Books | Art | Critical Theory | Music | New York

One thing that's great about New York is fire escapes. I sit outside in the humidity and watch what I have fortuitously calculated to be about 68% of traffic: cabs.

I started a job at The Economist today, which is a temp position that's "indefinite," until they begin a search to replace the woman who was fired yesterday. It's a great setup, and I get to feel like I'm working towards something valuable--instead of, say, what I was doing yesterday, which was playing the part of receptionist for a real estate auction company that sells off peoples' foreclosed homes. One thing I learned, at least, while working through lunch: when it's your job to answer phones, don't take large bites.

Also, a bus picks me up across the street and economically drops me off ten feet from the door to the office. The heat in this town is off the charts, so the more spare one's movements (in a dress shirt, no less), the better.

Go listen to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. It's a surprising amount of fun.

I want to base what I have to say on three facts which I think indisputable. The first is that the Bible belongs to literature; that is, it is a piece of art. The second indisputable fact is that the Bible is an imaginative book. The third indisputable fact is that the greatest artist of all, the greatest imaginer of all, is the one who appears at the opening of Genesis. [...]
Now when we look from these three facts to contemporary evangelical Christianity, we find a great oddity. The people who spend the most time with the Bible are in large numbers foes of art and the sworn foes of imagination. And I grow in the feeling that these people have quite an astonishing indifference to the created world. [...] Furthermore, when evangelicals dare attempt any art form it is generally done badly. [...]
Evangelical Christians have had one of the purest of motives and one of the worst of outcomes. The motive is never to misleed by the smallest iota in the precise nature of salvation, to live in it and state it in its utter purity. But the unhappy outcome has too often been to elevate the cliche. [...]
There is a simplicity which diminishes and a simplicity which enlarges, and evangelicals have too often chosen the wrong one. The first is that of the cliche--simplicity with mind and heart removed. The other is that of art. The first falsifies by its exclusions; the second encompasses. The first silently denies the multiplicity and grandeur of creation, salvation, and indeed all things....The contrast suggests that not to imagine is what is sinful.

from "The Aesthetic Poverty of Evangelicalism" March 1969

I've spent most of the day listening to the Magnetic Fields, which has both comforted and enabled a short bit of depressed feeling I've had for the last few days. The three disc collection called 69 Love Songs is just about three hours long, and I got through it one and a half times. The songs are as realized as the misanthrope persona that all the songs are written from.

Part of my down feeling has to do with the fact that I've spent the week in a poorly ventilated room with permanent markers crossing out personal information from medical records, though they let me bring my headphones. The Cardiovascular Research Foundation is conducting a study on patients who have had bypass surgery and they want all 400-some records to be anonymous, each of the 200 sheets in every file labeled with a number and letter code instead. Enter the lowly "temps" to do the grunt work. It really felt like manual labor, and the fumes, ironically, couldn't have been good for my heart.

It was interesting and partly disturbing to rifle through people's medical records, especially because they were filed chronologically, from the initial emergency room records citing "chest pain" to what I, as the omniscient observer in the situation, knew would inevitably result in extensive surgery. I read about a legally blind piano tuner from Queens who quit smoking in 1990, the Wonderbread delivery man who is 5'6" and 215 pounds, and the 65 year old practicing physician who ran tests and listed himself as patient and physician, then submitted them to the hospital.

So the dizzying monotony of sitting in a room doing the same thing for 8 hours, along with the strange predetermination of worst-case-scenario outcome in the medical records--long week. Enter Magnetic Fields and the cheeky, perfect love songs. Really, they're not about love, but love falling apart. But somehow, they avoid self-pity, even though the lyrics seem like they are full of it. And Stephen Merritt's extraordinarily low voice, of course, doesn't exactly lighten things up. It took me around 4 trips through the whole 69 songs to start liking it, to develop what is definitely an acquired taste. What I realize I love about the songs is that they don't beg you to like them; they barely even ask. It's not slick production that's smiling at you to join in, but as you learn to pick up the ridiculously clever lyrics and appreciate the subtlety, you realize that they are what love songs really ought to sound like: effortless, honest, silly, introspective, depressed, pretentious, casual, self-consciously sentimental. Part of the way they avoid annoying self-pity is that Stephen Merritt plays it up in a persona--that and the songs are so well executed, one doesn't ask questions. I think if something is written well enough, I'll believe pretty much anything it says.

I got a letter from Con Ed this afternoon saying that we have been illegally using electricity, and it will be turned off in three days. I guess I should call them tomorrow.

"I could make a career of being blue / I could dress in black and read Camus / smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth / like I was 17 / that would be a scream / but I don't want to get over you."

"There'll be time enough for sleeping when we're dead / You will have a velvet pillow for your head ... There'll be time enough for sex and drugs in heaven / When our pheremones are turned up to 11."

"Heather, Heather, we belong together /like sex and violence / Like death and silence."

I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close recently, and I have been reading reviews that call it a sentimental--or worse, manipulative--attempt at addressing 9/11 and other tragedy. The novel sugests that we can benefit from some innocence that a child narrator brings to our perspective, which through its disarming honesty and precociousness (which marks any portrayal of childhood in fiction, it seems), allows us to feel better about the world, as a child does. The greatest danger in writing about childhood is sentimentalism, of losing a balance between sentiment and a complexity of emotion, or intense vitality.

I’ve never been quite certain when something is sentimental and when something is genuine--I don’t have a good bullshit meter, or perhaps it’s better to call it a critical impulse. I like bad art sometimes, and then I feel like I shouldn’t, and I’ve cried at movies that critics lament as trite. I feel that I’ve got to learn to teach myself, to train myself strictly, to resist sentimentalism. Why does it come easily?

"A sentimentalist," Oscar Wilde writes, "is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it." All vanilla with no chocolate, frosting with no cake--when you eat too many sour patch kids and they turn saccharine in your mouth.

At least one review I read applauded Foer as being a writer willing to “risk” sentimentalism in order to address questions of truth and beauty. The reviewer seems to be suggesting that we need more sentiment in contemporary writing, but it must be true sentiment, which perhaps leads the reader to contemplating something deeper and more serious. However, too much of it and we’re in a sea of good intentions without anything complex to balance it, without a genuine reason for it to be there.

So why does Foer return--or regress--to childhood to address these great questions of truth and beauty, in a time of turmoil? I myself talked about a return to childhood in my first post, but I wasn’t using it to address tragedy, not in that scope. Childhood innocence and the like may teach us to regain a poetic imagination, but is it appropriate to make claims about large issues like 9/11? Shouldn’t we be “paying” something great for our response to these tragedies, for understanding them? Shouldn’t it not be easy? Or should we inhabit some kind of poetic imagination to understand it well? Yet there is something disturbing, on the whole, with the way Foer ends the whole thing--it’s all regression. The narrator wants to literally reverse time, and there is a little flip-book gimmick at the end of the book which takes one of the more desperate images in our recent collective visual memory and turns it into just that: a gimmick. Whether it’s powerful and justly emotive, or whether it’s manipulative and sentimental, I can’t exactly decide: the line between the two remains one I’m not comfortable drawing with confidence.

I just listened to the opening cut on Vitalic's album OK Cowboy and I am amazed--it's a track that manages to call attention to both its melody and rhythm in a very distinct, fully-formed way. It could be that I am just waking up from a nap, and music always sounds the best just after you wake up. Why is that? Do we get pure ears for a short time after we wake up? Is it because music is an abstract medium that we can more easily understand if we've just left our abstract dreams? When I've just woken up, each instrument of the music is clear and I feel more closely tied to what's happening.

New York is perfect. There is a French grocery store/bakery/deli next door to our apartment, and I've spent at least 4 meals there since we've arrived--large coffee is just over a dollar, and a fried egg on a kaiser roll only sets you back $1.25. I knew it was a good sign when I was sipping my coffee yesterday morning, and saw chefs through the window picking out produce.

The apartment reminds me of a treehouse, which I mean as a compliment. I am exactly one quarter of an inch shorter than the 6 ft ceilings under the lofts, and I am finally thankful that I am not, indeed, a 6 ft. tall man. The kitchen is tiny but adequate, the view onto York Ave. is nice, and we're in a fantastic location at 73rd st.. Although we are probably paying the cheapest rent of anyone in this zip code and are therefore continually reminded of our inferior economic standing, there's the added perk of really nice furniture that people leave on the curb. So far we've found a stand for the TV and a really nice chair with three legs. Looking at piles of trash becomes instinctive and unconscious. It's actually sort of a nice system of take and give away, like there's an unsaid friendliness.

Back to wading through boxes and prodding myself to work on my resume to find a job. For the record, I read the Times.

I am standing at a number of edges--17 years of schooling, 20-some-odd years of childhood (when, exactly, does childhood end?), and I am trying to see them as beginnings. I suppose that you are required to leap when you reach the edge of something, but that seems like a cliche, like something out of Grand Canyon or a self-help guide to living a more exciting life with abandon. A beginning isn't always a glamorous leap into the void, though what lies ahead for me is completely unclear and feels shrouded. I prefer to avoid the metaphors and go with Emily Dickinson: "I dwell in possibility."

I've always been a person who tends to burn bridges, and I couldn't say why. Once again I find myself lacking any bit of sentimentality for what I'm leaving, and something of a reserved hopefulness for what comes ahead. I never understand it when people cling to the past, though it's interesting that most of the fiction I write tries to rewrite my own past with characters who are smarter and have the insight that I have now. They live easily the life I wish I had: more poetically, more insightfully, and, cliches be damned, with more abandon. Metaphors and resonant images come out of the woodwork. The world has a careful architect who places things just so, who clips down conversation to a bare-bones poetic minimum. I've always read fiction with some vicarious intent, I think.

How I translate those characters' qualities into my own future is what I'm most interested to see. My imagination paints the next year in New York as a world in which I can live and act like them. My desire to let loose and live a little more recklessly speaks to the tendency I am having to reinhabit some childlike (or perhaps childish) past that I never had.

In the meantime, I've got to decide which artifacts from my growing up to keep, and which to pitch. I've also been amused that I'm now giving many of the clothes I've worn for the last 6 years back to Goodwill, where I bought them.

We leave Wednesday.

About me

  • Blake
  • Chicago, IL, United States

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