Monday, October 31, 2016

authentic words

I often think of . . . liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.

-- Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm*

words, words, words

-- Hamlet, II. ii.

I'm figuring out how to write. Been figuring it out most of my life. Most of the time I was wrong.

Why do I care?

It seems like a fight with myself. Or maybe a fight for myself. Maybe a quest. To find. Discover. Become. What? the thing I'm going to be when I actually exist. When I grow up. Yes, that's the ticket, when I grow up then I'll be a real boy, and then I can drive the car and operate machinery and order a martini, and when I speak people will listen, o yes then I won't be just a kid, I'll be the real thing, a genuine article.

Genuine. True. Authentic. Yes, that's the word. Authentic. At least, it's the word I've been using the last couple of years. The word that, when someone I trust applies it to me, turns on my water-works. The word by which I can be manipulated. "You're strange, but you're authentic." The key to my heart.

I've pursued this thing in three ways. I tried to live in the theatre some way for a quarter century. More recently I've spent a decade being formed as a counselor. But all my life I've been trying to write, even when I couldn't.

People ask me how I came from the theatre to counseling, as if it were a contradiction, and I say that they're two different searches for authenticity.

In a theatre you pretend that you're worth looking at, and if you pretend truly they look at you. The main thing is honesty, fake that and you've got it made said many a sage. The semiologists teach us that every sign of truth can verify a lie. If you lift your eyebrow when you lie, stop lifting your eyebrow.

The best approach to truth in the looking-glass of illusion is the via negativa. Learn what's false and put it away. Repeat. Keep learning many falsehoods and putting them away. What's left is more likely to be true. And what is this falsehood, this truth, false or true to? To the thing, the place, the plot, the illusion at hand in the play, the Spiel, the commedia, the bit, the act. Take away what distracts from that, and we might have something.

I was trained to find the falsehoods in myself, the things I brought with me that were not the play, the Spiel, the commedia -- my assumptions, attitudes, neuroses parasitically feeding off the terror of the stage, obscuring the authentic illusion. Learn what's false. Put it away. Repeat.

In counseling, we track our attachments and antipathies: is the client before me just like my sweet old auntie? the mother I wish I had? the cheater who betrayed me? We also track the attachments and antipathies of the client toward ourselves: am I in their eyes a son? a lost husband? a huckster who sold nostrums? We learn, with the help of our teachers, to notice and disarm, contain, bracket these transferences and counter-transferences. We note our assumptions: we're too fast or slow, too loud or soft, too white or nouveau ethnique -- we name these patterns to get a handle on them, lift them out of the way so that the client's truth will shine. Learn what's false. Put it away. Repeat.

And words demand their own authenticity. I was brought up among books, not just picture books but big thick books jammed with print, books in many languages, books that I knew were for the grownups and not for me yet and therefore sooner or later but not much later I would grow into. I was also brought up among poems and songs, rhymes and rhythms of speech -- olympic vocabulary contests, spoonerisms and puns.

Language seemed like a road from childhood to adulthood. The shy boy might come out into the world on a thruway of words. Writing seemed a way of being somebody. But who was the shy boy to be?

At first you try on many voices, like old clothes in a thrift store. Scripture, Milton, Orwell, Kerouac, Frost, Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Joseph Conrad, John Steinbeck, the bard . . . And then you discover how your sentence lights up on the fuel of anger. You turn all your school papers to rage so that your prose can burn with a hard light. You're a sullen, secretly angry person. Angry is happy. Angry is real. You're trying to grow up, but you're stuck in adolescence, because if you can't be shouting at the elders, the system, the cosmic conspiracy to irritate you, then you can't find the words.

Then you grow up into the academy, where you're supposed to write, but in a particular way. A man who had never published taught me how to write for academic publication. When I had absorbed his teaching, I was silent for a decade, for he took my voice away. If the words had to follow those rules, they would not come to mind. I could not find the words. No words about the shifts and shadows, wisps and breaths, of theatrical illusion -- which in those days was what I had to write about. If I was to write at all.

Then came the deconstructionists -- the imitators of a French philosopher whose greatest horror was ism of any kind -- and every article in every humanistic field must be written in a tangle of neologisms: clunking cinderblock terms that, if dumped into one's writing, were proofs of currency and profundity. The new vocabulary was the certified antidote for logocentrism, phallocentrism, colonialism, imperialism, and hegemonic aggression. So powerful were these words that I adopted them myself. I rewrote my drafts in fast imitation of Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco, and became a published scholar. I had learned the power of those words.

I'm not a scholar. I started this project eight years ago, and I don't have to please anyone but myself. I just have to keep it honest. I'm doing better than I've done before, the proof being that I can look at some of those entries from eight years ago without feeling ill. I'm pursuing authenticity, hunting down extraneous words and syllables and letters, striking out the things I don't really have to say, eschewing explanation that obscures the thought. It's via negativa. Find what's false. Put it away. Repeat.

I dropped out for a year, but it wasn't a good year. It was a year when I got tired and sick, and let the job overpower the work. I had to give myself a shake, and get back to the task. The last few months are a new thing, closer to the bone, with firmer adherence to life and to death. Behold! I'm doing a new thing, don't you see it? said the Lord in Isaiah's prophecy. But it's the same thing, always new. Find what's false. Put it away. Repeat.

*(New York: Harper Colophon, 1977), p. 59.

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Sunday, October 16, 2016

enough life

If I were going to sell my soul, I think I'd nurture it carefully for a few years, so that it would fetch a good price.

-- Garrison Keillor*

When I was one-and-twenty
       I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
       But not your heart away ..."

-- A. E. Housman

I am not one-and-twenty. It's time I should give my heart away.

   My aunt, my deceased father's older sister, died in Oregon this summer. On the day before her ninety-seventh birthday, Carol and I talked to her. She was glad to hear from us; she asked how old I was becoming, and when I told her she paused and said, "That's incredible." Clear in her head, and able to laugh, she decided she had had enough of life, and declined nourishment. You can do that in Oregon.

Photo by Baldassarre Farnaccio
Why does one say, I've had enough? What is the reason of it? One can say the words bitterly, as if to say Enough! No more pain and suffering! Stop it now! We have techniques these days to relieve gross pain, but perhaps it's the trade-off between medications and side-effects, clouding of the mind or the emotions: Enough! This isn't life, I've already lost myself. Perhaps it is not gross pain but a piling on of little humiliations by the aging body, sapping the strength and souring  the joy, forbidding ordinary pleasures by which life knew itself. Enough! I've had better, why live with an inferior copy? I think my aunt said the word enough in a positive sense; she had experienced enough of the good to justify her time on the earth: decades of marriage to a kind and loving man, children and grandchildren, and ninety-seven Christmases -- perhaps it could not be improved: why stay on a ride that can only go down hill?

But the last reason of Enough! is the one I fear. I've heard it said about many old people, that "everyone she knew and loved is gone." If I felt like that, I'd want to go.

So now the time is coming when, to stay alive, I must distribute myself. You, my friends of long standing; you, the wise and witty partner of my life; you, my children; you, my siblings and their children; this is time for me to give you the attention you deserve. But there is another network of attachment that forms and reforms without stopping. There is no safety on an island of the old. It's an inverse proportion: as you get older, more of your new friends will be, must be younger than you. Old friends have a past that you can share; young ones have a future you can look forward into. A contemporary of mine said that one should have a friend for every decade, which at my age means that, if I take her advice literally, this boomer must have millennial friends -- which is to say, people some of whom could by arithmetic be my grandchildren.

That idea seems a bit comical. Old fools are generally more ridiculous than young ones. But the time is past for cultivation and protection. The heart must be broken up and pieces given away, in faith that the feeling organ still has capacity to restore itself, and there is a special intoxication in passing those pieces across the gap of age, much risk of misunderstanding and much reward. The younger may describe the reward as wisdom and mentorship; the older as renewal of life and confirmation that one is not a total fool, that one's struggle has some meaning for those who have not shared it. It's not a simple matter: as the poets have told us, when you give pieces of your heart away they can be broken, no less for the old than for the young. Old age, they say, ain't for sissies.

They call this generativity, and it's a way of staying alive until you die. In my day the gym teacher used to say no pain no gain, but not all pain is gainful, and not all gain is painful. It's more like this: no chance of pain, no chance of life.

*My paraphrase of a passage from a GK monologue

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