Archive | September, 2012

Brief Thoughts On American Novels (if not “The American Novel”)

27 Sep

Eclecticism is, at once, the strength and weakness of the American artist. It is often said of him that he is too ambitious, though often it merely appears this way since he has become a brilliant collector.

Take the American novelist, for instance. After having spent years worshipping the greatest masters of western civilization and beyond, and after having then perfected their methods, he at once wishes to have the dialogue and psychological thoroughness of Dostoyevsky, the round introspection of Proust, the scintillating prose of Nabokov, the labyrinthine structures of Borges, the musical playfulness and erudition of Joyce, and often enough, the American artist succeeds.

It is for his very ability that we are endeared to him, but it is through his rendering of style, his application of method and his constantly oscillating rhythm that we become disoriented, having passed through every hall in the great house of his narrative design, that we come away feeling only that we are standing on the foundations of all history and that, yet, we will be another beam rather than a statue, mural, or even a pillar—passed silently by the admirers of the future.

How frightening this is for the American artist …  Now, in what is still the youth of his nation, he fears that he does not yet know himself or his culture, that it has not developed well enough for him to round off his perception of it or to edify his audience. He fears that he’ll pass into the shadows of history without contributing a distinctive spirit.

Modernism struck a stylistic chord with America who, not having properly formed such a distinct artistic identity the way different parts of Europe did, was so involved with its assessment of, obsession with and imitation of the European masters that, by the time this century arrived, time had run out and their collection of techniques, sentiments, thoughts and tastes became the pastiche that it is today.

But, perhaps, the very admiration paid the American will be that he was the most brilliant collector of all, a faculty from which others could later build. But can we be sure that ignoring the worst of all arts and taking the best of all arts will be very important for artists of tomorrow? Who says they’ll have much use for what ‘bests’ have already come and gone? They’ll be too busy making greater mistakes in the wake of greater triumphs.

Irony is the closest art comes to a semblance of humility. It is the easiest mode in which it is possible to operate in the face of this truth: that that which we understand now and those forms which we currently have in place will one day be no longer or will have changed almost beyond recognition. Other devices, techniques and methods don’t have the same ability to say, ‘I may not know as we stand now how things will be, but we can laugh at ourselves now as we will when that day comes.’ Though too much irony can give a work of art the stench of bad parody and often make one suspicious of veiled pessimism, just the right touch of it allows future generations to forgive previous generations.

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The Organs Of Oregon

9 Sep

There are three kinds of people who have not been to Oregon: those who wish to go there someday, those who do not wish to go there (accompanied by a complete lack of knowledge about it), and finally, those who are not aware of it at all. I’ve spent time amidst foreigners and I’ve spent time as a foreigner. In both instances I met people from around the world who believed sincerely that all Americans are geographically ignorant to a comical degree. What a succinct pleasure I then had when I found that seventy-five percent of the people around the world I talked to not only failed to locate Oregon on a map but failed to place any real meaning to the word. ‘It’s above California,’ was the most immediate explanation I would give, though in the most extreme cases it didn’t always help, for a number of people didn’t seem to be aware how many states there were above California. But it was a bigger pleasure to have one kid from England tell me, ‘I’ve always wanted to go to Oregon!’

This brand of endearment toward unrequited visits to Oregon seems pretty common in The States, especially among young people, and especially now. But why? It’s dark and rainy there, so you know it’s not because of the weather. It’s green and mountainous, but so are other places that boast of less rain. Perhaps it’s because it also has a coast. Perhaps it’s because there’s great variety to the land. However, among the young, I think it may have something to do with Portland. In the 90’s, to tell people that you were from Portland was to tell them something sort of quaint and sort of embarrassing—not unlike telling people that your overweight son won a pie-eating contest, or that your girlfriend likes to throw theme parties based around the TV show, Friends. Now, in 2012, it seems to mean that you come from a place saturated with the wiles of crazies and street performers on every corner, that a sort of Peter Pan hedonism can keep one forever young, and that when every punk, avant-garde and retro coffee shop, museum and sex show have been exhausted, there are at least interesting people to look at.

Now whether or not all of this is true, one thing is certain and also very telling in a way: People are always happy to find out that a city is cool or has been secretly cool all this time. Since people seem to know so little about the state beyond this Chuck Palahniuk-residing, Fred Armistan-visting, Dark Horse Comics-originating freak city, the image of that freak city often pervades the rest of the state for better or worse. This does little harm beyond the fact that people assume the whole state is interesting.

For me the state became interesting precisely when I left it. Having spent time in Texas, I drew immediate distinctions. There’s a breed of ‘redneck’ in Texas that one might call classical—endearing, earthy, witty, generous, stubborn and tough. Any racism or bigotry one finds there is culturally contingent. However, Oregon has its own breed of redneck. He is stubborn and coarse without the wit or the earthy charm. His racism and bigotry seem, as a rule, acquired, contrived even. People in Texas are generally friendly, even in a city like Dallas where you can go miles and miles without hearing what one would call a ‘southern accent.’ In Dallas, people are generally accepting. Socially, one is innocent until proven guilty. In Oregon, it’s precisely opposite. One must prove oneself. Privacy, in Oregon, is for suckers. Spending time among people you hardly know, though they’ll respect your space, will not hesitate to ask questions that would turn a more timid person’s face red (and they often won’t get a clue when they see your face turn red). This may just represent the rainier parts of the state in the greater north. The darkness and dampness forces people into indoor activities, and this constant pattern grants people a sense of unearned intimacy with the indoor dwellers around them.

The Oregonians are a self-conscious people with a lot of nervous energy. Much has been said of the Pacific Northwest and its high suicide rate. I suppose it’s quicker to pull a trigger than it is to pack up a car and move somewhere else. Oregon’s drug of choice seems to be methamphetamines. Many small towns and suburbs are replete with stories of labs blowing up or getting raided. Hasty robberies in small communities are common.

In Oregon, anxiety and somnolence grow in the same fertile soil and coexist quite easily. They are not a tough people, necessarily, but they are coarse—passive aggressiveness is almost a rule. While city people on the east coast are quick at comebacks and threats, Oregon’s city dwellers mutter and mutter until some greater unexpected violence forces them to snap and more than one person might snap at once.

One can often gage the temperament of a culture by how they handle alcohol. In the south, country people drink as a way of life and city people drink as a way of enhancing entertainment. On the East Coast, In Ireland and England, in many places in continental Europe, people drink to invigorate conversation and enliven the social language. In the Pacific Northwest, people drink because they want to see what happens. But what does happen? Absolutely everything one wouldn’t think to do sober … People in the Pacific Northwestchange when they drink. Not having a culture identifiable in any well-rounded way like that of other parts of the country, Oregon does not have a strong pub-sensibility. Ireland has a strong pub-sensibility. Theirs is so strong, in fact, that it stretches into their sobriety as they remain chummy in the streets the way they were in the late evenings and weekends. Ireland is similar in land and climate to Oregon, so why is this not the case with Oregon? It could be because Ireland is an island. There’s a clannishness, perhaps to do with moderate geographical isolation. Oregon, however, is sandwiched between two cultural monoliths, one possessing Seattle, one possessing L.A. all of them connected more or less by the I5. Oregon is only visited briefly by the nuances and excesses of these two, while Oregon’s own excesses grow and explode in the small rooms its people go in order to stay dry. And the things that happen in those rooms are strange, violently comic (and comically violent, sometimes), bizarre, and story-worthy. Oregonian gossip is gossip of the small room. While places like Greece and France have historically held its greatest events in the streets and hills, the great events of Oregon are one-on-one events—events of minutiae and, again, the small room. Everything interesting that happens there is something that happened in private. Trysts, violent acts, protestations, proclamations of undying love, psychotic episodes . . . These are all things you hear about happening at dinner tables and in living rooms, never in public. They are a private people but they are a nervy people.

This may sound like the greatest indictment of Oregon, but I swear it isn’t. Perhaps this reflects my own proclivity to indulge in the oddity, strangeness and fault of the things I enjoy, but I am very endeared to the place where I grew up. When people ask me where I grew up, I tell them with the utmost pride, and delight to tell them what I find strange and interesting about it (if only in contradistinction to the place doing the questioning). When people get my place of origin all wrong, or when they have all kinds of false assumptions about it, I can’t help but smile and think to myself that Oregon cannot be figured out, even as I have tried to summarize some of the more trivial aspects of its character.

It is worth mentioning that, perhaps due to its characterless character, Oregon is a place so eclectic that it is possible to be just about anything you want. It does not surprise me in the least that legions of people in my generation are flocking to Portland. The image promises them much, but it’s not an image as false as that of L.A. Los Angeles promises fame and fortune but Portland promises something that is almost antagonist to that—day to day experience, trials, interesting conversation and a will to define oneself. While a place like Los Angeles might project an over-used image onto the world, Portland invites people to project their own image onto it. People have done with it what they will.

So I say to all those curious: if you are curious about it, you are already Oregonian enough for Oregon. Its whole appeal has relied on the fact that any definition of it is too costly to anything in the way of solidarity. You want to move there? Do so. Oregon has never possessed an easy definition anyway. You will only contribute to that uneasiness.

If you only want to visit, that’s great too. The very nature of the ‘culture’ of Oregon welcome’s you, despite any claim that one person may have otherwise.

I will move there again someday, but first I must construct an adequate projection of it by spending time away. I fall in love with it the more time I spend away from it.