Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Double Feature

I recently saw two movies, Enemy and The Double, which both revolve around the concept of the doppelganger.  Enemy is about a guy who spots someone who looks exactly like him in the background of a movie he's watching and he tries to track this man down, and then things begin to spiral out of control.  The film is somewhat surreal in the sense that it requires using dream logic to ultimately figure out what happens and what the point of the story is.  However, aside from a few key touches, the story is fairly basic and straightforward and even fairly realistic in its details.  There's a look to the film which sets it apart from reality to a degree and engenders a pervasive mood of uneasiness, but it creates a world which feels consistent and necessary unto itself.  It creates a world that makes sense in its own right, one that you can take seriously.

The Double, on the other hand, is not so much surreal as it is surrealist, if you can grasp the distinction.  It tries a little too hard.  It piles on its absurdities with a nudge and wink, as if to say, "Hey, that's weird isn't it?  Kind of like something out of a dream, huh?  Huh?  Huh!!?"  It's loosely based on the Dostoevsky story of the same name.  Very very loosely.  In a way, I got the sense that the film-makers believed that Dostoevsky himself was some kind of artsy surrealist and they were trying to pay homage to that fact.  There's a scene where the protagonist pieces together a ripped up picture of his love interest and it ends up being a nod to Magritte's La reproduction interdite.  But Dostoevsky never really went in for those kinds of artsy visuals.  His stories existed not in a surrealist world, as much as in a world of feverish delirium.  You read a Dostoevsky novel and you start to feel like you're coming down with something, like you've been breathing bad air.  Dostoevsky wasn't about apples with doorways that opened onto the clouds; he was about cranking the heat up under his characters until they were sweating and dizzy and half out of their minds.

In that regard, Enemy is actually closer than The Double to the spirit of Dostoevsky, although neither story really bears much resemblance to the trials and tribulations of poor Mr. Goldyadkin.  But Enemy built more on psychological pressures than on wonky stagecraft and the random oddities of the supposedly avant-garde.  I prefer that.  It had a strangeness about it, but it was a strangeness that, as I said above, I could take seriously.  Rather than alienating me with deliberate weirdness, it crawled under my skin in a way that was genuinely unsettling.  It wasn't "dream-like"; it was a dream.

And Dostoevsky himself had a great grasp of that real dream logic, the truly surreal, which he employed expertly when the occasion called for it.  The dream where the horse gets beaten to death in Crime and Punishment is so vividly portrayed, so utterly disturbing in the behavior of its principals, so perfectly necessary in all details, and so beautifully apropos of Raskolnikov's emotional state at that point in the story, it's as though Dostoevsky had crawled behind the eyes of his character and dissected his mind.  And, of course, that scene is prefaced by that wonderful passage that I try to remember when everything around me tells me that "no one cares about other people's dreams."  And so I'll close this post with Dostoevsky's great rebuttal to that sentiment: 

"At times monstrous images are created, but the setting and the whole picture are so truth-like and filled with details so delicate, so unexpected, but so artistically consistent, that the dreamer, were he an artist like Pushkin or Turgenev even, could never have invented them in the waking state."

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Off Season

It's been very gloomy here for the past week.  The clouds have settled in low, dark even at midday.  I've been feeling very off key.  My daughter has been sick, and I was sick for a bit this morning, wondering if I was catching the same thing.  There's been trouble at work that I've had to address.  I've found myself being cranky here and there online, and I've even been cranky with myself in my sleep, which is always a wonderful experience.  I laid down in bed yesterday morning and I kept waking up every few hours to beat myself up for sleeping and wasting the day.  Then I would drift back off and wake up a little while later and do it again.  I don't know why I was being so hard on myself.  I only slept for a good six or seven hours.  But at the time it seemed like I was letting my whole life go to waste, and sleep felt like some comatose suffocation that I had to claw and struggle against, as though I had gotten wound up in my blankets and couldn't breathe.

And yet, none of those things, taken in isolation, seem to be the cause of my uneasiness.  They all seem symptomatic of something else, something I can't put my finger on.  There's just something disquieting in the air, out there in the aether.  Going for a walk, I'm more liable to mistake a bush in the neighbor's yard for a man lurking or a rotten-toothed troll skittering away.  And now there's a faint break in the clouds where the sun is going down, letting through a dim red light that's all the more foreboding than a dismal fade from grey to black.  You can almost hear the hoofbeats of some pale horse and rider, galloping against this backdrop, breathing cold fire, bringing doom to the land.

A bit of an overstatement, I'm sure.  It's just the changing of the year, the shortening of the days, the falling of the leaves.  Still, It's funny how our holidays and traditions are so nicely suited to their seasons. Halloween captures that uncanny decadence of fall, the gathering of pumpkins and the lighting of the hearth colliding in the sinister grin of the Jack-O-Lantern.   Easter heralds the more basic ressurection of spring.  The heat of July inspires the fomenting of revolutions as well as the impulse to explode things in the open air.  Thanksgiving arrives with the bountiful harvest.  And it's hard for me to imagine bearing the frigid darkness of winter without the brightly strung lights and glowing joys of Christmas.  It's all part of that cavalcade of human experience on this little allotted portion of the Earth, going round and round, part history, part make believe, part nature, part weather.  It's that long count of the days.  It's our breakwater against the tides of entropy.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Enough is Oddly Enough

I think I've reached the point where the phrase "oddly enough" needs to be dumped from my repertoire.   Any sentence that I feel compelled to begin with the phrase "oddly enough" should probably be immediately deleted, striken from the record, and considered superfluous to the conversation.  I don't mean this as a hard and fast rule for everyone to follow.  I'm sure "oddly enough" is a fine phrase with many legitimate deployments.  But for me it's become a shorthand for "I feel embarrassed and stupid for saying this, but here goes nothing!"  It's the sort of thing, if I said it in person, I would get all red in the face and start giggling and arching my eyebrows like an idiot.  That's my body's way of trying to tell me "No. No.  Please don't say this.  Just stop."  If only I'd listen.

The same probably holds true for "strangely enough" and "interestingly enough" and the whole "enough" family of pointless qualifying phrases.  A reader hardly needs me to tell them at the outset that something is strange or interesting.  Interesting things are best encountered in the wild, unawares, and without the proper safety equipment.  As you're jostling about on the tour bus of life, you don't need the guide to come over the loud speaker and say, "Now if you look to your right, you'll see something interesting."

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Case of the Shattered Glass

I had someone from a glass replacement company come out on Tuesday to look at one of my front windows that's broken.  The guy came in a big van that had the motto "We fix your panes" painted across the side.  As he got situated in my driveway and got all his tools and things together, I watched from the window waiting for him and trying to think of a more clever or clearer pun that they could have gone with.  "We ease your panes"?  No.  "We feel your panes"?  Huh?  How about "Your panes are our problems"? Or maybe "We can be a real pane in your glass"?  I got nothing.

We have absolutely no idea how this window got broken.   It was a few months back.  I was snoozing away comfortably on a Sunday afternoon when my wife woke me up to tell me that she had heard strange noises coming from the foyer and she had gone out and discovered that the long window beside the front door had shattered in an intricate web in about a thousand places.  I could hear the hum of the neighbor's mower in the background.  But it was hard to fathom that a rock or some other piece of debris could have been propelled from that distance and at that glancing of an angle to make that kind of impact.  The next morning I noticed a suspicious looking cigarette butt laying on the pavement beside the front steps.  This seemed to be a clue in an almost classic sense, but it didn't really lead anywhere.  It was even harder to fathom that someone walked up to our front door, in broad daylight, with the heavy traffic on the busy street in front of our house, and for grievances untold and unknown, they just decided to deliberately smash our window with something.

Luckily (I guess) the window is composed of two panes of glass, and it was only the outer one that was broken.  So it wasn't an imminent emergency.  Still, it needed to be fixed before winter or before we put the house on the market to sell, whichever comes first.  But I've had a hell of time trying to get someone out here to look at it.  The first guy I called never showed up at all.  The second guy came by and told me that they only replaced whole windows not window panes, which was weird because I had explained the situation over the phone.  But this guy that came on Tuesday, just walked up, said, "I take it this is the window?", took some measurements, quoted me a price, and that was that.  Now I just have to wait a week or so for the new glass and hopefully, that'll be the end of it.

So that's pretty much how I spent my Tuesday.  These people always give you like a four to eight hour window when they might show up, so you have to kind of sit around.  You can't go anywhere, or get too involved in do anything.  I kept jumping up every time I heard a car door outside.  Then they show up and they're here for all of fifteen minutes.  But, oh well.  I guess that's how things work.  What can you do?  Gotta get that window fixed.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Kafka's Contraption

The other day I read Kafka's short story "In the Penal Colony", and it has kind of been stuck in my head.  The story involves a strange and complicated execution device that quite literally carries out its sentence on the condemned by inscribing the words of their punishment over and over upon their flesh for twelve hours until they die.  In the story an unidentified "traveler" comes to witness one such execution while the officer overseeing the execution explains the machine's process in enthusiastic and even affectionate detail.  In the end this officer releases the man scheduled to be executed from the machine and he climbs into the machine himself to be killed, because ... well, it's a Kafka story, so of course he does.  The machine malfunctions, killing the officer rather quickly and brutally, and cheating him of the epiphany that he believes others have experienced from the long drawn out process of inscription.  After that, of course, more madness ensues and the story ends.

After I read the story, I searched around for some essays and analyses written about it, as I often do when I find something like that thought provoking.  I'm always interested to see what thoughts might have been provoked in others, as a way of comparing notes and putting things into perspective.  However, many of the pieces I found displayed that familiar and annoying habit of overlaying the narrative with a system of symbolism, a schematic of abstract ideas where every detail is matched up with a concept of some sort.  The harrow, for instance, will be something like Christianity, and the rice pudding with stand for the "people", and so on and so forth.  And it's surrealist stories that seem to especially receive this treatment, as though their narratives can't be taken seriously in their own right, and must be transcribed into some sort of sterile philosophy lesson.

For me, the significance of such a story lies first and foremost in the experience that takes place in the imagination, in precisely those physical details that these analysts are so quick to discard in favor of their schemes and diagrams.  If Kafka had merely wanted to contrast the "old law" vs. the new, or whatever nonsense they've decided he was up to, he would have written an essay or a treatise about it.  But no, he writes a story.  He takes us somewhere, to the sand and the desert and the heat, and those handkerchiefs stuffed into the officer's collar, and this weird contraption in a pit.  The rice pudding isn't merely symbolic of something.  It's rice pudding in all its revolting glory.  This story has stayed in my thoughts, not because of what it supposedly means, but because of what it IS.  It's because of the other-worldliness of its setting, the perverse behavior of its characters.  It is nightmare qua nightmare, and it should be appreciated first and foremost as a thing unto itself.

As one writer to another, I like to note those points of contact shared between Kafka and I.  I notice, for instance, that he also relishes just those details which display a shrewd perceptiveness and intelligence involved in the craftsmanship of a dream.  There's a part in the story where he mentions a gag that is placed in the condemned man's mouth.  The officer complains that the condemned man must have been fed prior to the execution, which he says is a bad idea because the gag is bound to make him sick since "more than a hundred men have sucked and bitten on it as they were dying."  It's precisely that sort of thing that would stand out to me when collecting the details of a story.  I'd think, "Yes.  That's exactly how it would be!  Brilliant!"  It's just such things that take an absurd idea and ratchet all the nuts and bolts on it, and allow it to be taken that much more seriously.  It's a vision brought to life through the careful stitches with which it's woven.  And I can see that Kafka really digs in gleefully on just those points.  That's something I can well appreciate.

I really like stuff that sinks its claws into my brain and leaves me preoccupied for days afterwards: stories, movies, songs, etc. that leave me shaken or haunted or moved, incubating in my headspace.  They become part of the tapestry of my life.  Sometimes, looking back, they can be the milestones that stand out the most from a given period.  I can think of the fall or spring of a certain year and instantly a certain movie will spring to mind, and it will be that movie that was most in my thoughts in those days.  It coalesces will my own experiences and becomes a part of them.  I was walking along those train tracks.  I was looking at that cloud.  I was thinking of that book.               

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Ohio in My Mind

It's evening.  The sun has just dipped below the horizon and I just saw a long trail of birds fly by, silhouetted against the remnants of the day.  It was an impressive flock, maybe in the hundreds, far more than I could count.  Birds fascinate me first and foremost as social creatures.  I smile at the idea of their camaraderie and companionship.  They make society work where humans have often failed.  I try to imagine the nature of that society.  Are there leaders?  Rivalries?  Politics?  Friendships?  When they all gather in a field on an autumn morning preparing for their journey, are there brisk consultations over coffee about which routes to take, which highways and tolls to bypass?  There's comfort not only in the thought of flying south, but in flying south together.  I think about those last few birds at the tail end of the flock.  I try to imagine how that must feel.

There's been a lot of talk around here about flying south.  My wife, my daughter, and I are all considering moving back down to Phoenix after my daughter graduates from high school next spring.  My wife loves it down there.  My daughter was born there, but she was only a few months old when we moved back and she doesn't remember it at all.  She's thinking of going to college down there.  I think whatever charms that Northeastern Ohio might have held for either of them were killed by the brutally cold winter that we had this past year.

Me, I like the idea of going, but I have a few reservations.  Arizona is a better place to live than Ohio in pretty much every demonstrable way.  And it's hard to argue with that.  But it's like there are two Ohios.  There's the Ohio where I live, a place of strip malls and potholes and bad weather and bitter people.  And then there's the Ohio in my mind.  That's where those birds gather.  That's where all the memories of my life are stored, those childhood impressions which surface of their own accord from time to time upon the stream of my consciousness.  That's where those faces haunt me, the people I used to know, the times we used to have.

So I wonder, if I go, which Ohio will I leave behind?  I think about that day we'll leave, the car packed with as much as it can hold, everybody excited and anxious to go.  It's the saddest thing in the world leaving a house that you've lived in for years.  Going back for that last box.  Shutting the door that last time.  That place it's come to inhabit in your mind is never so present as it is right then.  You feel like you could reach out and brush through it with your hand.  You feel you could hold on to every precious second.  If only you had the time.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Ghost Writers in the Sky

Sometimes I think of the tales told by a long-bearded old man, relaxing on the porch of his country home.  He sits on a tree stump, roughly improvised to serve as a chair.  There's stains from tobacco juice matted in the grey scraggles of his beard.  His house lies deep in the woods and the forest is dark and thick on either side of the two dirt and gravel ruts that make up the road that passes before his door, so he sees very few people go by, and he calls out to those few and waves them over, eager for their company.  He tells them all the stories and sorrows of his life in a slow luxuriant draw that takes all the time in the world.  I think about this man, and everything that he might say and the steady cadences with which he might say it.  I think about his travels and his troubles and those years when he was young, all packed away in a streamer trunk lugged from train to train across the vanished landscapes of American history.

Other times, I think of a housewife from years gone by.  She has a little desk and typewriter tucked Into the alcove of her upstairs bedroom, just out of reach of the ironing board and the clothes folded on the bed.  I see her there at her desk beside the open window.  It's early June and the neighborhood kids are out playing below, reveling in the summer morning.  The sun is shining through the latticed branches of the tree, and the husband has just had his coffee and left for work, and she has just those few spare hours before noon to lose herself in another place and time, far beyond all the quiet necessities of her quiet life.  I'm told that just such a woman lived down the street from the house where my family lived when I was born.  My mother said that the woman wrote romance novels, some even published, but she couldn't remember her name.  I think of her there at her window, laying aside another freshly typed sheet, still warm.

I suppose I've invented these people -- and maybe half a dozen others besides -- as a way of distancing myself from the act of writing.  These people, I think to myself, would have something to say.  Words would have a natural and inevitable gravity coming from such lives.  And so I tell myself it's simple.  Write what these people would write.  But it doesn't help and I'm not those people. And I have no real access to their thoughts and their being.   I'm just poor old prosaic me.  I have no such solid existential ground to stand on.  And to try to write by proxy in the voice of these phantoms would just take me one step back from hurling myself over the cliff of authenticity.  It would just be one more cliche' between me and the grit and the urgent and the real.

And yet, even though I know that these fantasies are mostly just an expression of my own feelings of inadequacy, they can still be fairly enticing sometimes.  There's still that part of me that feels like it would simpler and easier to write as that housewife, knowing her motivations, to speak from her lonely square foot in the expanses of human existence, to reach out with her hand from the stone slabs of the forgotten past to make contact and whisper, "Shhh, these were the things I dreamt about through the long passage of my days, the dreams that I kept for me amid my roles as wife and mother, the dreams that kept me alive."  Or to be that old man, as wise and broken in as old leather, with not only the substance of his life, but all the poetry of its finer details and even the ripe, rank smell of it.

And it's these very things which lie at the heart of my ambivalence to carry forward with this blog in its present incarnation.  To write or not to write.  To bear the prose of my life or try to find the poetry in it.  But, as I told Vincent, I'm just looking to see what kind of breadcrumbs will present themselves along my day to day path, what material I might find to draw from my everyday experience, what things I might find that I need to say.  I almost thought of calling this post "The Next Breadcrumb", but I already had a much better title in mind.