A recent short short of mine, “You Are Somewhere Else,” is forthcoming in Visitant and should be available online. As usual, I will post the links when the story comes out. – M
Category Archives: narrative
More developments are emerging regarding Trump’s Russian connections – a new post on Splice Today. Read it here: http://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/sater-cohen-and-the-collapsing-house-of-cards
As I have said many times and in many different ways, graduate study in literature and creative writing is not easy for anyone, even in the most favorable circumstances. There is an inner, emotional, psychological, processual effort that no one talks about and an outer, technical, rhetorical, production effort that everyone takes for granted. Both of these “efforts” are difficult. They must run concurrently and consistently for satisfactory completion of your program. And no one—not advisors or fellow
students—will have the wherewithal to set aside their own problems in order to help you with yours. You are alone. You are responsible for expressing a universe of ideas in your own voice. You will accept this or fail.
If you pay attention, you will soon come to realize that your path is more or less unique—that you’re following a largely self-determined trajectory through the work. It may be partly modeled on someone else’s (such as that of a mentor with a strong personality telling you what you should be reading, writing, and thinking), but ultimately you’re making your own intellectual path by walking it. This is one of the signature characteristics of higher study in the humanities. It may be a strength.
A large part of this blog is dedicated to exploring these things, to making the implicit explicit for the good of those who feel drawn to the discipline of English studies and / or creative writing. It’s clear that I’m critical here of what I often see as hypocrisy and self-serving prevarication in greater academia. But I also disagree with the Libertarian voices currently developing the Don’t Go to Graduate School in the Humanities genre of business-oriented success advice. I think, in spite of very practical arguments to the contrary, if you feel called to study, write, and teach, by all means do it. Just don’t do it ignorantly and learn how to survive afterward so that you can keep doing it. How this unfolds in your life will be a mystery specific to your becoming.
With this in mind, I expose my own values here, my own work, which continues the inner-outer efforts I mention above. The Writing Expedition represents part of my disciplinary “production effort,” dedicated to expressing insights on what I have experienced in this field. Moreover, I think “expressing” is the right word because it implies a dichotomy. In order to ex-press something (or “squeeze out” if we want to look at the origin of the word), there must be an interior area where it already exists. An inner world. Often, a hidden world that can make the dominant scientistic discourse of reductive materialism very nervous. Like it or not, the Academy is subject to the dominant political, economic, and aesthetic tropes and discourses of the day; though, academics often find this distasteful and prefer to ignore it.
The ivory tower covered in camouflage.
It is safe to say that the Academy is an ancient type of institution that has survived to the present by appearing to be what society needs it to be in any era. Study the history of higher education in the West and it is easy to notice that the great universities have not existed in spite of what they imagine to be the barbarism and ignorance of the profane, but as a mode of cultural expression, a conglomeration of beliefs and rituals, a matrix of ideas given a particular form in the material world. In other words, the Academy is an extension of culture. It offers a product that society wants and survives by making that product seem relevant. It has always been that way; though the outer wrapper of the product is redesigned again and again to reinforce existing narratives of power and faith. In the rare times it fails to do this: Kent State, May 4, 1970.
As Martin Petersen writes of CIA tradecraft standards (intelligence agencies being very similar to universities), “We have to establish our credibility and usefulness individual by individual, administration by administration. There is no down time when it comes to quality” (“What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 55, No. 1). Without being too cynical, we could easily convince ourselves that establishing credibility and usefulness is one of the ongoing directives of the Academy: we want to matter.
Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.
When I was in graduate school, studying creative writing and rhetoric, John, a friend of mine there who happened to be a gifted poet, went through a kind of nervous breakdown. Since no one knows what a “nervous breakdown” actually is, we can call it that or we can say he went through a season of harsh depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and emotional pain. His wife described it as a “slow-motion train wreck” and they both tried to laugh about it. But it was real and the pain he went through changed his life.
Before you even think it, I should note that this person is not me. Things may have changed for John since then, but what hasn’t changed is the high-schoolish competitiveness in our colleagues that has lingered for a long time. Since many of them read this blog, I will only tell the part of his story that everyone already knows. And I will do it for a particular reason. Nevertheless, I hope he forgives me for this and understands what I am trying to say. Knowing him, I think he will.
It started with the birth of his daughter in our second year. John had come to the PhD from a high-paying career in industry, such that he didn’t have to take out student loans and could rent a fairly large house (as opposed to the holes most of us were living in). His wife didn’t work and they were living off their considerable savings. Still, the pressure was on, partly because John now had a child to think about, but also because had an immense work ethic and he was no fool. He knew, as did we all, that there were very few full-time teaching positions available and that trying to get one (even getting an interview at AWP or MLA) was like playing the Irish sweepstakes.
Nevertheless, John applied himself, wrote good poems, said smart things, and generally did well. He was older, married, and didn’t waste his time like the rest of us at the sad graduate school parties or looking for love in all the wrong places. He had a particular energy around him that said, I know the truth and, if I don’t know, I’m sure we can discover it together. In short, he seemed like the type who should win the career sweepstakes and become an assistant professor. There should be more people like John in teaching positions. When I think of what it takes to be a great graduate student, I think of him.
But he reached a breaking point, something in his “inner process” that no longer worked the way he thought it should. The reality of being a father had become far more real and compelling than the realities he was creating as a student of English and a poet. His hair turned stark white over the course of a month and he went through a kind of existential fugue, which according to him involved a lot of crying, regret, and hopelessness. Eventually, he dropped out of the program. He moved with his wife and daughter to Arizona to live with his in-laws. And two or three years later re-entered a PhD program at a different university, this time to study British modernism. As far as I know, he’s now a professor somewhere in the Midwest and I am sure he is great.
I tell his story here because although it had an ostensibly happy ending, his dark night of the soul is one that most of us experienced on some level at some time in our work. The difference may have been that he suffered from pressures we didn’t have, destroying the credibility and usefulness of the Academy for him. I believe this as much as I believe that he also lacked certain essential qualities necessary for running those inner and outer efforts concurrently and consistently, at least the first time around.
The voice in the fire: one hears it or one does not.
A teacher of mine once made an interesting observation about “mystery.” The more one seeks out the lacunae in one’s life—the numinous moments, the noetic leaps of high strangeness that result in extraordinary creations, realizations, and states of consciousness—the more mystery seems to increase, not decrease. Seek the mysteries and you will find there are more mysterious things in this world than you ever imagined. Or maybe you will find yourself imagining more such things as you learn to accept new ways of knowing.
Conversely, if you let existing modes of expression, accepted narratives, the exoteric rituals of consensus culture (especially those of the Academy) crowd your senses, ways of knowing will become narrower; meaning will become increasingly delimited and rigid; and the dominant cultural discourses (for us, scientism and reductive materialism) will come to seem all-encompassing. This is what I believe happened to John in his first PhD program. His outer effort was strong, but his inner work was obstructed by the anxiety of feeling responsible for his family. I do not fault him for this. However, I think his experience offers us an interesting lesson.
Recall that the “inner effort” is an emotional, psychological process. It therefore partakes of mystery because interiority cannot be completely mapped. This is where the muse, the creative genius, lives. This is where we dream, where we hear that voice speaking to us about who we truly are and how we must express ourselves. It is the place artists go when they produce authentic and original work.
Funny thing about the muse. She gives and she takes. Dedicate your life to a particular mode of expression and you must always try to hear her. Your sense of the numinous will increase exponentially, but you will also have to make sacrifices. As your outer effort must concern itself with “credibility and usefulness,” your inner effort must be like a love affair with the mystery inside you, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to the inner life of an artist.
Hakim Bey discusses this in The Temporary Autonomous Zone and calls it “sorcery”:
The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water. Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication–but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind—sorcery. Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao. Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow—priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.
A poem can act as a spell & vice versa—but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature–it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies. It is not a critique but a re-making. It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of a paroxysm or seizure of presence.
Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams–the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink—wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures—rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis—the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.
We can just as easily speak of it in terms of embracing a wider spectrum of expression. Viktor Frankl puts it this way: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning).
What, then, is the voice in the fire? It’s not a degree from Yale, tenure, and a tactless sense of entitlement. It’s that unmappable, ineffable interior effort, that numinous guidance system which instructs and inspires us to continue our work. It sustains us through years of advanced study, reveals the mystery inherent in the world (even in something as outwardly mundane as the sight of water), and helps us answer for our lives. If we are responsible practitioners of our art, we will listen to this voice just as carefully as we may express our work-products. If we stop listening and forget the internal process, focusing only on the external product, we will enter the dark night of the soul, which entails a lot of suffering.
This is the meaning of that famous line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If this is the life you choose (realizing that you have been chosen to answer for your life this way), I continue to wish the best for you.
Listen. And seek the mysteries.
So I finally finished Season 5 of Game of Thrones and I know I should be emotionally manhandled at this point by all the cynical backstabbery, but I’m not. Martin Scorsese once said that it’s easy to get your audience to feel something—just put a puppy on stage and drop a safe on it. You’ll get the feels. Sadly (or happily), that doesn’t make for good drama. Here’s my (I know, unsolicited) assessment with as many spoilers as possible now that the last episode has been out for a while. Look away now if you’re still planning on bingeing the season. I haven’t felt compelled to write some kind of review since the second hobbit movie. I know the world is probably better for it but Game of Thrones has had a special hobbity place in my heart ever since I watched the first season sick in bed in Bujumbura. So here it goes.
The Artist Formerly Known as Theon: whatever. He has a Vader moment and takes a leap off the battlements with Sanza, the girl with the same two alternating expressions since the beginning of the show. Okay. If the fall doesn’t make them both quadriplegics in Season 6, I’ll be rooting that they don’t get flayed and salted into Bolton jerky. That’s good, I guess. I have a hard time caring about what has happened to Theon’s manhood or Sanza’s happy thoughts.
Ramsay “Lecter” Bolton: everybody wants him to die horribly because he’s such a sadistic yet annoying formulaic psychopath. He has everything Nazi but the dueling scars and the monocle, even the black leather get-up. I think his best quality is the frozen maniacal grin that every Nazi doctor from Central Casting has had since Laurence Olivier did Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man. That was in 1976. I was 3 years old. And, believe me, I can appreciate the number of torture-obsessed Nazi doctors churned out by Hollywood since then.
If Iwan Rheon radiated just a bit more charm, he could star in some deflated prequel to Silence of the Lambs. His character’s personality has zero depth, which, ironically is realistic when we think about how stunted serial killers and mass murderers are said to be in real life. Still, real life should not intrude when it would make a character tedious. If we don’t want to dwell on the obvious Hannibal Lecter contrast, we can always recall Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bülow in Reversal of Fortune. Claus is evil, yes, and we think he probably killed his wife. Yet we just don’t care because the man has wit. Ramsay could use some wit, even just a little.
Stannis: he, however, gets 3 whole expressions: exasperation, bewilderment, and dread. And he doesn’t have to go through them sequentially anymore. He burns his unrealistically angelic daughter, Shireen, at the stake because vampy evil stepmother Melisandre says the kid has to go. As soon as Davos gives Shireen the carved deer, we know the kid is done for. The whole arc is a sad case of writerly: look, I’m not pulling any punches here! I mean it! Nobody is safe! But if we don’t care about the characters—if they don’t have depth, if there is no redemptive vision at all—we’re in a 2D hellworld and everybody is worth exactly nothing. Sure, kill the kid if you want or drop a safe on the puppy. It’s all the same to us. This is hell, after all.
Jamie and Bronn: we know their expedition to Dorne isn’t going to end well. One good thing is that we keep expecting Bronn to be horribly eviscerated, stuffed with scorpions, and lit on fire by the end of their adventure, but all he gets is a sexy bite on the ear lobe. Otherwise, more backstabbery. In a country where everyone looks like Portuguese supermodels and dresses like medieval Turks, I guess you have to fall in love and someone is then required to put poison in your tea and you’re then fated to wake up in bed covered with snakes. Or something. You will still find the person who did it incredibly attractive. One other thing is also certain: sweet and innocent daughters of noble houses die horribly. We know that already.
Arya Who Joined the Zen Death Circus: This has been my favorite plot strand. But by Episode 10, Arya has also gotten predictable. She was interesting for a long time—until she took revenge (oddly unsatisfying for all its gore) on demonically one-dimensional Sir Meryn. Faceless Assassin Master Po blinds her after some intentionally obscure Zen bullshit about “being no one.” All of it is a let-down because blinding is not what Arya needed. Transforming / revealing a new side to her character is what she needed. We all want her to either accept her new identity as a magical assassin or reject it and evolve into someone different. But we don’t get character change. We get Zen bullshit and Mission Impossible CGI masks. Disappointment—we get that, too. I miss The Hound. Bring back The Hound. At least, he was funny.
Of Cersei, what is there to say? take one of the most beautiful actresses in the world; strip her down; and have a scene where she does the medieval walk of shame. It again works a la the safe and the puppy. Cersei’s hateful for most of the show up to this point (that’s 5 years of hate, people—think about it). So we’re meant to have mixed feelings about her “atonement.” And the whole scene has unintentional Monty Python potential. I don’t know. Lena Headey can read the dictionary in a space suit and it wouldn’t matter. We’ll still watch and try not to blink. Bright sparkles will still be floating around her in the air. But I didn’t quite believe the walk of shame scene was authentic, which is to say organic, to her character development. I know that sort of thing really historically happened (doesn’t matter, this is King’s Landing not Earth). And I know the plot can (barely) support the scene (also doesn’t matter). I just don’t think Cersei—as we have come to know her—would submit like that. One of the reasons she’s so compelling is that she does have dimensionality to her character. She does have wit. She has strong emotions and uncompromising direct motivations. We want her to do something grand. Instead, we are given nakedness and rotten fruit. And it doesn’t enhance our insight into her. It also doesn’t cause her to change. She takes a lot of abuse and has revenge in her eyes by the time she gets back to the castle. Right. But what else?
Lastly, Jon Snow really does know nothing: His is the only death I actually believe—surprising because it isn’t surprising at all. The Castle Black plot strand is, in my opinion, stronger than the others. I found myself wanting Alliser Thorne to remain the prick that we all feel he is. And I wasn’t let down at all. Still, I don’t really believe that Jon Snow is actually dead. Maybe so. Maybe not. Of all the characters in the show, I care about him the most. I think this is because he has some redemptive qualities. He’s not just a resident sufferer in Hellworld. He’s trying to find and sustain some sense of justice. This is why I think we might be seeing him again in Season 6. Without him, Game of Thrones has no soul.