criticism

Picaresque

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”

(Jonathan Swift from “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting”)

Do you ever go on a Google Safari?

This may look like a conjoining of two popular search engine names but really my meaning is the popular and ubiquitous meaning of the first word and the literal meaning of the second.

So, it may start by recalling a phrase or quotation or, in this instance, a title of a book, and I’m curious as to its origin or context or literal meaning. The book is the only work published by the author, John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces.

This was a book I’d judged by the title back in – whoa! the 1990s, I reckon, when Penguin issued a series of modern classic novels at an introductory bargain price. I wasn’t disappointed.

The phrase used for the title came to mind this morning after reading the news, but in particular the readers’ comments which are invited below many of the news items. I will admit that I have commented on items myself though I hope I haven’t been typical of these commenters. It’s a healthy sign of freedom and democracy that we are allowed to express ourselves publicly even if we wrongly equate our opinion with that of the author’s. A moment’s thought would tell any reasonable person how wrong this is likely to be so they might discard their certainty before going in search of the truth. Yet vanity and pride overwhelm, so generally people will choose ignorance over correcting themselves.

So, discovering the title comes from Jonathan Swift rather than The Holy Bible or Shakespeare, and being happy with that, I find a term I wasn’t familiar with but ought to be: Picaresque.

Essentially, Picaresque is a literary genre which deals with the lovable rogue, in particular someone from the lower orders in society, though in a broader sense anyone swimming against the popular tide. I love this genre and find such persons, whether fictitious or real, interesting.

In human nature, I feel there must be a “gene” which compels us to move with the herd. You can see its possible “evolutionary advantage”, can’t you? The downside is, amongst other things, people are informed by a narrow section of news outlets – somewhat bias driven for cynically commercial reasons, we get hemmed in by “party politics” – mostly self-serving and unrepresentative of ordinary citizen’s needs or views, and a largely out-of-date and devalued education.


The author, John Kennedy Toole’s life story is a sad one. Having written A Confederacy of Dunces – a brilliant and funny debut novel, I thought – he failed to get a publisher interested in it. He suffered depression and took his own life at the age of 31.

It was his mother, an influential figure throughout his life though not always a welcome one, who championed the novel in her son’s memory and eventually had it published. Later, Toole was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It reads like a good story in its own right and although there is a play, I don’t know if anyone’s made or thought of making a film of it.

Though the Safari could’ve gone on, I chose to end it there.

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The Scarecrow’s Reasoning

“That proves you are unusual,” returned the Scarecrow; “and I am convinced that the only people worthy of consideration in this world are the unusual ones. For the common folks are like the leaves of a tree, and live and die unnoticed.” 
― L. Frank Baum, The Land of Oz


Who doesn’t notice the leaves of a tree?!

Leaves are an identifier, the best, probably. We tell a type of tree from the look of its leaves more than anything else about it. But greater than this is their reminder of the seasons and, come Autumn, who isn’t impressed by the leaves show of colour?

For me, it’s a marvellous thing to see the leaves in their true colours, the golds, the ochres, the russets, the coppers and even the purples. The green was a mask they all hid beneath, for good reason. It’s the effect of chlorophyll: the green substance they produce which allows them to convert abundant sunlight into growth.

This is how a carelessly chosen simile casts doubt on the writer’s ability. Are they not writing within the scope of their knowledge? Write only what you know, is the advice often given; the first lesson. Of course, the Scarecrow is in want of a brain, so I’ll let him off this once.


If we only ever consider the unusual, then the unusual will become the usual, and the hitherto usual will then become the unusual. And so things would go around and around in an ever decreasing circle.

Give that straw man a brain before his intellect ruins us all.


written for Reena’s Exploration Challenge #78 – “on a paragraph from The Land of Oz, by L. Frank Baum”

I’ve not read The Land of Oz and I didn’t know what this excerpt is really about. I know the scarecrow only from the movie, The Wizard of Oz. In the film, he asks the Wizard for a brain and is given a certificate of diploma. Brilliant! That says a lot about the world we live in.

Four Lessons for your consideration

This article in Artsy magazine on Willem de Kooning had me thinking whether there was an equivalent in painting and drawing to “writer’s block”. Why I should make this leap – more a sidestep in reality – when the article doesn’t mention anything like it, I don’t know but thinking does that sometimes. There probably are some similarities between the creative arts.

The article deals with de Kooning’s lessons in becoming an artist. I thought I might consider these in the wider perspective of creative work. There’s a link at the end to the actual article if you want to read that.

Lesson #1: Don’t be afraid to be influenced by fellow artists’ work.

This is funny because I’m often unashamedly, and sometimes unconsciously, mimicking the work of others I admire. Sometimes I might even play around with stuff I don’t particularly admire.

I remember reading a story about Jimi Hendrix when he was seen coming out of a back street dive having gone in to see some second rate band. “Why on earth would a player of Hendrix’s standing bother watching a bad act?” He explained that even a poor player can sometimes give you a great idea about performing or songwriting. He took the influence and improved on it.

Lesson #2: Seek out glimpses of inspiration in the world around you.

This is probably the writer’s block bit. I don’t know about you but there’s always moments when I notice something interesting or inspirational. It might be a small thing, or it might be significant. It’s important to just log it in your mind – or jot a note down (I admire note takers a lot even though I rarely do this for myself).

Lesson #3: Pay attention to your desires, not the critics.

What motivates us? Yes, I think we all like a little approval, we like a little praise. Constructive criticism would be good too, providing we can handle it, though it’s not very nice; it depends where we’re at, past the tipping point of having gained self-confidence enough to brush off the nonsense stuff.

I think you have to be faithful to your desires.

Lesson #4: Embrace imperfection—even failure.

Whatever you’re into to, there ought to come an important tipping point when you realise that a mistake, far from being annoying or an embarrassing set back, is actually a real progression in learning your art. Failures make better teachers than successes. Of course, you have to look it squarely in the eyes and know why, and how to avoid it a second time, but this isn’t something you’re more likely to do with a success.

As a perfectionist myself, this has arrived later than it could have. I see perfectionism as a disorder and it still cuts deep at times but it shouldn’t hold you back.


Article: Willem de Kooning: How to be an artist (Artsy magazine)

image: The Privileged (untitled XX), 1985 by Willem de Kooning

Views on Writing: Catching the Light

Clive James wrote of writing that it was turning a phrase until it catches the light.

When I read – and when I write, though this is a late experience and I’m still on the nursery slopes – too often I’m not noticing the glint of light. This is made more obvious when I consider those times when the light appears brilliantly, and it’s as if something magical is happening. It’s quite often an opening paragraph or an introduction to something, and it’s usually quite simple, precise, colourful and concise.

Following a path towards an understanding of Reena’s Exploration Challenge this week, I googled the name Kosho Uchiyama Rōshi. He was a Zen Buddhist monk in 20th century Japan, a master of origami, and an exponent of zazen, literally “sitting”, a method of meditation devised by the Zen master, Eihei Dōgen.

I follow his name in turn and find this passage on zazen attributed to him,

“I have not visited many Zen monasteries. I simply, with my master Tendo, quietly verified that the eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical. I cannot be misled by anyone anymore. I have returned home empty-handed.

I quietly verified that the eyes are horizontal and the nose is vertical. This is a phrase that catches the light.

You want me to buy what?

First impressions are lasting impressions.

I’m sure you’ve read or heard that before. It comes to mind now that we are “house-hunting”, a process which involves scrolling through a lot of images of house frontages online, and making appointments to view the ones which don’t look like they were owned by the first two little pigs in the three little pigs rhyme.

What’s annoying about these photos is the agents use of wide angle lenses. So what appears to be an attractive property set back from the road with a large front garden turns out in reality to be practically sitting on the street all but for a narrow strip of grass. The internals are as bad, a room turns out to be a cupboard and the bowling alley long living room is actually only a couple of feet more than your sofa.

The thing is, you head over with high hopes and the first impression – the reality – hits you between the eyes like a wet turbot. Sometimes you don’t even bother to go inside.


So, watching a bit more telly than I had done for many years, albeit “on-demand” and on a tablet, I have been reacquainted with our British adverts.

I remember when adverts could be quite clever, and entertaining. Sometimes it was said, given the state of our telly, the ads were better than the programmes. Of course, memory plays tricks and I don’t know if I’m just cherry-picking the best of them over a very long period and condensing it into a narrower time frame. I don’t suppose there ever has been a golden age of advertising any more than a golden age of telly.

I’ve noticed that the on-demand channel only shows around a dozen different ads, the same ones regardless of what show they appear in. About half are unmemorable which, I guess, is a fail in advertising circles. The rest could be divided into two groups: those that make sense and those that don’t. I have to confess here that I’m no expert in advertising; I just think about these things. And I thought it might be interesting to discuss these odd little things we watch in the UK. Clicking on the images should take you to the relevant ad via Youtube. Do come back though!

Car Insurance

Now I will say this is a mildly amusing skit and it potentially gives us a couple of likely catchphrases, like the way he says “Poncho” in that exasperated manner. But what is actually happening here?

I’ve had a fair number of insurance claims in my time and not once have I been required to sit in an interview room, giving a statement to a skeptical insurance assessor. Wouldn’t this impression put you off choosing the company in the first place?

And then it turns out he didn’t hit anything, and he had a dashboard cam anyway – why didn’t he simply email the footage over to them, to crack a smile on their grim little faces? Unless it’s footage from a different incident. But, as the ad states, what are the chances of that? No, this ad is looking so phoney, I wouldn’t trust them a bit. Install a dash cam but go somewhere else.

High Street Banking

Got something unique or interesting to sell us? No. What’s the point, then? Anyway, it’s just a minute’s worth of horses stampeding across a beach. Would anyone really get out of bed for that? Maybe just draw the curtain aside for a peek. Oh, some stable’s escaped horses, is it? Fancy that. Get back into bed.

Yes, nothing to see and the overall impression is why? It’s not like it’s targeting anyone just old enough to be considering opening a bank account. It’s more like Black Beauty being reimagined by a group-think more used to advertising drawdown pensions and retirement homes. First impression, folks.

Latest Cell Phone

My initial thought here is that Kevin Bacon has it in his contract that there must always be an egg in view. Egg and Bacon, see? I have noticed this most times he’s on though it is quite a subtle pairing.

Bacon is advertising one of our biggest phone service providers, it just so happens they’re offering the latest phone at this time, made by one of the top manufacturers. Big spondulicks, then. Actually, this looks okay. It’s simple, entertaining, amusing and I can’t see it presented too many difficulties filming – ordinary setting, no children, no animals, no effects – and it’s clear what the deal is. It actually makes sense from beginning to end. So, not bad.


But that’s just me. Any contrary views gratefully considered, simply comment below.

Approval

Like the proverbial wait for the bus, you see no posts about Bukowski on this blog for six years, then two come along within days.

First, I’m going to write a little bit about writing.

This morning, I was giving some attention to the WordPress app, turning over some stones which I hadn’t thought to turn over before, in the hope that it might reveal some interesting secrets.

I found a blog for a “creative writing” group local to me. I’m not sure about “creative writing” groups. This one explains how they meet up to discuss each other’s work and offer constructive criticism. Boy, I’d hate that, wouldn’t you?

I remember reading somewhere that writing was a solitary affair. It was a famous author who wrote that though I can’t recall the name. In resorting to Google for help, it seems there’s a lot of contrary opinions to this which I feel only enforces the sentiment. These opinions mostly appear to come from the undiscovered end of the author spectrum. I guess if you’re famous you don’t need to seek approval, and you’ll get the criticism, constructive or otherwise, whether you need it or not.

There was a series on telly where a white Englishman spent time with different authentic third world tribes. In one episode, some African tribesmen wondered why the white man showed a reluctance to join in with their social chanting and dancing. As a product of his world, he was self-conscious and inhibited, but in their world they hold, if a man can walk he can dance, and if he can talk he can sing. It was as natural and effortless as that. There was no critical evaluation of individual talent.

And so it seems to me if you can write, you can write creatively; isn’t it just the same thing but with a bit more oomph? Approval required? Nah. Just do it!


So, what about the Bukowski you promised?, I hear you cry. Okay, one of the Google returns I had was from a favourite place of mine, Brain Pickings, and it’s about a Bukowski poem read by Bukowski himself. There’s not much I know about poetry but I know it’s better said than read. I think Clive James explained how poetry carried its own music – I suppose in contrast to lyrics which nearly always need the partnership of a tune – and this music requires to be heard. And it’s good to hear the poet read his own words.

Choose to listen in browser unless you want to go to the Soundcloud site.

If you prefer to read the words I have a link below.

I find it a funny poem in the way the list of things he advises young men to do comes across like one of those “bucket list” aspirations, the sort where people try to outdo one another in daring, awesomeness and cool. Things which might mark them out as being individualistic though, ironically, requiring the approval of others to fulfil that goal.


Portrait of Bukowski by Abe Frajndlich

Charles Bukowski’s Friendly Advice to a lot of Young Men (from Brain Pickings)

Thinking about…

Art Appreciation

“I believe the primary function of art is to fill you with wonder.” Miriam Escofet

Wonder. The noun has a slightly different meaning to the verb.

Miriam Escofet’s Study of My Mother entered my twitter stream recently. I wondered about the empty crocks, the decapitated and limbless figurine, the disengaged look of the subject. Is it a metaphorical piece? Dementia?

A study of my mother

You can’t be too sure with artwork, what was the intent and what is unintentional. It could just be a literal painting, a realism study where a few objects have been placed in a pleasing arrangement simply for the sake of composition. Their emptiness may not have been a consideration at all, merely coincidental. Anyone’s study of their mother must be a very personal study. A complete stranger has to interpret a living artist’s personal study with caution, to avoid unintended offence.

The landscape photographer, Ansel Adams, would say there are at least two people in each one of his pictures: the photographer and the viewer.

**********************

I remember Brian Sewell, in the London Evening Standard, having a go at one of our public galleries campaign to secure for the nation, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. Not a great work or a great artist by his account, although, for the public, it was a popular piece. One issue that sticks in my mind is his criticism over the quantity of straw the artist had painted beneath the block. It would be utterly insufficient in soaking up the amount of blood from a freshly severed head. Of course it wouldn’t but I wouldn’t have thought it without him pointing this out. But does it make Paul Delaroche less than a great artist?

In the bio-documentary, Beware Mr. Baker, the drummer Ginger Baker denounces the popularity of John Bonham, saying “he had technique, but he couldn’t swing a sack of shit”. Popularity doesn’t make a good artist, nor does technique, it seems.

Artist Miriam Escofet

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey