Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sick Again

This is another essay, but the reason I can't regard myself as a fine artist in the current sense of the term is that for me? This is a doodle. A sketch. Practice work. It's fun to do, it's nice to look at, but all it says is, 'form and color are neat.' I need narrative, image, draftsmanship -- elements that a lot of people have relegated to the arena of the commercial arts -- to feel creatively satisfied with a work. Frankly, that's why writing is more important to me than the visual arts.

Now, if I were to be able to look at work like that and give it the level of devotion and attention I apply to my other art, I could legitimately aspire to being a fine artist. Shame it ain't gonna happen any time soon.

Oh, and notice how the warmest color retreats into the background while the coolest pops forward? I never get tired of that trick.

So I've been sick again, and it gave me a chance to think about a few things, including, believe it or not, skepticism.

Here's the deal. I've mentioned in a previous post that while I have come to have a materialistic view of the world, I still retain a few superstitions. The interesting thing is that they have no root in a particular worldview, other than a vague belief in mystic interconnections and a marginally hostile spirit world.

Anyway, one of my superstitions is that things come in threes. That if something happens twice, there will be a third time. If you start thinking this way, you will notice that a lot of the time, this is true. This is because sometimes things happen three times. And if something happens three times, it happens twice and then a third time. It's not exactly magic.

But when you keep on noticing it, you start to expect things to happen the third time. It starts looking like a predictable pattern. I know this is daffy thinking, a bad loop, but there it is. So when I had the bout of altitude sickness when I was in Taos, and then caught the stomach flu from my niece a couple of weeks back, I started waiting for my third bout of fever and chills, sweats, and puking.

Sure enough.

Now, altitude sickness was clearly the issue in Taos. And everyone in my extended family caught that flu, so that's neatly explained. And the last bout tore my gut a bit, and that reopened yesterday -- my stomach was injured and primed for a response. But still, part of me is convinced that this is another demonstration of how things happen in threes. And if I take a little extra care of my belly for a while so it doesn't happen again, that'll clinch it. Me and my stupid brain.

Anyway, that physical condition is my idea of perfect discomfort. It fully occupies your attention for ten or twelve hours with nothing but physical discomfort. I'm not gonna go into the details, but there was one thing that...

Okay, there are a couple of sops to my state. First off, the bed is clean. It ain't just clean -- the missus just bought a new duvet cover, and it is soft and pleasant. And if I writhe enough, I can stave off nausea. Roll over, twitch, roll over, twitch...

When I came out of the delirium and sat up to read at around four or five yesterday, I felt a tickle at my clavicle, and scratched at it. Drawing my hand away, I saw my fingertips covered in some sort of webbing, tacky gray fibers matted together. I rubbed my chest, my shoulder -- I was covered with the stuff.

I knew it wasn't going to turn out to be some kind of arthropod invasion, spiders or anthropophagous silkworms or some such, and the odds of my undergoing a metamorphosis seemed slim, but I allowed myself to hope that this was going to be at least a little interesting.

It was lint. I'd rubbed it off the new duvet cover. It had been washed, but there was still a good dose of fuzz on it.

I just don't think other peoples lives feel the way mine does. It's not so much that I'm a weirdo. It's more like life itself is deliberately being as weird to me as it can. I mean, I go to bed sick and I wake up in a fucking cocoon. Is there a diagnosis for this kind of thing?

But as miserable as that was, there is a stage of sickness that I kinda like. I've often said that the thing you need to explain to kids about drugs, is that if you do drugs -- and of course, alcohol counts -- sooner or later you will pay money to feel as if you have the flu. The flip side of this is that there is a point in a fever when it can be experienced as a pleasurable if not pleasant altered state. (Ever read Slave Ship by Pohl?)

There is a type of writing I like to bring out for that state. The really ridiculously purple stuff. Clarke Ashton Smith is good. I once spent two days basically living a Clarke Ashton Smith existence when a bad case of the flu hit a stack of paperbacks. Last night it was Against Nature by J.K. Huysmans.

(Incidentally, if you combine that book with a T-shirt that says, "You're the reason baby Jesus drinks," people won't talk to you in an airport. I don't know if they still put it out, but Soldier of Fortune magazine was good for that too. It even worked on buses.)

See, that's the kind of book that really points out to me the limitations of working with other writers. That experience has been the central element of my development as a writer, and the effects have been almost entirely positive.

But if I were to try to write something like Against Nature? Jesus! They'd string me up by my fucking nuts if I tried to make them read that, week after week.

You probably haven't read Against Nature. Even if you've picked it up you probably haven't read it. For one thing? No dialog. It's all exposition. And it's about a man so fucking aesthetically exquisite that he finds himself less and less capable of living. Most of it consists of descriptions of his indulgences, many of which are fascinating critical passages. Most of those passages deal with subjects out of my range of knowledge, but where there is overlap I find much to be admired in Huysmans's (or Huysmans's protagonist's) thought.

But it is verbose, convoluted, filled with obscure words and references. The subtlety of its construction is magnificent. The use of pedantry as a diversion is delightful.

I mean, this is crazy stuff. Dude has a booze organ. Henry Kuttner had one of those in The Proud Robot; I bet he read Against Nature. The difference is that Huysmans spends pages describing how specific liquors have flavors corresponding to particular notes or chords played on particular instruments, and he makes a convincing case. It's half-essay, half-catalog, and yet the narrative of the protagonist's self-destruction is supported by every detail.

Everything I love about it is something that would get me red ink in a writing group. It's that simple. Some of my favorite works run contrary to most tastes. Thing is, is that I think a big fat dose of conventionality is just what my work needs. It's always about to run right over the edge.

But sometimes I want to go over the edge. I just want to jump.

I wonder if this is one thing that happens in artistic movements -- if you produce work you know isn't going to repulse every person who might critique it. It's a subtle influence, in that everything I've written with others I'm glad to have written. It's not like my time is being consumed uselessly at all.

It's just that there are some works that are too ugly and weird and malformed to appeal to most people, and I know I have more than a few of those in me. I wonder whatever shall I do with them.

Now off to bed, and back to the indolent life of the invalid.


robp said...

Too ugly and weird and malformed?

Sean, I wish you all the best commercially, but it seems to me we have a magazine that doesn't appeal to most people; that is, we're perfectly willing to publish stories that don't. I'm more offended by a story that doesn't hurt than by one that doesn't, so bust open that closet.

Get your body healthy, keep your writing sick. Cheers.

Sean Craven said...

I have to say, if I could get Hope Lives in print, I really ain't got nothing to complain about.