Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 2013

The writer on the porch

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Karel Čapek

Now I have a profession of my own, and I work at it the livelong day. But even if I were to sit on the porch with my work I don’t think a single boy would come—standing on one bare foot and rubbing his calf with the other—and watch my fingers to see how a writer’s business is done. I don’t say that it is a bad or useless profession: but it isn’t one of the superlatively fine and striking ones, and the material used is of a strange sort—you don’t even see it. But I’d like all the things I used to see to be in it: the ringing hammer-strokes of the smith and the colors of the whistling house painter, the patience of the tailor and the careful chipping of the stonemason, the bustling of the baker, the humility of the poor, and all the lusty strength and skill which men of towering stature put into their work before the astonished and fascinated eyes of a child.

Karel Čapek

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November 30, 2013 at 9:00 am

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Is it Catch-22…or The Phantom Tollbooth?

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on October 13, 2011.

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of two of the most extraordinary works in all of American literature, Catch-22 and The Phantom Tollbooth, which were published, remarkably enough, only a few weeks apart in 1961. What’s especially fascinating about these two books, one of which has long been one of my favorites and the other which I read only recently, is that while they’re rarely mentioned in the same sentence, they’re often startlingly similar, almost as if they’d been written by the same man. (And I’m not even counting the fact that they both have characters named Milo.)

What follows is a series of quotations, some slightly modified, from both novels. Can you tell which is which?

  1. Since he had nothing better to do well in, he did well in school.
  2. When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered.
  3. Life in school was no different than life had been for him all along. Whoever he was with always wanted him to be with someone else.
  4. Each man looked very much like the other, and some looked even more like each other than they did like themselves.
  5. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.
  6. “That’s absurd.” “That may be true, but it’s completely accurate, and as long as the answer is right, who cares if the question is wrong?”
  7. “I’d give everything I own to him. But since I don’t own everything, I can’t give everything to him, can I?”
  8. “All I meant was that perhaps it wasn’t too important.” “Of course it’s not important,” the man snarled angrily. “I wouldn’t have asked you to do it if I thought it was important.”
  9. Most of the official documents that came to him did not concern him at all. The vast majority consisted of allusions to prior communications which he had never seen or heard of. There was never any need to look them up, for the instructions were invariably to disregard.
  10. As always, they moved in ominous circles, for if one said “here,” the other said “there,” and the third always agreed perfectly with both of them. And, since they always settled their differences by doing what none of them really wanted, they rarely got anywhere at all—and neither did anyone they met.
  11. The only people permitted to ask questions were those who never did. Soon the only people attending were those who never asked questions, and the sessions were discontinued altogether, since they agreed that it was neither possible nor necessary to educate people who never questioned anything.
  12. “I only treat illnesses that don’t exist: that way, if I can’t cure them, there’s no harm done—just one of the precautions of the trade.”
  13. The leader of the team of doctors was a dignified, solicitous gentlemen who held one finger up directly in front of him and demanded, “How many fingers do you see?” “Two,” he said. “How many fingers do you see now?” asked the doctor, holding up two. “Two,” he said. “And how many now?” asked the doctor, holding up none. “Two,” he said. The doctor’s face wreathed with a smile. “By Jove, he’s right,” he declared jubilantly. “He does see everything twice.”
  14. “But why do only unimportant things?” “Think of all the trouble it saves. If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. Because there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing.”
  15. Actually, there were many buildings that he had not helped build, but he was proudest of the one here. It was truly a splendid structure, and he throbbed with a mighty sense of accomplishment each time he gazed at it and reflected that none of the work that had gone into it was his.
  16. He invariably leaped before he looked and never cared where he was going as long as he knew why he shouldn’t have gone to where he’d been.
  17. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.
  18. “We don’t want to get anything done; we want to get nothing done, and we can do that without your help. You see, it’s really quite strenuous doing nothing all day, so once a week we take a holiday and go nowhere, which was just where we were going when you came along.”
  19. His father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make certain that the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the county.
  20. “You see, to tall men I’m a midget, and to short men I’m a giant; to the skinny ones I’m a fat man, and to the fat ones I’m a thin man. That way I can hold four jobs at once. As you can see, though, I’m neither tall nor short nor fat nor thin. In fact, I’m quite ordinary, but there are so many ordinary men that no one asks their opinion about anything.”
  21. “I was a fascist when Mussolini was on top, and I am an anti-fascist now that he has been deposed. I was fanatically pro-German when the Germans were here to protect us against the Americans, and now that the Americans are here to protect us against the Germans I am fanatically pro-American.”
  22. “Are you ready to be sentenced?” “Only a judge can sentence you.” “Good point,” replied the policeman, taking off his cap and putting on a long black robe. “I am also the judge.”
  23. As a member of the Action Board, the lieutenant was one of the judges who would weigh the merits of the case against the accused as presented by the prosecutor. The lieutenant was also the prosecutor. The accused had an officer defending him. The officer defending him was the lieutenant.
  24. And the crowd waved and cheered wildly, for, while they didn’t care at all about anyone arriving, they were always very pleased to see someone go.

Answers: Odd-numbered quotations are from Catch-22, even ones from The Phantom Tollbooth—and it’s almost enough to make me wonder if Joseph Heller and Norton Juster were the same man. (You know, like Thomas Pynchon and J.D. Salinger.)

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2013 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Emanuel Lasker

You should keep in mind no names, nor numbers, nor isolated incidents, not even results, but only methods…The method produces numerous results; a few of these will remain in our memory, and as long as they remain few, they are useful to illustrate and to keep alive the rules which order a thousand results.

Emanuel Lasker, Lasker’s Manual of Chess

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November 29, 2013 at 7:30 am

Agnosticism and the working writer

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on June 6, 2011.

Being an agnostic means all things are possible, even God, even the Holy Trinity. This world is so strange that anything may happen, or may not happen. Being an agnostic makes me live in a larger, a more fantastic kind of world, almost uncanny. It makes me more tolerant.

Jorge Luis Borges, to the New York Times

Of all religious or philosophical convictions, agnosticism, at first glance, is the least interesting to defend. Like political moderates, agnostics get it from both sides, most of all from committed atheists, who tend to regard permanent agnosticism, in the words of Richard Dawkins, as “fence-sitting, intellectual cowardice.” And yet many of my heroes, from Montaigne to Robert Anton Wilson, have identified themselves with agnosticism as a way of life. (Wilson, in particular, called himself an agnostic mystic, which is what you get when an atheist takes a lot of psychedelic drugs.) And while a defense of the philosophical aspects of agnosticism is beyond the scope of this blog—for that, I can direct you to Thomas Huxley, or even to a recent posting by NPR’s Adam Frank, whose position is not far removed from my own—I think I can talk, very tentatively, about its pragmatic benefits, at least from a writer’s point of view.

I started thinking about this again after reading a blog post by Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin, who relates that she was recently talking about the mystical inclinations of W.B. Yeats when a self-proclaimed atheist piped up: “I always get sad for Yeats for his occult beliefs.” As Crispin discusses at length, such a statement is massively condescending, and also weirdly uninsightful. Say what you will about Yeats’s interest in occultism, but there’s no doubt that he found it spectacularly useful. It provided him with symbolic material and a means of engaging the unseen world that most poets are eventually called to explore. The result was a body of work of permanent importance, and one that wouldn’t exist, at least not in its present form, if his life had assumed a different shape. Was it irrational? Sure. But Wallace Stevens aside, strictly rational behavior rarely produces good poets.

I’ve probably said this before, but I’ll say it again: the life of any writer—and certainly that of a poet—is so difficult, so impractical on a cosmic scale, that there’s often a perverse kind of pragmatism in the details. A writer’s existence may look messy from the outside, but that mess is usually the result of an attempt to pick out what is useful from life and reject the rest, governed by one urgent question: Can I use this? If a writer didn’t take his tools wherever he found them, he wouldn’t survive, at least not as an artist. Which is why any kind of ideology, religious or otherwise, can be hard for a writer to maintain. Writers, especially novelists, tend to be dabblers, not so much out of dilettantism—although that can be a factor as well—as from an endless, obsessive gleaning, a rummaging in the world’s attic for useful material, in both art and life. And this process of feathering one’s nest tends to inform a writer’s work as well. What Christopher Hitchens says of Ian McEwan is true of many novelists:

I think that he did, at one stage in his life, dabble a bit in what’s loosely called “New Age,” but in the end it was the rigorous side that won out, and his novels are almost always patrolling some difficult frontier between the speculative and the unseen and the ways in which material reality reimposes itself.

Agnosticism is also useful for another reason, as Borges points out above: tolerance. A novelist needs to write with empathy about people very different from himself, and to vicariously live all kinds of lives, which is harder to do through the lens of an intractable philosophy. We read Dante and Tolstoy despite, not because of, their ideological convictions, and much of the fire of great art comes from the tension between those convictions and the artist’s reluctant understanding of the world. For a writer, dogma is, or should be, the enemy—including dogma about agnosticism itself. In the abstract, it can seem clinical, but in practice, it’s untidy and makeshift, like the rest of a writer’s life. It’s useful only when it exposes itself to a lot of influences and generates a lot of ideas, most unworkable, but some worthy of being pursued. Like democracy, it’s a compromise solution, the best of a bad lot. It doesn’t work all that well, but for a writer, at least for me, it comes closer to working than anything else.

Quote of the Day

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November 28, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Learning from the masters: Charles Schulz

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Note: To celebrate the third anniversary of this blog, I’ll be spending the week reposting some of my favorite pieces from early in its run. This post originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on March 31, 2011.

The case of Charles M. Schulz is a peculiar one, because there are really two faces to Peanuts. There’s the strip itself, which remains one of the most original, arresting, and entertaining works of art of the twentieth century. And then there’s Peanuts the franchise, the source of Vince Guaraldi albums, television specials, and countless other forms of merchandise, some of which are worthwhile, but which also tend to overshadow the deeper qualities of the strip itself. (Hence the response to the well-meaning but somewhat confused Tumblr blog 3eanuts, which gives readers the impression that the original strips need to be altered to bring out their underlying bleakness.) Which is too bad, because Peanuts, at its best, is the greatest contemporary example of how a uniquely personal work of art can enter the dreamlife of millions.

And its impact has been incalculable. I recently picked up a copy of Todd Hignite’s seductive book In the Studio: Conversations with Contemporary Cartoonists, and if there’s a single underlying theme in its pages, stated or unstated, it’s the massive influence of Peanuts. For cartoonists like Seth and Chris Ware, not to mention Bill Watterson, Schulz is the artist who transformed the mainstream comic strip into a personal, even autobiographical form, at a time when there were nearly no precedents for such an achievement. Even now, it’s hard to think of another artist who managed to write a daily strip that was so funny and so bleak, so personal and so universal. Given the current splintering of the media landscape, we may never see anything like it ever again.

It’s difficult to understand this now, but during the peak years of the strip—which I’d place from roughly 1960 to 1974, although any attempt to define its golden years before 1980 or so is basically arbitrary—it was read avidly on college campuses by the same people who would go on to devour the likes of Jules Feiffer in the Village Voice. With its use of the jargon of psychoanalysis and philosophy, its depictions of depression and failure, and its relentlessly black humor, it felt like a comic strip for grownups, even as kids went nuts for it as well. And as David Michaelis points out in his invaluable Schulz and Peanuts, its adult fans, like Feiffer, reacted with deep suspicion to the commercialization of the strip. How could America’s greatest poet of quiet desperation also be shilling for MetLife?

But the real point is that these two aspects of Schulz’s life shouldn’t be separated. Peanuts was both intensely personal and the biggest marketing phenomenon this side of Disney. It was used to sell cars, insurance, and Easter Egg kits even as the strip itself grew ever sadder and more pessimistic. In some ways, this still feels like the most subversive coup in the history of American popular culture. Not until The Simpsons—which, we’re told, owed much of its early popularity to “all the pretty colors”—was a work of art so ubiquitous and so misunderstood. And both cases speak to the universality of master craftsmanship. For Peanuts and The Simpsons alike, there’s no clear line dividing the popular from the sublime: it’s one seamless work of art.

As with The Simpsons, there’s no denying that Peanuts underwent a decline in its final years, and in particular was never the same after the mid-1980s. But to quibble over the fact that Schulz managed only thirty years of unparalleled excellence is like asking why Beethoven only managed to come up with nine decent symphonies. (Which sounds like something that Lucy might ask Schroeder). Strip by strip, panel by panel, it’s one of the richest bodies of work produced by any American artist, a lens through which the culture of half a century can be glimpsed. As such, it was an essential part of my education, and The Complete Peanuts will be among the first books that my own children will read. I can’t imagine giving them a greater gift.

Quote of the Day

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November 27, 2013 at 7:30 am

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