Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Shadow Over Portsmouth

The start of fall is the time for weird tales, so let me tell you one…..

We live in an empire in decline and, as with all declining empires, it is the outposts which tend to suffer first.  Portsmouth Ohio is one such outpost.  Once a prosperous river city that boasted wealth and commerce, now little more than a, forgive the pun, shadow of its former self.  Perhaps, ironically enough, the only thing of which it might boast today is its fourth tier college, which is the only visible sign of development in an increasingly retrogressing community.

The Innsmouth Look
In a story by H. P.  Lovecraft there is a portrait of a town similar to my own.  Though the fabled town of the story is set on the east coast and not a major river, water is water.  Innsmouth is avoided by those who know it, and those who inhabit it rarely venture forth into the wider world.  A stranger on holiday is taking a tour of the region to seek out colonial architecture and historical curiosities.  Against his better judgment, he buys a bus ticket whose route stops briefly within the town and upon arriving at his destination checks his bag at the local hotel.  He goes on to explore the sights and meet the locals.  To his irritation, he finds neither of much interest until he encounters the village drunk.  An aged fellow, he appears nothing like the other towns people, who all share the “Innsmouth look”, something between a fish and a frog with wide bulging eyes that never shut.  He engages the old man in conversation and, in a long rambling bit of dialogue, reveals perhaps a bit too much, and the visitor soon gets the impression of being watched.  That evening his fear's are confirmed when an attempt is made to enter his room.  He takes flight, just barely escaping in a moonlit scramble through the darkened streets of Innsmouth.

What does all of this have to do with Portsmouth?  Little, as far as the supernatural elements of the tale go but, to a poetic cast of mind perhaps, it becomes more obvious.  The visitor to the strange little town discovers that its wealthy elite long ago made, for all intents and purposes, a pact with the devil and, all are slowly losing their humanity as they devolve into monsters from the sea.  Even more unsettling, the visitor afterwards learns (while a student at Oberlin College no less) that he too is of their blood.

Long ago our nation made a similar pact, not for immortality, but for abundant wealth.  The devil certainly delivered but, as he always does, he's come back to collect his due.

In the decaying old streets of Portsmouth I see too often the dehumanizing effects of poverty work towards the retrogression of humanity, just as the magic of the Old Ones turned the men and women of Innsmouth into spineless jellyfish.  It will be a long time yet before the empire's leaders, who likewise are just visitors passing through at election time, discover that they consist of a similar goo.  But, as it always is in horror tales as in tragedy, the knowledge will no doubt come too late.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nothing Comes From Nothing or The Self-Made Myth

In American conservative politics there is much talk of the self-made man.  (Why a man rather than a woman I will leave to the reader to consider.)  He is a prominent fixture in Randian storytelling, and is a defining trope of Republican rhetoric.  In America one need only guts and the sweat off their brow and they can be rich.  If for any reason the American Dream appears to have failed you it must be because you failed it, and in America we don't cotton to failures.

What is most innervating about such thinking to anyone other than the high-born, is its utter absurdity.  Factories don't run themselves, otherwise the threat of unions would hardly be a threat at all.  But even the lowly entrepreneur with a single great idea doesn't go it alone.  He or she will usually start out small with a minimal staff.  Each worker with a stake in the enterprise will put in their own thought and energy, casting their lot in with the founder in the shared risks of success or collapse.  Or so it used to be before the Too Big to Fail mentality in which the risk is now shifted to those at the bottom absorb the explosion of failure without reaping the benefits of success.

These are common complaints often repeated, but there is a larger flaw in the reasoning behind the self-made myth, less often revealed I believe than it should be.  Conservative values are above all touted as "family" values.  Beyond the anti-family stance this implies of liberal political values, it is an enormous contradiction of the self-made mythology that they would use to justify greed and selfishness.  For, if the self-made man is indeed a reality, his existence implies a total negation of the value of community, friends, and family.  If one man really can do it all with just a little hard work and patience then, unless everyone else in his community is also of the same metal the concept of community just got a lot smaller, perhaps by ninety-nine percent, which I think reveals neatly what they mean by community while at the same time justifying their hatred for the poor and indigent.

If there's no such thing as a free lunch, the self-made man is just as imaginary.  Nothing comes from nothing after all.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Greek Fire

If virtue is its own reward then morality must only be for a moment, what is forgotten serves as an example for no one. Simply to be born is a distinction now, we expect merit we may not deserve. If someone commits an act of kindness you're sure to hear about it, for not to hear about it is the same as if it had not happened at all.

Everyone is entitled to a sense of unique perfection. We count our youth as but the oracle of great things to come, and see old age as the recitation of our deed's. When age at last does come it is often accompanied by disillusion, and the thought catching up to us like stragglers in a race, the gasp of recognition that the race is almost done. Then we turn to thick religion in desperation, seeking for an anchor to slow our progress, and abase ourselves before conformity to spare us from our thought.

On the other side of the mortality divide, we have the dreamer. Those individuals who still hope for distinction though it may never come. Who wait for their discovery among a million other souls and never stop to think and ask if it was worth it. Even the conformers must grant them this, that it for some must be worth a try, as unkempt rows of tombstones remind them Sundays when they go to place flowers on family graves. To live to be forgot is like to be a king for but a day.

In this, as in so much else, we share a special kinship with the Greeks, who viewed, more honestly than us, an afterlife full of doubt and shadows and felt by intimation that he who lives has already lost. “Those whom the gods love, die young.” wrote Menander. Tellingly a comic not a tragic poet. It was naturally expected that only those who had accomplished something of distinction were worthy of remembrance, but as to the character of those accomplishments the rules were less than clear.

Out of a desire for fame Alexander made war on Persia, and Euripides sang of war's regret. Whether one act is more virtuous than the other seems a small matter, both are remembered and both remain stubborn facts of the sometime failure of history to teach by example.

Socrates spoke against the relativism of his age by writing nothing and saying much. Virtues were not things that you could grasp but stood apart in another realm. That we remember this, however, is due to Plato's pen. This is irony, the one gift Greece has given us it did not intend to give.

Of all ironies the greatest must be, that without the spur of fame there is little to provoke the great experiments of life, when the action's of a few serve as benchmarks and pull us up collectively as if like a chorus to sing their praise. Investments in posterity, if left to the banker's risk aversion, the human race would scarcely dare to breed. Yet, as too often is the case, these consequences were unintended. What is praiseworthy in benefits of accident born of some self-centered goal that hardly took the time to consider its aid to man? And so the selfless act is hollow if unknown, and if known rings hollow.

There is a folly like all the others history records, of two men who dreamed of fame. Pericles, the first in time if not in merit, had built the Parthenon on Athens Acropolis, the other burnt the Temple of Artemis to the ground, a wonder of the world. When this second was asked the cause of such a barbarous act, as there could never be a reason worthy of term, he replied he did this to preserve his name and, despite the best efforts of his judges, that name, Herostratus, stands.

Greek fire urged one man to build a temple, and another to burn one. Whatever the initial spark the intent appears much the same.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Mightier Than The Sword

An obsession is something unhealthy to everyone but the person obsessed.  Lately I have been obsessed with fountain pens.  For several years I searched in vain for a pen that felt "right", every new type of pen that I encountered had to be mine as certainly this new design would give me what I felt I needed.  I then recalled the cheap fountain pen I had used all through High School and all was settled, at least, for awhile.

My first foray into this madness was the purchase of a no name Chinese made piece.  With that I forgot all about what writing instrument I used and simply used it.  Then, just this past December, while browsing pen pics (a habit my wife playfully calls "pen porn") I stumbled upon the Montblanc Thomas Mann Writers Edition, and once more I was seized with the thought of the supreme writing experience I might be missing out on.  The Montblanc was the price of a used car, but there were other prestigious pens far more in my range.  I settled upon a Parker IM, with which I wrote this very essay.  Its sleek design and elegant simplicity was love at first (forgive the pun) write.  However, this too was not enough.

Now, after but two months since its purchase I have again bought another, a vintage Parker "51".  Anyone who collects pens knows that this is the most coveted of its type ever made.  Its revolutionary hooded nib, its balance in the hand, and long history have made it a prized item not to be without.

Now will my pen lust be sated?  After a forty dollar eBay auction I would like to believe so, however, I realize this is not the end.  I may indeed be done with pens, but something else is certain to rise up and ensnare my brain, for at my age I've learned that one may be very creative in avoiding creativity.  The need to write is sublimated into writing instruments and one can become convinced that just one more tool will give you the edge.  Thankfully, I learned to catch this trick of the mind years ago and work around it, as evidenced by what you are reading now.  But for others the lure may keep them searching when all they needed was before them all along.  In that case the pen may truly be mightier than the sword.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Page Or Stage?

Reading countless books on dramatic writing one is constantly reminded: “Plays are not literature. A play is nothing by itself, it must be performed to be complete.” And yet, many people, including myself, have enjoyed reading plays as literature with no difficulty seeing the theater in our mind's. If this were not so where would English classes around the world be when it came to Shakespeare? Every day he is perhaps more read than seen, even as the most performed of dramatists. Aristotle, the man who first laid down the rules of stagecraft in his Poetics, was even satisfied with this when he said: “Tragedy like Epic poetry produces its effect even without action; it reveals its power by mere reading."  And that: "it has vividness of impression in reading as well as in representation."

Due to the meager resources of the stage in earlier ages, it was not uncommon for many playwrights to compose “closet dramas”, that is, plays not intended to be performed but read. Goethe's Faust is one great example, yet even it has had productions. Of even greater relevance is perhaps Henrik Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean. Colossal in size and scope, with a playing time in the original version of about six hours, its impracticality was perhaps due more to the limitations of the stage in Ibsen's time than to the author's intentions for it. An edited version had its English premier only last year at the National Theater to high praise. Clearly, the modern stage has no limits on what might be done in reason. More to the point, our predecessors obviously saw no diminishment between page over stage.

This prejudice seems baffling except when you consider the power of Hollywood. In the film industry, the screenwriter is of no importance. He's brought in almost under cover of darkness to lay the foundations that the director then proceeds to build his temple upon. The screenwriter's role is even more diminished when those of screenwriter and director are one. The screen actor too has some blame in this, being a “star” he or she stands out from the story being told almost at the risk of the story becoming redundant. This is not always so but often enough to bare notice.

Walter Benjamin, in his great essay TheWork of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction expresses it this way: 
For the film, what matters primarily is that the actor represents himself to the public before the camera, rather than representing someone else...The film responds to the shriveling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the “personality” outside the studio. The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the “spell of the personality,” the phony spell of a commodity.” 
In other words, persona becomes a replacement for performance, or at least the sense of art that the immediacy of a live performance brings.

The theater still remains the place where word and writer are king, but the theater is not something that can be folded up and prepackaged for sale. Consequently, the individuality of the artist must be crushed if a mass produced commodity is to be made of it, and thus the writer be reminded that he is but a small part of the whole. In the funnel of money and power that is Hollywood this is true, but a stage can be found anywhere you wish to find it, and a play that is read may be all the stage that one needs.