Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Plague on All the Houses

“The truth must be told: the plague had taken away from all of them the power of love or even of friendship, for love demands some future, and for us there was only the here and now.”

The philosopher prince and enfant terrible, Albert Camus, did not much like the Algerian city of Oran, which is now and forever associated with his most famous novel, The Plague, a story part parable, part metaphor about the catastrophe of pestilence. One can read into its subtext the trials of the French Resistance, from which its ideas and arguments were drawn and of which Camus was a reluctant hero, though he would later disavow all accolades. Rather, he identified with his altar ego from the novel, Dr. Rieux, a physician making the rounds of the city's sick, risking infection on 20-hour shifts day in day out for months, never knowing when the plague might end, and worst of all, completely unable to heal the dying, stuck with the unenviable task of validating death sentences and arranging victims' families to be quarantined. That Dr. Rieux fulfills his role with good temper, in Camus' view, does not make him a hero, but a man.

The book begins when all the city's rats wander into the living rooms to die. Shortly thereafter the first men and women begin to convulse violently with high fever, swollen lymphs, and coughing blood, the Bubonic Plague redux. When the number of deaths begin to escalate no one wants to mention the unmentionable due the inevitable economic and social disruption: “Dr. Rieux was unprepared, as were the rest of the townspeople, and this is how one should understand his reluctance to believe. One should also understand that he was divided between anxiety and confidence. When war breaks out people say: 'It won't last, it's too stupid.' And war is certainly too stupid but that doesn't prevent it from lasting.” But the epidemic does not just last but thrives and Oran has to shut its gates to prevent the spread of contamination, isolating the city from the rest of the world. “Thus the first thing that the plague brought to our fellow-citizens was exile... we accepted our status as prisoners; we were reduced to our past alone and even if a few people were tempted to live in the future, they quickly gave up.”

In such a climate only those with something, or more importantly, someone to love for, were not overwhelmed by the collective despair: “The egotism of love protected them in the midst of the general distress and, if they did think about the plague, it was always and only to the extent that it risked making their separation eternal.” The visiting journalist, Rambert, exemplifies this condition of exile, scheming to escape but prevented from doing so for many months. When he finally has an opportunity to leave he instead chooses to stay and continue his work on the health teams. Why do so when he has no vested interest in the city of Oran and he can be reunited with his sweetheart? Because even if he were to succeed and achieve this vision of happiness, it would be a “happiness in solitude,” understanding that this was a crisis and that he had chosen to flee rather than aid his fellow men. Even though his friends, Dr. Rieux and Tarrou, encourage him to escape, he knows he wouldn't be able to live with himself had he abandoned the city in its time of desperate need.

The Plague is about how men and women respond to crises when their lives and livelihoods are threatened. And while some men will exploit a calamity for their own gain (such as the criminal Cottard profiteering off the black market) Camus, via Dr. Rieux, takes the optimistic view that most men are good, not because they have religious or spiritual motivations but on behalf of utterly humanistic impulses. Tarrou, a drifter who organizes health teams to combat the epidemic, asks Dr. Rieux, “Can one be a saint without God: that is the only concrete question that I know today.” In fact, the religious authorities are a complete failure in the face of the plague, the city's spiritual leader, Father Paneloux, even condoning the suffering and deaths of children as a test of the believers' faith, describing the choice as a zero-sum game: one either loves and accepts God (the horrors being part of his Plan) or one denies his existence. Delivered in such all-or-nothing stakes, the realists dealing with the plague firsthand mostly ignore this ridiculous proposition.

The Rebel

As Camus' narrator says, “The trouble is, there is nothing less spectacular than a pestilence and, if only because they last so long, great misfortunes are monotonous.” At times, so is the novel, especially such a conceptual one with philosophical points supplementing nearly every development. And though the circumstances of such a disease can be tedious-- time literally standing still for one to survive or perish in the epidemic's steady method of attrition-- the conclusions Camus reaches are instructive and for the most part true. We are each independent persons with unique and special pursuits and most of the time, hopefully for all of our lives, this is fine and good. But there comes a moment for some of us when such living is no longer morally tenable and hard choices need to be made. Importantly, doing the right thing does not necessarily promise heroism, but does guarantee membership in the human race.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Earth is Watching

Shibuya, Tokyo June 25th, 5am

Four years ago on a humid early summer morning I woke up about 4am and checked the World Cup scores, reading that Japan had defeated Denmark to advance to the next round. I got on my bicycle and rode down to Shibuya to explore the reaction. You would have thought by the celebration that they'd won the World Cup itself, or that a cure for cancer had been discovered, or that everyone had discovered true love finally and were dancing in the street. But it was a mere soccer victory against an average opponent in the first round. And yet it was absolute bedlam.

Absolutely, I understand that being proud of your country is important, but nevertheless I've always found it extraordinarily silly to associate your country's greatness via a group of overpaid athletes outperforming another country's group of overpaid athletes. I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1980s, which was a very good decade to be a sports fan, the Lakers, Dodgers, and Raiders taking home multiple championships. Los Angeles even held the Olympics in 1984. But these victories did not make me proud of my hometown so much. However glorious the Lakers dynasty was it did nothing for the city's congestion, crime, drug abuse, unequal housing, spiraling education costs, discrimination, police brutality, civic corruption or anything else that makes a city safe, livable, and respectable.

The World Cup, like the Olympics, channels its citizens' nationalism into something less dangerous than militant activism. Nevertheless, the competition reduces our emotions to "us" vs. "them," victory at any cost so that in our zeal to win we often fail to appreciate the athletic finesse of the the oppositional team. And Japan defeating Denmark has nothing to do with Japan being better than Denmark. It's a game, nothing more, and no one else involved cares.

It can be fun subsuming your individuality within a larger group, at least for 90 minutes. So long as you remember that the World Cup is fun but that we're all in it together, humanity on earth, and that many of us are famished, without electricity, and hundreds of millions of us are under duress from the dramatic consequences of global warming. Collaborating on these crises successfully would be the greater miracle than your favorite underdog winning it all on the soccer green.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Teenage Suicide Was Never So Beautiful

“They had killed themselves over our dying forests, over manatees maimed by propellers as they surfaced to drink from garden hoses; they had killed themselves at the sight of of used tires stacked higher than pyramids; they had killed themselves over the failure to find a love none of us ever could be. In the end, the tortures tearing the Lisbon girls pointed to a simple reasoned refusal to accept the world as it was handed down to them, so full of flaws.”

In Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, the reader knows how the story ends not just from the first page, but from the tell-all nature of the novel's title itself. Five teenage sisters, the Lisbon daughters, Therese, Mary, Bonnie, Lux, and Cecilia, successfully kill themselves, the youngest, Cecilia, inaugurating this disastrous turn of events when she leaps out of her bedroom window during a rare open-house soiree, impaling herself on an iron fence post. Within a year the others would follow en-masse, devastating a suburban community near Detroit, Michigan. Their accursed fate is meticulously analyzed by an anonymous narrator looking back nostalgically and with bittersweetness (cleverly utilizing the collective “we” rather than the singular “I” pronoun, so that the deaths of the Lisbon girls is meant to affect us all.)

What matters to us not so much is that the girls committed suicide, but why? The Virgin Suicides is set in the early 1970s, a notable moment in American history because it was then that American political and economic hegemony had begun to wane (the recession and energy crisis caused by the oil shock, the costs and shame of the Vietnam War, Watergate, urban decay, etcetera). As our anonymous narrator explains,Something sick at the heart of the country had infected the girls. Our parents thought it had to do with our godlessness, or the loosening of morals regarding sex we hadn't even had.” The Detroit area and its automative industry had already begun its precipitous decline into what has become its symbolic cautionary status as a failed metropolis. The little things, unfinished or handled incompetently, added up to a state of attrition: “It had to do with the way the mail wasn't delivered on time, and how potholes never got fixed, or the thievery at City Hall, or the race riots...” The suicide of the Lisbon daughters then is how a small community explains its own decline in parable form. Their deaths can clearly demarcate the way it was to the way it is, one side of time's spectrum, beautiful, sunny, optimistic, the present one of deteriorating opportunity and declining faith in future returns.

But for all the darkness and symbolism, this is not a depressing novel, but one that gets it so right in capturing adolescence in its absolute innocence, imagination, awkwardness, and butterflies in the stomach teenage boldness. Eugenides has a gift for nailing the small details, adding them up, and composing a scene so evocative and true he nearly universalizes the coming-of-age experience. And it is because his narrator and team of obsessive Lisbonphiles are such average, yet sympathetic boys that we, the readers, understand implicitly own own clumsiness and that while it might have felt unbearable at the time, there is indeed something romantic in growing up in America, or at least this feels true in the novel's resonance. One of the best examples is when our narrators describe the school heartthrob, Trip, and his courtship of the sultriest of the sisters, Lux Lisbon:

     “Trip had never even had to dial a girl's phone number. It was all new to him: the memorization of        strategic speeches, the trial runs of possible conversations, the yogic deep breathing, all leading up to      the blind, headlong dive into the staticky sea of telephone lines. He hadn't suffered the eternity of the      ring about to be picked up, didn't know the heart rush of hearing that incomparable voice suddenly        linked with his own, the sense it gave of being too close to even see her, of being actually inside her      ear.”

Whether describing the watershed moments in a teenager's life, like the Homecoming dance or a first kiss or the more prosaic but nevertheless dramatic and agonizing business of calling a girl you love but who doesn't love you back, the novel reads like a prose poem, so delicate and pure its writing, but never precious, sentimental, or cloying.

Sofia Coppola did a terrific adaptation, 
really nailing the spirit of the book, especially this scene

While the The Virgin Suicides implies small-scale tragedies might have large-scale implications, this is a very intimate story about a family's failure to adjust with loss. Following the shock of Cecilia's suicide, the Lisbons never quite recover, especially the parents, who not only enact a draconian set of rules on the daughters' behavior (isolating them from the world and teenage protocols), but lose altogether their zest for living so that perhaps, as negative examples, the Lisbon girls saw no reason they should not join their sister. Small tasks, like cooking meals, washing dishes, and dusting tabletops fall by the wayside. A retainer left by a boy in the Lisbons' bathroom is tossed into the toilet whereas a quick phone call would have returned the mouthpiece to its owner. “Acts like these-- simple, humane, conscientious, forgiving-- held life together.” But even Mr. Lisbon fails in his failure to fulfill his responsibility: “The retainer, jostled in the surge, disappeared down the porcelain throat, and when waters abated, floated triumphantly, mockingly, out.” It is the small details, that signify not only winning or losing, but the beauty of a good story well told.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Smells Like Human Spirit

“Or why should earth, landscape, air-- each filled at every step and every breath with with yet another odor and thus animated with another identity-- still be designated by just those three coarse words?”

Ask almost anyone which of their five senses are expendable and they would almost to a man say, with little deliberation, they would forego their sense of smell. An underused sensory perception, the word “smell” generally has a negative connotation-- if we say something “smells” it is not a generous observation, but one that implies rottenness, decay, or corporeal fumes. But to even describe a disagreeable smell exposes the paucity of our language to describe that odor precisely. In any case, modern life has managed to suppress the stench of living with good sewage treatment, sanitization, hot water showers, and a multiplicity of helpful, pleasant scents (although new unpleasant chemical-based ones have evolved with our technology as well). Few things in this world seduce our noses with their divine essence, and even when they do, not many of us have the time to stop and (ahem) “smell the roses.” 

The German writer Patrick Suskind's Perfume, is one of the only novels I know of that concerns our underutilized nasal appendages. The novel, set in pre-revolutionary 18th century France, concerns a certain Jean-Baptise Grenouille, “one of the most gifted and abominable personages in an era that knew no lack of gifted and abominable personages.” He is born in Paris in a wretched fishmongers' marketplace, abandoned by a useless mother, unwanted and unloved in various homes, becoming a child laborer in a tannery. All the while he is aware of the potency of his nose to pinpoint various odors good and bad and these only had any meaning to him: “It was as if he were an autodidact possessed of a huge vocabulary of odors that enabled him to form at will great numbers of smelled sentences.”

The child gets his big break when he gets a job apprenticing for a déclassé perfumer named Baldini. Once inside a laboratory, with access to all these marvelous ingredients, Jean-Baptise turns out to be a born alchemist in the realms of essences and revives Baldini's business fortunes. But (once more, ahem) the sweet smell of success doesn't mean anything for Jean-Baptise. Now a slight ogre of a man, he recognizes the limits of Baldini's laboratory, wanting to master the arts of distilling purer essences. Moreover, he is exasperated and haunted by the olfactory ravages of Paris, “a mixture of human and animal smells, of water and stone and ashes and leather, of soap and fresh-baked bread and eggs boiled in vinegar, of noodles and smoothly polished brass, of sage and ale and tears, of grease and soggy straw and dry straw.” He packs a few edible items and a letter of introduction and leaves Paris for the countryside.

On the way he discovers the righteousness of what a later Frenchman would say, “Hell is other people” and winds up a hermit in a mountaintop cave. Jean-Baptise's story might have ended there but always there was the problem of his belonging to humanity, for for all his olfactory superpowers, the little man himself has no physical smell whatsoever. The novel posits that body odor, for lack of a more precise choice of words, constitutes our human aura (or literally, an essence). Whether we fall in love, trust a stranger, avoid a creep, and other automatic instinctual reactions might have something to do with the other person's smell, even if we are unconscious of it. Jean-Baptise then feels compelled to find another laboratory where he can experiment with different additives to give himself a smell and thus admission to the human race, to have presence among other men: “There was a basic perfumatory theme to the odor of humanity, a rather simple one, incidentally: a sweaty-oily, sour-cheesy, quite richly repulsive basic theme that clung to all humans equally and above which each individual's aura hovered only as a small cloud of more refined particularity.”

18th century stinky metropolis

However, Jean-Baptise is interested in composing a more elusive, ethereal scent that is (unfortunately) derived from human specimens. This is where a good novel becomes great, at the expense of empathy for our hero. Nevertheless, Suskind pulls off a remarkable, if not hysterical climax that, for a novel championing the nose, is as visually surreal as anything I've ever read. No one reading Perfume can ever forget the book's final pages and the strange twisted fate of Jean-Baptise Grenouille. I loved the novel so much that when I finished reading it I opened the book and plunged my face into its pages, inhaling deeply. I wish I could tell describe articulately what they smelled like, for in my own inadequate grasp of nasal intelligence, the pages just smelled like paper to me. That's all I got, that and my own idiosyncratic human sour-sweet smell.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Vincent & His Penpal Theo

“I need not overhurry myself, there is no good in that-- but I must work on in full calmness and  serenity, as regularly and concentratedly as possible, as concisely and economically as possible. The world only concerns me in so far as I feel a certain debt and duty towards it because I have walked that earth for thirty years, and, out of gratitude, want to leave some souvenir in the shape of drawings or pictures-- not made to please a certain cult in art, but to express a sincere human feeling.”

--Vincent Van Gogh

Self portrait with bandaged ear

No one did the starving artist bit more famously than Vincent Van Gogh. After various career stints in a picture gallery and bookshop, later as a schoolteacher and a lay preacher, failing or being forced out of every position he ever endeavored, the troubled Dutchman becomes a full time painter around the age of 27. This same time he becomes completely dependent on his younger brother, Theo, for all his living expenses. Never marrying and alienating nearly everyone whom he comes into contact with, Van Gogh lives a destitute, itinerant existence, unable to settle anywhere very long. He is nearly always malnourished, often lonely, and occasionally suffers debilitating spells of depression that late in life take the form of nervous breakdowns (as in the infamous offering of his ear to a prostitute). The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (edited by Mark Roskill) is a curated epistolary collection of his miseries, epiphanies, and banalities, alternately dull and inspiring, an invaluable record of perhaps the most famous painter of all time, who penniless and institutionalized at the age of 37, commits suicide with a gunshot wound to the chest.

Vincent's correspondence reflects his concerns, worries, and interests, which evolved with his art and descent into madness. Early on, in his preacher days, he examines theological ideas piecemeal until later disillusionment turns him into a full-blown apostate (“I can very well do without God both in my life and in my painting, but I cannot, ill as I am, do without something which is greater than I, which is my life-- the power to create.”). In his late twenties, early thirties, he struggles in dead-end relationships, falling for women who either fail to return his affections (his cousin Kee Vos) or women of ill repute from the demimonde (the prostitute Clasina Maria Hoornik), confessing his amorous confusion to Theo with, “What a mystery life is, and love is a mystery within a mystery.” He adores certain writers, particularly Charles Dickens, with whom he shares his concerns for social justice. (“But one must learn to read, exactly as one must learn to see, and learn to live.”) And later in life, aware of a movement called Impressionism, he ruminates on what painting means in terms of art, truth, beauty: “Tell him that my great longing is to learn to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodellings, changes of reality, so that they become, yes, untruth if you like-- but more truth than the literal truth.”

For someone better known for his pictures than his prose Van Gogh's writing is very articulate, often extremely precise in its descriptions. That might have been due to his bibliophilia (not just Dickens, but most of the great writers of the 19th century were favorites, especially Balzac, Zola, and George Eliot) but also to his visual background and sensitive nature. In his correspondence it is all peaks and troughs, but his aesthetic appreciation for beauty is vivid and inevitably colorful: “Spring is tender, green young corn and pink apple blossoms. Autumn is the contrast of the yellow leaves against violet tones. Winter is the snow with black silhouettes.” There is a focus to the letters and comparatively little banter. The most banal matters are often due to money. Theo's welfare checks are never enough, as Vincent spends the largess on models, paints, and canvases. Literally, he subsists on stale bread rolls and warm milk (which no doubt had an effect on his physical and mental deterioration, though how much we have no way of really knowing).

An artist of mercurial temperament, nothing quite stays with Van Gogh. He burns bridges with friends and family (his tempestuous relationship with his preacher father is often lamented and Paul Gaughin's famous stay with Van Gogh in Arles had been a disaster). A normal life is impossible due to conflicts of personal views with his various employers (he almost definitely had authority issues) and his ceding of financial independence to his brother (in the arrangement Theo acquired ownership of Vincent's work so that it was more of a payment for services rendered than a support check, though Vincent is always asking for more, swearing on “activity,” insisting that he is not “lazy” or “plodding”). Initially euphoric in new locations, discovering places and subjects to paint, he always becomes disillusioned eventually, save Arles, where its bright, beautiful sunshine inspires him to his most prolific work, though his eccentricities alienates the townfolk and they petition for his removal. The only constant in his life in fact is painting. It is the one thing in life that gives him any joy or confidence, the only way to transcend his miseries, so that Vincent becomes single-mindedly determined “to sacrifice all personal desires, to realize great things, to obtain nobleness of mind, to surpass the vulgarity in which the existence of nearly all individuals is spent.”

The road for Van Gogh was long and treacherous, filled with self-doubt (for no one would buy his paintings) and extreme poverty. But it was worth it because he understood it intrinsically as his life's calling ("Blessed is the man who has found his work."), grasping also that all great loves entail some kind of pain: “By painting, one becomes a painter. If one wants to become a painter, if one delights in it, if one feels what you feel, one can do it, but it is accompanied by trouble, care, disappointment, periods of melancholy, of helplessness...” His letters are often punctuated with dreams of an arts community, a utopian vision of cooperation, collaboration, and collectiveness. It's tempting to wonder how Van Gogh would have handled his passions and pain in contemporary life. Would he have felt less alone had he an online community, a way to share his work? Or would he despair at the humbling stats of his Tumblr account, at the inattention due him, at the sheer, voluminous ubiquity of artists and art? Van Gogh is by no means the only unacknowledged genius-- hundreds of others have toiled in anonymity, most of whom only to be utterly forsaken. At least his brother had been one of the most respected art dealers on the Continent (nevertheless, tragically, Theo would die just months after Vincent).

Reading these letters, which is akin to reading the diary of somebody's innermost thoughts, I couldn't help remembering my own capricious fortunes in my twenties while I learned to be a writer, struggling with confidence and money, sacrificing a normal life, a good career, stable income, watching friends from university establish real careers in their fields while I pattered along with the vain hope of expressing--as Van Gogh described it, “a sincere human feeling.” Every artist's journey is a different in the details but the arcs are generally the same-- some make it, some don't, and then there are the exceptions like Van Gogh (or more recently Henry Darger and the photographer Vivian Maier) who become spectacularly beloved after death. On my worst days I've been paralyzed by my own self-doubts, though I've been luckier than Van Gogh in life, having found a way to live and even thrive. Some artists, particularly the more sincere ones, don't do their trade for the money or even recognition, but for love. Maybe you're born, maybe you're made, but however you get there beauty makes you feel all is right with the universe and this helps smooth the kinks of living on the edge, at least for a brief, blissful moment. And it is not extraordinary to be moved by life; in fact, it is something you might know just by looking. As Van Gogh said looking up at the night sky over the Rhone, hungry yet spiritually sated: “And all the same to feel the stars and the infinite high and clear above you. Then life is after all almost enchanted.”