Tuesday, November 26, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 26

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

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Henry called me last night to see how I was doing and to keep me informed that he is "on track" with his novel, though he would still not tell me anything about it nor how far along he was. I could imagine, pulling into the final stretches and still short of the goal, just rambling along trying to fill in as many words as I could. It would depend on the type of novel it is, the style and viewpoint, I guess. For a realistic novel, there might suddenly be more description as Proust would spend, what – forty pages describing Albertine's hat? (Or did it just seem like it...)

To me, there is nothing more boring that wading through pages of description about a setting or what a character looks like or what she's wearing. What's the point of knowing every detail of a room if the only thing they do there is sit down to tea? It might be helpful to a set-designer but chances are, turning it into a movie, they'll change it all anyway (they usually do).

It would be difficult to write a novel of ideas – like Musil's The Man Without Qualities which I'm still trying to read – and you find you've run out of ideas. The idea of writing a stream-of-consciousness novel, then, might be the most tempting, I suppose. It wouldn't matter what your characters do, only what they think – if there's no structure to hang it on, no critic can accuse you of being a poor story teller if you've no story to tell, ignoring the logical sequence of a beginning and an end with something well-ordered happening in between.

It surprised me, years after I'd gotten through the first 250 pages of Finnegans Wake to discover someone writing about the novel's "plot"! I hadn't even noticed, as much fun as it was to read it – that is, if you'd read it out loud with enough of a brogue to make music out of its seeming nonsense. Leaves and trees, overlooking the forest.

But the whole point of writing isn't just slathering words onto the page like so much plaster with a trowel. I would imagine it takes not only a certain concentration to focus on what you're doing, wouldn't it also involve keeping everything in sight – story, character, setting and how they evolve? Even if it's part of the background (like a painting, for instance) it still needs to throw the foreground into relief, to augment it in some way.

And more than a certain perseverance, too, to find the right word – hitting the right note, so to speak – or not being afraid to cut out whole paragraphs of stuff that perhaps aren't good enough, having the courage to know it's for the best (or at least the better).

There's a certain amount of fun in the unexpected, writing about a woman saddened by the recent death of her old aunt, then having her mind suddenly focus on a day spent at the circus. There's shock value in that even if at first thought it seems jarringly surreal, so unexpected it creates a dissonance.

But I suppose it's also part of the human condition: at times of great seriousness, we are often reminded of the frivolous. Perhaps, as a child, our character had been taken to the circus by that very aunt, a happy day that, forgotten till now, reminds her how much her aunt meant to her.

Doesn't it work the same way in music? It is not, compared to what some people think, stringing out one note after another. I write down a pitch, give it some context with other pitches to form a chord, some sonority which, once I figure out how these chords move from one to the next, create some sense of harmony. Harmony, after all, is not just "pleasing sounds." It is the process by which chords move in a particular hierarchy, almost feudal in its way, which gives, say, Beethoven's music its tension. This hierarchy may change from generation to generation, but underneath, the concept is still very similar.

There is a span across which this music is stretched, leading us to if not an inevitable conclusion hopefully an expected one. We call these "forms," whether it's a minuet or a symphony, and whenever a composer approached one of these, he poured his music into the mold of some preconceived form much as any craftsman might. What one does with those forms, how they're filled, now, that's another matter, isn't it?

Without them, without the direction afforded by these logical, discernible structures, very often listeners (like those looking at paintings which seem to hold no meaning for them) have nothing to hang on to, too well attuned to the old forms, the long sonatas of the dead.

Another thing people don't often understand in an artist: the idea that one can be adventuresome, even "original" at the same time one can be conservative and make use of traditional concepts. Whether its Hegelian or not, a certain dialectic helps move the Old Forms forward and perhaps gives new sounds some greater meaning, something more to respond to emotionally as well as intellectually.

It is in this quest – how to absorb the past into something different if not new, something that might sound like me – that I have spent hours, weeks, years of my time trying (hoping) to find. While I can sit for hours staring at a blank page, this search for discovery is often too much like work and without immediate results, it can prove frustrating and fruitless – meaningless.

It is the loss of meaning that terrifies me, not just being evaluated by those who judge my success on some industrial, outcome-based priorities. It is the fear of stagnation that most often stops me in my tracks. If talent is indeed His gift, God must love irony.

So my "creative spirit" finds itself at a loss, a hobbled Prospero, unable to come out and play. Yes, it's true (I guess) that part of why we artists play is to gain some form of recognition (if not exactly fame) or a reward (if not a living). But the audience must be convinced and if it fails to respond, what is the point of playing? Have we, creator and audience, forgotten the freedom to play?

Once we forget we also play for ourselves, not just the audience, we lose the thread. The audience will not pick it up if it's not convinced we're worthy. But is it pandering to appeal to the popular? Is pandering, as some of my colleagues feel, so bad?

Oportet me pergere, non possum pergo, pergam.

As concepts go, "genius" is so overrated. Musil's man without qualities muses on "a racehorse of genius" since everything now can be a genius just as any child with a flash of talent automatically becomes a prodigy (who should live so long to attain a prodigious talent). Public acclaim can be an ominous sign: a Pulitzer Prize becomes a curse.

But if I'm going to be cursed with Stage 4 Writer's Block, could it please come as the result of a Pulitzer Prize? Even if my creative spirit, the genius of my own place, the house snake I forgot to feed, should some day return, it would be welcome as a prodigal spirit.

I am envious of the self-assured Alpha Personalities, the Juggernauts before whom everyone quails. I am even envious of the moderately-assured who can go about being an artist and know enough to promote themselves in the business to gain themselves publications, performances, commissions.

It turns out I am one of many poor souls, struggling in the inner darkness, trying to express himself – find himself – doubtful of talent, dubious of the life-choices he has made. Even my Plan B had failed, absorbing the necessary energy never fully allotted to Plan A. What if...?

We work on the plane of the possible, often with no more reward than we love what we do. (Would you do what you do professionally without getting paid just because you love what you do? No, I didn't think so.) It isn't the plane of the practical for (God knows) nothing an artist does could ever be accused of being practical. 

Sometimes, I'm not even sure it's the plane of the feasible. Beyond it, we stretch the boundaries of what exists, our imagination. This is how Art transforms itself from generation to generation. It is what we can see, closing our eyes, seeing the not-yet-visible, matter only imagined, nothing worth stubbing your toe over, not yet, but who knows, until one tries.

The future is what we dream: we dream what we cannot see and ask "why not?" But dreams are easily spoiled by the limitations of little minds, with stones hurled by catapults from the trés bouché. We are artists, after all: it's not like we're scientists or lawyers.

But staring into the darkness, dreams get lost, taught by the faculty of oblivion: that's not how we do things. You must learn the rules and then you will know how to break them – or better, understand how to bend them to your own will. Nothing, not even the Church, stays the same forever.

With God-given, otherwise inexplicable talent, we call on God for inspiration not in faith, necessarily, but often as reflex, ritual by rote, seeking the epiphany du jour. It is our conditioning: we do not, all the same, need to emulate Ivan Karamazov's quandries (o cara matzoh, dies queruli).

I see things that are not immediately distinct from my environment but could become part of that environment, if I look long and hard enough.

O ineluctable modality, I must see – I cannot see – I will see...

It snowed this morning – not the first snow of the season, nor is it the first real snow, not yet. As a child, a dusting of snow was a disappointment; today, a relief. It surprises me, this far into November, not to have several inches of snow on the ground. But then, in other places I have lived, we might see nothing at all until almost, or even after Christmas.

In upstate New York where "lake-effect snow" is not considered "real" snow despite still needing to be shoveled, invariably we had a blizzard the week of Thanksgiving, sometimes followed by a day of rain or maybe unseasonably mild sunshine, after which it would all freeze solid.

But it is mild this morning, here, compared to yesterday's chill, and that means most of this, for what it's worth, will be gone soon. I look out across my porch, recalling the snowy owl from the other day. Perhaps he's there, only I can't see him.

The light in my house is no longer that summery lush green-tinged watery air filtered through the leaves of the different maples and beeches around me. In autumn, it takes on a bit of Italian clarity, reflecting off the brilliantly colored leaves, at least for a short space of time, a week if I'm lucky, two at best. Rain will ruin this, high winds and bitter cold, but while it lasts, I enjoy what I can, for now. I've learned that much.

A surprise when I opened my e-mail today, a message from the past. Ferdinand, the student who helped me after my heart attack, has written a short note. We had lost touch not long after I moved to Maine and he went off to graduate school (I forget where, I'm embarrassed to say: Florida?).

He's found my blog – didn't say he's reading it, though – and decided he would e-mail me as a letter, even if he could find my address, might not reach me in time.

It turns out he'd be coming up for Thanksgiving, flying in from (yes)  Naples, Florida, to visit family newly relocated to Portland not too far away, and wanted to know if he could stop by: "it's been years." More, I suspect, for him than for me, but still long enough it would be good to see him again. Still no word from Stephen, though, about his plans.

The house feels snug and I wrap myself in hope and fond memories as I watch the birds coming to the feeder. The hum of the furnace can be irritating at times (much quieter now than before), but today it is a comfort and for that I am thankful.

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...to be continued...

Dick Strawser

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