Nothing like distracting myself from my imminent novel deadline by reading Artaud and Guattari and then having to shout at myself—out loud—to put down the copy of A Thousand Plateaus and just get to fucking work already. And now here I am, writing into this box instead of the novel box.
In the introduction to Watchfiends & Rack Screams, Clayton Eshleman points out that Artaud’s life conforms to the shamanic journey, popularly referred to in Hollywood and in comparative religion studies as the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell popularized his idea of the monomyth (a word borrowed from Finnegans Wake, which is arguably Campbell’s favorite work of literature), and now Clayton has shown that even the life of a madman—especially the life of a madman—follows the patterns. What Artaud’s shamanic journey lacked, though, was a vital role in keeping his community together.
Now, with philosophers like Deleuze & Guattari ingesting & transforming Artaud’s work into a total philosophical shitstorm of radical analyses and practical methods, maybe Artaud’s view of the world and its pains will have the last laugh, as far as artistic prophecy goes. The world certainly feels crazier every day. Find a person alive that would argue otherwise.
It’s interesting to me that Campbell—who labored his entire life to find the connective spirit in the world’s body of myth/self-narration—would key into Finnegans Wake so much. I love Finnegans Wake. It’s one of those books that I could rave about for hours and hours, and often have, to the distress of anyone around me with ears. But Campbell’s love makes makes sense in a way, in that Joyce compresses so much cultural information, and with such an angle of play and pun and humor, that it would be an unlocked treasure chest for a guy as erudite and open as Campbell. I love the book because of what it does to me, and what I think it’s meant to do. The book takes the rhythms of speech and reminds you that they exist. It brings the music back to communication. Although, I wonder: If Finnegans Wake was translated into Swahili (lord god, I wouldn’t want that job), would the primarily West Germanic and Gaelic rhythms of the book—in its massive use of English and Irish—would they work in Bantu’s structure?
One of my oldest friends and I are engaged in an argument that has lasted about a decade. Our positions, crudely stated: He thinks narrative is a salve, I think it’s a war crime. Of course, we both oscillate between these two feelings, but he more often embraces Story as a Very Important Human Endeavor, while I often think that Story and our brain’s over-reliance on peeing neat little streams of causality on everything is Ultimately Bad, and Will Be The Death Of Us. Trademarks pending.
This is a roundabout way of pointing back at myself and the novel I’m currently avoiding. It is strictly chronological. Mostly. It is narratively comprehensible. Mostly. It’s structurally complicated, but definite in its shape. It feels like a puzzle. I’ve had a hard time with it, because it also dwells in reality. Mostly. I haven’t written anything with such strict limitations and such deep ambitions, in lockstep. It might never see the light of day. Who knows.
Reading Artaud and Guattari, and rereading Straw Dogs, has reminded of a question that I’ve posed to a bunch of friends in the last couple years. It’s this: Because of humanity’s glut of existing and accessible culture, and our ecological precariousness, might it be better to stop making new culture and instead live a life that is as quiet and non-generative as possible? In simpler terms: If there is too much of everything, shouldn’t the next few generations stop making more of everything? Wouldn’t that be a noble sacrifice? This is the question that is posed and radically answered in A Task. But unlike the central presence of the novel, I don’t think suicide is a viable answer to any problem, except the outstanding experiences of excruciating pain, as addressed by people like Dr. Kevorkian.
But every person I’ve put this question to—every artist—has blanched. People that normally will entertain the wildest notions do not want to touch this idea. And I get it. Who in the hell wants to be told that it’s bad to do the thing they most want to do? Especially when it’s something as benign as making and sharing art.
My answer to this question, when I question myself (which is often): Art is about the only domain left we can inhabit without the possibility of hurting people. Its potential to improve someone’s life is intense and private, and its potential to vitally wound someone is slight and singular. (Insert counterpoint.) The most common ill side effect: You waste someone’s attention. Which isn’t harmless, but I’d still rather waste someone’s attention than their health, wealth, or abilities. Art seems like a little pyramid scheme, but the capital is instead attention and imagination. (SECOND DRAFT EDIT: Nice domains that tangibly save lives? Firefighting. Nursing. Be a surgeon, or a social worker. Ken: Please keep inhabiting your little fancy flitty art world, you dummy.)
Apologies if you’ve read this far and have already read writing from me that moves into these ideas. I don’t claim novelty, or the ability to not repeat myself. Yet.
Goodnight and goodmorning.
I just wrote this in a response to this, and I’m reposting it here because it feels right:
I’m going to use numbers here because it’s late and I’m zonked.
1. Time is the greatest hero and greatest villain to culture. 99%+ of what’s been published in the last ten years, small press or big press, is not going to be actively read in the future. I don’t think this changes with the more history-agnostic platform of the internet in any deep way, except that maybe there will be a wider dispersion of niche audiences for single titles (which has already happened), and an expansion of culture’s “fat tails” — the stuff that, for whatever reason, gets found and revived and finds a huge audience, will have an even larger potential audience as access to the internet expands.
1A. Book reviews, except in the NYT, do not sell many books.
2. I chalk the advertising inadequacy of small publishers up to two main reasons: they disdain advertising, and they don’t know how to sell shit/make shit look interesting. The whole “lack of resources” thing sorta goes out the window, as anyone with a web browser can find & see shit at whim — although, advertising campaigns do cost money, and money is something that most small presses don’t have (beyond production costs). I blame myself for the disdain of advertising thing, and have tried (with various shades of success) to circumvent that by promoting a book in a mysterious way (as with Mooney), or a way that fits the content (as with Confessions) or with a collaborative art project on the side (as with The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover). But, as the super wise Mark Leidner once said — or said something like this — the poets of the future will master the poetry of advertising (HELLO STEVE ROGGENBUCK).
3. The thing that I think about THE MOST is ecology. And, because I love and make and write and sell books, I think about the ecology of culture. I feel that’s something that isn’t considered; there’s a taboo to it. Every time I bring up the ethical implications of publishing something in this day and age — asking for attention (an increasingly strip mined resource) for a cultural object, let’s say a book, amid the hundreds of thousands of books IN ENGLISH published EVERY YEAR — let alone the massive treasures of past, time-tested classics, works in translation, etc. — every time I bring this up, the artist I’m talking to sort of flinches, scared of the idea’s inevitable conclusion — that, right now in America, as an American, HELL, even as a white dude that’s not a criminal or radical dissident or that doesn’t totally inhabit some fringe of society that is underrepresented in literature — that maybe publishing is unethical. Ecologically wasteful. Etc.
4. It all boils down to suicide. Silence. Omission. (Fucking Camus was no dummy.)
5. I’ll start to slow down here, and just sum up the only stuff that is empirically true to me, all that subjective glory — I write because it feels good, and I also love & fetishize literature and its capacities. I publish books because I love & fetishize books, and I love supporting writers, and I love designing objects. I don’t LOVE selling objects, but I do love the response of a reader, and I understand that in order to grab that amazing, transcendant art-transformation (that AWAKENING, no less than an awakening), I have to sell some fucking books.
6. Is it right? Who knows. We have not eyes long enough. I’ll leave the zooming out to the god I don’t claim to know a thing about, if there is one.
7. In this way, we are all a bit reckless. But to know that, and to still pay as much attention as we can to what we do and how we do it, and most importantly, who we do it for… that’s as transcendant as it gets.