Archive for the ‘Literary Musings’ Category

This morning I woke up thinking about Houdini.  (Who doesn’t?)  Houdini the Escape Artist,  who made theater out of mortal danger and its destruction.  There is something sexual in the tension built by watching him or present-day magicians struggle with coils of rope or chain underwater, for instance.  The heart is racing for him; one finds oneself holding one’s breath.   Then, ah, the moment of release–the flooding triumph  as he comes up for air.  And all the while he has looked placid, while we have squirmed and squinted with anxiety.  There is an allure to these tricks, and an artistry to pulling them off for audiences.

But is it really escape that is the art of these antics?  To return to the sexual analogy, I think not:  no more than great lovemaking is measured by the orgasm.  If escape were the art being pursued, we would experience nearly the same thrill watching a woman escape from a pair of handcuffs as we do watching her escape from a iron cage, soldered shut as it hangs on a fraying rope over boiling water.  This kind of artistry is based on the aesthetic of danger, not on the aesthetic of escape itself.

Escapism is not supposed to be good for us, spiritually speaking.  It’s especially not good for addicts like me, who have spent large chunks of our lives retreating from realities.  One image of the alcoholic is of a selfish, and eventually resentful, dreamer who does not have the spiritual fortitude (or, more mildly, the spiritual tools) to face reality.  Is it therefore stubborn recidivism in me that asks, quite seriously, “What’s so great about reality?” Is it blind, selfish, and egocentric to champion the retreat from reality as spiritually necessary?

The problem of escapism as a spiritual or ethical strategy is that it evokes Houdini, rather than Daedalus, most of the time.  Houdini had always to “up the ante” in his tricks, like a gambling addict seeking higher and higher stakes or increasingly dangerous odds. These aesthetics are morbid.  As Houdini’s own end illustrates, the question is never if but when.  The point wasn’t escape; the point was that one day he wouldn’t.  Analogously, I confess I have found nothing sexy in the escalation of alcoholism, no matter how aesthetically a biographer might one day have posthumously painted my liquid game of Russian roulette.

Houdini, the alcoholic, the gambler:  these escape artists aren’t really interested in escape, only in the envelope-pushing that will one day erase the necessity for escape.

The real escape artists are not interested in envelopes and limit-pushing but in the distance from reality their starship imaginations can give them.  I mentioned Daedalus because of his early modern iconographic status as one kind of artist, just as Icarus is another (the one who flies too high).  In Renaissance terms, Daedalus escapes the dangers, but does not over-test his limits:  the image of playing it safe as opposed to the high-flyers who are interesting to watch for a while but who crash and burn.  I also bring up Daedalus because you can’t bring up Daedalus without Stephen Daedalus.  And that gets me to James Joyce.  And that gets me where I want to go.

Through the autobiographical projection, Stephen Daedalus, Joyce didn’t embrace a “play it safe” attitude at all, but I can’t imagine how he might sneer at the AA slogan, “life on life’s terms” or “god on god’s terms.”  Joyce didn’t want to play those reindeer games:  “reality,” as most people define it, was to Joyce an artistic snare.  Ireland itself, moreover, was not so much a Minotaur’s maze as a it was the Isle of Circe, capable of domesticating artists into serviceable swine.   The Irish artists of his day were pressed into political service one by one, including Yeats and Dion Boucicault and a dozen others.  “Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow,”  says Stephen to a friend who admonishes him to “take life on life’s terms”:  “Ireland, first, Stevie.  You can be a poet or mystic after.”

Stephen’s ethical response to these deadly sirens was to employ “the only arms I allow myself to use–silence, exile, and cunning.”  These sound like ignoble implements unless you’ve ever tried to use only them as a response to life.  The only shame about Joyce, as opposed to his character Stephen, is that silence, exile, and cunning came with a tall whiskey chaser.

The tools of escape–cunning, exile, silence–permit distance from a world that does not permit the artist to breathe.  It is no mere accident of autobiography or history that Stephen/Joyce toys for so long with the idea of taking orders.  It was one kind of retreat that was, in the last issue, another snare.  But the vocation to be apart from the world is what the novel emphasizes in Stephen’s religious peregrinations.

AA is its own world apart, of course.  My fellow AAs and I say all the time of what happens in the rooms and halls:  “You could only hear that here” or “No where does this happen but here.”  Because of AA’s emphasis on spirituality as the “cure” for alcoholism, many AAs approach meetings with a  reverence (or greater reverence) that they might reserve for a religious observance or rite.  We are set apart:  a notion underscored by the language of anonymity and secrecy embedded by the Twelve Traditions and by the closed nature of some meetings themselves.  “What is said here, stays here,” says the chair, followed by rapping knuckles on the tables and a murmured response of “here, here.”

Spiritual retreat, in the form of meditation and prayer, is practiced by most recovery programs.  The desire and necessity to escape the cares of the world, the pain and guilt and ugliness that sometimes (or even frequently) accompanies just getting up in the morning seems to me a healthy response.  More radically, the founder of Rational Recovery (which rejects on almost every level AA’s approach to alcoholism) claims that addiction itself is the function of a healthy body:  it is natural for the body to seek pleasure and avoid pain, to “escape”.  The problem is–according to this theory–that the source of pleasure becomes the creator of pain in alcoholics.  (I’ll leave aside most of my thoughts about RR and AVRT, its program of recovery.  I’ll simply say that a rational answer wasn’t what I was looking for at the bottom of a bottle.)

It’s no wonder that Keats in his “Ode to a Nightingale” first thinks of getting drunk as the antidote to his tuberculor fever.  He rejects it in favor of writing a poem, of course, but the Romantics in general fall into the Icaran category of artists.  Mary Shelley didn’t let them forget that.  Her Frankenstein is a punitive narrative of art-gone-wrong, as it chronicles the good doctor’s failure to escape the wrath of the creation for whom the author fails to take responsibility.  He is no escape artist, just an egocentric jackass.

I am currently reading May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude in the mornings, which is a study in the ethics of escape.  May Sarton is not 2/3 of the artist she thought she was, but I think she was definitely all the artist she could be, which is all anyone can ask, really.  She describes her retreat as both self-indulgent and painfully ascetic.  Interestingly, she adds at one point that she feels “like a house with no walls . . . . [W]hatever good effect my work may have comes . . . from my own sense of isolation and vulnerability.  The house is open in a way that no house where a family lives and interacts can be.”  Isolation is a blessing and a curse for Sarton, who by turns celebrates and bemoans her self-imposed exile.  Were she a genius, the angst and gaiety she records would be inspiring rather than peculiar.  She cannot laugh at herself, which is the greatest self-indulgence of all.

The great escape artists ultimately write (and perhaps live) in constant tragi-comedy.  They can always laugh.   More significantly, they do not “face” reality.  Instead they show us how to endure it, escape it, play with it, avoid it.  Samuel Beckett reigns supreme among the escape artists.  Reality in Beckett is in the four-to-eight second pauses, when the meaninglessness of life seems to threaten the chatty serenity of the characters.  But as long as the characters keep up a shell game of talk, nothing much seems to bother them.

I think about the way 8-10 year olds who still believe in Santa Claus mount defenses against the reality of his non-existence.  It’s spectacular to watch their minds at work on the problem of intractable physical and logical evidence.  It’s delightful.  I can imagine that is is only the worst Scrooges and Grinches who would want to drag these kids out of this belief.  The comic characters in Beckett refuse in the same way.  Didi and Gogo in Beckett’s most famous play play little games with language and meaning in order to avoid admitting that there is no Godot for whom to wait.  But without the wait, there lives would be meaningless.  As it is, they find spiritual fuel in the postponement of suicide:

Estragon:  You say we have to come back tomorrow?

Vladimir:  Yes.

Estragon:  Then we can bring a good bit of rope.

Vladimir:  Yes.


Estragon:  Didi.

Vladimir:  Yes.

Estragon:  I can’t go on like this.

Vladimir:  That’s what you think.

Estragon:  If we parted?  That might be better for us.

Vladimir:  We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow.  [Pause.] Unless Godot comes.

I wouldn’t tell Didi and Gogo that there’s no Godot anymore than I’d tell the nine-year-old about Santa.  I like to watch their escape from reality:  what is the good of looking at it, except that it would bring despair and suicide. The laugh I get from watching them is at my own expense.  My head is as much in the sand as theirs.

Didi and Gogo are also capable of empathy and tenderness towards one another–traits missing from their parallel characters, Pozzo and Lucky, whose relationship has devolved into sadomasochistic parody.  I think it is their ability to retreat constantly from reality that permits this tenderness:  the illusions  of hope and optimism create a space for selflessness that is impossible if the cruel facts of reality are laid bare.

This is why I am surprised sometimes that “dreamers” or “idealists” are so often labeled selfish.  Even the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous skirts this line a little, as it compares the alcoholic to the actor who wants to run the show (c.f. pp. 61-62).  The thirtieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death was just this month.  His fans thought him selfish for breaking up the most popular band on the planet.  His detractors thought him an irresponsible idealist who retreated into the equally blinding beds of Yoko Ono on the one hand and political radicalism on the other.  Yet it’s rare to see a more PUBLIC retreat than this one, or one that produced such global ripples.  Lennon, Beckett, Joyce:  they all knew the wisdom of dropping out, not only for sanity’s sake, but for the world’s.  Every spiritual adviser who has ever recommended solitude and meditation knows it too.

Fighting the world for the fight’s sake is an extreme sport in which I’m not interested.  It is too much reality, as Beckett notes everywhere in his drama and prose.   Nothing would ever be imagined outside that reality, either.  Even though I know the basic reasons why, I am always surprised that more women and persecuted minorities aren’t drawn toward writing science-fiction, for instance, which offers the promise of Utopian spaces ungoverned by the painful social an political realities of the present.  Without time spent away from reality–escaping it, in fact–I can’t think about it, confront it, and change it.  Constant immersion in so-called “reality”–life on life’s terms–is caustic, draining, and does little to foster in me the qualities of empathy and tenderness I wish to bring to others.

There is something to be praised in an unflinching gaze at the miasma of reality.  Some men (and it is almost always men) I have met in AA will praise a former sponsor (a kind of AA mentor with more sobriety) for his “tough love”–men who will tell the newly sober that they are (and I nearly quote) “a lying, selfish piece of shit who has about a three percent chance of living sober.”  This works for some people:  it appears to be what they need to stay sober.  But I have not noticed that it has necessarily brought kindness, sympathy, or love into the world, the things that one might stay sober to have.

To me, this sort of sobriety is not much better than the Houdini trick, however much it may scald itself heroically on the “truth” of alcoholic reality over and over.  It is only my strategic escapes, my deliberate rejections of reality as unchanging that allow me to say, in the words of Beckett’s greatest protagonist, the Unnamable:  “I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.”


I read a wordpress blog two days ago that gestured toward the underwhelming claim that poetry was dead.  Now, why every person who has ever mastered anything more complex than the five-paragraph essay feels entitled to drive nails into this century-old coffin is beyond me.  Virginia Woolf was the first, or one of the first eulogizers, who, in her disingenuous encouragement to young poets, felt the need to remind them that their poetry would never be as good as that written in the centuries before, nor would it be understood by contemporaries.  Having condemned the poets of her generation to uncelebrated mediocrity, Woolf got on with the serious business of writing fiction.  Since then, it’s been a funereal march down the byways of obsolescence for present-day versifiers.

The common wisdom is that we don’t like poetry now–as if teeming generations before us loved it j(literally, it seems, to extinction).  The better wisdom is that we don’t like poetry now because we are no longer trained to understand it.  Regardless, in terms of literary output and interest, the 20th and 21st centuries are the centuries of the novel, not the poem.  I’ve always thought this curious, given our soundbite culture.  You’d think that with our 30-second commercial-spot-trained brains, a 14-line sonnet would appeal more than a 350 page novel.  A good friend of mine explained this modern counter-intuition thus:  We crave stories, he said.  After Darwin yanked us out of the spiritual womb of creation, after Nietzsche put a stake in God’s heart, after Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes looked at each other a decided that even the author needed to be rubbed out, we have a need for narratives that continue to make sense of our fragmented, unhinged existences.  Or, to put it in Joan Didion’s words, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  Lyric poetry only captures an instant; it is not interested in fitting that instant into a pattern larger than itself.  This was and remains as good an explanation for the rise of the novel as I’ve ever heard.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”  I believe that.  So does every person who has ever been helped by AA or another 12-step program based on the AA model.  (more…)

At the beginning of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “A watchman, either drunk or too bundled up because of the freezing cold, had not heard a train being shunted and had been run over”  (64) as Anna departs the same train, having just met Alexei Vronsky, the man who would later become her lover.  Anna is not overcome by the violence of the man’s death in its own right, but shudders and is near tears because in her heart she recognizes the event as “‘A bad omen'” (65).  I hope I’m not delivering a spoiler when I point out that Anna will throw herself under a train, having ruined her life and crushed her spirit by allowing herself to live as an adulteress with a shallow man who cannot return her passion and commitment fully.

The man’s death was not a dream, but    (more…)

I can’t think of many better poets of spiritual despair (is there any other kind?) in English than Thomas Hardy.  Oh… there are whiny poets and obscure poets, but no poet that is just so matter-of-factly able to articulate defeat in the face of life’s sheer cussedness.  From his  infinitely depressing ouvre, “The Darkling Thrush” holds a special place in my imagination when I’m feeling self-pitying or irritable or just deeply at odds with the general drift and trend of the world.  Roughly the poem is about a man (we presume) going for a walk on the first day of the year–not only the year, but the year 1900, so the first of the century.  He hears a thrush singing beautifully in a bare bush and wonders, “what the HELL are you doing that for?j”

I leant upon a coppice gate
 When Frost was spectre-gray,
 And Winter's dregs made desolate
 The weakening eye of day.
 The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
 Like strings of broken lyres,
 And all mankind that haunted nigh
 Had sought their household fires.

 The land's sharp features seemed to be
 The Century's corpse outleant,
 His crypt the cloudy canopy,
 The wind his death-lament.
 The ancient pulse of germ and birth
 Was shrunken hard and dry,
 And every spirit upon earth
 Seemed fervourless as I.

 At once a voice arose among
 The bleak twigs overhead
 In a full-hearted evensong
 Of joy illimited;
 An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
 In blast-beruffled plume,
 Had chosen thus to fling his soul
 Upon the growing gloom.

 So little cause for carolings
 Of such ecstatic sound
 Was written on terrestrial things
 Afar or nigh around,
 That I could think there trembled through
 His happy good-night air
 Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
 And I was unaware.


I know everyone’s geek alarm goes off with a triple scream when I confess to loving George Herbert’s Dune saga.  I’m halfway through the fourth installment, Heretics of Dune, and have (much to my chagrin) actually read the two trilogy “prequels” his son wrote with Kevin J. Anderson.  I have a fascination with Herbert’s fiction, not least because I find myself self-disgustedly drawn to what I can only say is a proto-fascist vision of humankind, best realized by David Lynch’s 1984 film version.  Just glancing around at some of the responses to the Herbertian gestalt, I’m shocked to see so many writers and critics perform such mental acrobatics to prove the Dune is an anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-fascist celebration of the goals of democracy.  Hardly!   (more…)