Prior to settling into my recent season of doctors and campaigning for Obama, I was on extended holiday in the American Rocky Mountains. Being Otherwise Engaged on multiple fronts is the reason for the lack of posts to this blog and also accounts for a recent sense of intercut reality. The past few months have smudged together in interesting and surreal ways: impressions of myself holding a kind of meta clipboard containing hybrid medical/political/revision questions (Does your family have any history of internal bleeding while convincing uncommitted voters to go Democratic in a perhaps-too-confusing and staccato flashback sequence?). That sort of thing. The culmination of this oddly recombinant period was waking up in the recovery room demanding assurances that (a) Obama was still president-elect and (b) fucking Chapter Seven remained finalized . . .
But back to the vacation: It worked liked a charm–much-needed distance was inserted between me and the book (especially fucking Chapter Seven); despite appearances, I actually feel recharged, though slightly worse-for-wear.
And since I can already sense the uncomfortable shifting, you have my word that this isn’t the preamble to an endless sharing of holiday snaps (As you can see, this picture of the Rockies is slightly bluer and less hazy than the previous vista of mountains–but a lot grayer and more distant than the range in the next shot). Rather, I’d like to explore a variant of that Arthur Conan Doyle passage about a mute canine:
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
In my case, the curious, attention-worthy incident is the non-inspirational nature of–er–nature: All the splendor had absolutely no affect on my writing. There was, of course, the obligatory amount of Wonder, Scale and Taking-of-Breath. As a civilian, I respond to nature (though I suspect in a more clinical way than most people), but as an artist, well, not so much. However, this still seems too cagey, so know this: In terms of art, I’m completely disinterested in the natural world.
With the exception of Turner, my appreciation of painted landscapes is entirely technical; minus my fascination with brushstrokes, composition and light, Monet haystacks would die in their amped-up attempts to Make Us Notice The Literal And Spiritual Benefits Of Rural Life In A Way That We Would Otherwise Entirely Miss (And So Thank You, Claude). I remain unmoved by landscapes in the same way I patiently wait for Springsteen songs about The Myriad Aspects of Blue-Collar Life That We Would Otherwise Entirely Miss (And So Thank You, Bruce) to finally end. In each instance, the very obvious has been made epically intense. And, because of the narrowing affect of the obviousness, it’s also about mind-numbing redundancy. (Pop Quiz 1: Explain how “Thunder Road” is in anyway different from”Born To Run” with the exception of tighter focus. Pop Quiz 2: Thematically differentiate three of Monet’s haystack paintings. See what I mean?)
My disinterest in Artistic Nature extends to other disciplines. In most cases, I’d rather saw off my leg with a dull butter knife than read pastoral poetry. Again, it’s the sheer predictability–despite all the passionate attempts to find the new, surprising and oddball detail-cum-angle. I getit–mainly because I got it: a long time ago, reading 400-year-old poetry. Nature is Big. I am Small. Natural Metaphors for What Is Churning In My Soul are somehow more resonant for being externalized (though no one really explains why nature-as-mirror is inherently better than self-examination). Nature is Authentic, whereas Civilization Is Artifice.
(Full disclosure: I have been a hypocritical enabler. At one point, I critiqued some pastoral poetry as a politely down-played but huge favor. What I still remember is the dumbfounded respect of the writer–as if it took special intelligence to discern that, yes, geologic time was being used as a metaphor for a relationship; that, um, Things Change Just Like In Nature. Whatever. My critique was in no way brain surgery, and yet I was deemed Yoda-like for the “insights.” However, the real reason for my carefully chosen, seemingly Zen-like advice had much more to do with me being too polite to explore the author’s psychological reasons for projecting personal feelings onto geological forces. The resulting deflection, disguise and avoidance produced the opposite of truth, which, I finally realized, had been the unconscious intent of the pieces.)
For me, nature-based art is inescapably hackneyed in terms of theme; the metaphoric natural world has been stripped-mined of meaning. Which places it in the same relationship to me as the Blues–so rigorously ritualized in both form and topic that any relatively recent stuff can only be significant in terms of bravura performance. (And, as I learned in my season critiquing pastoral poetry, talented nature poets are as rare as Glenn Gould caliber pianists–journeyman versification of cliched beaches/clouds/flocks of birds/rain/waving grass is as deadening as a cocktail-lounge piano player vamping his way through predictable pop standards.)
All this is a very circuitous way of saying that I inserted myself in the Rocky Mountains to get away from my writing, and not for inspiration. Artistically, I thrive in big cities and interstitial neighborhoods: Fringe-dwelling urban neurotics–my inescapable tribe–give me the ideas and energy that make the words flow.
In this Age of Palin, where “elitist” is the new sneering code word for being smart–dismissive of intelligence in the same way “faggot” denigrates gays– Blue-Collar Authenticity is all the rage. And, being noble savagery with a new coat of political paint, Blue-Collar Authenticity is especially shrill if the Proudly Uninformed also happen to live near equally Authentic Nature (cough–Alaska–cough). My problem is that I don’t see authenticity in the leading of a patently “low-information” life, and the Rockies are no more or less authentic than Manhattan. (And with a scotch in me, I’ll probably confide that Manhattan is actually more impressive, being the product of human aspiration and design rather then entropy and tectonic plates.)
I also went on a walkabout through the mountains because I’ve been forcing myself to do things I otherwise wouldn’t: Ranked absolutely on my personal Things To Do Before I Die list, the Rockies don’t even figure in the top 100. Which made them a perfect choice because they were sufficiently outside both my desire and comfort zone to be perversely intriguing.
Which leads to the dodgy matter of productive masochism–the Rockies were also chosen to address my incapacitating fear of heights; the kind of terror that can literally freeze me in place and screw my eyes shut. However, limping across the tundra above the timberline at the edges of precipices is in itself still giving me nightmares. Thus, despite my intentions, the trip’s takeaway did not have the edifying, arc-to-a-moral of after-school specials: I in no way mastered my fear of heights. After-the-fact and much closer to sea-level, I can see no benefit in the experience. I’m still as neurotic about heights, but now also struggling not to become completely agoraphobic. So much for self-improvement . . .
The more successfully diverting parts of my journey mostly had to do with the region’s wildlife. Episodes with bear, mountain lions, elk, and moose were satisfying encounters with the Other Than, and, being on foot, were also dangerous enough to underscore my view of Nature as brutal entropy in glamorous drag; a serial killer with a deceptively charming surface. For me, Nature is Tony Perkins in a lushly Technicolor version of Psycho (to best convey all those sunsets)–really nice right up until you step into the shower. Just like mountain lions are majestically nice right up until you find yourself surrounded by scat embedded with feathers, smell the ammonia waves of cat piss and slowly–very slowly–look up (do not turn your back, do not crouch and do not run) . . .
Not that there’s anything wrong with this. Perkins the Mountain Lion is merely doing (or attempting to do) what Perkins does. Perkins has an admirable purity going for him: Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, Perkins gotta eat me (though mind the iPhone, Perkins; I waited in line too long for it to end up embedded in tomorrow’s scat). Perkins’ big-cat life is a perfectly straight through-line from his jaws to the pulsing carotid in my neck. He is without nuance–just like the natural world that surrounds him.
And here, at last, is what I like about Nature: Its lack of agendas. Paradoxically, however, this is also why I have no artistic use for it: Going hand-in-hand with my preference for large cities is a fascination with humanity’s bedecked selfishness. Perkins doesn’t have a string of divorces behind him, and to rationalize them, he’s not reading Smart Predators, Stupid Choices; Perkins has no passive carefully wrapped around his tooth-and-claw aggression; Perkins doesn’t network or politick; Perkins doesn’t manipulate, he merely pounces if the opportunity presents itself; and in the twilight of his big-cat years, Perkins will be guiltless about his savage, red-meat life–there will be no mid-life crisis and, thank god, he will not reimagine himself as a vegetarian. All this makes me want to hang-out with Perkins (albeit at a safer distance), but not write about him.
Each of us is our own spin doctor–we have a deep need to remain the hero of our respective lives, and so we’re constantly riding the gain of self-serving rationalization. Our life-narratives are naturally sloppy things because lurking just below the careful civility and sociality is a Perkins-esque through-line that passes from desire to possession, and it severs anything caught in the middle–particularly the through-lines of others. Happiness; stability; lifestyle; love; material things; spiritual satisfaction; validity; freedom; the perfect job; the perfect family; brain-melting sex: Take your pick–each ultimately arrays itself along the line between desire and possession. Though we will never admit it, there’s often a single degree of separation between us and the mountain lion–we’ve merely learned to lie to others and ourselves.
Be it ever so grim, this is what I write about–our endless streams of often conflicting self-narratives and our endless patching of the frequent holes in their logic and decency. Hero-as-martyr, hero-as-victim, hero-without-a-choice, hero-annointed by destiny: After-the-fact and by necessity, there are many ways to explain the unavoidable and often subtle carnage we cause–the feathers in the scat we leave behind. Marianne Faithfull once sang, ‘Beyond a certain age, every artist works with injury,’ and I’m inclined to agree with her.
I’ve never believed in objectivity, even as child; I’m simply not wired that way. But as I’ve grown older, even the idea of varying degrees of tarnished truth seem increasingly less likely. Perhaps it’s simply occupational disease, given the daily struggle with my book, but I’ve come to see that we’re all just our latest self-revisions, the momentary sum of our constantly morphing delusions. Let’s put this another way: Though I ought to know better, I sometimes introduce new material in these late revisions of the novel–and doing so forces me to pour through the earlier sections, tweaking for continuity or consistency in metaphors. Like a stage magician, I work backwards from the latest effect. And, I think, this is what we all do with our lives–it’s the real function of memory, which is why recollection is the central subject and driver of the book. We are constantly adjusting the past to account for the present; the only parameters being preservation of personal continuity and our status as indisputable hero of the our respective stories.
And so, yes, when it came to taking a break from the book, I temporarily inserted myself into an agenda-less world. See it as a much needed exile from my material. A day spent tagging along with a herd of elk didn’t resolve into fire-illuminated, furious scribbling in a Moleskine. Remarkably, it didn’t even result in many photographs–probably fewer than 30 shots for my entire time in the Rockies. Being artistically unmoved by Nature doesn’t preclude briefly intense and intimate interactions, but they’re inherently fleeting and intensely private; pulling out a camera usually felt as out-of-place as it would be during lovemaking. Roy Batty says this in Blade Runner:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time . . . like tears in rain . . . Time to die.
Roy’s last-moment epiphany is an understanding that memory is both self-defining and ephemeral; a cupped handful of experience that inevitably slips through the fingers and back into the coursing stream of reality. And this is pretty much how I felt about all those sunsets, waterfalls and mist-filled valleys: You people wouldn’t believe what I saw; their significance is too personal to be pixelated as a digital image. Better to allow them to slip back into the rush of time . . .