Monday, December 11, 2017

The Private Life and the Public Art - Salinger and Merrill

This last year, among the various books that I have read, were two full-length author biographies: Salinger, by David Shields and Shane Salerno, and James Merrill: Life and Art, by Langdon Hammer. The Salinger book is like a collection of separately drawn episodes, with little attempt to link real life events specifically to Salinger's literary works. The Hammer book is a meticulously rendered account, almost a concordance of relationships between the events in Merrill's life and the separate poems he wrote. Both books are honest efforts, holding nothing back, and following the clues and implications wherever they lead. Neither book could have been written this way a generation ago, which may tell us something about the progress of our public culture--what we're comfortable with, what we're willing to acknowledge and even accept in our cultural heroes, how much truth we can stand to believe.


Image result for pictures of james merrill biography book

My discussion here, though, doesn't consist of a book review. Instead, I want to focus on the common aspects of the two men whose stories are recounted, and to meditate on what those common aspects tell us about artistic production, the artistic life, and the possible meanings to be derived from such relationships. 

It would help if you knew something about them, since I won't recapitulate the life stories of either man. Much of what is told in these lives is now common knowledge, though it wasn't information that was available to most of the general public while they were alive. 

Let's start with some parallels. Merrill was born in 1926, Salinger in 1919. Both were in the U.S. Army in World War II. Both were precocious authors--Merrill's first book was published without his knowledge or permission by his Father when he was 17. Salinger began writing short stories while in prep school. 

Both men grew up in relative security and comfort. Salinger's father was a successful food importer, and the family lived on Park Avenue. Merrill's father was head of the Merrill-Lynch investment firm, and was fabulously wealthy. Merrill would never have to work a day in his life, and lived off his inheritance. After leaving the service in WWII, Salinger lived for a few years off his meager writing income from magazine publication, until in 1951, when Catcher in the Rye was published, which was so successful that it supported him in style for the remainder of his days. 

Both men, in effect, came to enjoy the negligent independence of means that completely frees the imagination from all aesthetic responsibility. Free to live how they might choose, free to create whatever kind of literature they wanted, and free from the ordinary ethical or formal restraints that are imposed on those of lesser means. 

From a literary point of view, neither writer has ever been regarded as a formal innovator. Salinger learned his art by writing for popular middle-class magazines. Merrill's poetry was always formally traditional, working within the confines of historical rhyme and meter, never challenging syntactic or grammatical correctness. 

Both men underwent difficult psychological crises during their lives. Salinger suffered a nervous breakdown during his war experience, and even was briefly hospitalized. Over the next decades, he would go through two troubling marriages and divorces, would conduct a weird affair with a "child-mistress" half his age, and would live out his days in a state of mental and physical hibernation from the world at large, cooped up in a "compound" in rural New Hampshire, fending off vain attempts by the media and his fans to reach him, and refusing to publish anything during the last 45 years of his life. 

Merrill, a homosexual all his life, suffered through the embarrassment and shame of his secret shadow existence, attempting to hide his sexuality from his parents, and from the world at large, and went through extended periods of psycho-analysis. While he followed his writing career, he spent the better part of his adult years pursuing young men sexually, living a life-style designed to placate his insatiable lust. 

Salinger appears to have become obsessed sexually with pre-pubescent girls, in a repeated pattern he seemed powerless to resist. There are possible explanations for this in his psychology. Given his relative freedom, he could indulge his obsession away from the public eye. The seclusion and indulgence seem to have fed off each other. Meanwhile, his fiction became more and more claustrophobic, as his fictional Glass Family memoirs drew him in further and further into the magic realism of their fantasy world. 

Merrill, unable to establish a true lasting relationship, despite the outward model of his prolonged partnership with the failed writer David Jackson, finally submerged himself in a fantasy world of spirit communication, described in detail in his ambitious long poem The Changing Light at Sandover

A common thread is evident in both men, of a shameful private sexual obsession, which became sharper and more problematic as they matured, causing both to involute artistically, while their private lives fell into disarray. In both cases, their financial security enabled them to fend off the world at large, while they were free to delve more deeply into the private world of their eccentric secret art. 

Both were men of evident personal charm, which they used to navigate through the "normal" world, a world which increasingly fell away into obscurity and irrelevance, while the private, secret world they lived in became more vivid and seductive. Free to cultivate their bizarre private worlds, their work became more and more trivial to the ordinary reader. 

All of which is not to say that the work of their later years is unworthy, or invalid. Our verdict regarding Salinger's work will have to wait until his literary executors release his private archives to publication. In Merrill's case, the long ouija board epic may never have enough readers to be considered worthy, though it has its admirers. 

There are dangers to artists and writers who either are born into financial security, or who achieve freedom through strong early sales. Ordinarily, we think of the freedom artists need to create as a positive aspect. But once need is removed from the equation, the tendency to indulge in private obsession may cause tangential distraction, especially if it is accompanied by deviant or suspicious emotional tendencies. 

A writer like Henry Miller may decide at the outset to capitalize on his obsessions, as he did with his curiosity and lustful desires. Charles Bukowski, looking hopelessness and degradation straight in the face, built an entire literary career out of a skid-row drunk's life. John Cheever spent the first half of his life writing decent stories for decent people in The New Yorker, while inside he struggled with his demons (alcohol, bi-sexualism, adultery, artistic jealousy) until they finally overcame his resistance. 

What we know of the private lives of artists and writers may or may not tell us something we need to know to understand the ultimate meaning of their works. In the case of Salinger or Merrill, I'm not sure that finding out the unpleasant underlying backstory, brings anything useful to our appreciation of Catcher or Sandover. In the end, the works have to stand on their own. A couple of centuries from now, will any possible reader need to know that the author of Catcher in the Rye had a "thing" about little girls? Will our understanding of Phoebe, Holden Caulfield's sister, or of the young prostitute whom Holden sees in his New York hotel room, be enhanced by knowing about Joyce Maynard's year living in Salinger's household? Is it important that we know the details of Merrill's affairs with young Greek boys in Athens, to more fully comprehend what the imaginary deities or ghosts are telling Merrill he must think about his life in Sandover? 

Perhaps not.

Is there some important lesson to be gained by noting that great art may be the result of a kind of friction between intense private obsessions, and the public at large, to whom these private fictional worlds are offered? Guilt and embarrassment--the need to tell a palatable version of a private reality-- may indeed be the strongest drivers of vivid artistic invention.  

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

What Does it Feel Like ?

How are you feeling today?

As the day opens up, broadens and elaborates into the complexities of living, are thoughts and feelings ascending into consciousness, appearing and moving?

Today, everyone says they feel like

The phrase has become so common, it's gone totally viral in our culture, infecting not just the susceptible young, but people of every age and sex and class and persuasion. Its apparent harmlessness may be one reason people seem to regard it with such pathetic affection. It just feels so nice and smarmy and innocent and innocuous, that people can't resist using it in place of more active, deliberate and frank expressions. 

In fact, what people really are saying when they say feel like is that they think, or believe, or accept. The choice to retreat from directness to the indirectness or equivocation of feeling allows them to insulate themselves from possible misapprehension, or to hide behind the excuse of personal feeling (i.e., IMO or IMHO). 

My objection to this verb phrase is that it's clearly ungrammatical. It is perfectly possible to feel like one is stupid, or to feel like a bird. But to say that one feels like a thought, or a feeling, or an opinion, is to put oneself in at least one remove from the original motive. Like is a simile, which is to say it sets up a comparison, between one thing and another, or between oneself and something else. But if you say you feel like something is the case, you're actually saying you feel like someone who has a certain thought or feeling, as if you were comparing yourself to someone who had this thought or feeling. 

Feel like is a deeply corruptive and corrosive instance of insincere, imprecise and sloppy language. People who use it with confidence have accepted it as a substitute for direct assertion, as a way of denaturing their thought, as well as the quality of their communication with others. It's a deflection of responsibility not only to quality of one's own thinking, but to the clarity of all discussion. 

The next time you catch yourself saying feel like, say I think or I believe instead. After all, you ARE the person who thinks or believes, not a stand-in. 

If you feel something, by all means describe that feeling. But if you think or believe something, by all means say that, and leave the feeling part out.  

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Soglow's Igloo

I first began reading The New Yorker in the early 1960's, when my mother gave me a subscription as a Christmas present. But I had seen the magazine on newsstands as early as the late 1950's. In those days, it was a very fat and prosperous looking rag, often well over a hundred pages an issue. It intrigued me, with its suppressed by-lines, encyclopedic register of events in New York City. The masthead of the magazine sat atop The Talk of the Town, and underneath it ran the lead editorial pieces. There were never any photographic illustrations then, but they had cartoons, and in the Talk of the Town section, they usually had little cartoon vignettes by a cartoonist named Otto Soglow, though the ones in the Town section weren't signed. Soglow's vignettes and cartoons had a simplicity of style, geometric and controlled, and a kind of innocence that was utterly dry. 

Soglow, born in 1900, fell into cartooning by accident, and never left it. Eventually, his association with The New Yorker was so firm and familiar that his visual style was virtually synonymous with it.  

Soglow as a young man

Soglow "illustrating" a model as a gag 

Soglow mixing a cocktail (probably during Prohibition) 

Lots of Soglow's cartoons work off a simple joke--


I wasn't able to locate any of the Talk of the Town Soglow vignettes online, though there must have been hundreds over the years. This is typical of many of them (note Thurber's droopy dog following the wagon) --

Soglow's cartoons relied heavily on immediate recognition, since he rarely had captions. Today's hip New Yorker cartoons often have no obvious subtext, and the irony of the tension between the action and the meaning seems almost anti-humor. Soglow's work is reminiscent of an earlier, perhaps more innocent time of simple, light-hearted amusement. 

I haven't been a regular reader of The New Yorker for many years now--I got off that train about the time that Tina Brown was hired as conductor. She's long-gone too, though the magazine still runs good cartoons, but nothing like those Soglow used to contribute. 

Did Soglow ever do a cartoon of eskimos? I like to think so. He'd have done a very satisfying little igloo, with furry collared natives indomitably confronting some redoubtable absurdity. 

Here's a cocktail I've just made up, to celebrate the work of Otto Soglow. It's pleasantly refreshing, and perfectly suited to a carefree afternoon or early evening, when the frustrations and obstacles of the day have been left behind, and some amusing conversation is in order.  

The ingredients, as usual, are by proportion, though the recipe will do nicely for two.  

3 parts gin
2 parts dry vermouth
2/3 part ginger liqueur
1/2 part maraschino liqueur
1 part fresh lime juice

Shaken and served up in chilled cocktail glasses. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Indian Summer Buzz

Walker Evans Truck and Sign, 1930

There's something wrong with America. We didn't sort out the classes and put them in their places the way they did in Europe. Things got really mixed up here. A lot of the energy was stifled and twisted and fermented and synthesized into a rich brew, an alembic of pain and greed and dreams and grief-stricken loss and betrayal and hopelessness.

America is a country increasingly in flux. Our demographics are shifting. The so-called "races of color" are streaming in, and will soon overwhelm the so-called white races. As the era of the great European diaspora was thought to be dwindling, the third world is now spilling over. Are we any more tolerant of "diversity" than we ever were, or has all this flux just produced tension and free-floating animosity? I've always felt that forcing people to "accept" other ways of doing things is a recipe for resentment and identity anxiety.

One aspect of America's energy and drive and expansiveness has been its alcoholic indulgence. We went through a deep introspective convulsion in the 1920's, attempting to "temper" our temptation through Prohibition. It's widely thought that Prohibition was responsible for most of the big crime wave that swept over the country during that decade. The Stock Market Crash may have put an end to the sinful flagrant waywardness associated with it, but crime continued to flourish throughout the 1930's and 1940's. Where would Hollywood have been without the inspiration for the Noir paradigm, with its dark shadows and haunting evil undertones? 

Drinking--that is, the "hard drinking" we associate with hard living and a devil-may-care attitude towards our own welfare and well-being--has also suggested the "high life"--care-free pleasure and a release of inhibitions and cautions. 

Capitalism runs in cycles. Boom times and bad times. Overheated markets and periodic recessions. I've lived through a couple during my lifetime, but nothing like the 1930's, the Great American Depression. 

America's drinking habits have been partly a reflection of the economy, and the general mood of the nation. After Prohibition, the American wine industry languished for decades, until its revitalization during the latter third of the last century, when it really took off. Drinking wine is usually associated with food, though taking it alone has its adherents. 

Some people actually have hard drinks with food, though they're more often appreciated as a pre- or post-dinner libation. I like them best as a pre-dinner start, though I also like them for a mid-afternoon snack. In Berkeley, Cesar's is the perfect fair-weather hang-out, with seating that abuts the sidewalk, and a fascinating bar menu that changes constantly. It's very like a Spanish tapas place, but with a full bar that can handle a wide range of mixes--something that is pretty rare these days. 

Here are three more recipes that I've chalked up on the weekly board over the last couple of months. Who knows whether these were invented sometime in the past by another curious bartender? There are hundreds of drink recipe books, whose contents aren't ever likely to be collated. So I'll have to assume originality here, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Cheers! 

1 part tennessee rye whiskey
3/4 part sweet vermouth
3/4 part Sambucca Black
1/3 part creme de cacao
1/2 part fresh lemon juice

served on the rocks

4 parts dry vermouth
1 part blue curaƧao
1 part anisette liqueur
1 part lime

served up with a lime twist

3 parts gin
1 part dry vermouth
1 part mandarin orange
1 part violette
1 part lime

served up with a lime twist

Monday, November 6, 2017

Near the Arctic Circle

My maternal ancestors came from Northern Scandinavia. Norway, apparently. I've never been to Norway, but whenever I see a travel show on television about Norway, I try to imagine--from my "deep" racial memory (if indeed there is such a thing!)--how "at home" these chilly green and white landscapes seem to my sensibility. 

Personally, I don't particularly like extremes of either hot or cold. When the temperature rises about 85 degrees or falls below 45 degrees, I get sort of miserable. The heat makes me lazy, takes away my appetite. The cold makes me want to bundle up. Doing physical work in the cold is probably easier, since the heat generated from exertion tends to moderate the affects of cold on the body. 

In the movie Fargo, there's an attempt to satirize Minnesotans by having them mouth Scandinavian pronunciations, like "Yah!" or "Jah!" Maybe Minnesota, with its cold weather, is just enough like Scandinavia to justify this kind of stereotypical mugging. It's amusing, but maybe a little exaggerated.

My maternal grandmother's maiden name was Redner, or Raedner. I tried once to trace it back. I even visited the genealogical library in Salt Lake City, the one the Mormons maintain. Mormons are very interested in tracing ancestry. Ancestry has become a big part of the internet database, where you can interact with other "relatives" and build up surprisingly complete lines of verified descent on your family tree. At the Salt Lake library, I was only able to find a few faint references in Wisconsin, but nothing before about 1850. I haven't seriously followed the trail online, but I suspect I'd get somewhat farther back, if I tried. 

Anyway, all this as introduction to my latest cocktail invention, for which I haven't found an appropriate name. Here's the recipe:

1 part Boodles gin
1 part limoncello
1 part Key Lime Liqueur 
1/2 part fresh lime juice

garnish small wedge of lime if desired

mixed together over ice

makes one portion


The only unusual ingredient is the Key Lime Liqueur, which I find locally at BevMo. It has a pale green smooth creamy texture, and it's unlike almost any other mixer that I've tried. It's smooth without being dry (the way lime usually tastes). I've added some pure lime juice to this mixture, and even then, the Key Lime tends to make this gin-based drink on the sweet side. If I wanted, I could put in a whole portion of fresh lime juice, which would make it a bit more "cocktail-y" I think. 

Sweet and cold, with a bit of citric acid. It's a classic combination, augmented by a commercial mix that is proprietary. The Key Lime may have other flavors added to it--perhaps cinnamon, or licorice? Who knows? Using proprietary mixes suggests that you're not completely in control of the combination, since some of its ingredients are unknown. But that's always been the case. So-called "bitters" fluids are mostly also secret, and those have been used for over a century. There are today dozens of new bitters formulas on the market. It seems to be the new horizon of cocktail mixing! Personally, I like to know what I'm putting into a drink, rather than using a brand-name combination which serves as its own advertisement. 


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Walk in the Woods

For a long time, I've wanted to write a poem about an experience that was very vivid in my imagination, but which I've never quite figured out how to do. 

As anyone who has ever camped in the outback (or wilderness) knows, when there are no "facilities" you just have to find a private place to relieve yourself. 

I can still recall, as a boy going camping, the eerie sense of isolation and spookiness I had when I walked some way out of camp, far enough away that I'd have privacy, a sufficient distance away that I wouldn't disturb others and stink up the place. In the forest, you don't have to walk very far to feel totally "lost"--away from civilization and the comforting sense of protection.

This is naturally an experience that our ancestors undoubtedly were very familiar with, before the invention of technology. For tens of thousands of years, people have been finding a convenient tree or shrub, some distance away from camp or settlement. 

People rarely talk about this, but it's something humans and animals have done for a very long time, but which we now hardly ever experience or think about.    

I remember peeing onto the forest floor, or against a tree trunk, where my stream hissed among a carpet of pine needles or mossy detritus. 

But what I most remember is the silence, the strange listening calm that pervades a stand of timber in the wild. It can be a little frightening. 

For eons, people have been venturing out into the unknown, where predators or strangers may be lurking. Animals share this same foreboding, the sense of vulnerability, of being subject to surprise or attack. 

Our world once was an immense place, largely untracked, unexplored, unsurveyed, unknown. Out of such unknown-ness grows apprehension, and superstition. 

When I was teaching once years ago, I had a student who had recently returned from soldiering in Vietnam. He'd been a radioman, who went on patrols with his platoon, often in dense jungle. He told me once about an experience he'd had. He'd needed to take a crap, and had walked a short distance from the bivouac. Squatting beside a downed log, he heard the approach of enemy soldiers--Viet Cong soldiers--just a few yards away. "I dove right into my own shit," he recounted, and he lay there, as quiet as he could, his heart pounding, his breath pumping, as the enemy patrol passed by. They never saw him. 

The poem I'd want to write would capture the sense of silence, isolation, and vulnerability which must be a common experience for millions and millions of people in our ancient history, but also the beauty of being in nature, attuned to its sounds, shapes, relationships; the way Indians once must have felt it, knowing its familiar keys, recognizing its signs, the aliveness of inanimate things--rocks, trees, water, wind, creatures. The title might be "going out into the woods to pee" rather in the way an ancient Chinese poet might describe it. 

There is sometimes an "entry" into a poem, that allows you to carry it through. But I haven't found it yet. I may never--one of the ideas for poems that may simply never happen. It's a little frustrating. But on the other hand, it's a "poem" in my head, one which I have the experience of, even if I haven't found the words, the sequence of statements to capture it yet. 

How many unwritten poems have mellowed or ripened in the minds of men, without ever having been captured? Before writing was invented, they may simply have been stories told around the fire. Or perhaps only known as memories. 

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Northern California Fires

We're all familiar by now with the cluster of fires which have ravaged parts of Northern California over the last 10 days. 

Like most people, I have a feeling of futility about the damage that has been caused, since the manner in which the media usually portrays such events, seems intended to create in the viewing public either a sense of hand-wringing empathy, or pointless indignation over causes and mitigations. 

I have three observations about the event. What I'm saying here doesn't in any way suggest that I do not have sympathy for those whose lives or livelihoods have been hurt or affected by tragedy. On the contrary, it's because I DO care that I make these observations. 

One: I think it's irresponsible to assume, as nearly everyone has apparently, that these fires, which began, suddenly, all at once, on Sunday the 8th of October, were the result of electrical accidents. I believe it's much more likely that some, if not all of the fires, were the work of arson, set by a mentally deranged individual, driving quickly from location to location, and igniting them in sequence. Though the "investigations" into the causes will likely take months to complete, I think the likelihood of their having occurred all at the same time, in the same general region, goes well beyond chance or accident. We'll know eventually whether my surmise is correct.

Two: Most of the fires that occur outside of large forested regions (and a few that happen inside them) usually begin close to roads or contact points. In other words, they don't begin "naturally"--they begin as a result of human error, or deliberate mischief. All such fires begin small, and grow bigger. Typically, the response time for sudden, unexpected fire events is relatively slow. Our response to such fires is scaled to the "immediate" threat they pose. Inevitably, it often seems, such small blazes "quickly" spread, engulfing hundreds of thousands of acres. By the time they've grown, they have become enormous events, requiring the coordinated action of different jurisdictions, and the probable loss of flora, property, and even peoples' lives. 

We hear a great deal about how courageous and hard-working and sacrificing our fire fighters are, about the vast resources marshaled to deal with these huge fire events. What we don't seem to hear about is how efficient such responses are in preventing small fires from becoming larger ones. What, to be very direct, would be the value of responding with greater efficiency and force to new small fires BEFORE they were allowed to grow into large ones? A small grass fire which starts beside a well-traveled road in a semi-rural area seems a small matter, perhaps involving only an acre or two. But left alone, untended, such a fire can eventually turn into a major disaster, simply for lack of attention. What if our fire authorities descended on such "small" fires with greater speed, and resources, BEFORE they became unmanageable? The crucial point of intervention is EARLY in the process, NOT later when things have gotten completely out of hand.  


Three: A lot has been made of the destruction of a large neighborhood in Santa Rosa (see above). And without a doubt, for those affected, this is an unmitigated tragedy. The loss of homes, cars, possessions, and even of livelihoods. And a very expensive loss it will continue to be, as federal, state and local jurisdictions and charities spend and spend to provide the social safety net everyone agrees is needed.

California has been on a steep upward growth pattern for a hundred years. As the urban centers burgeon outward, through suburban sprawl, and infill, land that once was either used for agriculture, or was simply ubiquitous "open space" is covered over by housing and paving. As this continues, the intersection between development and "wild" land--the "edge"--becomes a crucial line, where conflict between nature--in the form of undomesticated animals and natural events--and human habitation comes into focus. 

In such areas--often referred to nowadays as "Mediterranean" climates or regions--where areas of foliage dry up in the Summer, the risk of fire is much greater. Farmers and ranchers have known for centuries what this risk represents. Leaving large areas of "tinder" poses risks to anyone living or working within such a region. In some parts of the world, such areas burn "naturally"--or "controlled burns" are conducted. Deliberately ignoring the fire risk posed by such vulnerable regions, through complacent urban/suburban planning, or insufficient disaster response, leads inevitably to crises of the kind we have seen. It's just a given, a simple matter of time.

The population of Santa Rosa has literally exploded over the last several decades. It's one of the fastest growing areas in the country. It isn't a "city" in the urban sense, with high density housing within a confined area. It's a huge, sprawling suburban mass, pushing out into the countryside. Both "tract" development, into the immediate surrounding jurisdictions, and more remote "custom" housing out into the outback, have been allowed to proceed, without regard either to environmental consequences, or to the risks involved in living cheek-by-jowl to dry wooded and grassy landscape. 

Those who choose to live in such places, must accept the risk that comes with exposing their lives and property to calamities they can't foresee, and which society can't (and shouldn't be expected to) control. California's growth has been posited on cheap open space, a thriving economy, and presumptions about resources that are not unlimited. This growth paradigm has gotten completely out of hand. Its manifestations are everywhere, and hardly need to be reiterated here. Suffice it to say that the "answer" isn't higher density urban centers, or easier pathways to new construction.  

These disasters are but another reminder that California has grown too big, and can no longer support these mindless expansions. Humans were never intended to live in the desert. They were never intended to live underwater, or on snowy mountain tops. Despite the engineering "miracles" we've accomplished to bring food and water and space to millions, we can't keep drawing against nature's equity forever. Why allow people to build and live in homes that are next to huge fire traps? If people choose to do so, against advice, then they need to accept the probable risk. Ultimately, we need to stop breeding like insects, and husband what resources and space still exist on the planet.   

Does this sound hard-hearted? Not if you compare it to the ruthless alternative. Mother Nature takes no prisoners.