Hamlet, talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “I could be bounded in a nut shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (Act I, Scene II). Hamlet’s body does not seem to be the problem. Uploading Hamlet’s mind into a supercomputer and dispensing with his body would only make matters worse.
Raffi Khatchadourian, in “The Doomsday Invention,” mentions the scientist and sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, “who envisioned advanced civilizations inhabited by intelligent robots (each encoded with simple, ethical Laws of Robotics, to prevent it from doing harm)” (New Yorker, 23 Nov 2015, 71). In other words, the robots would be eunuchs.
“Extropianism,” Raffi says, “is a libertarian strain of transhumanism that seeks ‘to direct human evolution,’ hoping to eliminate disease, suffering, even death; the means might be genetic modification, or as yet uninvented nanotechnology, or perhaps dispensing with the body entirely and uploading minds into supercomputers. (As one member noted, ‘Immortality is mathematical, not mystical.’)” (67). So much for immortality. But isn’t eternal youth the goal, a never ending Spring dawn, not to grow old indefinitely, like a wintry universe?
In the conclusion to his study “The Human Body” (1963), Asimov, trying to explain the primary difference and advantage of the human relative to other animals (and other life forms), focused on the number of cells in the human brain (a part of the body he devoted an entire other study to). “The human brain is nothing short of monstrous in size,” Asimov said (309). Monstrous in relative size to the human body, and the human body is no small thing, and, Asimov points out, “a large animal is less the sport of the universe, in many ways, than a small animal is” (308). These are interesting perspectives, to say the least. Will we be able to upload the brain but leave the “bad dreams” behind, in the vacated body? Is the body simply a room for the brain, a room the brain might move out of some day, for new digs? I don’t know if it was Asimov’s idea or his publishers, but the “The Human Body” was kept separate from “The Human Brain.”
Monstrous, too, the harm a brain might bring to its own body, in some attempt to escape, or bring to another, in some attempt to enter, particularly when disguised as a heart. To inhabit another’s brain for purposes of manipulating and exploiting its body, but only for a time, the body a motel room, a rental, a sentence fragment.
Orville Prescott’s January 21, 1948 review of Truman Capote’s first novel, “Other Voices, Other Rooms,” (New York Times) criticizes Capote’s writing for its lack of “narrative clarity”: “Reality for Mr. Capote is not material and specific; it is emotional, poetic, symbolical, filled with sibilant whispering and enigmatic verbal mysteries.” But how else was Capote to tell his story and get it published in the United States in 1948? Capote was not a beatnik.
“Should I get married? Should I be Good?” the Beat poet Gregory Corso ruminates in “Marriage,” his poem that ironically considers the choice between the mores of his time and the impossibility of pretending to be someone he is not. There is only one room he can live in, and it must have poetry written all over its walls.
Or, as Whitman put it in “Song of Myself”:
“Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes, I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it, The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it. The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless, It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it, I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”
Another room book is James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” (1956). The first person narrative concerns David, an American in 1950’s Paris who tries to satisfy a growing disparity between what he thinks he might want and be reasonably satisfied with, unopposed to society’s equivocal mores and arguments, and what he increasingly, as he crosses the existential divide of honest self-knowledge and acceptance, knows he needs.
Where Capote might have deliberately disguised his themes, Baldwin’s style is clear and realistic. Neither the brain nor the body are shrouded in the mystical, but the action is full of compromise, deceit, and betrayal. “Giovanni’s Room” is a rumination on love and unrequited love. How hard is it to love another as yourself if you not only don’t love yourself but grow to abhor yourself? Many men and women have tried it, usually to great disappointment. Baldwin’s David is honest some might say to a fault. He looks for expiation in all the wrong places.
Some of the scenes with dialog in “Giovanni’s Room” emulate Hemingway’s style where what is said best is what is left unsaid, as indeed Baldwin’s characters move in and out of cafes and bars like Le Select, a Jake Barnes of “The Sun Also Rises” old haunt, where Jake might have met them with a smile, and Lady Brett Ashley might have danced with them, the various merry but unhappy groups drinking and carousing through the well-lit but ambiguous Parisian night. Baldwin’s style is generous, almost absurdly gentle in places, beautiful in the way that unabashed beauty might cause pain. Love involves sacrifice. The body is a lamb, the brain a beast. Will machines ever be capable of human love and sacrifice? Wouldn’t the human brain, uploaded into a machine, simply crave a body?
Dog eared persons, categorized and shelved, used books. Ruminations. Room and ate shuns.
August Kleinzahler’s “Music: I-LXXIV” (Pressed Wafer, 2009) contains 77 arguments musically themed beginning with Liberace and ending with J. S. Bach (a coda adds a desert island list). If you’re up to speed on your Roman numerals, LXXIV is 74, not 77, but August is a poet, here moonlighting as a music critic, and poetic license is not commerce. The difference between opinion and argument is this: of course you are entitled to your own opinion; it’s when you try to persuade someone else to share your opinion that you become the frog in the pan of slowly boiling water.
I found August’s book collection of short essays about music in our neighborhood free library box, the kind of random cool find that makes you a believer in random cool finds. You just have to check the box every now and then. I’ve put a few items in the box. I’ve been putting our Rolling Stone issues in the box. The box is near the bus stop, and I’ve noticed the Rolling Stone copies don’t last long in the box, so they must be popular, and I imagine them being read on Line 15 by commuters with head phones on the way downtown. We’d keep the Rolling Stone issues around the pad longer after we’ve read them, but we don’t like having to look at most of the covers these days. An interesting film a la Andy Warhol might be made from a week long video camera aimed at the neighborhood library box, watching items appear and disappear, identifying lending and reading trends – of a sort.
August’s essays about music are mainly about sounds and movements he likes, so the book is a very positive view of music, and his enthusiasms are catchy. Some idea of what he doesn’t like might emerge from what he doesn’t talk much about, or what he dismisses in an offhand opinion here and there. For example, he mentions James Taylor once, in a single sentence, but the comment is so dismissive it’s one I quickly internalized and can’t forget, but I didn’t bother with marginalia in this read. To give some idea of Kleinzahler’s eclectic selections about music and ideas about music, here are the topics of the first few chapters. Reading the book is like visiting some sort of music museum. I’ve added my own reflective comments about the chapters following what I’ve identified as the topic of that chapter:
I. Liberace: Music is not a person.
II. August’s massive C.D. Collection: Music is not an object.
III. Austin: Music is not a place.
IV. Airplane Music: Music is not a straight line.
V. Cartoon Music: after which chapter I spent an hour or so watching and listening to old Mickey Mouse cartoons on YouTube.
VI. Novelty Music: This was one of my favorite chapters, having never paid much attention to Louis Prima.
VII. Jukebox Music: Distribution is a controlling theme throughout.
And so on, into jazz and classical, pop and rock, blues, instruments and personalities, anecdote and history and cultural comment and artifact; ambient music and comedy albums; harpsichord making; Muddy Waters; Rolling Stones to Howlin’ Wolf, digging for roots.
Yet August calls himself an “abject amateur listener” (164). We also get “shenaigans” and persona; Weil, Brecht, and cabaret; opera, Joel Grey, Cage, Kerouac, kitsch and Rexroth; Chess Records, Sun, Stax, FAME, Muscle Shoals; Jackie Wilson, Elliot Carter, Monk, Hawkins, and Bud Powell; Erik Satie; the influence of radio, technology (tape, digital, vinyl), Ike and Tina, 1957, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa; inventors (Les Paul, Raymond Scott); Roy Fisher (who gets three chapters titled “Roy Fisher,” thus throwing off the Roman numeral strategy); Dylan, Dinah Washington; mouth organ – aka harmonica or mouth harp; John Lee Hooker; bottle neck guitar, prepared piano, organ, sax, and the reputed sex of lyrics.
August’s writing about music is in contrast to Nick Hornby’s, who compiled his “Songbook” also collecting his reviews, his written for magazines, and most of which discuss indie rock music. Hornby doesn’t appear to like jazz, nor, like Kleinzahler, does he go in for self-indulgent riffs, instrumental or otherwise. “Music: I-LXXIV” is eclectic and encyclopedic. It’s a mosaic – a reader might begin and end with any chapter in any order. There are a few perplexing typos throughout, and while the writing is obviously well-referenced, there are few what might be called in-text citations. The chapters might have been blog posts written by a music aficionado that cares more about his topic (music) than about addressing scholastic or academic prescriptivism. But for these reasons it’s a very engaging and entertaining reflective study. Kleinzahler is not afraid to speculate, to surmise, in the midst of his effectively supported arguments, sometimes expressing ideas as claims encouraging further reading or listening. His writing is jazzy, personal, conversational.
Kleinzahler touches on culture and subculture, text and subtext, in a way, speaking of music, we have become familiar with through the writings of Greil Marcus, who, like Hornby, also had a monthly column in The Believer. My Believer subscription lapsed, so I’m not sure if they still appear there or not, but they were usually the first articles I’d read. Hornby’s music reviews seemed to give way to his monthly reading reflections. In any case, Marcus’s writings about music and culture are significant. He’s a kind of deconstructionist who in the end gives you more than a cat’s cradle (where, as Vonnegut pointed out, no cat, no cradle, just string theory).
Two other writers writing about music come to mind, thinking about Kleinzahler’s book: Alex Ross, and Amiri Baraka in “Blues People.” I like Alex Ross writing about music. He’s produced two informative and entertaining books on classical music – he’s a music critic at The New Yorker. But while that all might sound a bit elite, he maintains a cool blog that has become an immense resource, called The Rest is Noise. I very much appreciate that Ross has kept his blog going at a time when so many like him have abandoned their blogs because “no one blogs anymore.”
My fortuitous find of August Kleinzahler’s idiosyncratic series of essays about music changes a few things. If what you are reading doesn’t somehow promote change, you might chance upon something else to read. I knew Kleinzahler first as a poet. His preference is for music where the roots lift out of the ground, where antecedents are clear, to gospel, blues, maybe seedy and weedy, music that’s original in its hunger and feeding without losing its bearings, music that might be popular without being particularly commercial, watered down, adulterated with make up and deodorant, the kind of music many listeners may have become consciously aware of reading Leroi Jones (Amiri Baraka) in “Blues People” (1963).
What’s mainly important about writing about music is this: when the writer motivates the reader to follow up and hear some new music, or to re-experience some old music with new ears. And the writers writing about music I mention in the above paragraphs encourage and inspire new listening. Meantime, I’ve passed Kleinzahler’s book on to a neighbor who is another music aficionado, and I’m still following up listening to Kleinzahler’s references and suggestions. This is not a resolution, but I might be at it throughout the new year.
Some time ago, a friend mentioned driving north on I-5 with California plates and being pulled over by the local highway patrol around Olympia. “In Washington,” the patrolman said, “we like to think of the speed limit as more than a mere suggestion.” Apparently, the self-satisfaction rewarded from this afflatus meant that all the more that was needed to restore calm to that section of his freeway was a warning. Was this a cop whose partner was a muse?
The first critical review of my poem “16 Tiny Camels Found in Wood Box in Garage Stale,” up Monday at VERStype, began, “Beyond me my friend! I love the first line but lost on the rest.” “Ah! fellow musician,” I replied, “we often get lost on the rests.” I had, no doubt somewhat obnoxiously, tagged a few friends on Facebook to bring their attention to the newly published poem. Why? We are surrounded by poetry. No wonder erasure has become popular. If poetry habitually obliterates meaning, this is because poetry speaks allusively. We might define poetry as what can only suggest. But must we erase ourselves out of every poem? New hazards require new signs, new designs.
To allude is to hint. To hint is to keep something hidden, perhaps from fear, or to play, or to tease, or because to point directly is either impossible or too dangerous (like looking directly at an eclipsed sun), or erases too much from the peripheral shadows. Maybe poetry is a peripheral device, necessary to navigate around meaning. A road sign does not have time to solve every ambiguity. Stop means stop. But after stopping, we can go. Maybe the ubiquitous Stop sign should read: PAUSE. But the idea (stop) is not up for discussion, for our consideration. But what does a bevy of signs mean? We are surrounded by instructions. It’s easy to get confused. Road signs are like poems; they speak allusively. But poetry may not be instructional.
But there are all manner of poems, and the function of poetry may vary with each poem. And language is an ogre whose sleep poetry tries not to disrupt, usually to little avail. There are a few one way streets in our neighborhood. Occasionally, a miscreant driver goes the wrong way, honking and freaking out at all the drivers going the correct way. That’s what the poetic experience is sometimes like – that sudden moment when you realize you’re the swine driving the wrong way down a one way street, the epiphany sending you up and over the curb, everyone honking and shouting suggestions. Every sign contains a moral. Poetry is amoral. The perfect poem traffics not in values but in virtues.
VERStype is a new venue devoted to a particular kind of poetry. How we say something is as important as what we say, and how we say something includes both shape and syntax, tone and style, font and CamelCase. Jazz drums used to be called the skins, and to skin is to zest, peel, flay. How do you do that in a poem? Moving toward a lyric that mobilizes concrete techniques to carry melody and choreography with images of surreal dream dance. “JAZZSKIN” was published a long time ago in the El Camino College arts magazine, Silent Quicksand. No quicker way to obscurity, my friend Tim quipped at the time.