Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2012, pt.25: Mark Rich

Readings 2012: My by-my-own-bootstraps mode of living ...
by Mark Rich

It leaves little time for working through a library — especially when the library is of the steadily self-accreting sort. Still in odd moments I seize the handy book and make do ... and so I was contemplating Tennyson one scorcher Saturday sitting idly at a sorry flea market I was participating in as a gesture of support for the organizer. As an O. Henry character says of him, Tennyson is "a boss poet." I sold almost nothing that day — but the almost nothing was a Pabst Beer neon sign for goodly money ... money that I watched come and then go. On the other hand I obtained a lovely insight from Lord Alfred that remains with me and which seems available to me on a renewal basis, should I grow forgetful. That Pabst sign, and its money? Gone, and gone.

So did this lesson — that I am better paid for reading — help keep me from running around to auctions and such, and frittering away my year? Nope.

Anyway ... I will be catching up and revisiting the nineteenth century forever, it seems. With undone tasks on my desk that require more such delvings, I should do little else. So why do I feel a little guilty thrill, opening old pages? The other day when entering the world of The Poet at the Breakfast Table I felt I was shirking duties — and I was: but just other duties than the ones I was pursuing. My problem, I suppose, is my usual enjoyment of duties, of almost any sort. Not always, but more often than not, I love this chaos of my life, with all its mismatched socks and tasks ... and being a child born of a society still rooted in its Calvinism, how can I not feel guilty at such pleasures taken?

The rush of Cyclopean-bellows winds — and Time's thunderous hooves ... Yes. That rushing-nearer pressure brushes away silly slow pleasures ...

But the world has so many people driven to distraction by these Hollywood speeding-time effects that I feel free to open Oliver Wendell Holmes on a quiet afternoon after a bowl of chicken soup. As Holmes points out, we often have thoughts unknown to ourselves — until we utter them. I have often thought that. And how many too-hurried souls have stopped to realize that of themselves? Do they have time to speak, let alone listen — to others, or themselves?

More pertinently — more worriedly, when I hear Time's wingèd xylophones ... I ask myself about all these books by writers who are friends, and by writers who should be, in piles awaiting reading. For the moment I must say to them: I will be a better reader than I am, by the time I am with you.

For I am a poor reader. I know this thanks to Van Wyck Brooks: what a conversationalist he must have been! In my life he still is, via his writings. In our household he exerts a Presence ... as given evidence by the fact that the Chevy van that Martha purchased to be the camel caravan of our antiquing expeditions she dubbed Van Wyck. This year in Madison I found a book by Brooks I knew little about, and was predisposed to dismiss: for who cares about opinions of a man whose name no one knows? You must hold in your hands a good copy of Opinions of Oliver Allston to know who might be you. The dust-jacket-flap comment — that Brooks is "cloaking himself in the somewhat transparent robes of Oliver Allston" — has nothing to do with flagrant frontal self-display. Brooks hit on a way that allowed him to explore his own thoughts and ideas — a brilliant way, to judge from the book's appeal. Oliver Allston is Van Wyck Brooks, in a handy, alter-ego sort of way.

I first discovered Brooks in another Madison used-books store, Paul's, many years ago. I doubt many of Brooks's books appeared in paper — or if they did, then most copies must have eroded from thumbing. My copy of The Writer in America is not shaky but shaken apart apart at the binding, thanks to this same erosion. The cover has become a folder holding a sheath of too-often re-read pages. Time, and thumbing, should be kinder to my hardcover Oliver Allston — although should I find a battered copy without the revealing dust jacket I just might take it along when traveling, as I used to do with my paperback Writer. The expansive and encompassing insights, the full-hearted thinkings, the tinting humors of a widely encompassing understanding ... a Brooks book can be a well-liked companion just as much as it is literature.

I fear that when I started reading this new-to-me oldish book, during my one night and morning at this year's WisCon, I broke out in Brookese — for when I encountered Mari Kotani at a coffeeshop I burbled about it, as I did again, stopping for a long chat with Mary Rickert on the hotel stairs. Babbling like a brook — not like a Brooks: for my babbling is unlike Brooks's steady and relaxed stream that never babbles.

My aim at 2012's onset was to regain myself — to rescue Mark Rich. I put it in those words. Whatever it might be that Mark Rich is, or was: that I would aim to rescue. Why? In 2010 I worked to rescue one local business from a situation caused by bad hiring ... then, in 2011, to rescue another from a situation caused, I fear, by bad firing. Disgusted once and then twice by these employers — for people reasons, not business reasons — I washed these latest exercises in futility from my hair, hoping to find my old exercises still clinging there, somewhere.

I had no idea how to go about rescuing myself, exactly. Had I been less busy at being poor, I might have put myself more securely in my reading rocker (is that unclear? — the rocking chair in which I do most reading) earlier than I did. Re-entering Brooks's world gave me an approach. Surprisingly, it even offered a technique, in returning to my writing. (If you wish to know the technique: read the book.) In coming to grips with what I was returning-to-myself from, however ...

A quite different old paperback leapt off the shelf at me, one Sunday afternoon in the lovely used-bookstore across from our spot on the courthouse square in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where Martha and I set up our antiques and oddments for sale each Sunday this past summer. For years I have known I needed to read Ortega y Gasset — something, anything. Here I found at last and read The Dehumanization of Art — with wonder and delight. Oddly, the essay therein from which I anticipated gaining least — its subject is Goethe, whose works I have dipped into, not really read — opened a window. In speaking of personal meaning, of destiny, of entelechy, and of Goethe's time in Weimar, Ortega speaks of Goethe's running away from himself — away from becoming himself.

This, I believe, sits near to Brooks's way of thinking when the latter says the "great question" for the writer is to find focus and then to keep it: for "when he is out of focus he is in hell."

So was my problem a matter of finding "my destiny"? — which I ask thinking not at all of determinism. Brooks argues staunchly against determinists yet can speak of himself elsewhere as a "predestined writer" — I think sharing Ortega's sense that one makes of oneself that which one already is. The sense of the "already is" pervades the artist's sense of self; and I think this feeling is akin to the religious mission the young artist often expresses — as in the Art-as-religion impulse that can be found expressed in Kipling's novel The Light That Failed, which I suspect gave Kipling a way of talking about himself as a writer, just as Brooks found a way by creating "Oliver Allston." For something that is already there is also that which must become itself.

So it may be that "thou dost His will,/ the Maker's, and not knowest," as a certain boss poet says. It seems to me that the Maker is a Self-Maker who moves forward, not-knowing while also securely self-knowing — moving out from self-knowledge into becoming oneself.

Our problem may lie in the fact that we, in our Age of the Masses, have so well escaped tradition. We lack the option of living traditionally. "A man's life from birth to death was a series of transition rites which brought him nearer and nearer to his ancestors" — thus Chinua Achebe, in Things Fall Apart. In the past tense. To say that sentence in present tense seems not quite fitting, or at least not an option for us.

After days or weeks of living with such thoughts I came to realize I had not, after all, been running away from myself, in Ortega's terms, in the two years previous. I had become an organic maple-syrup blender and bottler, at the national level ... lah-de-dah. I was a winemaker-in-the-making in the northern-grapes winemaking movement ... etc. What was happening, instead, is that in going these directions I was straying, maybe blindly feeling my way, in my attempt already well begun ... my attempt to regain myself.

So then when did I lose myself — or lose direction — or run from the I that I was becoming?

I believe I knew it, felt it, when it was happening nearly twenty years ago. For at the time I was making minor but important breakthroughs in my writing — breakthroughs that allowed me to taste an unusual difference, when then I re-tasted the works of C.M. Kornbluth.

In 1992, I turned what the science fiction crowd calls, somewhat demeaningly, "professional" by selling some stories for penny-per-word rates of a certain level. Before and afterwards I was writing many stories and "selling" many — for money, or not. Then, in 1994, only two years later, Cyril Kornbluth took over my life to such a degree that my fund of concentation ended up deflected from my own writing.

When that happened I knew the next task on my docket was the Kornbluth biography. I had no choice about it. Because of actions I had taken, choices I had made, it faced me — and me, apparently, alone.

What also faced me, in 1994? The insecurities any writer finds facing her or him, on the verge of abyss — artistic abyss or financial abyss: take your pick. That faced me — as did the fear that I lacked the steadiness to face down the opprobrium of certain others: for I knew I would need more than average strength in standing, when I said what I felt would need saying. Even then, with my toes barely wetted at the edge of Kornbluthian waters, the skeleton of the narrative was struggling to articulate itself — in my mind, perhaps in my soul ... the skeleton I would manage at last to present as an apparition of the past, with a fair share of factual flesh, fifteen years later. But in 1994 and then 1995 and 1996, the knowledge and the fears were tearing me apart. The inside vs. the outside — a necessary conflict, says Brooks ... but even so ...

So was it then that I ran from myself? How can I say for sure, when my task never ceased to stare me in the face? Yet I believe I was not wholly myself for the next fourteen years. A slow fire was burning my fields. A part of me hung in the killing tree, pushed by an unrelenting wind out of the past that made the body seem almost alive.

Do these words sound too grim in tone? Yet I was there — at least in part.

To be fair to myself, my running-from-self must have seized to stillness, like grit in the gears, the writer I was becoming. It may not have subtracted from the writer I was. All the same, I displaced myself. Suddenly — or gradually: I do not know — I was far at sea; and I had only my limited abilities to draw upon, in dog-paddling the various directions in which I hoped to find shore. The steady developments that might have opened as possibilities for me, had I shouldered my task when it offered itself, now closed, as options. Part of me, of course, did labor and develop steadily. Another part, however, had to wait — and had to fear that it did, indeed, swing, steadily, back and forth, pushed by a haunted wind.

How resilient we are, I think now: for we survive our self-woundings — even regaining the use of limbs we have hacked off with our own scimitar-bearing hand.

And how fortunate I feel, too — for whatever of me did remain vital in those years proved adequate to the task of gradually, fitfully pulling myself back toward the place on the shore where I last had stood on both feet, in 1994.

And how strange it also seems — that our household soul became tripartite in the year, 2008, that I finally bowed my head to shoulder my task ...

... as though a missing piece of a soul could make its reappearance on four feet, with erect Scottie ears. In the great, deep disruption of adding doglife to our long-established home life, a greater, deeper disruption ended. The true soul-night lay ahead, for me: for the act of shouldering my task required complete self-abnegation — a requirement I was glad to meet, by this time. It may be true, what Kipling said through his self-surrogate character: "You must sacrifice yourself, and live under orders, and never think for yourself, and never have real satisfaction in your work except just at the beginning, when you're reaching out after a notion." You must this, you must that. It happens, though, that way. Best, perhaps, to know it afterwards. Already I had given whatever it is that I had to give. So I thought, anyway ... and learned better.

In this light — thank you, Ortega — my difficulties and obstacle-running and goose-chasings of 2010 and 2011 seem almost natural ... after having been lost at sea for fifteen years and then tossed ashore nearly drowned — but only nearly. Gasping for air, I was not all I once was — I do feel this, to some degree — in writing the life of Kornbluth. Yet surrendering myself to the waves and winds that were there, close to shore, whether I wanted them or not, I was surrendering the part of me that had held so tenaciously, for so long, to my running away.

I was re-finding my focus, per Brooks; I was becoming that which I already was, per Ortega. I endured my trial and performed what would have been coming-yet-again-of-age rite in Achebe's pre-Western vision, facing my egwugwu spirit of my adopted dead ancestor — weirdly enough, a secular-Jewish Manhattan-born spirit that hovered above my half-Japanese Midwestern one ... and I was finally doing what I needed to do, which was to satisfy the egwugwu that he might speak at last, and that he might rest at last ... at least for a time.

Does it somewhat spoil things that my resolution of 2012, to rescue myself, should come after I had already done so, in 2009-10? Not really. I fear this self-rescuing may need permanency, as a resolution. I find here an irreverent note I made to myself this last January — "Keep to business as usual if it is an unusual business." So with such nonsense for a motto ...

I found another experience satisfying for different reasons, in reading The Naturalistic Theism of Henry Nelson Weiman (1884-1975). (Wieman is pronounced like why-man.) I have among my books a copy of my grandpa Mark Rich's book inscribed to his son, my Dad, Charles M. Rich; and now, too, I have a copy of Charles M. Rich's book inscribed to Mark Rich — the grandson of the other Mark. Can you blame me for enjoying the symmetry? Naturalistic theism actually interests me despite my usual phobia of things religious: for this theism embraces rational efforts to understand the religious attitude, feeling or endeavor. Its proponents included Josiah Royce, A.N. Whitehead, and John Dewey — characteristically Modern figures, even if our mental picture of religion of the times might focus more on church reactions to Darwinian and Spencerian thinking; on the Brethren and the rise of Fundamentalism; or on the Neo-Orthodoxy (a term I learned from this book) of the most famous theologians around and after the Second War.

It took me several efforts to get up speed to finish a full first reading of my Dad's book — not at a run, but at a reflective stroll. Perhaps the first half of the book presents ideas and issues that were new enough to me, and sufficiently abstract, that forward progress required steady mental application. Decades ago I opted out of a Philosophy second-major thanks in part to feeling no real desire to sink myself into Modern philosophy — so I lacked footing I might have had, had I just swallowed what seemed, at the time, a not particularly healthy pill. So this book forced me to find footing where I had almost none. At about halfway, when Dad's exploration of Weiman's developing ideas reaches Whitehead and Dewey, the going went much more easily (I cannot resist that "going went"). This is ever-so-slightly more familiar territory, for me.

Difficult or not I believe the book offers rewards — because the level of thinking is high, beginning to end. I did have some clues beforehand about naturalistic theism. Many readers, though, may find this a wholly new area for thought. Even though the "theism" part of the picture offers a direction I tend to veer from, Wieman's efforts toward establishing inductive grounding for religion speaks directly to issues surrounding the individual in society. Wieman's insistence on the necessity of building an understanding that embraces interpersonal differences and conflict, rather than avoiding or suppressing these aspects, I find refreshing. The whole direction of Process philosophy, likewise — as in the phrase "process of progressive integration," which Weiman thought a fitting way of describing the "religious object."

As with Brooks and Ortega, this is a book that offers ideas and perspectives to which I will be returning, in years to come. (And congratulations, Dad.)

I have long felt the attractions of philosophy, but almost always have felt underwhelmed by my ability to assimilate concepts. As usual, assimilation comes through freely giving the time. When overly fractured, or running from that entelechy of constant re-creation (ha-ha! how do you like that?), I was not the I who had what was mine, including time, to give. So it seems, anyway.

And with such new elements settling into my Whiteheadian prehensive self ... onward ...

Mark Rich is the author of a major biographical and critical study, C.M. Kornbluth: The Life and Works of a Science Fiction Visionary, published by McFarland. He has had two collections of short fiction published — Edge of Our Lives (RedJack) and Across the Sky (Fairwood) — as well as chapbooks from presses including Gothic and Small Beer. With partner-in-life Martha and Scottie-in-life Sam, he lives in the Coulee region of Wisconsin where an early-1900s house, a collection of dilapidated antique furniture, and a large garden preoccupy him with their needs. He has twice contributed essays to The Cascadia Subduction Zone.


anna tambour said...

One is never accurate when surveying one's life. You say, "So was it then that I ran from myself? How can I say for sure, when my task never ceased to stare me in the face? Yet I believe I was not wholly myself for the next fourteen years. A slow fire was burning my fields. A part of me hung in the killing tree, pushed by an unrelenting wind out of the past that made the body seem almost alive."

Yet some harmonious arrangement must have reigned when you produced beautiful artwork for Electric Velocipede in 2005, and when you, after a considerable number of kicks up the bum from me, sent me some poems for my Virtuous Medlar Circle that I immediately published and treasure greatly. You probably don't remember them yourself. People who are productive and thoughtful rarely realise that they are, looking often to those who they think are models of same. Those models' thoughts are often remarkably similar and self-critical, at least the models worth paying attention to.

Anyway, I highly recommend Three Poems by Mark Rich

Mark Rich said...

Truthfully I do remember the poems. Some that I wrote during that period remain just some kind of writing, and not quite poems. The ones I sent for the Virtuous Medlar Circle, when I went to look at them again, not long ago, I found had some kind of spark to them -- not necessarily the spark I was looking for, at the moment, but a spark all the same ... But I thank you for the comments. I thought I was alive to the world, during those years; and I was, indeed, alive ... yet I think I am accurate in seeing what happened to me. Cheers ...