If you feel like the current conditions of political life in our country are pretty much a matter of the greater number of us being in thrall to a much smaller number, whose will to do bad acts seems to grow perceptibly, you’re not alone. Sometimes it feels like the situation of our physical selves being in thrall (and certainly at threat of finding ourselves in such a condition) to microbes (or even smaller… viruses are very much smaller than bacteria, for example) about which little seems to be able to be done.
But there’s a significant difference, however compelling the analogy and however helpless and bereft you may feel. Like the body’s own immune system, of which, let’s face it, we remain substantially unaware as well, we have it in ourselves to take action against even a sea of troubles.
We can vote at the very absolute least.
Remarkably little of the electorate feel the power of their right to vote. Despair unhinges us. Disgust, frustration, anger, ennui, whatever the erosive demotivators we suffer, there seems less and less hope left in this most fundamental of American rights. But it remains the key to collective empowerment. In part this is what we mean when we speak of democracy, and we mean it with the connotations of good, and ethical, and right. Individually, we have, each of us, our one small bit of command, of entitlement. This is what substantiates our agency as citizens. The power of the ballot.
Enough votes at once will effect change. We’ve seen it in the lifetime of the current generation. Changes in administration. Changes in the majorities of Congress. Changes in laws, including at the highest, the constitutional level.
Inherently our system still works, even as we plod on, seemingly limping and bleeding from what has come to seem not merely a chronic, but a continuous assault on our fundamental humanitarian principles, uncertain of not if, but when, our sense of belief will give out completely and we submit, if not surrender, utterly. All it takes is a vote. And as the actions of key leaders among those who hold power over our behavior as a people and a nation seem to portend that we will crash on in defiance of other of the world’s sovereignties, in defiance of nature itself—utterly despite the collective will, at the deepest level, of the greater percentage of our entirety as a nation—the power of that vote we still have seems to have less and less reason to enact it effectively. But repeatedly, we have proven as an electorate, that this is not so.
We still have, remarkably, another chance. In the most primitive of assessments, it’s down to basics. Almost a Manichean choice of a duality facing us. Possibly as simple as right and wrong.
Gratefully, the choice is even simpler, because there is only one wrong choice. And many right ones, with nuances and more blatant differences for sure, but any one is right in this electoral challenge. Just don’t give up. Just don’t vote wrong. Just vote.
And a little more red…
Blue blue blue blue
Blue blue blue blue
Bumbum bum bumbumbum
Color and light
There’s only color and light
Yellow and white
Just blue and yellow and white
Look at the air, miss
See what I mean?
No, look over there, miss
That’s done with green…
Conjoined with orange…
—Stephen Sondheim, “Color and Light”
In that great mythology of the self with which we burden our subconscious, we are like the heroes of an ancient Greek epic. Adorning ourselves with self-appointed epithets of valor, during the course of our lives we accrue certain attributes like the swift-footed Achilles, or the brave Ulysses of Homeric tales. Not to suggest that these qualities dog us top-of-mind – or in any way consciously – during the flow of our quotidian.
In moments of stress, perhaps in moments, now so rare, of quiet contemplation, we may comfort ourselves with thoughts of the more sterling of our virtues. Or, depending on the nature of the moment, we may suddenly find ourselves confronting our baser degraded nature: the less noble of what we shamefully confess as our faults to ourselves, if no one else: those things we insist we shall correct before we die. For sure we all mean to reconfigure our selves in the course of time into better and better creatures.
In the meantime, as best we can, we joust with our enemies, and wrestle our demons. And maybe we, in those moments of the secret contortions of doubt and that rare sense of worthlessness that threatens to topple our sense of balance we falter. When the equilibrium that permits us always to move forward on the currents of existence wobbles, we feel that somehow our fate has been mysteriously, but above all incomprehensibly, cast into the depths.
In now ancient habits of perception we speak of fortune “not smiling upon us” at those times. And the chief challenge is somehow to find the way, a method, or a strategy, a tactic, some deft set of moves, that will resurrect our spirits and set us once again confidently on our usual path forward. If not, strictly speaking, upward as well. Of course it is.
To the ancients in fact, as part of the cosmology, fortune was not an abstraction, formless and indistinct. They imagined a god or, often in the case of Fortune, as a goddess – and not some inchoate force or tendency of the universe, but a being purely existential, and embodied, like many other incomprehensible forces with no corporeality or substance in our world of solids and flesh, of reality. Perhaps it was because of the very fickle nature of the ways and acts of Fortune, raising some up even as she cast down others, that ascribed this indubitably unfair gendered identity on this capricious deity. But whatever the reason, and however unreasonable its ascription, there was no doubting the actions she imposed on humans.
The trope was powerful and basic and universal. Fortune puts us on a great wheel, and turns it. The ferris of Fortune. So, with each revolution, some were raised up, to view the landscapes of life, if not of the firmament as well, from the highest vantage, even as others were lowered, down and down, perhaps to tumble off the wheel on the hard surface of a too too solid earth. With such a view of human prospects at the hands of such a mercurial deity, philosophy evolved with a predictable tone or cast.
How often do we believe we will not merely tempt the fates, but overcome or outsmart them – if not, more humbly, somehow merely even out the odds? Some regimen, or regular habits of being, any actions other than the unwavering and unresisting submission to the vagaries of existence seemed likelier to be redemptive. And, indeed, it seemed to work for some. Except when it didn’t.
An old saying, in one form or another, has persisted since those days of antiquity. The Greeks and Romans embraced the notion of defiance. “Fortune favors the bold,” is how it goes, or the “brave” or the “strong.” You get the gist. Words to that effect are what Pliny the Elder is recorded to have said to his nephew, also Pliny – Pliny the Younger – as the older gent set sail in his fleet to inquire into this Vesuvius business; eruptions, destruction. He was helping a friend. He lost his life in the undertaking.
We call that irony. However even if we do not call it that, there is an inescapable fact, not ineluctable for each of us with regard to ups and downs, except that we are all doomed eventually to prove our mortality. The fact is, irrespective of how we choose to conduct ourselves, fortune will reign as it will. And the virtues of boldness or resolution, or strength or courage may have value, but not by way of altering the unpredictability of the specific course of our lives.
In 2002 my wife Linda and I managed to realize a dream we shared over the course of the first ten years of the life we had agreed to have together. We bought a medieval maison de village in a tiny hilltop hamlet deep in rural Provence. In February of that year we accepted title in the office of a French official, a special kind of lawyer, called a notaire. We proceeded from the legalities immediately to begin to furnish our new second abode. We visited again in the warmer months, for a longer stay, and commissioned some needed repairs and remodeling to be done, and returned home to spend an uneventful fall and a chilly winter in Boston.
In January of the new year, she was diagnosed with a relatively rare form of breast cancer, hard to identify and almost indistinguishable from other common ailments that are eminently treatable. It can only be diagnosed by biopsy, and by the time taking such measures seems prudent it is usually well advanced, and requires radical treatment. Inflammatory Breast Cancer, so-called because it masquerades as an infection, it turns out is one of the most aggressive forms of the disease, and is indiscriminate as to age of the victim.
Nine months later, after chemotherapy, radical surgery, a recuperative holiday in our beloved French village, and then a course of radiation, Linda was well enough to return to work, which she did. Then, in October, during a routine colonoscopy another cancer was discovered, completely unrelated and requiring the initiation of a separate course of treatment. Because the cancer had already metastasized to her liver, she was scheduled for two more major surgeries – the first, highly successful, prior to the start of chemotherapy, and the second, seemingly successful at first. Its complications persisted through the remainder of her life. Why did she get two cancers, unrelated? According to her oncologist (well, one of them, and he a world-famous clinician and researcher of breast cancer), “bad luck.” No more. No less.
We endured together, for five and a half years. I cooked our meals. I cleaned her constantly draining wound from the liver surgery (which cost her ⅔ of that organ, but prolonged her life). I injected. I swabbed. I bandaged. I took voluminous notes of every consultation. I kept the world of her numerous friends and relatives abreast of her condition. I arranged our travel. And did all the driving, across town, or across Provence, as we made numerous trips. And, to our surprise only once, the first time we asked, her doctors always assented to the idea of another visit to our serene paradise.
Linda worked until she couldn’t. Her employers, IBM, were magnanimous and accommodating. Money was never a problem. Insurance was never a problem. There was never a problem, except for what stared us in the face every morning when we woke up, and it was the same world with the same prospects. And there was no sense there was anything bold, or brave, or strong, or noble, least of all, about how we conducted our lives.
Early on, she had said, I am still me (and she was, minus some parts in time, and a couple of times, minus her luxuriant hair, which always grew back, though greyer each time, and curly or straight as the whims of the hair gods willed it). I am not going to be defined by a disease. And she wasn’t. Two weeks before she died, she was out until one in the morning, because a friend, the widow of a colleague, a subordinate of hers who had died of cancer a year before, had scored tickets to the playoffs for the Celtics. And would she like to go? Are you kidding? She tried not to wake me up when she got home. Almost made it.
We went to France right afterward. And yes, these latter trips required the hire of a wheel chair (fauteuil roulant) on the other side, but she eschewed its use unless absolutely necessary. Usually walking up the stubborn hills on which the whole province is built.
On the day we were packing to leave for Nice, to take the first leg of our usual route back to Boston, her legs wouldn’t support her, and she collapsed to the floor, very slowly. Twice. “That’s funny,” she said, “that’s never happened before.” I helped her into our bed, freshly made, in anticipation of some future return, and I called the EMTs.
In France, ambulances under such circumstances arrive with a doctor on the team, and they made short work of determining she had to be transported to the local hospital. I followed them in our rental car. She was admitted. And I drove on to Nice to drop off a friend who had been visiting with us, to assist somehow, though never clearly how, and who was nervous about making her connection to Italy. I drove back to Draguignan, and saw Linda, now admitted to a private room in the ICU connected to the emergency service. She was sitting up and eating apple sauce, and very tired. I said I’d go home and change and eat something, and return to spend some more time with her. But she demurred and said there wasn’t much point, as she was going to crash for sure, and she’d see me in the morning. I kissed her and said good night, and that was the last time I saw her conscious.
The hospital woke me the next morning at 6am and informed me her organs were failing and to come back to the hospital as soon as it was convenient. I spent that day, contending with my halting French, trying to help resolve the question as to whether she was sufficiently stable to be medivaced back to Boston. Suffice it to say she wasn’t. The physicians speaking for the insurance company wouldn’t have it.
I slept in her room that night, trying fitfully actually to sleep in two chairs pulled together seat cushion to seat cushion, with my ears stoppered with ear pods and the Beatles faintly playing, mainly drowned out by her struggle to breathe. She died with me alone in the room with her at 5:45 the next morning.
I wasn’t able to return until a week later, her cremated remains installed in a place of honor in our little house, and utter uncertainty about anything leaving my mind blank, and my path forward equally uncertain. All I knew about Linda, after speaking long distance to her oncologist at Dana-Farber was that it was amazing she kept going on her own steam for all but the last two days of her life. “Her body was totally full of cancer for the last two years,” he said. All they could do, which they did, was keep it at bay, and keep her out of pain. For those last few weeks, she walked around with a crack in her pelvis, because the bones had been so weakened by radiation they couldn’t stand up to the cancer in them.
When I got back home, my life and attention were completely filled with the administrative demands of tending to her affairs and her estate, and my own meager business matters.
Tending to myself was easy enough. I had long since learned, during her long decline, that unless she was at home, I never saw the need to prepare and cook meals for myself. And I lost the habit of doing so. It was simply less demanding either not to eat, or to satisfy the rare pangs of hunger by going out. I was a ten minute walk from some superb places to eat in our neighborhood of Harvard Square. And there were bars, which sometimes held a greater allure for the usual reasons.
When even the presence of other people – because after all, I was not particularly disposed to be much of a social animal – I simply stayed home and slowly enough depleted our well-provisioned stock of liquor. Not wanting to neglect my needs altogether, I would make a quick run to that paradise of hipster victuals – a super-size Whole Foods. The greatest treasure among its indulgences for those who they were more than happy literally to cater to? The sushi bar, manned, it seemed, from the moment the store opened to the time they shut off the lights, by diminutive chefs always bowed over their bamboo mats. Roll after roll.
I preferred sushi, or, even better, sashimi. It was light. It was minimal. It was the most direct intake of the food I preferred, and seemed to need. Protein. In a form that provided one step or two away from live flesh. From life itself, or so it seemed in my philosophical purview, stripped away as it was to the barest existential facts.
But more than anything else, what appealed to me, what was compelling, was the Tao of it. What was stripped away more than anything else, as in so much of the Japanese esthetic entailing food, its preparation, and its presentation, were all nonessentials. The food was raw and edible with the fingers. Utensils? None, though if you wanted to be that fastidious, nothing is more fundamental than chopsticks. And the food appeared before you, declaring some innate order, and yet bespeaking the most sophisticated if minimalistic of intentionality by way of the design of it. Everything squared up. Everything on a single plane. Spatial relations all orthogonal.
It forces order on the patterns of your mind as it scrambles to think, and escape the sheer desire to emote. All animal, you are reminded you are also human. Brutish, you are reminded that social custom and basic austere order are the the foundation of an organizing principle. That where death imposes decay and chaos, life will prevail if only through the imposition of order and balance, of symmetry, of design, and composition.
And in all of these reside the only hope for an ultimate and prevailing sense of peace.
And I discovered, that indeed, with all of that, and a shot of 90 proof whiskey, and a Tsing Tao beer to wash down the fish, I had the first inkling of a sense that rebirth is possible. And though I wasn’t quite up, I no longer despaired of being down.
Normalization is a problem of the past, not the present
I have said repeatedly, usually, I admit, to no one in particular, from the first time I heard the usage as a warning, usually screamed (figuratively) in my (virtual) face from a (virtual) hysteric in that inevitable nearly impossible place, all too real, for all its virtuality, Facebook: “Don’t talk about normalizing Trump!” There’s no danger there. It too is impossible. It’s not entirely what the word means anyway.
What we have to fear is an adjustment and periodic readjustment in our perception of all that has come before, which was never normal at the time (and the farther back you go, the farther goes one’s sense of the craziness of the errant behavior). As Corey Robin points out in his essay “Forget About It” in the current Harper’s [paywall], though it’s here, if you want to take a shot at getting access (see below), it’s our constant reassessment upwards of the assault on our notion of normal during the administrations of Richard Nixon, and then later George W. Bush – “Hey those guys weren’t so bad, after all, were they?” – that is the real danger. And it’s a danger not because of the infamous reality distortion field identified by Steve Jobs in one of his P.T. Barnum moments. We’re not likely to accept anything that happens today, that is, any time at all during the tenure of the current incumbent of the White House, will register as normal, not to anyone with any vestige of sanity. It’s the extent to which by comparison some future rough beast (to use that particular, but miserably and perpetually apt trope) may make today’s beast look not half bad to our future selves. Or whoever has managed to replace us.
In short, the dangers of normalization are not to the future or even the present. We like to think we are always capable of vigilance, resistance, and clear-headedness. The danger, because we are never sufficiently in possession of those qualities, is to the past, where we think some pastoral and salubrious notion of normal resides. After all, it’s to that instinct that Trump so scurrilously adverts with his now patent cynicism of a slogan about what we can make of America. What we are making of it, because we suffer the distortions of sensibility that alter our notion of what is normal. And as we seek our way back to some semblance of it, we discover, as we have done repeatedly, that we have lost our way. Possibly irrevocably.
‘“There can be an appalling complexity to innocence,” the political scientist Louis Hartz observed in his classic 1955 study The Liberal Tradition in America, “especially if your point of departure is guilt.” That nexus of guilelessness and guilt, depth and innocence, is usually [Philip] Roth country, but in this instance we’ll have to take the master’s tools and use them ourselves.’ — Corey Robin
Book jacket of re-issued essay collection, first published in 1969.
Having myself always been an inveterate notebook keeper, but with no substantive knowledge of the habits of other notebook keepers, whom I’ve known in a meaningful way since I was in college, I have no idea why others do so. Or, consequently, what they take notes of, how they take them, of what they consist rhetorically, or why they think they keep a notebook in the first place. This is not true of Joan Didion.
There’s this essay (which I am sure I read back when it was published in the late 1960s, but of which I have no recollection) from the redoubtable Ms. Didion. What’s clear are two things, one not very important, because it’s personal, and the other which seems to point to maybe a significant insight.
The unimportant thing is, it’s clear that Joan Didion and I have different feelings on the subject, and different motivations. It’s not as clear that she is solid on recognizing that maybe her natural note-taking instincts are not universal ones.
The more important thing is what seems to emerge, from her generalized thoughts about the specific kinds of notes Joan Didion takes and why she thinks she takes them (because there’s not much here demonstrating the content of specific notes; and what there is, as she indicates is true even for her, is that sometimes notes can be so vague as to require massive reconstruction as to the factual underpinnings, the actual event that may have inspired taking a note, and the probative value in other contexts, like a deposition, of the documentation). What seems to emerge, specifically for me, is that maybe there is the foundation of some kind of taxonomy here.
Maybe, I’m thinking, there are those of us more subconsciously led by an urge eventually (and only speculatively and provisionally) to be writers of what has come to be called creative nonfiction. And there are those equally internally disposed, but with different objectives in mind, if only vaguely and possibly wholly inchoate, to write what is called fiction. I’ll only interject here, as some are coming to believe (and why would we expect otherwise in this age of things becoming indeterminate and not so distinct, or, if you prefer the term, queer – presumably as opposed to definitive, precise, replicable, evidentiary, and “normal”): as if there really is a difference ultimately (and that qualification is _so_ important) between creative nonfiction and fiction.
Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. …
Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss. …
So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.
I would tell you what I do, but I am not Joan Didion, who had ample reason I surmise in retrospect even then to believe that there were people who cared to know, separate and apart from what issued from those notes she kept.
It’s very attractive. Right up my gadget alley, and just barely, at 600 bucks, within the scope of my nearly impulsive acquisitiveness. In other words, I’m surprised I haven’t sprung, having only learned of this device as long as an hour ago, because of an ad, God help me, on Facebook. The only rueful feelings I have are connected with wondering why I wasn’t contacted by any means with some notice as to the usual crowd-source spiel and pre-order ritual. This would apparently have saved about 40%.
I like paper and ink. The attestation simply enough is that I keep collecting writing instruments, including fountain pens and artisanal pencils (often in dozens at a time). I now own them in quantities that likely—with consultation of actuarial tables and an analysis of my actual usage needed to confirm—will never be depleted. I have myriad paper tablets mainly in a size I will readily, and do, carry around with me, usually in the left rear pocket of my trousers. I have smaller ones, for occasional notes and for when I am, for some reason, not carrying my current usual go-to notebook in that pocket. I have larger ones, of the octavo size that most people think of when they think of personal notebooks (approximately the template for the iPad mini).
Frankly the latter are preferable, even if I write in the same size characters, usually in pen and ink, which I do in the smaller index card sized notebooks that fit in my jeans unobtrusively. I can fit that much more in a line of writing, and that much more on a page. It’s easier to make the larger notebook lie flat, and easier to draw on the page for that rare occasion that I’m inspired to sketch something rather than try to capture the thought in words.
I have just spent about 20 minutes taking in the promotional copy from the vendor that developed and produced this new product, and I’ve read some of the review literature in the gadget press. It all sounds quite propitious, except for the usual and expected delays in manufacture and fulfillment that I have experienced first-hand with all the crowd-sourced products that I have bought, a long list of which I am still waiting for; products that were a lot simpler technologically than this tablet.
I gather that had I been alerted somehow when they began their campaign for funding and had elected to be an early adopter (and it’s quite likely, given my history and the price discount, that I would have), I would be very very frustrated by now. I infer that their first orders from supporters were collected in November 2016. Which means they are now a full year into the first release product cycle. According to the vendor’s online blog, they still haven’t shipped to all of their early adopters.
This makes me wary, more than anything else, about ordering the device now, this early in the product life. It seems to do what is promised. There are no words of disparagement or about shortcomings in performance in the reviews of the product’s actual performance. It seems to hit all the right marks in terms of design in all senses, from their graphic design of marketing materials, to the industrial design of the product, to the technology (insofar as I am versed in it well enough to understand it) under the hood.
However, there may be real world performance failure, and it will be another gadget cluttering up my office and studio that simply stopped being useful through literal lack of support from the vendor (a small startup in this case, which means if they stop supporting the product it would probably have been because of a failure in the marketplace altogether for the company). I have a small helter-skelter museum of such ultimate product failures – at least one of them, the Apple Newton, having gone through billions in development and marketing, through several iterations. A number of them have quite viable companies’ brands on them, like Apple, or Amazon, or Logitech, and some of companies now defunct or absorbed into some larger entity only to disappear like a single microbe in a biome in some conglomerate corporate gut, like Palm. Many of these obsolete devices still work, at least a few with only the least encouragement, like a new battery or a recharge. Some are dead in the water. All equally useless, and each of them out-of-fate, their functionality displaced by more reliable, better designed, functioning up-to-date replacements.
There is also the resistance I feel, knowing myself as a consumer, both with my idiosyncratic quirks and my behaviors as a typical consumer with a routine honed through years, if not decades, of employing technological tools (caveat: I consider a graphite pencil on paper a technology) to get done what I have to get done. Some products I’ve acquired with a great sense of potentiality and promise at the start, only to be disappointed after a fair game try at introducing this new “tool” into the mix of things I use in the course of a day. And I am a gadget freak so there are a good number of them. Some products have become an integral part of some routine. I have now gone through four generations of the Apple iPad, and two generations of the Apple iPad Mini. I have owned six successive generations of the Apple iPhone, starting with the first one ten years ago this past summer. And I don’t regret (not very much) the thousands I’ve spent on simply these associated “mobile” gadegts. For one, almost none of these devices, when replaced with the latest spiffy version, brimming with technological advances, has gone into disuse, or even into my involuntary museum of such devices. They have been passed along to eager and grateful users not so particular about deploying only the latest, lowest latency gizmos.
Even with lesser, or at least less glamorous, products, like the variety of cell phones I owned before adopting the iPhone as my standard, I passed along the obsolescent products so they could be used productively by needier consumers with some want for the technology. Several phones were donated to organizations, including the local police, who gave such phones in working condition to, for example, women at risk. The graduation from flip- to iPhone was made a great deal easier by the generosity of a friend who bought my first iPhone for me as a gift, allegedly to signify his appreciation of my “coolness” with what was then the coolest gadget out there. He had done the same with the iPod, the first one, six years earlier, which I used for a couple of years, and retired for a more sleek, smaller, higher capacity model, though it still worked perfectly; as it did when I traded it in at the Apple Store several years after that to defray the cost of what ultimately proved to be the last version of this product with a mechanical hard drive before Apple concluded that the technology had to be declared extinct.
It has only been in rare instances that I have taken a product out of use that was still working as required. I am loathe to dispose into the waste stream any product with hard technology (plastics, rare elements, electronic circuitry, toxic chemicals) whether it is working or not. If it does still work, I try to find a new home. But there are few. Using services like Craig’s List and eBay, which I’ve tried, is only asking for more trouble and aggravation – or at least a much higher chance of it, and the monetary return would be negligible and not worth the effort. And most of the devices, gadgets, and gizmos that I have hung onto do work, or did when taken out of service. This phenomenon, of functional obsolescence, is one of the huge deficits of life in a first world country, especially the United States.
The fact is, however, that the entire planet is awash in the detritus of last year’s tech. Spanking new and shiny and enviable only months ago, a product that has been superceded in the marketplace, either with a competitive brand’s product, or a newer model from the same parent company, or an altogether new technology, quickly loses its luster and seeming usefulness. It hasn’t, of course, but we are many of us hostage to having bought into the mythology of the ways in which progress manifests itself. Or the reflexive, and I think self-protective, systems of establishing a sense of credible self-worth.
I don’t bother myself with the vagaries of philosophical inquiry about the ways in which so many of us are equally prey to having our values skewed, or possibly even utterly subverted, so that we end up in the habit of spending more time fulfilling the need created within us by innumerable cultural forces – being materialistic, being acquisitive, being in terrible need of signifying our sense of worth to ourselves with a constant stream of gifts, and those largely items that have been rooted in the apparent esteem, deservedly or not being no matter, of our peers. And we concomitantly spend that much less time being mindful of what comes with existence in this life in this world on this planet largely for free. Until that turning away becomes not just quotidian habit, but a disposition of mind.
I don’t bother myself overmuch about these things, not because I think I have vanquished that grasping, acquisitive, covetous urge within me characteristic of this stage of the Anthropocene – that is, not to make something grandiose out of this. Rather, I am sufficiently mindful (and if I have to, I force myself to be, consciously; silently it’s true, but this is not the kind of thing to make any noise about—if I did with any regularity, and poked you in the ribs before I did so, it would be a giveaway that in fact my objectives were somewhere other than in the sphere of ethics; I am humbled by my own sense of humility and, uh, self-abnegation) that I can keep myself in check, and not run away with any facet of my personality that derives from genes that determine one’s role as a Master of the Universe. This means I will, among other things, and I am trying hard not to trivialize this, but these are real signifiers that real people actually do, never own a brand-new (or even a “pre-owned” – god, I love that phrase) Patek Philippe watch. Their clever ad people assure us, anyway, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” I will never own a fleet of cars, or even a two-stall stable of a Tesla (for town) and a hybrid Range Rover (for those forays to the north country). I could arguably do so, without putting a significant dent in my ability to ensure a diet of healthful, good-tasting foods for myself and my little family, or necessitating a move from our spacious and airy, but hardly grandiose, home to a more efficient condo downtown, along with an annual travel pass on public transportation vehicles. And I wouldn’t do the latter, not because I feel I live a fretful encumbered existence as the epicenter of an object-cluttered way of life. Much of the detritus with which the house is burdened (in its less accessible storage areas), especially as I described the abandoned technological flotsam in the foregoing narrative of my life with tech-y gadgets, is there because the world does not care to make it easy to dispose of such artifacts of our quest to escape the insuperable inevitability of our mortality. Climate change, after all—if we are to believe the thrust of belief of a third of the U.S. electorate—is definitely not in large part the result of human behavior.
Yes, it can all be left in barrels for the Lower Merion Township Refuse and Recycling trucks to carry away, as they do, virtually without fail, every week of the year. But then it becomes the burden – and no less poisonous or detrimental to succeeding generations – of a much wider expanse of my fellow citizenry, silently and with only their tacit permission, given that I am bound only by my conscience. Curiously, I have no confidence that my neighbors, equally, that is, no better or worse, are bound equally by theirs.
So, in the end, I’ll take a pass on this latest toy, reMarkable™ as it alleges to be. It may be like paper, but it isn’t paper. eInk® is a brilliant achievement, but it’s not ink. Life-like is not a choice I care to make yet.
[The original dateline of this post is August 15, 2007; I would have been in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I lived at the time and had been for 22 years at that point. I have changed only one word, the penultimate one, to bring this up to date.]
It used to be schoolboys, well, my schoolmates—boys and girls—knew. Back in the 50s and 60s, they knew how to understand diplomatic language, as far as the news brought it to our ears. Somehow we had absorbed a lesson in rhetoric for our time.
Between the Cold War—largely pitting the U.S. against the Soviet Union—and the war of words that was its chief manifestation, the air (and the newspapers and the broadcast media—no ‘net back then, no Web, no blogosphere) was filled with reports about meetings between diplomats from both camps. Walter Cronkite did not have to catch his breath to explain what “full and frank” discussions meant, as the most high ranking of the government representatives present engaged the press after sessions had ended. It meant long boring talk fests between white men in suits that boiled down in plain language to, “We mainly told each other, ‘You’re basically full of shit.'” After the United States (France, Great Britain, Portugal, and a few other sovereign camp followers) “opened” Japan in the middle of the nineteenth century, these discussions could and did increasingly involve men, also in suits, whose complexions were various shades of what Caucasians took to calling “yellow,” until this became politically untenable.
There were hot components of that odd encompassing state of armed conflict, “Cold War,” an Orwellian oxymoron universally applied wherein men (few women then) actually shot weapons at and bombed and gassed and napalmed each other. In fact, we were at perpetual war—we of course still are, or why would I even mention this? in which we found ourselves with unseen enemies, save for low resolution monochromatic moving images on our primitive tv screens. These episodes, prolonged or sporadic, famously occurred between principals of one side and surrogates of the other, or, at a lower order of implementation of world policy, between surrogates of each side, with no principal involvement. Unless the latter was covert, of course, which meant that the public could not learn of it, by law of the land, until 40 or 50 years had passed after the termination of the specific unpleasantness, or the present presidential regime had ended. Unlike the meaning of “full and frank,” however, we were in the dark on this one. In those days we still believed in rules of engagement—another tortuous linguistic formulation, generally applied when humans were engaged, in fact, in the simple objective of making the other guy dead. And the rules said, we civilized nations would not do nasty things covertly to any other nation, and we trusted in God that such was the case.
We didn’t stop to think about the basic absurdity of agreeing to the limits of the methods we would use when engaged hand-to-hand, sometimes literally, in a fight to the death, assuming one of us captured one of you. There was no Emily Post of the Rules of Engagement, but there were such rules, and in those days, we didn’t think about it either (about the absurdity), and we carried our disgraceful detachment further by putting faith in our government that, when it spoke to us, it told the truth. Sometimes couched in the language of diplomacy, but, as I started to say, we understood what that meant.
Every word was studied, for as much as the English language is capable of nuance, the spare vocabulary of diplomacy, spare because specialized, a language that nations could agree was the appropriate way for all—even enemies—to muffle the truth, without abandoning it altogether. As long as we were talking, we were less likely to bomb the bejesus out of each other wholesale. Sometimes we went retail, but there were always trends, never sustained styles that created a legacy. Somehow, World War II early on became the last good war. Which leaves a lot of bad wars, before and since.
And what Americans came to realize, yet again, is that they don’t like war. It doesn’t matter to which specific realization I may be referring, we came to that conclusion repeatedly for as long as I’ve been alive, which is three-score and ten. Years.
So far, it isn’t my friends. My friends, you lot there on Facebook, seem to be mainly a pretty rational group most of the time. No, it’s friends of friends and others my friends follow that they might “like” a post of. The result of that, as we all know, is that in the strange code of conduct of Facebook, I am privileged to see not only that you liked something that someone or some entity elected to post in their dimly lit little corner of the chativerse, but I can see what was said, and I can see what their friends and admirers said in response.
When a tragedy occurs of the like of the still unfolding horrible terrorist attack in Paris on Friday evening, some resonance, some harmonic, vibrates, it seems, across the Facebook Community (that’s in caps, because Facebook consider that we all, all one-and-a-half billion of us all told, constitute a community, and that we have “Standards,” which they define and uphold). What I have seen in response to the attacks, in addition to the outpouring of concern and horror is the response to the response. The immediate result of seeing the apparently prevalent wave of sympathetic and empathetic expressions we elect to share with one another—out of whatever humane urge that motivates us to do so, if only to relieve our own nascent feelings of revulsion or fear or plain garden variety sadness by sharing them—is a seemingly instantaneous counternarrative.
There are, apparently, in every crowd certain individuals who, demonstrably shallow and not troubled either by a need, or possibly not impeded by the ability to act on such a need, to think at all about what comes off the ends of their fingertips, or their thumbs before they commit their sentiments to cyberspace.
According to this counternarrative, every utterance and act of sympathy—it’s become popular, in an adoption of a graphic meme of solidarity, to cover our profile photos with a wash of colored stripes (it was rainbow hued when the Supreme Court upheld gay marriage as a right according to the law of the land; it’s currently tri-color in keeping with the national flag and colors of France)—is an act of hypocrisy. Why? Because we privileged inhabitants of Facebook-land clearly, on no greater probative evidence than the size of the response from all over the FB network immediately in reaction to receiving news of the tragedy, are only concerned when the victims are white—an argument amply reinforced if the suspected (and now declared) perpetrators are, in the squirm-worthy taxonomy of current geopolitics and religion-based vilification, not white, purely by way of being, allegedly and ostensibly, followers of the Prophet.
We have not shown sufficient and equal concern, in force of hand-wringing, colors unfurled, anguish expressed in the fragile coherent English of expressing grief and shock, for other downtrodden sufferers on this orb of suffering as we circle the sun. What about the Lebanese suicide bombers in Beirut two days previous? What about the now seemingly endless stream of refugees strewn across the roadways from the Middle East to the gates of Europe? What about the dead of Sudan? Or Ethiopia? The repressed hordes of Myanmar, Indonesia, Tibet…
One of the diminishing list of virtues of Facebook is that it allows you to peek at whatever information any member of the Community elects to share with the public at large. In most instances you at least get to see a sampling of what they deem worthy of sharing with their dear ones, not so dear ones, passing acquaintances, and the ether-bound flotsam who penetrate the boundary of our friendship checkpoint somehow. I’ll not even comment, save for this, about the hapless individuals who seek merit by collecting as many friends as possible. Ostensibly this is a sign of the validity of the only shred of express proof that their counternarratives about our wretched bias—we unhappy privileged whiteys who favor our own as we assert our privilege and exceptional worth—and that is, as they fervently assert, we are one world, and one race and one people.
Well, my wont is pretty much to exercise little to no interest whatsoever in most of the friends of my friends—not because of any misanthropy, or lack of sociability; I’d simply rather wait for a proper introduction, and these are thin on the ground, shall we say? Nevertheless with the latest spate, more of a dribble, to be honest, but even a few drops of acid are corrosive, of the kind of self-righteous counternarrative posts I decry here, I have been lured into a peek at the profile pages of the perpetrators.
What have I found? Though hardly a sound forensic foundation for argument, it nevertheless suffices me to be able to conclude that, within the confines of this self-selecting gated universe of fellow Facebookers, there is nary a mention on the pages of these individuals concerning the plight of their brethren in suffering and heartache, of any skin tint, white, yellow, brown, black or the myriad permutations represented by the earth’s total population. So much for one world. So much for empathy.
What possibly the world likes even less than someone who habitually wears his or heart on his sleeve, is when the same individual, so accoutered, uses the threadbare garb of shallow sentiment as the uniform of a self-appointed scold.
I know where my heart and my feelings and my empathy lies, and I am never chary of expressing my censure when there is any evidence anywhere in the world of malice, injustice, or harm perpetrated on any victim, especially the innocent ones. I beseech my friends who are so quick to approve the easy sentiments of the self-righteous to consider that by encouraging the circulation of these empty thoughts, readily donned, and just as readily cast off, as the mood changes and the parade passes, you are cheapening the value of the humanity of those who care deeply and have only so much capacity for grief.
We realize our destinies clearly, and consciously, only in retrospect. As we review our behavior and our deliberative actions, especially long afterwards and truly best recollected in tranquility, we may not end up with poetry. However even the most prosaic of lives will reveal the pattern we express in a likely unconscious way, most of the time. Too often, the conscious sense that “I am destined for greatness (to be President, a jazz saxophonist, a world-famous painter…)” is really altering the pattern after the garment is cut and sewn. It also, of course, in terms of how the rest of the world must alter itself to your presumed destiny, is at the root of the Chinese adage about being careful what you wish for. Too many wishes are transmuted, after being accomplished, as instances of destiny. They aren’t. It’s actually natural to aim high. The destiny is inherent in sticking to what we choose to do. How many of us aim low, and later ascribe the inevitable success to destiny? This too isn’t destiny. It’s comedy, though of a different sort than that which finds us laughing, if only into our hands, at the king.
The American literary critic and scholar, R.P. Blackmur, famously wrote of “Language as Gesture.” What I would suggest (and what I see borne out not only in extended conversations with French natives online in forums for precisely that purpose, but in my experience in general—among the general American public, and even in more selective environments, such as American academic centers) is that our European brethren, the French exhibiting a particular aptitude and finesse, are far more serious and analytical about gesture as language. There is, no doubt, meaning in actions, bodily postures, and yes, gestures, that sometimes belie even the words that issue from the lips of those making such motions.
In the United States, the study of these things take on the quality of parlor game or, at its most serious, perhaps the phenomenon of armchair psychiatry, wherein anyone can bestow upon himself the bona fides of accurate renditions of the meaning of “body language,” “sub-text,” and “non-verbal cues…” in short the entire apparatus of wholly ignorant speculation of the “hidden meaning” of what are mainly empty and unconscious actions. Americans, being the largely mindless, unthinking, spontaneous and effusive louts we are in the usual stereotype give no heed to the cultural norms of other collective civilized entities, be they other countries, other religions (than Protestantism), or merely other formalized and highly codified systems of behavior and communication, such as, in this case, diplomacy.
My exaggerated characterization of Americans aside, we generally are tone deaf, not only to the possibility that stepping to the right may mean something entirely different than stepping to the left, or that royalty calls for a curtsy and no direct modes of address. This doesn’t excuse our rudeness, cloddishness, or the kinds of mayhem we cause by our general ignorance of what others, in other parts of the world, take very seriously indeed. However, it also doesn’t negate our sincerity or our good will. We may fuck it up, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have good intentions or heart-felt feelings of empathy and distress over the misfortune of others. We seem to be much better at suffering misfortune ourselves and accepting the world’s sympathy, than we are at conveying similar feelings when the situations are reversed.
Our long tradition of lending aid, in many forms, both material, and spiritual, but as well in the time and compassion we direct towards the direct support of other peoples in the world who are under duress goes at least some way towards neutralizing what can sometimes be our ham-handed manner of visiting ourselves upon other soil. We’re still a young country, relatively speaking. We certainly have a lot to learn. We have some straightening out internally, in terms of getting everybody within our borders on board to the notion that we may be an exceptional entity in the community of nations, for the richness of our resources, for the depth of our resourcefulness, for our might, and for the sheer size of our country in its unique position of insulation from other areas of the world. Some of us think this reflects a kind of exceptional privilege as well, as if our destiny as humans is somehow on a higher plane than any other humans, purely by virtue of being American. This is, of course, not true. For all of our great attributes as a people and a nation, we still have far too many faults. But we’re getting there. France will survive John Kerry… It’s survived far far worse.
“What seems paradoxical about everything that is justly called beautiful is the fact that it appears” —Walter Benjamin
“Make no mistake: this is not about more intellectual sophistication… What I am looking for… is an introduction to living, a guide to life (ethical project): I want to live according to nuance. Now there is a teacher of nuance, literature; try to live according to the nuances that literature teaches me.”—Roland Barthes, The Neutral
I’ve been shooting photos for a great many years. Let’s just say, decades. Those who know my work, not as many as I’d like, though more than I’m actually aware of, recognize a certain style. As for subjects, when not shooting landscapes or what the French call nature morte, I prefer maybe most of all to shoot portraits, even of people I don’t know.
It’s not exactly street photography, though a great deal of it is shot in the street. Friends who are aficionados of that genre, that is, street photography, tend to say my shots have a distant quality, do not connect with the subject. Maybe it’s all that landscape photography, or shooting still, that is, unmoving objects, a lot of them formerly alive, like flowers or fruit. One friend, who perhaps knows more about me personally, has said several times it’s quite evident I am unwilling to get too close to the subject. It’s not an entirely prescient remark as I had admitted long since that I am not crazy about doing it. When he says it, or I think about it, it always makes me think of the great photographer from the first half of the 20th century, Robert Capa, who is mainly renowned for his shots taken on battlefields, from the Spanish Civil War to the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and is also often quoted as saying “if your pictures aren’t good enough you’re not close enough.” Maybe, but he died because he stepped on a mine during combat in what was then called French Indochina. For my taste, that’s a little too close. However, I’ve strayed from the issue of the specific quality of my “street” images. It may be a matter of distance, and I think it is. However other people than my friend usually are referring to physical proximity, as if intimacy is esthetically explosive and distance is dull. I am talking about a different dimension.
Fact is, I’m not very interested in getting up close and personal—what else do you call sticking a camera and lens in someone’s face?—to someone I don’t know. I have my share of portraits in my portfolio, taken at appropriate distances, of dear friends and loved ones, but a certain kind of portrait, revelatory and intimate, requires knowing the subject, or at least having a chance to allow one’s empathy and intuition to work up a sense of who they are. Distance in inches or meters is not a gauge of one’s ability to do so. I also have a number of what I think are quite successful portraits, to the extent that the designation applies as it has throughout the history of art: as studies of individual human character. In these there is some element or concatenation of elements, a cast of the eye, or an expression involving some or all of the myriad muscles of the face, including the deeper ones, a certain regard, that seem to betray something evident if inchoate about the subject. It may not, in fact, be an insight to the specific and doubtless unique individual portrayed. However, it may be, very well, expressive of some aspect, a quality, of what I’ll call human nature, or the human spirit (at the risk of being jumped on by my friends for certain wholly other reasons) in a more universal or generalized way. The image speaks to us, somehow, regardless of the situational circumstances by which it was captured.
Two women I don’t know from two holes in the wall
When people have a problem with an image of mine involving a human subject, and usually one with whom I don’t have even a nodding acquaintance, I think there’s something else going on than what the physical evidence of the photograph as record or datum seems to indicate. I think those friends of mine are expecting something that I will never successfully deliver every time. I am not trying to capture what most of the successful and renowned street photographers are trying to catch.
Surely this is true of Diane Arbus, and in much of his work, especially the later work, of Garry Winogrand. They and others were trying, I think, to catch people expressing unaware their anguish or desperation or other extreme emotional states—or possibly some untoward quality of which the subject is either mercifully oblivious, or so beset they cannot help themselves. If I see it, and have a chance to capture it, I will. I either succeed, or not, or I simply don’t get the opportunity.
Sigmund Freud: “Life is not easy”
I’m far more interested in far more ordinary matters, saying this not to try to diminish the significance of anguish and desperation. God knows there’s plenty of these in the world. If anguish and despair are not ordinary, they are surely legion; Freud said, universal, and the hallmark of the human condition. But there are enough photos of anguish and despair, of people in extremis. Especially in the news, where it’s stock in trade, too often photos are a record of death, or the threat of it or of its impact, or where it occurred, or might and on a probabilistic basis, if it’s anywhere more than a handful of people have settled, it will. You can’t get a job as a photojournalist unless you have served your time taking photos of people in some kind of war zone—foreign or domestic. And your subjects are being shot at, hunted down, chased, plundered, dispossessed. What have you. It is a nasty and brutish place, the world, or it can be.
But these are the kinds of photographs that go into many exhibitions, many books. And those that do not conform to this particular formulation are, as a theme and variation, usually of people who are famous, or trying to be famous. Often, they show the subject’s face wreathed in that most utterly anti-evocative of conditions, the toothy smile engaging only superficial muscles, the eyes usually devoid of genuine feeling. Many famous people in photographs that attain to publication are merely famous for being famous. We all know them. The faces that launch a thousand magazine covers at the supermarket check-out counters. The faces that appear on so-called reality television.
But let me stop at that word. Not television, but the other. As the now late, great Robin Williams said early in his brilliant career, “Reality, what a concept!” I think he meant something else than what we see and have seen these several decades on the boob tube. I think he meant, more or less, what a largely forgotten nineteenth century novelist said. The writer also was editor of “The Atlantic Monthly,” still going strong, still trying to grab its share of the attention that heightened awareness brings to subjects accorded the status of icon, or meme, or merely worthy of their fifteen minutes (now shaved, cost-effectively, to 15 seconds) of fame.
Mark Twain, 1909. By Photographer: A.F. Bradley in his studio. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
William Dean Howells was that man. He was, as well, a friend to Mark Twain who had his fair share of fame and of having his photograph taken, largely because he was Mark Twain, not to mention being a great subject visually, regardless of his stature—but mainly because he was recognizable; alas for his portraitists, they are forgotten, or their names anyway, and just as well, because in many cases except for the fame of the subject, there’s not too much interest in the photo. What Howells said was, “Ah! poor Real Life, which I love, can I make others share the delight I find in thy foolish and insipid face?”
In other words, Howells, long before Robert Redford won his first Academy Award for directing, found his subjects—and he wrote a great many novels—among essentially “ordinary people.” In all of this, of course, resides the subtlest kind of irony. For my part, in my much smaller way, I have always had greatest interest, if not all of it, in the quotidian, in seemingly ordinary lives. What others call dull or plain, or cynics might say is banal, I find rich in possibility. When I lived in the North End of Boston, some years ago, near that other tourist Mecca, Quincy Market at Faneuil Hall, I would stand mid-day, engrossed, as crowds swarmed around me, a sea of bodies, watching people’s faces. Do it only once and there is only one thing to conclude. There is no ordinary. There is a common thread in humanity. It is the discernment that is not so ordinary. The extraordinary qualities inherent in a person’s everyday face reside in its being a map of their lives, including of course those extreme existential conditions no one human can avoid.
What I’ve learned, or persuaded myself, is that because of, not despite, their qualities of the ordinary, the mundane, and the everyday, the quotidian and the people who are its inhabitants can be transcended, and, caught at just the right moment, and what is photography really (and famously) but the art of the moment—that is, in the taxonomy of those arts measured by the dimension of time? I’ve long since become inured to the observation about some of my work, “I don’t see why you took this picture; there’s nothing happening. How is this different from a snapshot?”
What is different is that element I (and others) call nuance, which has been the objective in a way of all my endeavors, studies, efforts, and exertions, the entire course of my life. I’ve sought it, I find in retrospect, even as a child, when I could not know or conceive of a quality, never mind the concept of it, that I am calling nuance. It is hard to define, except in context, and there are an infinite number of contexts, as the clock ticks, and eyes wander, and the head changes angle. It is in the infinite variety of man (in that archaic undifferentiated sense of human, not of the gender-sequestrated member of the race), spoken of poetically by my perpetual betters. It is in the “pied beauty” of nature. Nuance is of consequence, however small.
Much art consists in, first, the isolation, and then the rendition with the requisite skills of mastery of materials, of the nuances to be found in nature, that is in poor real life. But nuance, I’ll remind one and all, is to be found in the peculiar and likely unduplicated isolation of the subject as well as its juxtaposition, intentional or accidental, in the setting, that is, the “environment” in which the subject is discovered, perhaps, in some manner that escapes the need for any probity even of the most exacting sort, that makes forensic analysis superfluous, because it is revelatory of some deeper, if of utterly “ordinary,” truth, which begins to challenge in a multitude of ways, as I am trying to suggest here, the very meaning of ordinary.
To make myself clear, let’s take a look at the works of art that have nourished us for the last 150 years or so, give or take. Prior to that time, much art had what I’ll call a hieratic function. Artists were akin to priests, who performed the sacrament of creating art. The choice of subjects was constrained. Go far enough back in time and the constraints were very narrowly defined. Subjects were confined to religious and regal personages and, in the case of deceased personages, saints or entities of even more holy otherness. However, with the wholesale deposition of monarchs, and the evacuation of places of worship of practitioners of the faith, artists were free to seek and depict more worldly matter, that is, of this world.
I put it to you that almost randomly you may choose from among your favorite Western artists, let us say, more strictly for a moment, painters (I am not, after all, trying to make this a treatise on the comprehensive history of art, and for convenience sake, not to mention restricting my remarks, limited by the extent to which I am well informed, which is, in the end, not very well at all, I will also speak only of the culture to which I think of myself as a contributor), and you will be hard put to find subjects that are not, in some fashion, of the quotidian with which the painter was familiar. The subjects, say of the continuum of artists in France, are ordinary subjects to their time, starting in the middle of the nineteenth century and proceeding through the first decades of the following one, recently ended, that is, until other modes and styles than the representational (or, as its called, figurative) came to a superior position of ascendancy. Harvesters of flax, and the postman. Fields of flowers, and women sitting at tea. Workers sanding floorboards, and housewives hanging the wash. The artist’s humble bedroom, or her sister reading the newspaper.
I might even argue that it was the emergence of photography as a medium of artistic expression, never mind the far more numerous specimens (however artful or artless) taken by laymen on a daily basis, with a frequency that multiplies to this day—literally billions of images are uploaded daily to the Internet—that facilitated the migration of painterly exertions into other styles, genres and modes than the purely representational. What has been lost, I am afraid—for any number of associated reasons, that is, they have a lot to do with Western civilization having allowed certain modalities to migrate to computer-based technologies for implementation—is nuance.
The chief benefit of computers being to expedite a process, almost any process that can be converted to digital representation of its operative factors or constituent parts, the rapidity with which we can create (if I may use that word, loathe as I am to do so) and produce whatever it is we feel compelled to exchange with one another: be they images, packets of verbal content (notice how careful I am being with the language…), or even bundles of numbers arranged in a grid, or the ubiquitous and everlasting whatever… grows ever greater. That is, we can do things faster and faster, producing more and more of whatever it is we produce, that the artifacts of production, the images, the verbal packets, grow ever more compact and brief in time as well as their very virtual existence, even as they as grow more numerous. How to contend with this flow? Necessarily, as the number of words and images has multiplied, the substance, that is, the value, or, to use a word long since deracinated, the meaning any one image or packet carries as payload diminishes. Among the first victims, long since, indeed was nuance. More recently, one of the children of nuance, irony, has also, I will tell you quietly and discretely here (in case the disastrous news has not reached you as you pore over your text messages and Facebook news feed), has died. Rest in peace.
Given the amount and duration of the attention that anyone receives for their efforts, it is a marvel that books and recordings still get produced, that is, by anyone other than the actual fabricator. Whatever the outcome of the current struggle between Amazon and Hachette over pricing hegemony, it is clear that the future belongs to the distributors and purveyors of what is now a commodity, except in the rarest of instances—what used to be objects of art and letters are now stock keeping units. Given the numbers, billions of people writing and capturing images with cameras and drawing apps—and that’s just in the so-called developing world—I feel safe speaking in what amount to such apocalyptic terms. The only wrath I face is the indignation of romantics, there’s no other way to designate them, who have not as yet succumbed to assuming the only defense for preserving one’s sanity in the long term, and that is pure cynicism.
We cannot speak of art, not in a world where the likes of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons command millions of whatever currency you choose for the output of their factories, suborned by equally rich, if not richer, agents and impresarios, auctioneers and curators, who form the bishoprics of art, defining it and preserving its sacramental value, facilitating its enshrinement. We cannot speak of literature, not in a world where the preponderance of books, printed in bulk for national distribution, are brought to market by an educational-industrial complex, which churns out product the preponderance of which in markets measured in millions of people will sell in the hundreds of copies, or at best the thousands (50,000 is a staggering “best-seller”) with the gratitude of the practitioners anointed with a pedigree, regaled in a cap and gown, and handed parchment with the only suitable credentials for gaining entry to the publishing world, the holy certification of the MFA. Not that this is a money-making encounter for all but a happy few (that is, the Hirsts and Koonses of the literary world, the Dan Browns and the Danielle Steeles), though an MFA is a ticket not only through the manifold doors of a Hachette or Bertelsmann to the first sanctioned treads on the stairway to modest fame, but it is the visa to the land of higher education where the possessor may teach others, acolytes who dream of taking communion with the rest of the anointed ones. We won’t talk about the fact that a teaching job that our anointed scribes, many admittedly with talent that would stand in any age, most with, well, enough graduate credits for the degree that got them to where they are, is barely sufficient to make what is called, without a hint of irony whatsoever, a living.
It is a parody of a process that used to be called paying one’s dues, affordable, with no expense of spirit in a waste of shame, because the stakes were not of fame, which calls, indeed, for a kind of lust—a sterile kind, and certainly not of money in astronomical quantities, but of proving one’s mettle in the mastery of nuance. Not lust in action, but skill, on a foundation of talent. I’ve looked through the CVs of some of the blue chip names in American fiction-writing of a generation or two ago, the women still active, the men, but one, all dead, and the one who’s alive is, he says, “retired:” Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, John Updike, William Styron, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Tyler, Ann Beattie, Margaret Drabble. Not an MFA among them. A writer friend has justly pointed out to me that likely that was because the degree didn’t exist “in them days.” And I respond, rightly so. They didn’t need it is the point. You don’t need a license to know how to drive.
The same may be said of an equal roster of shining lights, if not stars altogether, in the realm of photography (the nominal subject of what has become a tirade), of an even longer generational hierarchy, though the names are still invoked as the progenitors and models of this newest of the plastic arts, even as they are practiced to this day: Paul Strand, Eduard Steichen, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lisette Model, Berenice Abbott, Tina Modotti, Dorothea Lange, Imogen Cunningham, Helen Levitt and I’ve already mentioned Diane Arbus.
I shouldn’t mention my own name even in moderate proximity to these greats, heroes and heroines of mine, all of them. Indeed their work is the school to which I went to learn what I hope I humbly and tentatively call my craft. Not only will you not find my name in their company, but unless you actually know me, you couldn’t associate my name with a specific image, so unknown are these artifacts. And yet, and yet… As virtually any figure in any canon of work deemed art, most who labor to produce also harbor the hope of becoming known and understood, if not appreciated. The ways in which the world at large, through history, has acknowledged exceptional efforts have varied. Inevitably, the humblest practitioners have at least enjoyed the commissions of close friends and the circles of individuals surrounding them (rapidly dissipating in inverse proportion to the level of recognition of the artisan). Go far enough back, and the identity of the human being who produced work that embodies those qualities of timelessness and enduring beauty, of the kinds and levels of nuance (if I may be permitted to re-introduce the term at this late point) that separate art from mere craft, of the reach of art to the grace beyond mere technical flawlessness. Indeed, art is often permitted imperfections (the Navajo, for entirely other, ulterior, reasons, having more to do with theology and their sense of the place of man in the universe, deliberately introduced errors, however imperceptible, into their artifacts) that we do not tolerate in mere manufactured objects of desire.
However, it was of recognition that I was speaking, recognition of the quality of the work, and ultimately, of course, recognition of the producer of the work. There are formulae, as I’ve pointed out vitriolically, to attaining a kind of fame, neither entirely reliable in any sense, least of all in the assessment of the actual attainment of capturing the elusive quality of “art,” in the sense of enduring, or (dare I say) aspiring to aspects of eternal, connection with some incomprehensible component of the human spirit. That is, speaking of art, to speak of matters that are largely inchoate, and after tens of thousands of years of being pondered, not only little understood, but, if truth be dared to say, still utterly incomprehensible.
For my part, I cannot explain my stubborn anonymity and lack of a more generalized attention (except of course from loved ones and friends, in many ways most important, and for which I never falter in my gratitude). I cannot explain it whether I assign the cause to the tortuous workings of fate in the context of the particular, and idiosyncratic, choices made in the course of my life, or explain it all as merely due to an insufficiently aggressive or sustained effort to gain attention from the right people in the right circles. I speak only of the “fame”, or, more importantly, the recognition of the stature of my own work, which I have no doubt myself has merit, and not at all of the pecuniary rewards which seem to have become the chief gauge of the magnitude of the greatness of the art in question.
I cannot assign my not so unusual lack of status to the kinds of accidents that befall each of us, if we are to call ourselves human—in short, we all suffer from Miniver Cheevy Syndrome—because there really is no such thing as being born too late or too early. Status, recognition, and the quality of art, transcend such random chronological accidents as the birth of this one or that at this time or that, rather than some other.
How to achieve it at this late point in my career, never mind the actuarial realities of my life? Going back to school is out of the question. Indeed, in a perverse distortion of the hackneyed cliché, I not only do, but I have taught. I am simply not prepared to sit again at a desk facing the blackboard.
I can—and indeed, in a very tentative way, I have done so—buy my way to some attention. But this requires not only money, but a kind of dedication, and it is far easier, I say with mixed emotions, to procure the former than to sustain the latter, until the gears of recognition from the establishment mesh. However I have come up with what I think is a far more innovative, if no less arduous, stratagem. I have decided that the fault, my dear readers, is not in myself, but in the lack of stars in the viewing screen of my camera. So slowly, carefully, and with some reliance on chance—yes, sheer luck—I have been even more mindful of discovering subjects that are not only brimming with nuance, but full of the presence of the elusive sister to Dame Fortune: fame.
Happily, and I will very soon end this treatise with this first bit of evidence, I came upon one such subject, quietly and most modestly sitting in the afternoon sun at a café in the sunny capital city of the great little state of Vermont (and why I should not have expected to stumble on such an august personage in a venue of what is likely the state of the greatest level of self-imposed humility—though well short of squeamish Uriah Heep proportions—is only a measure of the poverty of my own poor attainments in the discipline of mindfulness). It was an entirely lucky accident, as it was only because of my sudden and rare, for a mid-afternoon, desire for a cup of coffee that I stopped at the café. I had taken little notice of the man sitting unassumingly at one of a number of tables on the terrace, otherwise unoccupied. I went in, ordered my mug of whatever exotic potion from African beans was being featured, and repaired outside myself, again uncharacteristically as I am not ordinarily a fan of exposing myself to full sunlight in nearly idle repose.
Having taken note, I guess unconsciously, of which vantage provided for the most likely composition should a photograph somehow emerge from what was the otherwise unremarkable and pedestrian milieu, I sat at a table facing the façade, with a full view of the likeliest subject. It was while scrutinizing the scene, lining up the shot, so to speak, calculating the best focal length of the zoom lens, that I realized just exactly who my subject, of whom absolutely no one else took any note whatsoever, was. Without ready access to Wikipedia I could not be sure, but even approximate chronological vectors are sufficient. So at first, I was sure I was letting my imagination fly away with me, to very distant shores (Vienna is, as it turns out, just a tad more than four thousand miles from Montpelier). If it was who I thought it was, he’d have to be some 150 years old (to be more precise, as I discovered in some tiny bit of research subsequent to our meeting, he would be 158; we did engage in conversation, as you will learn, but it was not within the bounds, especially given the exertion required merely to contain the gross expression of my astonishment, of etiquette to ask my subject his age… and as it turned out, he did not volunteer the information).
As you may have gathered from the foregoing narrative, it’s not my practice too often, if at all, to engage my subjects in any way. Therefore it was extremely tentatively, once I assured myself I had captured the image as it had first presented itself to me in the way I wished to frame it, that I approached his table, and said, just loud enough, I figured, for him to hear, “Doktor Freud?” He immediately, if very slowly and gracefully, put his mug of coffee, which I noticed was nearly light beige presumably from a significant quantity of lightener in it, along with the magazine he had been perusing, on the mesh tabletop. He turned to me, and looking directly at me with a magnificently sympathetic gaze, and said “Ja?”
Considering that even as I can view, from time to time, my decrepitude waiting patiently for me on the horizon, I figured I was at worst barely more than a third his age, I had approached the great man with somewhat the awe of a child for a truly venerable personage. I asked him with a slight tremor in my voice how this could be (there was a faint flicker in my mind, though for some reason so weak as clearly ready to extinguish itself at any moment, that crazy as the moment might be, I was, in fact, dealing with a person not entirely in touch with his own reality; consider the irony of that, if this proved to be fantasy more than actual fact—I refrain from using the word truth, at least this early in the encounter). He told me, in almost so many words that, “like our old friend, Mark Twain said [speak of the devil], the reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” and he chuckled, showing a brilliant set of dentures. I figured cosmetic surgery had made significant advances since the radical and dangerous treatment Herr Doktor Freud had had to endure for his oral cancer.
He noticed me looking at his mouth and touched my hand, and told me not to worry, that he was, almost miraculously, healed and not in any great discomfort. He said he did have to watch what he ate, but that his diet was accountable more for the sake of preserving his longevity than any further problems he might have with that particular disease. In fact, as it turned out, well, as several things turned out, he was now living in Vermont and had been since just before, as he put it, “the war broke out in Europe” largely for his health. He said he thought it was well-known that the life in that state, not to mention the typical diet of Vermonters, especially if they were strict locavores, was so salubrious as to be life-sustaining well beyond the normal span of years we are afforded.
Indeed, and as is well-evidenced in my photograph, he was not particularly frail or orthopedically challenged, shall I say, though his stature seemed quite diminished from what I expected. As if reading my mind, he told me that, in fact, he was pretty much the height and weight he had always been, and he assumed that many people were surprised on first meeting him, as in the old days, at his diminutive stature. He attributed this misconception to his appearance in photographs and the added bulk of the usually very layered attire he invariably wore.
He said that since his “retirement” (this is the word he used, with a flicking gesture of his hand, beautifully manicured I might note, as if to say, “goodbye to all that”) he had become immediately very comfortable with the very much more informal garb of the typical Vermonter. He does wear a lot of flannel and wool in the winter, because of the cold, but this is only consistent with local custom.
He kept eyeing his magazine, and I realized I had somehow, in addition to distracting him, possibly was on the verge of becoming an annoyance. I looked at him, and down at my camera, which has a wrist loop, that I had unconsciously laid on the tabletop when I sat down. He quietly asked if I might want to take his photograph, but I demurred. I don’t know why, but I also did not openly admit to having already taken the photo I wanted. Something about the very slight wry smile that crossed his features very quickly and disappeared told me that he already knew. I stood up and he moved as if to raise himself from his seat as well, but I gestured to him to stay put, and excused myself for having bothered him. No bother at all, according to him, but I quickly retreated and when I looked back he had already settled himself as I had first discovered him and was deeply engrossed in the magazine. I had been dying to get a closer look at what he was reading, but he kept the magazine under his arm on the table through the entirety of our conversation. It was a news magazine of some sort, but which I cannot say.
Later, once I returned home and processed the image, assuring myself it was, in fact, as good as I had hoped when I checked it on the tiny viewing screen of the camera, I realized with a start that I had taken no particular note of his reference to Twain, and so I did some research on-line, as is my wont in any event, and found this reference, to a letter that Freud had written to his famous colleague Wilhelm Fleiss, who had noted Freud’s absence from the lecture of another physician, personal doctor to Otto von Bismarck. What Freud wrote was: “Schweninger’s performance, there at the talking circus, was a real disgrace! I did not attend, of course; instead I treated myself to listening to our old friend Mark Twain in person, which was a sheer delight.” In his account of Twain and relationship to psychology, a Dr. Zehr, who is the source of this quotation, notes that there is no evidence Twain and Freud actually met, but that their paths must have crossed many times during an extended stay in Vienna of Twain and his entire family. I have my own thoughts.
However, more pertinent to my thesis (and the aforementioned stratagem) one thought, not an original one for sure, was that it was no coincidence, though it always seemed that connections one can discover in innumerable places when researching the lives of renowned persons are full of nuance, that well-regarded cultural figures very often knew (or know) one another, in some way. I realized that this was the key, absent enrollment in, and subsequent successful completion of, a graduate degree program in the fine arts, to my attainment to the kind of stature and recognition I will now willingly admit to wishing for myself, for the sake of my work being better known.
Therefore, I have dedicated myself to being that much more attentive to the presence of those subjects whose image is an instant entree to that kind of notice and its rewards. I hasten to add that I have no intention of joining the ranks of paparazzi, whose exertions in this regard I would not even deign to call a genre of the art of photography. And of course I have no intention of staking out people’s homes and well-traveled paths, because this is uncivilized.
Rather, let this be the notification that you should pay stricter attention to my posts, as you will see more and more of the kinds of subjects that are of interest for themselves. Consider that however artfully I may render this new category of portraits that the rendition itself is a bonus. And of course, there will be no lack of nuance.
Freud has a mug of joe, reads a magazine at local hip café in Montpelier, Vermont.
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