We destroy the beauty of the countryside because the un-appropriated splendors of nature have no economic value. We are capable of shutting off the sun and the stars because they do not pay a dividend. — John Maynard Keynes
A visit from Envy
"Hey! Don't get upset," I told him. "You have lots of friends. Why, just the other day I saw you huddled intimately with a couple of other writers I know. And you're famous for hobnobbing with the famous!"
"This isn't about them," he protested. "It's about you and me."
He had come on a mission, of course. He wanted to remind me that, under his influence, I had signed up to deliver a paper at the Latin American Studies Association conference late next month.
"And you know why, don't you? Because you'd really like to be a professor at some big university. But of course, those people, the real professors, get their way paid to conferences, and when they present papers it helps them advance their careers in academia. But here are you, outside of the ivied halls, doing all this work, and no one ever rewards you! It's like I've always told you, life is so unfair!"
I just stared at him, taken aback.
"We used to be such good friends," he went on. "And I've helped you so much! Where would you be without me?"
"Excuse me? What are you talking about?"
"Why, what would you ever have accomplished without me? I was the one who kept pointing out the accomplishments of other people. It gave you something to shoot for!"
Yes, he was right. He had done me service in the past. But at such great cost. We used to spend hours together, sobbing and lamenting the cruelty of the world. I felt I really needed him, because he was the only one who understood me and how unique was my suffering. But whenever I was with him, I felt awful.
"I used to go into a bookstore, and see all those books that somebody else had published, and feel wretched because they weren't mine," I recalled.
"And that made you try harder to write your own. Don't tell me it didn't."
"You got me to imitate authors I don't even respect, just because they made money and sold lots of books. Authors I didn't want to be like, even if I could."
"Well, imitation is a necessary stage in learning. And remember: I'm the one who introduced you to Glib."
It was true. I had encountered Hyacinth Glib many times before, but it was my old pal Envy who got him to work for me.
"Glib is a lot like you," I said. "He can be useful, but if I'm not careful, he'll take over the whole project."
"And what's wrong with that? He writes very well."
"If I leave it to him, readers say, 'That was very clever. But what exactly does it mean?'"
"Ah, yes. But you told me you wanted to sound clever. That's why I brought him to you, you'll remember."
"Glib is all right, as long as I've got Bear to keep him in line. He's useful once a project is thoroughly thought out. The problem is really the same one I have with you, Envy. He wants to do the thinking for me."
"You don't trust my judgment." He looked as though he were about to cry.
No, I don't, I thought to myself. Not any more. And you know what else? I don't really want to be a professor. I knew that years ago, when I got out of that racket. There are good people in it, but the system wears them down, grinds away the rough edges that make a thinker interesting.
"Thanks for the visit, old pal," I said. "You're right; you have done me service in the past. And I'm glad you dropped by, because you've suddenly made me realize why I don't need to spend money to present a paper at an academic conference. I'll find other, better ways to get my ideas out."
He looked startled, and turned red in the face, but when I just smiled at him he simply grabbed his hat and stormed out the door. Look out. He's in a bad mood. He may be visiting you soon.
[For more on Bear and Glib, see my Collaborators page.]
Poets Against the War
Dennis Kelly writes: Please find attached a link to "Baghdad Haiku" -- my protest poem concerning the approaching war in Iraq.
Sam Hamill, the publisher of Copper Canyon Press here in Seattle/Port Townsend, has gathered together a group of poets to protest this inhuman assault on innocent mothers & children. Among the poets is the Poet Laureate of the US. Mrs. Bush had to cancel her poetry tea party because the protesting poets.
I know that NWU [that's the National Writers Union] has its hands full now with many important problems, but I ask you to at least consider this issue & contemplate what's coming down.
William Gibson on not knowing much about techThis may be why he is such a great poet of the present. See this interview by John Marshall (not the former Chief Justice of the United States -- some other John Marshall).
Virus warning: "Demon-of-Doubt"My system was attacked by a virus this morning at about 3. It kept flashing the message, "Suppose you are just a mediocre writer?" At first I just lay there stunned, hoping it would go away, but as I saw it was taking over my whole thought-processing software, I knew I had to take combative action.
This virus is highly contagious, mutant (it displays varying messages, though always on the same theme) and extremely dangerous. Left unattended, it causes a slow-down in your whole system, reducing productivity and even altering (downgrading) goals. You may already have encountered it. If and when you do, it is essential to take immediate remedial action.
The particular remedy required depends on the particularities of your system, and everyone's is unique. I try to keep my virus-protection software updated by regular reading (absorption of anti-virus memes), currently Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (which is every bit as exquisite, though in its very different way, as the recent movie it inspired, "The Hours"). However, various other sorts of anxieties had kept me from my reading lately, and the virus took that opportunity to attack. (This particular virus is always scanning for openings, which is why it is so dangerous.) The viciousness of the attack called for the strongest available anti-virus program.
What works for you may not be what works for me. For my system, poetry is most effective. It somehow calms the system and strengthens the normal thought-processing, and can even act as an accelerator. Last night I chose Yunus Emre, one of the most powerful poet-programs on my shelves, starting with the translations by Murat Yagan published in a lovely purple binding with the title, I wrapped myself in flesh and bones and I appeared as Yunus. (This, according to a very old Turkish tradition, is what Yunus told Mevlana was the summary of Mevlana's great book on the relation of God to man.) Yagan's translations are as lovely as his color choice, but almost completely impenetrable. "I pulled my head to safety, / Into the coat of Kanaat, / I tailored shirt of Melamet; / The wise one who can wear should come" is not exactly crystal clear even with footnotes, though I like the definition of kanaat: "contentment, knowing that one has rather than doesn't have." Still, it was effective, and the effect was strengthened when I applied another version of the same program, the translation of Yunus by S�ha Faiz, collected as The City of the Heart.
I'd welcome reports from others on virus-protections against "Demon-of-Doubt" that you've found effective.
Real war vs. fantasy heroicsClear, powerful essay in the Village Voice by Alisa Solomon. For comments on the classic American deconstruction of the "war as glory" fantasy, see my comments (ambivalent though they were) on Red Badge of Courage. It's in the archive for 1/20, labeled Laboring in the fiction factory.
Patrick Buchanan, anti-imperialistAmazing but true. He's right-wing, but he's not nuts. Read Buchanan's very intelligent argument against American bellicosity here.
BolivariationsBleary-eyed in the ITS Faculty Technology Center of NYU. I've been scanning the pages of my essay on Bolivar's political thought -- an old essay on an even older subject, but one which Hugo Chavez and his friends have made relevant again. Soon, maybe tomorrow, I can clean up the scan (it doesn't recognize Spanish words, gets them garbled) and then I can post the essay on the web for all the Bolivar nuts to enjoy.
Death and letters
Death has been much in the news lately, with the deaths of the seven in the Columbia shuttle disaster. It is always sad when people who still have much to live for suddenly lose their lives. It is especially sad for those who knew and loved them, or for those whose own work depended on their contribution. Seven people.
Ninety people died yesterday in floods in São Paulo. The numbers dying daily in Chechnya are uncountable. Whole villages are being wiped out in Colombia. Today's paper reported another 16-year old Palestinian shot and killed by Israeli troops near the Gaza-Egypt border. He was armed, they said. Why would a 16-year old boy in Palestine pick up arms? We all know the answer.
Any death is sad, especially if it is before it's time. Now the government of the United States is openly planning a massive aerial attack on Iraq, knowing -- in fact intending -- that it will cause many deaths.
The deaths of the seven are sad. But doesn't it strike you as astonishing that those few, volunteers on a dangerous mission, would be given so much attention at just this moment?
Death and letters. They've been on my mind a lot lately. Last night we saw the exquisite film, The Hours, which is about (among other things) how death gives meaning to letters, and vice versa. Does a death mean at all, that is, does it have any meaning, unless and until we describe it? Until we tell its story, to ourselves and others? No, I think not. Without a story, the death is just a normal part of life, the extermination of some cells while the larger organism -- the society, the tribe, the human population -- lives on. The media are telling the story of the seven as though they were the most momentous events of, well, of this week, anyway. Until the next big story comes along. But stories don't just "come along." They are created, manufactured and in this case amplified by the biggest communications networks. That leaves it up to us to tell the other stories, of all those other deaths.