gall and gumption

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Drawn from Life

My mother gave me a camera. Tonight I took this photo of one of my drawings from the Sunday life workshop, of the splendid model Alan who even heterosexual Latin men call an Adonis. He is not only splendid looking, he's as solid as a rock, can't, apparently, put his body into any pose that is not beautiful, and is of such serene good nature that he really is a model on more than one level. This is actually an old drawing of him but I like it better than the one I did today.

And by the way this drawing is not actually on a red background. It is this color because the flash on my camera bleached out all the color so I covered it with my finger and this was the result.

When I go to these sessions -- I have my pick of Saturday or Sunday morning or both -- I carry all my art supplies of course, and I also carry my iPod. And I carry something to read.

I’m reading Volume II of John L. Motley’s The Rise of the Dutch Republic. There may be a more objective and modern narrative of this amazing and terrible period in European history, but I doubt that there is one more movingly told. And the hero of it, William of Orange (not the one who various things in Virginia are named after, but an ancestor of his), is a real hero. The villain of it is Phiip II, who Marvin Mudrick called “a double-dipped dirtbag from hell,” which on this, my second reading of the book, seems a bit of an understatement.

Anyway that’s a tale for another day I hope. My point in mentioning it is only to indicate that I travel heavily fortified against boredom and anxiety. So during a model I was on my way outside for a wee smoke and I grabbed the book of course. Various other people from the group of about eight were out in the hall and one was this woman named Y., shall we say? She is Anglo-Irish I think. She has taken a great liking to me and apparently regards it as a great compliment to me. There was an old man in the hall also, who asked me what I was reading. I handed him the book. He glanced at the spine and handed it back.

“I don’t read books,” he said. “I get all my reading from newspapers.”

I nodded politely.

“I read the New York Times of course, and the Forward, and The New Yorker.”

I nodded politely.

“My wife gets the Washington Post on Fridays and Sundays.”

“Well that’s certainly enough reading to get you through the week,” I ventured at last.

He looked blankly at me and I thought, “What did I say? What am I supposed to say? What did I miss here?”

Not a moment too soon, Y. intervened. “I went to see that movie The Queen with Helen Mirren,” she announced to me rather breathlessly. “Did I tell you I went to see it? It was marvelous. You must see it.”

She had told me that once that morning. And last night when I got home from Tower Records my father said “Y. called. She said she saw the movie The Queen and it was marvelous.” He had written it down, too.

When I checked my email there was a message from Y. “I’ve just been to see that movie The Queen, with Helen Mirren. It was marvelous.”

“Yes, you did tell me,” I said. I said it nicely OK? Suppose I had lied (which occurred to me for a moment to spare her finding out how many times she had told me), then later she would remember that she had told me. I can’t keep all that sort of thing straight so now I just say the truth on a Need to Know basis.

At any rate hearing about that movie The Queen with Helen Mirren was very timely. It was like she threw a rope and sort of rescued this old man from the bog of self-consciousness in which he was apparently sinking. He departed from the conversation the way people do at cocktail parties when they have listened to you long enough and now they see someone else coming that they have to be interested in for exactly 10 minutes. (More if they are bigger social fish of course.) Not that there was anyone coming, but perhaps The Void was preferable to my mute reproaches on his literary taste.

But you will note, won’t you, that I did not initiate this conversation with the old man. I did not put him in any difficulties. I never said or implied a word of about his reading habits, I didn't ask him to explain them to me. All I did was answer a question that he asked me, a question, by the way, he showed not the remotest interest in hearing the answer to.

The thing is for months after I started coming to these workshops in January I would hear these people talking to other people and they sounded sane enough. But apparently when I come near, all the bats start swooping and flapping about in the belfry.

Is it something about me, I wonder? The answer is yes. I am a loony magnet. I inherited it from my grandmother. But I am not sure what makes some people loony magnets and others loony proof.

And then maybe, you know, I sound nuts too. I leave that to you to judge.


At 9:10 PM, Blogger Chuckling said...

I guess I will serve as further proof of your loon magnet thesis and compliment you on that story. I thought it was very well-written and interesting. It is nicely paced and the characters sharply drawn. The story provides good insight into human nature and is ultimately very satisfying.

Sorry, I am joking again, although every kind word I say about your story is genuine. The joke, at least in my head, concerns the multiple layers of abstraction in which we as internet entities exist and communicate.

I often feel conflicted when I read these personal anecdotes with a critical eye for characterization and narrative technique. Rather than being amused by the zany travails of the Kia character and respectful of her author's depth of perception and writing technique, shouldn't I feel sympathy for the person who is dealing with such all-too-human foils as the vain. insecure man and the obsessive, condescending woman?

Not that I don't feel sympathy on a personal level, but sometimes it feels wrong to even consider people's life stories as art or entertainment.

Of course you have a high level of awareness about these things, but if you've ever randomly bumbled through the blogs, I trust you know what I'm talking about. Every now and then I find some brilliant writing by someone who is genuinely unaffective. Is "genuinely unaffective" redundant? Maybe "guileless in their technique" would be a better way to phrase it. Or just plain innocent.

Anyway, nice photo (and drawing). Did you mean that you put your thumb over the flash? Did the light go through your skin to cast the red glow?

At 11:09 PM, Blogger Kia said...

"Unaffected" is maybe what you mean?

First the camera. Yeah I put my index finger over the flash. I was hoping someone would explain the reason for the red, and incredibly, you did. I didn't know the flash would go through flesh.

As for the question you raise about sympathy vs. critical eye for technique (rather pithy of you I must say): I don't see why you can't have both. Talking about technique can get you further into your experience of a piece of writing, i.e., deepen your sympathy. With some stuff, you just have to or else you miss a lot of what's going on. (We don't naturally speak in iambic pentameter for instance). And for me personally when I fall in love with an author I want to know how they did everything.

Second, one thing that can happen is that the language for talking about technique is not quite adequate to the experience that people have. Not because your personal resources of language are inadequate, but because we partly inherit or get educated into certain ways of talking about art that maybe aren't descriptive enough of what makes it interesting to us. Which means we have to make up our own way of describing and pointing to these experiences and why they are important or interesting. The coolest part about that is that while we have to go to school to get the language of technique, we already possess the language of feeling. It's the same language as literature.

I don't think you'd be interested in the technique question if you didn't feel sympathy with the characters in the stories. There are several schools of criticism that hold that you aren't supposed to take that sympathetic impulse seriously. But I don't really know of any other reason to read anything except for the chance to connect through the web of a story with another human, maybe one who has been dead for 400 years, who spoke a language I don't speak and lived in a country I've never been to. Or now, with blogs, someone living 100 miles away just writing about her daily life. Literary theorists for the last 30 years have been saying that the author is dead, and along come the blogs and there are all these personal voices, people in trouble, people in boring jobs, people with killer wit, people with cats, broken love affairs, hobbies, and every day a couple thousand more of them.

It's personal and it's real, and so if you're humanly aware you respond to the voices that reach you. But it's abstract too, it's got "multiple layers of abstraction" as you say so nicely: but so does every type of art. and of experience, come to think of it. Think about all that "primitive" art and how abstract it is.

I guess the short version of this response to your comment is: You Can Have It All, and really, you already do. You might as well feel sympathy for the old man and the obsessive condescending woman too, because life is a bitch.

That first paragraph of yours sounds straight out of Fiction Writing Workshop Hell...

At 9:55 AM, Anonymous tom said...

You have Adonis, and William of Orange, and the reader of the New York Times of course, and the woman who won't desist until Mirren is under your belt. It is wonderful. If were in this place (if I painted), I'd feel only unease. The clarity of your insight into these people would be on the other side of a thick haze, producing a membrane of helpless angst, a desire to disappear. I like all the sketching you do here. It is quite possible that the presence of the truth is uncomfortable for those who already feel a little put out around Adonis and Wm. of O.

My guess is, some socially more vigorous types who know this social hell devise theatrical personae - Warren William in "Satan Met a Lady" - to carry off these little scenes. Or as a sort of personality vaccine whose aura is so triumphal and world beating that any classmate contemplating offering his stuporous reading habits before them as items of conversation would, 90% of the time, think better of it.

The worldbeaters don't often get to write scenes like yours, since the contagion never has a chance to take hold.

At 11:03 AM, Blogger Kia said...

It is quite possible that the presence of the truth is uncomfortable for those who already feel a little put out around Adonis and Wm. of O.

Tom, you are the second person who has said something like this to me this week, in response to one of my adventures.

I'm doomed.

At 9:24 PM, Blogger Chuckling said...

Yes, “Unaffected” is closer to what I meant, though I was actually trying to find some word that would combine the concepts of “unaffected” and “affective.” I even looked it up in the dictionary before writing it, and still fucked up. Unaffected, yet emotional. Is there a word for that?

And yes, I feel sympathy for the old man and the obsessive condescending woman too, not because life is a bitch, but because human relationships are, even in the hallways of continuing education. My guess is that these people would genuinely like to get to know you, but are intimidated by your persona. Note how both react by trying to appear cultured. The old man, faced with William of Orange, recites the learned journals he and his wife peruse, not, I suspect, to show you his indifference to your irrelevant historical pursuits, but as a desperate attempt to show that he is not as unworthy as he appears in his own eyes. Same thing with The Queen lady. She is cultured, not as much as you, but she is. Really. See. See. See.

Perhaps you are unaware of the strength of your presence? If you want to be friendly, go see the movie, tell her how much you liked it. Ask the guy what he thought about that article in this morning’s Times. That’s all they’re asking of you. The chance to give a little. It’s all on you cause it’s not bloody likely that they’ll be reading any bloody John L. Motley any time soon.

At 10:45 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Well now that you explain it I quite like "unaffective." It means just what I would have liked it to mean.

Those are good suggestions you made, and I'll try them, just to see what happens. But you know, I have to say, just for the record, I don't think of myself as having all that much gravitas. I always feel like the most clueless person in the room, most places, either invisible or ridiculous.

Perhaps if I had considered the possibility of being seen in some other light I might have answered the old man with more presence of mind, more on the lines you suggest. That would have been nicer, really. And you know, a person can learn a lot from reading the papers.

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