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In the Old West, without GPS, if they wanted you, they’d find you

16 Nov

Cormac McCarthy

Everyone knows we’re being tracked. You leave a trail with credit cards, cell phones, cookies and social media. Cameras take pictures at traffic lights.Auto dealers hide GPS devices on the cars they sell. Even U.S. passports have a chip embedded in them.

But in the Old West, in the days of the horse and buggy – mainly because of the horse and buggy – it also was easy to track people. People back then left tracks, the old-fashion kind.

Blood MeridianI point this out after reading Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel, “Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West.” In it, a band of characters travels endlessly across vast expanses of plains, desserts and mountains. They always seem to find each other. Their enemies always seem to find them, and they their enemies.

There are some major skills involved here, as Cormac suggests. But the basics are hard to miss. In today’s times, we forget about giveaways like smoke from a cook fire, dung and urine from animals and humans, the simple imprint of foot, hoof and wheel. Either way, it’s pretty much a sure thing that after crossing the dessert everyone is going to end up at the well or creek. A great place to wait for your prey.

While it is frightening to think that today’s phones reveal where we are and where we went, it’s also a scary thought that you could ride or walk for days and nights, in the heat and cold, possibly without water and food or even clothes, across the harshest terrain, and the person trailing you will find you and kill you in the most brutal fashion.

This lesson, among others, I learned from Cormac McCarthy and the book they call his masterpiece.

No country posterIf you don’t know McCarthy from his many novels – almost all of them filled with horrific violence – then you might know him from the films made from his books. Perhaps the most famous is “No Country for Old Men,” which in 2007 won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Some see McCarthy as the equal or near equal of Faulkner. While I was amazed by “No Country for Old Men,” I’m embarrassed to say I had overlooked McCarthy, then and even after. I only came to know him after briefly watching a so-so TV movie with an unfamiliar name – one I don’t even remember — and hearing several pieces of brilliant dialogue.

I admire a good sentence and these were unlike anything I’ve heard on TV – with the possible exception of “True Detective.” They came from deep within some dark, mysterious, knowing soul.

I checked and found they came from Cormac McCarthy. And so I went on to read “Blood Meridian.”

If you read it, or even just look at it, you’ll notice some things right off. First, there are no quotation marks (even when there are quotes). Cute, but only idiosyncratic. Next, there are all these words you won’t understand because they are archaic and rarely appear anywhere. Doubly troubling are the passages in un-translated Spanish – the common tongue of Cormac’s characters, who are American, Mexican and Native American.

But the most obvious and disturbing thing about McCarthy is the violence. Nearly every page is covered in blood. I recall thinking that while the writing was terrific, the plot line had to come from a thoroughly sick and disturbed mind.

Glanton gang
Then I began to listen closer to the tone, attitude and motif phraseology of his characters. I came to realize this was not made up. This was all true. It was history, and the writer must have relied heavily on journals and first-hand accounts.

While McCarthy is not in the habit of discussing his work, I searched for confirmation of my theory and found it on good old Wikipedia:

The majority of the narrative follows a teenager referred to only as “the kid,” with the bulk of the text devoted to his experiences with the Glanton gang, a historical group of scalp hunters who massacred Native Americans and others in the United States–Mexico borderlands from 1849 to 1850 for bounty, pleasure, and eventually out of sheer compulsion . . . .

 

. . . McCarthy conducted considerable research to write the book. Critics have repeatedly demonstrated that even brief and seemingly inconsequential passages of Blood Meridian rely on historical evidence. The Glanton gang segments are based on Samuel Chamberlain‘s account of the group in his memoir My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, which he wrote during the latter part of his life. Chamberlain rode with John Joel Glanton and his company between 1849 and 1850.

 

Unlike many people, I try not to look for meaning in creative work. Beauty alone is enough for me, and “Blood Meridian” is beautiful. The best art is an open presentation of depth that allows the consumer to add the meaning. It really doesn’t come with it.

Still, my favorite parts of the book are the philosophical pronouncements of the character known as “the judge.” I sense he sounds a lot like Cormac McCarthy at a cocktail party. The judge accepts violence. In total, what the book does for me is calm my frustration at man’s inhumanity, convincing me – if only for a short time – that violence is NOT inhuman, but rather perfectly and intrinsically human.

I’ll end with a passage and invite comment.

“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

Lanny Morgnanesi

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How about, “She Love You, Yes, Yes, Yes?”

19 Jan
Great phrases, including those by Churchill, are often edited by the masses.

Great phrases, including those by Churchill, are often edited by the masses.

 

Once a writer gets deep into the art, craft and process of writing, there is a temptation to be more taken with sound and rhythm than with content.

I once read that Edgar Allan Poe very much liked the cadence of the words “cellar door” and hoped to fashion a poem around them. He failed, but compromised and used the similar-sounding “nevermore” to create “The Raven.”

When you read the Raven, you’ve got to think that Poe cared much more about the tap dance underneath his verse than what it actually said:

 

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,

Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—

While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,

As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.

“’Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—

Only this and nothing more.”

 

But what’s important to the ear of the writer is not always important to the mind of the reader. The cliché (and name of a 60s rock band) “blood, sweat and tears” seems to have been authored by a mass of people who intentionally or unintentionally chose to edit a speech by Winston Churchill.

Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister, was trying to rally his people in 1940 when he said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

It was a certainty that the content and meaning of this speech was crucial to Churchill, but so was its sound, hence the alliterative “toil, tears” and the five-beat rhythm of da, da, da, da, da – a little like iambic pentameter. Still, for all Churchill’s literary and artistic intentions, the people ultimately had their way. Churchill’s words have pretty much been lost and their words have stayed.

KhayyamIn college people would quote a line from the 12th century Persian poet Omar Khayyam. With romance in mind they would say, “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou.”

I had never read Khayyam and I’m not sure they ever did. But recently I learned they did to him what they did to Churchill.

Having stumbled upon a copy of Khayyam’s poems, which in English is call “The Rubaiyat,” I looked for that line and found:

 

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread–and Thou.”

 

Again, a rhythm of four things was turned to three.

When Tonight Show host Johnny Carson would do a series of four jokes – and bomb – he’d turn toward his producer and say, “I told you four never works.”

And so the difference in opinion between those who create art and those who consume it remains.

We should be aware of this when we read great works like the Iliad or listen to traditional folk songs. Those things started out one way, and along the way people made what they considered improvements. The Iliad, for much of its life, was not written but recited. If a clever reciter made a good edit, it stuck and was passed on. Same thing with many songs whose original authors have been lost to history.

Which leaves us the question: Should literary greats like Homer and Churchill and Khayyam be altered by lesser literary lights? I don’t know, but it’s clear that a whole lot of people think they can do better. I think in some cases, they probably have.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Normal Mailer: Now there was a writer

25 Oct

Mailer-young

Growing up and trying to write, I admired Norman Mailer. Oh, he had his bad points, but I thought he was fantastic. His fame as a character/celebrity was a self-creation but as a writer he was genuine.

 

There is a new biography out on him. It is “Norman Mailer: A Double Life,” by J. Michael Lennon. I haven’t read it, but I did read a review of it in the New York Times by Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair.

 

Carter does a wonderful job of describing Mailer:

 

It could be said that Norman Mailer was a man and a writer halfway between fame and infamy and yet with little in the way of middle ground. He was, in varying combinations, a world-class drinker, feuder, provocateur, self-mythologizer and anti-feminist. He was a war protester, a mayoral candidate, a co-founder of The Village Voice, as well as a wife stabber, a serial husband (of six wives), and a father (of nine). He was a boxer, an actor, a filmmaker, a poet and a playwright. He was also a journalist and a novelist of enormous and singular narrative inventiveness and thrust, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and one of the least boring and most tireless and tiresome public figures of the last half of the 20th century.

 

Mailer-bookI heard Mailer speak at the University of Missouri during the ‘70s. Always the showman looking to shock, he opened with a dirty joke.  It was a good joke. The most interesting thing about the joke was it knocked him down a peg or two on the masculinity chart. This is unusual for a he-man self-inflator.

 

Here is the joke, which I clearly remember after all these years.

 

“I ran into one of my ex-wives recently. She had gotten herself a young new lover and so I asked, ‘How does your boyfriend like that old, worn-out pussy of yours?’  She answered, ‘He likes it just fine . . . once he gets past the worn-out part.”

 

One thing about this great mind, who loved verbal combat: Sometime he tried too hard and flopped. He’d come off like an ass. This happened on the old “Dick Cavett Show” when he went up against both Cavett and his mortal enemy, writer Gore Vidal.

 

I had watched the original show and was so disappointed in him. A clip of the performance has been posted on Youtube and I’d like to share it with you. Your thoughts on Mailer and this video would be greatly appreciated. I would guess Mailer had many more enemies than fans. Which are you?

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Old Books Come Back to Life: Remember “Naked Lunch”?

1 Jun
Writer William Burroughs

Writer William Burroughs

 

The New York Review of Books sat on the table face up, showing the lead item about James Baldwin. This was odd, since Baldwin died a quarter century ago. No new books from him.

“As a writer of polemical essays on the Negro question, James Baldwin has no equals,” the review said.

The Negro question?

Oh. This was not new. This was old. It was a copy of the first edition of the New York Review of Books, reproduced on the 50th anniversary of the publication.  The Review was launched in 1963 as salve to a citywide newspaper strike. The most prominent authors of the day contributed. They did so on short notice and for no pay.

What a time that was!

Ideas and making a statement were more important than making money.

As a collective voice from the past now being read in the present, the Review of Books gives more than a few hints of intellectual unrest. The best minds of the day seemed to be laying the groundwork for a coming cultural break with convention and the status quo.

It’s right there, interwoven amidst the literature.

Those doing the writing were the avant-garde, and people listened to them. Looking over their names, it is difficult to recall writers today with reputations as large. Among the contributors were Norman Mailer, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, Susan Sontag, Gore Vidal, Paul Goodman, Robert Lowell and Jules Feiffer.

If any group reflected the spirit of the times – or perhaps the coming spirit — this one did.

As did the books they reviewed.

Included was “Naked Lunch” by William Burroughs, the grandfather junkie to the Beat writers. “Naked Lunch” is perhaps one of the most unclassifiable novels in the English language. The story – often bizarre and fantastic — takes place inside the head of a man taking a drug cure from a quack. At one point in his career Burroughs would write his prose on paper, cut it up then randomly reassemble the pieces

“Naked Lunch” was reviewed by Mary McCarthy, whose books include “The Group” and “Birds of America.”

At the close of the review, she deals with the “pained question that keeps coming up like a refrain” – Why is this book being taken seriously?

Her answer is that for the first time in recent years, a really talented writer meant what he said.

This was the coming era.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer

Some of the celebrity reviewers, those with the larger personalities, were overly tough on their colleagues. Normal Mailer, always pugnacious, said “That Summer in Paris” by Morley Callaghan was “dim” and mostly without merit. One passage, however, saved the book, Mailer said, because it exposed the true character of novelist Ernest Hemingway, who two years earlier committed suicide.

The tale has Callaghan, who boxed in college, getting into the ring with the much larger Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald was the timekeeper. In a round that went long, Callaghan flattened Hemingway. Fitzgerald blamed his poor time keeping.

“Oh, my God,” he said. “I let the round go four minutes.”

Hemingway, perhaps from the canvas, answered, “All right, Scott. If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake.”

To me, this shows meanness and poor sportsmanship.

Was Hemingway a coward?

Was Hemingway a coward?

To Mailer, who also boxed, it led him to concluded, “There are two kinds of brave men. Those who are brave by the grace of nature, and those who are brave by an act of will. It is the merit of Callaghan’s long anecdote that the second condition is suggested to be Hemingway’s own.”

In essence, Mailer was calling Papa a closet coward, and he cited his suicide as evidence of this cowardice.

Then there was Gore Vidal. He described John Hersey’s book, “Here to Stay,” as  “dull, dull, dull.” Hersey was trying to invent something called “New Journalism,” which later would boost the careers of people like Tom Wolf and Hunter S. Thompson, but Vidal criticized him for cramming too many facts into his sentences.

John Updike is one of America’s best writers but Sir Jonathan Miller, a Cambridge graduate who did books, plays, movies and TV, said Updike’s “The Centaur” was “a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, poor at keeping time

F. Scott Fitzgerald, poor at keeping time

These reviews pretty much stuck to literature, but an unusual number referenced the Cold War and voiced the fear of imminent doom. It was hard to miss the Soviets. One reviewer discussed four books on the economy of our then-mortal enemy. Another reviewed Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s short gulag novel, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

Robert Jay Lifton, in a review of a compilation called “Children of the A-Bomb,” said, “The thing we dread really happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the world resists full comprehension of this event, symbolizing massive death and annihilation.”

He and others suggested that faith in the future was fading, and that without change mankind’s time was limited.

Reviewer Lewis Coser said education and information no longer were the answer.

He called the well-informed person “a cheerful robot.”

“The increase of information may indeed have led, contrary to the belief of the Enlightenment, to a decrease in rationality,” he said.

A remarkably forward-looking book carried the harmless title, “The Exploration of Outer Space.” It written by A.C.B. Lovell and reviewed by James R. Newman. Both lauded the development of radio astronomy as a way to finally understand the composition of the universe.  They believed recent findings made it almost certain that other solar systems contained life and that future contact was possible.

Nuclear war: On everyone's mind in 1963

Nuclear war: On everyone’s mind in 1963

But there was darkness overlaying this optimism. The review expressed a grave fear that humans, if they don’t destroy themselves first, one day would destroy life on other plants, either deliberately or through contamination.

The review ends this way:

“”I myself do not find the prevailing space-race chauvinism and the threat to other planets as horrifying as the threat of global extermination. Nor do I derive consolation from the thought that if our managers turn the earth info a lifeless stone other forms of life will continue elsewhere in the universe. But I am impressed with Lovell’s deep sense of responsibility about life everywhere, and I wish there were many more scientists like him.”

And that’s the way it was in 1963.

Coming would be Dylan, hippies, communes, the counter-culture; Burn Baby Burn, Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30; a refusal to be bought and sold; hope I die before I get old.

 By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

 

In some lives, comfort and peace are luxuries

6 Apr

 

Margaret Smith -- from the New York Times

Margaret Smith — from the New York Times

A story today in the New York Times by Dan Barry tells how an 89-year-old Delaware woman was kidnapped, placed in the trunk of her car for two days, them dumped in an overgrown cemetery of weeds and sand. No food, no water. The dramatic part is how she crawled out of that cemetery on bloodied hands and knees.

“I’d stop for a few minutes, then start crawling again,” said Margaret E. Smith.

Author Eudora Welty

Author Eudora Welty

The woman, who has a heart problem, survived to calmly tell her story.

In many ways, the incident reminds me of a short piece of fiction by Eudora Welty called, “The Worn Path.” Written in 1941 and first published in the Atlantic, this classic piece is about the all-day journey of an elderly woman who walks through a forest, up and down hills, across a creek on a log, through barbed wire and through thorns.

As she walked, she’d talk to herself.

“I in the thorny bush,” she said. “Thorns, you doing your appointed work. Never want to let folks pass—no, sir. Old eyes thought you was a pretty little green bush.”

Only in the end do you learn it was a regular walk to town for her grandson’s medicine, and she had no money to pay for it.

Quite a moving tale and, I’ll bet, based on a true person, a person like Margaret E. Smith, who comes from a town called Slaughter Neck, something right out of a Eudora Welty story.I only recent read “A Worn Path.” I picked up an anthology and there it was. I would suggest you read it. It’s a lesson in determination and hard living, and how for many people routine is nothing more than the everyday torture of life.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The lives we lead are not our own: Why privacy is valued

14 Mar

 

Privacy

Aton Chekhov, in one of his most famous stories, pauses from character development to discuss privacy.

The passage comes in “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” about a young woman and an older man having an adulterous affair that they have kept secret.

“The personal life of every individual,” he wrote, “is based on secrecy, and perhaps it is partly for that reason that civilized man is so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.”

That was written in 1899, long before the act of “liking” something would send data on your habits and behavior to thousands of marketers. The Internet has become a place where we share its wonders and benefits in exchange for our privacy. We do so either without complaint, or else unknowingly.

Chekhov didn’t have to worry about such things. Nevertheless, he studied the nature of the private life and believed “every man led his real, most interesting life under cover of secrecy as under cover of night,” and that everything in the open was false.

A person who, for career or avocation, looks closely at something will share this notion. For as they investigate one thing they invariably see other things not meant to be seen.  Investigate the assassination of President Kennedy and find that there is a cult in Texas wearing underwear made of aluminum foil. I made that up. Real examples would be stranger.

Last night I read the Chekhov passage on privacy. This morning in the newspaper I noticed stories about:

  • A “cannibal cop” convicted of conspiracy to abduct, roast and eat women.
  • An ex-principal charged with possessing child porn.
  • A bookkeeper who stole nearly $650,000 from her employer over several years.

This was just one section in one newspaper in one day.

I agree with the Russian writer that we don’t project much truth in our daily comportment, but it is a little frightening to think that people we consider normal  harbor great inner darkness. Perhaps it’s the complexity of our DNA and the innumerable variations of its structure that produce humans destined to act or think in so many different ways that there is no normal and that everything imaginable – and unimaginable – gets covered.

We are going to be learning a lot more about this, what with cameras everywhere now and odd folks freely indulging themselves on the never private Internet.

All of us are bound to long for the days when those phony exteriors Chekhov spoke of hid the harsh truth of our species.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Walt Whitman – better now than ever

18 Oct

Here’s a little secret:

Over the years, the things we were forced to read in high school have gotten better.

It was punishing to read great literature at a young age. Personally, I was not only incapable of appreciating it; I didn’t want to appreciate it.

Aside from things like “Catcher in the Rye” and maybe those THE FUTURE IS GOING TO BE TOTALITARIAN books, there was no desire to spend time with genius writers. The time was for living; not so much for reading.

After the edge is worn off life experiences, literature has more of a place. Yes, you can jump out of an airplane if that’s your idea of excitement, but it’s not like going to a Friday night football game and expecting a fight; it’s not like kissing a girl that you cannot stop thinking about; it doesn’t compare to that first road trip with five guys in a rusty car and a total of $100 between you.

Certainly none of this can compete with Melville or Ezra Pound. Those two can’t even compete with the understated magic of hanging around a parking lot complaining that there is nothing to do – but hoping that soon there will be.

Those anticipatory adrenalin rushes fade for reasons both physical and metaphysical. When they are gone, great books becomes much sweeter.

Someone recently discarded an anthology of American Literature. I picked it up. The book is filled with writers rarely read outside of classrooms but there are in there because they are brilliant.

I reviewed the preface to Walt Whitman; learned how much time he spent on “Leaves of Grass,” basically rewriting it his entire life; thought he was just a human and that the person describing him was over stating his case.

Then I read Whitman, putting him in the context of his time (meaning no one ever wrote like this before), and quickly realized how deserving he is of the place he holds.

I remember from high school that Whitman was considered the ultimate optimist, the lover of everything.

“I am satisfied – I see, dance, laugh, sing.”

He would not allow bleakness and atrocity to wither his spirit.

Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news, the fitful events;

These come to me days and nights and go from me again,

But they are not the Me myself.

 

To Whitman, there is no death . . . as mortals understand it.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,

And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

 

Would I seem ridiculous if I gushed: This kind of stuff goes on and on for page after page after page.

The enormity of it overwhelmed me. Whitman’s ability to sustain his pace and prophetic message mystified me.

My advice then: A retreat to the refuge of beauty and truth, even if they are under appreciated, is recommended when you can no longer find the Heart of Saturday Night.

And so I end, from the anthology, with Emily D:

I died for Beauty – but was scarce

Adjusted in the Tomb

When One who died for Truth, was lain

In an adjoining Room –

 

He questioned softly, “Why I failed”?

“For Beauty,” I replied–

“And I – for Truth – Themselves are One—

We Bretheren, are,” He said—

 

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night—

We talked between the rooms—

Until the Moss had reached our lips—

And covered up—our names—

–By Lanny Morgnanesi 

 

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