Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Nanny's Bridge

February 2009

Freud says the psyche is like Rome. I've never been to Rome. But he's thinking about how everywhere you go in Rome there's some ancient wall poking up among modern structures. Similarly, your psyche is a patchwork of bits and pieces from different stages of your development.

To get a good buzz from Freud you have to resist your desire to normalize what he's saying. In this case, you need to appreciate how he's saying that we are fundamentally fragmented. It's not just that we have mood changes. Or that our wishes change day to day. No, the point is that some other self inside your brain breaks through the soil of whoever you think you are at some given moment. Something in you caves in to expose a whole different person. We are all Sybil.

Whenever I drive my family into Manhattan we usually take the Manhattan bridge. As you reach the other side, before hitting Canal Street, you can see on the stone base of the bridge a relief sculpture of a lion. The lion's fat paw is on top of a sphere.  
My son noticed it one trip and shouted, "I see a lion with a soccer ball." After that we started playing a game every time we drove over the bridge. "Okay, kids, tell me when you see the lion with the soccer ball." They wait. Then one of them shouts, "I see the lion with the soccer ball!" Or they miss it as we drive by and start crying. This has gotten so ritualized that as soon as we get on the bridge on the Brooklyn side I think about when to start the game.

Then it hit me that I was duplicating a game my father played. To visit his mother, whom we called Nanny, we'd pile in the station wagon and drive the 50 mph speed limit up the Natchez Trace Parkway from Jackson to Kosciusko. It was an incredibly long one-hour drive. Seeing a certain stone bridge meant that we were almost there. We'd shout: "I see Nanny's bridge!"

In that seatbelt indifferent age, we all crowded over the front seat and competed to see it first. Your eyes would play tricks. In the haze behind every cluster of leaves in the distance was a bridge.

So here I am ... the Manhattan skyline looming beyond the harp strings of the bridge, gritty Chinatown approaching ... and I've turned it into the Natchez Trace. And it's too late to say that I didn't. I am my dad.


January 2009

It's one of those days at work where I'm absolutely paralyzed. Hogtied. Brainfreeze. I can't do anything.

So what do I do? I google some old friend. I zoom into street level of Naples, Florida. Looks nice. Think I'll take a drive.

I zoom down some long avenue then it hits me that I could take a drive in my childhood neighborhood in Jackson, Mississippi. Take a look at the old house.

There it is. There's the lawn I mowed a thousand times. Behind that window is the tiny livingroom where ... everything.

Kind of weird to be sitting here at work with tears rolling down my cheeks.

Let's go down Keele Street toward my first school. There's the park. Tripped with my friend Kerry in there. Middle of the night. Looked at a toad for half an hour. Then a tree.

But then ... ouch ... ahhhhhhh ... owwwww ... the real memories. Childhood. Dying of thirst after a field trip. Teachers let all the class play in the park before going back to school. I was only a couple of years older than my daughter is now. The memory of the light on that afternoon day is pure. Some cells in my brain are still registering it. Mississippi is hot in its own special way. Remember running to the water fountain when we got back to school.

Next we have the first of the ugly cheap apartment complexes they were building back when. Deep in the complex we once set up for band practice on Bruce's patio. Got halfway through Baba O'Riley before someone made us stop.

Now we're going over the creek. Where's my school? Gone. Nothing. Except there's the gate I went through in the first grade. My dad once started singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" as we pulled up. I wouldn't get out until he stopped singing. I do the same thing to my daughter now. She jumps up and tries to put a palm over my mouth. Full circle.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Larkin on Jazz

This is everything a certain type of person needs to understand.

Introduction to All What Jazz
Philip Larkin

And yet again, there was something about the books [of jazz criticism] I was now reading that seemed oddly familar. This development, this progress, this new language that was more difficult, more complex, that required you to work hard at appreciating it, that you couldn’t expect to understand first go, that needed technical and professional knowledge to evaluate it at all levels, this revolutionary explosion that spoke for our time while at the same time being traditional in the fullest, the deepest. . . .Of course! This was the language of criticism of modern painting, modern poetry, modern music. Of course! How glibly I had talked of modern jazz, without realizing the force of the adjective: this was modern jazz., and Parker was a modern jazz player just as Picasso was a modern painter and Pound a modern poet. I hadn’t realized that jazz had gone from Lascaux to Jackson Pollock in fifty years, but when I realized it relief came flooding in upon me after nearly two years’ despondency. I went back to my books: “After Parker, you had to be something of a musician to follow the best jazz of the day.” Of course! After Picasso! After Pound! There could hardly have been a conciser summary of what I don’t believe about art.

The reader may here have the sense of having strayed into a private argument. All I am saying is that the term “modern”, when applied to art, has a more than chronological meaning: it denotes a quality of irresponsibility peculiar to this century, known sometimes as modernism, and once I had classified modern jazz under this heading I knew where I was. I am sure there are books in which the genesis of modernism is set out in full. My own theory is that it is related to an imbalance between the two tensions from which art springs: these are the tension between the artist and his material and between the artist and his audience, and that in the last seventy-five years or so the second of these has slackened or even perished. In consequence the artist has become over-concerned with his material (hence an age of technical experiment), and, in isolation, has busied himself with the two principal themes of modernism, mystification and outrage. Piqued at being neglected, he has painted portraits with both eyes on the same side of the nose, or smothered a model with paint and rolled her over a blank canvas. He has designed a dwelling-house to be built underground. He has written poems resembling the kind of pictures typists make with their machine during the coffee break, or a novel in gibberish, or a play in which the characters sit in dustbins. He has made a six-hour film of someone asleep. He has carved human figures with large holes in them. And parallel to this activity (“every idiom has its idiot,” as an American novelist has written) there has grown up a kind of critical journalism designed to put it over. The terms and the arguments vary with the circumstances, but basically the message is : Don’t trust your eyes, or ears, or understanding. They’ll tell you this is ridiculous, or ugly, or meaningless. Don’t believe them. You’ve got to work at this after all, you don’t expect to understand anything as important as art straight off, do you? I mean, this is pretty complex stuff: if you want to know how complex, I’m giving a course of ninety-six lectures at the local college, starting next week, and you’d be more than welcome. The whole thing’s on the rates, you won’t have to pay. After all, think what asses people have made of themselves in the past by not understanding art–you don’t want to be like that, do you? Keep the suckers spending.

The tension between artist and audience in jazz slackened when the Negro stopped wanting to entertain the white man, and when the audience as a whole, with the end of the Japanese war and the beginning of television didn’t in any case particularly want to be entertained in that way any longer. The jazz band in the night club declined just as my old interest, the dance band, had declined in the restaurant and hotel: jazz moved, ominously, into the culture belt, the concert halls, university recital rooms and summer schools where the kind of criticism I have outlined has freer play. This was bound to make re-establishment of any artist-audience nexus more difficult, for universities have long been the accepted stamping ground for the subsidized acceptance of art rather than the real purchase of it–and so, of course, for this kind of criticism, designed as it is to prevent people using their eyes and ears and understandings to report pleasure and discomfort. In such conditions modernism is bound to flourish.

I don’t know whether it is worth pursuing my identification of modern jazz with other branches of modern art any further: if I say I dislike both in what seems to me the same way I have made my point. …

To say I don’t like modern jazz because it’s modernist art simply raises the question of why I don’t like modernist art: I have a suspicion that many readers will welcome my grouping of Parker with Picasso and Pound as one of the nicest things I could say about him. Well, to do so settles at least one question: as long as it was only Parker I didn’t like, I might believe that my ears had shut about the age of twenty-five and that jazz had left me behind. My dislike of Pound and Picasso, both of whom pre-date me by a considerable margin, can’t be explained in this way. The same can be said of Henry Moore and James Joyce (a textbook case of declension from talent to absurdity). No, I dislike such things not because they are new, but because they are irresponsible exploitations of technique in contradiction of human life as we know it. This is my essential criticism of modernism, whether perpetrated by Parker, Pound, or Picasso: it helps us neither to enjoy nor endure. It will divert us as long as we are prepared to be mystified or outraged, but maintains its hold only be being more mystifying and more outrageous: it has no lasting power. Hence the compulsion on every modernist to wade deeper and deeper into violence and obscenity: hence the succession of Parker by Rollins and Coltrane, and of Rollins and Coltrane by Coleman, Ayler and Shepp. In a way, it’s a relief: if jazz records are to be one long screech, if painting is to be a blank canvas, if a play is to be two hours of sexual intercourse performed coram populo, then let’s get it over, the sooner the better, in the hope that human values will then be free to reassert themselves.