Category Archives: Vernon Peterson

Jenny Diski fights sleep, wins

“Reality cannot stand too much wakefulness.”

America could use a Jenny Diski.

Joan Didion, Annie Dillard and Janet Malcolm exercise a comparable ruthlessness, waged against received opinion on subjects of comparable range, but they are not as unrelentingly unreserved as Diski. America cannot abide too much wakefulness, which is why I resist sleep. And Diski, post-empire British to the core, is one of the things that keep me up nights.

Check her “Diary” column in the latest London Review of Books, (31 July 2008), one of the select items the Review posts online. “If you set aside the incomparable cruelty and stupidity of human beings, surely our most persistent and irrational activity is to sleep,” she begins. In the next paragraph she turns to “the second most absurd thing we do: wake up.” In the space of a page and a half she describes the several levels of wakefulness through which we descend in and out of sleep—for descend out of it we do, she convinces us, in an endless spiral, with occasional freefall.

In Diski’s hands, such a tale is magic. There’s humor: “As chief scientist in charge of making the world a better place, once I’d found a way of making men give birth, or at least lactate, I’d devote myself to abolishing the need for sleep.” And she can tap the nostalgia for those “delicious,” slightly anxious moments we never outgrow: her earliest memory of “sensual pleasure,” lying in bed, “the bedtime story told, lights out (not the hall, leave the door open, no, more than that),” perfectly comfortable, “falling slowly into sleep.”

Read it, and marvel how this brief essay–a miniature novel–slips in such short space from human cruelty and stupidity to Raquel Welch saving our beleaguered world!

If you enjoy reading and re-reading this piece, click Jenny Diski’s blog for more.

Diski is a novelist, but I’ve only read her non-fiction. I’d like to report that she grasped Portland’s unique essence in her American travelogue, Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America with Interruptions, but, alas, her night journey from Spokane to Portland, on the Empire Builder, the train she had boarded in Chicago, is recalled only for the fact that it was a non-smoking leg, except for a brief stop in Pasco, where she stood on the platform and inhaled “the best part of two cigarettes.”

Green New: up the country with Henry and Saul

“I do not believe that history obeys a system, nor that its so-called laws permit deducing future or even present forms of society; but rather that to become conscious of the relativity (hence of the arbitrariness) of any feature of our culture is already to shift it a little, and that history (not the science but its object) is nothing other than a series of such imperceptible shifts.”

Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America

* * * * *

At the end—the end of the novel, which, as we know, can be the beginning of almost anything—Herzog feels something, perhaps happiness, something at least that “produces intensity, a holy feeling, as oranges produce orange, as grass green, as birds heat.” Feeling, after all his adventures that spring and early summer, “pretty well satisfied to be,” and with “fullness of heart,” Herzog lies down, by turns, on mattress, under locust tree and on old dusty couch, expectant.

I feel the same sense of intensity and fullness this summer morning beginning a new book, Reimagining Thoreau, by Robert Milder (Cambridge University Press). Expectant, because Milder’s recent study of Herman Melville, Exiled Royalties: Melville and the Life We Imagine, is one of the finest things I’ve ever read about how a writer’s words come alive, not by giving us an idea to carry away, but by immersing us in the indeterminacy of all ideas—true, an “idea” itself, but one consistent with the general scatter of things human. On life’s ocean we tack to and fro, an island moving in the stream, occasionally finding the isolated Ishmael afloat on his own idea’s island.

Milder’s theme in Reimagining Thoreau, as I absorb it in the first pages, is that Henry David Thoreau‘s “writings are dramatized answers to the social and psychological problem of how to live.” And these were “strategic” answers, the probing initiatives of Thoreau and others who formed that famous American Renaissance literary class which sought to “rescue itself from the margins of national life,” and to reshape the world “according to the imperatives of personal and collective need.” Of course we reshape the world in part by reshaping ourselves and thus our relations with the world. Thoreau’s shapeshifting was in response to “unexpected resistances in nature, society, and his own being.” Resistances to his idealized or mythologized self, a self-conception always in flux. So Thoreau was “a Proteus who eluded tragedy, chronic frustration, remorse and despair through a sidelong change of form” that repeatedly infused new energy into his work. A bracing thought this cool July morning!
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Thirteen ways of looking at The New Yorker

“It is never entirely safe to laugh at the metaphysics of the man-in-the-street.”
— J.W. Dunne, An Experiment With Time

I’ve spent three weeks in a state of distraction. Ten minutes here and there, cracks in time, I browsed the summer fiction issue of The New Yorker (June 9 & 16, 2008). I found several scattered signs of our times.

1. Peter Schjeldahl on a Jeff Koons retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Koons is a “major artist,” one of those who can “X-ray the cultures that give rise to them,” Schjeldahl begins portentously. But the culture that gives this particular rise is one in which “intelligence is obsolete.” Koons’ iconic “product line” sculptures–the latest of which, a huge steel heart, looks “incredibly costly” and “as sweet as dime-store perfume”–are turned out in a factory employing some 90 assistants. (“Rabbit,” shown here, is a stainless-steel cast of an inflatable bunny.) The steel heart, chirps Schjeldahl, “apostrophizes our present era of plutocratic democracy, sinking scads of money in a gesture of solidarity with lower-class taste.” And that major artist, X-ray vision-ness? “We might wish for a better artist to manifest our time, but that would probably amount to wanting a better time.”

2. Annie Proulx, “Tits-Up in a Ditch.” This is the sloppily-tricked-out, unreinforced Humvee underbelly of the want-of-a-better-time-to-live-through. A story about Dick Cheney’s Wyoming and Dick Cheney’s Iraq War, in which a young woman, Dakotah, begins her “descent into the dark, watery mud” of our time, when she discovers that the only words she has to describe her Iraq experience are the gnawed-end clichés of the grandfather she hates.

3. Ron Chast cartoon book: “How to Live on One Hour of Sleep Per Night.”
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Summer reading: William Gibson’s “Spook Country”

spook countrySpook Country is the place of no fixed boundary, where official governments and their shadowy minions mingle, betraying friends and arming future enemies. The Dick Cheneys of the world assure us that what they do there is all for our own good and that we should sleep better at night for it, but we suspect that more than a little of what comes of it feathers their own beds. And more and more we know they really don’t have a clue.

In the age of post-9/11 neo-surveillance, counter-terrorism is the new terrorism, and every cultural production, be it furniture, appliance, weapon, art work, act of Congress or staged event such as political rally or act of terror, is authentic only if it is inauthentic; if, in other words, it is, as William Gibson suggests, “a very elaborate artifact, mass-produced by artisans of one culture in vague imitation of what had once been the culture of another.”

And what is the most primitive human artifact still in use? The container: bag, box, pocket, backpack, diplomatic pouch, car bomb, micro-chip, cargo container.

You may not know what it is, or what it contains, but in Gibson’s latest novel, Spook Country, now in paperback (Berkley Trade, $15.00), Bobby Chombo can tell you where in our undifferentiated global grid it is right this minute. Chombo is geek squad gone over the edge. His GPS grid-induced paranoia leads him to divide his warehouse into squares and he never sleeps twice in the same spot. Trained in militarily valuable applications of Global Positioning, he now freelances for conceptual artists like Alberto Corrales, for whom he triangulates complicated bits of computer-simulated reality on location. Slip on a custom helmet and you see a life-like hologram of River Phoenix dead on the street or pale F. Scott Fitzgerald dying in a bar. Corrales’ latest piece involves Charlie Manson and Sharon Tate.

But Chombo also works for an unnamed old man, seasoned, avuncular, who may be a rogue CIA operative, and who appears to bear the scars of betrayal from as far back as the Bay of Pigs. The old man has Chombo tracking a cargo container bound for North America.

What’s in the container? Perhaps it’s smuggled arms, or a weapon of mass destruction, or human cargo, or a huge chunk of small bills the U.S. shipped to Iraq and then lost. Or perhaps it’s simply an al-Qaida dry run to test Homeland Security. Or perhaps container and cargo are another virtual creation, an element of the “consensual hallucination,” as Gibson calls the internet.
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If stones could speak, perhaps I wouldn’t want to read

I’ve not traveled to Stonehenge, located west of London on the Salisbury Plain. Others have during the past 4,500 years; including, remarkably, the “Amesbury Archer,” a seemingly wealthy metalworker from the Swiss Alps, who made it to Stonehenge and was buried there around 2,400 BC, only to be unearthed in recent excavations, as reported in Caroline Alexander’s fascinating article in the June issue of National Geographic. Parts of the monument itself traveled far. Some 80 stones, the “bluestones,” weighing up to four tons each, were hauled in from Wales, 250 miles away. Larger stones, some weighing up to 50 tons, were hauled 20-30 miles.

How many theories dance on the head of a bluestone? We’ve studied Stonehenge enough to think it was built for a purpose, but what? Alexander summarizes the explanations, so far, of its origin and meaning:

Secure in its wordless prehistory, it can thus absorb a multitude of “meanings”: temple to the sun—or the moon, for that matter; astronomical calendar; city of the ancestral dead; center of healing; stone representation of the gods; symbol of status and power. The heart of its mystique is, surely, that it excites in equal measure both zealous certitude and utter bafflement.

Its very mystery leaves us free to steal some of its power. My favorite mystery-thriller, Joseph McElroy‘s Lookout Cartridge, has a scene set at Stonehenge, a group of late 1960s hippie-pagans exorcizing the evil spirits unleashed by the Vietnam War. East of Portland 100 miles, Sam Hill built a replica Stonehenge as a monument to soldiers killed in World War I. A pacifist, Hill thought Stonehenge a place of ritual sacrifice, and his Stonehenge is cold concrete, a bitter place overlooking the Columbia River.

“Carhenge” near Alliance, Nebraska is chief among the playful henges, to include “Foamhenge” in Virginia and “Fridgehenge” in New Mexico. My own modest proposal is a temporary public sculpture in the Park blocks, made from frozen sides of beef. In the middle of summer, Beefhenge could speak loudly if not necessarily eloquently for veganism, I think, something in the counter-spirit of Hill’s monument. And I wait for the inspired used car lot construction of “SUVhenge” or “PeakOilhenge.”

The current issue of Tin House sports a photograph of “Carhenge” on its cover, an example of “Outsider” art; that is, art created “off the grid” or outside traditional boundaries. Tin House‘s Elissa Schappel explains that Carhenge typifies the “eccentric, amateurish, maybe even laughable” art “created by folks who wouldn’t necessarily even call themselves artists.” The naive, of course, doesn’t exhaust the rather limitless possibilities of “Outsider” art. See, for example, the definitions in “Outsider” art’s institutional publication, Raw Vision. But perhaps it is true that “Outsider” art can be described and defined as such only by . . . “insider” artists and critics? And if you were to build a monument as a symbol of that kind of status and power, what would it look like? Would we recognize it had a purpose, but wonder what?

Ross Macdonald and the one-to-one ratio

“We’re all guilty.”
Ross Macdonald, The Blue Hammer

summit wildfire Every fire season in the West I think of Ross Macdonald. In his novel The Underground Man (1971), a wildfire burns an erratic swath through the steep canyons slicing the hillsides behind Santa Teresa, Macdonald’s mythical version of Santa Barbara, threatening to “strike across the city all the way to the sea.” At one time California wildfires erupted in late summer or early fall. Now they happen year-round. The NASA image above, taken May 23, is of the Summit fire east of Santa Cruz.

Macdonald’s Lew Archer detective novels span 1949-76. The last of them, The Blue Hammer (1976), is more than thirty years old, yet his stories read like yesterday’s news. And Santa Teresa is as much a character as any of Archer’s clients. In Sleeping Beauty (1973) an oil spill from an offshore oil rig threatens a private beach. It’s not just that Macdonald was something of an environmentalist, and held notions about the wholeness of nature, life as a seamless web. It’s that his prose, plain and lucid, let’s you breathe natural air. The physical world of his novels is rendered in precise, economic detail, but it’s a world of shades. Think of his California landscapes as Richard Diebenkorn paintings from which the color has been drained. In The Chill (1961) a murky fog surges through the city, as thick as the novel’s gray-toned plot.

I’m not sure what Macdonald would have made of climate change and other global threats. (He died in 1983.) He was not big on big issues; his focus was on individual responsibility. You see that in his hero and alter ego, Lew Archer. Macdonald is often described as the direct heir of Chandler and Hammett. But it’s more accurate to see Archer as the true heir. Archer reads and admires the hard-boiled crime novels, but with some skepticism about the tough, romantic life depicted in them. He realizes that while the art of private investigation may be morally ambiguous, its actual practice is mundane. Archer is knocked on the head now and then, but for the most part he avoids direct violence. In one revealing instance he is embarrassed when a client catches him aiming an empty target pistol at a rat eating kernels of grain in a bird feeder.
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Scatter recommends: Tove Jansson’s “The Summer Book”

Scatter remembers hauling teenage boys to Tower Records Monday midnights to get Tuesday CD releases that went on sale at 12:01. We feel the same sense of anticipation describing Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book ($14, 184 pages), published today by NYRB Classics. We held back recommending a midnight raid on your local bookshop, but in the clear light of day, on the cusp of our own summer, we believe you should find it and read it, now!

Jansson, a Swedish-speaking Finn, is famous in Europe for her creation of a series of comic strips and children’s books about the Moomins, a family of hippo-looking creatures who inhabit a Nordic twilight of midsummer magic. (One of Jansson’s Moomins books is called Moominsummer Madness.)

In The Summer Book, published originally in 1972, she steps back from fairy tale to tell a story based on her adventures living several summers with a niece on a small granite island floating “like a drifting leaf” among other islands in the Gulf of Finland. It’s as if the Moomins turned about to write a mythic tale of humans. We hesitate to say it’s not a children’s story. Children might like it, but it’s really an adult’s story, reminding us what it is like to be a child and wonder why adults are so dumb.

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Forget about it Jake, it’s a Rauschenberg

My first sense of the modern is in what Roger Shattuck said about Marcel Duchamp: “Can one produce works that are not works of art? He tried; we wouldn’t allow it.”

One might say of Robert Rauschenberg: “Can one throw out something that is pure junk? We tried; he wouldn’t allow it.”

My second sense of the modern is in Rauschenberg’s famous early work, Erased de Kooning Drawing (1953). Which is exactly that: He talked Willem de Kooning into giving him a drawing to erase. He wanted to start with a drawing that was “a hundred percent art,” which he thought his own might not be. De Kooning gave him something hard, a heavy-lined piece drawn with grease pencil, ink and crayon. It took Rauschenberg a month and forty erasers, but he finished his un-drawing. (Calvin Tomkins, Off the Wall: Robert Rauschenberg and the Art World)
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Joseph Conrad our contemporary

“At one time I thought that intelligent observation of facts was the best way of cheating the time allotted to us whether we want it or not; but now I have done with observation, too.”

“Dreams are madness, my dear. It’s things that happen in the waking world, while one is asleep, that one would be glad to know the meaning of.”

— Joseph Conrad, Victory

During this past week of “Mission Accomplished” ironies I have thought often of Joseph Conrad and his novel Victory, written before World War I began but not published until 1915. The book has nothing to do with war; if anything, it is one individual’s personal victory over his own skeptical detachment. In an author’s note Conrad said he had considered altering the title so as not to mislead readers, but decided against it because he thought Victory was the appropriate title for his story, based on “obscure promptings of that pagan residuum of awe and wonder which lurks still at the bottom of our old humanity.”

Do we have some bit of that glimmer of “awe and wonder” in our age of “shock and awe”? The one story I read at least once a year is “Heart of Darkness.” “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth,” Marlow begins his tale. And we know what he means. Wherever we are as we read these words we know the green grass or concrete beneath us covers something in the past dark and bloody. A flight of a few hours can take us to one of several of those dark places. Our “here” can become a dark place overnight. No, Marlow says, the conquest of the earth is “not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.”

What makes a long-dead writer our contemporary? Why do we feel such a direct connection to a nineteenth century Polish exile and sailor who began writing in English, his third language, after he turned forty? Polish drama critic Jan Kott wondered the same about Shakespeare. In Shakespeare Our Contemporary Kott writes that “Shakespeare is like the world, or life itself. Every historical period finds in him what it is looking for and what it wants to see.” And that is not because Shakespeare foretold things to come, but because, whatever the subject of his story, he filled the stage “with his own contemporaries.” Shakespeare aimed for “a reckoning with the real world.” For Kott, in mid-twentieth century Eastern Europe, it was “the struggle for power and mutual slaughter” in Shakespeare’s history plays that struck a chord. Kott also notes that in Conrad’s Lord Jim, the hero owns one book, a one-volume edition of Shakespeare. “Best thing to cheer up a fellow,” says Jim.

Why do Conrad’s novels and stories resonate with us in our time? Simply because conquest–of those inhabiting the earth, and, the earth itself, in all meridians–IS the story of our times. And, because, damned if they don’t cheer up a fellow like me!
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