Maugham: The Appointment in Samarra (1933)

This is included in the Kennedy/Gioia “Introduction to Fiction.”

I asked Marna and Barb about when they found the time to read, as it’s been now years since I’ve really given reading any time in my schedule. They read first thing in the morning, and right before bed. I’m desperately trying to cling to any intelligence I may once have had. But I just had to rewrite the word “intelligence” six times to get the spelling correct. I’m doomed.

Maugham, after his Razor’s Edgecan do no wrong in my book. And this example, used by Kennedy/Gioia as an example of a tale or fable, has kept me in thought for days now. In briefer, a man’s servant returns from town, says a woman jostled him in the crowd, and when he looked at her it was actually Death, so now he needs to borrow a horse and ride to Samarra to escape Death here. The master complies, after which he goes into town, finds the woman and demands to know why she scared the servant. She says her expression was just one of surprise, because she’s supposed to meet the servant in Samarra tonight and wasn’t expecting to see him here.

The point is that I laughed when the story ended. The fucking editors then ask: “How would you state the moral in your own words?” And the only thing I can come up with is “trust, but verify.”

Does the fable need a moral? Well, yes, according to this book. And if this one didn’t have a moral, then I suppose it would just be a comic episode. But if I’m trying to learn something about life itself, is it better to let the moral sink in through my dreams? Or is it better to search for it while I’m awake, debate it, use the story to recall it. This, I don’t know.

Why music?

The last two evenings I’ve spent trying to come up with something, anything, that moved me on the piano. Nothing. I keep running into the same difficulties I’ve faced for years–everything sounds sterile and false. I don’t believe it myself.

I wrote a bunch of tunes about girls back in 2007. It was a four month period during which I was extremely prolific. I’m trying to examine what made that possible.

First, the period began directly as I rose from my little deathbed. I like to say that my brilliance came about organically, spontaneously. It didn’t. I needed money to pay off my rising debt for medication, so I signed up to one of these awful websites that creatives use as prostitution grounds, — and agreed to write a song in the style of Elvis for god knows what, some businessman in Florida who needed it for a presentation. I did it for $100, which, after fees meant I received about $80. It was the first money I’d ever received for writing music. The next thing I composed was a piano solo–improv, as I’d done when I was younger. I recorded an elaboration of a theme from the piano solo, with lyrics about my first (and only) girlfriend. It was that piece that Nathalie loved, and she encouraged me to make another one. I did…and that was where the energy began.

That seems so simple. I wasn’t creative, and then after the strenuous process of writing three songs I was a genius. It felt like more than that. And what could I have written about this one girl I’d dated, who was pretty awful no matter how you look at it. It was perhaps firstly the desperation I felt, that my life was over and there was nothing else but the past from which to draw inspiration. Unexpectedly, I healed.

Now, I hadn’t been reading during this time. Sometimes I’d put in a few minutes here or there of some art history or a few lines of Henry Miller. I would mostly listen to CS Lewis on tape, watch a cartoon or two every night, and watch films in fifteen minute increments. I just didn’t have the ability to concentrate on things, as it was too physically painful…so most of my time was spent staring out the window from my bed. That’s not inspiring. What it leads back to is self-reflection.

But another thing, I should note, is that I also had amnesia from the medication. So it’s not like I spent all my time in deep thought over my past. The truth is that I began this blog during this period for that very reason–I was trying to do anything I could to grasp thoughts. So…I’m brought back to the only answer I’ve had. It was brought on by desperation.

And then, as soon as I healed, I did what anyone in my situation would do–chase girls and booze. And heartbreak by heartbreak I wrote songs. The music I listened to wasn’t particularly inspiring…it was mostly cute stuff. I drew out the most twisted elements of it for inspiration.

So…while I sat down convinced that perhaps the reason I’m no longer creative is because I’m uncultured, it would seem that at my most creative I mostly spent my time with cartoons, [ends here]

Boccaccio: Day 2, Story 2

I can hardly believe I haven’t touched this book since October, though it’s been many times that I’ve needed it. This is about as close to success as I’ve ever been, and yet I still feel profoundly sad–the answer, of course, being to just say fuck it and ignore it. I do this by trying to work as much as possible. I avoid thoughtful conversation if at all possible. I had a great longing to sit all day in a coffee shop and read today–the weather reminded me of being a student, the last weeks of classes before exams. So I locate the book that I hope will bring me a smile before bed…Boccaccio.

Short stories of the O. Henry era relied on twists in their endings. The only other short stories I know, Gogol? Hawthorne? even at that early time relied on twists just the same. They’re now seen as somewhat juvenile. The same goes for the use of coincidence in all those novels like Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. Twists and coincidences are seen as phony. But I don’t mind them. Because literature is phony. And I suppose I always reach that aesthetic viewpoint in this blog–that I care about what’s beautiful, and very little else.

So it goes in this story, a series of twists and coincidences tightly bundled. Such reflects the Catholic sense of fate due to saintly intervention, indiscernible from that older belief of Italy’s pagans. In this story, a merchant is traveling and ends up with some highwaymen who pretend to be nice guys and later rob him of his money, clothes, and horse. Earlier in the day they’d been discussing what prayers they say, and the merchant declared that every morning he says a prayer asking for safe lodging for the coming night. This night, however, he finds himself hungry and nearly naked in the snow, teeth chattering beside a door in the wall.

Well, it just so happens that on the other side of the door is a beautiful widow taking a bath, and the door he’s at is the one her secret lover uses to sneak in and fuck her. Unfortunately, her secret lover can’t make it that night, on account of some urgent business that’s come up. So she decides to take the bath she’d prepared for him herself.

Now, here’s where I began taking note of a series of events that seemed to me remarkable, being the repossession and sharing of things.

She’s taking the bath she’d prepared for her lover; when she asks her maid to bring in the merchant, she gets out and lets the merchant take the bath; after he finishes, she goes on and takes it. 

Second, her husband has only recently died. She still has all his clothes. The merchant puts on the dead husband’s clothes. And they fit perfectly. This is the glass slipper sort of thing that I love in a story–when by external means a spiritual match is discovered.

Third, she “[makes] him sit familiarly with her by the fire.”

And then, as they talk she “found him much to her liking, and her desires being already aroused for the Marquis, who was to have come to lie with her, she had taken a mind to him,” later explaining to him, “you are in your own house.”

She decides she definitely wants to fuck him, and since the Marquis isn’t coming that night, her maid encourages her to try hooking up with the merchant. Her pick-up line is, essentially, “you remind me of my dead husband, and all night long I’ve just wanted to make-out with you.” The merchant has no problem with this…and then comes the best description of sex I’ve ever read:

The lady, who was all afire with amorous longings, straightaway threw herself into his arms and after she had strained him desirefully to her bosom and bussed him a thousand times and had of him been kissed as often, they went off to her chamber and there without delay betaking themselves to bed, they fully and many a time, before the day should come, satisfied their desires of the other.

And somehow he still gets up in the morning and goes on his way. Oh, and the bad guys get caught and he gets all his stuff back.

Hilarious. And rewarding. I feel a lot better now!

The Theory of Ruin Value

tinternDogpatch USA: an abandoned amusement park in Arkansas I once visited during childhood. First I was trying to figure out how to use the weather channel website–I check the weather less than once a year because it’s pretty much the one thing over which I feel I don’t have supernatural power. And while I still can’t figure out if I should expect my 6am meeting at the gym will be cancelled due to snow, I did find over a hundred photos of decaying amusement parks.

I spend far more time than I should searching for color photos from before the 1930s, abandoned buildings, ghost towns, any and all evidence that the past was not only real, but vivid and modern. I ask myself, why do I care?

Very early in this blog, which I began while I was sick, I spent a lot of time sitting on a beach chair in the garage staring out the open door. And one of the most profound moments of my life occurred during this time, when during a rainstorm I watched as a corridor of oaks’ limbs began bowing, and then I was within a gothic cathedral. That is, even during those rotten middle ages, plagues and pigs and shit in the streets, what led to transcendence could be found in a place that imitated the untamed forests beyond the city gates.

I came to a realization recently, when I was reading about how it feels to die (and come back to life)–panic is something your body does when it knows it’s probably about to die. This is why you should be nice to your friends who have panic attacks and phobias–they  understand that they’re being silly, but their bodies believe that they are truly going to die–and every single time, every single time–it’s a mock execution for them. Think about that.

Hardwick Old Hall, 1500s
Hardwick Old Hall, 1500s

Panic happens whether you’re drowning or have lost a certain quantity of blood. It’s what happens when Reilly was scared of thunderstorms and she’d scratch the paint off the walls and break her teeth on the metal bars of her crate. It’s what happens when you zap ants in the microwave and they run around real fast. You flail. And if you live long enough to run out of oxygen, you hit a moment of ecstasy similar to taking nitrous at the dentist’s office (nitrous blocks your oxygen), and then you die. No matter how civilized we feel, no matter how amazing our iPhones are, senescence and instincts are our poor lot in life, and we cling desperately to life if we possibly can, bodies contorted and faces grimaced.

And our architecture reflects this–if in a million years they find our cities, they will know how we lived and how we died.

Our buildings are horrors. Reflective of nothing natural, and then in their decay, we see the great effort nature must make to subsume it all, and the colors are all wrong, the textures harsh, the angles sharp enough to actually be harmful, our ruins dangerous to touch.

Romanticism always seems to move in waves from the Germans to the French to the British to the Americans, as Poe, by the time of Goethe’s death, is still traipsing about in style of Goethe’s youth. But it seems the Germans from whose hearts romanticism springs naturally, which is why it’s pained me so long, when we two Jews, her painting, my writing poetry, night after night, discussed the perverse and exciting romanticism of Byron that yet becomes bulky and one trudges to Wagner and then to the 1930s, a figure of those dark years, Albert Speer, had a theory I’ve agreed with…no matter how I try to get around doing so.


The theory of Ruin Value. That buildings should decay beautifully. That they should decay with dignity. Why is it that Tintern Abbey (top) strike me as calming and reassuring, while Chippewa Lake Park (right or above) fills me with horror and anxiety? It isn’t that one is meant as a holy place and the other as amusement–it’s that in the decay of our architecture we see a reflection of our own deaths. Will Durant’s “a nation is born stoic, and dies epicurean,” I think may be expanded to civilization as a whole, as the epicureanism that built the Parthenon is stoicism to that which built our Six Flags.

It’s all enough to give me bad dreams.


Young and Innocent (1937), Mixed Nuts (1994), and This is 40 (2012)


I’ll take any opportunity to use this lovely photo of good ol’ Nova Pilbeam again. I was in love with a British girl once, and I couldn’t understand a thing she said–and she wasn’t trashy either, she was quite proper and dainty, perhaps the daintiest person I’ve ever met. But I couldn’t understand anything she said. Brits talk differently amongst themselves than how they talk around Americans–that’s true. It’s hard to catch them at it, but they have this whole unintelligible language that sounds very nice, but it’s all vowels. Watching dear Nova Pilbeam reminds me of resting beside little she, as she spoke sweet words of love and I alternately said “what?!” or just kept my mouth shut and figured I’d just assume all those breathy vowels were probably the loveliest of poetry. Anyway, she was as full of shit as they come, so better to just fawn over Nova Pilbeam and her tearless weepings, frumpy outfits, and dated finger waves.

We each chose a film. My choice was Young and Innocent, a Hitchcock number from 1937 that I’ve seen before. Two things make the film spectacular–one being my deep eternal affection for Nova Pilbeam, two–a long take that stands out remarkably for the period. I get it mixed up with another, that I believe may be in his second version of The Man Who Knew Too Muchbut that’s part of what I love about Hitchcock: his willingness to repeat things to perfection.

In Young and Innocent, the whole film, in my opinion, hinges on this shot–the audience has been searching the room for the murderer, and the camera finds him through this achingly long take that moves from beyond the room right through the crowd, to the farthest wall, right up to his eyes–a technical feat, to be sure, but one that forces every last person in the audience to hold his or her breath until we see the telltale sign of guilt–the murderer’s nervous twitch.

From here, the camera takes leave of all the characters we’ve come to know so well, introducing us to the villain, giving him about as much personality as one can earn in thirty seconds, being the first time that anyone who has gone mostly unaffected by the main characters is given that much space in the narrative.

Hitchcock is always masterful and in this film he’s no less at his finest than any other–he’s my favorite director because he always delights me for a hundred reasons. Marna thought it was silly.

Mixed Nuts– I know, right? It’s getting to the point where any film I’ve seen reminds me of someone I’ve had something with. Not as impressive as I always expected–it holds a place in my memory of a video (that is, VHS) rental place in Killington, Vermont, above a grocery store, and when you’d first walk in the door, the grownup comedy section was to the right in a small corner, and there it was, eye level, facing the door. Well, so, it’s got that screwball darkness that seems in fashion during the late-80s and early-90s, Beetlejuice, Death Becomes Her, Drop Dead Fred, So I Married An Axe Murderer, Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead, Groundhog Day, Funny Farm…hm, I never thought of that age as dark until now…but all those films leave a yucky feeling in me, the Addams Family without costumes.

But what that gives way to, ultimately, is Judd Apatow’s newest one, This Is 40. Not keen on it. Every time I see a film in which I’m the only person not laughing, it turns out to be one of his. Maybe I don’t laugh enough. I don’t give a fuck about the bad language, I sometimes find the naughty bits tasteless insofar as they’re completely unnecessary–I don’t mean that in a conservative way, but I mean, like, honestly, the movie was too fucking long to begin with, and we had to have the colonoscopy/poop-scenes/prostate-exam/mammogram/testicular-check/hemorrhoids montage also? Also there’s no plot beyond people driving Lexuses complaining about money problems. Maybe I’m missing the point.

This is one of those films that leave you feeling edgy though. There’s no moral. It comes from a dark and hopeless place that leaves with little more than a notion that indeed, if you have enough power you can pretty much make a movie about anything.

Will Durant: Political Elements of Civilization: “Law”

Routine“It is routine that keeps men sane; for if there were no grooves along which thought and action might move with unconscious ease, the mind would be perpetually hesitant, and would soon take refuge in lunacy. A law of economy works in instinct and habit, in custom and convention: the most convenient mode of response to repeated stimuli or traditional situations is automatic response. Thought and innovation are disturbances of regularity, and are tolerated only for indispensable readaptations, or promised gold.”

Why Dick Cheney will never do community service while there’s thousands rotting in prison for possession of marijuana: “The penalties assessed in cases of composition might vary with the sex, age and rank of the offender and the injured; among the Fijians, for example, petty theft by a common man was considered a more heinous crime than murder by a chief. Throughout the history of law the magnitude of the crime has been lessened by the magnitude of the criminal.”

The Ordeal: “In many cases [before the existence of law] disputes were settled by a public contest between the parties, varying in bloodiness from a harmless boxing-match . . . to a duel to the death. . . . From such early forms the ordeal passed through the laws of Moses and Hammurabi and down into the Middle Ages; the duel, which is one form of the ordeal, and which historians thought dead, is being revived in our own day. So brief and narrow, in some respects, is the span between primitive and modern man; so short is the history of civilization.”

America Thinks About Its Very Tiny Penis: “Laws carry with them the mark of their ancestry, and reek with the vengeance which they tried to replace. Primitive punishments are cruel, because primitive society feels insecure; as social organization becomes more stable, punishments become less severe.”

Sade: Philosophy in the Boudoir: “First Dialogue”

So, we proceed through the first dialogue, which contains a hint of incest, some men engaging in violent anal play (a girth of six inches rammed in without lubrication), and perhaps the finest description of a girl ever written in any language.

The audience? Those of whom have a classical education under their belts:

Dear brother, this is my bizarre fantasy: I wish to be the Ganymede of this new Jupiter, I wish to savor his tastes, his debaucheries, I wish to be the victim of his follies.

…I have chosen you…to cull the myrtles of Cythera, and Dolmancé to cull the roses of Sodom.

And the line that made me laugh:

…his bearing and his posture are slightly effeminate–no doubt, because of his habit of frequently acting like a woman.

If you were wondering, I still have a dearth of feeling. You know how, when you are sick, and you don’t want to eat or drink anything, but you know you must, that even if you are not hungry, your body needs nourishment? So you go through the motions, you pretend, you hope that with time you will heal. But for now, you know there are things you cannot fake, you must stay in bed, you must rest and sleep and wait. I’m faking all that I possibly can, but everything, joy, high spirits, anger, fear, desire, thrills, escapes me, in their stead a throbbing dullness that subsides only long enough to discover a stretch of still and uninterrupted sadness, punctuated by little puckering bubbles from whatever little worms are buried beneath, hiding, exhaling, leaving the glassiness pockmarked and sour, before the dullness sets in again. I somehow assume that it’s what I need right now, that there’s something else I should be doing rather than feeling.


sing softly to me: why crooning is a revolution

I want to describe to you a revolution you’ve never cared about.

Lucy turned me on to ∆ (Alt-J). At first I was only listening because she’d given it to me, but by the fourth time through I’d actually come to find it fascinating. I won’t go into details about the music itself, but on the way home from Target, just having bought my first batch of krill oil pills, and completely terrified of taking one, one of their songs ended up playing, and I began thinking about the singer’s voice. And this is where it led me:

I don’t see how a review can skip over the singer’s voice. Period. But unless you’re hanging out on sites like, which I usually am, people who write about music tend to stick to a few nondescript adjectives, as if they’re reviewing wine. It’s next to impossible to find mentions about the Beach Boys harmonies, for instance, as if they just happened  naturally. People like words like “urgent” or “introspective” or “weak” to describe vocals in their entirety. I won’t even try. Alt-J’s singer has a weird voice–but it’s intentional, because while it generally bears comparison to Jethro Tull

he at times moves into more of a Peabo Bryson–and all within a single line. I can’t understand a single word he says. It’s like everything I’ve ever been criticized for all in one award-winning album. Maybe I just need to listen to other people less?

But here’s what I find most exhilarating about it: I connect to the singer. Why? I think it’s his voice. The voice is nearly inhuman, but it’s not robotic, it’s not demented, it’s possible to identify with the voice without attaching it to a face, without attaching it to a person. The lyrics are quite the same. Somehow the whole package defies individuality, and thus becomes universal to me. George Michael’s music will always be George Michael the person, the Police is always Sting, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is always Karen O. But this? This might be the whole universe singing to you.

But we take this for granted.

Many of the earliest popular music recordings were of, of course, not just popular songs, but of popular singers of the day. For the past year or so I’ve been listening to a lot of pop music from the 1920s, and a little bit from before then. The earliest that I’ve come across falls into two categories: first, songs made for groups to sing; second, song made for vaudeville stars. What both have in common is that the amplification is human. A group can sing loud, so in recordings of drinking songs, everyone can sing along. 

As for vaudeville stars, think Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson, they had to be heard, so they had to sing loud. Belting, it what it’s called.

Live amplification wasn’t possible yet, so “belting” out songs made complete sense. And here’s the revolutionary bit, because as always, technology dictates art: one day somebody realized that the audience at a performance is completely different than the audience that is a microphone. You can sing quietly, up close, to a microphone, and your voice can reproduced much louder. This is obvious to us now–but at the time it was completely new. And that’s why Bing Crosby falls into the category of “crooner”–because he wasn’t a belter. Here’s how Rudy Vallee dealt with a quiet voice and loud performances: with a self-made megaphone.

And this is where you begin to find the personality in vocals. That may even be why Rudy Vallee was the first of the teen-pop idols that girls would scream and faint over. Here, finally, was the voice of someone you might here beside you in bed, not from ten blocks away. “Whispering” Jack Smith fell into this category. And not entirely by choice: he couldn’t sing very loud because of the lingering effects of poison gas from World War I.

Think about that. You go into WWI with soldiers marching and singing “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” …and you emerge from WWI with Whispering Jack Smith, in desperate need of a microphone, often not even singing his words.

And that is, in music, from what I can tell, the birth of a vocal personality, the movement from “song” to “singer.” No longer is it just the piece of sheet music you buy and play after dinner with your family, it’s now the sound of Rudy Vallee singing to you alone. The sound of someone’s voice intimately. When Ke$ha wants to be sexy, she doesn’t belt, she croons.  Seriously, listen to what she does with her voice that just can’t be pulled off loud.

or, how Helen Merrill moves seamlessly between soft and loud, and the effect being the difference between any ol’ chorus girl, and the way you feel about Doris Day when you’re on ecstasy:

The truth is, nearly everyone sings beautifully when singing softly. There’s something so natural about it, so intimate, so sweet.

The point is, without a microphones, where would we be? We wouldn’t have Alt-J because we couldn’t capture vocals in a way that they creep into you, and you must listen.