Monday, February 10, 2014

Writing Travel Fiction – What we see

Phyllis Rose recently said, “I have always loved Roland Barthes's essay, "The Writer on Holiday." This is what I remembered its saying: the writer is never on holiday. When Flaubert is in Egypt, going to brothels, he is really at work. When Henry James goes to dinner parties, he is at work. When Dickens produces threatricals, he is at work. Everything writers do is valuable because everything they do, potentially, is inspiration. Nothing in a writer's life is wasted. Since ultimately what we all want most is to have our time on earth prove to be valuable, we examine writers' lives to learn how to turn what ever happens to us into something useful or beautiful. Writers are models of creative alchemy, and at the heart of our interest in their lives is the appeal –mythic, perhaps–of a life in which everything counts.”

I can’t help but agree with Barthes. When I was first in Hawaii I was on vacation, but the remarkable thing is that my vacation was the shortest on memory. I found myself writing about the people I had already talked with and who had opened up with extraordinary stories of their own – and that all happened within the first day on the first island I visited.
The first person I took serious notice of was a woman who was giving sample massages with her “kneel down” massage table. She was massaging a young man’s back when I approached her, partly out of curiosity. I realized she was offering samples and so I took my turn and waited. When she was ready she looked at me and I saw that she had a black eye. We were on the edge of a pond in the middle of a resort hotel and I was struck by her face. After the massage I engaged her to give my wife and me massages in our rooms the next day. Thinking about that black eye, I set about to begin a story: I knew there was a story and I knew that somewhere she had suffered from a love gone wrong. By the time she arrived the next day I discovered that she had no black eye, that I had virtually hallucinated it, or possibly I had misinterpreted a shadow. But it did not matter. The story was already taking shape in my mind.
The massage therapist did tell me her story, though. It was different from the one I wrote, but it was still a wonderful story of rejection and pain resulting from her trying to start a new life in Kauai. The locals, mostly Hawaiians, for some reason took a dislike to her and refused to talk to her, even refused to deliver her mail. It took her months to find her way and to make her life in Hawaii acceptable in even the most basic terms.

So in a matter of hours I managed to see beneath the surface of Hawaii and to write the first  story in Hawaiian Tales: The Girl with the Heavenly Eyes..

Sunday, September 23, 2012


annual Patrick Kavanagh

I was reading some poetry aloud recently and remembered the wonderful work of Patrick Kavanagh (1905-1967).  He said of himself that his purpose in life was to have no purpose. As a young man, he walked out of Monaghan all the way to Dublin to meet the literary elite and was rejected out of hand. But eventually he found his way and his place. In a conversation with two Irish university students from Galway, I asked them what they knew about Irish literature, and while their knowledge was very limited they knew Patrick Kavanagh. That pleased me. Here is one of his early poems.

To the Man After the Harrow

Now leave the check-reins slack,
The seed is flying far today--
The seed like stars against the black
Eternity of April clay.
This seed is potent as the seed
Of knowledge in the Hebrew Book
So drive your horses in the creed
Of God the Father as a stock.

Forget the men on Brady's hill.
Forget what Brady's boy may say.
For destiny will not fulfil
Unless you let the harrow play.

Forget the worm's opinion too
Of hooves and pointed harrow-pins,
For you are driving your horses through
The mist where Genesis begins.

Beautiful as this poem is, in later life Kavanagh disowned it because it was too poetic, too much in the way of the things that the critics thought was good. He went on to write some very great poems in a very different manner. THE GREAT HUNGER is probably his best known work, and very powerful it is.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012


Touring through the great temples along the Nile, I felt enormous respect for the stone carvers who knew precisely how to incise the columns and the walls of the temples with representations of the gods who dominated the various Egyptian cultures for three thousand and more years.

How, I asked myself, could the nation have sustained such a high level of skill among artisans for such a long time, and how could they all have known how to perfectly represent these gods? There is some slight variation, but not as much as several millenia might have been expected to produce. Maintaining the same religion and its implied social stability over such a period of time is certainly astounding.

Of course, just as astounding is the feeling that none of these gods, and none of the narratives that they inhabit, have any serious claim to being true. In other words, they are mythic and not real.

They are the creations of a profound religious imagination. And more than that,they are the source of the power of the extraordinary priests who wielded power over the Pharaoanic elite. The revolution of Akhenaten was undone by the Priests -- and so, probably, was the brief rule of Tutankhamun.

As I went from temple to temple, I realized religion is a powerful force capable of using whatever gods are available.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


The Mayans seem to have used it years before the Spanish came. By the seventeenth century cocoa was a widespread drink, and in the nineteenth century, Cadbury had invented the candy bar. The connection with Eros anticipated St. Valentine by many centuries.  As an enthusiast of chocolate, I began to think about its presence in literature.

Joyce in Finnegans Wake, remarks, “Mine’s me of squisious, the chocolate with a soul.” And that made me remember all the references to Epps’s Cocoa, such as in Joyce’s letter to Nora when she was only 24 and much too thin for a mother of a 4 year-old. Joyce is away and tells her she must eat more to make her fuller and healthier.

In Ulysses Van Houten’s cocoa is mentioned frequently along with Epps’s cocoa, and chocolate takes on an aphrodisiac role in the Nighttown episode (Hades) when Bloom goes chasing after Stephen Dedalus. We see him, in his haste, “On the farther side under the railway bridge Bloom appears, flushed, panting, cramming bread and chocolate into a sidepocket.” That chocolate figures much later when he is in the company of Zoe, the accommodating lady of the night. Bloom is in an awkward position in the House of Bella Cohen, standing in a hallway not quite knowing what to say: “( A male form passes down the creaking staircase and is heard taking the waterproof and hat from the rack. Bloom starts forward involuntarily and, half closing the door as he passes, takes the chocolate from his pocket and offers it nervously to Zoe.)”

Zoe takes the chocolate only to return it a few lines later, when he has clearly understood where he is: “(a male cough and tread are heard passing through the mist outside. Bloom’s features relax. He places a hand in his waistcoat, posing calmly. Zoe offers him chocolate.)” The return of the chocolate is almost talismanic, and Bloom in his characteristic way begins to analyze the interchange, especially in light of the fact that he does not have anything more than social intercourse with Zoe: “(takes the chocolate) Aphrodisiac? Tansy and pennyroyal. But I bought it.” The chocolate implies a consummated deal, a metaphor for intercourse–the next best thing.

For an interesting detailed discussion of cocoa in Joyce see: Cocoa in the Wake

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Moliere: Drama as Theatre; Drama as Literature

It is not always easy to distinguish between drama as literature and drama as theatre. My view has always been that good drama is based on good literature, but after having said that, we all know that there are moments in the theatre when the action moves far beyond the printed page and its stage directions. Those are the moments when we realize that drama is theatre.

This meditation is a result of my having just seen a wild adaptation of Molière’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself directed and adapted by Christopher Bayes, whose roots are in the Theatre de la Jeune Lune. Bayes tossed out the standard text and built a commedia dell’arte version on the comic bones that Molière had provided beneath the dialogue.

The result was dynamic, wildly comic, and enthralling to the audience. And while the slapstick, the ham acting, the sometimes lewd jokes, the inappropriate, but funny, music, and all the screaming, shouting, dancing and romping was over, we realized that the story line that Molière concocted as a way of ridiculing the current medical profession was in a bizarre way, still intact.

What I realized–and what delighted me–is that no printed version of this adaptation could ever have done justice to it. And that goes for any version on YouTube or even the iPad or laptop–because much of the fun of seeing the play was in sharing the pleasure with a living audience.

So, in teaching I think it is important to try to talk about the aspects of the play that go beyond the printed page, but at the same time to make sure that the literary values are clear and that they remain the bones on which the production must be animated.

Monday, August 22, 2011



The names Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner bring to mind a turbulent relationship centered on art, liquor, and clashing egos. A visit to their house in the Hamptons, a place they enjoyed together because it was far from the hum and buzz of the city and city dwellers, was very subdued and curious this summer.

The house is simple, small, and evidence of the fact that they lived frugally while creating a body of work that affected the entire world of art and that is now worth millions of dollars. This is such an old story – we think of Van Gogh and many others who suffered only to enrich dealers and owners – that it remains abstract for most of us. But when you walk into Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner's home and look at the simplicity of their arrangements it becomes more concrete and more moving.

One interesting detail in the main floor living space is a wall installation of a speaker system, a very large midrange fan tweeter above a 12 inch woofer, both baffled by the space under the stairs leading up to the bedrooms. The sound system is an old fashioned tube type amplifier - a Bogen. The turntable is a 1950s style changer and the collection of LPs is relatively sparse. I saw New Orleans style records – Louis Armstrong, some Dixieland, and a variety of swing band music. I did not see much be-bop in the collection even though the film on Jackson’s life emphasizes modern jazz.

Their studio building stands apart, also marked by a rural simplicity. Today it is maintained in more or less the condition it was when they worked there. The floor of the studio is marked with spilled paint and one is now allowed to walk on it only after donning protective booties. Still, one looks down and marvels at its strange beauty. Out of a life time of struggle came a great deal of beauty, even in things left behind.

Lee Krasner continued working in the studio after Jackson died. In the winter she wrapped herself in a warm coat and wore fur lined booties that still stand as evidence of her groundedness in the world of art. I have to admit that I felt moved by what I saw. If ghosts are spirits, I felt the presence of ghosts in that experience.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

People Watching

People Watching in a Texas Mall

The temperature outside was 103 degrees Fahrenheit, so it made sense to do a little people watching that afternoon.  The fellow in the chair, obviously worn out from walking around the mall, was a perfect representative of one aspect of the Fort Worth community on a spring day in early June.

Because I am not accustomed to sitting and watching people in any mall, much less one that is 1500 miles from my home, I found the experience extraordinary.  The variety of people, in terms of age, dress, ethnicity, social status (where detectable), and size, both in terms of height and width, was astonishing.  Inscriptions on T-shirts were sometimes alarming, "Don't bother me / I'm always right"; "Did I say you could speak?", and more. 

The question of whether people seemed truly engaged in what they were about -- in other words, was this a portion of the examined life? -- was not easy to answer.  Few people seemed to be focused, but instead, when they were together in groups, they seemed to be unclear as to which direction to head in, which shop to try out, what kind of product they wanted.  Indecision seemed the order of things.

Were they enjoying themselves?  Hard to say.  It was cool, and that was a distinct advantage of the mall.  Did they look harrassed?  Well, not always.  Some looked distressed.  But not many.  Most were simply trying to organize themselves.  There were many families of three or four young children, usually with a mother alone, although there were several couples with their children, most of whom seemed to be interested in the pet shop near Sears. 

Because it is Texas there were more Latino families, probably Mexican-Americans, than in a northeast mall.  A number of men sat in the chair in the photo above, after the sleeper awoke and moved on.  They simply rested.  A well dressed man with a suitcoat and tie -- a distinct rarity in this mall (perhaps unique) -- was a thoughtful man who said he worked with a group of cemeteries helping people make arrangements for their own eventual departure.  A good man with a spiritual mission, cooling off before venturing into the field. 

Watching these people on a Friday afternoon made me wonder about the future of the nation.  The dress of most people would have alarmed my parents and shocked my grandparents.  Neither would have felt at home in this environment.  In a sense neither would have recognized this America.  On the other hand, I am at ease and comfortable enough.  Somehow we manage to hold all of this together, despite our differences. 

Is it possible that the melting pot begins and ends at the Mall?  It's beginning to look that way.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


In Holland one major attraction is the row of windmills in Kinderdijk that still stands ready to pump water out of the fields and back into the river above. These structures are, when you are standing there looking at them, much larger than the imagination as guided by Cervantes. I was struck by their absolute gigantism. What occurred to me immediately is the question: “What was Don Quixote thinking when he dared to attack such a monster?”

First, let me mention that the Dutch government demands that all these old windmills be kept active and operated at regular intervals. The point is that they work and they do not need electricity or any other source of power except for the wind, which keeps coming intensely from the water. There are many other modern white windmills along the coast – indeed, an astonishing armada of windmills that must power many more things than the pumps that keep the waters at bay. It is a tribute to the Dutch willingness to tolerate despoiling the landscape for the sake of maintaining the overall ecology of their part of the planet. Keeping them operative is sensible, not just a bit of nostalgia for the past. They may be needed again.

Somehow, I hardly expected to see the windmill in action. I looked at the four blades of the fan and wondered how, since they were wood and see-through, they could function. Then, as I watched, a man responsible for the mill came out and climbed on a rack on the back of the windmill and began stomping on a machine that turned the blades into the wind. Then he drew sails down on two of the blades – opposite each other. And the fan began to move at an astounding rate. If he had put sails on all four blades, the speed would have been frightening. As it was, I could not be sure I could pass beneath the blades to see them from the other side. There are protective markers to keep us safe, but with that machine actually working and responding to the moisture and the brunt of the wind, you could see how much power was being captured by this extraordinary machine.
The age of the machine – dating to a time before Shakespeare, and with very little change up to the present – makes us aware of the independence and engineering skills of the Dutch long before modern tools made the building of such structures almost “easy.” These machines are guardians of a culture and a willingness to bring nature under some slight command. They are inspiring. And it would be quixotic to dismantle them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


The experience of standing before Rembrandt’s great painting is almost overwhelming, even in its current placement in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The museum was undergoing reconstruction and remodeling while I was there in April. We went through many wonderful rooms before we got upstairs to the large room that it dominates with such power. My first reaction was a response to its vividness, the life of the people who seem to move through its space, and the dominance of its extraordinary colors and light. My second reaction was a realization that no reproduction of this great painting could ever do it justice.

Fortunately, before we saw the painting we had a demonstration by a painter in the Rembrandthuis of how Rembrandt made his paints, using ground materials of lake and madder. Lake is a reference to colors of insect origins, such as the Laq bug and dried red worms. Madder refers to color substances that have vegetable origins. What interested me was the opportunity to participate in making a paint by grinding a substance, an earthen substance derived from stone, and then mixing it with linseed oil and walnut oil until it became one thing – not two things, such as oil and matter. Rembrandt seems to have depended on a pallette of 14 colors from which he then worked his canvases. All that was useful information for me standing before this huge painting if only because I could respond more deeply to the brilliance of the reds, the yellows, the silvers, and the rich dark colors that give the painting its name.

In a word, the vitality of the picture is what overpowers the viewer. The organization of the figures, including those who are partially hidden, is a work of genius which one appreciates after seeing some of the canvases of Rembrandt’s competitors. The Museum at Middleburg holds a half dozen giant group portraits that seem to have been very popular among the wealthy syndics of the 17th century, when the Dutch ruled the seas and had beaten the English into submission. But not one of them, despite the accuracy of their portraits, imparts a sense of life into the composition. Much the same can be said of group photographic portraits in our own time – all of which are lifeless and irrelevant except to those who are positioned centrally. In other words, most of the group portraits were pro forma, routine, and not really expected to be artistic, but simply to be a careful record of a collection of important figures. When we look at them now we respond cooly primarily because we know none of the players in the picture, and the picture is not in and of itself interesting as art.

Not so The Night Watch. We look at the painting and do not need to know who these men are. Indeed, when we do know, that knowledge does not really affect our aesthetic response to the painting. The beautiful girl to the left center was the mascot of the Watch and she bears a resemblance to Rembrandt’s Sabina, but to her right is a mysterious figure in battle gear running purposely away. All the figures seem to have a purpose and are in motion of one sort or another. Action conquers station in this painting, and it imparts a sense of significance missing from virtually all of Rembrandt’s competitors’ similar works.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Is Any Liberal Safe?

First, my view is that there is no hope of making a direct causal relationship between specific political hate speech and the actions of the crazy fellow in Tuscon.

That being said, however, it is obvious that there are indirect relationships quite apparent in the Giffords shooting. For one thing, and most obvious, the crazy fellow's target was explicitly a political figure who had been previously targeted by opposition politicians and commentators -- all of whom used language that could be compared with shouting "Fire" in a theater.

The point is that while there is no direct causal relationship here, the general atmosphere of elevated threatening rhetoric made it easy for Loughner to act out his fantasies and perhaps think he was acting within the spirit of Arizona politics. And while Loughner is crazy, the people raising the hate level of political speech are not. Eventually we'll get killers who, like those who kill doctors providing abortions, will to all legal appearances be sane. They will just be sane killers carrying out a "reasonable" agenda supported by the current wave of threatening commentary.

The general tenor and emotional atmosphere of American politics are polluted with vitriol, incivility, rage, and threats, and we all know it. We listened to terrible attack ads throughout the Connecticut primaries and elections. Nothing was too awful to for people to say. All Connecticut lacked were the "crosshairs" of political discourse, and if such threats were present here, I'd expect more gunfire here, too.

I can't help but take into account the atmosphere in America in my lifetime. The wave of assassinations and killings has been sunami-like. The four killed by our national guard at Kent State, the killings at Jackson State, the killing of Medgar Evers, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and John Lennon -- just to mention the most obvious ones -- all took place in a political atmosphere intensified by violent statements. And one might notice which "side of the aisle" these figures represent. Is any liberal really safe in America today?

Add to this the reckless rhetoric claiming "blood libel" in reference to the shooting of a Jewish Representative. Add to all that the wild west fetish for Glocks and extended magazines. What you have is a return to the wildness of the early 18th century America and the loss of the civility that refashioned the America politics of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Of course, all through American history violence has marked politics and daily life, but there seemed to be a toning down of the atmosphere of political violence until recently.

The awful thing is that we know that nothing will now change. Those who rant and incite have become defensive and not contrite. They are in it for the money and thus will not change their strategies. Since they do not usually pull the trigger they do not feel a bit of responsibility.