Did I bring them closer
Together in this soap opera chain-
Did I care once about her
And her high looks soft
Threat of a voice
Long drink of eyes waiting
It’s strange no it isn’t
Now I’m old and they’re young
And even though I must be above putting things
In nice boxes
I have to start doubting my level of Reason
And my need to find my age
Wherever it may have gone
They say that no one is
Over Thirty without at least
One or more of the following . . .
— But let’s not mourn for dead things material issues
Bound to upset and suffocate us the social
Phenomena are not worth a lousy poem
If she and I had met first if
It had been on the strand
In the moonlight
Headphones playing Mozart quadraphonically
I take her phones off she
Takes mine off and the night
Follows the music
Played more beautifully deeply
Waves as melody omen future ground and rhythm
The sea pressing against us pressing our bodies against . . .
Lucky for me I still have
This inner life
This cradle of fire-visions
I go to my spot. It’s my spot though it’s everyone’s. It’s everyone’s though it’s really just mine. Because I say so. Because I believe the rocks, the trees, the birds, the clouds all speak for me. They are my eyes and ears and voice. Voices. Plural times plural. So close to infinity, but not quite.
Again, because that is my thinking and I don’t really want to take the easy way out.
The easy way out would be to let go of time and just claim the infinite, always, everywhere
Which really means no time and nowhere. Or does it? It could. It really could, but then
The amber rocks, the powder blue skies, the stunted, evergreen tree at the heart of things
Would disappear, and they rebel against that. They rebel against my ideas.
So an alternative arrives. Think music. Think contra-sounds. Instead of the mountain’s wind, the flow between the rocks and trees, the beating core of the mountain itself, I listen to Dylan. I listen to the first modern troubadour to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I listen to old music, music that has the weight of folk culture and icons on its back.
Songs that are so familiar, we don’t even remember who wrote them. Like an oral tradition before Homer, sampled by Homer and the bards who followed him.
Decades before he left Minnesota for New York, we would have called them standards — or something like that. But after Dylan we just call them songs without origins, iconic, archetypal, leading to studies we might then call seminal, classic.
And this merges with the mountain, because it can’t. It really can’t possibly do this but it does. I see the amber rocks in a different way, with the notes and lyrics hovering over it like gray clouds, spots of sunshine, flashes of light. Its calm is shattered or augmented or aligned with ancient songs written a few decades past, when the world was young, when America was young, breathless, hope-filled and crazy with love. Crazy with a sense of brand new things, before it drowned itself in irony and cynicism and much worse — hate.
The sacred tree is vulnerable to these things. The sky is too. The smell of sweet wind and its patently lonely sounds focus the swirl of angst, the children of dread, bearing down on Dylan and his words of love and warning. So much has changed. So much is lost. Can I cling to the ancient mountain still as mine, as the seat of near-infinity?
Genius is the kind of film literary buffs may like a lot more than we should. One reason for this, I’m guessing, is the rarity of the subject matter for a Hollywood production: literary lives. Specifically, the dynamic between editor and novelist. Maxwell Perkins and Thomas Wolfe are the central characters, with cameos from Fitgerald and Hemingway, two (more famous) authors Perkins also helped usher into world renown.
Colin Firth plays Maxwell Perkins, with Jude Law as Wolfe, Laura Linney as Louise Perkins and Nicole Kidman as Aline Bernstein, Wolfe’s patroness and lover. It may seem odd that most of the leads are British or Australian, and that the New York scenes were mostly filmed in Manchester and Liverpool, UK. Especially strange, perhaps, because Wolfe, the Asheville, North Carolina native, was quintessentially American, an important precursor for artistic movements like the Beats. They who lusted so for the “real America.” But it works. It works. And it’s funny at times, too, like when Wolfe’s second manuscript is hauled into Perkins’ office, a dozen or so piles of highly stacked hand-written pages, waiting for his no doubt tired eyes. Luckily for both Wolfe and Perkins, Scribners had a large staff of secretaries who worked tirelessly to change the hand-written pages into typed works, ready for the editor’s pen.
I liked that it showed how possessed with words Wolfe was, how he just couldn’t stop writing, couldn’t stop the flow of words, couldn’t sleep. It reminded me of Picasso and his manic painting, sculpting, myth-making, driven as if by demons to always make art. Wolfe died far too young, at the age of 37, to experience the fall off from that high, from the feeling that you can’t not make art. So he will always be for us at the pinnacle of that fever. All 6’5″ of him. It never broke for Wolfe. He likely never experienced the frozen emptiness of searching for a lost muse. But some of us have lived long enough for that, for the end of fevers and staying up all night, thrashing around inside our heads and hearts to focus the chaos and bring it out, reshaped, into the world.
For decades, it was conventional wisdom that Maxwell Perkins shaped Wolfe’s best (and first) novel, Look Homeward, Angel, into something coherent, accessible, a work of genius. But in recent times, some scholars have countered this by saying that the conservative Perkins cut far too much, and not always for valid reasons of aesthetics. If he thought something was offensive on religious grounds, or wasn’t patriotic enough, or might offend sports lovers, he cut it out. Which led a couple of scholars to bring out Wolfe’s original manuscript, with its original title, back in 2000. I haven’t read O Lost: A Story of the Buried Life, yet, but it’s on my list. So I don’t really know if those scholars have a solid case against what Perkins did. The movie doesn’t take that angle, of course, being more concerned with giving Perkins his due. The argument seems strong that it’s time for this. Like a river flowing back to its (parental) source. It doesn’t have to be either/or, when it comes to art.
A fine book, and timely. It provokes much thought, about how we live our lives, how we can better see the world and our own place within it. Sarah Bakewell’sAt the Existential Cafe is a group biography, in a sense, about several individuals, a movement, a few key countries, and one city, especially: Paris. She gives us the philosophical background, places her main characters in proper context, shows how they lived and loved, together and apart.
Some of them had fun, despite the talk of anxiety, nothingness and the absurd. Perhaps because of that talk. They drank the night away. Often. Some danced and danced well. They didn’t seem to sleep much at all, especially Sartre who we learn took too many drugs to wake up and fall asleep. And, for a time, they shook things up and all kinds of people wanted to know what the big deal was, especially in America. Many wanted to be existentialists, or dress like them, or think they dressed like them. Because cross-cultural ties were crossing back and forth, and the French and German existentialists often wanted to emulate certain aspects of American life, while Americans wanted to emulate the existentialists. It was all the rage in the late 1940s and 1950s and still haunts our culture, though we no longer really see it or acknowledge it. In our movies, especially, when the subject turns to authenticity, nonconformity, the absurdity of life, existentialism is likely there.
The book builds. It’s fairly short, given the subject matter, at roughly 327 pages before notes and such. At least it seems short. Too short, for me. I wanted to spend more time with my old friends, and I really liked that the author and I first learned about most of these characters at roughly the same time, give or take a few years. The 1980s. A time, ironically, that seemed like the anti-existentialist decade par excellence, and still does. The decade of Reagan, New Wave music, John Hughes and Wall Street. It was a rebellion against the rebellion of the 1960s, and the dazed and confused 1970s. It was a running away from all things noir, “authentic,” too deep, into an embrace of masks and the future, aliens and weird science and the beginnings of the mass computer age. It was an embrace of “nerds” who were different from their classmates, but the same as their peers. It was, like all decades, a bit dazed and confused too.
But I digress. Sarah Bakewell’s book isn’t about all of that. It’s not a review of the 1980s. It’s mostly a story of Dasein, Heidegger’s Being, and how his work sprang in part from Husserl’s phenomenology, and how Husserl’s work sprang in part from Brentano’s, and how Heidegger influenced Sartre and so on, and how Heidegger’s Dasein fell out of favor, for a host of reasons, but the chief being his time as a Nazi. And it’s about the opposite part of the political spectrum from that, too, the left. How Sartre and Camus, both leftists, broke over political issues, and how Sartre and Merleau-Ponty also broke over leftist politics. But it’s also about one of the most unfairly neglected philosophers of that time, Simone de Beauvoir, and her most important contributions, her life with Sartre and others, her fierce loyalties. She deserves a renaissance all her own.