<= 2014.08.21

Hotel register 2014.005

Lightning Rods

Completely poker-faced. There’s no comeuppance, nor any conflict as such, for this is the happy salesman’s universe where every obstacle flips into an opportunity and every adversary into an ally. We know from the start that our hero will ride his innocent obscenity straight to the top. In America we all get rich together. I want to give this to some MBAs and see if they think it’s making fun of them.

Round the Prickly Pear

Text of a talk given at In Solution Symposium, San Francisco, September 2014.

ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ, ὁ δὲ χρυσὸς αἰθόμενον πῦρ
ἅτε διαπρέπει νυκτὶ μεγάνορος ἔξοχα πλούτου:
εἰ δ᾽ ἄεθλα γαρύεν
ἔλδεαι, φίλον ἦτορ,
μηκέθ᾽ ἁλίου σκόπει
ἄλλο θαλπνότερον ἐν ἁμέρᾳ φαεννὸν ἄστρον ἐρήμας δι᾽ αἰθέρος,
μηδ᾽ Ὀλυμπίας ἀγῶνα φέρτερον αὐδάσομεν

Water is best, and gold, like a blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all lordly wealth. But, my heart, if you wish to sing of contests, look not past the sun for a warmer star in the empty sky of day, nor let us proclaim a contest greater than Olympia.

That is Pindar in 476 BC, writing an ode for the Olympic Games. His purpose is to praise the victorious athlete, flatter the athlete’s family, and cement social bonds; but he begins by proclaiming that water is best: ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ. This preambulum is a funnel. Before the pre-eminence of the victor, he establishes the pre-eminence of the contest; before the contest, he acknowledges the social beacon of blazing gold; before gold he gives pride of place to water, a foundation to life, perhaps a god to be propitiated. In the early Archaic period, Hesiod describes a world of recurrent scarcity and hunger. By Pindar’s time the government of the polis was more consolidated, but rainfall had not grown any more regular from year to year.

In 1799, the Grand Pump Room was completed at Bath, England, and Pindar’s ἄριστον μὲν ὕδωρ set over the door. The imperial British were of course Romans and not Greeks; it is a purely Roman act of appropriation to set this phrase on the front of a public utility—not only a utility but a tourist attraction. Throughout the nineteenth century crowds came from around Europe to bathe in and drink the sulfurous water, and to see and be seen in its presence. Bath resident Jane Austen has the characters of Northanger Abbey visit just long enough to find that “the crowd was insupportable, and that there was not a genteel face to be seen, which everybody discovers every Sunday throughout the season.” The pump room belongs to our world of insupportable crowds, where water comes out of a pipe; not Pindar’s scarce world, where one must pray for it.

We don’t think of Greece as a desert civilization in the manner of ancient Egypt, or Mesopotamia, or Palestine. But this picture, which I took a few years ago at the temple of Hephaistos in Athens, shows on the hillside what sprouts everywhere in the city, prickly pear cactus. These are very common plants in Tucson, where I grew up, and I was astounded to find this mythic city, which I had always thought of as a marble model kit, possessing not only a landscape, but a landscape very like the hard, bright desert of my home country. I was then working on my collection The Drowned Library, which adapts mythic stories that principally take place in deserts, since our culture has so many desert roots; and to find prickly pears at the temple helped me to define one aspect of that gaze into the past, which is that it displaces the gaze we, in our own day, project into the future, anxious that heat and water will carry us from Jane Austen’s world back into Pindar’s.

Pindar would not have recognized the prickly pears, since this genus colonized the Mediterranean only in the last five hundred years, following Euro-American contact. This territorial gain may recompense an earlier loss. The ecologist Daniel Janzen proposes that the spiny defenses of these plants, their brightly colored fruit and their propagation by breaking off pads must have co-evolved with some large mammal, which would have browsed them and carried bits of them like burrs from place to place. No extant species plays this role, but as recently as 10,000 years ago North America was home to camels, which disappeared in the late Pleistocene extinctions. It may be that not only the prickly pear but other cactus, yucca and agave species in the region are ecological orphans, components of lost systems.

The plant kingdom is slower to change. For the last century Tucson has been draining its basin groundwater; at present its wells are pulling up liquid that was laid down in the last ice age, before the camels disappeared. In the nineteenth century Tucson sat on a river, the Santa Cruz.

In the first photo, from 1942, the river’s course is hard to make out because the mesquite and cottonwood trees are so abundant. The second photo, taken in 1989 from the same vantage (note the large rock at bottom), shows an arid channel. Groundwater pumping in Tucson has dropped the water table more than 100 feet, and the river is now permanently dry, except during rains.

The monsoons blow north from the Gulf of California in August, and are why the Sonoran desert, despite being hotter than the Mojave, supports a far richer biodiversity. This is the foundational water that Pindar propitiates, that the Aztecs worshipped as Tlaloc and whose current in our culture flows out of the book of Isaiah: In the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. That is the source for poetic droughts from Eliot’s waste land, there a metaphor for personal emptiness, to Mahmoud Darwish’s “A River Dies of Thirst,” there a metaphor for political deprivation—although it is not only a metaphor in Palestine, where physical, drinkable water is hard to come by.

People die of thirst in Arizona as well, most often during the illegal crossing from Mexico. The piece in The Drowned Library that records such a crossing is titled after Tlaloc, who was not only the god of agriculture but the guardian of those who died by water, a protector and an object of fear, who is said to have received child sacrifices. A child who dies in the desert is not sacrificed to any purpose. Still, water may kill otherwise than by simple lack. One who suffers from mortal thirst will not hesitate to drink from a stagnant cow pond. And the rains themselves can be fatal in their unexpected coming; the packed ground cannot drink the water quickly enough, and flash floods will course along any channel they find. The title of my book refers in part to the library of Alexandria, a desert outpost which was nonetheless brought down by water; whatever remained of the complex after multiple rounds of conquest was probably cast into the harbor by the earthquake and tsunami of AD 365.

The study of antiquity is a study of loss. I’d like to close on the question of what is lost and what persists, our anxious gaze into the future, and also a nod back to Pindar, who played something that he called a kithara. Over the last few years I’ve made many guitar-based home recordings. The music is mine, but I think of them as collaborations, since they were released with photographs by my friend Matthew Besigner. He works in the desert at night, using ambient light with long exposure times to bring out the contours of the land, while man-made objects, the light sources, shimmer and become unreal. To me it looks like the landscape forgetting what has been built over it. Musically I’m interested in similar effects, how the clipping of a distorted guitar signal both drops information and amplifies power, like the surviving half of a damaged statue or ode. This track has on its mind the colossal wreck of Ozymandias half sunk in sand, and is called “Archaeologists.”

Hotel register 2014.004

Problem of a Chinese Aesthetic

The mode is high-eighties tropes fighting each other in full de Man style, but as with high-eighties drum machines, they can be turned to good ends. I learned quite a lot about the Odes (or Classic of Poetry), and the chosen translations are, at least, impeccable English poems.

Observe the rat, it has its skin;
A man without manners,
A man without manners,
Why doesn't he die right away?

Or else:

The pine boat lurches
On the current's flow.
I am wide awake
As with a secret pain.
Not that I lack wine
To divert myself with.
My mind is not a mirror:
It does not assimilate.
True, I have brothers,
But I cannot rely on them.
[...]
My mind is not a stone:
You cannot roll it about.
My mind is not a mat:
You cannot roll it up.
My demeanor has been strict:
You cannot take exception to it.

The Hegel citations about bones being the dead core of animal life confirm Hegel's status as a stoner who stayed up too late.

Hotel register 2014.003

White Is for Witching

Fear in search of a form. I applaud the search: the intelligence that comes up with figures like “tiny robots trapped in a net” (fish) won’t rest easy with stock templates. The shuffling of narrators and times, the prologue that makes no sense until a second reading, are well worked but too busy for a situation that is purposely anti-narrative. Having a house as one of your narrators is, yes, a truly creepy way to get at a horror that goes back generations and has no in or out. It raises literal chills. But houses don’t move. As a short story (a long short story, after the Hoffman and Poe it name-checks) this would have been devastating.

Part of Your World

—Is Ariel’s mom dead?
—I don’t remember that part of the story. Her mom isn’t around, it’s true.
—I think she is dead.
—Could be.
—When people die, do other people not eat them?
—Er, no. Meat comes from animals, not people. It wouldn’t be polite.
—What do we do with people when they die?
—We put them in holes in the ground, and they turn into dirt. It takes a long time.
—Ariel’s mom?
—Well, mermaids might do it differently.
—People take a long time to turn into dirt?
—They do.
—When do they turn back into people?

Hotel register 2014.002

The Author and His Doubles: Essays on Classical Arabic Culture (Middle East Literature in Translation)

Hyperbolic author functions: plagiarism (the tangent) versus forgery (the arctangent). The authentic pre-Islamic ode cannot be nailed down. More tricks from al-Jāḥiẓ, who steals his material, has his material stolen, pretends to have stolen his material just to throw people off.

Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book

It’s too long, because I don’t think he ever reached the point of imagining someone reading it from beginning to end. Every couple of years a different chapter comes out in a different journal; of course he’s going to repeat himself. What’s repeated is mostly filler anyway (Sense of History in the Cantos, all that.)

The abundant good stuff comes when he speaks as a gossip rather than an oracle. Anecdotes on the previous generation, sympathetic summings-up of their personality flaws, those flaws taken as more generative of poetry than the vague imperative of Form. Curious glimpses of earlier sympathetic (to me) kooks: Proclus, Ficino. Sharp pictures from his own life, child of fin-de-siecle hippies, Berkeley undergrad in the thirties, skipping ROTC to read Chamber Music with girls on the lawn.

Maybe a telegraph, at times. Privately owned telegraph. Acre on a mountaintop, beacon at night.

Guillaume Dufay—“his perfect control of the forms in which he worked”—

Der Bau

In this part of California there are too few rooms and too many owns. That said, I can’t actually blame California for all the moves back and forth, with the thousands of books and the small orchestra section of guitars, pianos, celli; every new place—and there have been so many—starts out as a Rubik’s cube of wall segments, to be shuffled in the mind till it locks into optimum shelf space, guitars and tiny tables in the corner, philosophy and anthropology butting up against the kitchen microwave… it’s a problem now more than ever, what with the precious caches of toys and picture books accreting everywhere. Not that I’d trade them away. All the same there are too few rooms. J. had a fit of ingenuity and with the help of a rug, bamboo screen and leaning desk turned the basement laundry into a garden outbuilding of an office. It’s much in the spirit of the burrow fort I constructed in my parents’ box-choked garage when I was ten, but more useful, since these days I have a better idea what to do in such spaces.

Of course there are spiders, but the Pholcidae have never bothered me as much as their cousins. I’m not sure why. It might be that their extreme gangliness makes them into abstractions, sketches of spiders. Ceteris paribus you’d try to help them outside, but there’s a raised shelf at the door that defeats the broom method, so the individual that was hiding on the desk behind Can Xue and the Earl of Surrey got incompletely shooed and ended up establishing a court in exile in an upper corner, into which defenses a smaller spider of the same family came wandering. I became aware of them while coding some utterly tedious aspect of a Mac app; they had taken up positions in opposite corners of the web and were feinting like boxers. For minutes at a time they would hold the same positions, then the equilibrium would tip and they would suddenly assume new stances, never approaching too near. I suppose it might have been a courtship rather than a question of territory, but surely that made the calculus no less lethal. After thirty minutes I finished my job and went out to the yard, relieved not to be staying for the fifth act. Noninterference is well and defensible, but sometimes one needs a blind eye with bugs.

The rug, the pillows, the hiragana curtains and silk-shaded lamp are all preserved from our old living room in Berkeley, and when I flip the light on at night they spring self-enclosed from the dark, as the rooms of memory do.

On a different sort of blog I’d talk about the boutique effects pedals I’ve been buying, and how they helped turn a household that briefly had money back into a household that has none. Maybe I will talk about that, if I run out of patter. Anyhow the fancy rig is now in the living room and the old solid-state Fender 85 has gone down into the basement with all my Boss pedals from college, which get along just fine; sometimes you want the sound of transistors. There’s a headphone jack too for the dark nights of the soul. And rare as it is these days for the dark nights of the soul to go past eleven, we still need those hours.

Talking to my stepdad

...hell, sure, you can take a twenty-six-footer out on the ocean. Right under the Golden Gate. Sure. But if one of those freighters comes at you, shipping lane or no shipping lane you need to get the hell out there, because a, they can’t see you coming, and b, even if they see you on a collision course, they can’t do anything about it. Biggest risk on the ocean is collision with something. Those guys do the trans-Pacific Race out to Hawaii, solo, they have to train themselves to sleep twenty, thirty minutes at a time, then wake up, look around to see if anything’s coming. Or in foul weather they’re at the tiller fifty, sixty hours at a time, their mental faculties deteriorate, they start hallucinating. That tsunami in Japan? All that shit got washed out to the ocean, it’s still floating around the Pacific. Cargo containers get knocked off the freighters in bad weather, they’ll float, depending how much water gets into them they float a little lower, a little lower, sometimes they’re two feet below the surface of the water, you’re doing ten knots and then blam, collision, twenty minutes till the boat sinks. Throw your safety raft over. So here are these guys. They were going to do the trans-Pacific from Long Beach to Hawaii in a thirty-foot Catalina, you’ve been on one of those, it’s a recreational coastal craft, it’s not an oceangoing vessel, you want to take it out there you have to reinforce things. They did some stuff, they reinforced the sails, it wasn’t enough. Anyway. First day out one of their crew starts vomiting uncontrollably, seasickness or what, he had the seasickness patch, didn’t do him any good, he couldn’t eat. And the dummies, they decide to keep going with one of their prime experienced sailors incapacitated. They keep saying, let’s go another day, see how he’s feeling, we can always turn around tomorrow. The tiller breaks, the rudder breaks, all their hatches are leaking below, there’s actually a line caught under one of the hatches and keeping it open. They hit foul weather and bathtubfuls of salt water get dumped on deck and their fresh water tanks down in the hold, and you know what they didn’t do? Didn’t check the O-rings sealing their water tanks. Their supply’s getting contaminated. The guy is still sick, vomiting blood now, he tore his esophagus vomiting so much, so they radio up the Coast Guard and the Coast Guard says it’s your boat, it’s your call, but we recommend you abandon the boat and we’ll send out a helicopter. They’ve got the usual rescue raft on board, it self-inflates, they have to get on the raft because you can’t have a helicopter coming down on a thirty-foot bucking bronco of a boat. So the idea is you toss it over and then leap on just as the boat’s going under, you can guess how that goes, as soon as it’s over you have two vessels moving at different speeds and directions and they’re going to drift apart. There’s a painter line supposed to secure the raft to the boat, but over it goes and one guy gets on and what do you know, the painter is loose, another mistake, they didn’t check that, so he grabs the line and it tears up his hands down to the meat, he wasn’t wearing gloves, another mistake, now the next guy is swimming over, he’s a water polo player but he can’t get up on the raft, can’t get the hatch open, the hatches are sealed shut and you’re supposed to climb these canvas ladders but they aren’t rigid, he can’t get a foothold in the loops, grabbing and pulling, finally he uses his water polo muscles to leap half out of the water, punches the damn hatch with every ounce of his strength and gets it open, and there’s another failure of education because right on either side of the hatch were a couple of cords saying, pull here to open the hatch, they should have gone over all that in training, they didn’t know…

<= 2014.08.21

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