Bob Schwartz

Category: Literature

Don’t Play the Madman’s Game (Heart of Darkness)

In the face of current events in America, it is easy to say something heartfelt, progressive, outraged, rational and clever. I am tempted, but decline and leave that to other more articulate voices.

Instead, what I want to say right now is this: don’t play the madman’s game. Social and political situations are real and affect the lives of many, and we want to make things better, for ourselves and others. But loud and powerful lunatics can quickly draw us into their craziness, even as we think we are doing the right thing by criticizing, resisting and opposing. Before you venture into the heart of darkness, try to be sure of your own light.

Note: Some literary and film folks may recognize the reference to “heart of darkness.” It is the title of a Joseph Conrad novella, which was the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War movie Apocalypse Now. In unsettled times, in strange lands, charismatic and crazy leaders may emerge, not so much products of the environment as reflections of it, or at least part of it. Read or reread Heart of Darkness, watch or rewatch Apocalypse Now. “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”

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Merton on the desert: We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated.

From Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude:

The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.

The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself—that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.

This is, at least, the theory. But there is another factor that enters in. First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil, thrown out into the “wilderness of upper Egypt” to “wander in dry places.” Thirst drives man mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence—lost because he has immured himself in it and closed out everything else.

So the man who wanders into the desert to be himself must take care that he does not go mad and become the servant of the one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage….

The desert is the home of despair. And despair, now, is everywhere. Let us not think that our interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat. We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated. Despair is an abyss without bottom. Do not think to close it by consenting to it and trying to forget you have consented.

 

 

Barely Audible

Barely Audible

קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה

A still small voice
1 Kings 19:12

Hurricanes earthquakes
Fires in the brain
Awed but unable
To follow a thought
Or lose one.
Hear O hear
Minute stillness
Soft murmuring
Gentle whisper
Still small.

Note: “God will reveal himself not in storm or fire or the shaking of the mountain but in a small, barely audible sound. On Mount Carmel, God spoke through fire; here at Horeb, he speaks [to Elijah] in a more subtle language, for the deity is by no means limited to seismic manifestations.”
Ancient Israel: The Former Prophets, translation with commentary by Robert Alter

© Bob Schwartz 2017

World Book Day

Today, April 23, is designated World Book and Copyright Day by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization)—a day to promote reading, publishing and copyright. (In the UK, World Book Day is recognized on the first Thursday in March, but strangely World Book Night is tonight.)

UNESCO says:

World Book and Copyright Day is an opportunity to highlight the power of books to promote our vision of knowledge societies that are inclusive, pluralistic, equitable, open and participatory for all citizens.

The UN says:

It is on this date in 1616 that Cervantes, Shakespeare and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega all died. It is also the date of birth or death of other prominent authors, such as Maurice Druon, Haldor K.Laxness, Vladimir Nabokov, Josep Pla and Manuel Mejía Vallejo.

It was a natural choice for UNESCO’s General Conference, held in Paris in 1995, to pay a world-wide tribute to books and authors on this date, encouraging everyone, and in particular young people, to discover the pleasure of reading and gain a renewed respect for the irreplaceable contributions of those, who have furthered the social and cultural progress of humanity. With this in mind, UNESCO created the World Book and Copyright Day.

So today, read a book, write a book, publish and copyright a book. If you’ve already done any or all of those, start doing it again. Appreciate those who have done any of those things. And give a book to someone or read a book to someone, particularly to children.

Note: I know Cervantes, Shakespeare and Nabokov, but I admit that Garcilaso de la Vega, Maurice Druon, Haldor K. Laxness, Josep Pla and Manuel Mejía Vallejo are new to me. Among the things I learned is that Laxness received the 1955 Nobel Prize for Literature, and that George R.R. Martin (author of Game of Thrones) said “I think Druon is France’s best historical novelist since Alexandre Dumas, père.”

All of which serves as one more reminder of what great authors and books remain to be read, and as a reminder that World Book Day is a good time to get started.

Trump Van Winkle

The U.S. just dropped the biggest non-nuclear bomb ever on an ISIS target in Afghanistan.

The president apparently believes he can “defeat” ISIS and “win” the war in Afghanistan by dropping really big bombs. The biggest. Sad that no one thought of that before.

A number of times in world situations (and in domestic situations too) it appears that Trump has been completely absent from any discussion, debate or learning for decades. It doesn’t matter, since his opinion, at least until recently, has been based mostly on what he sees and hears on the news and on his emotional gut reaction. And as with most uninformed gut reactions, subject to change at a moment’s notice

Or maybe he’s been asleep. Like Rip Van Winkle, who slept for at least 20 years, only to wake up and discover a strange but more satisfactory world. Maybe one in which he is suddenly president.

Unpublished Book Jacket Copy for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (circa 1972)

Not for the first time (see here and here) I recommend reading some Hunter S. Thompson as a tonic for the times. Strange times then, strange times now. Like always maybe, only more so. (Obviously, the overlong pages of copy never made it to the book jacket.)


So now, in closing, I want to thank everybody who helped me put this happy work of fiction together. Names are not necessary here; they know who they are—and in this foul era of Nixon, that knowledge and private laughter is probably the best we can hope for. The line between martyrdom and stupidity depends on a certain kind of tension in the body politic—but that line disappeared, in America, at the trial of the “Chicago 7/8,” and there is no point in kidding ourselves, now, about Who Has the Power.

In a nation ruled by swine, all pigs are upward-mobile—and the rest of us are fucked until we can put our acts together: Not necessarily to Win, but mainly to keep from Losing Completely. We owe that to ourselves and our crippled self-image as something better than a nation of panicked sheep … but we owe it especially to our children, who will have to live with our loss and all its long-term consequences. I don’t want my son asking me, in 1984, why his friends are calling me a “Good German.”…

The Swine are gearing down for a serious workout this time around. Four more years of Nixon means four more years of John Mitchell—and four more years of Mitchell means another decade or more of bureaucratic fascism that will be so entrenched, by 1976, that nobody will feel up to fighting it. We will feel too old by then, too beaten, and by then even the Myth of the Road will be dead—if only for lack of exercise. There will not be any wild-eyed, dope-sucking anarchists driving around the country in fireapple red convertibles if Nixon wins again in ’72….

So much, then, for The Road—and for the last possibilities of running amok in Las Vegas & living to tell the tale. But maybe we won’t really miss it. Maybe Law & Order is really the best way to go, after all.

Yeah … maybe so, and if that’s the way it happens … well, at least I’ll know I was there, neck deep in the madness, before the deal went down, and I got so high and wild that I felt like a two-ton Manta Ray jumping all the way across the Bay of Bengal.

It was a good way to go, and I recommend it highly—at least for those who can stand the trip. And for those who can’t, or won’t, there is not much else to say. Not now, and certainly not by me, or Raoul Duke either. Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas marks the end of an era … and now, on this fantastic Indian summer morning in the Rockies, I want to leave this noisy black machine and sit naked on my porch for a while, in the sun.

From The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson

Surrealism: An Appropriate Response to Now

Sometime during the news today, the word surreal came to mind. Again.

Andre Breton, one of the founders of the Surrealist art movement in the 1920s, defined it this way:

SURREALISM, n. Pure psychic automatism, by which it is intended to express, verbally, in writing, or by other means, the real process of thought. Thought’s dictation, in the absence of all control exercised by the reason and outside all aesthetic or moral preoccupations.

I think that now and then I may be turning to surrealist art and literature—not to explain things, just because it seems like an appropriate response to now. To things that turn up in the news, for example.

Anyway, surrealism may find its way into these posts once in a while. A work of art, a bit of literature.

Above you will see Juan Miro’s Potato (1928). When you recognize that as possibly/certainly a potato/the potato/no potato/one potato/many potatoes/the idea of potato, you will be on your way to understanding what is going on. In the news, for example. Probably better than me.

Patti Smith

This weekend I experienced Patti Smith performing her iconic first album Horses (1975), along with other songs. She’s been on tour with this for a while, so you can read plenty of reviews elsewhere, as you can read about the significance of Horses and Patti Smith in the evolution of modern pop music.

If this was going to be a review, I’d mention her gifts as a writer, poet, musician, performer, woman, and human being, and how her infectious energy and presence aren’t just wondrous for an artist who is now 70—it’s wondrous for anybody.

I’d mention how awesomely cool she is, write about her on-stage patter. Some of it planned (after the first songs of the album, she showed the album jacket and explained that she had just performed Side A, and now we were going to flip to Side B, put it on the turntable, put the arm down, put the needle in the groove). Some of it spontaneous (a fan threw a T-shirt on stage, which she thought was a Jerry Seinfeld shirt, leading her to wonder why anyone would do that, tell her only Jerry Seinfeld personal story, and then realize that without her glasses on, she hadn’t seen that it was a picture of Jerry Garcia, leading her to tell her only personal story about Garcia, which was funny.)

But this isn’t a review. I just want to say that it was one of the best concerts I have ever been to and I’ve been to plenty of great ones. Here’s why:

Patti Smith is authentic, committed, open-hearted, honest, gentle, wild, loving and fierce. When you add that to her talent, it is totally inspiring. Still thinking about it days later inspiring. Not that most of us are or can be quite that talented, or as authentic, committed, open-hearted, honest, gentle, wild, loving or fierce, but that we can aspire to be all that. And when we aspire, we can be artists too.

Patti Smith also believes, performs and preaches the power of rock and roll, not a gospel as current as it once was, but no less true. At the end of the concert, she strapped on her electric guitar, and played some crazy, Hendrix-style riffs, wailing to heaven. And then she held up her guitar: This is a weapon, she said, a weapon of love.

A Creative Pseudonymous Psychological Analysis and Case Study of a World Leader

I have been thinking about Freud. As one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis, he and others published case studies that anonymized, and some would say took creative liberties with, their patients. One could say that analysis as practiced, developed and publicized by Freud and others is in fact a creative process.

Artists outside clinical psychology have also enjoyed the freedom to create and play—in the best sense—in the field of psychology and analysis. There are hundreds of examples: the paintings of Dali, the movies of Hitchcock, and so many more. (In some of these, Freud himself even plays a prominent role. The novelist D. M. Thomas in 1981 published The White Hotel, an extraordinary and unforgettable melding of Freud’s analyzing a patient with the surreality of the Holocaust. As a side note, The White Hotel, which has fascinated movie producers for decades, is now considered the ultimate great novel that will never actually be filmable or filmed.)

In this vein, what if professionals and creatives both were to devise case studies—entirely veiled and pseudonymous—of someone presently powerful and famous? Might that be revealing in ways that other profiles might not? Might such studies fill in the blanks in a personal portrait that is still quite mysterious and confounding?

Above all, might these case studies be true art? As I’ve written before, in the right hands, poetry and all the other arts can indeed be insurgent.

Thoreau: Life Without Principle

thoreau

Please read a little Henry David Thoreau if you have the chance. Maybe no American writer has made a plainer case for living a life of truth, a life of principle, a life that matters.

You may know of his most famous works.

There is Walden, about his choosing to live for a time in the woods, within nature and by himself (“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”) There is Civil Disobedience, about determining how, when and why defying the powers that be is a conscientious imperative.

There is much more Thoreau beyond these (see Walden and Other Writings). Following are some brief excerpts from Life Without Principle, published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863.


In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while…. [Note: If you substitute “greatest number of followers” for “greatest number of letters”, you will see just how timely and relevant this is today.]

I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish,—to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself….

Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not….

We may well be ashamed to tell what things we have read or heard in our day. I do not know why my news should be so trivial,—considering what one’s dreams and expectations are, why the developments should be so paltry. The news we hear, for the most part, is not news to our genius. It is the stalest repetition….

Really to see the sun rise or go down every day, so to relate ourselves to a universal fact, would preserve us sane forever. Nations! What are nations? Tartars, and Huns, and Chinamen! Like insects, they swarm. The historian strives in vain to make them memorable. It is for want of a man that there are so many men. It is individuals that populate the world….

It requires more than a day’s devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.