Monthly Archives: February 2007


I had to order the CD update for The Complete New Yorker in order to reread Jonathan Lethem’s Personal History essay “The Beards: An adolescence in disguise” (from the 28 Feb 2005 issue, pp 62-69), and found that I remembered bits of it clearly but that I’d missed a lot too. It’s a fine piece, especially if you’re trying to sort through your own history of interests and ummmm obsessions. A couple of especially juicy bits, in which I don’t exactly recognize myself but can see how one might extrapolate:

Attempting to burrow and disappear into the admiration of certain works of art, I tried to make such deep and pure identification that my integrity as a human self would become optional, a vestige of my relationship to the art. I wanted to submit and submerge, even to die a little. I developed a preference, among others, for art that required endurance, that mimicked a galactic endlessness and wore out the nonbelievers… By trying to export myself into a place that didn’t fully exist, I was asking works of art to bear my expectation that they could be better than life, that they could redeem life. I asked too much of them: I asked them to be both safer than life and fuller, a better family. That, they couldn’t be. At the depths I’d plumb them, so many perfectly sufficient works of art became thin, anemic. I sucked the juice out of what I loved until I found myself in a desert, sucking rocks for water. (pg. 67)

The work I’ve chosen bears a suspicious resemblance to the rooms themselves [ref: Every room I’ve lived in since I was given my own room at eleven, has been lined with books]. My prose is a magpie’s. Perhaps anyone’s writing is ultimately bricolage, a welter of borrowings. But, of the writers I know, I’ve been the most eager to point out my influences, to spoil the illusion of originality by elucidating my fiction’s resemblance to my book collection… My rooms might have been armor, a disguise or beard, but I wanted millions of admirers to peek inside and see me there, and when they did I wished for them to revere and pity me at once. The contradiction in this wish tormented me, so I ignored it. Then I became a writer and it began to sustain me. (pg. 69)

…this in the context of last night’s Radio Open Source program The Ecstasy of Influence and the Harper’s piece of the same name.

Jazz and ageing and sf

Co-incidentally, over at The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik’s Postscript for Whitney Balliett has this nice bit:

As the music he loved aged, he was often left without a subject, and those of us who revered his writing sometimes wished that he could have discovered in himself a more sympathetic ear for the sounds of newer jazz. But he was too honest to pretend to admire what he didn’t, and it was the great American music of the twenties through the eighties (the seventies, a jazz Indian summer in New York, were a high-water mark for him) that remained his subject… (12 Feb 2007, pg. 31)

In a related vein, my recent encounter with the video of Harlan Ellison reading Prince Myshkin (click on ‘Prince Myshkin’) led me to revisiting the Ellison-edited Again, Dangerous Visions “speculative fiction” anthology of 1972, and that, in turn, provoked this scribbled rumination:

1972 to 2007: 35 years, and still the stories seem fresh –or perhaps it’s that those issues still define what’s important for me, like Ursula LeGuin’s “The Word for World is Forest”, which is at base an examination of Ecology.
And it was Ecology that was the epicenter for my Generation, though my own take on it was more geospatial than energetic.
But the moniker “speculative fiction” (in Ellison’s Introduction to the collection, and elsewhere) is worth considering anew. I just have this feeling that the world would have gone another way if more people had read this stuff…

So here I am, drifting toward joining those “old guys” who remember and value what others have forgotten, or are so young as to never have known…

The Jazz Age

Dan Visel has an interesting meditation on collaboration-and-design over at sidebar (“the back porch of the Institute for the Future of the Book”). It’s all worth a thoughtful read, but for me the money quotes are near the end, where the title of the piece (“the jazz age”) earns its keep:

I’m not arguing that collaboration can’t create something as grand as a symphony. It certainly can. But the things that collaboration can create are qualitatively different, and should be understood as such. (Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects could be brought in here, though that’s been explored before.) When we think of collaboration in music, we don’t think of the classical tradition; we think about jazz. I think that’s a useful reference point: collaborators on networked books could be like jazz musicians, not having a score, but knowing how to improvise within predefined structures like twelve-bar blues. Even free jazz isn’t free, though: when you listen to those old Ornette Coleman records now, the first thing you notice is how carefully structured they seem.
(There’s something interesting about jazz becoming culturally dominant at the height of modernism; perhaps this is a natural response. Around the same time, the Surrealists were denigrating the novel as a form because it was too planned, too rational. They declared a similar preference for the improvised: automatic writing or drawing for example. There’s an enormous amount of Surrealist poetry; a near-complete count of Surrealist novels could be made on two hands. [hmmm? take a look at City Lights offerings])
What we need to be thinking about is how jazz players learn to be jazz players. You can’t stick a classically trained trumpeter in a jazz combo and expect he’ll do a fine job: he won’t. But that’s essentially what we’re trying to do.
And: we need to be looking at how jazz is designed: what sort of structures lend themselves to improvisation and collaboration?

links for 2007-02-07

The Ecstasy of Repurposing

From Open Source, about an impending show:

We can’t stop talking about Jonathan Lethem’s essay in this month’s Harper’s. If you haven’t read it, you really should. Nothing that follows in this post will be nearly as interesting. Go ahead. And this post will still be here when you return. You know you want to.

Those of us fascinated by the cultural phenomenon (and the practical process) of mashups and the general subject of repurposing will be especially interested in both the essay and the forthcoming podcast.