Sunday, January 29, 2023

On The Road and Dharma Bums

 Jack Kerouac’s recklessness or carelessness interests me. This attitude manifests in two ways: in his writing, and in his actions and life choices. Both cases lead to a cloudy charisma, simultaneously inspired and loutish.

I am unsure what I knew of Kerouac when I was a teenager, I surely hadn’t read him. I can see the attraction for young minds, the sense of freedom. As a writer, words poured out for him. In sooth, he sometimes wrote awkwardly. That awkwardness was a grace. 

Kerouac trusted the energy of writing and kept the internal editor at bay. He doesn’t just outpour. He carefully reads the Zen script of the moment. He releases into that, not literature, not career. He is stalwart that way. This is important because typing fast supplies no rare glory. The sloppiness and abrupt oddity of his prose offers testament of singular integrity. 

As a naive teen writer, I moved to the typewriter soon after starting to write for myself. I didn’t know how to type but it made the writing act more serious for me. When I eventually learned to use all my fingers, the act of writing quickly (and legibly) became possible. I realized that I needed to outrun the internal editor that pressed me to overthink. I had no idea what to write, only that I wanted to. Kerouac probably had a clearer mission from the start.

T S Eliot’s constructions, for instance, seem very thought out in comparison to Kerouac’s methods. I don’t see Eliot hitchhiking across the country with ten salami sandwiches in his pack thinking this is a good idea. Kerouac committed himself to being on the edge of something happening.

Those passages where Kerouac writes of his travels (and travails) ring with energy. He proceeds with a romantic vision but endures the realities. A compelling wonder instills his words. However literally accurate his accounts are—mayhap his memory is of Proustian order—they proceed with cork-on-water determination. Thru thick and thin. Those long, waiting stretches and nowhere near home, and he just awaits the next and next destination.

Neal Cassady hardly appears in The Dharma Bums, and is hidden by the name Cody Pomeray whereas he stands central to the On The Road narrative. I will continue believing that the pseudonyms Kerouac had to use create a perplexing distance between Kerouac the writer and those of which he writes. My original version of On the Road enjoys greater immediacy of characters as Kerouac writes directly to the real name.

Cassady, Kerouac’s angel, is not quite lovable. Whatever clinical description that might be made, he is an original perplexity. Forces drive him and Kerouac follows in awe. The difference between Ryder/Snyder and Pomeray/Cassady shows in Kerouac’s reaction to each. Snyder offers a calm while Cassady offers ruction, however divine. Kerouac seems envious of Snyder’s determined path. Cassady leaves Kerouac in tantalized delectation.

The women in these two books barely survive scrutiny. They seem mostly tinny voices distracting men from enviable impulse. Kerouac the character remarks that friend and fellow traveler Al Hinkle got married for carfare, which indeed is the gist of it.

I don’t want to read Kerouac as a map to self-destruction tho I gather his latter years were less than glorious. In On The Road his peregrinations seem like a path inchoate. In The Dharma Bums he seems desperate to find the Zen path. But he was guided by a centripetal force from which he could not free himself. The romanticized account overwhelmed the living sparks.

Monday, December 26, 2022

When The Mahabharata Becomes Boring

The Mahabharata goes slightly less a-pace. I slipped off reading other things. The war is over for the Pandava’s, they have their kingdom again. Yudhisthira now feels the weight of kingly responsibility. He goes to his uncle Bhishma for advice. Bhishma fought for the Kaurava’s out of a sense of duty that doesn’t add up for me. Well there you are. His lessons for Yudhisthira bring Confucius to mind, not that I claim any breadth to that statement. Class distinctions stand inviolable. Warriors are warriors, Brahmins are Brahmins. Caste is understood as a sanctity. It is hard to wrap around this from my vantage. It reads like the bland list of advice that Polonius gives. I believe more action awaits, this part drags.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

More Mahabharata

More Mahabharata

The battlefield action in the Mahabharata strains belief. Not its fantastical nature, I expect supernatural exploits in mythological tales, but just the difficulty of imagining the events. When we read that thousands died at Arjuna’s hand as he plunges into a fray, we can shrink that figure down to tens or a lot. if we are thinking of historical events. I don’t know what historical event might have inspired the story. Perhaps some Hatfield versus McCoy thing amongst cousins expanded to include a few trillion souls on their karmic journeys including every person dumb enough to be a chariot driver, id est expendable.

A few instances of so-called celestial weapons occur. These offer complete devastation in not quite explained ways, gifts from the gods like nuclear bombs.. Mantras and magic can also be weaponized. Arjuna’s quiver remains always full despite shooting thousands of arrows a second. I can’t even picture that, tho folks at Marvel Studios probably can. The fighting brings Marvel to mind because tho the nameless cannon fodder feed rivers of blood, the upper echelon heroes join in fierce battle but walk away merely wounded. Or pouting.

Heroic speeches prior to engagement with the enemy have a long tradition. But just thinking about all these zapping arrows, strewn bodies, gored elephants and horses, overloads you. Amidst this enormous clutter of human endeavour the valiant knights scurry about seeking chivalrous one on one fights. It wears thin. The Iliad, in comparison, reads like reportage of a real event, even with the similar boasty speeches.

A marked aspect of the Mahabharata is how resplendent the people and gods are. Dressed in splendid colours and bejeweled to the gills, they are visually vivid. The Greek gods seemingly just wear robes, if that. The Norse must be imagined ever in battle gear, men and women both.

So the action on the battlefield goes clearly over the top but amidst that we still have beautiful thoughtful passages. A strong moral and spiritual note holds the story up. It comes to us by oral tradition. You can imagine the originators telling the stories, however solemn, vivacious, or thrilling.

Monday, December 05, 2022

The Mahabharata

 Halfway into The Mahabharata we come to the part that often stands alone, The Bhagavad Gita. This represents a sea change for the epic. Up till now, the work has been mostly narrative with moral and spiritual matters occasionally interpolated. Now we have Krishna explaining duty to the unexpectedly quailing Arjuna. Krishna has always been understood as a god, but in human aspect. In this section he reveals himself in his terrifying god aspect. The imagery seems fit for Revelation—i. e. crazy ass—and the vision of Krishna in full godhead doesn’t exactly calm Arjuna. Eventually Arjuna comes around.

Earlier the Pandava brothers finished out their exile by hiring themselves incognito to one of the million kings in the area. Arjuna, greatest warrior in the world, chooses to be a eunuch dancing master in the ladies quarters. Bhima huge and Hulk-like becomes the king’s cook. He also teaches wrestling. At one point the brothers come upon their enemies the Kauravas. Bhima immediately wants to find a tree he can tear from the ground to wield as a weapon. “Bhima smash,” you can imagine him saying. Wise Yudhisthira convinces him of more diplomatic measures.

The account of the battle itself lacks the precision of the Iliad. Millions seem gathered on the field of Kurukshetra. In the Iliad Homer tallies the number of ships each Greek brought to Troy, supplying thereby a plausible guess at the size of the battle. The Pandavas and Kauravas each gathered allies to help supply requisite cannon fodder. It was quite the gathering.

When I first read the Gita, I was taken aback that Krishna scolded Arjuna for not wanting to kill these his cousins. Being of the warrior class, he has a duty to fight. That duty tangled with such pointless devastation doesn’t reconcile easily for me. The terms within the epic keep death fluid. The five Pandava brothers were earlier killed by Vishnu, I think. It was just a lesson, they were returned to life. All is foretold anyway.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

Broken Theory by Alan Sondheim


Alan Sondheim has just published a new book, *Broken Theory*. Internet denizens with literary interests may know Sondheim’s name. He posts to numerous lists daily, I mean daily. This work comes in all shapes and sizes. It represents an unbelievably vast effort to mine the maelstrom of experience. *Broken Theory* seems like both a culmination of that effort, tho without a sense of finishing it, and perhaps a re-envisioning.

I have only just begun reading this book but twenty plus years of familiarity with Sondheim’s work gives me traces to follow. His is a work in which philosophy, psychology, literature, science, history, politics, and more collide and intercept within his experiencing mind. Does that even sound like anything? I declare that it idles.

What caught me as I began to read is that Sondheim has tempered the boundlessness of his writing so that the book can be a book. Think of how a tiny portion of The Mahabharata, The Bhagavad Gita, spun out with centripetal force as a singular work. In the same way *Broken Theory* has its own separated identity. I feel, as I read, a sense of the book as a whole while recognizing that it is but a portion of Sondheim’s enormous task.

Now, I admit that I have not read much of the book. I may not *finish* it. I think linearity doesn’t parse here, just as time seems far less linear than a calendar might suggest. Treat the book like an oracle—I doubt Sondheim has such an intention—and see what wildness, what mystery, what glint appears.

Friday, October 28, 2022

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

 Finished Hyperion by Dan Simmons. I have mixed feelings about it. He presents a wonderfully troubling vision of the future, with humanity clearly having screwed the pooch. The intertwined narratives move a-pace but I’m pretty sure a good portion of Simmons’ intention dashed precipitously past my register. Rereading would be worthwhile if I had the energy.

Six main characters tell, in their own narratives, why they joined this pilgrimage to the so-called God of Pain. We only see this figure, known as The Shrike, in glints. It seems like The Shrike represents the natural endgame to humanity’s hubris. The Earth, centuries prior, has been destroyed. A hegira from the planet of origin spread restlessly across the universe in a seeming de-evolutionary scramble. War is constant, and massive.

Each narrative explains how the character joined this pilgrimage, which only one of their number is expected to survive. The narratives run to goodly length. Supposedly the pilgrims are telling their stories to the others. Okay, Canterbury TalesThe Decameron. These narratives, however compelling, resemble (not so) short stories rather than apr├Ęs dinerperformances intended to show each pilgrim’s motivations. Simmons did not try to replicate how the characters might regale the others. Perhaps that would have been unwieldy. I found it jarring to expect characters to be so narratively skilled in a literary way.

Although the narratives supply plenty back story, they also overwhelm with superfluities. I tended to lose track of the greater narrative amidst the details of the personal stories.

The book seemed overlong tho not in a dragging sort of way. It ended quietly, and for me without satisfaction. For all the apocalypso of humanity’s seeming last gasp, the books end with the characters singing “We’re off to see the Wizard”. I discerned no denouement, just coasting to a stop. The story seems unfinished but admittedly I raced to finish.

Not to worry, I guess. Three more books fulfill the series. I am on record about franchises. I don’t expect to press on. 

Simmons refers and alludes to a number of literary figures and works. Most notably John Keats. The poet even appears in AI form. One character, a hard boiled detective, carries the name Brawne Lamia. She and the Keats AI splice romantically. I don’t actually get what Simmons is up to but I appreciate Keats’ presence.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

“The Call of Cthuhlu”

 I just read The Call of Cthulhu by HP Lovecraft. I’ve read a number of his stories, and find them compelling. This is my first meeting with Cthulhu. I’m a bit dissatisfied.

Of course I have absorbed some understanding of Cthulhu because the, er, character has cultural currency. The name resonates. Lovecraft’s mythos seems rather mushy when you look but carries weight for some. I mean people ‘take it seriously’, beyond the parameters of storytelling. I guess one could.

The story shows Lovecraft’s ability to create mood. The narration edges towards breathless. It runs on a similar hurried foreboding as some of the Sherlock Holmes tales display. Both writers were writing for lucre. This story, however, disappoints. It did not satisfy my anticipation.

The story suffers because of POV. The narrator isn’t really involved in the action, he merely pieces the story together from the narratives of other characters. This drives immediacy from the story. Poe’s story Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym has the benefit of the narrator being involved in the action. In the almost apocalyptic ending, the narrator essentially disappears in the frantic rush of the (unfinished?) conclusion. It is as if the writer could not sustain his distance from the narrative.

Here, the narrator recites the stories of other people. He even loses interest in Cthulhu after a chapter ends. That was weird.

For all the mythos of the Ancient Ones, their arrival on Earth from space reminded me no more than of cheesy 50s horror and sci-fi movies. I mean cheap costumes and poor special effects. And it’s not like that must kill the story. The Thing (50s version) was a vegetable from space—a murdering carrot—and convincingly scary.

Cthulhu may look like a kraken, which struck me as unimaginative, but the threat offered seems more about strangeness and foreignness. I glean no point to the malevolence beyond the usual Monster versus Us. And monster is just Other. The Ancient Ones are illegal immigrants on a cosmic scale, screwing with our paradise. Cthulhu personifies that terrible One that ain’t us. Lovecraft’s sense of the world’s decay sets on that foundation. Which may sound familiar because the GOP has been feverishly pressing that button. You have probably noticed.

So I do admire Lovecraft’s narrative gift and the relentlessness of his vision. In the end, tho, he seems more fussy than visionary in this story. He was a racist Bozo, you know. That’s inevitably part of the judgment.