The thought behind the written word is one way or other to explain reality. There are all sorts of fancy words for it. I personally like to use the word document. The thought is, which may sound stubborn or presumptuous, that a certain time or period that the writer is familiar with may be preserved with words. But if you are lying your ass off or avoiding the prominent features of your times, how can that have a quality one might call documentary? If art is a lie, or too vague to attach any specific importance to, then why bother to pay any attention to it?
September 7, 2014Another beautiful day, but hotter and more humid than recently. This summer has had better growing weather than average. June especially came with day after day of stubborn sunshine, moderate night temps and gentle rains to promote delicate seedlings. Later, just when the ground was getting dry, a good day of rain swept in. September has held onto a clump of summer, lengthening the season. Tomato plants are thriving. No hint yet of an early frost. It is the first summer for fifty years that I have not gone to work. I am retired. I still work but it is work at home, which is for some reason different than real work. Today I stacked firewood, a simple kind of job. I like to stack the sticks with space enough between so a rat can get in but not get through. Lately, I have come into a giant cache of apple sticks. The owners of the orchard died, and the orchard became run down and dead trees stood dead for five years before they were pulled into a jumble in a corner of the back forty where they have lain for five years or so since. Apple limbs are so dense that they tend not to rot. The limbs, shorn of their bark, stick palely out of the tall grass as if tangled in a battle. Each stick is a different size and shape. This wood will burn like the dickens, too hot I fear, so I have mixed in beech, red maple or whatever else handy. Though perhaps simple, the job deals in the concrete. I'm always touching something, naming something, for beech burns short, but the coals glow long, pople will start fast, cook your morning hot cakes in twenty minutes, then die fast, gray birch is almost as good as dry ash, it burns long and coals longer. How will this thick chunk of apple trunk burn? It is dead dry. I have never burned apple before. All this thinking is about a cold winter night maybe below zero, it is about the concrete. There is pleasure in this kind of thinking. Remember when Sam Spade pulled out the Smith-and-Wesson to do the dirty deed? It wasn't a gun, it was a Smith-and-Wesson.
Sam Spade's Smith-and-Wesson has bothered me for a long time. In the Hollywood Maltese Falcon it was a Webley, an interesting crock—that's Hollywood!—but don't get too hung up on the names, though less likely you can lie your ass off with specific names. Sometimes I prefer the clarity of the Smith-and-Wesson; otherwise, maybe the dark gun in the shadow. Which spews out fire and metal projectiles more effectively? Which of my firewood logs will burn best, and when? One day it is the dark gun; the next the shiny Smith-and-Wesson. What about spruce so dry the bark has fallen off; the next day it is that mysterious apple wood, said to burn "pretty".
Funny how you may run into another fellow who likes to think. Damned, you may run into them anywhere. It doesn't always have to be in a book. And it may not be a person who likes to write on his computer the way I do. The strongest general advice I have ever gotten was "Decide, decide!" You can apply it to anything. When confusion rules, "Decide, decide!" Applied to writing it means: you can't write short sentences and long sentences at the same time; you can't subordinate when you have already decided to co-ordinate; you can't depend on character to provide surprises when the plot has already moved from Duluth to Paris, France. So what about the Smith-and-Wesson? I'd better not say I don't know after all these years of struggling with the written word. I think it is easier to lie your ass off with the dark gun than it is with the shiny Smith-and-Wesson. The same as it is easier to get the house hot with a good dry ash log than a pople log twice the size, though both will warm the house eventually.
I think after all I do know. I have always thought good writing comes from the real and the specific. You'd have to argue with me for a long time to talk me out of it. After fifty some years of carrying on I guess I'd have to put the Smith-and-Wesson under the category of set in my ways. If I put a Westinghouse Pop-up Toaster in one of my stories it is because I hope to meet one day a like minded person who will say: yeah, I remember that one. It is black and silver. I always thought it worked pretty well. Everybody makes jokes about can openers and pop-up toasters. In writing finding an object with a specific name on it is a little like finding a sliver of gold in a rock slide. Perhaps the story might be about the toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I made with the Westinghouse Toaster—think about it, it even sounds nice, Westinghouse—, how the toast delighted my tongue and settled my hunger so I could go back to work writing on my computer. That's all it is about, isn't it?
But don't think I'd put a Westinghouse Pop-up Toaster or a Black-and-Decker Can Opener just anywhere. I wouldn't put the toaster in Sam Spade's office, maybe the Can Opener or a Mr Coffee. I wouldn't waste my time trying to tell Sam Spade how to make a good, hot, smokeless wood-stove fire either. Why? Because it would not be accurate; it would be a lie. Putting a computer in Sam Spade's office would be a lie; unless he was a modern Sam Spade, a spiffy guy whose office was in a high rise, Rolex packing, maybe he carries a Smith-and-Wesson still, AK47 in the trunk of his Carrera Porsche—there's a wonder, does a Porsche have a trunk, better check it, get it right. On the other hand, maybe Sam Spade was a hincty guy who let himself out of his high rise only on rainy nights with the fog crawling across the streets from the bay. I wonder how much detective work he'd get done if he had to wait on the weather? Course, if you want to lie your ass off the weather could be like that every night. And better still a hincty blond bomb unnamed in miniskirt and shiny black raincoat bling spangled ring hooked to a nostril in a hushed hurry to meet Sam on the corner of Fifth and Broadway in the fog. See how the skirts of her raincoat turn up, reveal shapely raw shanks and ankles. Man, I love lies! I could lie my ass off all day! Sometimes you'd even swear it wasn't a lie, but of course it is, and who wants to hear told the same lie twice? I don't. Is it a good enough excuse that the first time might be a delight? The vagueness is clung to stubbornly. You have to be in the mood. Mood must be depended on.
After all, there is a vagueness that carries itself forward bravely, and that tries to be meaningful by creating a mood. Creating a specific mood or atmosphere, as it is sometimes called, such as the Bronte sisters, for example, were so great at, is rarely done successfully, and when it is done, it always, always produces classic artifacts. You can put it in your pipe and smoke it: a pure atmosphere is rare. Baudelaire was rare: an atmospheric poet who somehow developed an interesting way of thinking. I don't know how he did that. I have theories like the theories I have about how apple wood will burn, having never burned it before, though dreamed and wondered about it plenty. I personally operate under the illusion that what is rare is important.
Now, there are many other illusions than my own. It has always pleased me to know that there are illusions other than my own. Otherwise, there wouldn't be much variety in books or anything else. That would suck, wouldn't it? Considering we come to books as kids for the variety because we are lonely and bored. And since we write late at night on our computers for the same reason, wouldn't it suck if there were not numerous illusions around to pick from? Fact is, a lot of our words won't get read even by our wives. Lots of books aren't read, some of them good books, too. Their authors have different illusions; they may claim that in a hundred years, when they will be read, these details—the matter of the Smith-and-Wesson—won't matter because nobody will know what a Smith-and-Wesson is. What does that mean? I could sit here and think about that all day with pleasure, but not get anywhere. At least, if you were a nice person, wouldn't you let the scholars of the future have their day? Sometimes an illusion is like a stone wall you come up against. I wonder if anyone knows what the not very complimentary dictionary meaning of vague is?
When I think of the word vague, I sometimes think of the term unclear in the sense of distorted. I think I dislike distortion. When I engage in it to produce some cheap effect, I feel like I have sinned. Maybe that is unreasonable. If you go by my theory of the "itness", the direct sensory experience, as being prepared for art by a generalization, vagueness does seem to fit in. I wonder if vagueness was part of the theory behind impressionism. It can't be a virtue. I think even the impressionists painted a specific scene from the actual. There is something important in the actual. One must pay close attention to the actual in order to get it right before plunging onward with it. Without accuracy in the raw perception, there is no forging art, there is only a misleading into embarrassment, a distortion.
The "itness" is not necessarily a symbol. (To find out more about this concept go here.) A symbol has already entered the stream. The fact of the itness is its novelty. Remember, the itness has to be prepared before it can be used to communicate with. The itness is, therefore, a pre-symbol. It can communicate, one can give practical directions with it, but as such it is not ready to be used. The edges have to be drawn in such a way that there seems to appear a unity with other edges the same as a Smith-and-Wesson is unified by a pale hand in the fog.
I think about edges all the time, how literature sews them together, creating a unity. A communication happens when the inside and the outside create a unity. It is the kind of thing that happens only in art, nowhere else in the real world, and it pleases people. Truth is a unity, and this unity may as well be the Smith-and-Wesson in Sam Spade's pale hand in the darkness of a foggy night. At least I can be sure of it.
Now all of my numerous disparate sticks of firewood have been stacked into a line 16x2x4 in such a way that a rat can get in but never go through. Sam Spade's Smith-and-Wesson and his pale hand are in there somewhere.