Being the Author's contemplation of the
anti-pastoral and reconsidered through-lines . . .
I saw you this morning.
You were moving so fast.
Can’t seem to loosen my grip
On the past.
And I miss you so much.
There’s no one in sight.
And we’re still making love
In My Secret Life.
I smile when I’m angry.
I cheat and I lie.
I do what I have to do
To get by.
But I know what is wrong,
And I know what is right.
And I’d die for the truth
In My Secret Life.
--Leonard Cohen, "In My Secret Life"
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.
--Leonard Cohen, "Alexandra Leaving"
Prior to settling into my recent season of doctors and campaigning for Obama, I was on extended holiday in the American Rocky Mountains. Being Otherwise Engaged on multiple fronts is the reason for the lack of posts to this blog and also accounts for a recent sense of intercut reality. The past few months have smudged together in interesting and surreal ways: impressions of myself holding a kind of meta clipboard containing hybrid medical/political/revision questions (Does your family have any history of internal bleeding while convincing uncommitted voters to go Democratic in a perhaps-too-confusing and staccato flashback sequence?). That sort of thing. The culmination of this oddly recombinant period was waking up in the recovery room demanding assurances that (a) Obama was still president-elect and (b) fucking Chapter Seven remained finalized . . .
But back to the vacation: It worked liked a charm--much-needed distance was inserted between me and the book (especially fucking Chapter Seven); despite appearances, I actually feel recharged, though slightly worse-for-wear.
And since I can already sense the uncomfortable shifting, you have my word that this isn’t the preamble to an endless sharing of holiday snaps (As you can see, this picture of the Rockies is slightly bluer and less hazy than the previous vista of mountains--but a lot grayer and more distant than the range in the next shot). Rather, I’d like to explore a variant of that Arthur Conan Doyle passage about a mute canine:
"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.
In my case, the curious, attention-worthy incident is the non-inspirational nature of--er--nature: All the splendor had absolutely no affect on my writing. There was, of course, the obligatory amount of Wonder, Scale and Taking-of-Breath. As a civilian, I respond to nature (though I suspect in a more clinical way than most people), but as an artist, well, not so much. However, this still seems too cagey, so know this: In terms of art, I’m completely disinterested in the natural world.
With the exception of Turner, my appreciation of painted landscapes is entirely technical; minus my fascination with brushstrokes, composition and light, Monet haystacks would die in their amped-up attempts to Make Us Notice The Literal And Spiritual Benefits Of Rural Life In A Way That We Would Otherwise Entirely Miss (And So Thank You, Claude). I remain unmoved by landscapes in the same way I patiently wait for Springsteen songs about The Myriad Aspects of Blue-Collar Life That We Would Otherwise Entirely Miss (And So Thank You, Bruce) to finally end. In each instance, the very obvious has been made epically intense. And, because of the narrowing affect of the obviousness, it’s also about mind-numbing redundancy. (Pop Quiz 1: Explain how “Thunder Road” is in anyway different from”Born To Run” with the exception of tighter focus. Pop Quiz 2: Thematically differentiate three of Monet’s haystack paintings. See what I mean?)
My disinterest in Artistic Nature extends to other disciplines. In most cases, I’d rather saw off my leg with a dull butter knife than read pastoral poetry. Again, it’s the sheer predictability--despite all the passionate attempts to find the new, surprising and oddball detail-cum-angle. I get it--mainly because I got it: a long time ago, reading 400-year-old poetry. Nature is Big. I am Small. Natural Metaphors for What Is Churning In My Soul are somehow more resonant for being externalized (though no one really explains why nature-as-mirror is inherently better than self-examination). Nature is Authentic, whereas Civilization Is Artifice.
(Full disclosure: I have been a hypocritical enabler. At one point, I critiqued some pastoral poetry as a politely down-played but huge favor. What I still remember is the dumbfounded respect of the writer--as if it took special intelligence to discern that, yes, geologic time was being used as a metaphor for a relationship; that, um, Things Change Just Like In Nature. Whatever. My critique was in no way brain surgery, and yet I was deemed Yoda-like for the “insights.” However, the real reason for my carefully chosen, seemingly Zen-like advice had much more to do with me being too polite to explore the author’s psychological reasons for projecting personal feelings onto geological forces. The resulting deflection, disguise and avoidance produced the opposite of truth, which, I finally realized, had been the unconscious intent of the pieces.)
For me, nature-based art is inescapably hackneyed in terms of theme; the metaphoric natural world has been stripped-mined of meaning. Which places it in the same relationship to me as the Blues--so rigorously ritualized in both form and topic that any relatively recent stuff can only be significant in terms of bravura performance. (And, as I learned in my season critiquing pastoral poetry, talented nature poets are as rare as Glenn Gould caliber pianists--journeyman versification of cliched beaches/clouds/flocks of birds/rain/waving grass is as deadening as a cocktail-lounge piano player vamping his way through predictable pop standards.)
All this is a very circuitous way of saying that I inserted myself in the Rocky Mountains to get away from my writing, and not for inspiration. Artistically, I thrive in big cities and interstitial neighborhoods: Fringe-dwelling urban neurotics--my inescapable tribe--give me the ideas and energy that make the words flow.
In this Age of Palin, where “elitist” is the new sneering code word for being smart--dismissive of intelligence in the same way “faggot” denigrates gays-- Blue-Collar Authenticity is all the rage. And, being noble savagery with a new coat of political paint, Blue-Collar Authenticity is especially shrill if the Proudly Uninformed also happen to live near equally Authentic Nature (cough--Alaska--cough). My problem is that I don’t see authenticity in the leading of a patently “low-information” life, and the Rockies are no more or less authentic than Manhattan. (And with a scotch in me, I’ll probably confide that Manhattan is actually more impressive, being the product of human aspiration and design rather then entropy and tectonic plates.)
I also went on a walkabout through the mountains because I’ve been forcing myself to do things I otherwise wouldn’t: Ranked absolutely on my personal Things To Do Before I Die list, the Rockies don’t even figure in the top 100. Which made them a perfect choice because they were sufficiently outside both my desire and comfort zone to be perversely intriguing.