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Where's My Hat?

Jonathan Franzen has written an excellent essay entitled ‘Scavenging’ about obsolescence and value.(1) He describes T.V. as a narcotic, and more impressively, speaks of technology finding ‘health’ where it does not find depth. Having said in a previous essay that ‘Fiction, I believed, was the transmutation of experiential dross into linguistic gold’, it is ‘healthy’ he ‘halfway ironically’ observes, to adopt the new, less exacting cultural standards and so dull one’s sensitivity to the large questions of global disaster and social imponderables. It is...
…healthy to settle for your own marginalisation as a writer, to accept as inevitable a shrinking audience, an ever-deteriorating relationship with the publishing conglomerates, a retreat into the special Protective Isolation Units that universities now provide for writers within the larger confines of their English departments (since otherwise the more numerous and ferocious lifers would eat the creative writers alive). Healthy to slacken your standards, to call “great” what five years ago you might have called “decent but nothing special.” Healthy, when you discover that your graduate writing students can’t distinguish between “lie” and “lay” and have never read Jane Austen, not to rage or agitate but simply bite the bullet and do the necessary time-consuming teaching.(1)

In my poem, ‘Media’ (given below), I have yoked together, by implication, Dostoevsky and Louis Vuitton. Reading Franzen’s views has brought this act into focus and asked it to account for itself. At the time of writing I felt as oppressed by the requirement that I read the classics as that I be ‘healthy’ and relate to others in an acceptable way. It might be my grasshopper approach to information that makes it difficult for me to adhere entirely to a convention, but maybe there’s a sense of perspective in this attitude. Great writing takes one deeper into the possibilities of language and thought. In that depth one finds a channel to a spacious dimension that releases one from the flat nature of eating, moving about and sleeping. However, the hierarchical and group-orientated nature of society renders even this beauty a tool for exclusivity. I have never felt excluded by others from the pleasure of the classics, but my difficulty with overly-oblique statement and rambling story has put me reading material I consider deep and philosophical in import, interesting in style, but simple in structure. This has permitted the likes of Beckett, Kundera and Kafka, but not Dostoevsky or Proust. On reflection, the main problem with many of the older classics is their length, particularly if you tend to slip into the default mode of consciousness -- mind-wandering -- when still with anything for a long period.

The element of exclusion arises when one finds oneself in highly literate company and one has not read all the ‘right’ books. It’s so difficult to please the group that one simply has to retreat, and to what? Not to a place of replenishment, where the couching air welcomes, but to a place of neurosis, where one frantically tries to read it all, and frequently lapses into the paralysis of anxiety. One has a life, surely, first, a set of senses and therefore a perspective? If Jonathan Franzen finds readers ‘sexy’, he also takes a disparaging stance on non-readers en masse, because he has adopted standards which he feels (probably rightly) expand the mind of the human race. But it is still a stance, still a ‘hanging of the hat’. It’s impossible not to ‘hang the hat’ somewhere, at least for a time. Placing it on the floor is a bad idea considering the tendency of feet to be blind.

What I have done is to hang my hat temporarily, then variously adjust it on the hook, hide it with a scarf, take it down and stamp on it, pretend it’s not mine, then change it altogether for something less conspicuous, more conspicuous, or fashion-straddling. There is so much to know, and so much that can be done. I have not been honest because I’ve wanted simply to be admired for being here. That was in Sartre’s terms, ‘in bad faith’. We can't expect admiration for doing nothing but be a human being. Or can we? The persistent, purportedly liberating maxim is, ‘Be yourself.' Then you smash a plate in a storm of temper and being yourself isn't liberating at all. Nevertheless, I think we do have a set of tendencies that can be distorted and perverted by fear and conformity. (I've just realised I'm echoing Rousseau to some extent, whose work, and philosophy generally, I find more amenable than extended fiction, so maybe I'm not totally out of Mr Franzen's favour.) No social structure or discipline can define us completely, but they can allow us to feel engaged in a way that satisfies our basic impulses and abilities.

It sounds self-evident, but the demands of communication and the exigencies of finance can make us forget that there might be scope for proceeding at our own pace. I have certainly forgotten it, and tried to do what would gain the admiration of the people with whom I was in closest contact. It's not uncommon to try to sound more in control than you feel. Like Christy Moore (who was being very hard on himself in this), I’ve often been afraid of being unveiled as a fraud. Hey, she’s not a poet; she’s actually a chicken. Though I suppose, accepting the sobriquet of 'performance poet' was avoiding the challenge in the first place. This brings me to the present dilemma: what do I try to do? Be ‘myself’? Be ‘great’? Be ‘spiritual’? Be ‘excellent’? 'Be 'intellectual'? Be 'fun'? All of these are valueless, valuable and endlessly re-definable. The Buddhist would probably offer the solution of ‘being in the moment’. I suspect the answer is to remain confused, conflicted and intellectually curious. And keep working.

And then you see what technology can do for those who become depressed. It can make them undepressed. It can bring them health. And this is the moment at which I find myself: I look around and see absolutely everyone (or so it seems) finding health. They enjoy their television and their children and they don’t worry inordinately. They take their Prozac and are undepressed. They are all civil with each other and smile undepressed smiles, and they look at me with eyes of such pure opacity that I begin to doubt myself. I seem to myself a person who shrilly hates health. I’m only a phone call away from asking for a prescription of my own…(2)

I’m trying hard not to create a god. It comes back to this: will you take refuge in a construed certainty or continue to knock over the hat stand on your way to the next party? Who will remember the hatless? And why should you, of all manifestations, be remembered? Those species which have eluded taxonomy never experience applause. Is naming everything? No, but experience probably is, to a conscious human. I have taken time out to ruminate (time out or in?), thus, it feels, being myself. I’m assuming you’ll enjoy reading this. I’m assuming you’ll be interested, or at least tolerant of my ruminations. Assuming also, I suppose, that my desire in bad faith to be admired for myself has some validity in the ungraspable paradigm which is forever in construction.

 

 Media

What you hear
on the propagation of a flower,
the second law of thermodynamics,
Fermat’s last theorem
and a scroll of other matters
will stay or not –
depending on your current need
and whether the facts find an echo
among the snagging ancient feelers
on the bottom of your personal,
ever-shifting riverbed.

Here’s the information attack.
Always has been status attack.
Wish I lived in Chaucer’s time,
when I might have read all the books.
Now a book is a piece of airborne dust,
instantly replaced once whooshed.

Who do you wear?
How do you hang your hat?
From a thousand choose one,
or stand stony on the shore
with the wide indexed tide rolling in.

X has sold a million books.
Y has sold two.
A B and C are such good writers
they got 500,000 each and that’s just an advance.
Mary has a business worth a bomb.
Sylvie’s one of the richest women in Ireland.
There’s another self-made man.
I’ve definitely failed.

The odd time I soak myself in silence.
No thought,
only mechanical domestic acts
or the eating of a meal.
Those moments of no epiphany.
Or of some sudden decision you’ll always remember.
And you were only looking out the window
at the unremarkable, could say barren, garden.

When I close my eyes
I see a white figure on a mountain path,
the mist of a medieval painting her destination.
Has she read
    Doestoevskypushkinmolieredickensrussellgarcialorcapablonerudaczeslawmilosz
    gertrudesteinhildadoolittlesheridanlefanuelizabethbishopwilliamtrevorflannobrienjohnbanville
    richardellmangerardmanleyhopkinscarljungpatrickmccabekateobrienannemccaffreyisobelallende?
Does she have
an MAMSCMPHILPHDHDTVSUV,
wear
Guccipradaivesstlaurentjimmychoolouisvuitton;
and if not,
what’s she worth? (3)

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Footnotes

(1) Franzen, Jonathan: How to be Alone, London: Fourth Estate, 2003.
(2) ———: opus ibid.
(3) Medbh, Máighréad: 'Media', Twelve Beds for the Dreamer, Dublin: Arlen House, 2011.

            


 

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