Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking through bare rooms over my head, opening and closing doors. What could he be looking for in an empty house? What could he possibly need there in heaven? Does he remember his earth, his birthplace set to torches? His love for me feels like spilled water running back to its vessel.
At this hour, what is dead is restless and what is living is burning.
Someone tell him he should sleep now.
My father keeps a light on by our bed and readies for our journey. He mends ten holes in the knees of five pairs of boy’s pants. His love for me is like his sewing: various colors and too much thread, the stitching uneven, But the needle pierces clean through with each stroke of his hand.
And this hour, what is dead is worried and what is living is fugitive.
Someone tell him he should sleep now.
God, that old furnace, keeps talking with his mouth of teeth, a beard stained at feasts, and his breath of gasoline, airplane, human ash. His love for me feels like fire, feels like doves, feels like river-water.
At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind and helpless. While the Lord lives.
Someone tell the Lord to leave me alone. I’ve had enough of his love that feels like burning and flight and running away.
There’s something wrong about the extent to which property in our society has become a financial abstraction. Houses become mortgages become mortgage-backed securities that are insured with credit default swaps that are repackaged as CDOs and synthetic CDOs and on and on until it all collapses under the weight of its unreality and the paper in upon itself until, finally, there is just a house. An empty house.
We need to take a look at these things. A short list for your consideration:
Making money through investment (dividends and capital gains) is prejudiced in the American tax code over, say, running ones own business. Why?
Since the 1980s companies have been able to take a tax write off on the interest of their debts which has become so popular that in business schools taxes a referred to as “seepage.” Why?
Extremely opaque credit reporting agencies have a huge effect on what you do and how you live your life. The values they promote are not necessarily in society’s interest and were, in the last bubble, used to actively subvert it. Why?
As a society, we give away money to banks. Their managers give that same money to themselves or gamble with it, typically both, distorting our society in their image. Why?
By why I mean, why do we allow it? Government is what creates the playing field. We, in theory, are the government, or at least it’s sovereign animation. So why don’t we do anything about it? No one has been able to articulate a coherent alternative to the current culture of pillaging. Marx is dead. This is a problem.
Back in New York, I thought I’d write things about living here, that no one ever talks about because they’re too clever. Instead I’ve been posting pictures from past trips to foreign lands and smatterings of doughy philosophy. The reason is that I don’t really live in New York any more, not primarily. I live at Columbia University - a beautiful bubble - and Brooklyn - a bubbly beauty. The city continues on all around me, but I’ve stopped taking note of it. Until I see my new roommate home, half crazed from lack of sleep and bizarre gigs just to keep body and soul and ambition together, stomping about at 6 a.m. getting ready for work in the city. Then I remember that this place still eats its young.
New York is where the dreams are made, and the place, in turn, is made by them. Reflexivity, they call that in finance. And I don’t know what the else one could call the whole Sex in the City phenomenon, which seems to have convinced tens of thousands of young Midwestern women that they too could come and be miserable and glamorous in New York. They too could have a gay friend. Meet Big. Sleep around. That’s the strangest bit about most New York dreams, they’re self-evidently miserable - but they’re so well polished, so articulate, so confrontationally sexy, that’s it’s difficult to tell.
I came to New York because I was curious. And because it sticks out among American cities like a thumb begging to be sucked. I wanted to be a reporter. Over the course of half a decade or so, that’s what I became. And then I quit. The people around me were living the dream, but so many colleagues were quitting, or complaining, or thanking God that their spouse (husband) had a real job that I began to see a major reconsideration was in order. The work to get there had been rewarding, but the rewards of the goal itself were paltry. And unlike, say, the ante-bellum South, New York as a social entity has little interest in maintaining a self-reproducing labor force.
All of which isn’t to say I don’t love New York or even the Sex in the City girls. (Of course that’s the old dream. We’re probably in for a wave of Lady Gagas.) Sure they ruined Manhattan, but young people can’t be expected to have any better dreams than what their society bothers to give them. You can’t blame them for trying to transcend, if not the world, then themselves, their families, their high-school sweethearts and college crushes, to be absorbed into some sort of Manolo-Blahnik Ultimate. For Chrissake they want to DO something with their lives!
Most people just blunder from accident to accident and dig up a meaning on the way. Others set out intentionally to make the trip, just see what all the fuss is about. In Brooklyn at least, enough seekers have settled that something is seeming to come from it. We had a house guest last week, all full of creative vim, about to make the move. And I salute him. In a city built on dreams, I sometimes think, we just need enough of the right dreamers.
(Central Park Idyll from Kat’s Labor Day Picnic, September 2010.)
In the middle of logic class, Prof. Varzi started talking about Musil and The Man Without Qualities: "You see he didn’t want to do anything, because to do something limits your options, it means you can’t do anything else! But really he leads quite a full rich life, for that, just allowing nothing to make due for something. And I was intrigued by this at the time." Two thousand pages for some other time?
I give you now Professor Twist, A conscientious scientist. Trustees exclaimed, “He never bungles!” And sent him off to distant jungles. Camped on a tropic riverside, One day he missed his loving bride. She had, the guide informed him later Been eaten by an alligator. Profesor Twist could not but smile. “You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”
In the diamond mines in South Africa, the black miners would come back at the end of the day covered in grit laden with shatter remnants of their sparkling quarry. Were they rich, yes. They had “diamonds On the soles Of their shoes.”
Martin and I spend a lot of time together, often just like this, as he tells me a story over dinner and a bottle of wine. Last night he told me a story, and, what’s more, he was certain it was a Southern story.
"My mentor in Chicago, Hugh Edwards, was from Kentucky.
So he knew all those Poets (I had just told him of my somewhat disturbing discovery that I am essentially Southern Conservative of the Agrarian School: Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate, Faulkner and the like) including Tate. And Tate had told him this story, a story about his mother and his sister’s son. So I get this second hand, but Hugh had it from Tate.
So, there was this boy, who had been raised without religion and he was running wild. He couldn’t sit still in school and he was a hellion about the neighborhood, causing all kinds of trouble.
His grandmother decided it might have been a flaw in his early humanist education. So one day, when he was over, she decided to sit him down and tell him the story of Jesus.
So they sat in the parlor on the couch and he listened very attentively as she told him the whole story from beginning to end. Afterwards he went up to his room.
She was quite satisfied, until she heard a commotion above.
“It’s my belief that these dreams are yours as well.
The only difference between me and you is that I can articulate them.
And that is what poetry or painting or literature or film making is all about.
It’s as simple as that.
And I, I make films because I have not learned anything else
And know I can do it to a certain degree.
And it is my duty.
Because this might be the inner calamity of what we are
And we have to articulate ourselves
Otherwise we might as well be cows in the field.”—
Werner Herzog, again, from the Burden of Dreams. I agree.
Taking a close look at what is around us, There is a sort of a harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate violence and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, We in comparison to that enormous articulation, We only sound and look like badly pronounced half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel a cheap novel. And we have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the stars up here in the sky look like a mess. There is no real harmony in the Universe. We have to get used to the idea that there is no real harmony as we have concieved it. But when I say this, I say this all full of admiration of the jungle. It is not that I hate it. I love it. I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgement.
Werner Herzog in the film Burden of Dreams about the making of Fitzcarraldo, 1982 (Photo is Tikal Temple 8, just before dawn, from the Guatemala excursion.)
Rishikesh is split by the Ganges, each clinging to the rocky face of the Himalayas, where the river splits them wide. Looking toward the gates of the mountains, the left hand bank is mostly secular, hotels and houses above a sheer cliff that juts from the river’s rocky bank. The right hand bank is where the Yogis are, where the Beatles studied with Mia Farrow and Donovan (and wrote the White Album). There are temples and altars and hordes of young seekers, many of them lately of the Israeli military, beautiful young women with hard black eyes and round, bunchy hips and shock-thin men with a drug bent eye.
I stayed in a hostel up the cliff on the left bank, with a book I’d picked up in New Delhi and had been meaning to read for a while: Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. I remember being quite taken with it at first, all barreling along through architecture and New York and mystic whatnots and envy and ignorant fucks versus the strong and bold. Hard to argue with that sort of thing really, at least when you’re 22.
One afternoon, I was sitting in the courtyard overlooking the Ganges when an older Indian gentleman sat down across from me at the picnic table. He noted what I was reading.
“The Fountainhead all of the young Indian men of my generation read The Fountainhead,” he said. I hadn’t realized it was such an international phenomenon.
He was a hydraulic engineer, one of those who had been instrumental in implementing India’s “green revolution,” the reordering of agriculture that allowed the subcontinent to support more than a billion people, a great Promethean project.
He asked me what I thought of the book.
"Well, I’d been enjoying it," I said. "And it’s hard to argue with, but I feel like there’s something missing. Though I can’t say exactly what."
"Yes!" he said. "Something is missing! How extraordinary that you have seen it. So young, it took us thirty years to see that there was something she missed. Something broader and more human, a different way of ordering ourselves without the complete destruction of what came before.
"I had worried about the world. I come up here once a year, for two weeks, from my home outside of Delhi, to clear my mind. There’s something in the air up here. And I had come worried, full of troubles. But it does me good to hear you question this.
"I think there is something special in your generation. In your generation of Americans. I think the hope of the world rests in you, because you are just coming to the point, the stage of development where you will be able to see a way forward that doesn’t subscribe to this, mess." He gestured at the slope below us, covered with plastic bags, water bottles and other assorted trash. "Your generation gives me hope."
As time has gone by, it’s become easier to articulate what’s wrong with Ayn Rand, not so easy to keep the faith he had articulated. It was a strange thing for him to say, but if I could, I would thank him for it. Because I too would like to believe.
I think you’ve created a (possibly false) hierarchy of choices/options. I’m assuming we’re rolling on the assumption that choice exists/is a “real thing” only inasmuch as it is action. And then every action (and inaction) is a choice. There are an unimaginable, vast array…
Imagine a plane. While on the plane one can do many things. subdivide time, multiply space, reduce snack items to myriad crumbs, read a book one letter at a time: Limitless micro options.
But who cares? Meanwhile, the plane hurtles along at 700 miles per hour. Looking out the window you can feel that power and see all the little people and places below. You can imagine, that as a person living in the future, defying the ancient tyranny of space and time by rocketing through the stratosphere, you have limitless power! You could have gone anywhere with that little wad of cash you spent to board this plane. Landed at many airports. Seen many countries. Tasted many foods. Fallen in love. Changed everything. Limitless macro options.
But you didn’t; you just did the one thing.
While you’re in the air it’s easy to imagine that you could go anywhere:But you can’t. Even the man at the sticks (who has a union job, a shrinking salary, a discontented wife, a mortgage, and, maybe, a gun) can’t.
Unless you storm the cockpit, you’re just along for the ride.
And if you do you’ll end up dead (if he does), in federal prison, on the lam in Mexico or maybe the Great North Woods. So you might as well talk to the yacht salesman sitting next to you or try to flirt with the stewardess. That’s all I’m saying.
The rain had a little something to say to me last night on the way from the pool: The greatest lie people tell people, tell themselves, tell each other, the most damaging is that we have unlimited options. We don’t. At any moment our options are tiny, withing shouting or fist distance. And even looking toward out toward the future, if you look at yourself, really look, I think you’ll see there aren’t an endless array of outcomes there either. Which isn’t to say people don’t have choices, just not as many as we’d like. The biggest choice we have, really is not between any multiplicity of options at all. It’s very stark and simple. Between doing something and doing nothing with these limited real things in front of us. Nothing lets the things in front of us slide, lets the illusion of limitlessness ramble on. Doing something feels like it’s limiting our options. After all, you’ve only chosen one. But it’s the only choice worth making. (h/t Gregory Bodkin)
“Thanks to you great Shakespeare!, you who can say everything, everything, everything exactly as it is… [but] a poet buys this power of words to utter all the grim secrets of others at the cost of a little secret he himself cannot utter.”—
Soren Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling. I’ve decided to return to the theater.
“Your Legislators appear to forget that their country is inhabited by an independent yeomanry, who ought to be regarded as the most valuable class of citizens, and not sacrificed to the avidity of merchants, who are citizens of the world, and who know no country but their coffers of gold.”—
Letters from a Farmer of Philadelphia, 1791, from the Seligman Collection at Columbia University. Back to school.
“Every nation, every art has its hypocrisy. The world is fed with a little truth and a great many lies. The human mind is feeble: only rarely can it accommodate unalloyed truth; its religion, its morality, its politics, its poets, its artists, must all be presented to it enveloped in falsehoods. These lies are adapted as suits the mentality of each nation: they vary from one to the other. But these very falsehoods make it so difficult for nations to understand one another, and so easy for them to develop hatred towards one another. Truth is the same for all of us: but every nation has its own lie, and to this it applies the word idealism. Every creature therein breathes it from birth to death. It becomes a fact of life–there are only a few men of genius who can break free from it through heroic moments of crisis, when they are alone in the free world of their thoughts.”—Romain Rolland, Jean-Christophe, vol. 4: La Révolte (1905)(S.H. transl.)
There is another sky, Ever serene and fair, And there is another sunshine, Though it be darkness there; Never mind faded forests, Austin, Never mind silent fields - Here is a little forest, Whose leaf is ever green; Here is a brighter garden, Where not a frost has been; In its unfading flowers I hear the bright bee hum: Prithee, my brother, Into my garden come!
–Emily Dickinson, There is Another Sky first published in Poems by Emily Dickinson, First Series (1890).
(My favorite blog, for a long time, ever since it reminded me that people could be smarter than what I was used to, is Scott Horton’s No Comment. I reblogged this from him. Photo taken in a rain storm in Kowloon in 2002.)
Years ago I threw parties for a living. The biggest and last one was here, at Pacha a four-story nightclub on West 46th St. down by the water. I recall that I spent about $60,000 on it. I had dresses made and wings and curtains and videos. I hired 100 staff including a man whose job was to airbrush the staff’s bodies and a team of six little people who were to be bartenders but insisted on being referred to as artists. I hired a food scientist to make cotton candy taste like gin. I Hired a famous ice sculptor to build a mini-bar for little people to serve mini-drinks. I had lights built and installed. But all that was nothing. I was working with a Cirque du Soleil event producer who flew in a contortionist from Spain just for a happy ending, jack hammered an drilled bolts in walls for a flying angel rig and hired Jim Henson’s puppet team to rig a ceiling full of disembodied dancing feet. Thursday night, I went to a (terrible) Columbia University party across the street, at another club and saw the building, a postcard from another life. You take it all with you.
“The problem is that once the rules of art are debunked, and once the unpleasant realities the irony diagnoses are revealed and diagnosed, “then” what do we do? … Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage.”—