– …I think people write because things didn’t come out the way they’re supposed to be.
– Or because we didn’t.
— William Gaddis, Carpenter’s Gothic
The world is in pieces, friends. Pieces include your family being 2500 miles away and it’s Thanksgiving, missiles in Korea, the former football pro talking really fast on TV to prove he doesn’t have brain damage. We assemble our lives over great distances—the ex-girlfriend you shoot an email to on a lonely night, the article on dinosaurs surviving the Cretaceous in Science Daily, a Curtis Mayfield tune you haven’t heard in twenty years as you stroll through Albertsons. Distance and fragments, lives so divided into that although world culture is smaller than it has ever been, it’s easy to feel that the people who live three blocks away are extraterrestrials (especially if you live in the Bronx, or Long Beach).
Two books try to bridge the distance, in very different ways. One is Carpenter’s Gothic by William Gaddis. Gaddis wrote ‘difficult’ novels; Carpenters Gothic is the shortest of them. All of the action takes place in a rented house – the Carpenter’s Gothic of the title – over the Hudson River in New York. Yet even though the novel is confined to one location the entire world, in all its hysteria and cruelty, makes its way inside. Connected by a tissue of TV programs, newspaper ads, junk mail, and long-distance phone calls are corrupt preachers, gold mines, civil war in Africa, politicians on the take, all of which end up impacting the life of the lost, neurasthenic woman staying in the house.
The second book is Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family. It tells the story of an extended family in the Bronx in the 80s and 90s as they struggle to find joy and make the least bad decision in a place that only offers bad and worse. LeBlanc follows the family through drug busts, murders, rape, and prison sentences with sympathy and a quest for clarity.
Nothing could be more different than these books. Novel and non-fiction, high and low. But LeBlanc is trying to make those scary people in the Bronx more than nightmare headlines – that is, human beings. And Gaddis is trying to show us how our American lives touch the greater world. Neither writer is completely successful. The end of Gaddis’ novel is preposterous, while LeBlanc’s depiction of her characters becomes flat, and she trusts hearsay too much, people’s romanticizing of themselves. And yet … They bring these others closer to us. That’s one of the things that I want art to do. Something like love.
“Makhóšiča”, (literally ‘bad land’) to the Lakota Sioux, “les mauvaises terres à traverser” (‘the bad lands to cross’) to the French trappers who came for Lakota furs. The Spanish called it tierra baldía (‘waste land’) and ‘cárcava’ (gullied). Wiki tells us that: ‘Badlands form in semi-arid or arid regions with infrequent but intense rain-showers, sparse vegetation, and soft sediments: a recipe for massive erosion.’ And, “…badlands contain steep slopes, loose dry soil, slick clay, and deep sand, all of which impede travel and other uses.” Badlands can also be man made after mines play out and farms wash away. Nothing there for the practical to exploit but a place to stare into the sublime.
The English philosopher Edmund Burke defined the sublime as: “whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger… Whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror.” But he also thought there was something pleasurable in the experience, like being held over a cliffside by your ankles. Shelly’s Mont Blanc perfectly captures this feeling of sublimity. I see the sublime in the Long Beach refineries tipped with fire, or in the wasteland around the UP railroad tracks in the City of Industry.
It isn’t just the outside world though, that can bring the sublime. For Burke, Milton’s Satan was a sublime figure. Springsteen (Bruce!) told us that to be real you had to confront the badlands but he wasn’t talking about a park in North Dakota. He meant ruined lives, those days, months, years when your soul looks like Bikini Atoll after the A-Bomb. I think the sublime is all over Cynthia Mitchell’s story from our first issue. It’s these different badlands that I hope we can reach in our next issue.
Recently, I’ve been struggling to write about … let’s call it nature (shameless self-promotion or me on golden eagles). The struggle comes from the fact that I’m a city critter, and not just any city but Gotham, where we have three species of animals: the rat, the roach, and the pigeon. What I struggle with is my ignorance of the natural world. I don’t have a vocabulary to talk about what I see, even when it moves me. Birds have wings, some are bigger than others. Some have long beaks, some short. Lizards are a dusty green. Plant-life makes a russet smear on the ubiquitous California hills. The impulse is to wax romantic about what you see, like D.H. Lawrence in Mexico rhapsodizing about the peasants on the side of the road squatting with the patient enduring ancient wisdom of their ancestors, a symbol of human suffering and endurance. When the reality is that they were waiting for the bus. Lawrence was a lot better on miners in Northern England – that was the world he’d grown up in. He knew it. The same holds for say, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus which deals a lot with music, particularly Schoenberg and tone rows. Mann didn’t know much about music, so he went to Theodor Adorno, who had studied with Schoenberg (all three men were living in exile at the time. In Hollywood!). You can actually pick out the places in Faustus where Mann is putting in his own responses about music and where he’s drawing on Adorno. The Mann stuff is gooey romanticism, souls soaring, the spirit of man, that kind of garbage, while the Adorno sections have a depth that only knowledge can provide. Which is not to say that knowledge is enough to write well – hell no. But I think it’s an essential first step. You have to show respect to your subject in its own … I guess the word I’m shrinking from is ‘being.’ Otherwise you’re just falling back into yourself, into the brutality of mysticism. Mental masturbation.