That Shape of Branches

Walked out of a postcard writing event into a balmy mid-March evening. Sky light with a pinkish gray, high and cool, clouds drifting off absentmindedly. Buds in the trees, green in the grass. Felt a pull, a sweetness. In the air, in me. Old springs stirring in me. Made me sad and a little afraid. Bittersweet. Hard to take comfort in the beauty of nature when you know that we’re wrenching it out of alignment, destroying the rhythm that’s kept things going for thousands of years. And a little twinge of something I once would have called spirit. I can do without the anthropomorphizing that even the most abstract religions impose on life. But I didn’t want to reject that feeling. Looked up, and there was a tree reaching for the light, its bare branches bud-tipped, arced in a palmate skeleton, spreading and branching and converging again at the tips like an abstract vase. Form: now there’s something I can reverence. Especially form that emerges unthinking from unplanned processes. A thing in which I can recognize myself, and something alien, and something greater, and far too other to receive my paltry projections, for which I am profoundly grateful.

Asked recently what one word I might use to convey what’s important to me about literature, I immediately said “form.” Continue reading

Advertisements

Public Happiness

Apropos the events of last weekend, I thought I’d share these passages from Alexander Cockburn’s journal-cum-memoir, The Golden Age Is In Us:

Hannah Arendt has described eloquently how, when political action succeeds in generating real power, the participants experience a happiness different from the kind of happiness one finds in private life.

Public happiness is not isolating but shared. It is the happiness of being free among other free people, of having one’s public faith redeemed and returned, of seeing public hope becoming public power, becoming reality itself … The experience of public happiness is an exceptional one in the politics of our time, but not such a very rare exception. It has been known in many countries in this century, on every continent, in societies of every kind of political, economic and cultural configuration. It has been felt, if sometimes only momentarily, everywhere, and therefore it is possible everywhere.

Doug Lummis quoted in Alexander Cockburn, The Golden Age is in Us. London: Verso, 1995, pp 299 – 300.


Listings for the Golden Age in dictionaries of mythology are rare. But turn to “Saturnalia” and you’ll find it. These days, Saturnalia spells “drunken sex spree,” which has its elements of truth, but the rest of the older meaning involved subversion of the social order.

In this pre-spring festival, senators and slave owners put aside their stately togas and kindred marks of rank and donned shapeless garments, known as syntheses. The prime metaphor of the Saturnalia was freedom from all bondage—the bondage of poverty, of wealth, of the laws and above all, of time. Slaves set up a mock king and were served delicious fare by their masters. Such delicacies, given to the powerless by the powerful, were called “second tables,” because the tables were temporarily turned. Each household became a mimic republic, in which the slaves held first rank. The law courts were closed. The image of Saturn, whose ankle was bound with a woolen fetter the rest of the year, was freed. Gifts were exchanged. The Lord of Misrule reigned.

There was always something dangerous about jovial Saturn, an element of the hooved and the horned, and later he became transformed into the witch-pleasing devil of the Middle Ages. The debauched aspects of the Saturnalia became emphasized, and the revolutionary aspects began to fade away.

So the Golden Age is subversive and it’s fun, which means that for us on the left, it should be our goal and our sales pitch. People love utopias that make sense. …

These days we’re shy imaginers of Utopias on hold. We know we live in the age of iron, lamented by Hesiod and Ovid. All the more reason not to lose heart. There is abundance, if we arrange things differently. The world can be turned upside down; that is, the right way up. The Golden Age is in us, if we know where to look, and what to think.

Cockburn, Golden Age, pp. 1 – 2.

As we came down Jackson toward 4th Avenue in Seattle, a little girl being carried by her father led the crowd around her in a shout for “equality!” and “justice!” Her face was completely lit by the almost unbearable delight of a four- or five-year-old getting a huge crowd of grownups to yell along with her. It was the living embodiment of the public happiness that Arendt, Lummis, and Cockburn describe. (I’d post a picture but I prefer to respect that young girl’s privacy.)

Grexit: Truth in etymology

Well, everybody’s talking about the “Grexit,” i.e., Greece’s exit from the Eurozone, which looms egregiously as I write. But how many of them know that “grex” is Latin for flock, and forms the basis for the word egregious (lit. standing out above or from the flock), not to mention congregate, aggregate, and segregate? Or that in English, it actually refers to a clump of slime mold?

Just saying.

But perhaps the most relevant term with “grex” at its root is gregicide, “involving the slaughter of the common people,” to quote the egregious (in its original sense of outstanding or excellent) OED.

What more do you need to know?

Sci Fi Reportage

Thinking about the strange sci-fi convention of filling readers in on social, political, technological, even geological developments that are obviously counter-factual, in reportage or encyclopedia style, when of course if they’d happened readers could be expected to know about them. Somehow these blatant lies, which seem like they ought to disrupt the willing suspension of disbelief, if done well reinforce it. How does that work? Whence the convention? And how does it relate to the idea of “lethetic” fiction that Clayton Koelb discusses in his 1984 monograph, The Incredulous Reader? (Koelb argues that there is a class of fictions which cannot be understood by means of the conventional notion of the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.” This class of fictions, which he calls lethetic, is defined first of all by the fact that such works actively “solicit the reader’s disbelief.”) Continue reading

Made Personal

I’m “Writer in Residence” for the current show at The Alice, a gallery run by Julie Alexander and Julia Freeman in Georgetown (Seattle). The show is called “Made Personal” and is curated by, with works by, Serrah Russell, Joe Rudko, and Colleen RJC Bratton. This is the piece I wrote for the show.

Thing was once a verb

The first thing you notice is the hum. Or throb. A blue-green, metallic sort of sound, with a nice subtle backbeat to it, the quiet oscillation of a mindless drone doing its thing, sometimes a little faster, sometimes a little slower, but if you close your eyes you can dance to it. In a sort of tripped-out spacey way. Like the noise of the ferry when you stand at the bow, the diesel engines pulsing and the hull cutting through the waves with their cross-rhythms, the foam piling up and spilling back, piling up and spilling back, the gulls hovering along beside.

Continue reading

The (in)human author and the (in)human characters

The other night we were talking about fiction, or more generally any art, that could represent a non-human reality, a non-human perspective and experience. I argued that fiction was particularly unsuited to this task, because it’s a genre rooted in very human experiences and conventions for representing those experiences. A couple of us speculated that any art is ultimately going to founder on this problem, because we always bring our human perspective to bear, both in the making and in the reception of the work. But I suggested that other genres—poetry, nonfiction—might do better at getting us closer to some such world.

Continue reading

Luis Alberto Urrea at Hugo House

Luis Alberto Urrea spoke at Hugo House last night and, thanks to a perspicacious colleague, I knew about the event in time to actually go. The talk was in two parts: a written lecture on what Urrea calls “understory” and an on-stage interview. The lecture was good—entertaining, well written, insightful, delivered with verve despite the fact that he was reading, not speaking extemporaneously. I had issues with parts of it, but overall I liked it. But the real highlight for me was the second half, the on-stage interview, where Urrea spoke off-the-cuff about his work, spinning tales about his Yaqui relatives, speaking at all-Latino high schools, working with Border Patrol agents when writing his book The Devil’s Highway, and an astonishing story about his mother’s experiences in World War II, to be the basis for a new book. His riff on the importance of empathy was inspiring. I won’t try to reproduce the talk; suffice it to say that he was funny, engaging, profound. I came away with great respect for this author whom I’ve never read. I hope to check out The Devil’s Highway, a nonfiction account of 26 Mexican men’s attempt to cross the Sonoran Desert into the United States, and his novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter.