Bob Schwartz

Category: Literature

Richard Brautigan

Do you have $10, or whatever that is in your local currency? Buy a copy of this collection of three books by Richard Brautigan (Trout Fishing in America/The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster/In Watermelon Sugar). Published in 1967 and 1968, one is poetry, the other two are prose so lyrical that they might as well be.

The Poetry Foundation offers a lengthy summary of critical views about Brautigan, including:

Certainly Brautigan’s work, perhaps due in part to his association with West Coast youth movements, generated a multitude of critical comment. Robert Novak wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography that “Brautigan is commonly seen as the bridge between the Beat Movement of the 1950s and the youth revolution of the 1960s.” A so-called guru of the sixties counterculture, Brautigan wrote of nature, life, and emotion; his unique imagination provided the unusual settings for his themes. Critics frequently compared his work to that of such writers as Thoreau, Hemingway, Barthelme, and Twain.

If you’re one who doesn’t need to hear what others think, just try these books. But you might want to know how the Brautigan story ends:

Brautigan’s critical and commercial success peaked with Trout Fishing in America and began to decline following the 1971 publication of The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966. Brautigan’s close friend novelist Tom McGuane succinctly summarized the collapse of Brautigan’s career with the observation that “when the 1960’s ended, he was the baby thrown out with the bath water.” Brautigan continued writing throughout the 1970’s, producing such books as Sombrero Fallout and Dreaming of Babylon: A Private Eye Novel 1942, but friends of the author reported he had grown increasingly withdrawn and depressed over his fading career. He apparently committed suicide in September of 1984, but his body was not discovered until October 25th of that year.

There’s a kind of serious creative playfulness that is gravity and yet is anti-gravity. This is that.


The Galilee Hitch-Hiker
Part 1

Baudelaire was
driving a Model A
across Galilee.
He picked up a
hitch-hiker named
Jesus who had
been standing among
a school of fish,
feeding them
pieces of bread.
“Where are you
going?” asked
Jesus, getting
into the front
seat.
“Anywhere, anywhere
out of this world!”
shouted
Baudelaire.
“I’ll go with you
as far as
Golgotha,”
said Jesus.
“I have a
concession
at the carnival
there, and I
must not be
late.”

The American Hotel
Part 2

Baudelaire was sitting
in a doorway with a wino
on San Francisco’s skidrow.
The wino was a million
years old and could remember
dinosaurs.
Baudelaire and the wino
were drinking Petri Muscatel.
“One must always be drunk,”
said Baudelaire.
“I live in the American Hotel,”
said the wino. “And I can
remember dinosaurs.”
“Be you drunken ceaselessly,”
said Baudelaire.

1939
Part 3

Baudelaire used to come
to our house and watch
me grind coffee.
That was in 1939
and we lived in the slums
of Tacoma.
My mother would put
the coffee beans in the grinder.
I was a child
and would turn the handle,
pretending that it was
a hurdy-gurdy,
and Baudelaire would pretend
that he was a monkey,
hopping up and down
and holding out
a tin cup.

The Flowerburgers
Part 4

Baudelaire opened
up a hamburger stand
in San Francisco,
but he put flowers
between the buns.
People would come in
and say, “Give me a
hamburger with plenty
of onions on it.”
Baudelaire would give
them a flowerburger
instead and the people
would say, “What kind
of a hamburger stand
is this?”

The Hour of Eternity
Part 5

“The Chinese
read the time
in the eyes
of cats,”
said Baudelaire
and went into
a jewelry store
on Market Street.
He came out
a few moments
later carrying
a twenty-one
jewel Siamese
cat that he
wore on the
end of a
golden chain.

Salvador Dali
Part 6

“Are you
or aren’t you
going to eat
your soup,
you bloody old
cloud merchant?”
Jeanne Duval
shouted,
hitting Baudelaire
on the back
as he sat
daydreaming
out the window.
Baudelaire was
startled.
Then he laughed
like hell,
waving his spoon
in the air
like a wand
changing the room
into a painting
by Salvador
Dali, changing
the room
into a painting
by Van Gogh.

A Baseball Game
Part 7

Baudelaire went
to a baseball game
and bought a hot dog
and lit up a pipe
of opium.
The New York Yankees
were playing
the Detroit Tigers.
In the fourth inning
an angel committed
suicide by jumping
off a low cloud.
The angel landed
on second base,
causing the
whole infield
to crack like
a huge mirror.
The game was
called on
account of
fear.

Advertisements

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.”

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.