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Policy Details in Poetic Rythms Posted on August 29th

how did Hawthorne feel mid-stamp?

I’ve been away from this blog for a while because of a job that pulls me daily out of the realm of art and ideas. In this, I am in good company. Hawthorne–and Clement Greenburg, for that matter–worked in Customs, stamping shipments of “annatto, and cigar-boxes, and bales of all kind of dutiable merchandise…” Wallace Stevens spent most of his life as an insurance agent, and it is a common narrative that writers and artists often toil in menial jobs before the slow-on-the-uptake world gets wise to their talent.

But even though my daily life is pretty antithetical to art (I.e. much of my job involves enforcing rules and maintaining order–not exactly in line with the effects of good art), a review in last Sunday’s New York Times got me thinking about how art interacts–or should interact–with the white noise of everyday living. The review is of James Woods’ How Fiction Works, a stodgy and retrograde tribute to the craft of fiction if you trust the reviewer Walter Kirn. Kirn presents Woods as a preening holdout of art with a capital A, a man who still believes in fiction as a realm that can and should hold itself primly away from the vulgarities of the everyday. Wood focuses on formal meticulousness and fine-combed sentences as the crux of the art of fiction, a concentration which Kirn feels leaves no room for the more sprawling, “messy” works of authors like Thomas Phycheon and Mark Twain. Wood’s exclusion of these works is beyond simply preferring more tightly built fiction, however. Kirn points out that Woods does not like fiction that lets too much of the world in:

Conversely, the folks who spoil the experiment are David Foster Wallace types who let themselves be distracted and overwhelmed by the roar of the streets, the voices of the crowd. Wallace, to whom Wood grants the dubious honor of being one of his book’s few aesthetic villains, is accused of “obliterating” his characters’ voices in an unpleasing, “hideously ugly” attempt to channel cultural chaos rather than filter, manipulate or muffle it. For the vicarish Wood, sequestered in his chamber, part of the fiction writer’s true vocation appears to be acoustic regulation — the engineering of a mental space in which literary whispers can be heard.

 This last sentence is of particular interest. Should writers and artists “engineer a mental space where literary whispers can be heard” or should they instead recreate the noise that drowns them out? Woods seems to prefer works that allows a character’s worldview to develop almost unimpeded by the world itself. There are no grating jobs, household chores, petty dramas, traffic jams, paperwork, ect. that are fit to intrude on the poetic absorption of experience. If such fixtures of life are included in fiction, Woods prefers they be presented with nuance and virtuosic prose–in other words, they should be disabled by artistic sensibility. For writers like Foster Wallace, however, the detritus of life is presented in its complete and obliterating truth.

To put this in another way, there are two main ways a character might interact with the world. In one way (the fiction Woods prefers), the character (or narrator) is uncommonly resistant to smallness and minutia. There is a beauty/moral imperative/philosophical concept in every thing they see. No detail is without color and character, and the narrator and/or protagonist is incapable of describing even the dullest of scenes without a poetic wash. Essentially, this type of character achieves what so many of us aspire to: a kind of sweepingly insightful, seen-from-above perspective of the world, regardless of whatever slights and stresses we might personally suffer. James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man might be two examples. In these works, there is nothing in the world that is small, because there is nothing but largess in the teller.

Part of the appeal of this type of art is that it is able to elaborate what in life must be brief; it develops thoughts and impressions in a way real life does not allow. What older person hasn’t thought back to a past passion or opportunity they let pass, and wondered on the alternate life they would be living had they pursued it? What young person does not look ahead to the span of years and wonder when they would be secure enough (a fantasy!) to develop their ideas or aspirations? The future or missed experiences aren’t really the point–it’s the is a sense that there is not enough experience itself in the here-and-now of life, hence the need to speculate on the past or future. A lived existence is a like a skipping stone only intermittently wet with full experience. Art can be like a river rock, seeing everything that floats by from a steady vantage.

The other kind of art portrays a character in a more vulnerable relation to his or her world. In these works, the cyclical routines of daily life are recounted as they dull the fine edges off a sensibility. What is the world but infinite distractions? For some writers, the thwarted, half-subsumed consciousness that exterior stimulus and responsibilities creates is a story in itself. Kirn mentions Huck Finn and Foster Wallace’s work as examples of writing that interweaves life’s background noise into the very telling of the tale. In these stories, the world is presented as a flat plane, with the landscape and figure given equal weight.

But what’s more useful in art? What’s more real? Works that linger in experience in a way that we have neither the time nor energy nor spirit to do in real life? That allow a voice to develop unencumbered by the crush of drab realities? Or those that show the subjugation of self to everyday realities, drab or otherwise? Both of these approaches assert a belief about consciousness. One imagines that a sensibility can stand up to even the most numbing parts of life–that Hawthorne’s imagination sparkled with every box he stamped at the custom house and that Stevens outlined policy details with his clients in muscular poetic rhythms (a fun thing to try to imagine, actually). The other seems to imagine consciousness as a notch in the shore, where polluted waters flow in and out, swirling in today’s contaminants with yesterdays trash and then cycling the whole mess out to allow the next to rush in. A person is a the sum of the flow, not the space they take up empty.

Of course, the reality of consciousness is probably not something art can or should speak of conclusively. What interests me is the dichotomy set up in the NYT review between the artistic sensibility, filtering life through aesthetics, and a passive tabula rasa inner life, constantly subject to the shifts of the exterior. Neither way of being in real life seems to hold sway–there are times when the world seems under the command of the intellect and imagination (perhaps when making or experiencing art) and times when a task seems the sum of consciousness (the loss of self that comes with entering data into a computer or assembling the same object over and over.) Yet each time a person is one mode, the other seems entirely unreal. Its hard to imagine the blank feeling of menial work when swept up in big ideas and larger truths. Likewise, its almost impossible to feel like there are any big ideas or truths or anything else when in the flattened dimensions of work. These two types of being seem to cancel one another out entirely, yet neither can boast a dominion over the mind. This phenomenon of inner life is both everday and profoundly strange–a combination that makes for the best fiction.

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