Ktismatics

18 November 2013

Re-Re-Redundant

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:16 pm

When I was in grad school it was rumored that, some years earlier, one of the professors had had an affair with a woman working in the departmental office. The enraged husband had come gunning for the prof, who went off into hiding somewhere until the shitstorm blew over. The frustrated husband shot a hole in the office wall, a hole that could still be found if one looked behind the right file cabinet. Anyhow, this philandering prof had a stutter. Once I was involved in a discussion in which this prof was a participant. Someone made a point that had already been addressed by someone else, which the prof was quick to point out: “Isn’t that re-re-redundant?”

***

“Get different!” That’s the slogan typed onto the battered 3×5 card taped to the door of the original fictional Salon Postisme. It’s not surprising that I tend to resist redundancy. But…

There’s plenty of redundancy in contemporary music, in pop genres as well as classical composition. Samples are looped, beats are repeated, phrases are recycled, over and over again. Taken to extremes, redundancy becomes a source of difference.

In the sixth book of the cluster I intentionally repeat several events that had already transpired in earlier books. I even cut and paste the same words. The redundancy continues until a certain point is reached, after which the trajectory swerves off course, leading the event into a different resolution.

So, I’m now going to post those same three paragraphs from Book 1, Chapter 2 that I posted here before, several years ago. Probably none of the few people following the blog back then is still around. Besides, I’m rereading it again myself. I’ll add the immediate context this time, just to change it up a bit:

***

Rik brought Miguel over to Stephen’s table. “So you’re what, a therapist?” Miguel asked abruptly.

Stephen smiled, not for the first time recalling his conversation with Hank Adamowicz. Was Hank Adamowicz the first Proprietor? Had he started the Salon? Stephen assumed so, but somehow he hadn’t asked. “And so you’re what,” Stephen had asked Hank: “a therapist?” Hank rolled his eyes. “Some sort of high priest?”

“More like an usher,” Hank had replied.

A former colleague of Stephen’s had been a therapist, but she’d quit to become a business consultant. She said she didn’t care enough about people. As the slow flow of clients merged into a monotonous stream, she began to forget from one week to the next: is this the one whose wife is threatening to leave him, or the one who’s afraid that her neighbor is going to kill her dog, or the one who’s trying to quit shopping? Everyone who came into her office could be slotted into a sadly small number of garden variety pathologies. No florid hallucinations, no multiple personalities, no hysterical anesthesias. Plenty of anxiety, paranoia, anger, narcissism, failure, victimhood.

Adjustment falls within a narrow bandwidth; the therapist is charged with tuning everyone to the same channel. Like Tolstoy said, more or less: every unhappy person is unhappy in his own way, but happy people are all alike. Stretched out on the procrustean couch, the client knows what the therapist is trying to do to him, and still he keeps his appointments with the executioner. He wants to be happy; he’s ready to be purged of all those idiosyncrasies that keep him unhappy. He comes prepared to tell stories about himself, stories he chooses specifically to elicit the helping reflex. It’s a ritual: the therapist bestows the recognized rites of restoration on the transgressor and the outcast. Stephen’s colleague had found this work increasingly distasteful. So she quit.

As new Proprietor of the Salon Postisme, Stephen believed he could avoid falling into the trap. He had faith that the unhappy outsiders would prove far more interesting than the happy insiders they might wish to become. Instead of snipping away at their stray threads, he would look for an alternative weave, a secret and subtle delirium unique to each individual. His job as he saw it was to enter into the client’s real strangeness, to have the client guide him into other ways of seeing, into exotic regions of the soul that they could then explore together. What he really wanted, of course, was to become the client. He didn’t want to pull the clients out into his normalcy; he wanted to climb with them into their madness. I guess I’m just a romantic at heart, Stephen acknowledged to himself.

“Not a therapist,” Stephen replied to Miguel. “More like an usher.” Miguel nodded, smiling: apparently he found the answer satisfactory. He agreed to meet with Stephen next Wednesday at the Salon.

***

Suppose someone came to Hanley concerned about repeating the same thoughts or behaviors over and over again. Would Hanley try to help this person overcome the personally troubling (and presumably obsessive-compulsive) tendency toward redundancy? Or would he regard the client’s presenting problem as a personal idiosyncrasy to be cultivated into a mark of distinction, a personal style, a unique artform, a subjective embodiment of the Death Drive, a metaphysical manifestation of the universe’s Eternal Return?

Hanley takes on Miguel Obispo as a client. Eventually he reaches an impasse. Does he help Miguel push his HemoBoy performance art to even further extremes, leading possibly to his inadvertently bleeding out altogether onstage? Or does he try to protect Miguel from himself, from his audience, from his handlers, from his acolytes? Hanley asks his wife about it while she’s engaged in her own personal act of redundancy, painting a watercolor reproduction of a Kandinsky print. I posted this exchange on the blog before too, by the way, in August 2011. Fuck it: here it is again.

***

“Listen, suppose I have a client who believes things that are sort of nutty. Surely I don’t need to go along with everything the client believes?”

Concentrating, she extended the purple shape out and down. “You mean that young guy with hemophilia? Can you give him your opinion without sounding like you think he’s a little off center?”

“I guess not. Still, it seems dishonest not to, or at least disingenuous.”

Lynne put her brush down. “See this painting? Kandinsky had synaesthesia. When he saw colors he heard music. Literally. He painted like he was playing a keyboard, like he was playing his audience. He believed that each brushstroke would set off sympathetic harmonies in people’s souls. Kind of odd, but also kind of true. Before Kandinsky there was another Russian, a composer, Scriabin. Scriabin believed that if he played a certain chord at the exact same moment that a certain pattern of colors was displayed, then the world would come to an end. Right then, at that very moment.”

Maybe Scriabin was right, Stephen thought: maybe some day somebody will hit the right combination. Maybe Scriabin already did it a century ago, and since then we’ve been living in some other world. “So,” he asked his wife, “would you have told Scriabin and Kandinsky you thought they were nuts?”

“I’d have told them I admire their work very much. Besides, only Scriabin was really nutty. Kandinsky was just eccentric.”

Stephen looked again at the Kandinsky postcard. A work of exuberant precision, the picture looked to him like a mapmaker’s rendition of a dreamscape. The fragments of geometry incorporated into the work: were they engineered segments of an intricate scaffolding being erected around the fantasy in order to contain it? Or was something uncontrollable smashing through the gridwork, breaking it to bits? “One more thing,” he said to Lynne. “If you’d had the chance, would you have encouraged Kandinsky to pursue his eccentricity to the limit, even if it took him all the way into madness? All for the sake of genius, for the sake of art, for the end of the world?”

“I wouldn’t have had to,” Lynne replied as she picked up her brush. “Kandinsky had Scriabin. I’m not sure who Scriabin had – maybe Rasputin.”

***

For quite some time I seriously entertained the feasibility of starting my own practice along the lines sketched out by Stephen Hanley, I explained the idea to a friend, a psychology professor who had gone to grad school with me. You mean, he asked me, that you’d encourage clients to exaggerate their symptoms for the sake of creative difference, even if it makes them feel worse instead of better? Nobody wants that; no one will come; it’ll never work.

I abandoned the practice with real people, but I have pursued it in a fictional parallel reality. There, the clients do show up. There, my fictional practitioner counterpart never has to worry about clients who want symptom relief. There he worries about his clients getting too different. After awhile even that worry gets to be repetitive, redundant.

17 November 2013

Already Getting Redundant

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 5:41 pm

I was going to write a post focusing on three paragraphs in chapter two, in which Stephen Hanley is trying to establish a praxis that’s different from therapy. But then I began to wonder: haven’t I already put this bit up on the blog? Turns out I did, in a blogpost from October 2006. In that earlier draft Stephen Hanley narrated his own story; in a subsequent edit I changed to a third person narrator who in this particular passage conveys Hanley’s attitude via “free indirect discourse.”

Some benefits for me of writing fiction:

How can I make general pronouncements without having to argue for them or justify them with supporting evidence? By having my fictional narrator merely assert them.

How can I revisit my own past experiences without resorting to personal confessions? By assigning them as backstories to my characters.

How can I redeem my own stray threads? By doing it virtually, through the characters’ responses to situations I throw them into.

How can I hold onto my own ambivalences without having to resolve them one way or the other? By having different characters embody diverse and conflicting perspectives that I have held myself.

“What I really want, of course, is to become fictional,” he conceded.

Here’s another benefit:

How can I blur the distinction between what’s written and the process of writing it, between the “made” and the “making-of”? By writing metafiction centering on a character who is a writer.

At first my main fictional characters were therapists and consultants, scientists and mystics, pragmatists and dreamers, activists and recluses, fathers and husbands — my personal loose threads from my life before I started writing fiction. Later I shifted heavily toward writing fiction about writers. So I’m thinking now that this making-of series of posts is redundant. Most of what I want to say about my subjective experiences in writing fiction is already embedded in the fiction itself.

15 November 2013

Redeemed by the Blood

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 11:47 am

CHAPTER TWO

Miguel Obispo’s performance had been astonishing. Couched in the visual language of Christian masochism that had become all too commonplace among the avant-garde, this particular evocation gradually transformed itself into something far more disturbing. The blood, trickling slowly from the palms, would not stop. A minute, two minutes, five; it began to puddle on the floor. The young man stood, hands outstretched, completely silent. He seemed to be concentrating intently, as though willing the blood to flow. The onlookers, thirty or so, sat mesmerized. He gazed intently first at one audience member, then another.

He does not look at me, Stephen thought, surprised by his own disappointment.

***

When we got back to the motel room I felt drunk and exhausted. Sure I’d had a couple three drinks, but that was across a period of several hours. I figured it must have been the company Anne and I had been keeping: my Alzheimer’s-depleted father and his wife, who’s starting down the same path as her spouse. Lying on the motel bed I felt like I was experiencing some sort of petit-mal seizure. I couldn’t move; I couldn’t speak. After a minute or so I snapped out of it. I had dozed off; the seizure had been a dream. Later I wondered whether it might not have been been a dream at all, but a conscious awakening inside my sleeping self, still immobile and mute and unresponsive to my own intentions. I got up, brushed my teeth, took off my clothes, got under the covers, went to sleep.

I dreamed that I was back in the UVA Psych Building again. I exchanged greetings with Tim Wilson, then a junior member of the Social Psych faculty and a member of my diss committee. A few years ago he wrote a book called Strangers to Ourselves; in my 2009 post about the book I wrote that “Tim focuses largely on humans’ limited ability to gain conscious access to the unconscious.” Farther down the hall I was approached by Jon Thiem, a retired comparative lit prof I knew in Boulder. He was enthusiastic about a meeting he’d just attended at the Merck home office, involving corporate top brass and John Zorn — Zorn is an avant-garde jazz musician and composer who explores Judeo-Christian themes in his music. Evidently the Merck strategists thought that Zorn’s music and related contemporary literary work could be worked into their corporate branding apparatus and new product R&D. You really should come meet these people, Jon Thiem told me: they’ll love your stuff. I nodded noncommittally, not at all surprised by Merck’s new scheme. When I woke up I saw this dream as directly connected to Book One, Chapter Two.

For several years I worked as a healthcare consultant. A number of my clients were pharmaceutical companies, Merck among them. Our biggest client was a company that specialized in delivering health services and products to patients suffering from rare chronic diseases. Working for this client I got to learn a lot about hemophilia. The performance artist introduced in Chapter 2 of the novel uses his hemophilia in his post-Judeo-Christian performance art.

***

An electronic squeal pierced the silence, jolting everyone in the room except the performer. With deliberation Miguel walked to the left side of the stage, red footprints marking his path. From behind a screen he retrieved a white vinyl-topped card table and set it up mid-stage. Next he brought out a white polystyrene picnic cooler, emblazoned on all sides with the “Biohazard” symbol, and placed it on the table. He tilted back the lid and began extracting various medical supplies from the cooler: an empty glass bottle, a smaller sealed bottle, a small vial, a syringe, a rubber hose, what seemed to be a bottle of mineral water. Each item he placed with precision on the tabletop. Lastly he removed a small gold standing crucifix and positioned it facing the audience at the front of the table. Calmly Miguel closed the cooler and carried it to the far back end of the stage, where he set it on the floor.

Returning to center stage, he began a series of ablutions. He opened the mineral water and sprinkled some of it over everything: his hands, the medical supplies, the table, lastly the crucifix.  Thinly diluted blood began spilling over the edge of the table and onto the floor, bathing the staged solemnity in the peculiar horror of its pink translucence. People in the front row lurched backward, even though they were seated at least fifteen feet away from the dripping table.

Miguel wiped his hands across the front of his white turtleneck and genuflected. He broke the seal on the small glass bottle, held it aloft for a moment, then poured its contents, a clear colorless fluid, into the larger empty bottle. He went through the same procedure with the vial, which held some sort of powder. He swirled the bottle for a few seconds in order to mix its contents. He took the syringe and loaded it with the mixture, pale yellow and slightly opaque. He rolled up his sleeve and cinched the rubber hose around his upper arm. Then he jabbed himself with the needle. Not a sound came from the enraptured audience. Slowly he pressed the plunger. Two or three minutes passed before the syringe was empty. He recapped the syringe. Then, methodically, he undid everything. Starting with the cross, he put it all back into the cooler, closed the lid, and carried it offstage. Then he refolded the table, the thinned blood sloshing onto the floor, and removed it also.

Standing in the small pool where the table had been, Miguel again wiped his hands across his shirt. Slowly he lifted his arms, palms turned toward the audience, in the classic gesture of benediction. He held this pose for a few moments. His palms had stopped bleeding. He put his hands down, pressed the palms together, and retraced his own bloody trail offstage. A few seconds later he returned to the very front of the stage, smiled, and bowed deeply. He had spoken not one word during the performance.

Wild applause ensued. Single red roses were flung onto the stage. Calls of “encore” elicited a derisive but gracious smile from the entertainer. Amid the gore, his white turtleneck thoroughly besmeared and bespattered, Miguel Obispo presented himself to his audience with the perfect decorum of a symphony conductor. As he left the stage he walked with a decided limp.

***

Maybe I get too caught up in describing the technical aspect of the performance, but I found a sort of perverse fascination in delineating the procedural details of the bloodletting and the clotting. I experienced a similar sort of technological rapture while watching The Wire: the convoluted drug deals, the surveillance apparatus, the counter-intelligence tactics. After reading the chapter describing Miguel’s “HemoBoy” act, Jon Thiem informed me that it was thick with “knowledge code,” not unlike Melville’s long discourses on the technical aspects of whaling, whale physiology, and taxonomic cetology. I also see also a kind of Robbe-Grilletian empirical obsessiveness, voyeuristic, a bit sadistic perhaps. But there’s no question that Moby-Dick has been an influence on my fiction; later in this first book I quote an extended passage from it:

***

Stephen took his own copy of the Bible down from the shelf and opened it to a story he knew well. Yahweh tells Jonah to pronounce divine wrath on the city of Nineveh. Jonah knows what he’s meant to do; he just doesn’t want to do it. And so Jonah tries to run away. It doesn’t work, of course: his boat gets swamped and his shipmates throw him overboard. The great fish swallows him up. From the abyss of deep destiny Jonah apparently reconsiders. He promises Yahweh that he’ll do his job. The fish vomits up Jonah; Jonah tells the Ninevites of their impending doom; the Ninevites repent in sackcloth; the city is spared. Jonah, looking like a fool because the city still stands, walks into the desert to sulk. We never find out whether Jonah ever again waxed enthusiastic over his prophetic career or if he died in the desert a proud but bitter man.

Stephen thought also of Ahab. Fate, be it god or devil, was decimating that superbly mad tyrant bite by bite. What is lost cannot be restored; it can only be avenged: the whalebone pegleg is just the beginning. To fight with the monomaniacal obsession of Ahab is to be swallowed up by a Will unassailable and infinitely vast. Yet fight he must, and fail, for fate will be neither evaded nor vanquished.

Stephen took this other book from it place on the shelf and read the unholy text:

Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or another, swims before all human hearts – while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.

Confronted by a monstrous inevitability, how many of us would dare try Ahab’s full-throttle assault, or even Jonah’s dodge? We’re more like the dandy from Death in Venice: neither hiders nor seekers, we want a nice vacation at the seashore. We’re going to encounter our abyss not at the bottom of the sea but on a private beach, sitting under an umbrella sipping a Bellini. The Deep is going to reach up onto the shore, grab you by the ankle, and pull you under.

Stephen thought: at the Salon Postisme, we will let others traffic in the optimistic, win-win version of the Quest. We will tell our clients that the Quest often turns into a plunge into the Deep, a tour of the Abyss.

***

From the outset I’ve regarded fiction-writing as a kind of self-redemptive procedure. In search of lost time, I’ve tried to pick up the loose threads from my prior lives, linking them together into an alternative weave. Now that I’ve written several of these fictions, they too beckon from the past, calling out to be redeemed. I realize that in this making-of series I’m doing the same thing with them as I did with my hemophilia consult, looking back over my shoulder at them to see if any of their loose threads lead to another way forward, or backward, or off on another tangent.

12 November 2013

Way Out

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:08 pm

Truth be told, Stephen had been looking for a way out for quite some time. His friends, seeing him apparently mired in the sort of midlife crisis they could comprehend, eagerly and repeatedly shared with him the self-help tips they’d latched onto for getting themselves on track toward a more desirable future. Invariably these tips converged on the same basic scheme. Listen to your True Self. Discover your Passion. Become childlike. Believe in yourself. Be present and live in the moment. Visualize the future you want, make a plan, and relentlessly pursue your plan until you arrive at the desired destination. These were not the sort of tips that inspired Stephen.

“What if my True Self turns out to be an asshole?”

“Well in your case…”

“What if it turns out my Passion is to be the object of worship for everyone around me?”

“Well that’s pretty shallow, Stephen. You need to look deeper.”

“How do you know that’s not the deepest, truest me? Maybe if you looked deeper you’d realize that you really want to be a serial killer.”

“Look, nobody’s forcing you to read the damn book.”

 “No really. The inner voice that’s telling you it wants six million dollars and a nice vacation villa in Tuscany – how do you know it’s really your True Self, and not just another imposter taking his turn at the microphone? Besides, aren’t you a little suspicious that everyone’s True Self wants pretty much the same things: chronic happiness, lots of money, good weather, universal admiration? Maybe everyone’s gone too deep. Maybe we’re all delving somewhere down below unique individuality into the universal unconscious, where everything is pure narcissism, will to power, and the longing for fabulousness.”

 “Okay fine. So what are you offering up that’s better? Not to get too critical here, Stephen, but what I see is a guy who hasn’t made a dime in I don’t know how long, who’s probably going to have to sell his house, who if anything seems even less happy than the rest of us. Man, sign me up for what you’re selling.”

After awhile Stephen started avoiding these conversations. It was true: he had a fairly strong sense of what was wrong with the good life, but not much to offer by way of an alternative. That he was expected to elaborate some optimistic new game plan of his own he regarded as symptomatic of the cultural tyranny he was trying to resist. What’s wrong with a little pessimistic fatalism as the basis for a friendly chat among neighbors?

He wanted to perpetrate his own escape. Not only that: he wanted a language for describing the way out. He wanted something else to do, something else to think about. And so it was that Stephen Hanley became the new Proprietor of the Salon Postisme.

***

Stephen Hanley is one of my fictional alter-egos. I wanted what he wanted. Making-of: I wanted to write my own escape, the act of writing being the means of escape. Made: I wanted that which I wrote to constitute a language describing the way out, for myself and for my “clients.” Twelve years later, I’m not sure whether Stephen and I have tunneled our way under the wall or dug ourselves into a hole.

***

Stephen’s wife? She was fine about it.

“What have you been up to? You look like you just had about four espressos.”

“Yeah, well.” Stephen took his shoes off and set them on the mat by the door. “I got a job.”

“A job? I didn’t know you were looking.”

“I wasn’t. As of today I’m the Proprietor of the Salon Postisme.”

“You cut hair now?”

“No, it’s not that. There’s no pay, and I didn’t have to quit any other job, so I figured what the hell?”

“I’ll open the champagne.”

***

Thus ends chapter 1 of book 1. We try always to have a bottle a champagne in the fridge. There’s one in there now.

11 November 2013

Time Out of Joint in the Creation Narratives

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:48 pm

Stephen had parked in one of the reserved spaces behind Martin’s office but, since he had nowhere in particular to go, he left the car where it was and strolled back into downtown. He was exploring without curiosity the side streets branching off from the pedestrian zone, peering into the rehabbed frontier-era storefronts, when a sign caught his eye. Black print on a four-by-six white index card, stuck with yellowed tape to the wall, the sign certainly wasn’t designed to grab the attention of the passing window-shopper. It read:

SALON POSTISME
Portals, Intervals, Alternate Realities
Henry Adamowicz, Proprietor
“Get Different”
Walk-Ins Welcome
(ring bell for service)

A short corridor and a long stairway were all that could be discerned through the smoky glass door. With nothing to do and less to hope for, Stephen rang…

***

Here’s another reason why narrating the story in the present tense might be misleading, or at least weird. It’s because time is out of joint between the making-of and the made.

In diagetic time, Stephen and Martin are the two guys walking out of the bar in the opening scene. They part ways, and the narrator follows Stephen on his solitary walk down the block from Martin’s office. Diagetically, this is a single continuous scene. From the making-of standpoint it is not. The opening scene in the bar and the beginning of the out-the-door stroll were written in November 2010, but the passage in which Stephen happens upon the Salon Postisme was written much earlier. I don’t even know quite when I did write it. In November 2003 I incorporated the bit about Hanley finding the Salon into an earlier version of this book, but the annotation I wrote at the time indicates that it was a fragment “imported from prior work.” I probably wrote it sometime in 2001, but I can’t put my hands on the original. Between one sentence and the next in the same paragraph there’s a gap of nearly ten years. Portals, intervals, alternate realities.

***

In the beginning the Elohim created the heavens and the earth and the earth was formless and void…

In the beginning, Genesis 1 reads like a continuous narrative: only the small and ubiquitous Hebrew conjunction and separates the Bible’s first two references to the earth. But doesn’t the continuity convey the impression that the Elohim did not create the universe ex nihilo, but rather that he (or they) came upon a pre-existing formless void and organized it? That’s heresy. To reconcile the canonical text with orthodox theology sometimes calls for hermeneutical creativity. Advocates of what has come to be known as Gap Theory propose that something went wrong between verse 1, when God created the earth, and the formless void of verse 2. Perhaps an extended interval should be inserted between the first two verses, an interval that lasted for eons. Geologic eras came and went; ice ages alternated with times of tropical warmth. A wide array of life forms emerged and thrived. Maybe even the primates, even those which paleontologists regard as forerunners of homo sapiens, appeared on the scene. Then some sort of widespread evil corrupted the earth, causing everything to wind down and to fall apart. Floods and earthquakes, volcanoes and meteors disrupted land and sea and sky; every species went extinct. What had been created as an orderly world degenerated into the formless void of Genesis 1:2. There’s something alluring about the idea of opening up the tiny space between verse 1 and verse 2 and seeing inside of it an entire prehistory of the world lasting billions of years. It’s an exegesis based on the space between words, on the absence of written evidence – as if the meaning of the text is to be found not in the words themselves, but in the spaces between the words; as if all Biblical meaning consists of what is not written.

[Editorial Note:  In the prior paragraph there’s a temporal gap in the writing. The first four sentences I wrote just now; the rest I cribbed from a nonfiction book about Genesis 1 that I wrote in 2005-6. Three years later I dismantled and fictionalized that book, turning it into what is now the seventh volume in the cluster of novels.]

***

Then the Elohim blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it he rested from all his work which the Elohim had created and made. This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that Yahweh Elohim made earth and heavens…

The first sentence wraps up the seven-day creation narrative; the second introduces the Garden of Eden story. There’s not even a chapter break separating these two accounts: one follows the other as part of Chapter 2. But the details of the creation as it unfolds are not compatible between the two accounts. In the second story Yahweh creates Adam out in the desert, then he plants a garden in the east, then he brings Adam into the garden to tend it, then he creates all the beasts and birds and brings them to Adam so that he can name them. It reads as if the gods (elohim is a plural noun) created the larger world first, and then later one of the gods, named Yahweh, created his own microworld inside that larger world, in the desert of the Real as it were, outfitting it with his own plants and his own gardener.

But what about the sequence in which these creation narratives were written — the making-of of the Making-Of? The Documentary Hypothesis contends that the Garden narrative was written hundreds of years before the Seven-Days narrative, and that only later did redactors reverse the sequence in the canonical merged text. Now the Seven Days can be read as a just-so story contrived by priests for justfiying landowners’ exploitation of peasants. Why do we have to work six days straight, with only one day off? Because that’s how God did it. And why do we have to go to temple? Because God blessed and sanctified the seventh day. For the landowners that sort of mystification must have been worth the ten-percent tithe. Of course it’s only a hypothesis: the originals can no longer be retrieved from the archives.

***

If there’s one book that has exerted the greatest influence over my fictions, it’s the Bible. Here we find a congeries of textual fragments, written by many authors in many styles over hundreds and hundreds of years, cobbled together into a single, continuous, third-person preterite narration. But the seams and the sutures are still evident in places. Prying them open, the reader gets a glimpse into the tohu vabohu, the Formless Void, on whose surface the whole Creation bobs along like a flimsy raft.

10 November 2013

Iconology

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:26 pm

I posted the very beginning of the first novel three years ago, shortly after I wrote it. I was planning to read the first chapter to a writer’s group to which I’d been invited by my neighbor. I had attended once before, and the story I’d read had been well-received by the group. At the next session I hoped to discuss with the group the abrupt shift from second person present to third person preterite. That discussion didn’t happen, and I didn’t get back to thinking about the narrative tenses until writing my making-of post the other day. I also had hoped to discuss with the group a couple of iconic images included in the second paragraph of the book: one based on a famous Manet painting of the bar at the Folies Bergère; the other, the image of a woman stenciled on a sidewalk near where I lived. That conversation too proved abortive, as those of you who have been following along with my blogged adventures might remember. Two days later I wrote a brief summary post about the group: “No thanks, but I don’t believe I’ll be back next month.” In a comment Asher asked for further elaboration. I replied:

I’d say this particular group is about cocktail hour chitchat and extended discussions of obscure 19th-century writers’ personal correspondences and striking the studied poses of literati dickwads and cunts. Or maybe it was just me.

Embedded in the longer rant I recounted in greater detail the discussion of the Manet, which serves as a model for the bar and the barkeep in my story:

I read the first chapter of the current novel that begins with the Manet bar and the two-guys metajoke, as posted here. I hand around a reproduction of the Manet as a visual aid. The whole chapter takes about ten minutes to read. When I’m finished one guy asks me the date of the Manet painting. I tell him it’s early 1880s (I think that’s right). You know it’s remarkable, the guy responds, but that wasn’t long after the Paris Commune. The guy with the Middlemarch marginal notes then remarks pithily about the ongoing Prussian occupation of Paris and Flaubert’s political views as reflected in his notebooks. This led to a lively conversation between these two dickwads. What about my chapter, I ask. Perhaps a bit confusing, one offered. I’m sure it is confusing if you’re too drunk and self-absorbed to pay attention.

See what I did there, shifting mid-paragraph from present to preterite, then back and forth again? Is it a sloppy mistake or a stylistic maneuver? We’ll let the biographers of the future decide. But back to the iconic images. Here’s something from the second novel in the cluster (or maybe it’ll turn out to be the third):

Prestige is a conjuror’s trick, said Prop Immo. Doubly fantastic, prestige is a force generated simultaneously by the magician’s skill and the observer’s fantasies. Held spellbound, the captive of prestige experiences the enchanted object as somehow both more substantive and more mystical than other worldly things.

And what of the one who owns and controls such objects? ‘Among countless stones, one stone becomes sacred – and hence instantly becomes saturated with being.’ Mircea Eliade tells us this. If I possess the sacred stone, I too become saturated with being.

What I wanted to discuss with the literati dickwad society was this sense of the ordinary object attaining iconic status. Would Flaubert’s painting have attracted my attention walking through the Courtauld in London if it hadn’t already accumulated layers and layers of plenitude, meriting its prominent and singular display in the gallery? Would I have been held captive by its prestige, to the extent of buying a print in the gift shop, carrying it home in an architect’s tube, having it framed and hung on the wall? Would its plenitude have persisted years after I’d given the print away to our daughter’s violin teacher, such that when I started thinking about the look and feel of a fictional bar it was Manet’s rendering that came to mind? For me the print of the iconic painting had again become an ordinary object, a quotidian presence to which I had grown inured through repeated exposure. Only later, after it was long gone, did my mental image of that withdrawn object re-enchant itself. Eliade goes on:

The object appears as the receptacle of an exterior force that differentiates it from its milieu and gives it meaning and value.

The stenciled woman too: anonymous but numinous, she too is imbued with magic. I put up a post about her, others reported sightings, no one knew who she was or who had made the stencils. I saw her image nearly every day: as the stencil gradually eroded her plenitude increased. In the text I set the barkeep inside one icon, while from her necklace the other icon appeared as a pendant. It’s not surprising then that the barkeep herself is gradually transformed into an iconic figure. And it is she who picks up the stone on her way to the shrine, an Eliadic stone that she commemorates in her poetic soliloquy appearing near the end of the sixth book.

An icon operates as a portal, leading through itself into another dimension, another reality, another web of meanings in which the world is embedded. But how does it get that way? Is it placed by the gods in our midst, disguised as an ordinary thing, waiting for us to discover its secrets and its depths? Does someone consciously select it, assigning its function that the rest of us are expected to honor? Does it call attention to itself, spanning the gap between it and you at some level beneath your conscious awareness? Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls, the Psalmist writes.

There are sacred artists who intentionally create objects intended to span the gap between the material and spiritual realms. On some level all artists are iconographers, their attention drawn by elements of the quotidian that point beyond themselves, linking them together in an alternative weave, together tracing the contours of an alternate reality. Maybe at least some of those who attend to what the artist is pointing at can glimpse it too, can hear its call, can step through the portal.

Bad juju too works this way. My desultory experience at the writer’s group is repeated in my memory, and repeated again in my subsequent description. Much later that description is expanded and incorporated into an early chapter of the sixth novel. It had been a brief and trivial occurrence; now, having fallen under the resentful iconographer’s spell, it is revealed as a portal. Through the narrow and jagged aperture can be glimpsed a sliver of the eighth circle of hell, wherein the literary dickwads and cunts remain fixed for eternity in their statuesque poses of studied pomposity, gracefully holding their always-half-empty glasses of pinot as eternally they return to their marginal notes on Middlemarch.

8 November 2013

You Walk Into a Bar

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:56 pm

The dining room looks inviting, but today it’s the bar that calls to you.

The first book begins in second person present. A page later “you” watch two guys walk out of the bar. Once they’re out on the street the narration shifts to 3rd person preterite:

Stephen Hanley shaded his eyes with his hand as he and Martin Drake stepped out of the cool dim sanctuary of Rik’s Café and into the midday glare.

This more traditional narrative tense persists until the opening of the sixth book, when finally you find yourself back in the same bar that called to you in the very beginning of the ongoing saga.

Why the second person? Some feel that “you,” the reader, are drawn more directly and intimately into the story that way. I’m not persuaded by my own experiences as reader. Empirical evidence from self-report and fMRI reveals no significant differences in reader engagement between 2nd and 3rd person fictional texts. Besides, if I had been trying to lure you in, I should stick with the second person throughout the book, preferably with the main character being the one who’s addressing you, like he was telling you a long story while the two of you are sitting at the bar together. But the main characters are the ones who walk out the door together, being stalked by the 3rd person preterite narrator, while “you” remain seated at the bar drinking your beer watching them leave.

A gimmick then, a little writerly flash to open with “you are” before abruptly shifting to “they were”? To tell the truth, I don’t recall why I started the book the way I did. It just seemed right. But here’s what I think now, afterward, as reader.

***

When about a dozen years ago I first started delving into fiction, I was at the same time thinking about starting a kind of psychological practice. I thought of calling this practice the Salon Postisme. My job title: not therapist, nor analyst, nor counselor — those roles were already too well-defined for my purposes. To preserve ambiguity, I would call myself the Proprietor of the Salon. This practice, this Salon, this profession — they were just as imaginary as the fiction I was writing. I had no clients, and I didn’t have a scheme for recruiting any. But I needed to go beyond theory into praxis. And so I came to think about fiction-writing as a kind of simulation of the practice, an off-line implementation in which my fictional alter-ego would see fictional clients, implementing the praxis of the Salon Postisme.

Here’s an entry from my notebook dated 24 January 2001, in which I recorded the first tentative description of the fiction that I can locate on a cursory search:

The Proprietor is trying to run the Salon Postisme. He is a bit off, earnest, more conservative than what he wants to promote. His destiny is one of futility, exasperation. He sees himself as a poor man’s Nietzsche, wishes he was a sane Artaud. He is European temperamentally, but stuck as an American. The book is about the Proprietor’s efforts to launch the Salon. There are clients who add to the story. Maybe one is an investor, or is a marketing guy. Or, maybe we just follow these people’s differentiation stories in parallel to the hero’s…

But I wasn’t ready to abandon the real-world practice altogether for fiction-writing. My half-page of notes tentatively describing a possible fiction are interspersed with pages and pages outlining theories underpinning the Salon’s raison d’etre, as well as possible praxes to be implemented by the Proprietor — what I refer to repeatedly in my notebooks as “a pragmatics of delirium.” Eventually I would come to merge the fiction and the nonfiction, regarding the fictional version of the Salon as itself a kind of intervention, with the books’ anticipated readers being my clients.

Years passed. I wrote and edited, rewrote and reorganized. The scenario at the beginning of Book 1, where “you” are in the bar, was written long after the events that unfold immediately after the two guys leave the bar, when one of them signs on as Proprietor of the fictional Salon Postisme. So, back to the original question: why the second person present in the opening bar scene? I think now that it’s a nostalgic nod to the time when I regarded the fiction as a kind of intervention, with me being the analyst and the reader being my analysand. I am addressing the reader directly, as if we were having a conversation at the Salon, which in its present instantiation would occur in the bar that calls to you. But the illusion of being present together doesn’t last. Already by the end of the first page I’ve split off a second, preterite narrator who just walked out the door, following those other two guys down the street, leaving you and the first narrator behind to nurse your beers together in present-tense obscurity.

***

If you google “metaphysics of presence,” the very first link to pop up is my old post about it. I quote Derrida quoting Aristotle:

Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words.

Speaking is more immediate than writing, emanating directly from speaker to listener, carrying a presumably more authentic representation of the speaker’s truth. Speech is more present than text. Writing is deferred, transmitting its truths (or its lies) across a gap in both time and space between the writer and the written. Upon its arrival before the reader, the text has traveled so far from its source that it appears autonomous, disconnected from its source, orphaned, an undead letter uncannily appearing to be the source of its own thoughts rather than the bearer of its author’s.

A text written in the second person present tense seems to manifest a metaphysics of presence, but it’s an illusion — a fiction. There is always a temporal gap between the writing and the reading.  But what about a text written in the preterite — is it truthfully describing occurrences after the fact, as they transpired in the past? A case can be made for the nonfictional reportage of historical events, but not for fiction surely. The fictional events never happened, so it’s a mistake to regard their written record as a true account.

But isn’t it possible for a writer to record on the page mental experiences that came to mind some time ago? I think about Mozart’s claim that he could hear the music fully realized in his head, that all he had to do was write down what he had already heard. I understand that some fiction writers are able to outline their novels chapter by chapter, scene by scene, such that when they actually sit down to write the novel they need only fill in the details that have already been envisioned. Even if those mental experiences are products of the imagination rather than observations of events the composer or fictionalist witnessed in the real world, they are experiences pulled back from the past being documented subsequent to their occurrence — preteritely.

But what if, instead of transcribing what he’s already imagined in his head, the fictionalist is making it up as he goes along? What if he is documenting events in writing that are taking shape coincidentally with their being written? Then the fictional preterite tense is itself a lie, a grammar as fictional as the content encased in it.

Still, even if the writer is actively inventing a fiction in real time, it is taking shape as words, sentences, paragraphs, pages of written text. The act of inventing happens in the present, but the resulting invention is already a fait accompli as soon as the word hits the page or screen. The leading edge of invention is now, but the now is never really here. The writer is always moving on to the next word, leaning into the future. As the text is written it extends backward in time, the beginning continually receding into the past. As soon as you type THE END at the bottom of the last page, the whole writing process has come to an end and the book is finished. Preterite.

But the text. Having taken on an existence of its own independent of the writer, the text persists in the present. There are those who contend that a text is dead, or at best virtual, until someone reads it, is reading it. In a dialectical metaphysics of presence the text continually comes into existence while it is being read, reader and text jointly bringing the text alive like two guys sitting in the bar talking. But what about the text that sits languishing on the shelf or the hard drive, unread? Maybe it lurks, waiting for the reader to bring it to life. Maybe the already-written text exists only in the future tense…

***

In a remarkable synchronicity, Craig Hickman of Noir Realism just put up a post about the preterite tense in fiction.

7 November 2013

Novel Zero

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 12:42 pm

This morning at four I woke up from a dream. I was getting ready to defend my dissertation but, as often happens in dreams, I was running late and I couldn’t find the room. I hadn’t really prepared for the defense, mostly because I had already become bored of the topic and the work I had done on it. Do I know my stuff well enough to do the defense without reviewing and rehearsing? I thought that I did. For the first time I realized that it was actually conceivable that I might fail the defense. I found myself walking along the corridor on the third floor of the psych building at the University of Virginia, where I did my doctorate. My old advisor was looking for a different stairway down to the ground floor because the main stairways were impassible, being completely clogged with countless loose sheets of paper.

So I figure: this dream is a reminder from the unconscious that, even before the first novel in the seven-piece ensemble, I’d written another book for which I might want to revisit the making-of.

***

If we take in our hands any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and evidence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.  – David Hume

Good to do this to Puccini. Relaxing. I wish I were paid… I guess I am paid to do this. What a way to go.  – Subject 36

This is the frontispiece of my dissertation, Expert-Novice Differences in Scientific Journal Scanning. Unlike my dream-self, I was well-prepared for the defense, fully engaged in the process, interested in my work and in the committee members’ responses to it. The defense was great fun. I had reserved a room in the historic Rotunda building, wore my tuxedo, recruited a fellow grad student to serve refreshments before the event. Following a lively discussion all of the committee members signed off. I had attained my merit badge, the Ph.D.

Here is another way of looking at physics: the physicists are men looking for new interpretations of the Book of Nature. After each pedestrian period of normal science, they dream up a new model, a new picture, a new vocabulary, and then announce that the true meaning of the Book had been discovered. But of course, it never is, any more than is the true meaning of Coriolanus or the Dunciad or the Phenomenology of Spirit or the Philosophical Investigations. What makes them physicists is that their writings are commentaries on the writings of earlier interpreters of Nature, not that they all are somehow “talking about the same thing,” the invisibilia Dei sive naturae toward which their inquiries steadily converge.  – Richard Rorty

Rorty was a Professor in the English Department at UVA while I was a grad student there. I went across campus to hear him deliver a lecture on Freud — the only Freud I heard during my years pursuing doctoral work in psychology. I attended Rorty’s colloquium in the Psych Department, a presentation met mostly by the blank-stared indifference of my profs and colleagues. But I had read his Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature; I was aware that Rorty regarded science not as an “accumulation of truths about the world” but as a kind of writing, a collection of artifacts made of words, not so different from fiction.

Subsequently I discovered that Rorty’s view is snugly embedded in  “normal” continental philosophy of science, but as a science student I deemed his ideas about science worthy of empirical investigation. I gravitated toward the scientific study of scientific writing, conducting a series of studies investigating citation patterns in scientific journal articles. And of scientific reading. I had read Fish and Culler and Iser on “the reader in the text,” I subscribed to social  studies of science journals, I even read some Derrida. My dissertation chronicled observations of and interviews with doctoral students and professors in Ecology, Physiology, and Microbiology as they read new research articles in their fields. While there might be good reasons to consign the volume to the flames, my diss would pass Hume’s test: the Results and Appendix sections contain precisely 148 pages of instruments and measures, data tables and inferential statistics,  eigenvalues and eigenvectors, Monte Carlo simulations and multivariate canonical predictive models.

But let’s skip the quantities and numbers and jump straight to the sophistry, consigned per long tradition to the concluding Discussion section of the research report. Here’s the last inference from the empirical findings recorded in my Discussion, before it moves on to implications for future work:

In the discussion of Hypothesis 9 it was proposed that moderately experienced subjects would be more interested than the most experienced subjects in working on and reading about the “hot” topics in their fields. Perhaps scientists from the softer disciplines are likewise more oriented toward hot topics than their hard science colleagues. Hagstrom (1964), in his article on “anomy” in science, proposed a thesis which could explain why this might be the case. According to Hagstrom, the continuing growth of hard sciences is threatened from within primarily because of a tendency to restrict attention to only a few heavily-researched topics. Soft sciences, on the other hand, are more prone to the threat of anomy, or normless alienation, among their practitioners. Anomy occurs when the legitimate topics for scientific exploration become so diffuse that no one’s work is relevant to anyone else’s.

The solutions, said Hagstrom, are clear. Hard scientists must branch out into new topics, while soft scientists must concentrate their efforts on relatively fewer topics. Perhaps the subjects in the present study were implicitly following Hagstrom’s advice. Hot topics, shunned as growth-inhibiting by the hard scientists, were being sought out as growth-enhancing by the soft scientists.

The Hagstrom thesis may also be applicable to the expert-novice differences in reference list characteristics discussed in Hypothesis 9. Less experienced subjects, overwhelmed by the endless diversity of legitimate avenues of inquiry open to them, may become engulfed in scientific anomy. The cure: find a topic that many of one’s colleagues agree is important and get involved. Experienced scientists, having worked for years on the same old topics, may be expected to become bored with their work. The antidote: find a new topic that nobody else is working on and take a shot at it.

And here are the concluding two sentences of the text:

It has been argued here that scientific creativity is contingent upon scientific tradition. Those most likely to generate creative science may be those best able to recognize the traditions of science as they evolve in the scientific literature.

***

It’s been many years since I last looked at my dissertation. Certainly I hadn’t consulted it while envisioning my practice of différance or my cluster of novels. But now, after giving it a quick scan, I find that my dream-double was more bored with it than is my waking self. A number of themes integral to the research program are woven into the later novels. The relationships between external reality and imagination, between truth and text, between science and fiction. The interactions between writer and reader, between individual and collective, between innovation and tradition, between creative passion and group popularity. Anomy and its cure; boredom and its antidote.

If I listen to Rorty then I can regard my dissertation as a kind of fiction. If I listen to myself then I regard my novels as a kind of science, a series of thought experiments conducted on imaginary subjects. For present purposes I’ll call my dissertation Novel Zero in the ongoing series.

6 November 2013

Making-Of as a Kind of Writing

Filed under: Fiction, Reflections — ktismatics @ 4:27 pm

Is there some way of blogging about my own fiction that doesn’t immediately cross over the event horizon into black-hole solipsism? I could emit the brayings of the self-promoter or the advice columnist, but I’m not in the mood for the one and I’m ill-equipped for the other. I don’t believe that I’d be trying to elicit advice from readers, or analysis, or critique, though of course like everyone else I’m often acting under the influence of motivating factors outside of my own awareness, and certainly I am as much an attention whore as the next guy.

Occasionally someone will ask me what I do. Sometimes there’s even a follow-up question: What are your books about? That’s always a stumper for me. Maybe some day, if I work through a self-reflexive reading of my own fictions, I can answer with aplomb and precision. Sure, I understand: most people who pose the question want me to name my genre or, at most, to give them a one-sentence summary, so writing blog posts in response is surely overkill. If I’m going to shop the books to agents/publishers I’ll have to come up with pithy and intriguing descriptions. But why craft these spiels in a public space, rather than in my private notebook? Maybe I imagine a fictional milieu in which the readers of the blog have asked me The Question and really want to know the answer, or want to discuss the possible alternative answers, even if it takes hours, days, weeks…

I could do a “making-of,” offering wry little observations about why I included this little detail in the text or made that particular wording decision. But why would anyone care about how something was made if they haven’t already seen what was made?

Ah to hell with it. I didn’t give much forethought to launching this blog in the first place, or to putting it on pause for the past few months. I’ve often thought that, if I saw the books I’ve written in the New Fiction section of the local bookstore, I would want to read them. So I’m going to do just that. Maybe I can make observations about them not just as writer but also as reader. In offering my remarks in a public forum I will need to take into account that practically no one who reads them will have read the books — a “making-of” without access to the “made.” So maybe I’ll need to use my already-written texts as “prompts” for exploring, and possibly discussing, matters that aren’t actually written in those texts, matters that might have wider import or interest.

I’ll start tomorrow, first novel, first chapter, and see how it goes.

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