Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Refresh My Memory

"Benson Randall awoke one morning with someone else's memories..."

How can you be absolutely sure that your "memories" are not just a broadcast your brain is receiving? Or an accidental download of someone else's thoughts? Is a "self" just a life story?

Listen to me read my new short story on The Strange Recital, a fiction podcast I co-host with my friend Tom Newton. Plus an interview (of a sort) afterward.


More to come about The Strange Recital!

Friday, March 4, 2016

A Journey into the Dark Woods

There is a myth that by middle age, one is fully formed; growth should be finished, the mountain scaled, the work done. Fred Poole’s memoir, The Aqua Mustang: Detours Into My Past, puts the lie to that idea. He looks back thirty years to when he was fifty, a time of powerful change rather than of resting on laurels, of conscious forward movement rather than a tired surrender to stasis.

In an introspective narrative voice that reminded me of strongly subjective first-person novels like Knut Hamsun’s Hunger or Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Poole weaves a story that travels from dim childhood memories in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, to exotic international dangers, to New York City’s streets, art museums, and ACOA rooms, and back again to rural New England. But the journey is not about geography. It is a journey of self-awareness.

It takes courage to hunt down and confront the phantoms in one’s own psyche, to dive like Beowulf to battle the monsters at the bottom of the lake -- to kill Grendel and his mother and lift the longtime curse from the kingdom of the self. That’s what Fred Poole is doing on his bike around the streets of Manhattan, and in his aqua Mustang on the shadowy country roads of his family history. His story is his own, but it’s also classic. As John Yorke says in The Atlantic (Jan 1, 2016): “In stories throughout the ages there is one motif that continually recurs—the journey into the woods to find the dark but life-giving secret within.”

I'm pleased to have made this video to promote The Aqua Mustang:


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Fierce Subjectivity: Mean Bastards Making Nice

Djelloul Marbrook’s fiction is like no one else’s. Perhaps it’s the rich stew of being half-Bedouin, half German-American, born in Algiers, raised in New York’s art world, educated in a Brit-run boarding school, helped by a Sicilian stepfather, then going on to a stint in the US Navy, a newspaper career, years living on a sailboat, and a classic ten-thousand hours of poetic practice—all those ingredients and other less visible ones—that worked an alchemical magic on his sensibilities and vocabulary.

Full disclosure: Djelloul is a dear friend of mine. I don’t always love his work, but I always respect its powerfully idiosyncratic intelligence.

Mean Bastards Making Nice is a slim volume from small UK publisher Leaky Boot Press. It contains two novellas related by theme and setting. It’s a thoroughly New York book, but that doesn’t mean stock Big Apple accents or tired tropes from TV. It means both city streets and upstate forests are simply there: as integral as the air the characters breathe.

To gloss the surface: “Book One: The Pain of Wearing Our Faces” introduces a painter, a composer, their shared alcoholism, and a mysterious woman who is a muse for both of them, but a dangerous one. “Book Two: Grace” follows a girl on the run from country to city, her discovery of her own warrior strength on the streets, and her profound impact on a few of the city’s art-world glitterati.

However, for a Djelloul Marbrook story, a plot description cannot begin to capture the actual reading experience. Nor can a mention of the astonishing lexicon he employs. Instead, it has to be acknowledged that the journey a reader takes between these covers is primarily a journey into the author’s mind. His voice is profoundly subjective.

Which is certainly not to say Marbrook only writes as Marbrook. Each of these novellas is about a woman, and one is narrated in first person. Both women are painters. Marbrook is neither a woman nor a painter, but the masks he creates are so vivid they transcend categories. The sensibility that drives the storytelling, that crafts the sentences, is recognizably a product of a singular author’s interior.

Granted, every writer’s narrative voice is subjective to some degree. It can’t be otherwise; at the level of everyday living, every human is a solo consciousness encapsulated inside a sensory apparatus. One point of view for each of us. But when we communicate, and especially when we use the consensual abstraction of written language (music and visual art not so much), we are moving into a zone of commonality, a dilution of our lone uniqueness. Writers, whether they know it or not, are embracing that dilution—especially those content to work with a fairly limited database of words, the words they’re confident their readers will understand. That means most of us—but not all.

Marbrook, a seasoned, professional newsman, is skilled at prioritizing clear, communal message-sharing above personal, idiosyncratic expression—all the better for journalism, but his fiction is something else entirely. It shows a conscious choice to resist the diminishment of unique subjectivity. To, instead, master the tools of the art form—vocabulary, syntax, metaphor—until a distinctive, muscular, uninhibited (but never sloppy), even hallucinatory voice emerges, seemingly without effort.

This is prose that reminds me of film school: Russian cinema pioneer Sergei Eisenstein claimed that meaning in montage (editing) came from the “collision” of adjacent shots. Marbrook’s prose accrues its dense power from the continual collision of words, phrases, images, ideas.

In addition, Marbrook puts the lie to all those Internet writing sites that say a fiction author should be invisible so the story can come through without distraction. He proves the stupidity of that idea. What would art be if all artists made their expressive style invisible so the subject matter could be seen without distraction? Van Gogh would have been a photographer taking mundane snapshots.

As a reader, submerging yourself in these novellas is like being lost in some sort of fever dream, a foreign land that’s familiar but somehow off-kilter, a parallel universe, an impressionistic, almost psychedelic vision simultaneously more vivid and convoluted than your own. To choose a convenient example, the book begins with these lines:
     I don’t trust words. That’s what he said. They’re swindlers, mean bastards making nice, he said.
     I felt like swatting his words out of my head as I swarmed into Bloomie’s on Christmas Eve in full city roast. I needed gloves. I needed a new head. I’d left my rabbit-lined Danish gloves in a cab. The cheap wool mark-ups I bought made my two first-water rubies and clitoral opal itch. You don’t want to itch anywhere, but in Bloomie’s razzle of cut-glass perfume pumps and dazzle of capitalist excess itching is a criminal impulse. I gulped three Benadryl caplets with my own spit.
     On a good day my sexual jewels are eyes for seeing in the dark, sensors to explore ocean floors, microscopes. On a bad day, they’re nails to bleed me on a cross, tear me apart. Today they itch and shine at trouble up ahead, like all good jewels. Isn’t it what they’re for? I’m an artist. I never know trouble in my head, it’s always somewhere else, tactile, fragrant, unwilling, unable to be put off. Why else would a woman want to be an artist?
You ask: Who speaks this way? Answer: Marbrook’s people.

You ask: What does it mean? What’s going on? Answer: I’ll re-read, and I’ll notice how I feel. And I’ll keep going, and I’ll observe the cumulative effect of this deluge of image and language, and viscerally, I’ll understand.

Marbrook is an award-winning poet. Perhaps a poet’s fiction is to be expected to deliver this sort of fierce subjectivity. Perhaps not. All this is to say: read him.

Here’s a video I’m pleased to have produced to promote the book:


Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Warfilm / Wind-Up Bird - Dreams Redux

Consider this Part 2 of my previous entry, Warfilm / Wind-Up Bird (please read). No sooner had I finished and posted it than I realized I had more to say about those books and other ideas they sparked.

I’ve been thinking and reading, as always, about stuff like lucid dreaming, Möbius strips, precognition, quantum effects, nondual awakening, memory… the endlessly tangled strands of Mystery we live in. I’ve always been attracted to lucid dreaming, in which one is aware of being in a dream and so is able to control events, but I’ve never applied the self-discipline to learn how to do it. Right now I’m feeling pushed a little closer to taking it on.

Quick detour: To talk about lucid dreaming, we first have to dispense with the obligatory reference to the blockbuster movie Inception, in which writer/director Christopher Nolan squandered his opportunity to do something deep in favor of making one more Hollywood shoot-em-up thrill ride. It is not included in the discussion to come. No more to say. Onward….

If both Tom Newton’s Warfilm and Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are, at the macro scale, depictions of dreams, then how should we look at the dreams their characters experience inside the story -- these dreams-within-dreams? Newton’s protagonist in Warfilm, Franz, under the hypnotic influence of the mysterious Lord Strange, slips into sleep and dreams himself into a DeChirico landscape scarcely more surreal than those he’s seen in the book’s “reality.” While there, in the dream-within-a-dream, he murders Lord Strange, who is never seen again in the book. It’s tempting to think this suggests the power of dream action to impact “reality”... but it’s all a dream, just different layers circling back upon themselves, like the Escher-style edifice of doors and stairways that he attempts to navigate before he wakes up.

If, as psychotherapy suggests, all objects and characters in a dream are aspects of the dreamer, did Franz kill himself? Maybe, but maybe not, because Newton’s third-person narrative point of view, as I discussed in the earlier post, is crafted to never answer the ultimate question: “Who is dreaming this dream?” We are left with the response: “We all are.”

Or: “I am.”

There’s no evidence that Franz was lucid dreaming in his dream-within-a-dream, but Murakami’s first-person protagonist in Wind-Up Bird, Toru, is very intentional about entering the dreamspace and forcing events to go his way. He isolates himself at the bottom of a well until, as he says,
“The darknesses inside and out began to blend, and I began to move outside of my self, the container that held me.” 
This sounds a lot like astral travel, an out-of-body experience (OBE). Toru finds himself in a labyrinthine hotel, makes his way to Room 208, and in the darkness there kills an unseen man who was threatening him. Later, back in “reality,” he learns his cruel brother-in-law has had a stroke and lies incapacitated in the hospital, never to trouble Toru again. Does dream impact non-dream? Does metaphor equal fact?

If I have to choose a one-word answer to that last question, I’ll go with “yes.” Metaphor and fact are like the infinite recursion of facing mirrors. When Charles Foster Kane walks through his hall of mirrors, does it really matter which of the many Kanes is the “real” one? Also, Murakami muses in Wind-Up Bird:
“To know one’s own state is not a simple matter. One cannot look directly at one’s own face with one’s own eyes, for example. One has no choice but to look at one’s reflection in the mirror. Through experience, we come to believe that the image is correct, but that is all.” 
So maybe “self” is a belief system we invent for ego survival, a mirror that needs only its own double to explode into an infinite conundrum.

But in the final analysis, the multiples are illusion. There is just One (as in: Ultimate Indivisibility). In perhaps my favorite passage in Warfilm, near the end, Franz encounters for the last time a recurring character who drops in to offer bits of trickster wisdom. His name is just a number, a different number each time he appears. This time he is Forty-Five:
“He reached into his pocket and pulled out a rectangular strip of paper.
     Watch this.
He looped it into a ring by holding the narrow edges together then he twisted one edge and rejoined them.
     See? A Möbius strip, a closed Möbius strip, a non-orientable object. It has only one side and one boundary. Two planes have become one. The inside is the outside.
He ran his finger along the plane to illustrate his point....
     For example, take the idea that two planes become one and map it on to the concept of self, then you might see the boundary between one self and another is dissolved, so you and I could be the same person. I said that I oscillated between existence and non existence. If you applied the Möbius strip poem to that thought, you could say that I just oscillate because are not existence and non-existence the same thing? Then maybe you would deduce that I do not exist, for with only one plane, what is there to oscillate between? Take your question and answer obsession. The questions are the answers are the questions are the answers ad infinitum. You can do what you like with it.”
Forty-Five is showing Franz a glimpse of the deepest nature of the universe, and the funny thing is that it puts Franz right to sleep. “He had been so tired he might have dreamed it all,” the narrator says a bit later when Franz awakes. He awakes just in time to step outside of surrealism into mythology for a fateful meeting with an entirely unexpected band of Maenads.

I found myself wondering: is Franz living a Möbius strip life? Does he proceed seamlessly from the end on a Greek hillside to the opening sentence, “He was an ordinary German, walking one night on a Berlin street…,” over and over in an endless loop? Is he a recurring dream in a realm where time has no direction?

One of Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird characters says,
“One by one, with my own hands, I had to make this thing I called 'I'-- or, rather, make the things that constituted me.” 
According to some, “self” is an edifice built of our memories. My current favorite blog is The Nightshirt by brilliant science-writer-on-the-fringe Eric Wargo. In “Feeding the Psi God: Precognitive Dreaming, Memory, and Ritual,” he mentions his hypothesis that “the function of dreaming is the formation of long-term memories through playful associations, the art of memory operating automatically while we sleep.” But he also makes a case for the non-linear, simultaneous nature of Time, with precognitive dreams as evidence. About a 9/11 dream of his own, he says,
“My dreaming mind hadn’t peered into the shut envelope, in other words; instead it picked up on the most emotionally salient event in the landscape of my near future. That event bore a chicken-and-egg relationship to the dream that precognized it. It was truly ‘acausal’ or even Moebius-like in precisely the way we should predict could occasionally happen in a science-fictional world where information can travel backward in time.”
By “science-fictional world” I take him to mean the very world we live in. In a later post, “The Great Work of Immortality - Astral Travel, Dreams, and Alchemy,” he ventures into the arcane territory of old alchemical texts, discussing how lucid dreams, astral travel (OBE), and “enlightenment” are on a continuum. He argues that the Mutus Liber (Wordless Book) of 1677, with its enigmatic depictions of a man and woman gathering morning dew on sheets and wringing them out to be distilled, is an illustrated cypher:
“So I think that the Mutus Liber is basically a Baroque astral projection manual disguised as chemistry: The stuff of dreams is the materia prima, the murky raw material that must be taken, analyzed, worked with, to create true philosophic gold: a special 'blended' state in which the soul (alert consciousness) fully joins with the spirit double/'energy body' on its nightly travels.”
I love this esoteric stuff, and long ago used the following quote from the Mutus Liber as the epigraph for Prima Materia, the literary journal I published: To find the philosopher’s stone,“Pray, read, read, read, read again, labor, and discover.” But I digress….

As a dreamer, I confess I’m pretty illiterate and unconscious. But I have ambitions to begin moving toward more dream awareness, in the direction of exactly what Wargo suggests in The Nightshirt:
“If anyone’s innocence is lost here, it should be yours: Time is not what you were raised to think it is. Neither is your own mind. Dreams are a royal road to discovering the bizarre Moebius structure of time and mind; if you are not already keeping a dream diary, what are you waiting for?”
On the other hand, there is always the option to forego such busy striving in favor of the supreme stillness of the “I Am,” as taught by my favorite Indian sage:
“The very idea of going beyond the dream is illusory. Why go anywhere? Just realize that you are dreaming a dream you call the world, and stop looking for ways out. The dream is not your problem. Your problem is that you like one part of the dream and not another. When you have seen the dream as a dream, you have done all that needs to be done.”
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That

Friday, October 9, 2015

Warfilm / Wind-Up Bird

A few observations about two books I read this summer: Haruki Murakami’s hefty (600 page!) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Tom Newton’s debut novella, Warfilm (128 virtual pages on Kindle). Very different books, unexpectedly similar.

What we’re talking about here is dreams. According to the famous and dead writer/teacher John Gardner, the art of fiction is creating a vivid and continuous dream. So fiction as dream is one way of seeing the artform in general, a valid way. But the two books I’m looking at here go further. Rather than fiction as dream, we might call them dream as fiction.

Imagine you’re asleep. dreaming a dream that begins with Hitler as a movie director embarking on the most epic film production in history: World War II! Cool idea, but this is not a novel of ideas or politics or speculative fiction; this is not a novel at all, this is a dream. A novel might take a cool idea and develop its coolness with logical allegory, consistent characters, mandatory narrative arc, etc. But this is a dream, and dreams don’t roll like dat.

Dreams go other places. Dreams surprise you. Warfilm is a dream, and while its WWII shell and its concreteness of detail feel entirely “real,” it does nothing you’ll expect. It lands you in a DeChirico painting where you’ll be trying to get your bearings until suddenly the dream is over. You’re awake. Or are you?

Much has already been written about Murakami’s dreamlike narratives, and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle may be the pinnacle of his work in that vein… the Twin Peaks-like merging of mundane reality with strange, twisted, dark dream-worlds, and no predictable resolutions. One interesting note is that World War II also plays an important role in this book, but it’s the Pacific War rather than the European War.

So the War and the imagistic illogic of night dreams are common between these books. But their difference is in point of view: the objective camera that views everyone from an equal distance, versus the subjective camera that acts as one character’s eyes. Newton’s omniscient third-person narration moves from character to character without an identified “self.” It’s detached and dispassionate, as opposed to the internal nature of Murakami’s first-person narration, limited to one individual. Murakami’s protagonist is the one having the dream, and the other people who enter his dream may tell their first person stories, but it’s all happening to just one “self.”

What this means is that Newton’s work embodies “dream as universal human reality” while Murakami’s view, surprisingly, would seem to emphasize the individual over the collective. Philosophically, Newton seems more Eastern, Murakami more Western.

To go a little deeper, Newton’s narrative POV and the surreality (reality heightened, exaggerated) he depicts work together to suggest that we are all sharing the Big Dream: life is a dream although we don’t recognize it as such. We see life’s banality first, a mask that screens its deeper magic from our awareness. With this book, Newton is doing what Melville’s Ahab urges: “If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”

Newton might be suggesting, as do Jed McKenna and other gurus, that the “wall” is the illusion we call Reality and we are prisoners until we can break through it to see the inexplicable, the ineffable, the nonsensical truth... to acknowledge the quantum field from which we arise, in all its inexplicable whimsy, its anti-classical weirdness. Remember Plato’s Cave: to those who know nothing but the shadows on the cave wall, anything else seems impossible nonsense.

Let’s have more dreams, more invisible made visible, more impossible nonsense!

(For Part 2 of this review, see Warfilm / Wind-Up Bird - Dreams Redux)

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Poetry and Video: Brash Ice by Djelloul Marbrook

An entire year has passed since I last posted on this blog. Wow! But I don't follow the new wisdom that "if it wasn't blogged, it didn't happen." The year was full of actual living.

During 2014 my friend Djelloul Marbrook celebrated the publication of his third volume of poetry, Brash Ice, from UK publisher Leaky Boot Press. The term "brash ice" refers to "accumulations of floating ice made up of fragments...; the wreckage of other forms of ice." An apt metaphor for a long life.

I'm happy to showcase these two video "samplers" that I created to support the book. Each features three poems, read by the author. Enjoy!






Sunday, March 9, 2014

Book Review: Making Sense by Jim Murdoch

Is there any socially redeeming value to “making stuff up” - in other words, writing fiction? And does fiction offer any benefit for a reader beyond entertainment?

Unlikely as it may seem in this clangorous world, there are scientists studying those quiet little questions, and the first, best answer is one word: Empathy.

To my mind, empathy is what Making Sense, Jim Murdoch’s fifth published book, is all about. This book is a showcase of the uniquely human ability to understand the interior life of another conscious being; to transcend the limits of the self.

Making Sense is a slender collection of 19 brief stories, each exploring a different character, who is also usually the narrator. These are not plotted stories, but character vignettes and voice-driven monologues. Nearly half the narrators are women, and the range of ages and types is wide; they are not just thinly disguised versions of the author. All but two of the stories are narrated in first person, but even the third-person omniscient narrator uses a very conversational, first-person-like voice and even addresses the second person (the reader) with lines like, “Do you see that man over there….”

The whole collection is full of a lively energy, like meeting real people. Murdoch has a gift for imagining himself into the minds of others and capturing their ways of speech. The differences in the subjects, in their voices and their lives, is what provides the empathic spine of this collection. All these engaging voices show us that the Other is really just like ourselves, and that is one of the most crucial messages for a divided, brutal world.

George Ovitt explored this subject rather brilliantly in his Atticus Review article “Fiction and Empathy,” which I highly recommend.

And to dig a little deeper (getting back to my earlier statement about scientists): a series of experiments support the fiction/empathy claims above, and show that the empathy effect is strongest with literary fiction as compared to genre fiction, factual non-fiction, or not reading at all. Perhaps the first empirical data on the subject, the studies were recently published in a top journal, Science, and subsequently well covered in Scientific American and the The New York Times. (Thanks to the On Fiction blog for bringing it to my attention.)

So it’s true: stories that delve deeply into characters’ internal worlds, depicting the complexity and unpredictability of real life, effectively teach us how to empathize. Our world leaders desperately need to read more literary fiction!

In the never-ending struggle between dark and light forces, Murdoch’s Making Sense adds to the positive side.

There is just one more aspect to the book I want to address. Murdoch uses a few of these stories to experiment with technique: how to create distinct regional dialects or accents on the page so that they will sound authentic in the reader’s inner ear. While his urge to capture a unique voice is admirable, I found these stories less successful. As I struggled through the altered spellings and syntax for Scots, Cockney, and New York accents, I lost the fluid rhythm of the speech and even the line of the story. A lighter touch, just hinting at the dialects, would have been more to my taste (especially for New York, where I’ve lived for 25 years without hearing an accent like the one depicted here).

In the end, this is a valuable investigation. I respect the care and thoughtfulness with which Murdoch approached his dialect stories, and perhaps the effort serves best to illustrate how thoroughly immersed each of us is in the speech we hear every day. Language is indistinguishable from thought; it’s like the air we breathe.

In other words, there are simple, universal human sensibilities under the complex exterior of such stories, like the root language of which the dialects are just surface variations. This entire book supports the idea that we are One.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Can a stranger share your memories?

This entry could be considered a follow-up to last year’s post, Aah, Memory... A Review of “And She Was” by Alison Gaylin. I hope you’ll read that one too.

“Can a stranger share your memories?” asks the blurb on the back cover of Alison Gaylin’s new(ish) suspense novel Into the Dark. For me that’s an intriguing question, a place from which to launch an investigation. So that’s what this post is: an investigation, not a book review.

I am addressing the same question in the novel I’m currently writing. But I’m approaching it from a very different angle.

Into the Dark’s recurring protagonist, private eye Brenna Spector, is blessed/afflicted with a rare condition called HSAM, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (also called Hyperthymesia). When she encounters someone who seems to have knowledge of past events only Brenna or her missing sister could know, she is launched into a fast-paced whodunit with personal impact and an escalating body count.

SPOILER ALERT! Because this is a genre mystery, of course there is an explanation, and this one is both clever and surprising: a stolen diary. A filmmaker and his hired actress have managed to get possession of Brenna’s missing sister Clea’s teenage journal and are exploiting it for the sake of “art” (pornography, actually). And, a genius touch: the diary itself has a name, as if a person in its own right.

I love the rich questions and implications entwined in this plot: Does autobiography become fiction if authorship is claimed by someone not the author? Might it be legitimate for an artist to co-opt the private life experiences of a stranger (especially if that stranger is dead or missing)? Is this comparable to “found object” art? Or is it thievery because what is in question is not merely an object (a book), but the content found within, content whose value may be proportional to its private, personal nature?

If the diary were not “true,” would there be a crime? How can such truth be verified? Whose intellectual property is the diary of a dead person; who owns the copyright? If the crime is plagiarism, based on verbatim use of Clea’s writing, would it have been legal if altered, even if the core events remained the same? Legalities aside, where are the boundaries between ethics and art? Isn’t that what writers and filmmakers do all the time: rip off stories from people’s lives, tweak them a bit, put them out as art (“grist for the mill” and all that)?

What relationship to the “real” Clea does the actress have as she performs Clea’s private writings? If the actress is adopting a persona (Latin for “mask”), and the content of the persona is the intimate life memories of another person, who is really behind the mask?  Might personal identity, the “self,” be actually nothing more than the book of memories we carry, the stories we tell ourselves and others about who we are?

Let us not forget: this entire story occurs only in the mind of Alison Gaylin, and subsequently, in the mind of the reader. Brenna is a fiction, whose fictional “memories” are the only place Clea exists. So Clea is something even less “real,” a fiction once removed, whose own “memories” (now twice removed, just a diary) are spoken by a fictional actress posing as someone not herself -- not even as a person, but as a book with a name. It becomes a spiraling fractal, a fiction-within-a-fiction-within-a-fiction. Speaking both metafictionally and metaphysically, this is a perfect metaphor for the illusory nature of “self”-- the Big Truth that every mystical tradition tells us in one way or another: “You” are simply an aspect of the Absolute, a single viewpoint in the One Consciousness.  As Alan Watts puts it, “I” is just the Universe “eyeing.”

Yet, like characters in a novel, we must carry on, acting out our lives, fully engaged in our roles. The only thing we may have that imaginary characters don’t is awareness -- the capacity to hold both truths at once: our own Duality within Nonduality.

So, “Can a stranger share your memories?” Because it is masterfully true to its genre, a pop artifact embedded in a culture founded on mechanistic / materialistic philosophy, Into the Dark would answer “No.” The memories were not really shared, because there is a “real-world” explanation: a stolen diary. Mainstream mysteries need solutions; questions must have answers -- or so goes the conventional wisdom. I don’t necessarily agree. To my way of thinking, “mystery fiction” could more accurately be called “no-mystery fiction.”


That’s why I’m drawn to what is sometimes called the “metaphysical detective story,” ala Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, in which answers never come. The real search is internal, for the seeker’s own identity. And in addition, external: a postmodern, metafictional exploration of the nature of authorship.

For me, questions are lovely: aromatic, enticing, delectable. They linger. Answers are pedestrian; they fall with a thud. Mysteries are rich, subtle, sweet. Solutions are just endings: “Done. Next!”

Granted, the reading public may not share this sentiment. So be it (sigh). Carry on.

Now… what if there were no pilfered diary at all, but one’s memories still appeared to be stolen by a stranger? In my novel-in-progress, that’s what happens. The question “Can a stranger share your memories?” might be answered, “Yes, but I can’t explain how it works; it’s a Mystery.”

Trouble is, I am also a product of this mechanistic/materialistic society (and I don’t love most science fiction or fantasy), so I want to have some sort of a foundation that makes sense to me. Fortunately, a combination of ancient philosophy and cutting-edge science begins to provide one. It goes like this: if my personal memories are not actually locked away inside my skull, like a little armored safe -- if instead they exist like television signals in the open air -- then maybe someone else, someone with just the right kind of mental “receiver,” can dial them in.

The latest book by controversial British biologist Rupert Sheldrake, Science Set Free, challenges the “10 Dogmas of Science.” Dogma Number 8 is “Memory is stored in material traces in the brain.” In an interview found here, he says:

In considering the morphic resonance theory of memory, we might ask: if we tune into our own memories, then why don’t we tune into other people’s as well? I think we do, and the whole basis of the approach I am suggesting is that there is a collective memory to which we are all tuned which forms a background against which our own experience develops and against which our own individual memories develop. This concept is very similar to the notion of the collective unconscious.
He goes into more depth in The Sun Magazine, February 2013, interviewed by Mark Leviton:
Leviton: If, as you say, memory does not reside in the brain, then where is it? And can it survive the death of the individual to whom it belongs?
Sheldrake: “Where?” is the wrong question. Memory is a relationship in time, not in space. The idea that a memory has to be somewhere when it’s not being remembered is a theoretical inference, not an observation of reality. When I met you this morning, I recognized you from yesterday. There’s no photographic representation of you in my brain. I just recognize you. What I suggest is that memory depends on a direct relationship across time between past experiences and present ones. The brain is more like a television receiver. The television doesn’t store all the images and programs you watch on it; it tunes in to them invisibly.
It may sound radical, but this idea was put forward not only by Bergson [Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory] but also by philosophers Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. They all challenged the notion that a memory has to be somewhere in the brain. The whole of the past is potentially present everywhere, and we access it on the basis of similarity. I think we’re tuning in not only to our own past experiences but to the memories of millions of people who are now dead — a collective memory. It’s similar to psychologist Carl Jung’s concept of a collective unconscious or Hinduism’s akashic records, which store all knowledge on another plane of existence.
Yes, there’s the potential for the memory to survive the death of the brain. Whether there’s survival of an individual’s memory, my theory doesn’t predict one way or the other. It leaves the question open, whereas the conventional theory is that, once the brain decays at death, all memories are wiped out.
For conventional science, an even harder problem to explain than memory is consciousness itself. Sheldrake’s Morphic Resonance theory may be supported by brain research conducted by physicist Sir Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff. Their “Orch OR” model gives evidence for the non-local (that is, not confined to an individual brain) nature of consciousness. Extending that theory even further, here is the abstract of a paper called Quantum Consciousness co-authored by Hameroff and Deepak Chopra:
The concept of consciousness existing outside the body (e.g. near-death and out-of body experiences, NDE/OBEs, or after death, indicative of a 'soul') is a staple of religious traditions, but shunned by conventional science because of an apparent lack of rational explanation. However conventional science based entirely on classical physics cannot account for normal in-the-brain consciousness. The Penrose-Hameroff 'Orch OR' model is a quantum approach to consciousness, connecting brain processes (microtubule quantum computations inside neurons) to fluctuations in fundamental spacetime geometry, the fine scale structure of the universe. Recent evidence for significant quantum coherence in warm biological systems, scale-free dynamics and end-of-life brain activity support the notion of a quantum basis for consciousness which could conceivably exist independent of biology in various scalar planes in spacetime geometry. Sir Roger Penrose does not necessarily endorse such proposals which relate to his ideas in physics. Based on Orch OR, we offer a scientific hypothesis for a 'quantum soul'.
I enjoy this thick sciencey stuff, walking the murky borders of the unknown, although I get quickly lost trying to dig into the technical meat of it. One of the main points of this whole investigation for me, and one of the things that motivates all my writing, both fiction and non-, is touched on by this quote from Sheldrake:
So for materialists it’s a simple two-step argument. Memories are stored in brains; the brain decays at death, therefore, memories are wiped out at death. Whereas, if memories are not stored in brains then the memories themselves are not wiped out at death. They’re potentially accessible. That doesn’t prove they are accessed, that there is personal survival. It just means that’s a possibility, whereas with materialism it’s an impossibility. So one position leaves the question closed and the other leaves it open.
Potential! Possibility! Whether we’re choosing among personal philosophies or approaches to scientific inquiry, I say let’s choose Open over Closed. How solid are  scientific “facts,” anyway? I agree with Dean Radin, Ph.D., Senior Scientist at IONS, who says in his book, The Conscious Universe:
That scientific assumptions evolve should come as no surprise. One of the most profitable consequences of science as an "open system" of knowledge, as opposed to rigid dogma, is that the future Laws of Nature will bear as much resemblance to the "laws" we know today as the cellular telephone does to smoke signals.
Okay, I seem to have wandered far afield from where I started. In Into the Dark, Alison Gaylin did her usual excellent job of keeping readers intrigued, tracking like bloodhounds the scent of an answer. I hope the story I’m trying to tell, currently titled Midnight at the Diner, can do something similar, keeping you rapt and curious, fully immersed in a question.

“Can a stranger share your memories?” Yes. And who knows what other amazing, marvelous things are possible in this infinite Universe?





Friday, May 17, 2013

More Moments


This post is a follow-up to the one called “Moments” from almost exactly a year ago. I hope you’ll read that post as well, and watch the videos!

Just today I was looking back through one of my old journals, 13 years past, and discovered that it was this very week in 2000 that the idea and the title for my collection of short stories, The Principle of Ultimate Indivisibility first popped into my mind. The title came from a story I had already completed, “Family Man,” and all I knew was that I wanted to expand on a feeling of connection between members of the human family. That was a little moment of inspiration that has rippled through my life for all the subsequent years. I had just begun to study independent publishing, and I then proceeded to go on a detour away from my own writing to publish others, in the form of Bliss Plot Press and the literary journal, Prima Materia. It wasn’t until 2009 that I birthed the finished book of my own stories into the world, and the years since have been frequently occupied with shepherding its slow growth.

So, obviously, a single moment can be profound: a turning point in one’s life. But that is not really what I’m exploring here. Rather, I’m interested in those moments that either simply pass by with little consequence, too often unnoticed, or those moments into which we fall like a meditation, a brief creative trance outside of time, here then gone.

The “occasional video” art project I described a year ago has continued: short spontaneous videos shot with my little Bloggie camera, with no editing except for trimming head and tail. In that project, I look for a balance of random banality and ephemeral beauty, something that might fit the Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi, which suggests that poetry and grace can be found in the "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete."

From the past twelve months, here are my latest four video moments (about 1 minute each):



Moments: Sitting in the Watery Boneyard
Moments: Sidewalk Politics & Window Shopping



Moments: Accidental Video While Walking the Dog


Moments: My simple way of enduring a shopping trip...
And here’s a different kind of moment from my current novel-in-progress. The protagonist is feeling various stresses: ex-wife, kids, money, and a new mystery: who is stealing his life story? So this is how he uses a little slice of time to escape all that.
At Father Demo Square, he found the perfect view up Sixth Avenue and set up the tripod. He loaded a roll of Ektachrome 160 into his Canon SLR, attached the quick-release plate using a nickel in the screw slot, and seated the camera on the tripod head with a solid click. He screwed the delicate cable release into the top of the shutter button. Then he framed through his zoom at about 150 mm, with the flow of traffic in the foreground, the Bleecker Street sign at the middle left, and the glowing red and blue spire of the Empire State Building piercing the black sky in the upper right. 
These shots were going to be time exposures, turning taxis into streams of light and people into ghosts, all motion gone liquid and translucent, rivers of life flowing through the concrete immoveable canyons of the city. On his budget, film and processing for the sake of experimental art had to be strictly rationed. He had one roll, 36 exposures, to work with tonight, and he hoped for at least one beautiful image from the roll. He worked carefully, selecting different combinations of f-stop and shutter speed, writing down each exposure in a tiny notebook. He pushed the plunger of the cable release with his thumb as he counted along with the second hand on his watch, lit by a miniature flashlight held in his teeth. Five seconds, seven seconds, ten seconds, f 5.6, f 8, f 16. For the last third of the roll, he brought out his flash unit and, without attaching it to the camera, held it high over his head and sent a bolt of illumination into the scene as he held the shutter open. Any moving object catching the beam would appear a little more solid than the surrounding swirls of cloudy motion. 
He was like a boulder in a stream, standing still while everything flowed around him. With his full attention given to the work, he experienced time in an all new way. The moment stretched out without limits, nothing existed but the immediate task, all past and future forgotten, his very self and all its stories gone, melted entirely away, merged with the air and sky and all the vibrating waves and particles of the animate and inanimate worlds upon worlds surrounding his centerless center. 
It lasted a few minutes, a quarter of an hour, and then he packed up and walked home, smiling.

I invite your thoughts about the value of being mindful of moments, and about the challenges of capturing them in art. Thanks for visiting! 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Book Review: Milligan and Murphy by Jim Murdoch

I’ve always been fascinated by stories of doubles, twins, doppelgangers, minds and actions mirrored (perhaps as a reaction against the profound truth that each of us is utterly unique, and therefore alone). Jim Murdoch’s short novel, Milligan and Murphy, is not really one of those stories, but it toys with the trope of twins who together make a single person. The half-brothers Milligan and Murphy (both named John!) are not twins but are enough alike that their non-twinness is just a technicality. Murphy, the firstborn, may be a shade more introspective, and Milligan a trifle more action-oriented, but essentially they are one mind, and the fact that they inhabit separate bodies is primarily a storytelling device. Without it, the extensive dialogues exploring their limited reality would become claustrophobic solipsism. Such is the reason for the respectable literary history of twins, brothers/sisters, bosom buddies, even the hero/sidekick construct: it works.

Murdoch, an active blogger, plainly acknowledges his interest in Samuel Beckett’s pairs of wanderers, and as we follow his unassuming Irish duo through a barren landscape, setting out on a whim to walk who-knows-where (doppelganger is German for “double walker”), we carry with us the phantoms of Vladimir and Estragon waiting on the road for the elusive (illusive) Godot. But there are other phantoms as well: the mythological twins Castor and Pollux, whose inseparability is immortalized as the constellation Gemini... Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee, whose convoluted conversations feel simultaneously demented and true... and for me, the image from my childhood of Mormon missionaries, young men dressed alike going two by two about the world on a philosophical, impractical quest -- tilting at windmills, one might say (and Quixote had his Sancho Panza).

Speaking of Quixote, another lens through which to read Milligan and Murphy is the picaresque. In current usage, that term refers to “an episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road” (Wikipedia). So M. and M. is picaresque x 2. Critic Daniel Green writes, under the title One Thing After Another, “There's not really a sense of progression in the picaresque narrative, just a series of episodes, and usually the protagonist remains more or less unchanged, undergoing no transformation or ‘epiphany.’” I agree with him when he goes on to say that a revival of the picaresque is in fact, a welcome break from “the tyranny of story--the creation of narrative tension by which too many stories and novels are reductively judged...” and that this form (not “formless” at all) frees the writer for effects not generally available in today’s conventional “workshopped/crafted” psychological narrative. Murdoch has handled the form masterfully, which comes as no surprise if you’re familiar with his other works, not a conventional tale among them.

Perhaps the key factor in Milligan and Murphy’s success is Murdoch’s confident use of a narrative voice that is all too rare these days. It is a variety of third-person omniscient that some critics have dubbed “universal omniscient.” The difference is that the universal omniscient narrator reveals information that the characters do not have, and makes clear the fact that the narrator is not involved in the events of the story. This is sometimes called "Little Did He Know" writing, as in, "Little did he know he'd be dead by morning." (Wikipedia) Murdoch’s narrator observes both inner and outer action from a bit of distance (more than arm’s length, less than bird’s eye), with a dash of wry wit and an almost paternal fondness for his protagonists. This narrator likes the hapless brothers but never spares them when their behavior is less than stellar.

But Murdoch takes third-person a step further. Much to my enjoyment (because I appreciate multiple levels of meaning), he mysteriously, occasionally introduces the first-person pronoun so that we wonder, who is this unnamed being who knows all? There is no answer. This is a narrator who shares some of the dry, witty tone, with asides and commentary, of Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events), but unlike Snicket, is never revealed as an actual character in the story. This is a narrator who acknowledges he is telling a story to “you,” the reader. It’s fun to read, but it’s more than that. Murdoch is using a postmodern metafictional device to thrust us into the midst of a Big Question. Every meditating yogi is facing something similar: who is the Observer?

The mysterious “I” first appears on page two with this sudden insertion in an expository passage about the brothers’ history: “I bore witness to each confinement and have followed the boys’ lacklustre progress with something of a paternal interest over the years.” Then again on page six: 

Our story, such as it is, begins with our heroes, such as they are, sound asleep in bed. That is to say, they were asleep in their own beds. I’ve mentioned that they were close and I’m not about to take that back but it is equally true to say that it had been many years since they had enjoyed the one bed, nevertheless they continued to retire each night to the same room, the bedroom they had shared since infancy.
This charming self-referential witness appears perhaps another half-dozen times throughout the book’s 169 pages, doling out information, opinion, and wisdom, and adding immensely to my reading pleasure.

From a philosophical point of view, I can’t be sure what Murdoch intended, but I can say what he actually did, on the level of emotional subtext. He wrote an anti-atheism book. I won’t say a religious book; it thankfully stops far short of that. But in Milligan and Murphy, Murdoch posits a universe in which we are not alone. It is a universe with a Supreme Being. If the narration had been strictly third-person omniscient, this would not be so, because the reader would not have been given an explicit reference to an observing consciousness. In M. and M., there is a Someone, a super-character, the “I,” who watches over our simple heroes (naifs, everymen). This Someone knows everything about everything, but does not participate in the action. The “I” remains unnameable, a benevolent, ever-present mystery.

A skeptic might say, well, in every book there is the obvious parallel: author/creator = god. However, I am not referring to the author here, but rather to the persona “hired” by the author to narrate this particular story. Within the world of this book, there is a God. I am not a “believer” but I do not find this objectionable. Rather, I find it true to my felt experience as a human on this strange planet. Murdoch has personalized Awareness, the field in which all experience exists.

A sly bit of evidence is at the end of a scene in which the brothers meet an old man who has been waiting by the road, waiting for someone who never arrived, waiting even beyond the death of his longtime companion. Of course, if we know Beckett (which the brothers don't), we recognize him... is it Didi or Gogo?  As they turn to go, Milligan says:

“...I wonder who he was, Murphy.”
"God alone knows, Milligan. God alone knows.”
 That He did.
After the two John M.s wander the muddy roads under rainy skies, from town to gray town, and encounter a handful of characters who equal or surpass them in grit and wackiness and homespun wisdom, their final act is simply... to keep going. They’ve reached the sea, and perhaps here, Beckett’s couplet applies: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” There is a ship in the harbor needing hands and the brothers get lucky (and, let us remember, the twins, Castor and Pollux, are the patrons of sailors). As M. and M. gaze at the dark waves, I’m reminded of Knut Hamsun’s unnamed hero in his seminal 20th-century novel, Hunger, who starved and suffered senselessly until he was done, finished with this phase of his life, then simply got on a ship and sailed away into an unknown future.

It is then that Murdoch’s benevolent observer appears one last time to deliver the book’s beautiful final lines:
Neither of them moved. The ship sailed on regardless; the earth kept spinning on its axis and circling the sun whilst the whole universe continued a sigh begun twenty million years before. And that’s the end of our story as much as any story has an ending.
I, of course, know exactly what will become of of them but that really is another tale, the ending of which you more than likely know already.
Milligan and Murphy is a quick read and fun, but it is never shallow. If you look for alternatives to the garish and trendy, this book’s for you.

Perhaps irrelevant, perhaps not, here’s a final note: two local treasures here in Woodstock, New York, Mikhail Horowitz and Gilles Malkine, giving us their own Beckett homage: “Rappin’ for Godot” (video by Stephen Blauweiss). Enjoy!