Monday, December 28, 2009

Federman's Last Laugh

Raymond Federman’s last novel, Shhh: A Story of Childhood, forthcoming from Starcherone Books, is excerpted at, with a piece called “LIST OF SCENES OF MY CHILDHOOD TO BE WRITTEN.”

Federman died last October, shortly after BlazeVox[books] published his novella, The Carcasses. The first relative works I thought of while reading it were The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Book of Natural Salvation, which I prefer, and Kafka’s Parables and Paradoxes as well as some of his other short work.

Federman’s narrator seems to have fnacs [the afterlife revolutionary forces] dancing around in what is traditionally Satan’s rebellious role in Heaven by calling for a democratic transmutation of the dead—politicizing metamorphosis, the apparent essence of nature itself.

The Carcasses is not a human-centered fable, it’s not even biocentric, since there’s a likelihood at some point in one’s eternity they shall come back to this dimension as a piss pot. The novella’s flexible topology, its permeability of self, the apparent possibility of its imaginary carcass narrator’s future enlightenment/escape from karma, its wheel of life, make it a pleasure to read. And in the end, when facing transmutation, these feelings about civil rights among the dead seem irrelevant. Too much freedom and freedom’s meaningless, an emptiness that seems a death itself. A carcass with too much freedom is, perhaps, too much a carcass. One who’s free of one’s self is without self.

We laugh at all this death because we’re dying, which means we’re alive. It’s seems our grief can tickle our funny bone. Why? What does it say about us that we can laugh at death?

In The Carcasses I see mind, matter and energy seeking to sustain their inter-related disequilibria for as long as possible, an unsentimental journey with a dash of Calvino’s “lightness,” a tad bit of Laurence Sterne the Psychonaut resisting his uncarcassization…forever digressing because the novella’s ending is the carcass's ending…

Shhh: A Story of Childhood, on the other hand, seems from this brief yet tantalizing excerpt, Federman’s ever-playful, ever-youthful spirit looking back, planning ahead despite the fact…despite the unspeakable…laughing…

I was one of Raymond’s students at SUNY Buffalo in the mid-90s, and was quite surprised when, in one of our last e-mails before he died, he said Proust had influenced him more than Beckett. He’d barely ever mentioned Proust fifteen years ago. He said I should read Proust if I wanted to know what he meant. I recently began following that advice and one of the first things I came across, while doing some preliminary reading, was Proust’s [alleged, unverified source] statement that "An hour is not merely an hour, it is a vase full of scents and sounds and projects and climates."

The portion of Shhh excerpted at Viceland is a list of things to do, an imperative litany fleshing out memory before it forever slips into the past tense, beginning with his Uncle Leon’s planting a tree, his digging in the yard a metaphor for Federman’s digging through memory, planting and dispersing seeds in the mind evolving into word-beings that populate a living text…a family tree…and in less than an hour Federman makes a universe of memories that never were, memories of senses left un-sensed…in a vase [or urn]…

Federman’s list of things to do is a list of things never done, the outline of some unspeakable undone, knowing that if not for the Holocaust these word-beings would have been people who would have, like us, had sex with themselves and others, congregated for various reasons, become excited over political ideas and whatnot, etc. & et al. They would have lived messy lives, like us…no better, no worse...moisnous.

This list of 33 imperatives perhaps signifies "Solomon's Seal" or the "Star of David"—a mature family tree that never bloomed except in these stories, in Federman’s mind where his imagination lived for them and words became beings…

The ninth item is, perhaps, the most poignant if the reader’s aware of Federman’s actual biography and the myth of Federman he created through 50 years of critifiction, surfiction and laughtrature. It’s here where his family leaves Paris, rather than staying as they actually did, when the Nazis invaded.

Then, three points later: “Scene demonstrating how verisimilitude often becomes improbable when one tells a story.”

Feel the fiction of the fiction to your bones.

I have a feeling that Shhh: A Story of Childhood might be my favorite of all Federman’s books, but I’ll have to wait and see like everyone else.

And that’s hard.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Pushing Thoreau & Talking About Happiness, sort of

Jared Schickling, in a recent e-mail: "If nothing else I simply can't help defending this stuff I'm reading and taking to. I think I might live in the 19th century for a while."

My response, in part: "I agree with you one-hundred percent about the 19th century. When I think what the "average" human mind in America would have contained back then and imagine what it contains now, I see anything but progress [just compare the literacy and penmanship of soldiers' letters home]. Technology has had an inversive effect to its intents. We have less time, less freedom, less well-being. It's not saving but destroying the world. And since you [Schickling] are where you are, I'm hopeful at some point, when you're finally ready to go fucking nuts and get all John Brown and shit, you'll pick up Thoreau. And read all of it. Then start the journals.

"One of these days I'm going to Walden where they have the mss of his journals in a library and I'm going to study them. The experts I respect most claim this is the true treasure trove of Thoreau's genius. No one I've read truly stands up to the totality of his achievement. Einstein comes to mind, but he became really popular really fast. Thoreau's beyond that because, in my autodidactically informed opinion, he bears witness to the esoteric in material terms like no one else I've come across. Beckett, Melville, Whitman, Flannery O'Connor, Hawthorne, Kafka, Nabakov, Marquez, Borges, Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg...the list goes on of people who bear witness to the esoteric in material terms very well. But Thoreau gets the most across, in my opinion.

"All these folks are better writers than Thoreau, but none have a more transcendent original language that seems other than or beyond human in its function. In other words, one doesn't read Thoreau to find out how a human being should behave so much as how humans actually behave within their cosmic situation. Language like nature does not so much conform to us as we to it. Thoreau isn't self-help or a guide book of any sort. It's an odyssey through life into the recognition that you and I are not fundamentally human, or even fundamentally earthlings, as the stuff we are made of is stardust...The truth is not meant to make human beings feel good. In fact, truth has no intention at insists on nothing, including non-insistence.

"Of course, Thoreau didn't know that stuff about stardust as a scientific fact, but intuited it as an essential and necessary human reality in light of the big picture as he witnessed it, according to the language he let pass through him...

"I'm rambling, but I'm psyched that you're going where you're going."

In the same chain, a day or so earlier, Jared wrote: "but i wanted to send you this keats i'm reading. seems a little closer to home, sort of end-stage romanticism proper, keats an expressed atheist, which seems only in the way blake was an atheist, not atheism, verb not noun (but a modifier)

"To G. and G. Keats, 1819

"I have been reading lately two very different books Robertson's America and Voltaire's Siecle De Louis xiv It is like walking arm and arm between Pizarro and the great-little Monarch. In How lementabl a case do we see the great body of the people in both instances: in the first, where Man might seem to inherit quiet of Mind from unsophisticated senses; from uncontamination of civilisation; and especially from their being as it were estranged from the mutual helps of Society and its mutual injuries--and thereby more immediately under the Protection of Providence--even there they had mortal pains to bear as bad; or even worse than Baliffs, Debts and Poverties of civilised Life--The whole appears to resolve into this--that Man is originally 'a poor forked creature' subject to the same mischances as the beasts of the forest, destined to hardships and disquietude of some kind or other. If he improves by degrees his bodily accomodations and comforts--at each stage, at each accent there are waiting for him a fresh set of annoyances--he is mortal and there is still a heaven with its Stars abov his head. The most interesting question that can come before us is, How far by the persevering endeavours of a seldom appearing Socrates Mankind may be made happy--I can imagine such happiness carried to an extreme--but what must it end in?--Death--and who could in such a case bear with death--the whole troubles of life which are now frittered away in a series of years, would then be accumulated for the last days of a being who instead of hailing its approach, would leave this world as Eve left Paradise--But in truth I do not at all believe in this sort of perfectability--the nature of the world will not admit of it--the inhabitants of the world will correspond to itself--Let the fish philosophise the ice away from the Rivers in winter time and they shall be at continual play in the tepid delight of summer. Look at the Poles and at the sands of Africa, Whirlpools and volcanoes--Let men exterminate them and I will say that they may arrive at earthly Happiness--The point at which Man may arrive is as far as the paralel state in inanimate nature and no further--"

And I responded: "Nietzsche’s statement that “God is dead” seems the very essence of nihilism, or the belief in no-thing-ness, only the mental essence of something referred to as “existence.” The void, however, is not meaningless, the black hole of death does not usurp the spirit, it does not snuff out awareness…though it indeed does try to do these things, it actually creates our shared “event horizon.” The void is Wile E. Coyote, the sometimes comical sword of Damocles subverting our very situation at every moment…until “we” as someone inevitably get up and walk away, full from our meal…We’re not dead yet…Shit doesn’t always happen, but it will. The limit my imagination may arrive at seems recursive to the imagined limits of the things it imagines, and can go no further…Perfection is irrelevant as a conscious aim because it’s beyond imagination, nothing anyone can imagine is perfect, which is to say universal and standard and unending…Who the fuck wants that anyway?...The words of any language will correspond with the words of that language only…and if everyone’s language is like a fingerprint—experienced as touch, formed from the inside-out—no word I use will correspond with any word you use absolutely…it’s a leap of faith on our part that we both see the same black letters on white background [sic]…and we must at least agree there’s a consistency of pattern allowing for the agreement of terms…but what if...every time we enter into the illusion we share something in common we become neo-Adams and new-Eve’s re-entering the imaginary Eden of our faith-based mutual understanding, the closest thing we can agree on in terms of “happiness?” Until death do us part heightens the illusion and heightens the happiness…for “us”…and so fucking what, actually? But, then again, why the fuck not? Is one alternative better than another? Says who? Says what? Isn’t there more than one alternative, one alternative or other person actually speaking themselves? For starters, I don’t think it necessarily takes a Socrates to have the kind of conversation that can create a thrilling enough illusion of shared meaning to call it happiness. Anyone with a gift of gab, sex appeal, money, good food, weed, anything you want…can be a Socrates. Socrates is Santa Claus, knowing who’s naughty and nice [and you are always nice], etc., and at some point we gotta kill him because he’s corrupting our chirren, and killing him like killing the Buddha is a gateway to enlightenment and presumably greater happiness, or higher dimension thereof…

"The inner chaos of anyone worthy of happiness gives birth to dancing stars…Who will find the limits of their imagination? Those who are grief-stricken and truly happy for it? Who’s worthy of happiness? Consider this from William Blake’s notes written on the pages of the Four Zoas:

Christ’s Crucifix shall be made an excuse for Executing Criminals.

Till thou dost injure the distrest
Thou shalt never have peace within thy breast.

The Christian Religion teaches that No Man is Indifferent to you, but that every one is Either your friend or your enemy; he must necessarily be the one or the other, And that he will be equally profitable both ways if you treat him as he deserves.

Unorganiz’d Innocence: An Impossibility.
Innocence dwells with Wisdom, but never with Ignorance.

"I would suggest that, echoing Blake, those who innocently cultivate the proper Ignorance, treating themselves and others as they actually deserve, heaping further injury upon the sources of pain, the undeserving speakers of happy talk who strive after happiness, who will always have a use for the term “happy” in their lexicon, are truly happy because they need not insist on their being happy anymore than they would insist on being unhappy. Truly happy people need not speak of happiness, much less bother pursuing it. A country that idealizes the “pursuit of happiness” is informed by ideologies of profound sadness, where a “slave”* can be counted 3/5 human…Those who pursue happiness are pathetic; therefore, the good American seems, perhaps, a somewhat pathetic ideal.

"Bottom line: If you’re happy you deserve it clap your hands…

*“Slave” has an evolving etymology…consider the long-forgotten term "wage slave," which today might mean all poor people, everyone middle class and under, all organic as opposed to corporate “human beings.” The ideal American is inhuman, or incorporate…a “good corporate citizen.”

Now Crossposting to New Haven Review and Buffalo Examiner

I have a piece just published in the New Haven Review. It looks like I'll be a semi-regular contributor. I may also be focusing on the Buffalo writing scene for the Buffalo Examiner because, like everybody, I need a little cash. The Examiner wants 3-4 articles a week, which seems like a lot considering my schedule, so we'll see how it goes.