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Alice Kaplan: Looking for the Stranger

Alice Kaplan: Looking for the Stranger

Looking for The Stranger, by Alice Kaplan. 2016
Looking for The Stranger, by Alice Kaplan. 2016.

Biographies of writers, artists, musicians and the like fill our libraries to the brim. But in recent years, a new kind of bio has emerged: the “life” of a particular work of art. One very fine example of this sub-genre is Alice Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger.

The book gives us a brief (but continuous) bio of Camus, his birth and early years in Algeria, providing the North African as well as Parisian contexts for his literary output before, during and after WWII. She takes us through the process of his writing, beginning with several early missteps and rejections along the way, and then follows him almost chapter by chapter through the completion of his short but seminal novel of the Absurd. Along the way, we’re introduced to key people in the life of the novel, its gestation and the road to its publication in 1942. Perhaps the most important of these are Jean Grenier, Pascal Pia and André Malraux. In an epilogue she all but solves a minor mystery from The Stranger, via legwork likely provoked by a more recent novel, The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. Daoud’s novel tells the story from a radically different angle and voice: Harun, the brother of Meursault’s victim. In The Stranger, an unnamed Arab is killed by the anti-hero Meursault, and Camus had based parts of this fictional encounter on real-life events. Friends of Camus, Edgar and Raoul Bensoussan, unwittingly provided perhaps the central image for the novel with their knife fight on a beach in Oran. But neither Camus nor his earlier biographers tell us the name of the Arab, fictional or otherwise. In real life, two Arab men had engaged with the Bensoussans on that “European’s only” Algerian beach. Alice Kaplan reveals the human being behind the novel’s cipher.

The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. 2014
The Meursault Investigation, by Kamel Daoud. 2014

The epilogue points to deeper ironies and tragedies as well. Most readers likely associate “the stranger” with Meursault, though extending this beyond his orbit isn’t difficult, given the story and Camus’s philosophy of the Absurd. And then there’s the fact of French domination and control of Algeria prior to its independence (1962), the horrors of occupation and civil wars, and the absurdity of the Arab majority’s domination by a colonial power. A minority estranged from the motherland; a majority estranged from self-determination; languages and cultures segregated and estranged from one another and their respective histories. Camus, who bravely championed human rights and non-violent emancipation for the vast majority of his life, had perhaps one fatal (though incredibly ambivalent and complex) blind spot: French rule in Algeria. Did he silence another stranger by leaving the Arab without a name, and why? Was this an indirect comment on the massive injustice of colonialism? Or an unconscious signifier of that injustice? This mystery awaits further investigations.

Kaplan, with her short book, and brief epilogue, trips dozens of wires for readers who care deeply about literature, Camus in particular, and the human condition. Highly readable, accessible and concise, this bio aids in our understanding of one of the most important writers in the Republic of Letters, his world and ours.

 

Colors are Heroic.

Colors are Heroic.

Hieros Gamos, by Douglas Pinson. 1982/1983
Hieros Gamos, by Douglas Pinson. 1982/1983

When I was very young, I didn’t see this. I didn’t see the heroism of color, or the way we make colors ourselves, in our eyes, in our mind’s eye, or the bravery of Nature’s way, or its tremendous courage in painting as it does.

Yes, Nature paints, and that’s not just a Romantic notion. It’s not some pseudo-poetic way of describing the ineffable. It just paints. Nothing comes close to the skill set of Nature in regard to — well, everything, really. Especially shadows, colors, light, polarities of darkness and light. And nothing can reach its sublime power in making opposites cohere, mesh, harmonize, complement. In a sense, wash away. In Nature, they become one with the All. But for humans, they mean war.

For us, they mean conflict, battles and war. For Spinoza’s god, they meant the universal orchestra, the mother of all choirs, the pallet of the cosmos. And we don’t even know how many senses might be involved with the orchestra, the choir, the infinite color range — six, thirty, one thousand and one? We don’t know, and likely never will, because we’re human, all too human. It escapes us and our instruments, even after centuries of advancements.

 

Goethe's Symmetric Color Wheel. 1809
Goethe’s Symmetric Color Wheel. 1809

 

Goethe said, roughly translated, “Colors are the deeds of light.” Aside from being a great poet and novelist, he was a scientist who developed his own theories about color, the way we form and interpret them. Few men have tried so hard to merge the poetic with the rational, the rational with the poetic.

From his Theory of Color:

 

Let a small piece of bright-coloured paper or silk stuff be held before a moderately lighted white surface; let the observer look steadfastly on the small coloured object, and let it be taken away after a time while his eyes remain unmoved; the spectrum of another colour will then be visible on the white plane. The coloured paper may be also left in its place while the eye is directed to another part of the white plane; the same spectrum will be visible there too, for it arises from an image which now belongs to the-eye.

In order at once to see what colour will be evoked by this contrast, the chromatic circle may be referred to. The colours are here arranged in a general way according to the natural order, and the arrangement will be found to be directly applicable in the present case; for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands purple; orange, blue; red, green; and vice versâ: thus again all intermediate gradations reciprocally evoke each other; the simpler colour demanding the compound, and vice versa.

We demand certain things: structure, a certain kind of logical connection between elements surrounding us. We form beauty this way, in our eyes, in our mind’s eye. And beauty, the courageous collection of disparate things in context — this may be the the highest height humans can reach. If something isn’t quite symmetrical, we strive to make it so, or, perhaps, get angry. And by pulling this and that out of context (sometimes violently) of what we may consider in that moment asymmetrical or not beautiful . . . we create turmoil, and that can be beautiful too. Or, it can destroy.

If that destruction is just on canvas, or in the dark room, or on a piano, or hammering rocks into certain shapes, if it is sectioned off and made functional for itself . . . But what happens when we take our projections of what should be just so about the world away from Art? What happens when we see our fellow human beings and our environment as definitely in need of sculpting and remaking?

There really is no universal answer. Taoism, thousands of years ago, had some answers that work and work still, but not in all cases, and not for all time. The realization that when we tear something out from its context, sever it from, separate it from, and say it’s “beautiful” — the revelation that this creates conflicts where none existed can take us a long way. Discrimination can be a hateful thing. But without it, we would be less than rocks, never noticing if the wind touching us were cold, warm, wet or dry. But desperately seeking this all the same.

Colors are heroic because they knew this before we knew them.

 

Necessity and Inevitability

Necessity and Inevitability

window5

It’s almost inevitable that the conversation continues. About Art. About the way we humans structure things, because our brains were built that way. About the way we choose to structure poems, plays, novels and such. The rocks we use to get to something else. The fire inside that rock. The spirit of stone the best sculptors find and exploit. It was there all along, they say. And the best don’t just say that, they feel it with every fiber of their Being in the World.

The best art is inexorable, inevitable. I first bumped into that idea, at least in that form, in William Barrett’s Irrational Man, a book I’ve discussed in Spinozablue now and then. There are, of course, many ways to think about the inevitable — in life and art, within our brains, outside them, the connections we invent and those we miss. And we miss so many.

Knowing only this culture first hand, growing up only here, I can’t speak to what others assume across the seven seas. But here, I think “results” mean a great deal. “Winning” means a great deal. So if we move from the Arts into Sports, the inevitable takes another turn. That championship season, in basketball, football, baseball and so on, only appears inevitable after the fact. Then the talk becomes destiny, fate, it was written and therefore . . . . But was it? Was it ever a necessary thing that couldn’t have happened any other way?

The Lament for Icarus, by Herbert James Draper. 1898
The Lament for Icarus, by Herbert James Draper. 1898

The meaning is different when it comes to paintings, novels, musical compositions, poems. Primarily because they are made things, shaped, composed to be whole things. By one person more often than not. Not by a team, with coaches, staff, fans. One creator, in a specific time and place, with unusual levels of control when it comes to anything in our chaos-driven life-world. Not total control, of course. No one has that. No one is immune to forces beyond their five or six senses, their eyes and hands and heart. No one has any control over what came before, their birth lottery, the place and time they fell into this moment of Being. All of that is like a tsunami for the lot of us. To think we have even one iota of a say about our conditions is to make Icarus look humble in comparison.

But, I think it’s safe to say, most of us fall for that self-deluding drug again and again. That we do call the shots, now, here, and that what came before us doesn’t matter, didn’t help us or hurt us enough to matter.

Perhaps music is the purest art when it comes to both creation and reception, at least when it comes to the idea of necessity and the inexorable. The frame of the work allows for this. The notes following notes allow for this. The temporal stream gives us a chance to feel what must come next, and if it doesn’t, if we get that off-note, that bitter discordant surprise, and if the composition doesn’t make this work within that frame, it’s not whole and it didn’t have to be just as it was.

A poem comes close. It, too, has that compact space to work within, so we can follow each word, each sound, the sense of the whole almost all at once. But, unlike music, the sour and the bitter isn’t so immediately apparent, and poems don’t bypass our intellectual circuits the way music can. Written works don’t break through our shields, our analytics so easily. Paintings can, at times — the visual can silence us instantly. But I think there is more latitude for them to play with light, shadow, space and form, so the viewer has more of their own space to feel without thinking something’s wrong, something’s off here.

For most serious artists there comes an epiphany in due time, and for some it never goes away: that we desperately want our works to contain all the arts as One, so they have the immediacy, the rush, the power to break down all barriers, to provoke first emotions and last, and that they strike chords with the intellect at the same time. The impossible. Artists seek the impossible. Necessity and inevitability follow their works as long as they carry that task with them, honor this, never let that go. 

 

Stages Along the Way

Stages Along the Way

stoic3

Mixed feelings. Images clash. I don’t always or sometimes or never believe in phases, set eras, concrete life-steps that group themselves in any rational order. I don’t think we pass through these things on our way to wherever we find ourselves. It’s random. And this belief I feel at times, no times, as if it were always and never, is something that clashes with my art, what I think and feel about art, how it must happen and be.

Order. Order the chaos. Organize the disparate, random elements of our lives and our worlds in such a way that they, for a moment at least, make a certain kind of sense or anti-sense. The opposite of that sense is still a kind of order.

And so we make stories, songs, paint pictures, sculpt the indifferent rock. We infuse meaning and subtext and point to connections that are only there because we say so, and this is beautiful. The best make it sublime. But beneath the surface of our Quixotic arrangements, we find accidents and disorder without connections. We humans desperately need far more than that, and so we turn to art.

Within our own lives we do this too. We strive to order the past and make it cohere, and often succeed in our own minds. We do better than Ezra, eschewing what is botched for what is whole.

As a young man, when I wrote poetry, the Oracle was upon me, and I wrote in that temple, and I mostly believed this was my voice, though irony was never far away. Contrary to the usual stereotypes about aging and a growing sense of guru-wisdom, uncertainty gained ground with every passing year. A sense of doubt and fear about what I once believed encroached upon all of those certainties which, truth be told, were never that set in stone.

So this poem, this missive from that oracular past, is a small taste of where I once was. Can I take it as proof of an actual stage of life? Can I place it within a decade or a constant state of mind that never wavered back then, even though it seems like another world to me now? No answers. Only questions. Only nagging defeats that push me forward. And those defeats are fine as long as I don’t just sit at the gateway, thinking it’s the only possible entryway to what is there for us to test, to measure, to eat and drink and love.

drums2

The Land is a wet Drum

 

The poem of the ocean and the waves
The earth needs us to sing for it
Ask blessings
Not curses
Celebrations we have in joy
For the fields to my left
And the fruit to my right

The young girl with the long thematic hair
Walks by with a guitar
Like mother and babe
And I ask her:
Will you sing the song and psalms of the highest
And the dreams and hopes of the lowest
As we stand in the layers
Like middle generations?

I weep before and after this chord and that strum

There is no wind in the air
No fragrance to remember but I thought
About the melody and wondered
What was closest in nature:
Bird Dolphin Lion or sudden changes
In the wind?
I thought about the thousand moves beyond the cameras
And microphones
The Little Ones and the Slow

In the belly of this mountain a sound must be
Negated by the green and brown cover of trees and grass
And they feel it
The grass is vibrating when I touch it
The trees almost tremble as I climb the branches
Like the trembling circle in a chorus of happiness
Or a couple’s first hour
The cello’s first living hall

            It is the end of spreading out and leaving
The end of walking over
                              Jumping over
The time to smooth over what we have
In storms and through the quiet
Of daylight                Nightspeech

 

 

Dwell Here: Nostalgia’s Graveyard Seductions

Dwell Here: Nostalgia’s Graveyard Seductions

cementery3

 

The poem I sent into the aether yesterday, Probably the Last Dawn Poem, was an old one. It was already a slightly belated look homeward (angel) to a time of some social and romantic turmoil, when my life was at one of its all too frequent “crossroads.” I had written a series of poems ab0ut a young woman with the perfect name for all of this, whom I had fallen for, hard, but who was still entangled with someone else in our little, mostly work-based social circle at the time — and I had come to the conclusion that it was all for naught. I don’t think she ever knew she was my Beatrice for a few months or so, though she must have sensed some edge, some silent pleading in my eyes, my gait, my inconsistent confidence.

Wicca. She was beautiful, pagan, highly literate, a lover of poetry and novels and all the things that fired my imagination too. Calm, more than kind, more than centered, without a hint of smugness or arrogance, this child of Artemis was, I felt at the time, far too good for the person she had chosen to be with, and I thought that needed change. It needed to be me instead. But there was a bit of an age gap between us, with me being the elder, and then I became acquaintances with my “rival,” which complicated matters even more. 

Too cautious by half. At the time, too cautious to the nth degree, this had hurt my chances with another young woman back then, too, obliquely from the same workplace social circle. Her name, unlike Dawn’s, didn’t fit her, at least to me. It seemed at least ironic, if not entirely in conflict with her rebel streak, her independence and her ethnic background: Kitty. And I loved her too. 

He who hesitates and all of that. It’s true. It’s really true. And when we’re young, and we feel that so much is ahead of us, so much time, we toy with this more than we should. We tempt the fates and the furies and postpone this and that, again and again, endlessly. Until there is no more time. Not only in the sense that the door has shut in the present moment, but that our cumulative moments are fast approaching their end.

One of the greatest parables ever written about this and so many other things is Kafka’s Before the Law (Translation by Ian Johnston):

 

Before the law sits a gatekeeper. To this gatekeeper comes a man from the country who asks to gain entry into the law. But the gatekeeper says that he cannot grant him entry at the moment. The man thinks about it and then asks if he will be allowed to come in sometime later on. “It is possible,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.” The gate to the law stands open, as always, and the gatekeeper walks to the side, so the man bends over in order to see through the gate into the inside. When the gatekeeper notices that, he laughs and says: “If it tempts you so much, try going inside in spite of my prohibition. But take note. I am powerful. And I am only the lowliest gatekeeper. But from room to room stand gatekeepers, each more powerful than the last. I cannot endure even one glimpse of the third.” The man from the country has not expected such difficulties: the law should always be accessible for everyone, he thinks, but as he now looks more closely at the gatekeeper in his fur coat, at his large pointed nose and his long, thin, black Tartar’s beard, he decides that it would be better to wait until he gets permission to go inside.

Days, weeks, years pass by. The man spends all of his time, all of his energies and hopes, trying to find a way to get past the gatekeeper, to bribe, cajole, harass his way in. He is forever told no.

Finally his eyesight grows weak, and he does not know whether things are really darker around him or whether his eyes are merely deceiving him. But he recognizes now in the darkness an illumination which breaks inextinguishably out of the gateway to the law. Now he no longer has much time to live. Before his death he gathers up in his head all his experiences of the entire time into one question which he has not yet put to the gatekeeper. He waves to him, since he can no longer lift up his stiffening body. The gatekeeper has to bend way down to him, for the difference between them has changed considerably to the disadvantage of the man. “What do you want to know now?” asks the gatekeeper. “You are insatiable.” “Everyone strives after the law,” says the man, “so how is it that in these many years no one except me has requested entry?” The gatekeeper sees that the man is already dying and, in order to reach his diminishing sense of hearing, he shouts at him, “Here no one else can gain entry, since this entrance was assigned only to you. I’m going now to close it.”

Kafka’s story is complex, poignant and, of course, filled with ambiguity. Much is left unsaid. Do we know what the Law actually is? Do we know the ultimate source of power behind the Law? It would seem the gatekeeper and the supplicant don’t question any of that, but we readers should, and I think Kafka wants us to. Aside from questioning why the man never tries another gate, or to enlist others in his quest, he and the gatekeeper take it on faith that this local, state, cosmic or surreal bureaucracy is beyond questioning, just as it is, and that there is no other game in town.

Literature sends us on glorious hunts. Great literature sends us on glorious hunts that never end, leading to others even more diverse, multiplex, as they morph a thousand-fold. But we do that great literature a disservice if we fail to question our own lives the way we question and talk about great art. We do our one and only chance on this earth a disservice if we don’t fully recognize we can’t rewind, rewrite or reorder life to “make sense” of things.

But it’s okay to dwell. It’s okay to remember. It’s okay to savor the sweet smells above ground, even in times past, when baseless fears got in the way, and when they didn’t.

 

 

 

Nostalgia for Nostalgia

Nostalgia for Nostalgia

dawn3Probably the Last Dawn Poem

Did I bring them closer
Together in this soap opera chain-
Smoking pseudo-wooden-fern-bar
Port-in-the-storm?

Did I care once about her
And her high looks soft
Threat of a voice
Long drink of eyes waiting
For me?

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

Writing-desk universe

 

The Non-Absurd Life of Rocks and Things

The Non-Absurd Life of Rocks and Things

Rocks Are Not Absurd

Rocks are not absurdflow2
They are always what they are
Which is something we humans
Can never claim

And we spend so much of our time
Doing just that
Screaming about our
Supposed authenticity

No species on earth is more
Well
Um
You know

 

centralrock

Disingenuous

What other species wears so
Many masks
For so many reasons to hide
From the innocent and the not

So
Quick?

blueskyrockWhich often means
The not
So
Living

Rocks are always tough
Dude
Especially the blue-sky kind
In the best sense of that word

Like

No pretense
Whatsoever