Day 122: New Orleans

Back in New Orleans after an absence of a few years. One of the greatest of American cities.

Where, on a visit with my parents, I walked down Bourbon Street and heard a barker at the door of a strip joint say, "C'mon in and see what's coming off on the inside." Made an impression on me. I was 12.

Where, on that same trip, an elderly pedophile tried to pick me up in front of a pinball parlor.

Where, on an epic grown-up evening that a colleague still says he can't remember in detail, I strolled into a blues bar just as the band was playing it's newly released single, "If That's All You Got to Say, Just Get Your Sorry Ass Home."

Where a half-hour ago I stopped by the hotel bar for a snack. Waitress: "You want a drink?" Me: "I gotta pace myself." Waitress: "What's that?"

Oh, yes.

Day 121: Milton Glaser

The computer is dangerous because it shapes your capacity to understand what’s possible. The computer is like an apparently submissive servant that turns out to be a subversive that ultimately gains control of your mind. The computer is such a powerful instrument that it defines, after a while, what is possible for you. And what is possible is within the computer’s capacity. And while it seems in the beginning like this incredibly gifted and talented servant actually has a very limited intelligence—the brain is so much vaster than the computer. But, the computer is very insistent about what it’s good at, and before you know it—it’s like being with somebody who has bad habits, you sort of fall into the bad habits—and it begins to dominate the way you think about what is possible. … [You counter this] by doing things that are uncomfortable for it to do.

Day 119: Fenton Johnson

Fenton Johnson, from his essay "Going It Alone":

The multiplication of our society’s demons has been accompanied by a ratcheting up of the sources and volume of its background noise. What is the point of the chatter and diversions of our lives, except to keep the demons at bay? Meanwhile, we are creating demons faster than we can create noise to drown them out — environmental devastation, global warming, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, uncontrolled population growth, uncontrolled consumption held up by the media as the glittering purpose of life. The appropriate response is not more noise. The appropriate response is more silence. To choose to be alone is to bait the trap, to create a space the demons cannot resist entering. And that’s the good news: The demons that enter can be named, written about, and tamed through the miracle of the healing word, the miracle of art, the miracle of silence.

Day 118: Updike and Bukowski have different takes on why we're here

First, John Updike:

Ancient religion and modern science agree: we are here to give praise. Or, to slightly tip the expression, to pay attention. Without us, the physicists who have espoused the anthropic principle tell us, the universe would be unwitnessed, and in a real sense not there at all. It exists, incredibly, for us. This formulation (knowing what we know of the universe’s ghastly extent) is more incredible, to our sense of things, than the Old Testament hypothesis of a God willing to suffer, coddle, instruct, and even (in the Book of Job) to debate with men, in order to realize the meager benefit of worship, of praise for His Creation. What we beyond doubt do have is our instinctive intellectual curiosity about the universe from the quasars down to the quarks, our wonder at existence itself, and an occasional surge of sheer blind gratitude for being here.

Now, Charles Bukowski:

We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system.

We are here to drink beer.

We are here to kill war.

We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

We are here to read these words from all these wise men and women who will tell us that we are here for different reasons and the same reason.

Which to embrace? I don't see it as an either/or proposition. I choose both. Some days, I want to marvel at the universe and bask in the idea that it exists because we are here to witness it.

And some days, I just want a beer.

Day 117: Deborah Eisenberg

Deborah Eisenberg, from "The Art of Fiction No. 218" in The Paris Review:

Perhaps I should be more suspicious of my belief that there is inherent value in literature. It could be pure, self-serving, soft-brained romanticism, the belief that probing the most delicate and subtle areas of the mind by, say, listening to music or reading will develop what is human in you. There are abundant examples of reactionary, loony, virulently prejudiced artists and art lovers, so one can hardly insist that art is definitively good for the brain. But I believe that a lack of art is really bad for the brain. Art itself is inherently subversive. It's destabilizing. It undermines, rather than reinforces, what you already know and what you already think. It is the opposite of propaganda. It ventures into distant ambiguities, it dismantles the received in your brain and expands and refines what you can experience.

Illustration by Joanna Neborsky, from The New York Review of Books

The harm Eisenberg refers to, from the lack of art, is like the lack of an essential nutrient, a vitamin or mineral. That which knocks your perspective, your received narrative, your continous rewrite of the story of your world into a veer away from the seductive comfort of obedience is essential. Those who make art do the work of providing the tools for this useful derangement. By the very act of attending to art, you subvert the status quo, and the status quo never has your wellbeing in mind. Art forces a perturbation in the gravitational force of power. These perturbations are tiny, but they create space for free minds to live and work.

Day 115: Susan Sontag

Trenchant advice to writers:

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I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world."

... The primary task of a writer is to write well. (And to go on writing well. Neither to burn out nor to sell out.)

... The greatest offense now, in matters both of the arts and of culture generally, not to mention political life, is to seem to be upholding some better, more exigent standard, which is attacked, both from the left and the right, as either naïve or (a new banner for the philistines) “elitist.”

... A novel is a world with borders. For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.

From Sontag's posthumous collection At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches.