Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Patient Rose

Other than Shel Silverstein, Bruce Springsteen and the immortal Gary Rosen/Bill Shontz combo Rosenshontz (if we're counting lyricists), Rilke was the first poet I fell in love with. It was late summer, 1998. After a high school career spent rigorously disguising myself, I was off to Moscow to spend three months marinating in the resultant loneliness - but not before my parents brought me to that heaven of adolescent book-buying, the Harvard Coop. Up to that point, my favorite author  had been Tim Robbins and my favorite book Microserfs; when I got back three months later I was reading Hemingway and Faulkner and Eliot. But for those three months in between I was nowhere, in Niemendsland, and Rilke was there with me:

Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy
of being No-one's sleep under so many

The letters, of course, had a lot to do with this. Though not technically addressed to me, they spoke so directly to my needs as a sensitive, ambitious, book-loving adolescent that I claimed them immediately. Within a few nights of landing in Russia they had assumed a regular spot under my pillow, from which they permeated my dreams with the cloying reek of incense and rosewater - a scent that became insufferable but in Moscow fit perfectly with the dishwater twilight of the room my host family had outfitted for me. My favorite item from this room? Difficult to say - for in the mixture of these two colors (and then isn't all of Rilke a similar tincture of pink and grey?) the dreary little cube was transformed into a shuffling, jingling tram-car. Books, mugs, pencils, shoes - even the slightly-ripped poster of a mid-scream Freddy Mercury all seemed to have their story to tell. Patient as a sage (like his fellow Czech Franz Kafka, he worshipped patience), Rilke showed me how I could place my loneliness against these objects like the bell of a stethoscope. Your loneliness is your gift, he said, twirling his mustache in a way that somehow seemed more earnest than creepy. Which was wonderful to hear since, at that point, loneliness was pretty much the only thing I felt. 

Almost fifteen years later, I should probably know better than to revisit this feeling. I've watched The Neverending Story (most of it, anyway) and returned to Microserfs - certain passages of which I can practically repeat verbatim. Time has ticked a heaven around the stars, and many of the things that I loved the most as a kid have not survived this. Those that have survived have been transformed, in a way that Rilke promised me they wouldn't, so that now I can't help but hear a strange under-note in his own great obsessions, Rodin and Cezanne. On a term used by the first of these maistres he observes:

Le modelé...I know what that means: it is the science of planes as distinct from contours, that which fills out all contours. It is the law governing the relationships between these planes. You see, for him there is only the modelé... on all things, on all bodies, he detaches it from them, and after he has learnt it from them he makes of it an independent entity, that is, a work of sculpture, a work of plastic art. (7)

"An independent entity"; which was what Rilke wanted to be, of course, not in literature (where it was harder) so much as in life. Free, empty; "to be unnoticed, unseesn, invisible" (58) And the reward? "Then you lose yourself no more" (12) (so different from Hart Crane's wonderful admonition to the young poet, that he "spends out himself again"). So the sly German secretary learned from his Balzacian host how the new aesthetics - the aesthetics of the impressionists and cubists, in which an object was not represented as in a photograph, but broken down into its component planes, colors, shapes, and then built back up in the second world of the painting - could be used to free oneself from, for example, a wife and child. One (or rather No-one) could make one's life into a painting of sorts, an aesthetic object.

Is this true? As Reverend Lovejoy might say, Short answer yes, with an if; long answer no, with a but. I've noted Rilke's interest in the Prodigal Son story before; and then, keeping this in mind, I find it hard to read the letters as anything less than a diary of guilty prodigality. "If only it could go on," he writes to his wife, Clara, "This being known by no-one." (54) Which means he knows that it can't - that it shouldn't, maybe. Similarly the poetry - itself a paragon of lyrical self-containedness - is shot through with images of fracture. Things are always breaking in Rilke - for example in the poem of his that everybody remembers, as they should, The Archaic Torso of Apollo. It ends:

                      :for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

These lines! They find you, don't they - catch you like mirrors and hold you like prongs, until you've seen that thing that's been following you all these years. Like all utterly unforgiving things, they are invigorating to read as a young person and perhaps slightly annoying to read as an older one - because jesus, I don't want to change my life! It's hard, and besides who are you who have nothing and are nothing to tell me that I'm not perfect? No shit I'm not, and you're not either, and this puritanical transcendentalist bullshit has gone far enough already. Life isn't about seeing imperfections; it's about accepting them. The country to which you journey may shame you initially; but within a few weeks, it'll just be your life. 

Reading Rilke now, I can see better than ever that there is something deeply insufferable about him. He rewrites the story, refusing to come home, but producing in his suffering music so beautiful that it makes us doubt our concessions to the world. It's like he knew the game in advance. But how did he know? Jonah leaves the whale because he thinks God is going to keep his side of the promise in exactly the way Jonah wants him to - but Rilke never makes this mistake. He speaks out of himself, perfect, unsuffering, insufferable. 

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kicking up/off the Dust

Another piece of the puzzle, from Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurdis Brigge:

It would be difficult to persuade me that the story of the Prodigal Son is not the legend of a man who didn't want to be loved.

As put this way, here - at the tail end of a book so basted in amour de soi that it turns whatever room you read it in into a stuffy Parisian garret - the sentence unwinds hypnotically and strikes you on the forehead. Was it there the whole time? Meaning, have I really been returning every night, after days of dreaming, to a room not empty and peaceful but in fact stalked, like a bathroom sluice by a venomous cobra? 

The prodigal fears knowledge because for the same reason we all do: because he knows that it will imply him in the world, which he loves deeply but is also revolted by and terrified of. The story of the prodigal, like the flight of a boomerang, gets its shape exactly from this weird tension, between the hyperactive, self-involved twirlings of the hero, and the larger, slower, but no less circular arc along which these twirlings are gradually returning. For a good example of this, pick that most Oedipal of our century's genre's, the neo-noir. The private eye works his way deeper and deeper into a mystery, until finally he becomes a part of that mystery - and not just any part, either, but the agent: the keyhole through which evil leaks at last into the world. He has tried to do good, but in his puritanical, utterly-cool way he has insisted that the good he does be done on his own terms, meaning professionally, in a way he could escape if he wanted to. Except that you can never escape, no one can, and to build a super-capable persona around the idea that there's somewhere else to go other than the world means, in the end, to become that most beautiful and illustrative of characters, the Fool. 

What does this have to do with us? The philosopher Stanley Cavell's kaleidoscopic reading of King Lear, The Avoidance of Love, frames the problem with characteristically care (and commas): "If good is to grow anywhere in this state, it must recognize, and face, its continuity with, its location within, a maze of evil." For Cavell, Lear messes up because he refuses to recognize this - and he refused to recognize this (the world as a "maze of evil") mainly because he does not want to admit that, in this kind of world, we have an obligation to one another - an obligation that we must acknowledge in order to even begin to consider ourselves good people (or maybe just people). 

But Malte, like all prodigals, kicks instinctively at obligation. "Not until long afterward would he realize  how thoroughly he had decided never to love, in order not to put anyone in the terrible position of being loved." Oh how generous of you, Malte! How utterly selfless, to avoid that most difficult of human works - not because you resent having to take out the trash and brush your teeth twice a day, but because you want to relieve all your potential lovers of "the terrible position of being loved"!

It's easy to laught at Rilke - but I remember reading NMLB for the first time when I was 17 and being floored by this very inversion. Yeah, I thought! (with that peculiar, almost glandular feeling of teenage epiphany, which I remember being somewhere between popping your ears and realizing that you're coming down with a cold) Being loved sucks. It pulls you out of your self-sufficient dream and into a relationship, meaning something contingent and social and imperfect. More importantly, it forces you to "put yourself out there" in a way that Cavell, again, utterly nails in the Lear essay:  "We must learn to reveal ourselves, to allow ourselves to be seen. When we do not, when we keep ourselves in the dark."

The dark, the dark. The other night, a friend and I had a few beers and walked around town talking about atonement. Portland at midnight is an interesting place: empty enough to feel strange, but still small enough to feel domestic. Its west end (spotted like a pumpkin patch with empty brick mansions) crests in a promenade that overlooks the city like a tsunami too in love with itself to fall. Inspired, perhaps, by this melancholy vageling, my friend (who has read far too many German books) made the suggestion that his decision to go into healthcare (after years spent doing something completely different) was motivated in some part by a desire to atone. Cue shiver of recognition - but then isn't that how it happens in the story, too? The prodigal sits in a strange bar, salted by indolence, unaware of everything except the person who sits down next to him by chance, and then opens up his mouth to say a truth so startling that our hero understands immediately that someone is watching. The boomerang of meaning returns. As Rilke says somewhere else, forever, "You must change your life". 

(image: not sure. If anyone has any idea, please let me know)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sleep: a Job for Ghosts

Sleep. As a nursing assistant working the night shift in a large hospital, I have a complicated relationship to it. On the one hand, I worship it the way a farmer worships the sun - that is, as the mysterious fickle God of my art. On the other hand, I don't get much of it. So, despite all my attempts at equanimity I find myself eyeing sleepers with a sort of sideways glance, like a vampire at a drive-through.

One of the most paradoxical things about hospitals (especially big hospitals, which seem to be the only kind there are these days) is that they prize sleep as a central component of the body's healing process, while at the same time making it practically impossible for real live patients to get any. They are noisy, terrifying, and most importantly full of interruptions; on an average night an aide like me will wake up a patient at least twice simply in order to check his or her blood pressure. The reasoning behind why I do this is sound from a medical perspective: most of the patients on my unit are in a fragile state of health and therefore need to be monitored. But the actual consequence of this reasoning is paradoxical. We monitor the patients' health, but every time we do this we wake them up, meaning prevent them from healing as effectively as they would in a more quiet environment.

Real nursing, as far as I can tell, begins where the various manipulations that are typically help to be the profession's bread and butter - the pulse taking and medication-administering and catheter-inserting - end. In the aftermath of the disregulation forced on the patient by such interruptions the good nurse (or nursing assistant) creates something utterly different: calm. With meticulous art, he prepares the patient's room for sleep - and not just the literal room, but the other rooms floating inside it: bed, body, heart. The head-scratching and - I hate to put it this way, but so it goes - magical nature of his ability cannot be overstressed. I have seen it happen. Great nurses walk into a room and people start to relax. Relaxing, they begin to heal.

Nurses bring sleep: because of this, however, they are not typically great sleepers. Like Morpheus, they are imagined most of the time as watchers, lingerers, pausing in the corner of other people's dreams but never staying there long. Gennady Aygi, in his essay/poem "Sleep and Poetry", writes about the Russian poet Velmir Khlebnikov: "Unlike the other futurists, [he] belongs to the 'sleepers', the dreamers. But he is vigilant too, like a tempted saint." Are nurses similarly tempted by sleep? No doubt. But, the lure is bitter - for like all creators they buy their power at a significant cost. They can manipulate, but not participate.

The peripatetic nature of "runners-from-sleep" (to translate from an Aygiism that doesn't exist) links them with that other character of recent concern: the walker. Like him, they exist on an edge that may be made-up and may be real, between will and waste. Having sublimated their true fears (of surrender, extinction, regeneration), they move through the world without every being completely in it. Are they happy? No less than other people - though perhaps it is this very question that prevents them from resting, since it suggests that happiness will be found if only they keep looking.

"To speak means to be forever on the road," says Mandelstam; still, it's always interesting to ask how much sacrificers secretly enjoy their sacrifice, no matter how much they like to complain about it. Nabokov characteristically called sleep "the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues and the crudest rituals". My own relationship, for all its leer, is similarly patronizing. I don't want to sleep, because deep down I think of life as a race and sleep as time wasted, away from the fight (somewhere, someone is gaining on you). So I feel compelled to say that night nursing - that most sleepless profession - is actually perfect for me, since it lets me both have my cake (not sleeping) and eat it too (complaining that I never get to sleep). A job for prodigals, it posits the testamental division between prophets and false prophets, meaning those who can renounce their pride, and those who only pretend to. One group is sleeping, the other is not. But then the next question comes: which one?

Image: Chagall, "Poet with Birds", 1911. "The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping the sense of wonder awake in the world. In this long vigil he often has to vary his methods of stimulation; but in his long vigil he is also himself striving against a continual tendency to sleep"

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Walking II

Walking around town this evening thinking about...walking around town, when suddenly I notice that the few other people on the street have stopped and are staring into the trees. Crows. Crows on branches and rooftops and the spires of our cold, humble, but sneakily-beautiful town. Which is both a miracle and not so strange since, as everyone who lives here knows, Portland belongs to two peacefully-co-existent tribes of highly intelligent birds. Down by the harbor, the gulls rule easily - but here in the heights it is Crow Central. Sometimes they get together to stare in our windows and delight our children. Apparently, Super Bowl Sunday is one of these times.

Point proven, to my mind - for without walking, how would I have ever seen this? How would I have ever known that there was a small army of creatures amassed outside my window? More importantly, how would I have seen the dude across the street standing there hooting at them, or the three little kids dive-bombing each other around his knees? In the NYT article, Mozgov pitches his flaneur's individual eye against Zuckerberg's "We want everything to be social"; but what spontaneous miracles such as this one demonstrate is that flaneurie - at least as I understand it - is interesting precisely insofar as it combines both the personal and the social. When we sit in a movie theater we watch movies simultaneously "with people" and "alone". The borderline creates a frisson, which is one of the reasons why some of my favorite moviegoing experiences have occurred after the movie itself is over, on the drive home, or over coffee, when the two moviegoers walk through the movie they just saw step by step and so realize how much, or how little their viewing experiences have in common. 

So, walking is in danger, says Mozgov. But I wonder if devoted walkers (of both the physical and electronic varieties) shouldn't ask themselves an important question here. That question is this: is walking a form, or an impulse? Is it a matter of using one's physical feet, or waiting for a page to download? Or is it an expression of an inherent human urge towards chance and generosity, which will outlast/overflow any of its particular manifestations? (inevitable question: is it, somehow, impossibly, both?)

May I quote some Russians on this? One of the great poetic walks was performed in early 20th century St. Petersburg, when Osip Mandelstam wrote his magesterial flaneurie, Conversations About Dante (queue my 1.5 regular readers' yawns of comes Mandelstam again). Born, allegedly, from an actual conversation between Man and Andrei Bely, the Conversation creates its own universe out of airplanes and beehives and sticks. Dipping into it for quotation is like drawing water from a well full of goldfish: you always get more than you wanted. For example when we hear that:

There is no syntax: there is a magnetized impulse, a longing for the stern of a ship, a longing for a forage of words, a longing for an unpromulgated law, a longing for Florence.

Fair enough; but then set beside this the transcendental materialist monk Pavel Florensky, a mathematician and philosopher murdered too young by another, more deadly form of transcendental materialism. His book Iconostasis is, among other things, a long meditation on aesthetic phenomenology, meaning on the role that materials play in the creation of art. What we write with (pen, pencil, keyboard) influences what we write. Here he is on painting:

The way the artist's hand moves, its characteristic motion in applying paint, doing it over and over: this motion is connected to inner life; and if this characteristic movement for some reason does not correspond to inner life, thereby conflicting with it, then it must inevitably be changed - and changed not merely in the practice of one artist but in the artistic practice of a whole people, nation, history. Is it even conceivable that thousands of artists for dozens of centuries somehow, during all their nearly countless artistic lives, moved their hands in ways and rhythms that had no inner connection with their souls?

On this point, I am reminded of the scene in Peter Weir's Witness, when the bedraggled Amish grandfather explains a gun to Lukas Haas. "What you take into your hand, you take into your heart," he says. So, according to Florensky, our materials create us. Walking down a cobblestone street in 19th century Paris means something different from walking along the shoulder of I-95. The internet when you had to wait for it is different from the internet now that you don't. Technologies does not (contrary to what I said in my previous post) exist outside of us - or at least, not wholly outside. Things look back at us. 

Where do we stand (Emerson: "Where do we find ourselves?")? Mozgov's article is persuasive and, I think, true. It also panders at least a little to the nostalgia for forms that besets any walker. Walking, when it works, is a risk, a dance with waste and therefore death. As soon as its practice no longer involves this risk, it is time to change, as Florensky says. What needs to be cultivated - and with maximum atavistic frenzy - is not a particular form of the internet, but our Mandelstamian impulse. And who knows, maybe we can't. But people have been saying that since the first walker stepped out of his living room.

(Image: Florensky and Sergie Bulghakov, by Mikhail Nesterov. Screen shot from Norstein's Tale of Tales. Also, many thanks to a great local flaneur for the Mozgov tip!)