Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Nature and Contempt, Holy Fear and Hogwash

The time: just after Christmas, 2006.

The place: Taiwan, somewhere between Taipei and Taroko Gorge. 

My soft city ass was in the back of a car that didn’t seem to be in perfect working condition.  The car was traveling the winding, uphill roads along the side of a mountain.  Cassandra was beside me looking equally terrified.  In the front seat was a friend with whom I no longer speak and, to his right, his soon to be ex (I later learned that they were more or less broken up at the time but stayed together for the sake of our company).  The driver, which is what we’ll call him, seemed to be taking the curves rather quickly.  Taiwanese drivers like to pass each other, and the driver had no problem doing likewise.  If a car moved too slowly for his liking he gunned it, swerved into the opposite lane, and passed the other car.  The driver surely knew that no oncoming vehicle was approaching, but, not being in control, I couldn’t be so sure. 

To the right I saw a craggy mountainside that could have shredded the car like a cheese grader shreds Gouda.  To the left was the wide expanse of the Pacific Ocean.  We were pretty fucking high up.  The slightest veer might have sent us to a watery grave.  Of course, there were no guardrails.  (Later, after dark, we had to stop the car.  Falling rocks, the police said.  Twenty minutes later, the rocks were cleared and the cops told us we could proceed.  The rocks were cleared from the road, though there was no guarantee more wouldn’t fall from above.)

Before long, I was in the fetal position.  My heart raced and my thoughts zoomed from one bloody scenario to another.  And as I was wrestling with my mortality, the driver’s (ex)girlfriend, a sandal-wearing hippie chick with blonde dreadlocks and blue overalls, asked me if I love nature.  Being French-Canadian, her accent made the already strange question sound downright ridiculous.  I thought my terror was obvious, but maybe she couldn't tell.  In my typically smart-ass way, which I, unlike the rest of the world, find hilarious, I answered: “No, nature bores me.” 

As I was visibly scared shitless, the response was supposed to be the sort of deadpan ironic remark that Bill Murray would use to raise a dry smile.  I was curled up in a ball, for Christ’s sake.  She did not laugh.  Blame my poor delivery or maybe the cultural barrier. 

The rest of the trip was wonderful.  Sleeping in an empty room above a church, hiking through hills and spotting monkeys in trees, walking through a cave and waterfall—it was all very beautiful.  But I felt much better when we got back to Taipei. 

Taipei stank in places.  It was dirty.  There were people everywhere and stray dogs that lived on scraps.  The exhaust from the buses and cars and scooters was thick.  Most pedestrians wore masks over their mouths and noses.  The clutter of buildings was overwhelming and at times I was sure that I was lost.  Mastering the public trains presented a unique set of challenges. The map was strange, the spider web of lines leading who knows where.

I was much happier in the city among all the chaos.  But that’s just it: the chaos of man’s creation makes a certain sense to me.  The chaos of nature is infinitely scarier.  It has rules that I cannot always fathom.  It’s out of my hands.  It’s fucking frightening. 


When I was a wee little fucker, I used to go camping.  Well, my family used to go camping.  I went with.  What choice did I have?  

 I enjoyed it, or at least I recall enjoying it.  The memories I have are of the good times: the family and friends sitting around the campfire singing along to the radio, Maverick, my aunt and uncle’s enormous German Shepherd, running wild through the camp grounds, and, of course, s’mores. 

But now I think that I only remember the good times because that’s what I want to remember.  Surely I had fun, but the sleeping on the ground part doesn’t conjure up anything good.  I barely remember it, which is probably not an accident. 

Just after high school, I went camping with some friends.  It was a miserable weekend.  It rained the entire time.  It was cold.  In an attempt to warm up, I tried Jack Daniels for the first time, using it to wash down a nearly raw steak cooked over a weak fire.  I threw up that first night, the half-digested steak and whiskey making quite a mess on the wet ground.  The next morning, I slipped in my own sick.  My tent wouldn’t stay up.  I ended up sleeping in the backseat of my friend’s car.  It was warmer and, I figured, safer.  As a child I never considered all the things in nature that might kill me, animals highest among them.  No longer that naïve, I was petrified of the bears and wolves I imagined roamed the woods at night (not to mention the serial killers).  The car, an unnatural machine in the middle of the forest, felt safe. 


Like a lot of stupid men, I read Walden at a fairly young age and thought it might be great to someday leave society and live in a shack in the woods.  And then I saw The Simpsons.  Homer imagines what lofty thoughts he might have were he to live in such a manner.  His journal was dedicated to how much he missed TV. 

This idealistic view of nature and the simple life strikes me as absurd.  It’s no different than the primitivism movement in art that always bored me.  I’ve never liked the noble savage idolization, the idea that mechanized society is somehow too removed from nature and must be cured with doses of simple wisdom from people who live in the wild. 



Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, he lived alone in the woods.


As great as trees are, and they are great, I prefer skyscrapers.  And campfires are cool, sure, but I’ll trade them for a lifetime of central heat and air conditioning.  You know what else is rather wonderful?  Indoor plumbing. 


Another great Simpsons moment: Homer is going to climb a large mountain called the Murderhorn.  His sponsor, voiced by Brendan Fraser, refers to the quest as a symbol of man’s contempt for nature. 

And that’s just it.  Man does have a certain level of contempt for nature.  Contempt and awe and fear.  Nature keeps us in check.  When we get a bit too big for our britches, Mother Nature is there to remind us that we do not own the world, we are merely renting.  And for this we must respect Mother Nature.  She’s our landlord.  But don’t we all hate landlords? 

(No offense, R.C.)

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Not on My Watch

Poetry Magazine, a publication that has rejected me time and again (hoo hum), was nice enough to publish my letter in response to some E. E. Cummings bashing in a recent issue.  Read it here. I honestly can't believe Michael Robbins wrote what he did, tossing the ball right over the damn plate.  It's like he was begging someone to respond with the obvious insult.  Well, I was happy to oblige. 

Lars Iyer, Manifestos, Benchley, and the Inspiring Abyss

I'm nearly done with book one of my Jerzy Kosinski marathon (The Painted Bird, a true vision of hell), and I did promise myself I would read three more of his works in order to be truly acquainted with this writer, but I am itching to read Lars Iyer's trilogy Spurious, Dogma, and Exodus, all published by Melville House, one of the best presses in the country. 

In the meantime, I'll whet my appetite with this, Iyer's manifesto, published a while back but, you know, with all the other books, blogs, bits, and bytes bombarding me, not to mention cable and movies and, sometimes, work, I'm late to the game.  A friend once told me that writing manifestos in the age of Facebook seemed silly, and sure, I can understand that stance, but this manifesto does raise some very interesting points, though I might suggest that Iyer's condemnation of a culture that overproduces imitations of literature and publishes more books than there are readers is not unlike his claim that these works ape each other, as his criticism, though spot fucking on, is not all that new.  Robert Benchley said as much in the 1920s. 

As gloomy as this all might sound for would-be writers, critics, editors, and anyone interested in the world of books, physical or otherwise, I find Iyer's manifesto oddly inspiring.  Yes, we are on the precipice, but I happen to like the view.  In this state of reiteration and emulation, I find anything is still possible, and while I would never be dumb enough to try to create a masterpiece, I do realize that any day now someone might and that, fuck it, why not be vain enough to scribble some thoughts from time to time.  In short: Sodom is doomed to fall, but that's no reason not to enjoy the party.

Anyway, the manifesto is useful, thought provoking, funny, and provides perhaps the best advice I've ever seen for aspiring writers.  Sad, true, and duly noted. Give it a read.  What else do you have to do?