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They had fun too

They had fun too

At the Existentialist Cafe, by Sarah Bakewell
At the Existentialist Cafe, by Sarah Bakewell

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’s At 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 character 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.

Existentialism itself does too. It’s about Time.

 

 

The Decision

The Decision

building

And he thought about building
Crafting
Making things

Merging the useful with the useless
To some

For there are beings in this world
Who care nothing for beauty

There are beings in this world
Who care nothing for art

So he would build the functional
And make it sing for the tone deaf

For the colorless he’d make
Things bloom in usefulness

But then he thought
Why work so hard
For them?

For the beings who pass it all by
As if it’s just an obstacle in their way?

Why destroy himself for their sake?
He wondered

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But he remembered her and that walk
Along the strand and the found things
The found-art things that sang to them both

Like some lost child or lost friend
They thought they’d never see again
In this world

In this battered old world of obstacles to shatter
And eclipse

Thrown into Being

Thrown into Being

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The clearing
She thought she heard

The last clearing
It was Heidegger’s not hers
And after his keyre
His turn

So many turned on him
But not for that
For other things like his falling out of Being
With the world

With the world as it ought to be

So she passed through that last clearing
On her way to something nonfictional
Non-mythical
. . . beyond epic legend and folk-tale

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Existence comes before essence she thought
Or we have essentialized all mythologies

Deifying the final clearing
Waiting for gods and goddesses who toy with us
Reverses that
Reverses existence and essence

So that there are no white-capped mountains
Or heathered valleys or suns or half moons
In real time
Only in stories and black words on the page

And we seek both she thought
We seek lost words and brave actions
And projects for our lives
In real cities and real towns

Through the clearing beyond the black clouds

 

Being With Time

Being With Time

Angles of Being I push awayangles5
Like winter visions in summer
Or summer sweat in the fall

I fall for it all the time
The angles of Being as if
They existed like that

Just like that in realities
We can’t fathom and never
Will see

Because our senses are puerile
In the grand scheme of things
In the swelter of summer

In the mists of winterish
Storms and  howls
And legendery wooshing

Like some pack of grey wolves
Glowing across the bad lands
Towering above us all like black clouds

    The winterish heart of Being survives
            In the midst of this or that spring

thetrees3

Being with time
Being with time for the crash
For just a third or fourth shattered sound
For just an inch of crescendo

I wander between the angles
And the wisp of a chance
That it will ever

                    Ever see me again

 

 

Room

Room

We adapt. We create new fictions in order to adapt. The more things are beyond our control, the more fictions we create. This is the basic setup for one of the best films of 2015, “Room,” starring Brie Larson, who won an Oscar for her role as Joy, mother of five-year-old Jack.

The room in question is a shed. It’s their entire world, mother and son’s. They are not allowed to leave. Joy invents games and stories and explanations for Jack, in order to make this extraordinary situation ordinary. She invents games and stories and explanations in order to shield her boy from the harsh realities of life as a captive, a woman kidnapped seven years ago by a man they both call “Old Nick.”

We learn bits and pieces of their story as time goes on, but, at first, the freakish abnormality appears almost normal — Joy’s plan for her son. Just the two of them, making the best of it, with the occasional bouts of anger and rebellion from Jack, which Joy tries to defuse with anxious, worried love, never giving up hope of escape entirely, though she hides this from her son.

Emotions fly. This is a very emotional movie,  but never cheaply so. No Hallmark card, this. No saccharine uplift. No oversimplified mother and son dynamics. It’s very real, despite the surreal conditions and locale. They fight. When things change dramatically for mother and son, new experiences force new dynamics and they fight in different ways. But there is always love there. There are always deep, human connections and bravery and a sense of wonder at the world, no matter how large or small.

This is a truly wonderful movie, one that sends your thoughts out in a thousand different directions. It makes you see things in a different way, in many different ways, which is something Art does better than anything else.

 

 

What is the Holy?

What is the Holy?

Van Gogh. Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset, 1890
Van Gogh. Two Peasant Women Digging in a Snow-Covered Field at Sunset, 1890

The holy is not the gods. Humans have been told about thousands of different gods, for thousands of years, primarily to steer us into obedience of earthly powers, and to make us give up our searching.

The holy is not religion. Religions were designed to organize this obedience, to add layers and layers of fictional supports, to add so many layers our heads spin, so we give up our searching.

The holy is not empire, or nation, or nation-state. These things are formed to protect earthly power, with layers and layers of fictional supports, to make our heads spin, while they and their religions use the old gods and the new to make us obedient, so we give up our searching.

The holy is not money, or capitalism, or corporation. These things are used to power empire, or usurp it, to defend, expand or subsume it, so we remain in obedience to the old gods and the new, and stop our searching.

 

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The holy is art, music, literature and philosophy, and whatever pushes us beyond all boundaries, so we stop obeying and go on searching.

The holy is song and the space between, the moment above the sunrise, the first step after, that we may cast out our sad, defeatist, settling natures and soar above them, and go on searching.

The holy is what makes children run from here to there, breathless with excitement, too excited to walk, much less stand still, because they seek freedom from obedience, and must go on searching.

The holy is the ground of love, because it gives us strength of heart, to go on and on, and moments of rest to prepare for journey, and new ways to look at horizons. It is both elixir and nourishment, sustenance and accelerant, and what searchers sometimes need to prevent walking blindly. For blindly searching is just a different kind of obedience, to another false god, and another. It is not freedom from. It is not the holy.

 

 

Don DeLillo’s Zero K

Don DeLillo’s Zero K

Zero K, by Don Delillo. 2016
Zero K, by Don Delillo. 2016

Don DeLillo, the author of White Noise and Underworld, has given us one of his best novels to date at the ripe old age of 79. The subject matter is fitting. It’s about mortality, life after death — or its absence — and is a poetic meditation on the potential of science to extend said life. It may also be about the potential for junk science to heighten and exploit our delusions regarding the hereafter, but DeLillo doesn’t tell us how we should take this. One way or the other. And its success, its strong, compact prose, its aphoristic beauty in parts, its solid craftsmanship, also go against one of my own (poorly supported) theories about artistic creation: That its quality tends to go down over time, and with novelists, especially, declines rapidly after one’s 30s or 40s. DeLillo is clearly, skillfully playing with our prejudices and beliefs on several levels. What is “decline”? Is it all in our heads? Is it something we can prevent? Should we even try?

“Gesso on linen” is one of the enigmatic phrases we get from the narrator’s father, Ross Lockhart, a billionaire in search of a cure for his dying wife, Artis. But not just any kind of cure. A cure that entails her being frozen and stored in a cryogenic pod for who knows how long. Hopefully, so she can awaken one day into a new world where her disease no longer exists, and her mortality is just a memory. To me, this is also an apt metaphor for life’s start in general, for what a painter faces with a new canvas, or a writer when she begins the book, for what any artist must do first before they make art. It may also be that one of the book’s chief locales, underneath an unspecified Asian desert, is just such a foundational moment and place, the gesso on linen needed to induce creation.

And that underground bunker is described in ways uncertain, as a mystery of sorts, and reminded me of Sci-Fi novels from the past, as did the mood set by the narrator. Likely taking their cue from Poe, at least indirectly, many a Sci-Fi book tries to set a mood of the ordinary in the extraordinary, the calm in the midst of a strange and magical storm. The narrator, Jeffrey, does this as well, for the most part, virtually never raising his voice, and almost always speaking in short, measured, careful sentences, reaching the level of poetry at times. There is also one beautiful change-up roughly in the middle of the narrative where the style shifts to match the subject of childhood, and becomes child-like itself — then shifts again. Jeffrey twice voyages to the unknown, underground, with his father, like a Virgil, or a Heracles, harrowing hell.

But it’s not really hell. It’s more like a waiting room between light and darkness — though, again, DeLillo is too smart and too skilled to ever tell us how to think of these things. He presents us with evidence, metaphors, descriptions of our world and the one that seeks escape from it, and then lets us choose. In this way, it differs from his earlier books, which were more insistent and urgent regarding these choices, that we see the systems, above and below ground, and their effects for what they are, now, before it’s too late. In a sense, Zero K assumes it’s already too late, and that our choices don’t really matter, other than choosing which kind of boat for our final departure.

I also really liked one of the habits of the narrator. He feels compelled to name people he doesn’t know, and generally doesn’t want their real name to intrude upon this. Where some people might play the vocation game on a subway, or in a restaurant, and weave stories about secret agents or killers on the loose, Jeffrey seeks to bestow names on people he meets or sees from a distance. He tries to make the name suit his vision of that person, using ethnic clues, personality traits, and other hints to get there. It must calm him in some way, because he almost always seems so calm, again, even in the midst of the extraordinary. Jeffrey is so like an author, or an author’s author.

Perhaps my only (very minor) quibble with the book is I wanted more. I wanted to hear more about Jeffrey’s relationship with his mother, Madeline, who preceded Artis in Ross’s life. I wanted to know more about Jeffrey’s lover, Emma, and her possibly autistic son, Stak. Down in the bunker, on his second and last visit, the narrator sees scattered (news) images of the makings of an apocalypse, death and destruction, wars, famine, torture, and the very young Stak is a part of it, as a soldier now. This is a leap from our last sighting of the young man, though it follows from that sighting and is internally consistent. And the form DeLillo chooses in this novel, elliptical, aphoristic in parts, accepting of mysteries, lacunae and pregnant gaps in time, supports the lack of details I might otherwise want to see. Filling in those gaps would likely destroy the integrity of the story as written. But rereading the book . . . rereading it could both support its integrity and resolve the minor quibble.

Of all the “faults” a book can have, that must rate among the least. Needing to be reread, and provoking that call.