistence. But men have no secrets, except from women, and never grow up in the way that women do. It is very much harder, and it takes much longer, for a man to grow up, and he could never do it at all without women. This is a mystery which can terrify and immobilize a woman, and it is always the key to her deepest distress. She must watch and guide, but he must lead, and he will always appear to be giving far more of his attention to his comrades than he is giving to her. But that noisy, outward openness of men with each other enables them to deal with the silence and secrecy of women, that silence and secrecy which contains the truth of a man, and releases it.
James Baldwin’s greatest talent is insight. As skilled as he was at his craft, his words were slaves to his thoughts and they revealed him: thoughtful and kind. In this scene, published the year he turned 50, his young couple, in the throes of first love, share a mean with their friend Daniel:
Fonny: chews on the rib, and watches me: and, in complete silence, without moving a muscle, we are laughing with each other. We are laughing for many reasons. We are joined together somewhere where no one can reach us, touch us, joined. We are happy, even, that we have food enough for Daniel, who eats peacefully, not knowing that we are laughing, but sensing that something wonderful has happened to us, which means that wonderful things happen, and that maybe something wonderful will happen to him. It’s wonderful, anyway, to be able to help a person to have that feeling.
Jack London is a writer best known for his stories of sled dogs during the Klondike Gold Rush. He writes with a unique and forcerful voice; so what if it’s a dog’s?
One of the great sins in the theology of modern literary criticism, right up there with sentimentality, is anthropomorphism. I kind of like it. To me, it is no worse to ascribe thoughts and feelings to fictional pets than fictional humans. I often find the behavior of other species more predictable and understandable than that of homo sapiens. Some things – hunger and desperation among them – are universal in the animal kingdom. This passage, showing the dog Buck’s behavioral change under a new, harsh environment, might sound like anthropomorphism run amok to some ears but it rings true to mine.
The first theft marked Buck as fit to survive in the hostile Northland environment. It marked his adaptability, his capacity to adjust himself to changing conditions, the lack of which would have meant swift and terrible death. It marked, further, the decay or going to pieces of his moral nature, a vain thing and a handicap in the ruthless struggle for existence. It was all well enough in the Southland, under the law of love and fellowship, to respect private property and personal feelings; but in the Northland, under the law of club and fang, whoso took such things into account was a fool, and in so far as he observed them he would fail to prosper.
The worst literary sins I see in The Call of the Wild are the horrendous accents:
‘Ah, my frien’s’ he said softly, ‘mebbe it mek you mad dog, dose many bites. Mebbe all mad dog, sacredam! Wot you t’ink, eh, Perrault?’
But there’s not a lot of dialogue and London makes up for the awkward accents with both his ideas and his presentation of them.
One of the concepts humans use to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the animal kingdom is instinct. We imagine behavior of “lower” life forms is dictated by a process without connection to the intellect. It’s bullshit of course. If instinct exists it is as hardwired into humans as it is in other species. We call it by loftier words like epigenetics or “the collective subconscious” but it exists.
Here is Buck coming to terms with the revelations of his collective subconscious:
And not only did he learn by experience, but instincts long dead became alive again. The domesticated generations fell from him. In vague ways he remembered back to the youth of the breed, to the time the wild dogs ranged in packs through the primeval forest and killed their meat as they ran it down. It was no task for him to learn to fight with cut and slash and the quick wolf snap. In this manner had fought forgotten ancestors. They quickened the old life within him, and the old tricks which they had stamped into the heredity of the breed were his tricks. They came to him without effort or discovery, as though they had been his always. And when, on the still cold nights, he pointed his nose at a star and howled long and wolflike, it was his ancestors, dead and dust, pointing nose at star and howling down the centuries and through him. And his cadences were their cadences, the cadences which voiced their woe and what to them was the meaning of the stillness, and the cold, and dark.
In the end, the currents that run in the bloodstreams of dog and man are not so different. The call Thoreau heard echoes in these furry ears:
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad on a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight. He was sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of Time. He was mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars and over the face of dead matter that did not move.