Overweening Generalist

Thursday, March 31, 2016

On Meeting Writers We Admire

"This passion for wanting to meet the latest poet, wanting to shake hands with the latest novelist, get hold of the latest painter, devour...what is it? What is it they want from a man they didn't get from his work? What do they expect? What is there left of him when he's done his work? What's an artist, but the dregs of his work? The human shambles that follows it around. What's left of a man when the work's done but a shambles of apology?" - from William Gaddis's novel The Recognitions (1)

This take interests me, mainly the part about the artist as a "shamble" after the work's been done. It reminds me of ideas about memes using us to spread themselves around. Genes have told me they do the same. (But did I tell Them I was buying their line?) In Michael Pollan's terrific book, The Botany of Desire, tulips, apples, potatoes, and cannabis have all manipulated us to get what They want. Like the devil whose greatest trick was convincing us He doesn't exist, these things - including the works of Art in this Gaddis case - use us, making us think we're the ones in charge. It's a deeply amusing turn for me: the Artist as Host for the Art itself, leaving us as "dregs" and in "a shambles."

And still, I want to shake the hand of Cannabis.

I saw Douglas Rushkoff give a talk in LA on his tour for Nothing Sacred: The Truth About Judaism, and bought a copy and lined up to have him sign it afterward. When I got up to him I spewed that I'd just talked to Robert Anton Wilson, who was mildly disappointed that Rushkoff seemed to have problems with his friend RAW's disbelief in anything, as captured in an interview Rushkoff did for the Maybe Logic documentary. I told Rushkoff - a long line behind me - that RAW said one can feel strongly about something but still be agnostic, and that he wished Doug would read his book The New Inquisition. I could tell Rushkoff thought I was a weirdo, talking too fast and too intensely about something sort of personal along a quasi-arcane minor tiff between me and him and RAW, and this had nothing to do with his energetic talk about Judaism, and he didn't really respond to what I said, but smiled and signed his name, writing on the title page, "To Michael: Enter Chapel Perilous..." just above the subtitle "The Truth About Judaism." Was this his little joke? I think so. Maybe. By his body language I think he was glad to be rid of me. To this day, it's the only Rushkoff book I own that I still haven't read. I've thumbed through it, yea, but read? Well then, why did I buy the new hardcover for $22 (or whatever it was)? I guess I just wanted to be in Rushkoff's presence, give him my insider info about what RAW said to me about him. I felt foolish. Meeting admired writers can do this to us.

                                  George Saunders, photo by Tim Knox

This topic turns out to be more popular (as I infer from googling) than I'd thought. An idea I see over and over in articles about this: we readers have spent a lot of time in our solitary inwardness "with" the writer and created a detailed image of what the writer "is really like," but this is usually revealed as an illusion. I like what George Saunders told Margo Rabb:

A work of art is something produced by a person, but is not that person - it is of her, but is not her. It's a reach, really - the artist is trying to inhabit, temporarily, a more compact, distilled, efficient, wittier, more true-seeing, precise version of herself - one that can't replicate in so-called "real" life, no matter how hard she tries. That's why she writes: to try and briefly be more than she truly is. (2)

I've been on the other end, in a way: as a rock guitarist. When I'm playing it's sort of another version of "me" that I've spent a lot of time cultivating through long hours of practice. Admirers seem to approach that other "me" when I'm back to my "ordinary reality" and what they say often seems to apply to someone else: someone better than I feel I "really" am. But they have sweet intentions, so I try to sort of smile and play along, "Thanks, man. That makes me feel really good. Rawk on!" All the while I know Steve Vai and a thousand other guys can play circles around me...

Concomitant with this, I've been trying to get used to the idea that our default mode is as essentialists, much as it pains Korzybski. Cognitive psychologist Bruce Hood's experiments show that we want and need "Distributive existence over time and with others." (3) By being in the presence of an admired figure we hope, on some odd level, to share in the artist's essence. What a thrill to put on a sweater once owned by George Clooney! Or to hold Einstein's writing pen. Or to decline when asked if we want to try on a hat once worn by Hitler. Perhaps this best explains getting the book signed and a brief exchange of pleasantries with some admired writer: we want to distribute ourselves into the admired writer's psychological domain, at least for a few seconds. (Others want to increase the value of the book for eBay sales, I know...)

In our celebrity kulch, this desire to make contact with quasi-mythic figures seems loudly and abundantly clear; I'm perhaps no different than any other fan who goes nuts over spotting a Kardashian in Beverly Hills. But there aren't many celebrities I'd bother if I were in the room with them. I just don't care all that much about the people who entertain me on screens. It's some of the musical and authorial Beings that have the potential to get me going and make an ass of myself. I was working in a library in ritzy Palos Verdes Estates and there was a summer live music concert in the park outside: families bring picnic baskets and blankets, that sort of thing. And I turn around and Joe Montana is at the counter, asking, "Is there a back way out of here?" He had been trying to enjoy the concert, but people were pestering him for autographs and photos. I never said, "Wow! You're the greatest quarterback ever!" I thought it. Then I dutifully walked him through the library and out the back door into a quiet dark evening and he said thanks. It was weird.

                               Douglas Rushkoff, photographer unknown

It's cheery to read about a fan having a good experience meeting their favorite writer, as for example Jean-Luc Bouchard when meeting Kazuo Ishiguro. (4) The takeaway for me, here: say you loved the one book that got panned the most, or neglected. I told Robert Anton Wilson I loved Right Where You Are Sitting Now (which I do, but it's not my favorite), and he seemed delighted, saying similar things to me about that that Ishiguro said to Bouchard. RAW once quoted Confucius in another interview about bad reviews: it's as if the critic is saying something nasty about one's children, and Confucius said that we naturally love what grows up in our own homes.

I went to a talk and book signing by Erik Davis, in Berkeley, after his book Visionary State came out. I thought he was my age, so I said something to the effect about him being more accomplished and I was slacking. With what I took to be a slight annoyance, he told me he was seven years younger than I thought, then resumed his banter with photographer Michael Rauner. Not exactly the stellar level of repartee I was hoping for. Later I realized I'd had my own version of that bit where comedian Chris Farley gets to interview Paul McCartney and all he can think to say is, "Remember...when you were in the Beatles?" (Okay, I wasn't that bad.)

Now that I've thought about it, the next time I meet a favorite author I'm going to psych myself up by assuming they'll be unpleasant no matter what I say, and if/when they are not a drag, it's a win-win. Or probably: just a win for me. He's still that great Erik Davis when I read his books, the one I invented without knowing it, and damn that "real-world" exchange I had with him. It...was a mere anomaly. Dude's the coolest! Yes...

Speaking of Robert Anton Wilson, I spent the better part of an afternoon with him at his condo in Capitola/Live Oak/Santa Cruz and he was far beyond sweet and brilliant and kind and hilarious and understanding; I got lucky. My favorite living author (along with Pynchon, but good luck with him!) talked to me like a longtime friend. It was beyond my wildest imagination.

David Foster Wallace had an interesting take on all this. I don't subscribe to his ideas here, but I think they're very interesting:

DFW was disappointed to hear how his favorite writers sound: their actual voices interfere with his reading of them. I wonder how this relates to seeing a picture of the author on the book jacket? Anyway, in a 2005 interview with Didier Jacob: 

Q: Which writer, living or dead, interests you most, and which one would you most like to talk to? Pynchon? Hemingway? Salinger? (Or Shakespeare, or somebody else...)

DFW: I am not very curious about the lives or personalities of other writers. The more I like someone's work, the less I want personal acquaintance to pollute my experience of reading her. I have briefly met some of the US writers I admire - Cormac McCarthy, for example, and Don DeLillo, and Annie Dillard - and they all seemed like fine, pleasant people. But I found that I did not want to "chat" with them. In fact, I did not even like hearing them speak. In their books, each of these writers has to me a very distinctive "voice," a kind of sound on the page, and it has nothing to do with their actual larynx or nasality or timbre. I do not want to be hearing their "real" voice in my head when I'm reading. I'm not sure whether this makes sense, but it's the truth. There are, on the other hand, some writers I exchange letters with, and this I enjoy very much. Because the consciousness in the letters feels to me like much more like the consciousness I admire in the work." (6)

When I read Woody Allen's comic essays (which I love and greatly admire), I can't help but hear him in my head, but I think it adds to my experience. And maybe because he's always trying to get laffs. If I read something by him that was sad, it would be jarring. When I listen to Pound and Joyce read their work, it's like some alien broadcast: I didn't think they would sound so static-y. No, but seriously: their voices sound so overly "for" that newfangled microphone thing, knowing it's going out to the masses...I still don't hear their voices when I read them. DFW's ideas seem almost Asperger-ish to me. Take it further into, say, Roland Barthes's idea of ecriture blanche, or "white writing," in which any text requires nothing from the Reader: all terms are transparent and obvious. (Okay, now DFW's ideas seem far more sane than that.) Still...I mean, reading Burroughs and Philip K. Dick is weird and thrilling, but knowing about their lives (and especially hearing Burroughs's voice!) makes their texts even better. To me, that is...

Recently I read an amusing article by a critic who was assigned to review a book by an academic: Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender, by David J. Getsy. Critic Jarrett Earnest is so appalled by the academicese and preciousness of the writing he wants to write a hatchet job review; he can't stand this asshole academic. But before he does his hatchet job, he feels compelled to find Getsy and see what sort of person this writer is face-to-face. He tracks down Getsy. He finds he likes Getsy and in talking to him he understands where he's coming from. Earnest ends up writing a good review of Getsy's book. I'm sure this sort of thing has happened before, but this is the first instance I can think of. (5)

Furthermore on Robert Anton Wilson, when I talked with him he told me he was in a German film called 23, in which he plays himself, because the famous German hacker Karl Koch admired Illuminatus! so much, and as a hacker he was named "Hagbard." RAW said he'd love to see the film, but it wasn't playing in Unistat. I told him I'd seen it a couple months earlier in Hollywood. He seemed a tad miffed. I don't know if he ever got a chance to see it. In the film, Koch/Hagbard attends a lecture by RAW near Hannover and then gets his autograph before RAW is whisked away in a car. Koch said he read the 805 page Illuminatus! "Eighty times." Who knows who really burned Karl Koch to death with gasoline in an isolated wooded spot? The KGB and CIA had their reasons. It was ruled a suicide, but not many of Koch's friends buy it. I will link to a YouTube copy of the film 23 below and hope the reader who clicks on it doesn't get a busted link. (7)

1.) hat tip to Roman Tviskin for this quote, found on his dormant blog, Zuihitsu Bits
2.) Fallen Idols, Margo Rabb, NYT, July 2013
3.) see about 3/4 down in my blog about hoarding HERE
4.) What It's Like To Meet Your Favorite Author, Bouchard, Buzzfeed Books, March, 2015
5.) Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender, reviewed by Jarrett Earnest, Brooklyn Rail, Feb, 2016
6.) found in Conversations With David Foster Wallace, p.166
7.) YouTube copy of 23, accessed 31 March, 2016. RAW is seen around 13:42 to 14:15. I saw a print with English subtitles at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood soon after it came out. See the actor August Diehl playing hacker Karl Koch/Hagbard pick up a girl at a party and bring her back to his room and tell her his own computer is called "FUCKUP" (from the novel) and how important Illuminatus! is, starting around 9:42

                                           graphic art by Bob Campbell


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

A lot of writers seem conflicted about how much of themselves they should make available to their fans. Jack Vance, one of my favorite science fiction writers, used to regularly refuse to make details about himself available when he published in Fantasy and Science Fiction magazine. (The magazine would regularly ask writers to tell a little about themselves to share with readers.) Yet he answered a fan letter I wrote to him in high school (a big thrill) and wrote and published a memoir late in life.

i never met Robert Anton Wilson, yet I write a blog about him and feel like I "know" him from reading his work over and over. I did meet Robert Shea once and he was nice and answered all of my questions.

Anonymous said...

I've e-mailed with Rushkoff and chatted with RAW through the Maybe Logic Academy but I never met my literary heroes in person. Your interaction with Rushkoff reminds me somewhat of my recent run-in with the band YACHT. I thanked them for namedropping RAW on their website and covering my favorite DEVO song, Spacegirl Blues, they thanked me for even *noticing* these things but seemed somewhat relieved to have me go my own way.

Which brings me to "Meet the Beatles!" What an album title! Is it possible to meet your rock heroes, even when they're still alive? In my opinion the stage persona is something that can never be met. Bob Dylan is as real as The Banana Splits. The Residents seem to have made an entire career off the idea of musicians as masks that cannot be torn away. See their album "Meet the Residents!" The joke being that you cannot meet a band that doesn't exist. Maybe I'm stretching things here, but it seems like The Beatles have the same footing in reality as The Residents, The Archies and The Sex Pistols. Sure, there were real guys who wrote songs, ate their Wheaties and scratched their butts in the morning but they weren't the Beatles. The "real" Beatles or Bob Dylan would never scratch their butts or start their morning with Wheaties.

So you can meet Homer Flynn and Hardy Fox but you can't meet The Residents anymore than you can run into a stranger at a NYC grocery store and say you met Thomas Pynchon. Or run into your Uncle Melvin after the medicine show and say you met Coyote. Maybe it's better for artists to keep a tight lid on things or put a bold cartoonish line around the mask this way. After all I think the best writing is like a disappearing act. Hearing Burroughs's voice is great but seeing the writer's hand move across the page is distracting. Especially when the hand seems to be pointing back at the writer, showing you how clever he or she is. Better to write with some sleight of hand at play, keeping the real tricks hidden to all but the keenest eyes.

And better to make yourself unmeetable than to be met by disappointed fans? Could be more honest that way. The Author has all the time in the world to be insightful and clever. You only have a few seconds to leave that fan with something memorable.

Bob Campbell said...

I talked w/ Lance Bauscher (Maybe Logic Director) at the RAW Meme-orial about that sequence where Rushkoff criticizes RAW, but then immediately after Tom Robbins comes in and refutes what he said. I complimented the sly effectiveness of his editing, which he accepted w/ a smile, but he then added that the doc probably could have used more dissenting voices.

Then a few years later a Grant Morrison documentary comes out “Talking With Gods” w/ Rushkoff as one of the talking heads, and indeed again he’s the lone voice of dissent. Everyone else is telling great and wonderful stories about how brilliant GM is, and here’s Doug being like “well, I dunno…”

What occurs to me from this is that Rushkoff is the quintessential Gen X philosopher.

I’m in that weird limbo space where I’m either the youngest of Gen X or the oldest of the Millennials, not that the generational divides are all that clear cut anyway, but I maintain some of those now old school Gen X ethos, which have all but faded away.

Primarily that concern about “selling out.”

Rushkoff can’t go do a bio doc about one of his friends and not say what he honestly thinks, even if what he thinks may be a misunderstanding of the source material, because that would be selling out. (Authenticity as a primary virtue)

I disagree w/ what he says about both RAW & GM in those docs, but I think it’s pretty awesome that he said it.

Rushkoff’s first graphic novel “Club Zero G” deals a lot w/ the concept of “consensus” kind of in a “belief is the death of intelligence” sort of way. That which we all agree upon becomes invisible to us which can lead to all sorts of entrenched systemic problems. Rushkoff's economic ideas have shades of this, about how we mistake cultural software for hardware, and don't understand that we really can replace these legacy systems w/ something more optimal.

"My function is to raise the possibility, 'Hey, you know, some of this stuff might be bullshit.'" -- Robert Anton Wilson

And strangely enough, my 3 best experiences meeting my fav writers in person have been RAW, Rushkoff, and Morrison.

Eric Wagner said...

I think growing up in the science fiction community made m see writers as accessible people. At conventions I met most of my favorite authors and generally had positive interactions with them. The two people I had mildly negative encounters with (Harlan Ellison and Norman Spinrad) had somewhat gruff public personas, so I felt I had touched the myth, so to speak. Recently it has struck me the huge influence Ellison had on me.

michael said...

@Tom and Eric: yea, I've noticed over the years that science fiction writers seem to make themselves more available. Is this because of the relative marginalization of SF by NY intellectuals and other puffy keepers of the Commissar Class?

@Anonymous: great comment, and thanks. When I spent a few hours with RAW, it really felt like he was the "same" guy as the person behind all the books and articles, but nonetheless your point is well-taken about Dylan, Residents, Beatles: perhaps with "rock stars" there's more of a Machine to aid in creation of the mystique. And I've often fantasized about meeting Pynchon and hanging out: I keep getting the feeling he'd be "just" a "normal" very interesting guy. The work stands alone. In this, David Foster Wallace's point as quoted in the blogspew seems more understandable: the artist's work is now in MY hands; I know the Artist concocted all this, but I want to work at building the works into my own thing, as a sort of nutriment or furnishing of my own interiority.

I also think you make a great point - and Tom Jackson touched on this too, above - that probably a lot of writers see meeting their audience as a chance to alienate readers: 'cuz how can you live up to that Great Writer they think you are, as seen by your fan mail? Furthermore, I recently read a quote from Eric Clapton who said people would love him even if he walked out on stage with a comb and tissue paper and started playing that...you feel like you have to live up to your own standards, but your fans may be too accepting of your poor performance, and what does that do to your integrity? To your desire to continue to improve your work?

michael said...

@Bob Campbell- Great points. Even though I had non-optimal experiences meeting Rushkoff and Erik Davis, I still LOVE their work, and I blame myself for the meetings not being all that great. I will read anything either guy puts out (I'm reading DR's _Throwing Rocks At The Google Bus_ right now and it's totally enthralling).

The book signing thing is sort of a "job" for the writer, too. I think if I met either Davis or Rushkoff at a party it would go much better.

I really like your defense of Rushkoff, esp the idea that it's up to him to probe with some ideas that are not part of the consensus.

Eric Wagner said...

Yeah, I think the lack of respect for sf led to the permeability of the line between pro and fan. Plus, many of the writers seemed like socially awkward males back in the 1940's (such as Asimov), as did most of the fans. Plus, many writers began as fans, like Harlan Ellison. Despite his wealth and fame, George R. R Martin's blog still has that old-time trufan feel.

PQ said...

Great post, as always.

Interesting timing for me to encounter this topic now because just a couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of spending a whole afternoon/evening with a rap artist who is probably my favorite living writer and artist, Bronze Nazareth, a Wu-Tang affiliated lyricist/producer from Detroit (whose work I've often written about on my blog---his deceased brother is also an all-time favorite of mine).

I tried best I could to be cool and act normal, but I also kept asking questions, one after another, even though I was so nervous I couldn't even recall most of the stuff I'd always wanted to ask him. He told me a bunch of incredible stories. I generally felt like the whole experience wasn't real. It was all very bizarre, dream-like.

The thing that sticks with me the most after that experience is the strange dichotomy between the Artist as experienced through his Art and the super humble, friendly, normal guy I hung out and got high with. He became a sort of buddy, a regular friend. And it so happens that this same person's cryptic lyrics are rattling around in my brain 24/7. It's strange trying to reconcile the two.

Thinking about the question your piece raises (why the desire to meet this person?)---for me, I wanted to probe what certain metaphors and symbols and references in lyrics meant, the stories behind how some pieces came about, what is he currently working on, and above all hear about the enormous vaults of unreleased material and ask WHY it's unreleased. To my satisfaction and frustration, he made it very clear that all of the music we've heard over his 10-year career is basically just the tip of the iceberg, that an array of legal red tape and disagreement with collaborators, among many other reasons, contribute to hundreds of tracks being forever left on the cutting room floor.