WHICH CAME FIRST: STORY OR CRAZY?

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Shakespeare: 1. Greatest Storyteller. 2. Poet 3. Taught us storytellers are liars.

 

A number of ideas recently entered my mind, drawn into it by a personal observation.

The personal observation is personal. I will get to it later. It is the centerpiece of my theme, but first, here are the ideas which saw fit to add themselves to the conviction that I was onto something real.

I saw a truism quoted approvingly in the New York Times in one of those ‘best books of the year’ pieces which went something like this: stories only happen to those who can tell them.

The ‘best books of 2015’ piece outlined those disturbing novels, memoirs and non-fiction works of eccentricities and loss which are discussed because they are discussed. The Times notice which originally drew me in was the new book on the Creative Writing phenomenon and Paul Engle, with its “show don’t tell” mantra that served to professionalize the American writer as a civilized university product—and was indeed sponsored by U.S. Government anti-Communism during the Cold War (just as it has now come out that abstract painting was CIA funded in the war against Soviet Realist art.)

The upshot of “show don’t tell” is the conviction that “telling” is propaganda compared to the more authentic and personal rhetoric that “shows,” gathered from genuinely observed experience.

The most exciting story-telling always reveals some kind of shame or tragedy or horror, the kind that has us saying, “No! Really?” in excited whispers. Is it real or fiction? It doesn’t matter. Our reaction is the same.

Most fiction is loosely based on truth. A story is a story, and the fine points of whether a particular piece of writing is fiction or non-fiction are reserved for the tedious scholar who is ignored by the rest of us, and who, when turned to, never finally knows the full story in all its truth, anyway.

The novelist “shows” what appears to be the “truth” by way of fiction, not because there is some poetic “truth” which hides behind fiction, or because there is something about “fiction” which allows “truth” to come to light—this is a sentimental falsehood repeated often by novelists and their defenders.

The novelist “shows” what is taken as truth only because the reader assumes “truth” is present due to the great confusion which naturally blurs truth and fiction in our minds; rather than admit ignorance, readers “fill in” the “truthfulness” of the writer’s presentation and construe it as “truth” without question—because this is what ignorance does.

The novelist is a cut-and-paste liar and the novelist’s “truth” is a shadow—cast by the truth of the reader’s ignorance, and the reader’s ignorance is willing to be duped by the fiction, whose “showing” merely strengthens the delusion that “truth” of any kind exists in the fiction. Emotional truth—the truth that one is having feelings— should not be confused with truth, or with cut-and-paste lies that trigger these emotions.

Therefore “showing” in fiction, the non-judgmental presentation of selected, cut-and-paste, experience with its corresponding emotions, the classic Workshop fiction formula, is not valid or truthful, per se. “Showing” stands in opposition to “telling” in name only, since selected presentation of experience: incident, dialogue, etc lacks truth in the precise way all mere experience lacks truth. What happens to us has no truth, per se, except as it is our private experience—which may potentially comprise leaning a skill through repetition. But our experience merely related by way of a story told to someone else, has for that other person, as literature, no necessary truth—unless the “truth” of a pleasant illusion, but only if pleasantly and artistically conveyed.

The only human truth with a capital T is moral truth—what happens to us is true only in its moral cause and effect. Whether this is told or shown is entirely beside the point: the difference is overstated since language by its very nature shows by telling.

Advertising is communication with a motive; it is crucial to understand that story-telling may be below even that of advertisement: a distinguished novel the inferior of a mere advertisement no matter how genuine the experiences conveyed in the novel. If an author’s experience is genuine, it is private, and private experiences alone can never rise to the level of truth unless we add what “showing” supposedly opposes: “telling.”

“Let me show you what I would otherwise tell you” is all about the illusion created— and nothing else.

There is nothing morally superior about “showing.” By “showing” we use an aesthetic term, only, and one that was practiced by the ancient Greeks by way of producing beauty—very different from the Workshop formula.

Now my personal observation: there is a very common personality that loves to talk for its own sake, and I was struck recently by one I know filling up time with talk in a way that was so pleased with itself and at the same time disengaged from preventative reality so it made me wonder: since we delight to hear stories of tragedy and loss, is it possible that story-telling itself can become a kind of mania which “shows” a “loss” of mind and reason? So that the “best” show-don’t-tell stories are, in fact, products of madness?

The stern, theoretical “telling” of communist or statist rhetoric is well worth refuting. ¬†No argument there.

But what is the true value of the antidote?

What good is maniacal telling of the “show-don’t-tell” variety?

First, it essentially springs from personal experience so dense, genuine and “real,” it crowds out our own mundane and empty existence—that existence which is charged with “figuring things out” in order to live.

Second, it competes with all experience, since this is what fiction that “shows” finally depends on.

Third, it has no conclusions or directives, since it is genuine only because it “shows” and refuses to “tell.”

Fourth, it makes no attempt to please for its own sake: it is merely in thrall to the mania of its story-telling mode. When we tell a story, there is no attempt to do anything more than tell a story which causes the reader to exclaim excitedly, “No! Really?” Content—the lived—is all. Form—the teachable—is nothing.

Fifth, the sum total of others’ experience is so vast and interesting just by itself, that unless there is a mechanism of sorting, we find ourselves in a continual state of excited whisper, “No! Really?”

Sixth, the professionalization of this kind of writing in the Writing Programs, feeding directly into the book industry, has made it necessary to carry this ‘rhetoric of experience’ on our backs as editors, writers, and publishers. There is nothing worse than when the leaders of any industry are guilty of gratuitously dumbing down that industry—one in which lurid content is everything and form is nothing.

Seventh, there is nothing wrong with lived experience and its communication, except that it already exists in all walks of life—and when literature becomes merely a competition for ‘who can tell the biggest whopper of a tale’ without any self-reflection or qualifying judgment or restraint or art or philosophy (telling), then literature has essentially become a cynical part of what makes human life the most cynical.

For as we know, the most cynical is not the grief and consternation we find in rhetoric that desires to solve problems and prevent disasters, but the mindless “showing” with a devilish maniacal delight of every imaginable and preventable horror under the sun: literature = yellow journalism.

Now it may be said that there is good “show don’t tell” writing and bad “show don’t tell” writing, and that the good variety has been screened by good editors and publishers and the best of it is intelligent and not maniacal and does do a little valuable “telling” in the end, after all.

But of course. There is always ‘bad and good’ within bad, and always hybrid concessions which dilute any picture, but this should not distract from our main point—story-telling that takes on insane, self-justifying dimensions across the culture, supported by a professional apparatus and a professional class, all of which circles back to enhance the very same mania in subsequent generations of students and general readers.

When we say pleasure for its own sake, we don’t mean that there is something inherently wrong with the pure joy of story-telling for its own sake.

But telling a story carries it with it a responsibility that say, Mozart’s music does not.

Words can libel, slander, present half-truths, make a mere show of learning, and horrify and seduce in damaging ways. And further, storytelling, or talking for its own sake, can just be a plain useless waste of time, a vanity kept afloat by a professional class for its own benefit. So there is that.

The professional apparatus of music can safely pursue Mozart for its own sake and there is no doubt that this is a musical good with all sorts of side benefits (one doesn’t have to love Mozart personally to sense at once that Mozart embodies a universal musical skill that can only help and not hinder the pursuit of music itself in any way).

Cold War anti-Communist officials had no trouble believing that the Soviet Union was a unified and far-reaching society that was dangerous because of its art and writing and rhetoric.

But instead of finding a common ground of cultural connection, such as Mozart, the CIA instead gave us both abstract painting and the Writing Program Era of Paul Engle (good organizer, terrible poet) which celebrated anti-intellectual fiction (the novel as wounded auto-biography) and a “new poetry” which quickly lost any sort of public due to its poor quality.

Poetry is the crucial literary expression—which is like Mozart’s music: joy and excellence for its own sake that escapes all propaganda, either the sort practiced by communists or the kind practiced by the Jorie Grahams in the Writing Workshop.

Poetry avoids the trap of many types of story-telling rhetoric: the propagandist, the gasbag, the immoral confessionalist, the college essay blather, etc.

Poetry which is transcendently beautiful, setting the standard by what it is for all those who would aspire to be a poet—or any kind of writer—is unimaginable to most people, the same way that Mozart’s music flies above that of the folk singer. But who would want Mozart and the folk singer to compete? Never. That would be like introducing the fiendish illogic of war into heaven. No sane person would assert the world of music would be better if there were no Mozart—not even a folk singer singing communist folk songs.

If we are to have “writing programs” (to fight communism or cultivate professionalism or what have you) let us produce poets of the first order—Mozarts, who may then go on to write whatever they wish.

Just as with artists: first let us see if they can draw.

And musicians: first let us see if they can invent a melody.

If we are serious about avoiding propaganda and gas bagging and lower quality and lower standards and increasingly bored students, the answer is simple: music, poetry, and drawing which is beautiful for its own sake.

The blatherers will object, of course.

But in the world I am imagining, at least we will know what blathering—as opposed to poetry—is.

 

 

 

 

 

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7 Comments

  1. Gideon O'Rourke said,

    December 20, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    “the novel as wounded autobiography”

    I think you hit the snail on the shell here. Today we live among the walking wounded–the zombies class–wherein everyone is special, everyone is a star.

    Great Poetry, even the idea of Great Poems, is the last thing the current literary regime wants; it is discouraged, obliquely, by so many insidious hints and stage whispers, and it is discouraged for good reason… because it is amoral, it transcends–is a threat to the Moolah (middle) class’ pillow sales.

    I enjoy and agree with this essay. But may I add:

    The dark arts of rhetoric and advertising which sell these “products of madness” are so entrenched that for the poet to renounce them is to consent to anonymity. The great poet of today and tomorrow, to get any sort of public, must also be able to play the showman, the charlatan, or the “mad man”. A pose. No sane, kind, sensible person is going to become famous. Ezra Pound is the example that springs to mind. I don’t consider him a great poet, but he played the role of the great poet better than anyone in the 20th century. The man was a dynamo, an incredibly obnoxious dynamo, but a dynamo who knew a thing or two about promotion.

    If Ben Mazer were to somehow seduce Lady Gaga, or thrown a custard pie in Donald Trumps face, land a role in a Star Wars film, or something else equally inane, his poems would have the recognition they deserves. Beauty and Decency and Love make for a poor brand these days.

    Sad, but seemingly “True”, Great Poems and Poetry must cloak itself in Madness to get back a public. I hope I am wrong.

    • Andrew said,

      December 21, 2015 at 3:33 am

      Ha ha ha – Ezra P: “incredibly obnoxious dynamo”. I LOVE it.

      Petals on a wet, black bough indeed…

      (Peddling a wet black bow perhaps?)

      Ezra Pound was such an incoherent bore.

  2. maryangeladouglas said,

    December 20, 2015 at 10:21 pm

    THEY SEEM ASHAMED OF SO MANY THINGS I AM FOND OF

    [for James Larkin Pearson, Shelby Stephenson and
    most of all, to Valerie Macon]

    they seem ashamed of so many things I am fond of:
    words that grow wings; that have no double entendre.
    things that shine, frost on a winter window pane’s

    unexpected design, for instance, they decline.
    what if my ferns and flowers are ice
    and not a horticultural wilderness

    filled with crimes committed by the symbolists
    or a drum beat and beat and beat for the deprived?
    who still could cherish beauty if they were let alone

    to enjoy it on their own.

    what if I don’t even like their kind of poetry
    and wonder at it as though it were devised
    by the devil himself.

    what if I love love only
    for its innocence and childhoods made of snows
    and the lives of the poets

    who knew this.
    what if I see the moon for its vanilla cream gleam
    and not for her mythologies in a thousand indices

    overlearned by those advanced at school
    and full of such disdain.
    who honor darkness

    as though it were Light. and who cause much pain.
    Lord make my flight from them swift.

    I wonder why they cannot be happy with my song,
    with any rainbow tinted music.

    why must they use and even abuse things
    seeking to control and to despise;
    making a nightmare game of it

    in their coteries shutting us out
    and delighting in the click of the gate
    above all other sounds;

    even in the name of Beauty fostering a
    bitter language, hate even
    for those who don’t comply

    and don’t intend to.
    who stand their ground.
    they grow cleverer at

    making their faintly damning praise
    ever more meticulously intellectual.
    the Snow Queen’s vetted vassals

    short on praise for anything human.
    and for the enchanted stream.
    oh God, for anything dreamed.

    how can we be called, the same:
    by the name of “poet”
    I ask the few green corners of earth

    they have not sullied yet with their speech
    and implore the Heavens
    not to forget us, out of reach

    those who write for love,
    not power. in this, their murky Hour-

    for by my reckoning
    despite the prizes that they get
    they will drive Poetry infinitely

    from the door.

    mary angela douglas 20 december 2015

    • Andrew said,

      December 21, 2015 at 3:34 am

      Hey Mary –
      when you gonna start RHYMING?

      • maryangeladouglas said,

        December 22, 2015 at 7:49 pm

        LEGEND

        I had a diaphanous legend, sheer:
        with occasional sequins.
        with the telling of it,

        small slow stars started falling
        out of a winter sky
        to the azure amazement

        of some passersby;a few
        misplaced dogs.
        you think I am poor

        with little to say for myself
        you cannot belittle
        without even half trying;

        because I can produce
        no golden carriage
        from a nutshell;

        because I eat an orange in sections
        to make it last the whole day.
        because I write only in sapphires

        and only then when it rains.
        you actually disdain me
        and consider it smart

        to make that plain.
        genius, really.

        but once I had
        a diaphanous legend…
        can you, say the same?

        mary angela douglas 22 december 2015

  3. thomasbrady said,

    December 21, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    Ezra Pound belonged to Modernism, Inc. Create new works and sell at a profit.

    The Modern Art scam: produce and purchase new, low skill “art,” cheaply; pronounce it new and important with hired critics, build museums for it, make it “legitimate,” sell at enormous profit: Picasso, Gertrude and Leo Stein, Duchamp, etc. Duchamp’s “Nude Descending Staircase” was star of 1913 Armory Show which brought European modern art to America. The guy that made Armory Show happen was lawyer and modern art collector (of course) John Quinn— who was the attorney for Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. Duchamp: moustache on Mona Lisa, toilet as art—you get the idea.

    The Creative Writing Scam: replace literature professors with modern poet/professors who teach the new writing. Ford Madox Ford met Pound off the boat when he went to London; Ford would later go to America and hook up with the New Critics, who with Paul Engle and Robert Lowell, would usher in the Creative Writing era—modern poetry in the universities and students trained in the new “art,” the great pyramid scheme of students replacing an actual public for poetry.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    December 21, 2015 at 10:37 pm

    I did peek at how the other half lives— the story tellers. I owe it to myself to start looking at novels, which I don’t read as a rule. Picked up Franzen’s “Purity” just to see what novelists were doing. It took me part of an afternoon to read most of it. It was obvious what the book was: 1. Research, where the novelist does a cut and paste job and incorporates nonfiction “realism” where we are supposed to believe that the author has an inside scoop on the former East German Secret Police. 2. Story Arc in which various characters have conversations and do stuff vaguely related to number 1. 3. Auto-biography in which the author not-so-cleverly inserts his sexual neuroses for titlilation and further “realism.” 4. Sentimentalism, in which the divorces and adultery and betrayal and misunderstandings are somewhat redeemed in one or two characters of the younger generation. Almost no actual good writing. No poetry. An occasional brief, okay description of nature: rainstorm, etc. Some okay dialogue which feels somewhat “real.” Overall experience: Cut and Paste Trash interspersed with sex and sentimentalism. Uneasy mixture of autobiography and research. Did not feel like a unified work of art at all. When I get time, I’ll look at some more contemporary fiction…


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