Monday, December 9, 2013

The Future People

Below is another story I wrote in 4th grade, this one for a school assignment. I believe it was written sometime in the spring of 1981.

*

The Future People


Monday

I first got into my time machine at noon. I began the controls. I became real dizzy. The Time Machine seemed to fall over. I stopped the control dial.

It read 3 PM. But the Time Machine did go into the future! So I turned the dial again.

The days went by. In 1989 a rocket to Mars went up. In 1992 I saw large blueish-white tanks holding water. A large hurricane was over part of South America. In 1999 a space shuttle went up to give fuel to a space station. Then everything was red.

In the twenty-first century some apes were in a space station, working with people.

My time machine was going at the speed of light. It was 300 feet up and it would land back at my house where I went up.

By 2150 there was a nuclear war in America. It ended and a new city was built in space. It was red. Mutants walked in it. The Washington monument was 1 inch high. The tower of Pisa was on the ground. I stopped the time machine. Seven landing arms touched the ground. They pulled me to the ground and shot out blue globes of water in every direction. The year-reader read 3902. I opened the door and got out. A fireball crashed right beside me and went back up. The desert lasted for miles. Cactus plants were far ahead. I ran to an oasis in the distance.

I saw a man running away from the oasis. He was tall and wore lion fur. I found a beach and walked along it. The statue of liberty was on the shore. It was cracked and half-buried underground. Tall weeds and boulders were surrounding it. In the distance I saw the Empire State Building. It was on the other side of the lake I was walking by. Near it were the Twin Towers. One of them was broken on the top. The rest of the buildings were either gone or broken.

I went back toward the statue. I passed it and then I walked to the time machine. A person was chained up by some red-haired people. There were some black-haired people holding chained people in a large cage.

I saw the time machine. I took off and went backwards in space. A skeleton was on a spaceship and it was getting its organs and skin back. The tower of Pisa went up. The Washington monument rose up. I came in for a landing. Cars were driving backwards. I touched the ground and got out. I think that I would like to be in New York in 3902.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Sad Saturnian


Here is a little piece of nonsense verse that I composed earlier this year.

*

The Sad Saturnian


I saw a sad Saturnian

On Saturday in the park

His eyes buzzed bright and furry

In the wrinkling, twinkling dark


His squid hands held a juniper branch

Which he swallowed like a Thomistic whale

He murmured forth a yellow bank of turtles

Then told a dismally sweet and languid tale


If he had been a cat from Venus

Or even a caribou from Mars

We might have let him taste the bitter lichens

That fell from certain grim and mountainous stars


As it was, he gurgled, then laughingly eluded us

Warbling along the ridiculous brook

His echoing gray name he never left us

But left us with a sad and Saturnish look


Steven Holland
March 13, 2013
 

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The 20th Century Dinosaur


The following is one of my earliest surviving works of fiction. I started writing stories as soon as I knew how to write (c. late 1976), but little if anything remains of my literary creativity from before my 4th grade year, when I composed this tale.

This story has been transcribed faithfully from the original manuscript of December 25, 1980. I have even preserved the mysterious misspelling "refrigetar". I say mysterious because I was an excellent speller, and it seems to me rather surprising that I would have misspelled the word refrigerator at all, let alone so egregiously. I did sometimes purposely alter the spelling of words so as to invent some similar but new concept, and that may be what I had in mind in this case; but, to be quite honest, I have no memory of any such intention, and it may actually have been simply a terrible misspelling. In any case, I am leaving the text as is so as to faithfully preserve what I wrote that Christmas Day when I was 10.

* * *

The 20th Century Dinosaur

One day, a boy found an egg in his back yard. It was as big as his hand. He decided to take it to the dairy.

He took it there the next day. In a week, it was gone. The boy couldn't find it. He looked at the place where he had put it last.

There he found a baby dinosaur.

He ate leaves, grain, and fruit.

Pretty soon, he was as big as a cereal box. He grew every day.

One time, he got as big as an elephant.

The boy put him in a room of the 2-room shed. He put blankets in the room. Winter came pretty soon.

The dinosaur ate up to a refrigetar of food a day.

His dad told him to take him to a national zoo. He told him he could see him every year; but the dinosaur might live 150 or 200 more years.

So he took him to the zoo nearby.

In 2180, a boy was at the zoo, looking at the dinosaur. His grandfather told him, "my great-grandfather said that when he was real little his grandfather told him this was his dinosaur."

Friday, October 25, 2013

Fantasy v. Realism: An Opinion


The following is an essay I wrote in May 2009. This is the first time I have published it.


*


Fantasy and realism, it would seem, are two of the most fundamental modes of art, the one expressing the inner vision of imagination and the other representing the observable world around us. We might assume that each mode has a history stretching back into the dim human past, and that any given work of narrative or visual art humankind has ever produced can be placed somewhere on the spectrum between the most accurate, sober realism and the wildest flights of fancy.

However, in one sense, both fantasy and realism are recent inventions, at least as we tend to conceive of them today. The modern narrative genre of “fantasy” has only existed for two centuries at the outside, and the same might be said of the narrative genre of “realism”. Prior to the nineteenth century, and particularly before the advent of the realist novel in the middle of that century, no strong or significant distinction seems to have been made between the “fantastic” and the “realistic” in literature. Take classic epics like the Odyssey, for instance, or Beowulf. Both stories are rife with monsters and take the form of heroic, romantic adventures (two qualities which a modern “realistic” temperament tends to associate with the unreal escapism of popular fiction or blockbuster movies), yet both works are deemed to be of the greatest literary quality and cultural importance. The reason for this assessment, it seems clear, is that both the Odyssey and Beowulf deal with larger human concerns and are written in well-wrought and elevated poetic language. In other words, the tales of Odysseus and Beowulf are not mere escapist potboilers, but rather are works of both great style and rich substance. These epics, and many others like them, are serious, profound works of human expression, expressed in beautiful and sublime ways.

As one who has maintained a lifelong love of science fiction and other fantastical narrative genres, I am the first to criticize the uncritical dismissal of fantasy by those high-minded audiences who view it all as pulp trash or childish make-believe. But at the same time I readily acknowledge that much of contemporary genre fiction falls well short of achieving the quality of classic literature. Of course, most authors writing genre fantasy and science fiction are not even attempting to produce works that could proudly take their place on the shelf beside those of Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare. They are, more often than not, simply creating stories to entertain their readers, and in this respect many of them greatly succeed.

So while I can see that the vast majority of published fantastic fiction does not aspire to the level of “high” literature and is therefore of minimal interest to many literary connoisseurs, I also believe that novels or films within these genres receive unnecessarily short shrift from those who deem anything fantastical as insubstantial, irrelevant, or--get this--unrealistic.

Is this bias against the fantastic only a case of unfounded generalization, a form of artistic “profiling” or blindly prejudiced stereotyping? Probably. (“It's because I'm sci-fi, isn't it?”) For every fantasy novel that the hardheaded realist can point to as an example of unserious, untruthful pabulum, I can throw back two or three outwardly “realistic” novels that answer to the charge. The issue isn't whether a story is outwardly fantastic or realistic, as this is only skin deep. What counts is what's on the inside, that is, the inherent substance and style of the work. The high esteem given by critics to such enduring classics as A Midsummer Night's Dream and Frankenstein, as well as the aforementioned epics, demonstrates that consistent surface realism is not a requisite for the production of great literature. Somehow, Shakespeare and Shelley got away with putting fairies and monsters in their High Art.

The realist novel, which is to say the self-consciously “realistic” novel, came into vogue in the Victorian era and reflected a certain soberly scientific outlook of its time. The Enlightenment had already cleared the air of fairies and, with its high-beam rationality, demonstrated to its own satisfaction that the night was free of ghosts and monsters. Notwithstanding the Romantics' spirited (shall we say) defense of all things marvelous and strange, the clear-eyed, clear-headed views of the Age of Reason gained a foothold in the realm of storytelling. Now we were to have edifying tales about real people in the real world… no more letting our imaginations get carried away. A story, to be really good, must be not about adventures and wonders, but about real estate deals and marital strife. In other words, literature, to be truly serious, must be about things as they really are.


*
 

Things as they really are... One item that is surprisingly rare in discussions of fantasy literature is the question of how we know, or who says, what is “realistic” and therefore what is “fantastic”. This, of course, is a metaphysical question. If fairy stories are labeled as fantasy, it is because we assume that fairies are not in fact real. But this real-unreal distinction strikes me as a far too simplistic, and misleading, way to distinguish between fantasy and realism. It is not enough, and not really to the point, to say that fantasy stories are deliberately fanciful and that realistic stories are conscientiously devoted to depicting life as it really is. Or rather, the very terms “fantasy” and “realism” are inadequate in conveying the important distinctions between these two modes of narrative art.

The fantasy-realism dichotomy implies that we live in a thoroughly materialistic universe, and that any story dealing with the supernatural is “fantastic”, which basically means unreal. While this may seem unproblematic to a committed materialist, it is hardly satisfying to anyone who believes in at least the possibility of a supernatural dimension to reality. For that matter, calling any story that posits the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations or creatures “fantastic” suggests that even stories grounded in scientifically plausible physical and biological principles may fall short of realism if they dare to imagine possibilities currently unknown to us.

Of course, it is useful to distinguish between the known and the unknown, between storytelling based on experience and that based on imagination, even if the imagined thing is perfectly possible. This is at least a more accurate, and less controversial, way to distinguish the realistic and the fantastic than to take the terms too literally. But it is still not enough, for there is no firm line between the literature of experience and the literature of imagination. Indeed, any story you care to name is based on both imagination and experience. This is of course true of all art, which combines, to varying degrees, what we have experienced of the world with what we can imagine about it.

So if it is not the real and the unreal that constitute the most significant distinction between realistic and fantastic art, and if it is not even the known and the unknown, then what is it? I would venture that the relevant difference is that between the mimetic and the symbolic. Of course, both of these traits exist to varying degrees in any work of art, as do reality and fantasy. My claim is simply that an examination of any given work's place on the mimesis-symbolism spectrum is more useful in understanding its nature than is merely considering it as either realistic or fantastic in the most literal sense.

The mimetic and the symbolic are two complementary modes of art-making that emphasize different ways of interpreting reality. The mimetic seeks to imitate what it sees, in order to see it more fully. The symbolic, on the other hand, seeks to represent the inward perceptions of the mind, whether these be the most rarefied philosophical abstractions or highly concrete visions filled with sensuous detail. Any given work of art can be said to function in both of these modes simultaneously, though it may emphasize one mode over the other.

I believe it is more useful and less misleading to think of “fantastic” narratives as symbolic ones, rather than as unrealistic ones. To say they are unrealistic is to do them, and audiences, a disservice, because it implies that such stories tell us nothing about reality, perhaps even that they tell us lies about reality. But ostensibly “realistic” narratives are just as capable of falsifying reality as are the most fantastic tales. So it is not a question of truthfulness. It is only a question of interpreting truth by way of literalism or metaphor, science or myth, history or poetry.

It is a curious malady of the modern mind that it gives such esteem to prosaic literalism and has such little regard for poetic symbolism. Even much of contemporary religion emphasizes the literality of sacred writings while ignoring the rich metaphor that is the only vehicle for expressing profound spiritual truths. Myths are true in a way that science is not, and poetry can give us knowledge that factual history can never provide. Our civilization currently prizes the factual, literal, small truths of scientific and historical discourse at the same time it disregards the larger, deeper truths that have been traditionally embodied in our religions and our art. These larger, deeper truths can only be approached through imagination and intuition, not by way of verifiable scientific observations or statistics-laden reports. Information does not equal knowledge, let alone wisdom.

Modern fantastic narratives are perhaps the last refuge, in our blindingly literal society, of the mythopoeic faculties that were wielded to such tremendous and enduring effect by the poets of old. It is true that the vast majority of fantastic narratives being produced today, whether in the medium of prose or film, might be considered subliterary, trivial, and ephemeral; but the same is true of the vast majority of realistic narratives. In evaluating the profundity, the relevance, and the beauty of any given story, we might do well to look past its superficial resemblance to the world we know and to consider what it tells us about that world.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

All Who Wander Are Not Lost

It's been quite a summer. My main goal at the start of the summer was to compose my second novel (under the working title "Rainbow"). I have managed to write about 10,000 words (a novel is typically at least 50,000; Bluebird was 100,000). I am not disappointed though because I am not working on a deadline. This is my art and it must be given as much time as it needs, even if much of that time is downtime. I am just pleased that I have made such a good start, not only in terms of word count but also in terms of the quality of the story as it has begun to develop.

The summer of 2013 has been full of emotional storms for me. I have fought two major battles with the dragon of despair, one near the beginning of the summer and the other near the end (from which I am just now emerging). Because of my often intense emotional state, I have found myself more driven to write poetry than prose (I'm sure this varies from writer to writer, but it seems to be true for me... poetry being the most intense form of language, in my view).

In addition to the several poems and poetic fragments I have composed this summer, I have also conceived and begun composing what is to be my longest and, in every sense of the word, biggest poem to date: There Go The Gods (my first poem that earns italics rather than quotation marks), which I think of as an epic wrestling with cosmic despair. I very much look forward to completing it and publishing it on this blog in the near future, likely in multiple parts.

Other unexpected beauties of the summer of '13 have included my fascination with and loving tribute to the true 70s wonder twins and my spontaneous and ardent love letter to my generation. Speaking of that last one, the writing of it has also had the effect of helping me to see "Rainbow" in a whole new light: not only as a fairy tale about Martin Lane, as I have described it before, but also in a broader symbolic sense as a fairy tale about Gen-X.

"Rainbow" has been on hold again for awhile, but I'm not stressing about it. I trust that it will be completed in its own good time. After all, Bluebird took 13 years to go from initial conception to final realization. I only first imagined "Rainbow" as a glimmer of an idea last February. I still have the gut feeling and the blind faith that it will number among my best and greatest works. Rainbows are things--beautiful things, promises of hope--that emerge after the storms have passed.

Monday, August 19, 2013

I Saw The Best Minds Of My Generation Say "Nevermind"


River Phoenix in My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Having made my first appearance on this earth in 1970, I fall squarely in the heart of a generation that has come to be labeled as "X". Let me tell you a little about us, in case you don't know.

We grew up watching lots of TV. Many of us were the children of hippies, far too many the children of divorce, all of us the children of a tomorrow that never quite arrived.

In our adult lives we have been accused of not growing up, of not showing up, of not making a contribution (especially in our country's economic and political life), of rejecting the American Dream and retreating into a world of nostalgia, irony, and cynicism.

Yeah, whatever. Never mind.

*

Of course every generation is made up of individuals, and many of those individuals, consciously or not, give voice to their generation's experience through art. Perhaps I have thought about this more than most of my fellow Gen X creative types since I am one of those odd writers who has the gall to harbor "literary" aspirations, but over the years I have often wondered whether and how my writing is a reflection and an expression, not just of myself and my own life, but of my generation and its collective experience on this earth. I certainly do not consciously think of myself as a "Gen X writer". But of course I am one by default, and, like any person near my age who is making any type of artistic work, someone in the future who happens across my writings might rightfully view them as an example of my generation's artistic expression.

All good and well, and not really saying that much. But what I wonder sometimes is this: is there any particular way in which my stories (to focus on just fiction here) will communicate to any future readers something essential and important about what it was like to be a member of this lost American generation?

When I first conceived of the novel that eventually became The Bluebird of Happiness, back in 1999 (it was originally titled The Terrible Blue), I thought of it as being a sort of postmodern epic. I did not think of it as being a "Gen X novel", whatever that might mean. In fact, at first it was going to be set in the future, perhaps sometime in the middle of the 21st century. However, by 2003 I had decided to set it in the present day, perhaps realizing at some level that it was actually today's world, and today's people, that I was interested in writing about in this particular story.

Even though the story is about people close to my own age, I did not set out to write a novel for or about my generation. If anything, I thought that the characters would prove too idiosyncratic and eccentric, too much the exception to the rule, to stand as Gen X everymen and -women. On the whole, they do not very closely resemble most Gen X characters you've seen in movies, all the flannel-clad slackers, all the tattooed, pierced, and hair-dyed punks, all the drifting postcollegiate clueless types.

But it's not like they are entirely dissimilar either. My characters may not be stereotypical Gen X-ers, but they still share much of the experience, outlook, and mindset that characterize many of the people close to my age that I've known, including of course myself. It was rather inevitable that they would.

I did not even realize this until recently (a realization that inspired this blog post), but I can see now that one way in which not only Bluebird but almost all of my stories and story ideas seem to reflect my generation is in a sense of lostness, and the related experience of longing for and searching for home.

In the last decade I have noticed how this idea of lostness and home-seeking is a recurring theme in my writing. For a long time I thought of it as something deeply personal, which it is, but now I am beginning to see it as also being something that is deeply generational (and at a further level, of course, it is also deeply human, but I had already guessed that).

*

I think that my generation has felt this sense of lostness in a particular and particularly keen way. I am not sure of all the reasons why, though many theories have been offered. I'm sure you've heard them all before. We were the children of divorce. We were the latchkey kids. We were raised by television. We entered adulthood with a pervasive sense that the American Dream was not for us. The list goes on.

These may all offer partial explanations, but only partial. I'm no sociologist, but I doubt that any sociological study could ever uncover all of the reasons for Gen X's peculiar outlook on life. History is far more complex than the easy answers would lead us to believe (whether it's the boomers saying "you're just lazy and apathetic and cynical" or their children retorting with "you cheated us out of the American Dream; you undermined your own authority; you let us all down"). Historians today still debate the causes of Rome's decline and fall, and it will never be decisively settled why Generation X was, well, Generation X.

Nevertheless, that is what we are. For better and for worse. And as a writer of my generation, though I am not consciously a writer "for" my generation, I may still find myself, at whatever small and humble scale, inadvertently and unwittingly speaking for it in my own idiosyncratic way (what other way is there for an X-er to speak?), and showing at least some of the "better" part. We've heard the "worse" part ad nauseam.

My characters, especially the major ones, may not precisely resemble most members of the slacker set. But they share with them a loss of faith in the American Dream. They share a sense of drifting and lostness and wandering through adult life, with no place to call home, with no clear conception or plan for the future, just trying to get by and to figure it all out. They share a heightened sense of individualism, of rebellion against or rejection of conventional roles and expectations about how one should live one's life and what values one should hold.

As someone in Clueless put it: "You say that like it's a bad thing!" Exactly. In my stories, I say it like it's a good thing. Not that loss of faith is necessarily good in itself, but surely, as painful as it might be, loss of faith in illusion is. Not that feeling lost is an unqualified good, but just maybe, longing for home (of which nostalgia is a primary manifestation) is a good and noble sentiment, not a disease, and one that might lead us somewhere good. Trying to get through life on your own terms, trying to build a hardscrabble existence for yourself from the scattered debris of the post-everything wasteland--that takes determination and ingenuity and yes, even faith, that belies our cynical "slacker" reputation.

The particular lifestyles and philosophies chosen by my characters will undoubtedly appear strange even to many members of my own generation. I already knew that. But what is new to me is the realization that, despite their unusual qualities, they are still in many ways representative of Generation X. I have never thought of my writing as being particularly "American" or "Gen X", but I guess to some degree my stories can't help but reflect the time and the place from which I write, the specific historical moment and generational culture in which I live, move, and have my being.

*

I mentioned that Bluebird was originally conceived as a "postmodern" epic. What does that mean, exactly? Well, that's a good question. I think it gets to a lot of the heart of what Gen X's experience is all about (a pop culture image that comes to mind is the late 80s show rather redundantly titled Postmodern MTV). Besides being a fancy academic term mainly used in philosophy and literature departments, "postmodern" also describes--or fails to describe, at least adequately--a cultural condition, which in my mind includes American life from roughly the 1960s to, arguably, the present.

Today "midcentury modern" is in vogue (I'm a big fan myself, as are many members of my generation and many of our Millennial counterparts). As I elucidated in an earlier post where I described it as a sort of American Classicism, midcentury modernism reflected and expressed a more optimistic time in American history, a time which anticipated a bright future despite the dark clouds that loomed over the cold war-era U.S.

As a child in the seventies, I basked in the twilight glow of this already fading vision of tomorrow, full of wondrous notions about the futuristic world that lay ahead when I was all grown up in the year 2000--the year Two Thousand! So far away... yet I would live to see it! When the year 2000 actually arrived, however, I looked around at the world and said, "What the hell happened to the future?"

Modernism, not just of the midcentury variety but the very concept, implies an idea of historical progress. It contains the notion that the present is, at least in some ways, better than the past, and that the future will be better still. America lost much of this faith starting in the sixties, just as my generation started coming into the world. We, the children of this era, bore much of the brunt of this collective loss of faith.

I don't think it happened all in one moment. It happened incrementally, in a thousand little ways and a few big ones. Perhaps one such moment, if you're one of the older X-ers, was when you saw Richard Nixon waving goodbye, the first President in American history to resign in disgrace. Perhaps another was when you saw the helicopter airlifting people from Saigon, and feeling, in some childish but painful way, with an unreasonable sense of shame and humiliation, what it meant that the United States of America had just lost a war, a war that most people had stopped believing in and for which all too many members of our parents' generation had been sacrificed.

Or perhaps it was when, after all the scary arguments, your parents did the scariest thing of all and announced that they were getting something called a divorce, and you felt the fabric of your universe ripped apart forever. Or maybe you were one of the lucky ones whose parents stayed together, but every time they argued you couldn't help but wonder: Will my family be next?

At some point along the way, amid the steady stream of TV shows and pop songs, people stopped believing in the future. We felt somehow, deep down and in ways we could neither understand nor explain, that something immense had been lost. The old America, whatever that was, was gone. We simply couldn't believe in it anymore, as much as we might have wanted to.

It wasn't that we were unpatriotic. We were disillusioned. Disappointed. We may not have fully realized that we were, at least not until much later, but we were. It was in the air we breathed. People became increasingly cynical, jaded, too cool for school. When I say people I mean especially 70s and 80s teenagers. Nirvana made such a big splash in 1991 because they expressed so simply yet eloquently what teens had been feeling for some time, summed up in the phrase: "Whatever, nevermind."

*

It is easy to see now that we were children who had been burned. Even those of us, like myself, who had mainly happy childhoods could not help but be affected by the social and cultural climate in which we dwelt. Even if our own families remained intact, our world did not. It was a time of unraveling. The old certainties were disappearing fast, like yesterday's flowers.

And, like all children who have been burned, we went into self-protective mode. We weren't going to be burned again; we weren't going to be fooled; we were too smart for all that. Grow up and get a life? Ha! What a joke. Get real.

We distrusted authority, all the government, business, religious, and parental authorities who had let us down, who had dropped us when we needed support. To make matters worse, in the late 80s and early 90s, as most of us were coming of age, we began hearing dark prophecies about how our generation was basically doomed: The first generation in America not to do better than its parents. We would never own a house. We would, in essence, struggle to get by all our lives and then die. Great. Awesome. Not that we were necessarily shocked. I mean, it figures, right? (This was, not coincidentally, when the media began labeling us as "X". I like to think it makes us sound mysterious, but I digress.)

U.S. economic history since the end of the cold war has done little to prove such prophecies false (despite a rather good run in the late 90s). Of course, we are not the only generation to have suffered from the country's ongoing economic woes. But it seems to have hit us, from the early 90s recession to today, in a way that has made it incredibly difficult and frustrating for many of us to get our lives off the ground, as much as we earnestly try.

In saying all this, I am not saying that Gen X's woes are "all your fault" (baby boomers, the world, whoever). I am only outlining some of the ways in which we have been shaped by our experience. Like any generation, we can rightly be faulted in many ways. There is no need for me to go into those ways here since, as I said, they have already been loudly proclaimed ad nauseam. My whole point in relating this sad history is to help illustrate what I perceive as the direct relationship between Gen X's experience and life in postmodern times.

*

What does postmodern mean, in this context? It means post-faith in progress. Post-faith in America, or at least in its much-vaunted Dream. Post-faith in authority. Post-faith in you name it: marriage, love, career, money, success, politics, religion, changing the world, making a difference, having a good and fulfilling life, happiness. What's the point?

Cynicism and irony became the order of the day. Everything was said with an attitude of "Yeah, right." We became skeptics par excellence, coolly playing with the surfaces and signs of pop culture (a postmodern trait if ever there was one), remixing, reviving, doing it ourselves, going all indie and alternative on everything. Many of us adopted a punk outlook or some variation thereof, adapting the style and expression of an earlier British generation of disaffected youth to our own circumstances (Generation X had, in fact, been the name of an English punk band, though that is not the term's ultimate origin).

Underneath this apparent nihilism, however, I believe there lurked, and is slowly emerging, something more sincere. Yes, we were burned and we crawled into our self-protective holes, but within those holes we felt, as much as we might like to deny it, the yearning to emerge, to believe in life, to dream big. It is only human to do so, and even Gen X-ers are human.

*

The phenomenon that I think most powerfully and tellingly belies my generation's seeming nihilism is its nostalgia. Of course, in the 90s especially, this nostalgia was viewed and was indeed experienced as being ironic. We were just having fun, making fun of all the cheesy elements of past pop culture eras (I am guilty of this myself, having recorded in the early 90s a number of faux disco songs in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way). We pretended to like Tony Bennett. I mean, Tony Bennett. How much more ironic can it get... right?

Well, slackers, I hate to tell you this, but maybe you're not being as ironic and clever as you like to think. Maybe, deep down, you actually like this stuff. Sure, it can only be taken so seriously, but it is pop culture, after all. It's meant to be fun. But why can't we just admit that Tony Bennett, and disco, are fun? And just leave it at that?

Oh, that's right... because we're too cool for school. Or for enjoyable, happy, heartfelt music. We're too cool to believe in things, to really believe. All that's left is to laugh--at ineptly produced and directed b-movies, at ridiculously sentimental and overproduced lounge singers, at giddy, over-the-top disco music and fashions. Sure, you can laugh. It's healthy to laugh, because human beings are pretty funny creatures.

But we're also serious creatures, creatures that feel real and really deep needs and desires and longings, and it's okay to feel those things too. It's okay to admit that maybe you actually do want things like love and home and happiness... but that would require believing in them. And that lack of faith, I believe, that lack of faith in the possibilities of life--individual, social, or political life--is exactly what has held my generation back, more than anything else.

We have registered this lack of faith in a million little ways, ways that are particular to each individual. Faith in various things has certainly been a tremendous struggle for me, and I am far from alone. Even at this late date, when we are entering or approaching middle age, many of us still find it a struggle to believe--to really believe--in the possibilities of life. We are too used to withdrawing in despair and in contempt of the dreams that society offers us, and putting on a tough face, a jaded resignation to our fate.

I admit that it is a struggle for me even to write such words--do I really, truly believe that such faith is justified? I expect that many members of my generation will never overcome their lack of faith in life--we often find ourselves stunned and perplexed at the optimism and idealism of many Millennials--like, what world did you grow up in?--but I, for one, would hate to see our lack of faith come to be the final word about my generation. Or about me.

*

What I see below the surface irony of our nostalgia--often, but of course not always, directed toward the era of our childhood, centering on the 1970s--is something more sincere. I think that, at some deep subconscious level, we long for home. The word nostalgia actually means something like "longing for home"--a painful, aching sense that one has been displaced, and a deeply felt, if not always fully conscious, desire to return there.

One of my favorite literary critics, Sven Birkerts, once wrote an essay called "American Nostalgias", in which he put forth the notion that our endless recycling of the past--in movies, music, advertisements, clothing, you name it--essentially functions as a salve created by (post)modern capitalism on the wounds that it has itself created. That is to say, since multinational corporatism has been busy "effacing the cultural memory of entire nations" (in the words of Tom Frank, quoted by Birkerts), it offers us the drug of packaged and consumable nostalgia in order to divert us from the real pain we would feel--real pain that might pose the threat of real pain to their profit margins--if we squarely faced the cultural emptiness and devastation created by the march of materialistic "progress".

What I am getting at is that the nostalgia of Gen X--indeed, one of our defining features--is far more than just another exercise in "smart", knowing, winking, nudge nudge, pop culture irony. It is, I firmly believe, the symptom of a profound longing. And this longing, as is the case with all nostalgias, is for home.

*

What is the home for which we long? Perhaps it is the home we never had. Or the home that was exploded to smithereens by divorce. Or perhaps it was an older America, one that we never quite knew but only saw the last dying vestiges of as we moved forward into an uncertain and unknown future.

I had a pretty stable home life, but my family moved around quite a bit. We always stayed in the same area, but there is no one place that I can remember definitively as "home"--to this day, I am not even sure what my hometown is (other than Tampa, the city in which I never actually lived as I was growing up, but around which my life orbited). I have always been deeply impressed somehow by those few friends of mine who grew up in the same house their whole lives.

I was also in touch with the deep Florida roots of my maternal relatives, who had been in the state for several generations, but I feel now that I experienced the fading remnants of an older way of life, one that was even then being marginalized by the inexorable march of "progress".

The art historian Germain Bazin wrote: "Only when men sense the waning of a civilization do they suddenly become interested in its history." In one of my library school papers, I referred to Bazin's notion of the historical sense, based on the notion of time passing (as opposed to older communitarian notions of cyclical time), which brings with it a sense of displacement or lostness, of which nostalgia is a primary manifestation. This temporal homesickness makes us feel "like atoms lost in vast empires, no longer citizens but subjects". This, to me, indicates the primary cause of nostalgia: a sense of loss.

Generation X indeed feels, perhaps more than most generations even in the modern industrialized world, a sense of loss, of "temporal homesickness". Our nostalgia, though superficially ironic, is actually one of the most visible symptoms of our sense of what we have lost. It is hardly coincidental that our nostalgia has focused so heavily on the era of our childhood. Though often merely for fun, our nostalgic forays into the 60s, 70s, and 80s may sometimes lead us, if only in private moments, into the realm of bittersweetness, of inexpressible longing, of what the Germans call Sehnsucht, a deep and aching yearning for who knows what--something we can't name or describe, but a longing which we nevertheless feel viscerally and painfully. 

*

We are all creatures of our time and place more than we realize. Although I think there is something universal in my characters (a universality that coexists with their eccentricity), they are also, at one level, symbols of my generation. I did not intend for them to be such, and did not think of them as such until lately. But I am starting to see that my almost obsessive focus on the theme of lostness and home, not just in these two related stories (Bluebird and "Rainbow", both of whose titles reference The Wizard of Oz) but in my writing generally, is at least in part a result of being born in the particular time and place I was, and perhaps marks me to a greater extent than I realized as a "Generation X writer".

The fiction produced by my generation has been called "X literature", and has also been linked to the concept of the "post-postmodern". (Yes, that's two posts.) Postmodern fiction was primarily the domain of baby boomers and even older writers, but Gen X inherited and lived the ethos of cultural postmodernism more than any other generation. It was a sense that all the old values had gone out the window, and that we now lived in a world that was, in a very real sense, meaningless. We felt ourselves to be living, so to speak, after the end of the world. You know... post-everything. The only thing that was left to do was party, using the leftovers of American culture and recycling them in our own individualized and creative ways.

But "post-postmodernism", other than being a highly unwieldy and unfortunate term, may actually indicate the way forward for, and the saving grace of, Generation X. It has been a standing question at least since the 90s as to exactly what shall succeed the colorful but ultimately arid world of postmodernism. My generation is in a unique position to supply an answer. Some attempts have already been made--the post-postmodern has in turn been linked to such concepts as "the new sincerity", for example--but no dominant cultural movement, or moment, has yet emerged.

One popular book on postmodernism concludes that the only cure for postmodernism is "the incurable disease of Romanticism". Romanticism, if nothing else, was sincere. Sincerity would indeed seem to be the best and only answer to the spiritual emptiness and cool, ironic detachment of postmodernism. Romanticism was all about believing in things--as my character Thomas Fairchild says, "I’m a Romantic because I believe in all the things that no one else believes in."

I think that, despite our reputation, Generation X really believes in things. We have ideals. The cynic and the pessimist are only idealists who have been burned. Gen X has been burned, but the core of our being, the hopeful children who were disappointed and disillusioned, remains.

The crisis of my generation boils down to a crisis of faith. It's really that simple. We didn't deserve to be born into the crazy time that we were. We didn't deserve it when our families, or our communities, or our country or our world, broke apart. We can be forgiven for losing faith, for having doubts. But we can't stay there. Not if we want to make the most of our one and only time on this earth.

I know that many of my peers, now facing middle age, will never recover from those wounds and will live out the rest of their lives in pessimism and cynicism. But I hope, and I dare to believe, that that is not the fate of most of my generation. I have seen too much potential, and too much beauty, in us to be okay with that. It's not like we have to buy the old dreams, the ones that are no longer viable in the 21st century. We can create new ones... diy, indie, alternative dreams that are ours. Many of us are already doing that, and we have become adept at doing that. We still have a chance to leave behind a legacy other than saying, "Never mind."

*

When it comes down to it, my generation has never really felt at home, and we often feel like we will never really be at home. It's hard to even know what home means, though we know it somehow, intuitively, in our dreams. We are trying to create home in our lives right now, modeling our efforts after some vision that we never saw in real life. Perhaps we saw it on TV. But our efforts give away the fact that, somehow, miraculously, we haven't completely lost our faith.

As for me, I will continue to write stories that express my own experience of life, which will naturally reflect at least a small part of my generation's experience. I will continue to seek home, largely through telling stories about seeking home, and hopefully my stories might awaken just a little more of the dreams, and the faith in dreams, of at least a few of my homeless wandering cohorts. The Gen X-ers I know are creative, intelligent, resourceful, and strong people. And they are beautiful. It's been a hard journey for many of us. I don't know where we are going, or even really where there is to go, but there's no generation I'd rather be going there with.

We are somewhere in the middle of our story right now. It hasn't all been written. Yes, we are the disinherited stepchildren of post-everything America, or at least we have always felt ourselves to be. That has been our narrative thus far. But we still have a chance to create, and tell, a different story, or rather to take our story in new and unexpected directions, to give it a better ending than the bleak gloom-and-doom tale of woe that we have often felt fated to live out. In my mind Generation X possesses a sleeping grandeur that may yet awake. Call me a blind optimist, but I like to think that our best days are still ahead, and that, late bloomers that we are, our finest hour still awaits. All the people who didn't believe in us, who left us for dead... we will show them. We will show up. We will do it ourselves, in our own unique way, the way that only Xers can do.

Something in me wants to qualify what I've said above, feeling a tad embarrassed that maybe I'm being too sincere and sentimental.

But you know what? Whatever. Never mind.

Friday, August 16, 2013

On Writing the Primordial

"that strangest and wildest of all creatures: a poet"

I was initially going to write a post about why I am not a political writer; that is, why my stories and poems do not engage in contemporary political or social issues. This seemed a relevant question since there has been a longstanding tension between art that is "political" or "moral" and art that is more purely "aesthetic". Partisans of both sides tend to disparage art of the other kind.

On the one hand, people who believe that art should express a message, whether that message be political, social, ethical, moral, religious, etc., think that "merely" aesthetic art is frivolous, unserious, and ultimately irresponsible.

On the other hand, devotees of "art for art's sake" tend to look down on art that they see as being a mere vehicle for propaganda, rather than first and foremost an expression of beauty and the human spirit.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized how my own aesthetic orientation (as opposed to a political or moral orientation) is related to issues that run much deeper than simply an interest (or lack thereof) in treating political themes in my art.

It is not simply that I am disinterested in focusing on politics or morality in my writing. It would be quite misleading to say that I am not interested in these topics, and it would be no more fair than to say that someone who makes politically or socially relevant art is not interested in beauty. These are two abstract poles with much overlap rather than neatly divided camps.

Yet it remains true that I lean more heavily toward the pole of aesthetics than the pole of ethics when it comes to art. I do think of it as a sort of artistic "orientation". The reason for my orientation, I think, has to do with an underlying worldview that "pre-exists" specific political or religious/antireligious ideologies.

Now that I think about it, artists who make art that expresses political or moral themes--what we might loosely call "didactic" art, especially when it seeks to effect change in society through heightened awareness of social problems, etc.--are thinking and writing on the level of ideological specifics: conservative, liberal, or radical; religious, agnostic, or atheist; and so forth.

Since, in the modern era, most politically-oriented writers have tended to come from the ranks of the political left, a common criticism of "aesthetic" writers is that they are, by default, conservative or reactionary. This is a logical fallacy, however, and overlooks the fact that didactic writers of many past eras were highly conservative and traditional, and much of their art has been criticized for being used as a mere vehicle for religious or other educational purposes at the expense of artistic quality and beauty.

The aesthetically-oriented writer, it seems to me, is thinking and working on a level that I would call pre-ideological. I am not interested here in arguing that this approach is superior, but only to attempt to explain to some degree where such writers are "coming from".

That place can perhaps only be described as primordial. I can only speak for myself, rather than for all artists who work on this level, but for me, art is something that expresses, or at least aims to express, the ultimate nature both of ourselves and of reality. Historically, the vehicles by which humanity has expressed the ultimate nature of things have been religion, mythology, and art (including poetry).

To put it plainly, art is by its very nature "religious" and "mythological". I realize this statement may be misinterpreted, so I will need to explain. I certainly do not mean that art must express a religious message or point of view or else it is not "true" art. I mean my statement to apply even to art that is avowedly atheistic and materialistic in its worldview. And even art that is avowedly religious is not necessarily highly "religious" in the sense I am using here.

When I say art is "religious", I just mean that it seeks to illuminate the ultimate nature of reality, including especially of human beings and human existence. I mean that it is "spiritual", in the sense of exploring and expressing the human spirit. And it is "mythological" in the sense of providing symbols and narratives that help us to understand reality and ourselves.

My personal point of view, moreover, is that not just art, but all human discourses, are essentially mythological. I would say that even scientific and political discourse are mythological; in fact, science and politics, I would argue, are the true religions of our time, as they have been since the Enlightenment. I think this is true despite the rather alarmist focus on religious fundamentalism in the contemporary world (which I would agree is often a problem, sometimes a rather serious one, but is not in fact the dominant worldview of the 21st century).

What I am saying is nothing new, and it has already been said by a plethora of leftist postmodernist theorists and philosophers: the notion that scientific and political discourse represent socially constructed "grand narratives", which is another way of saying "myths", by which we understand and structure our view of reality.

To call something a "myth" is not to say that it is false. It is only to say that it is a story we have made to explain reality. In my opinion, postmodernist philosophy's biggest and best contribution has been to show us that all human discourses, even and especially those we consider to be "objective", rational truths, are essentially mythological. Myths are simply the way that human beings explain and understand reality, and there is no getting around it. Our explanatory narratives may be more or less sophisticated, more or less in agreement with reality, but they always remain our partial and imperfect understandings of that reality. Being the finite creatures that we are, we do not, and cannot, have a God's-eye perspective.

In any case, I think of my own writing as coming from a place that is "pre-political". (I should note that I fundamentally and emphatically disagree with the postmodernists' notion that all discourses are necessarily political. I believe that the political emerges from something more foundational... what I have already called the "primordial".) My writing is not so interested in addressing the particulars of contemporary politics as in exploring the eternal verities and universal truths of the human condition. I am of a certain class of writers which is interested in creating new mythologies, rather than works that serve as vehicles for existing mythologies. As such, I expect that many of my fictional and poetic works will be either misunderstood or not understood at all by those who only think in terms of given categories.

When I was writing The Bluebird of Happiness, I mentioned at one point that it is neither right nor left. Even at the time, I felt this was a funny thing to say about it. Not because it isn't true, but because the question almost seems irrelevant. It is probably more accurate to say that it does not even address the left-right question at all.

I fully expect that Bluebird, together with my currently-in-production mini-epic poem, There Go The Gods, as well as most of my other stories, novels, and poems, will appear confusing, contradictory, and inscrutable to many readers, to the extent that they approach these works with standard ideological mindsets.

But that is precisely part of my point. I am not interested, and perhaps am constitutionally incapable, of being a "political" writer if that means writing from a particular existing political viewpoint. I want my art to be much scarier than that. I am digging deeper than arguments between Republicans and Democrats, Christians and atheists. I am exploring subterranean realms where all human beings find common ground in our concrete metaphysical situation of being human--whatever that means--in the universe--whatever that is.

As both a philosopher and a poet, my aim is to explore and, to whatever degree a mere mortal may, illuminate the heights and depths of reality--the ultimate things. This by no means necessitates disagreement with or refutation of any particular scientific, political, or religious narrative, but it does necessitate thinking creatively and imaginatively outside the specific stories, the specific ways of explaining the world and of explaining human life, that I have received, and to use their influence in varying ways to make stories of my own. These stories, like any writer's, will necessarily be a combination of affirmations and criticisms of existing narratives. Literature is, among many other things, humanity's ongoing conversation with itself, its attempt to create knowledge and understanding out of our wild and untamed experience.

My success as a writer therefore has nothing to do with how much money it may earn me, which seems utterly irrelevant to such a project, but rather has everything to do with the power, truth, and beauty that I am capable of uncovering and sharing through my art. I will be successful if my stories or poems trouble my readers' minds and hearts just enough that they might begin to think and feel in new ways, ways they never expected or imagined. To me, that's what art is all about, and what an artist's responsibility to society boils down to. It is about expansion--expansion of the mind, the heart, and of possibility.