Sunday, March 31, 2013

800 Words: What Inspires You - My Answer - Part 1

As I begin my attempt to ignite a creative self somewhere inside of me that exists in more than a blogpost, it’s pretty easy to see that my greatest weakness is a failure of nerve. I know perfectly well that I can write music or fiction that is on the competent side of thoroughly mediocre. But I lack ability to believe that I can write anything of quality. Creative friends tell me not to worry about the actual quality of my output, but I can’t help that. I’ve sat through too much awful music and theater and fiction and poetry to not think about whether I’m contributing to the boredom of audiences. At least with a blog, the audience isn’t captive and you can x out of the blogpost any time you like. In a musical or theatrical performance, you can’t do that. And in both of those and/or fiction and poetry, people pay to read and hear what you write. The thought that I’d be the kind of creative person I’d laugh at were I not myself is a concern that plagues me with every word or note I write.

I don’t know what I want to write. I know what I’m good at: I’m good at music and writing, and I’m a world champion couch potato who loves movies and TV at least as much as he loves reading and listening to music. Like many underconfident people, a messianic sense of self exists ever so slightly just beneath the surface that it’s readily visible to anyone who spends more than fifteen minutes in my company. Some people are egotistical due to insecurity, others are insecure due to their truly low opinion of themsevles. I’m simply torn between my unconquerable egotism and my insatiable self-loathing. I’m fairly certain that no amount of success would ever satisfy my ego or satiate my insecurity, but fortunately I don’t have to worry too much about that just yet.

If I could guess as to what creative endeavor I’d be best at, it would be writing an opera. I often think to myself, as Benjamin Britten and Richard Wagner once did, that I not only know I can write a great opera with no evidence, but that I could make my living writing them. But I have far less ample evidence to bear out such godlike self-belief than these former two examples. All I know is that I know the genre, I know music, I know literature, I know art itself, I know how to hold an audience’s attention, and I know how to go about making an audience feel what I want them to feel. What I don’t know is how to produce it. I hate, truly hate, working in theater. I often tell myself that I’d have been the greatest conductor or theater director of all time if the results didn’t involve working with other human beings. I’m still amazed I have so many singers in the chorus I conduct who appear to like me and enjoy our working together. Maybe opera written for film would be better. God knows it can’t be much more of an ulcer waiting to happen than writing for theater.

Opera written especially for film?... That’s an idea. Network television tried that in its early days without overwhelming success. But maybe in the era of youtube...

Regardless of the result, I have to find a way to inspire myself. So I’ve begun to think of the various people, forces, and thoughts which have influenced me to want to be more creative. So in a supreme act of putting the cart before the horse, I’m making a list of what inspires me to create the things I still haven’t created. Furthermore, I think it would be very inspiring to ask other creative people what inspires them. So very soon, I’m going to start asking most people I know - those involved in the arts at least, professional and amateur - to contribute their list. And if they don’t contribute, I’m going to start pestering them until they do.

Those contributions can be as long or as short as you like. I’ll be grateful for whatever you contribute, would not dream of refusing a submission regardless of content, and would only edit for grammar. I encourage all of you whom I pester to make a list as different in style from my list as you can possibly make it - a mere five words to explain each choice will do very nicely. Please feel no need to make your list as self-revealing as mine will be. In fact, I actively discourage yourself from revealing a mere percentage point of the negativity and self-abegnation I’m about to unleash to the internet.


10 Things Which Inspire Me Through Hate (#'s 10-2)

10. Taking Dressup Seriously: As I compose these words around two in the morning on Easter Sunday, it occurs to me that a new Game of Thrones will be airing tonight for the first time in a year. I will watch GoT with all the same hathos as ever before, relishing its trashiness at the same time that it would never occur to me to take its artistic aspirations particularly seriously. Game of Thrones is a dressup game disguised as a high myth, the same as Wagner and Tolkien, the same as Milton, the same as Ray Bradbury and Jules Verne, the same as ... it’s mythology, a regression to a stage of human philosophy from which our species evolved by the time a human discovered that the Earth revolves around the Sun and composed the complete works of Shakespeare. I dread the inevitable moment when I offend yet another person with this oft-repeated sentiment of mine. It’s bad enough that people take Wagner and Milton more seriously than they do Journey and Queen, but now we’re building yet another dull alternative literature of giants for which our great-grandchildren will look at us with all the same mystified incomprehension that so many of us give to so much art from the 19th century. Wagner is what happens when dressup games get taken seriously - people who find the complexities of real life too unsatisfying want a return to the supposed glories of a past that never existed, and some of them take that so seriously that they try to establish a new glorious kingdom on Earth and end up murdering 50 million people in the process. And while there are many types of wonderful people who take the Tolkeins and LeGuins of the world seriously, it is but a short step from there to taking Ayn Rand seriously. And once enough Americans are taking Ayn Rand seriously, it is but a short step away from implementing Ayn Rand’s ideas to create a perfect American kingdom of the self-involved on Earth, with the potential for consequences no less disastrous than those of the Third Reich. Take it from me, I’ve read more ‘respectable’ literature than most of the people who read this post. Respectability sucks. Why do genre fiction lovers crave critical approbation? It’s the most poisoned chalice there is. Dress up all you like, but don’t take the ideas from these dressup games seriously, it will only lead us to ruin.

9. Poet as Seer - Poetry is one of the most cursed artforms in the world - perhaps more prone to imposterdom than any art which the world has ever seen. There are so many poets which are neither funny nor moving nor inspire any other real emotion in us. The most recommendable quality of such poetry is that it’s vaguely clever, but because it’s not clever enough to be clever, it’s alleged to be profound. I could fart out a Bob Dylan song that would be hailed as a song of genius if Dylan wrote it. In fact, so could most of you... But it’s not just Dylan, who is at least a decent songwriter who’s unfortunately accumulated a reputation far beyond his abilities. He’s part of a long tradition of poets whose reputations are completely outsize to their abilities. Before Dylan, there was Lord Byron, a decent poet who had the foresight to fuck the wives of his critics, who then had to make a show of not taking it personally. Before Byron, there was John Milton. Milton was an unquestionable genius, but he put that genius in the service of the most disgustingly dull, self-serious, fanatically puritanical aesthetic imaginable. He is literature’s answer to Richard Wagner - hugely exciting at times, but with barely a human emotion to be found, and a whiff of evil about him in what he inspires in his audience. But at least the reputations of Byron and Milton reputation are not a scandal. But unfortunately we also have to deal with the reputations of Blake, Allen Ginsberg, Poe, Maya Angelou, Whitman,Charles Bukowski, TS Eliot, Jim Morrison, Ezra Pound, Lou Reed, Wallace Stevens, Robert Plant,  and probably two dozen others I’ll think of later. Inevitably, poetry is the true language of romance. Every civilization and every epoch has its great poets which everybody recognizes as expressing the era of its newness: Shakespeare and Donne, Wordsworth and Shelley, Goethe and Heine, Dante and Boccaccio, Neruda and Vallejo, Dickinson and (ech!) Whitman. But as civilizations wear on and too much self-knowledge for romance becomes inevitable, poets become like three-legged chairs. What purpose have they in a society too knowledgeable and corrupt for new self-discovery? The answer is, of course, in the eye of the beholder. Sometimes, as with Baudelaire and Verlaine, or Leonard Cohen and (yes...shut up) Randy Newman, the decadence of later generations can contain some of the most amazing aesthetic splendors. But sometimes, as with Pound and Eliot, or Ginsberg and Korso, there’s a surfeit of boredom or banality. There’s more creative originality in Shel Silverstein’s little finger than in the entirety of Ezra Pound.

8. Ersatz Highbrow - Yesterday evening I got into a discussion of books at a bar with a truly gorgeous bar owner who kept a bookshelf of masochistically highbrow reading in her bar and professed some extraordinarily highbrow reading tastes to me (seriously, who says Tonio Kroger and Doctor Faustus are favorite books and means it?!?). She wrote down the names I gave her (Stefan Zweig and Nadezhda Mandelstam... for those who care...isn’t it odd she’d never heard of them?...), wrote their names down, and seemed quite interested in what I had to say. When I left, she flashed me one of those million-watt smiles that waitresses have used for millennia to melt their customers into a good tip and told me how thankful she was for the book recommendations and that she’s looking forward to following up on them. As I turned around after we said goodbye and left for the front door, I’m 94% sure I heard her say to someone else “I’m probably going to rip them up in a minute.” We’d said nothing to one another that was not book-related, and our conversation was basically two minutes long, but nevertheless I felt like a spurned lover thrown out after a one-night stand. How could I have been so dumb to believe anyone who tells you she loves books whom no one in their right mind could ever love in a million years? There are certain writers, certain painters, certain musicians, certain filmmakers, whose entire existence is due to their being able to dress up vulgarity and sensation under the guise of profundity and importance. Bob Dylan and Thomas Mann are obviously examples of this, so were Milton and Wagner, but so also was Stanley Kubrick and so is Terrence Malick, so were Antonioni and Godard, so were Sartre and Foucault, so were Dostoevsky and Nietzsche and Heidegger, so were Hegel and Rousseau.... These are but a few among many exemplars of a particularly noxious kind of allegedly lofty thought: they are not examples of intelligence, they are examplars of a vulgar person’s conception of intelligence - a world in which human affection is banished, and so are humor and sadness and empathy, and all that’s left is a queasy digestion of banal and dangerous platitudes dressed in the guise of profundity which tells you that compassion and the extension of humanitarian impulses should have restrictive limits - and therefore we should allow ourselves contempt for some in place of compassion. True masters allow you to feel compassion and contempt simultaneously, and present you characters like a balance sheet in which you may judge them harshly for their sins even as you sympathize with them for why they acted as they did. But without that empathy, you've created a poisoned art: you might as well pour Drano onto a vegetable and tell children that it’s still good for them.

7. Nihlism - I know that Nihlism is the wrong word for this, but I don’t think the right word exists. A few weeks ago, I had a very memorable conversation with Jordan about my attitude towards counterculture. He didn’t understand how I defended everything about something for which I clearly have such contempt. But what’s the alternative?” I asked. The alternative is to enforce a regression to a culture that once was, an enforcement that plots to move history and evolution backward and work against nature itself. The alternative to letting culture procede as it must is the fanaticism that goes with trying to repress people’s expression. I might not like what people express: I might think 99% of the music I hear is stupid and not worth people’s time to make or listen, I might think tattoos are generally a waste of skin, I might think that a person who needs clothes to express themselves is too superficial to express anything deep, I might think a person who thinks that no critical judgement matters is a person with whom I never want to be in the same gallery or performance space, I might think that a society which negates learning about other cultures is a society that willingly makes itself dumber; but such stupidities are precisely what America was invented to shelter, because European history makes abundantly clear what happens when people are forced to turn their eyes towards profundity. As it was at the turn of the 19th century to the 20th, nihlism is the curse of our time - a curse not of eras which lack no values, rather one of eras which lack shared values. The people within our society can no longer explain the things they value to one another and convince each other to value the same things, and thus nihlistic eras are inevitably followed by eras with far worse curses. In a long period of peacetime (and this period is as peaceful as our crazy world gets), shared values bifurcate as quickly as mitotic cells, and no two groups of people can agree on a set of values because they have too much time to debate values and not enough pressure upon them to realize life’s true essentials. In many ways, we live in a Cultural Golden Age as fine as the late 19th century, and yet like the 1890’s-1900’s it’s a Golden Age precisely because culture’s grown so decadent that it sows the very seeds of its own destruction. A public spoiled by luxury to whom concerns of the spirit don’t matter enough to want to share their spiritual lives with their community is a public which will eventually lose its luxury as carelessly as they dispatched their community life. A public which values individualism to the point that community no longer matters is a public that will lose its individuality quite suddenly and without warning. I can’t blame others for choosing to believe in apathy: everything - the Modern World, God, government, art, philosophy, science, family, and other people (make your own list) - has failed us to some degree. While even the lower-middle-class among us live in the kind of luxury which would turn Baroque monarchs green with envy, we also live with the knowledge that in an instant, we can all be obliterated by a simple nuclear, chemical, and biological weapon - and if we’re not killed instantly, we will die a death painful past the dreams of a Medieval Inquisitor. We all drink water, eat food, and breathe air poisoned with toxins can cause the longest, most painful fatal illnesses yet known to man. Anyone subject to all these disappointments and anxieties would go crazier day by day. But the end result of this nihilism can only be a conservative resurgence. The end result of the 1960’s was not a revolution for a greater spirit, the end result was George W. Bush and the Tea Party. Even among the kingdom of the human species, Mother Nature always finds a way to balance herself, and if a society values the individual more than community and if one era cares about the concerns of the individual at the expense of the community, the next will invariably care about the concerns of the community at the expense of the individual. I’ll defend your right to negate communities to the ends of the time, but I’ll never forgive you for making me defend that right.

6. Unrequited Love - Like most balding, portly neurotics under 5’6, I have far more experience in this life with unrequited love than with the requited kind. Unrequited love is a bore, and I’ve had it bad. No matter how different the girls, there is a mindnumbing sameness to every experience. And yet, like the future Alzheimer’s patient I no doubt am, one gets it into one’s head every time that this time will be the different one. The thought that this girl somehow understands you when no other ever could is what gets you through the day. And you simply like the person you are more when you’re in love. And yet, the disappointment, the humiliation, and the sheer ridiculousness of it all catches up with you every time, for the ugly and under confident among us anyway... And yet all that frustration, all that suffering, finds its way into other endeavors. Those of us too odd for long-term relationships usually find ourselves doing things which people in long-term relationships would never countenance. Those of you unlucky enough to spend your lives feeling loved follow the stock of an assembly line, and the sheer predictability of your routine is enough to suffocate all that’s good and unique in every one of you. And you all know it. And God... what I’d have given up for just a little of your insipidness... So all you women who could never keep up with me in a long-term relationship or any relationship at all, nuts to you. I was too nice and too mean, too boring and too interesting, too underconfident and too arrogant, too smart and too dumb, too underwhelming and too accomplished. But whatever I was, you were all dumb enough to throw me away. My consolation, and a surprisingly fulfilling one, is that I can attack you for the idiots you were in posts like these :).

5. Segregation - Any kind of segregation is bad, except perhaps of the segregation of viruses from other organisms (though perhaps that's only because we haven't listened to the narrative of the virus closely enough) but in this case I mean a very specific kind of segregation. I grew up in Pikesville, Maryland. It is, in its way, one of the most segregated, inbred towns on earth. I did not know a single non-Jew who was not a musician or cleaning lady until I was 16. The idea of the world being a large place was a mere postulate. The diversity of the world overwhelms me, how can it not when I realize that I can identify nearly every breed of Jew almost down to which Old Country a Jewish acquaintance’s family hailed from before they tell me, and yet only know other cultures through what I can read about in books and see on television. To this day, I can’t help looking at the non-Jewish world with anxiety. I’ve never much cared for the idea of living mostly among Jews, but it’s the devil I know. I do not hate Judaism, but I do feel entitled to dislike some of the effects Judaism has had upon me, and I think I’d have been a (slightly) less irascible adult had I grown up with somewhat less of it. Like Philip Roth, I’m a proud self-hating Jew, and I’d like to think that I’ve earned the right.

4. Sadness - I know, you might as well say you hate murder. But sadness is an omnipresent state for many of us. Some days, you wake up and eat breakfast with the worst memories of a lifetime. You spend time alone in your house and the foul terror of your worst thoughts gangs up on you like a second person locked in your body who knows your most shameful secrets and exploits them shamelessly for the sole purpose of confirming your worst fears. Which leads us to:

3. The Enoblement of Sadness - There is nothing noble about sadness. Let me say that again. There is nothing noble about sadness. There is only the suffering it engenders, and the overwhelming feat of will it takes to be joyful in spite of it. People should celebrate those who’ve summoned that will to joy in the face of suffering, and feel lots of sympathy for suffering people who seem to lack that willpower. But it is disgusting to glorify suffering as an end in itself. The idea that suffering somehow purifies us and makes us morally more upright is not only incorrect, it is an excuse for letting suffering people suffer more - an excuse which religion exploits to keep so many of its adherents in the basest squalor - and in no religion moreso than Christianity. The glorification of suffering is scrawled through Christian literature like a virus from Dostoevsky to Hebrews with instructions to love God more because he exposes us to the very worst life can offer. Pain is not a badge of honor to be sought, it is the worst experience of a lifetime, and sometimes the most common. It should be avoided and alleviated in every way we know how.  

2. Bland Excellence - Let me put this very simply. I’m a learning disabled adult, and before that I was a learning disabled child. I could solve algebra problems when I was three years old, but could not tie my shoes until I was ten. I have perfect pitch, an encyclopaedic (albeit increasingly faulty) memory, and the ability to digest and retain levels of information that would put most of you into a coma, and yet I could barely pass high school and require months upon months to learn how to perform menial tasks which most of you pick up in a matter of seconds. My brain is a flame which burns on all cylinders every day and never knows a moment’s rest, moving like a horse which knows no exhaustion from one track to another with total abandon of the problem upon which it was ruminating three seconds earlier. It possesses a complete lack of ability to be reigned in by any disciplinary force. I cannot turn this thing off, thus I’ve always had occasion to worry that one day this mind which burns so brightly may simply burn out; and I can only wonder how close that burnout’s already come to happening. I understand  neither how my brain functions, nor why it functions differently from others, but it is to my eternal shame that I’ve been blessed with it. I’ve watched thousands of acquaintances, acquaintances like you, seemingly float from success to success; good school to better school, relationship to marriage, good job to great job - acquaintances who are perfectly nice, if sometimes dull, people who’ve attained success simply by doing what they’re told. I was never good at doing that, and even if I wanted to be obedient, my lopsidedly aligned mind would never let me know how. Were I afforded your opportunities in some world where people are marginally more understanding of faults like mine, I’d have been the best damn student/employee/husband/...maybe even father in the world, but the first third (I can only hope) of my life has passed me by without anybody either willing or able to find the way to get my imperfect functioning in our imperfect world to a level where any of that seems possible in any particularly meaningful way. I work lightly in the family business, the graduate of a third-rate music school and possessing a long (but not particularly) string of relationships that were over before they started. I don’t begrudge any of you your success, I simply begrudge your being more successful than me. And the fact that you’ve all done so much more than I when I’m clearly so much smarter than you drives me insane.

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