Proust: Swann’s Way: ‘Combray’ (1913)

I don’t want to pit Proust against Lawrence, but they simply beg to be tried, and how particularly funny, that it is a Frenchman being pitted against a Brit, and losing, for the time being, in terms of passion. I would not have considered comparing the two except that in Lady Chatterley, Clifford Chatterley is reading “a French book” and the following argument begins thus:

‘Have you ever read Proust?’ he asked her.
‘I’ve tried, but he bores me.’
‘He’s really very extraordinary.’
‘Possibly! But he bores me: all that sophistication! He doesn’t have feelings, he only has streams of words about feelings. I’m tired of self-important mentalities.’
‘Would you prefer self-important animalities?’
‘Perhaps! But one might possibly get something that wasn’t self-important.’
‘Well, I like Proust’s subtlety and his well-bred anarchy.’
‘It makes you very dead, really.’
‘There speaks my evangelical little wife.’

Anarchy and Bolshevism are the two political systems thrown around by characters in Lady Chatterley. I’ve always thought of anarchy as something idealized by rebellious teenagers, rich teenagers, and if all I knew of it was the definition given by the OED, I’d suppose it was simply the central tenet of the Republican party, “absolute freedom of the individual.” The catch, of course, being fairly Christian in nature, that everyone has an immutable position in society, that there will be the happy, and there will be the unhappy. And, of course, without a ruler, the happy may flourish by suppressing the unhappy by whatever means are necessary. Bolshevism, in this case, means that the miners, people who Lawrence suggests were born with the mines (though, reports on BBC lately insist that the death of the mines in the 1980s did not bring about the death of all the miners) deserve much more than Clifford Chatterley, with his nothing legs and nothing penis. Even Mellors rose through his own hard work, language abilities, and eventually through his service in the military. Making it through Proust’s “Combray” only shows the world through the eyes of a child, at least Proust as a child, which doesn’t particularly say much, as I’ve seen the questionnaire he filled out as a little boy, and he was an adult even then. But perhaps the most we can say is that he is raised in a house filled with people who don’t seem to work, whose lives consist of “enjoying themselves” as Connie might call it. Are they dead?

I’m not quite sure how old I was when I began reading Anais Nin’s first diary, but at the time I was firmly opposed to consumption of alcohol and drugs, and it was Nin who gave me the best argument I’d ever heard. I’m a writer, she said, and she has to have her wits about her at all times because she must later write all that she experiences, and alcohol or drugs would hinder that. Well, I considered myself a writer, so it seemed a good enough argument, though I don’t think I ever had to use it. I think I felt betrayed later, when she and June were a bit drunk together. It was Nin who led me to both Lawrence and Proust.  Connie says, ‘he doesn’t have feelings, he only has streams of words about feelings,’ and ever since she commented thus, I’ve been reading him through her eyes. Because, when it comes down to it, what would I rather be: the creator of something beautiful? or something beautiful myself? No contest: I’d rather be beautiful. I’d rather live a work of art.

But I think Proust dodges the question quite gracefully in showing something else, that there’s a third possible answer to that question: can one’s memory be a work of art, even if the reality was not. Indeed. And perhaps that’s what his work is, not meant to be engaged in so much as to be imbibed, we’re back to Shelley’s ravine. I find myself not caring about whether or not the narrator is reliable, because somehow this is a work about memory, and memory is allowed to be grandiose. Is it passionate? I find myself unable to recall the moments of the most heightened passion in my life, perhaps it is then that I become entirely an animal, and when I am in the moment, I am truly in the moment, unable to do what I usually do, to figure out what words I will later use to describe this, to be writing and editing while living, periodically disappearing to write down conversations and descriptions and then popping back into life, perhaps when there is no past, and there is no future, one simply loses the ability to recall that moment. I’ve always hoped there would be somebody else with me who would write down our experiences together, so that I didn’t have to be the only one, so that the memory could be more colorful, but nobody ever has, it’s a sad thing.

Perhaps, then, it’s worth noting that the sex scenes in Lady Chatterley begin very explicit, when she’s not particularly involved in the moment. And as she becomes increasingly involved as the novel continues, they become more metaphoric, more symbolistic, and if arousing, then arousing on such a deep physical level as to be almost spiritual, and then finally, the sex is not described at all, and everything surrounding it is, the ripped nighties, the flowers woven into her maidenhair, and her observations of others and their sexuality.

One night when I was sleeping on H’s sofa, he was sitting very close to me in a wooden chair, smoking pot and talking me, not caring if I was listening or sleeping, and he said “I don’t know what you think of my girlfriend, but I’ve slept with a lot of girls, I’ve seen a lot of girls naked, and it’s come to the point where I don’t even need to see them naked anymore to know precisely what they look like without their clothes on. And perhaps you can’t tell just by looking at her, but my girlfriend is perfect, there is nobody in the world more beautiful than she is.” As one gets older the more one understands any given person’s carriage, all that it indicates. At one time I thought it was all guesswork, but now, like H., and like Connie, I begin to understand. A little.

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Byron – Occasional Pieces (1810)

It seems particularly apt to come across this short poem today. Shakespeare’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’ was never something that made much sense to me, nor did Anais Nin’s final rebuffing of Henry Miller, and so on, so that all those terrible things we learned would be finally obliterated by feminism, well, I begin to wonder if there’s more to it than that. Do I believe in love? Yes. There is the love of a parent for his or her child, and there is the love of a man for another man or woman. And I think that covers it. Do I believe in love? Not really. I think it’s mostly a struggle of power, and it just happens to find an easy vehicle for cruelty when everyone is so desperately exposed. One year ago I had spend significant amounts of time in a cockroach filled shoebox of a bathroom watching a girl piss, a girl who refused to let such trivialities get in the way of conversations about Fitzgerald or Henry James, and since she also refused to let such trivialities like eating get in the way of her drinking, well, I saw her drink for six days straight without eating so much as one bite, and we would spend the nights sneaking cigarettes in my room after her boyfriend fell asleep and we’d sneak away from him. We grew close by drinking in the middle of a country road while the moon was large, surrounded by dark farms, and when trucks would come barreling down the road we would hold on to each other, determined not to move, determined, until the absolute last second when, holding on to each other, we’d save each other’s lives by flinging ourselves away from the middle, roll into the dirt. When we came back, everyone was angry at us, they’d all waited up, we couldn’t feel our bodies, and they never had any idea of what we really did when we went out there that night, their imaginations ended at the word sex. We were really out there discussing how unfair it had never been necessary that any of them had to work for anything in their whole lives. She knows how to love, I think. I’ve seen her love. She proposes to me at least once a month.
“For the record,” I tell her, “I haven’t been answering or returning your calls for the past two weeks for a reason. It hasn’t just been ignorance.”
“Really?!” she asks excitedly.
“Yes. We can discuss it another time.”
“Tell me!”
“It’s because last time we spoke you went on a drunken tirade and said things that were entirely unacceptable.”
“Oh, it’s because I told you to dump that bitch, I mean, she’s not a bitch, I’m sorry, she’s not, but it’s because I was telling you to dump her. I’m sorry.”
“That wasn’t all you said.”
“Oh shit! Really? Well, I was drunk, how can you expect me to be liable for–”
“You’re always drunk! Always! So you have to be liable for your words, because that’s your normal state of being.”
“Okay, okay, what did I say?”
“We’re not discussing it right now. But you broke some of my rules, and if you do it again you can be damn sure you’ll never see my face again.”
“Okay. I’m so sorry. I don’t know what I said though. Do you still love me?”
“Of course I still love you.”
“And you’ll still marry me?”
“You and everyone else. Why is it that the only people who want to marry me are in danger of liver failure before hitting age 28?”
“And kidneys for me too!”
“You’re all going to fucking die, and just leave me, helpless and alone and unloved because I’m the unlucky one. Many years ago I had a dream that I was being shot, and my feet were attached to the floor and I couldn’t fall, and I desperately wanted to die, I hated being shot so much, but until I fell over I couldn’t die, and I couldn’t fall. I’m afraid it’s true.”
“We still have time left. Think about it, k? I’m serious. We would never be really in love, but, but we’d still be amazing.”

I came to believe that love was emotionally about punishment, practically about money, and now, I’m quite sure, it’s about power. It’s a thought that doesn’t escape me when I see how my dogs love me, how devoted they are to me, and I try not to remember that it’s because they fear me, because I hold power over them, and it’s not love: it’s subservience. But they don’t understand how I feel about them.

“Does being around your mother make you happy?”
“Not…really.”
“Then fuck her.”
“What do you mean? Should I call her and say fuck you?”
“Just fuck her!”
“I don’t understand…”
“Just forget about her. If she doesn’t make you happy, why keep her around? Why keep anyone around if they can’t provide you with something.”
“That’s a fucking heinous thing to say.”
“Think about it.”
“…you know, you’re right.”

Do I believe in love? No. Do I believe in friendship? Yes. Do I believe in firewater? Even more than I believe in friendship.

And now, the poem that spurred this whole mess:

The spell is broke, the charm is flown!
Thus is with life’s fitful fever:
We madly smile when we should groan;
Delirium is our best deceiver.

Each lucid interval of thought
Recalls the woes of Nature’s charter;
And he that acts as wise men ought,
But lives, as saints have died, a martyr.

1810 is fascinating year as far as his “occasional pieces” are concerned, because there are so few of them as compared with years prior and years following. At first I figured he was perhaps writing Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage while on his travels, but there’s no evidence of such speculation, so I have otherwise no answers. What’s particularly noteworthy during this period is that he’s a perfect poetic upstart, perhaps in the wake of English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, perhaps merely because he felt himself living in the golden age of mythology, making use of his classical education, “Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ,” and making full use of all his 2,000 parts.

Well, so it goes, Byron died alone, Shelley died essentially estranged from his wife, Keats died without ever making love to his lover, the political revolutions all failed except in Greece, the sexual revolutions gave way to stifling victorianism, what was radical became obscure, what was sublime became quaint, what was humanist became theist. What hope have I now?

Byron – Occasional Pieces (1809)

What’s wonderful about Byron’s “Stanzas Composed During a Thunder-storm” is that is that he seems finally to have some of the experience necessary to discuss his subjects of choice. Of course, he had love in his past, and indeed the sort of love that would have been novel to publish in English, you know, the cripple being molested by his nanny, that sort. So his early work is generally boring–it’s just too commonplace. And it’s in his later work, as he becomes both cosmopolitan and self-assured that he then deserves to write on the subjects he chooses, and they’re finally believable. This is where it first shows up, though in his “Lines to Mr. Hodgson” he discusses parts of his tour across the Mediterranean, it’s still done with the same lackluster humor that his earlier poems written about going to school or boozing possess. In this one, perhaps he’s guilty of lovely arrogant name-dropping, classical terms, modern cities, but he mixes it with some of the peril we come to expect from this generation of poets, always on the verge of death, kiss me! as well as the repining for lost love that is the hallmark of early Byron. This prepares us for “Childe Harold” as well as “Don Juan”–or at least shows us more of the transition of early Byron into what we know him to become. Also, it’s worth mentioning that he uses the word “panting” — “panting Nature” in his “To Florence” — which is always worth mentioning, as I recall it being a word Shelley uses quite liberally, and, honestly, it’s a wonderful word, a wonderful thing to do, to pant, everyone should pant more often.

film: Branagh: Frankenstein (1994)

Frankenstein has long held a place in my heart because it deals with the reckless life of a poet, and its destructive tendency,  and thus I see myself in it, and I grow concerned, wondering if such tragedy really is so tragic. Considering Frankenstein at any point after WWI turns Mary Shelley into a prophet of the same caliber of Orwell or Huxley. Removing it from our lives, that is restraining it to her own, we know she wasn’t foretelling anything at all: she was recalling. Percy didn’t know this, of course, which diminishes his intellect, and makes one begin to wonder how great of poet he is as compared to how much effort Mary put into immortalizing him. We know Percy didn’t know this because he gave no indication of knowing it through his revisions, effective rewrites, of the text, which is the 1818 edition, and he allowed it to be published. Byron didn’t seem to pick up on it either. And ultimately, it’s Mary who is the sole voice of that great circle to survive and recollect on the period with a voice of wisdom. Branagh, who makes everything glorious, took some liberties with the story, but can hardly be criticized given the terrible legacy of idiotic interpretations in the cinema and television. What changes he makes do the following: First, Frankenstein isn’t portrayed as making such repeatedly foolish mistakes, which makes him out to be less of a fool. That is, he grows. I wonder if Branagh would have made this change to the story if he himself had not been playing Frankenstein. It reminds one of Hamlet, who he also chose to play, and the similarity between the characters acting idiotic despite their intelligence is notable. Second, he makes it more melodramatic. This goes alongside the first, because had he just given up on making the bride rather than, you know, cut up the bodies of the only two women in the film and sew them together, and then dance with this monster and try to convince her to, we assume, continue the ceremonies of their wedding night…well, then he would have seemed like he was making a mistake, equal to the first, in believing the daemon wouldn’t actually come visit him on his wedding night. The whole story is mishmashed. And then the final sequence, in which Frankenstein is given a chance to live peacefully amongst humans, and refuses in favor of an unabashedly flamboyant act of suicide, is precisely what allows the ending to be hopeful: progress will stop before reaching its absurd conclusions. We know this is not true, because Shelley died, his family life, including all those dead children, attests to his ignorance in life, and Byron, who is portrayed as Frankenstein’s best friend (and who mysteriously disappears in this film. I mean, he just stops showing up.) dies under equally silly circumstances. Branagh: big, bold, excessive, hoorah! My mouth was gaping for much of this, and I covered my eyes a few times.

art: Impressionism

ever since maya and i began working on our project i’ve been trying desperately to make sense of art. i have a very difficult time giving a proper opinion on works of art, because my sense of beauty is somewhat skewed. when it comes to music all i care about is whether or not the song is catchy–even classical music, if i cannot sing and dance along with the parts, i just don’t care for it. when i think of a scary encounter in a dark alley, i think of ella fitzgerald gliding towards me with violent scatting. when it comes to literature i cannot tell the good from the bad, especially contemporary poetry, which seems to me the ultimate foray back to innocence, and most writers i’ve met seem to work very hard to mask complete ineptitude and habitual good luck. (not that i know a good poem when i see one.) no, in all things, i want a throbbing passion to be amplified, anais nin, astor piazzolla, the interactions between nick and nora charles, truffaut’s jules et jim, the shape of your lips and heat and taste of your mouth, tu fu, françoise sagan, tagore, girls dressing up and dancing for each other, jacques brel, babe: pig in the city, the color of your eyes when you’re being true…if i’m not laughing and crying with joy and anguish, if i’m not breathless and dying to stay awake, then i just don’t care. i just don’t.

it’s how i choose my friends.

when it came to art, the only artists who really affected me were durer and rodin. there’s something of flaming self-confidence in each of them, you can see it in the way durer painted himself, so handsome and dandy, and in the way rodin sculpted balzac, so great but so monstrous. yes, self-confidence is sexy: last year i found myself falling in love with a girl merely because of her posture, i just Had to know her. recently i attended a play and could not, could not for life of me pay attention because of the way the stage-hand carried himself, the ecstatic arch in his back, the light and sureness of his stride, it contained infinitely more humanity than any of those characters on stage. confidence.

and finally i’m standing in the boston mfa, looking at works of impressionism and just not understanding. why were they condemned or disliked or mocked in their time? why should i be moved? why should i care? and then it struck me: i do care. i care because their subjects have no outlines, i care because they focus on light, i care because they emphasize substance over form. this is serious.

joseph and i got in many fights, generally because i had a difficult time being part of his way of life, which was based on two opposing theories. the first theory was “no expectations,” a result of the turbulence inherent to a poetic lifestyle. the second theory was “be prepared,” which he never stated in so many words, but implied it, mostly because he was an eagle scout. he was always torn between ideals and reality, and because i am nowhere in between, in my absent-mindedness, in my naivety, in my perpetual childhood, we never really got along, though we were usually together. usually sighing over girls who had slighted us. he wrote a story about me, and i kill myself in the end; he made it into my novel, and i sent a plague his way, but i didn’t kill him. we’re so sentimental–how does that concern confidence, applying idealized pasts to a trivial future?

i’ve learned these past weeks that many concepts and terms are false, implying a singular definition, when really there is a whole spectrum represented in each. it’s why i can’t get married. every day things are becoming less absolute to me. there is a gypsy word that means both “tomorrow,” and “yesterday.” “living in the moment” is not one thing–it is many ways of being, and it shouldn’t imply that one has no responsibilities. druids were fierce warriors because they believed that at the instant of one’s death one was reborn as something else. life was eternal, it was valued differently. the ancient greeks and vikings had no measure of time, measures of time were symbolic, these people built with wood. was this a measure of confidence, as opposed to the egyptians, as opposed to those who built new york? how does one’s confidence affect one’s perception of time, and by extension, one’s perception of responsibility? confidence can remove us from the present to the future, but too much confidence for too long, and we forget that there’s a difference between now and later. you’ve noticed the life-cycle of empires?

the idea of “no expectations” sounds delightful. without expectations there is no disappointment: this is the key to everlasting romantic love. it ties directly in with “living in the moment”–which i’ve been taught when i was ushered through the experience of taking ten minutes to eat a grape. nothing has ever tasted so sweet as that grape, never have my senses been so consciously consumed, elevated. tantric. i felt naked–and we held our eyes closed–if i dared try eating like that, breathing like that, with my eyes open, you would see my soul, you would never question love again. but living in the moment also means bowing to one’s present desires, means hurting the people who love you, means following divine instructions that make no sense until later, tumbling isolated into the desert to argue with fire. it means a life of impetuous solitude, means human contact is flickering and sensual, intellectual only on the remotest level–and if you’re fortunate enough to have a short life, then this is ideal. rimbaud continually comes to mind, who lived a poet’s life briefly, and then fled into the very opposite. keats comes to mind, who lived a poet’s life internally, but whose girlfriend wouldn’t sleep with him. jim morrison comes to mind, who grew very fat and repulsive and reminds us that death is lumbering and hideous. how does one possibly live in the moment and die contentedly–i don’t mean peacefully, because i also mean violently, i mean an explosion and the sweetest of kisses.

and that’s what i see when i look at monet and his cronies: everything they paint is a reflection of light, which doesn’t mean all life is superficial. like in shelley’s “mont blanc,” we’re dependent on our senses to reach the essence of things, so yes, light is quite enough, metaphor and personification redundancies. and the movement of light, the minimally three-fold image of a reflection on a lake, a life of colors, running and melding, and yet a perfect picture of what our eyes know to be true, there, that is life in the moment–so dangerous–yet, to me, somehow preferable to stability. a beautiful life–a storyteller’s dream–an explosion.

23 aug 07