Divine Ambiguity. Or, Savaging the Images.

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Ann Savage in Detour – part of the new DVD cover by Jennifer Dionisio

I spent yesterday morning pouring over a couple of things I received from members of my cadre of guiding influences. Tony Levin’s Images From Life on the Road, his book of photography, was not so much a disappointment as a prefigured irrelevancy. Ho hum. Somehow Tony, a man blessed with the opportunity of a wonderfully global and relevant rock-n-roll life, manages to capture, in photographic terms at least, virtually none of it. Nick Cave, on the other hand, via his latest Red Hand Files communication presents, in a handful of paragraphs, the categorical opposite of irrelevance, which is to say, a bestowing of compelling and revealing insight.

I’ve no hard feelings against Tony’s effort. If you’ve paid any attention to the man’s blog, which in fact is simply a repository of his zillions of tour photographs, too many of which involve rote shots of the audience from the perspective of the stage (is there anything duller?), then you know pretty much what to expect. I did, at least. Sure, there are a handful of interesting (but far from compelling) shots of his band members and a picture or two of a landscape or space-scape that stick with you a bit but in all, Tony’s photographs seem as workaday, serviceable and scrapbookish as perhaps his playing is. If playing a bass can be scrapbookish at all. But the reader will get my drift. In other words, if Tony gets inspired or moved or struck by anything beyond a certain casual acquaintance with it, well, his photographs don’t reveal that. It’s as if, again analogous to his bass playing, his technical ability with a camera doesn’t allow for compelling mistakes nor does it communicate a creative vision outside the utilitarian. His shots of almost everyone are blasé but not blasé enough, if you know what I mean, if that were to be regarded as his talent.

Sure, the road is a bore for most self-possessed musicians. The life of a rock star… isn’t. I get it. Which is to say, that in itself could be an interesting perspective. In fact there’s a shot of Bryan Ferry and Robert Fripp in proximity to each other outside a tour bus – they’re standing in the sunshine and Fripp is eating a bunch of grapes – that seems to describe both a quality of washed out, unbendable ennui and pedestrian dullness alongside the weird, striking out-of-place-ness that some artist-craftsmen can’t help but embody – what HWG describes as the nature of existence alongside the waiting-to-present-the-special-version-of-oneself that makes for a compelling image of irony or paradox or, I don’t know, it works as art-craft. But just barely.

And Tony’s a really nice guy, you can tell by reading about him, listening to him talk and watching him. If he were otherwise louche, transgressive, subversive, volatile, unhinged, mystical or a charismatic asshole – namely, all the things that so often seemed to fuel the rock mythos besides talent – or at least found any of that interesting, he’s keeping it to himself. Not that rock and roll is only that stuff. But as my brother (the HWG) says, “It’s truly better to be a sloppy hack in most anything than a technical ace.” So that if these images were either messier or more strikingly accomplished then we’d perhaps have something more than a hobby. Recall that my definition of a hobby is a passion sans talent. It seems there’s a part of us that must dabble in things and bang our heads against marginal skills that we never seek to master and have no hope of every realizing as talents. Talent is what you’re born with. A strength is talent enhanced by deliberate practice and mastery is the far horizon that compels us ever onwards within our VAPM. Professionalism comes naturally within this scenario: when we professionalize our strength we are doing our best to deliver our best to the world-of-action. Why keep it to yourself?

It sounds simple enough except when we confuse earnestness and passion with a calling and when we attempt to professionalize a hobby and transform it into a vocation. As I’ve always said, earnestness and passion are no substitute for talent. Earnestness and passion are rather what hobbyists thrive upon. A person’s talent more often conflicts with both. I’m banging away at this journal entry, for example, and later I’ll bang away at the manuscript and I’ve a marginal talent for both and neither are a pleasure. I experience a sense of conflict, that is, when I engage my talents because they conflict, somehow, psychologically at least, with the sense of enjoyment I experience when engaging my hobbies. Hobbies can be a means to express great skill and that’s part of the fun, too, just being good at something. But your talent draws more out of you. It requires more of you. It requires all of you. I would argue that in personal mythological terms it is you. Hence, it’s all the cosmos really requires of you. So do it.

Which brings us to Nick Cave, yet again, whom I would characterize as an artist-craftsman who resides comfortably (or productively uncomfortably) within the messy psychology of the art-craft metropolis and the wild woods of creative vision. He knows when to upset the apple cart of his own preconceptions. Preconceptions? Yes, we all have them and perhaps most perniciously on behalf of ourselves. We’re convinced that we’re this or that. We do this but we’d never do that. Which is fine in terms of cultivating a sense of self possession and confidence and purpose – how else to move forward with being who you are? But that thing that we refuse to consider? It’s probably a key to unlocking a door that needs opening. Sometimes you have to kick it open and sometimes you don’t. Meanwhile, let it work on you. You’re feeling stuck, for instance, and wondering what in hell to do. Consider that which you’re convinced is not the thing. I’d never work there, I’d never take that job, I’d never resort to that. Why not?

Nick Cave. I keep coming back to the guy because, whether you appreciate his music or not, he is authentic in personal mythological terms. And his work, as it stands, continues to be vital because of it. I’m convinced that often in spite of ourselves we are mythic creatures, keen to thrive upon and respond to in Earthly and unearthly (super natural [sic]) terms to our mythos, personal and cultural. Which includes our sense of awe, a cosmology that supports that awe, a sociology that describes our ethics and a pedagogical psychology that guides us through. It is, I believe, an inescapable intuition and phenomenon of our humanity. And if we’re not alone, if there are worlds that support intelligent life, you will find mythos there, too. Will it be alien? I like to believe, if only just for fun and to inspire sci-fi novels that it may just be the only thing that we may share with aliens. Thereby rendering them less alien.

But to my point. I’d never expected a response from Nick regarding my question posed many months ago – God knows how many questions he receives via The Red Hand Files. Nevertheless, “What is your relationship to mythology?” stuck with me. And it turns out that by way of answering somebody else’s question, he did very well to answer mine. I’m going to transcribe this in full because if I merely post a link nobody will click it and may the gods of copyright enforcement slay me:

“Dear Ellery, You are right to say that there is some ambiguity to my relationship with Christ, and I don’t consider myself a Christian — at least ‘most of time’, as Bob Dylan would say. Spiritual matters for me are always evolving, never static, and are energized by their mystery and uncertainty and attendant struggle.

However, this much I think is true. I believe that there is a unifying essentialness within all people — the spirit, the soul — and that this spirit is innocent and good and connected to the divine. Over that essential spirit of goodness we place, throughout our lives, mechanisms, strategies, agendas, defenses, transgressions — layers of behavior that collect and deepen, like Philip Larkin’s ‘coastal shelf’, and engulf that core of goodness, separating us from the divine nature of the world. Although I believe this, I find it extremely difficult to actually connect deeply with these invisible notions — the spirit and the soul.

Personally, I need to see the world through metaphors, symbols and images. It is through images that I can engage meaningfully with the world. The personalization of this invisible notion of the spirit is necessary for me to fully understand it. I find that using the word ‘Christ’ as the actualizing symbol of the eternal goodness in all things extremely useful. The Christ in everything makes sense to me — I can see it — and helps me to act more compassionately within the world.

It feels to me that sometimes we practice a kind of conditional compassion and reserve our goodwill to those we think deserve it. To practice a form of universal compassion, I find it of considerable value to remember that our love is a lifeline thrown to that pure essentialness, the Christ deep within us, entombed, suffering and yearning for our assistance.

Acts of compassion, kindness and forgiveness can ignite this spirit of goodness within each other and within the world. Small acts of love reach down and bring succor to that animated spirit, the beseeching Christ, so in need of rehabilitation. Love, Nick.”

https://www.theredhandfiles.com/i-have-been-reading-tolstoys-the-gospel-in-brief-and-wondered-if-you-had-read-this-short-book-what-does-christ-mean-to-you-i-hear-his-name-mentioned-in-many-of-your-songs-but-thematically-the/

The devoted reader will recall my appreciation for context and this, upon reflection, forces me to evaluate the Tony Levin book again and perhaps cut him some slack. Did he ever presume to be publishing artcraft? No. Images From a Life on the Road is the title of the book, after all, and he does not wax eloquently or ineloquently upon any of it. It’s pretty much just a scrapbook and so be it. He never claims to provide a window into life on the road. He doesn’t aspire to insight. He’s not experimenting with the images of life on the road with an aspiration to discern or distill or extract or analyze. He merely presents and seems content to leave anything else up to us. If I argued that out of the zillions of photographs he probably sifted through and spent untold hours curating for the book he might have discarded some and included others more compelling, well, he never said any of them were compelling.

Nevertheless, I would ask Tony why he takes photographs if it’s not an experiment and an adventure and a form of seeking but then he’s not required to answer me. I would  argue that the first thing I look for in a photographer’s work is awareness of a perspective beyond that of standing there with the camera in front of your face and clicking away, which is what the rest of us do. That is, do you understand that you can’t just click what you see out of your own everyday pedestrian perspective, standing there between five and six feet or so above the ground and at this or that distance from whomever and whatever you are shooting? Lower yourself. Climb a ladder. Back away. Get closer. Zoom in. Observe what’s in the frame – everything in the frame. Compose the shot. Edge to edge. I’m not certain that Tony is doing this except when he’s photographing objects and landscapes, skyscapes and space-scapes. People? He seems interested in people, in photographing them, but rarely does he seem interested in drilling into who they are and what’s going on with them. Perhaps he’s just too painfully respectful of people’s privacy? A photograph can be revealing, perhaps too much so for some folks. But if it’s a book of your work, I’d prefer to look at stuff that reveals. So be it. As far as the bonus CD that arrived with the book, Tony’s favorites amongst his own work, let’s just say that, well, some folks no matter their degree of technical ability are contributors and not themselves artcrafters.

“Feb 8th update: The first printing of the book has sold out (much quicker than we expected.) A second printing is on the way (unchanged except for a couple of typos fixed) and should arrive later in February. So we are again at “Pre-Order”, and expect to ship by March 1st.”

https://tonylevin.com/photobook.php

Okay Tony, regardless of my opinion of it, congratulations on selling out this run of books. And the typos? I get it, brutha.

Criticism. “To be a critic,” suggested Bob Fripp, “is to have no concern for your soul.” Well, I mostly agree except when we’re discussing already well off and well established artcrafters with the psychological and material wherewithal to endure such analysis. And we eventually require honesty and straightforward professional evaluation for just about everything – in the sense that looking the other way usually doesn’t do a thing any good in the end anyway. My work is no exception despite my cosmic terror at the idea, perhaps an inevitability of receiving bad reviews. I’ve often said, after all, that the sign of true success is to have acquired critics, the more well regarded and passionately averse to your work, the better. For it only brings fuel to the fire of public acceptance. Not everyone will like what you do. Perhaps most folks won’t. But kid gloves? Everything has its place.

Meanwhile, it turns out that February 2021 is the third best sales month ever for TC1! Go Time Crime! Who could have expected it? And I received from L.S. her notes on a string of embarrassing typos within TC1 – thank you! – which has inspired me to gather up my own corrections and schedule a revision with R.V. Within the next three weeks or so, then, I’ll republish the thing in its Third State, yay! And of course I’ll immediately find something else that needs fixing or improving or otherwise tweaking. I’m not against a lifetime of revisions – errors are errors and what writing can’t be improved upon? – but frankly, following this third “printing” I’m going to devote myself entirely to TC2, anything that bugs me about TC1 will have to wait. And I’m also sensitive from the fan’s standpoint (because I’m a fan of things, too) to idea of leaving well enough alone and living with the imperfections because somehow, so often, those very imperfections become part of the substance of the thing. Too many fixes and you’ve got a second edition and who needs a second edition of a novel?

The most extreme example that I’ve run across where an imperfection that borders on scandalous is allowed to stand long enough that it transforms into part of the essence and appeal of the creation is the famous and recently restored 1945 film Detour (complete with new promotional artwork as displayed on Criterion) directed by Edgar G. Ulmer and starring Tom Neal and Ann Savage.

https://www.criterion.com/films/29614-detour

I’m determined to see this film (which clocks in at a mere 68 minutes) because it supposedly stands as the definitive film noir classic, perhaps the first fully realized example of the type. That, and the story of the budget constraints being such that not only did the director use his own car (now an icon of the film in its own right) but, crazy as it seems, in order to present the sense of the protagonist’s journey east to west – right to left, per say – from NYC to L.A. more convincingly on the screen, the negative was reversed. With the kooky result that the car is on the wrong side of the road and likewise the driver sits, U.K. style, on the right. Insane that they would resort to this! And that anyone would consider it an improvement.

Where does that leave us? Perhaps hanging. But I’ve nothing else to say about it, mostly because I’ve got to get some TC2 editing done before a closing shift at the home improvement so, until next time… thanks for reading!

“Horror is the Foreground of Wonder.”

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Time Crime Book 2 – cover mock-up. Author image.

February has transformed into a respectable month for book sales – seven copies so far and just this week TC1 has sold in the USA (hardcover), U.K. (paperback) and Australia (eBook). Yay! And if, as they say, most books don’t sell more than a hundred copies, well, I’m happy to declare that the Australian sale puts the novel at 101. Very modest numbers, certainly, and oftentimes it all seems so insignificant as to render the whole experiment of indie authorpreneurship a categorical failure. But thanks to the intrepid readers who have so far risked their hard earned cash on the book, it yet lives. Thank you.

Meanwhile, I continue to apply myself to the editing of TC2 and I’ve gone as far as to schedule a date of April 1 with my book designer for the cover artwork. For better or worse my vision for the cover is clear this time and I’ve mocked up my own rough version as a starting point, hence the unholy image that illustrates this post! For better or worse, indeed, right? But don’t anybody panic about how bad this looks, it’s just something to riff upon. I described the vision to the designer thus:

Vixy again embodies the emotional compass of the novel, hence her wide-eyed, down-gazing, eerily downlit or up-lit visage (via light from gleaming Ball?) if that works. Also Five’s gauntleted fist, up thrust, seizing the Golden Ball. Otherwise, the context is sinister, claustrophobic entanglement, warped sci-fi horror and hard-boiled, plasma-pistol toting, trench coated pursuit seasoned with a dash of pulpy enthusiasm. The book’s locales include indomitable mountains, impenetrably forested Northwest Coast islands, jungle-choked ruins prowled by tigers, mysterious temple caves and a riotously populated, sweaty Indian metropolis, all of which fuel the knotted, oppressive vibe and perhaps need only appear as reflections/intimations within the ball’s gleaming surface (if that isn’t too much). The book’s epigraph, “Horror is the foreground of wonder”, may help with the vibe.

Why not just let the designer run with things as before? Well, I’m all for serendipity, spontaneity, letting things go and seeing what happens. But things change, this time I’ve got a specific idea and I’m convinced it’s futile to attempt to seek another lightning strike of good fortune of the type that happened with the first book. With TC1 it was all brand new and it was all I could do to feed images of book covers that I admired and sections of the manuscript to the designer and surrender to what she came up. We got lucky, I think, and that’s that.

Now I know more about how it all works and I’m keen to respect the new dynamics. It’s this way for anyone art-crafting anything, isn’t it? That is, there is always that first significant foray that, if it works at all, if it enjoys any amount of success, forever stands as a thing’s unreproducible arrival. Subsequent iterations and experiments possess a maturity born of worldliness let’s call it that risk falling short of the original magic. Such is the nature of risk. Adventures involve trials. Quests can fail.

The key, I think, is authenticity. Where does your zeal reside? Name it, claim it and honor the new dynamic, come what may. There is no mythology without an image. And the mythology, hence the image, must change with the times, must incorporate the everchanging dynamic of the phenomenal world, all the while referencing the eternal quality, the mythos that resonates, inspires and fuels our experience of being properly alive. Affecting symbols may infect us with aesthetic arrest but they themselves are not static.

Such is the play-of-opposites universe that we inhabit, the paradox that we exist within, the predicament we endure living within a Mystery that yet bestows clues – little truths – as to its true nature, its veritelos and our own within it. The future really is the past and vice versa. The relationship is that of identity, hence metaphor, hence, in the best examples, myth. I’ve yet to discover a more evocative, apt and concise expression of the mythic experience. Living within a fully functional mythology replete with its affecting image or images inspires this worldview which indeed is more akin to an experience than a contemplation. Myth is lived; it is empirical first and only epistemic – to do with knowledge or the degree of its validation – after the fact of the affecting image(s).

Be skeptical about a person’s experience, a UFO sighting for instance, and, if their experience is affecting enough, they will say, “I know what I saw.” And what they perhaps really mean to express is, I saw what I know. It is an experience of reencountering something where there has been no previous encounter. Which is to say that aesthetic arrest is more than an expression of the happenstance of familiarity. It goes further up and further in, to borrow an oft quoted line from Joyce. The image resonates, somehow, not as an experience of encountering something new but rather as the experience of intimate and immediate understanding in a thing’s full aspect. There is nothing to figure out about the image except to attempt to decipher, after the fact, the details of the phenomenon of its affect upon you. And perhaps others.

When others experience the thing as you do then the mythology is especially well rendered, forceful, fully expressed and functional, possessing a potent awe, cosmology, sociology and pedagogical psychology. The cross or crucifix and Christianity, for example. The image is understood and for the most part, if you identify with it, your experience is similar enough, at least, to that of other Christians as to allow for the members of the religion to identify sufficiently with each other.

I see what I know. This idea gets to the heart of the experience of aesthetic arrest. And when we attempt to render a 3D object into 2D by way of drawing it, for instance, those of us who either lack the technical skills of perspective or artist-craftsmen who intentionally ignore such skills will tend to illustrate all aspects of an object. We attempt to draw the table legs that we cannot see and all the perspectives at once. And of course children express this way of seeing-what-you-know effortlessly when given the means. I’ve discussed the hyper-dimensional challenges of drawing, such as they are, in a previous post, hence I won’t elaborate here.

https://carnegieolson.com/blog/symbolic-forms-fits-of-tears-whats-in-a-drawing/

Horror is the foreground of wonder. This is from Campbell’s The Power of Myth and communicates his suggestion that this is one way, at least, to break through, to transcend, to reveal things as they are, to experience the sublimity that leads to awe and aesthetic arrest. Not by way of gore; rather, by way of cosmic fright.

In this way, within this next novel, I intend to further, come what may, my influences in a manner that serves the stories and not the other way round. The energy of it all is intended to facilitate not force or otherwise appropriate. I’d hate to be accused of attempting to proliferate my philosophy (or, heaven forbid, an agenda) under the guise of writing science fiction, of merely pontificating and inevitably writing terribly pedantic and dull novels. Hell no. But the subtext within Time Crime that seeks to advance mythology in my own way is nevertheless present. It has to be because, as I’ve oftentimes said, it fuels the fiction. That it isn’t to everyone’s taste merely legitimizes, I think (or hope), the healthy and wholehearted peculiarity of the effort.

Cross, Cord & Arrow. Or, How to Drive Yourself Crazy.

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“Rose Neo” – Author Image.

Cross, cord, and arrow, ancient contrivances of man, nowadays debased, or elevated, into symbols: I do not know why they should astonish me, when there is on Earth no single thing oblivion does not overtake, or which memory does not alter, and when no one knows the images into which the future will translate all things.

Jorge Luis Borges, from “Mutations,” translated by Anthony Kerrigan, as appearing within Materials for the Study of Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art: A Record of Tradition & Continuity, Vol.1, Book 1, (New York: Rock Foundation, 1986), epigraph.

It seems to happen so often: I work my ass off and get caught up in all sorts of things that make me forget about selling books and I find that I’ve sold one. This time, a U.K. paperback, yay! Nothing beats a sale. And while the spottiness of sales drives me to distraction and proves a delicate, relentless torture (except for the twenty-four hours of bliss that a sale bestows) it’s as if the cosmos is determined to respond only to my authenticity and wholeheartedness. Otherwise, the idea that authors sell not one or two copies a month but one or two copies an hour, or many more than that, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year just seems to me incredible. What must that be like?

I’ve enjoyed almost two weeks off from the job with only one shift, seven hours, I think, in between somewhere but tomorrow my schedule ramps back up again. It has to do with the seasonality of sales, I think, when my hours decrease and that’s verified by the fact that the home improvement does their annual inventory gig this time of year. I’ve worked in more than a few retail environments in my day and I have to say that taking inventory is a miserable experience even when the company uses an outside service to expedite things. Outside service? Yes, there happen to be companies out there that send a crew of folks with data gathering devices (scanners & keyboards in the same unit) into a facility to literally scan or otherwise process the “sku” or product identification number present on anything with a damn barcode. The keyboard is for entering the “sku” when the barcode fails to scan or (and this is the part that drives you crazy when you work for, say, the Sam Goody music store in Greenwich Village – long since disappeared – where I worked back in the day) it’s missing.

Have things changed at all since my first experience with this some thirty years ago? I’m thinking not. Counting every little thing is a crazy and maddening way to spend a workday. Mostly because there’s far too much shit that isn’t in the right place. Or is somehow otherwise uncountable. To say nothing of the mind numbing tedium of it all.

My short time at Zingerman’s Mail Order – Zingerman’s I can tell you, for all their fine efforts at providing a good work environment is lacking in resources and common sense when it comes to the idea of streamlining things like taking inventory, I will say no more – involved at least two miserable sessions of all day inventory, one of which required me to reside for at least an hour in the pitch dark and literally freezing cold counting bread loaves by the weak light of a single bulb. Loaves that were buried in racks which were subsequently stacked higher than a man on top of each other in a freezer semi-trailer. Miserable. Impossible. Stupid, silly, frustrating work. Wearing my winter coat, hat and gloves in June. A nightmare.

***

Meanwhile, I’ve reached the halfway point or so with editing the second draft of TC2. My stretch goal remains to publish the thing this September or, at the very latest, October. I took to heart the comment by an editor at Locus who found it maddening that anyone would release a book at the end of the year, especially in December because that almost guarantees its exclusion from competition in year-end “best-ofs” or recommendations and other such opportunities. Not that I’d ever make the cut for any of that stuff. But I nevertheless do my best in the professional sense to maximize the opportunity for exposure and minimize the risk of obscurity based on avoidable technicalities.

I’m not one, however, to get all wrapped-around-the-axle (I term I borrow from an ex-boss of mine) with pre-release promotions and pre-orders and ARCs (advance reader copies) and all that mess. I see books advertised with publication dates at least six months out and I think what’s the point except to perpetuate the historically lethargic methods and means of the traditional publishing industry? I think Locus suggests sending ARCs something like three months in advance of publication. Huh? As if I’m going to sit on my hands, book written, edited, designed and proofed until all the magazines and media outlets are done ignoring my gratis copy? Screw off, I say. When the book is ready I’m damn well publishing it.

Add to it all the loony business of scrounging for advance reviews to slap into the book or plaster all over the cover and into the Amazon description, ugh, horrible. “Gripping.” “A must read!” “New York Times #1 Best Seller.” Whatever that means (it seems to me you see that before the book is even released). Anyway, no. One of the singular joys of being an indie author is being your own publisher and maintaining complete authority over what goes into and on the cover of your work. I’ve picked up books, fiction and non-fiction, stuffed with page after shameless page of so-called “reviews” or “blurbs” as the front matter, the first thing you come to when flipping through a book. I’m all for marketing (my obsession with reviews is obvious) but what can I say except the marketing angle becomes too pushy and sleazy and, again, shamelessly commercial when you use the book itself as the billboard.

The exception proves the rule, however, and a legitimate, well known award – Hugo, Nebula, for instance – would be something I’d be certain to plaster, tastefully of course, upon the cover of my novel. And then the collectors would have to scramble to find a first edition, first state copy without all that. How great would that be?

To achieve the 12,500 copies per year that ALLi (the Alliance of Independent Authors) uses as the threshold differentiating “author member” from “authorpreneur member” you must sell 35 or so books a day, every day, all year. If you allow yourself a two dollar profit on each book, give or take, that just about covers the cost of indie publishing yourself in all formats. Which is to say even then you’re not anywhere close to anything like a significant profit, let alone a living. The sixty or eighty or one-hundred thousand dollar salary you were earning while dutifully employed? Forget it. $100K in book sale profits translates into 50,000 books! That’s 137 books sold per day for a year. It’s almost impossible to comprehend that anyone actually sells like this. Lord of the Rings, published in 1954 has apparently sold 150M copies worldwide. That averages out, in the series’ sixty-seven years of publication, to over 2.2M copies a year. That’s an incredible average of 6,134 copies sold per day. Amazing.

The numbers involved in so-called remarkable success like that of LOTR are, in a word, staggering. When I try to imagine what a pile of 150M books looks like it’s damn impossible. Likewise the perennial nature of such staggering success; for it’s one thing, after all, to publish a hit novel that racks up a million copies sold in a year – an incredible feat – but then not to endure inevitably becoming passe and watching your fame and fortune fall off a cliff and disappearing into the bulging ranks of the whatever-happened-to authors? Some successes indeed remain in a class by themselves.

What’s reasonable, then? What kind of life as an indie author can be said to involve a reasonable risk of failure and a reasonable expectation of reasonable success? What can be said to involve strategy versus mere fantasy? Most books don’t sell more than one hundred copies. I read this somewhere and something tells me it’s probably close enough to the truth. Which merely points out that there will never be anything reasonable about writing and indie publishing your book, at least in statistical and economic terms. It’s a hard reality.

Nevertheless there are more books than ever being published, indie or otherwise. The statistics have never been more lopsided, then, against getting noticed and getting liked and getting sold. So be it. A writer writes, regardless, that’s what I’ve learned. I bang away at editing TC2 and I post blogs and I write in my journal and don’t publish it. What the hell am I doing? Writing my way through it.

But there’s no real hurry, I don’t think, despite the sense of urgency that permeates the whole otherwise interminable experience. Life is irony. Get that next book out while the iron is hot, while that other book has yet to descend into the oblivion of the void! I read of these authors who can crank out a book a year for ten years straight and it reminds me of how rock bands back in the 70s used to release a record every year, sometimes more. And they usually sucked. They were chock full of so-called filler. As if getting out something, anything, was better, somehow, than taking one’s time and doing one’s best to craft a thing of lasting value. It isn’t. Sure, when I post a blog I get hits on my website. And perhaps that leads to a sale here and there of a book. When I don’t post a blog, nothing at all happens. Though I suppose that eventually I’d manage to sell a book regardless of keeping myself out there, as it were.

Hey, I appreciate productivity out of my authors and musicians and even filmmakers as much as the next person. I enjoy getting caught up in the rush of the new, too. But I’m also the first to dismiss a thing as worthless dross and to complain that the legacy of an artist-craftsman I otherwise respect is being diluted and diminished by a rush-it-to-market shamelessness.

Three years. Experience has demonstrated to me that at least three years between releases – book, record album, film – is about right. Less than that and, in the end, things seem to pile up too fast in someone’s oeuvre and substance is lacking and then I’m on to the next thing and stuck with sorting out a bunch of detritus that I’d wished I’d never bought and I’m throwing things away and all that. Too much of a good thing, at best. Less is more, indeed. So, three years is good. I really don’t see anyone working within these genres producing things of lasting quality any more quickly than that.

Blog posts? Video posts? What about folks who garner YouTube advertising dollars and avail themselves of subscriber income from services like Patreon? Don’t they have to crank out product at least every week? Yes, I’d say they more or less do. The genre lends itself to that. In the rare case they might be able to profit from a monthly release schedule. But the three years? Impossible. Hell, in three years the technology will have changed so much and this or that company will have gone out of business or been bought or sold and, well, the nature of journalism and news media and blogs and newsletters is that of what newspapers used to be: throwaway daily reporting upon momentary, inevitably trendy, inevitably forgettable chit-chat and sociability and, well, look at the hideousness of Facebook. I’m on there. And all I can say is, Ugh. Of what real use is it, our tidbits of this or that commonplace interaction with pedestrian existence? It seems that’s all most of the social media thing ended up amounting to, but I’m not here to decry social media.

Rather, I think I’m here, today, to write my way through my anxiety over not perhaps having TC2 ready for this year. And to let that expectation and accompanying anxiety go. Guides help. J. Campbell seemed a fellow quite adept at taking the time something took and otherwise not fretting about it. He landed a contract for The Hero With a Thousand Faces, for instance, and took five years – five years! – to deliver the book to his publisher. By which time everyone in the publishing house had since moved on and he was told nobody there was interested and Campbell could come pick up his manuscript, thank you very much, we’re sorry. This is a story I’ve often referred to in my journaling, namely, that (and you have to recall that for non-fiction authors it’s often the case that merely the idea for a book is sold, a quite different thing compared to what is required of novelists) here’s a guy so keen on doing the job right and possessed of such self-possession that he could grind away at a thing for that long, all the while maintaining faith in his publisher sticking by him until the time came to put the book out. Which didn’t happen. Things changed, too many things, and there was Campbell, advance in hand and back on the street with his manuscript. I’ve often tried to imagine this scenario and I simply cannot put myself in Campbell’s position. What psychological tortures must have the man endured? It turns out his friend, Henry Morton-Robinson, himself an author (who had one of his novels turned into a film), when Campbell was intending to return the advance, told him to keep it, Morton-Robinson helped him edit it one last time and, eventually, the Bollingen Foundation accepted it and the rest is history. J.C. then went on to a contract with Viking and every three years published a volume of The Masks of God tetralogy, a great work that I highly recommend that has very much withstood the test of time.

Every three years. Perhaps that’s fine for deeply researched non-fiction titles, you say, but it hardly ought to apply to novels which are typically completed well within a year. I would agree (the first drafts of TC1, TC2 and TC3 each required nine months or so) except to specify that only novels that are extemporaneous – thought up and composed on the spot, as it were, sans anything besides incidental, after-the-fact fact checking – and then hastily edited can be expected to thrive under such expectations. Perhaps I’m wrong. Frankly, I don’t read many novels. I read non-fiction, virtually all of which supports the background of the novels. Hence, I wouldn’t characterize my novels as extemporaneous.

Three years between TC1 and TC2, then? Is that really what I’m proposing? Well, if the first draft takes nine months and any decent amount of self-editing (three additional drafts) requires perhaps three months and then a last run-through with a professional editor requires two or three weeks – let’s just give it a month – then, 9 + 3 + 1 = 13. Thirteen months not counting book cover design and interior formatting and, in the case of Time Crime, the month it took me to obtain permissions for all my citations. So, fourteen months. Barring any crazy life interruptions and having the funds available for all this expenditure. So where does the extra year and a half come in?

It doesn’t. But just as a first record album is essentially a compilation of one’s entire previous life’s work, there is more to the TCT series – much more – than the writing of the manuscripts might otherwise imply. If you write novels yourself you might get a sense of the backstory and life experience and decade of intense reading and all the other writing that went on prior to receiving the “call” to begin writing that first fiction manuscript. That, and if you’re not the amazing type who holds down a demanding job like, say, a heart surgeon who still finds time and creative energy to somehow crank out worthy novels. Or these folks who publish ten books in ten years while working full time at anything. I don’t get it.

Somewhere, then, outside the fourteen months required to get a manuscript from its first word to something publishable, reside the nagging indeterminacies that beleaguer any significant act of creation. Shit happens. For example, there I was in 2019, finally primed and prepped and ready to get my book cover designed and slapped onto my book and shot into the KDP and Ingramspark systems and into anxious readers hot hands and my book designer said, sure, the earliest I can schedule you two months from now. Two months from now?! But I’m ready to go NOW!

Lesson learned. The zillionth lesson. This time, for TC2, I’m planning to reach out at least three months in advance regarding the cover and I’m thinking as I write this that I ought to check in with my designer perhaps four or more months in advance. After all, I don’t have to be done with the final, professional edit or even with my drafts to get the cover worked up. Interior formatting? Yes.

Anyway, given that the first draft of TC2 was already written when I committed, near the end of last year, to the second draft, it seems entirely reasonable to allow for three months on three self-edited drafts, another month working with a professional editor and then another month, more or less, to have the book up for sale. That’s five months. And here I’m already at perhaps three months slogging through this second draft. What gives?

Well, I’ve found that even the part-time job, especially as it presents an unpredictable work schedule, has slowed my re-digestion, so to say, of the TC2 story. That, and a second draft of TC2 is not the same as the final draft of TC1 where I was capable of burning through a chapter a day because the writing didn’t require much in the way of substantive editing. In other words, I’m only now, halfway into the second draft, managing to not only get any sense of momentum but to get the story back into my head, back to front. Because it’s been at least four years since I wrote the damn first draft. And the start-up shenanigans involved in becoming an authorpreneur type involved so many things besides just waiting for readers to find my novel. So be it. TC2, as yet, has not revealed any glaring, impossible plot glitches or disastrous technical flaws. I don’t have to start over. The patient is breathing and has a heartbeat. The story holds. My substantive editing, then, will not require organ transplants. This will save time. It may be also that I won’t require as many permissions. But I’m nevertheless burdened with a sense of having to pick up the pace. Why? Why can’t I just try to enjoy the process and take my time?

I can’t answer that. A sense of urgency seems somehow part of my genetic nature. That, and the process of self-editing is such a burdensome one, psychologically. The constant second-guessing of oneself, of my writing and my purpose for writing and why in hell would I ever think anyone would read my writing. This kind of thing. It’s a torture to get the book out as such. To fix things, tweak things, make the writing better, better, always it can be better. To trim, embellish, tweak and hone. To craft it.

The story itself is probably the only thing I don’t fret so much because I really can’t imagine writing any other story. This is the story, the TCT is, in my own mind at least, my magnum opus, my life’s great work of fiction. If I manage to subsequently or somewhere in between write and publish The World as Personal & Cultural Mythology it will not replace the sense that the novels are my children and I’ll always love them in that pained way that apparently parents love their children. Ugly. Untalented. Doomed. We love our novels, come what may, if we’ve put our life into them.

September of this year, then. TC2 copyright 2021. Stretch goal. Boy, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Writer’s World Episode #143: Go With the Flow

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“Karci.” Author Image.

The faucet installation took me four hours or so and that included removing the sink from the wall (a pedestal sink) so as to make the drain removal and reinstallation easier. It’s a trick I recall learning from a youtube video. And remarkably, my PVC drain plumbing didn’t require any rework and it didn’t leak. Most remarkable, however, is the gift of proper water flow! Part of it had to do with deposits in the gate valves downstairs and the faucet shutoffs that, once I opened and closed them, broke at least some of the material free which promptly jammed up the works even worse. Additionally, I think the flow restrictors present within the design of the modern aerator – the EPA required water saving mandates – not only encourage and collect deposits (precipitates) but also collect grit and grains of sand or what have you that shake themselves loose within your pipes. They all combine perniciously to literally block the water. Remove the restrictors (in this example the silicone O-ring resides within the restrictor component) and bingo! – mini Niagara.

Of note, what you see below is not the aerator – you know, that little screen that serves to shape the water flow into something uniform and otherwise respectable? No. It’s indeed merely a flow restrictor. The gray-colored aerator portion may be reinserted into the faucet to do its job.

“Remove This.” Author image.

This Pfister “Karci” in brushed nickel is the same model I installed downstairs last year and another thing I like besides its smart appearance, functionality and spot-resist finish is its neato pop-up or push-to-seal drain – I tell customers at the home improvement that once you experience getting rid of that pesky stopper assembly with its control rod and clips and ball seal – ugh – you will never go back. They look nicer in the sink basin, too. Oh, and no damn disgusting plumber’s putty, the legacy of which, as I just experienced in replacing the Kohler unit that I had in place before, is a sludgy, filthy, grimy and otherwise hideous mess.

Frustratingly but not surprisingly, however, as soon as I’d finished the install and ran the faucet full blast for a time the damn drain plugged up – completely blocked! So, I let the water fill up the sink until it poured into the overflow (so as to further clear the overflow chamber that was harboring spurious plumber’s putty I couldn’t reach) and then worked on snaking the damn thing. This stopper design must be unscrewed for removal while I’ve noticed some others in the store utilize silicone o-rings as seals – you just yank the thing out. Anyway, after some “convincing” I was able to get the snake deep into the plumbing, past the trap, past the wall coupling and into the extension that leads to the stack pipe. I’ve probably got enough snake to reach the stack pipe itself and frankly I think that’s where most of my shower and sink drain clogs have occurred. Solidified soaps and toothpaste and nameless other personal care products gradually build up and commingle in unholy ways with hair, yuck, it’s a nasty reality in drain maintenance. But I’m convinced that more flow helps drains remain clear – water possesses abrasive qualities and significant mechanical inertia. Slow flow only begets slower flow.

“Pop-up Drain.” Author image.

***

What’s the point? Of writing, that is. I’m asking myself this the past few days. Witty, intellectual, engaging. These are the kind words that a reader, L.S., shared with me regarding Time Crime. Such a description is probably exactly the best that I could hope for with TC1 and it establishes a tribe of at least one. And one is a considerable distance beyond zero. However, in terms of commerce, as the zero sales days wind themselves out again into weeks and statistical obscurity undermines my efforts at professionalizing my writing, I have to keep questioning whether what I’m doing makes any sense beyond having satisfied a one-off fantasy, common to so many of us, of having published a book.

I hope you keep writing. Thanks L.S. Words indeed fail to express my gratitude. I hope I keep writing, too. We require so very little, I’m living proof, yet skirting so closely beside the brink of categorical obscurity for a year nevertheless begins to seem, in a word, foolhardy. One feels a fool for banging away at something that seems doomed to occupy an absurdly tiny niche and that costs so much money to produce. A thing that fails to pay its own way cannot be regarded in professional terms as anything but indeed a failure. Subsidizing a thing has its merits. Bollingen Foundation, when it existed (it seems like something out of a dream), did something to support scholars and art-crafters, early on publishing J. Campbell, for example (which is how I came to know of it), but only by way of the incomprehensible resources of the Mellon fortune.

Aside: For further reading on the Bollingen Foundation, I highly recommend William McGuire’s Bollingen: An Adventure in Collecting the Past (1982):

https://smile.amazon.com/Bollingen-Adventure-Collecting-Updated-General/dp/0691099510/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=bollingen+foundation&qid=1612984311&s=books&sr=1-3

Incomprehensible resources? Today, when we are told that Jeff Bezos is worth in excess of a trillion dollars, the Mellon riches perhaps seem relatively modest. Nevertheless, they have been in place for 175 years or so. According to a 2014 article in Forbes, the Mellon fortune stood at $12B, ranking the family as the 19th mostly wealthiest at the time, richer than the Rockefellers and Kennedys combined. Nowadays? Who cares? There is always somebody richer. Meanwhile, I assume the Mellons are doing fine.

Paul Mellon’s grandfather, Judge Thomas Mellon, “was an Irish immigrant whose life could best be characterized in his own words: ‘The normal condition of man is hard work, self-denial, acquisition and accumulation; and as soon as his descendants are freed from the necessity of such exertion they begin to degenerate sooner or later in both body and mind.‘”1 The article asks, “How did the Mellons come to acquire such wealth?”

In what could be called the height of the building of [the] Mellon empire, Andrew Mellon, Paul’s father, controlled major percentages of a number of industries: Gulf Oil, the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa), Carborundum (garbage disposals, refrigeration, air-conditioning, among others), Koppers (tar, asphalt, piston rings, railroad ties, coke ovens and blast furnaces), and the National Bank & Trust Co. (which became Mellon National Bank). These were the Mellon’s “five gems,” the largest fortune ever passed from a father to a son.

https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/mellon-paul

It somehow helps keep me focused and grounded to remind myself how things are, which is to say how fundamentally different things are than what they appear outside the engine room, as it were, of this world. America isn’t all the wealth in the world, to be sure, but if you examine just the Mellons you get a good picture, I’d venture to suggest, of where the world’s money comes from (give or take a particular technology or raw natural resource) and how few people have historically been in possession of most of it. Poke around on the web and you find that it’s generally agreed that 1% of the world’s wealthiest people own half of the world’s wealth. And as I said, you must regard within the context of history, which is to say that this is nothing new.

Meanwhile, if today’s population is 7.8B it stands that 78M folks own half of everything that is. Seventy-eight million people sounds like a lot of people. It isn’t. It may indeed be a lot of books, if they all bought a copy of TC1, for example, but people? The continents are practically bursting with ’em. And your salary or your hourly wage isn’t anything in comparison to the $100M each (if we employ an average and if my math is correct) these folks take in.

“The normal condition of man is hard work, self-denial, acquisition and accumulation; and as soon as his descendants are freed from the necessity of such exertion they begin to degenerate sooner or later in both body and mind.”2 So said Judge Thomas Mellon. Subsequently, the Mellons deemed primarily responsible for propagating the family fortune were caricatured by a biographer, William Hoffman in 1974:

Old Judge Mellon, grasping, bigoted, narrow-minded. Andrew, shrewd, unprincipled, powerful. Paul, cultured, lazy, hedonistic.

Ibid.

Meanwhile, if you believe that this country is a democracy where each person has an equal voice and vote, well, I don’t believe any of us really believe that. Our situation is best described as it has always been best described, namely, that of living within an oligarchy. Politics and the media are not free but rather owned and directed, mostly behind the scenes of course, by the wealthy folks who own the constituent parts. This isn’t a new thing. Read your history. Or your mythology.

Who cares? What’s my point? Only that one’s perspective is enlarged when we consider both how things ought to be and how things are, together. And then understanding that the two shall never, by way of human nature, get much beyond our play-of-opposites predicament. What to do? Simply get on with what you’re good at. Play to your talents and do your best to transform them into strengths. Be who you are. You might inherit untold wealth. You may never earn a dime. Meanwhile, you’ve been born with talents and nothing else, in the end, matters. Money certainly isn’t everything. I used to make two and a half times more per hour than I do now. And I paid for those earnings in all manner of unsightly ways.

Yes, money makes the world go round but I would suggest that if you can earn enough to live beyond what Kundalini yoga refers to as the first three chakras, namely, survival, security and sex, so that you have time and space physically and psychologically to address an expanded humanity – that of your heart – you’ve won something precious. So be it.

Authors, then. We don’t make money and never will, statistically, at least. Which returns me, within the context of my own humble existence, to the initial idea: what’s the point? Well, it’s nothing more or less than to make my contribution. And if I get lucky I’ll have the experience of being more or less properly alive along the way. I read somewhere that Paul Mellon himself said something to the effect that every man seeks to attach himself to something eternal. There you have your reference to mythos, I’d say.

From the latest issue of Locus:

The business of publishing can wear you down, over time. I have watched a good many of my peers publish a book or two and disappear from the genre or from writing all together. I’ve seen debuts who got massive advances struggle to finish a third book that underperforms, and who never come back from it. Others are not waylaid so much by disappointment and disaster as from the simple revelation that writing a novel or two was plenty enough, and they have no interest in a writing career and of the trappings of it. Conversely, I’ve seen writing peers I thought were middling achieve phenomenal success and fame….

As I have learned, it is not the technically most skilled writers who stay in this game. It is the most persistent, who have nurtured and lucked into strong support systems, who carry with them a grimly hopeful anticipation of the future.

Kameron Hurley, “How to Survive a Decade in Publishing,” Locus: The Magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Field, Issue 721, Vol. 86, No. 2, February 2021, 23. https://subscribers.locusmag.com/content/buy-february-2021

If you write, take heart. If you no longer write and nevertheless read this, likewise take heart. Which is to say, follow your heart. Even if it means that you experience your place in this world as something more tenuous, fleeting and ultimately humble than you ever thought it could be. Your talents are what they are and I can tell you that running away from them merely delays the inevitable. Think of it as your duty, in personal mythological terms, to express them, come what may.

What would your seventeen-year-old self say if you met yourself now? I can’t recall where and when (long ago) I heard this question posed but it has stuck with me. It’s a good one, at least for us dreamers, I think. Mine would be understatedly approving. Here’s a novel and I’m editing the next one. No riches? No fame? No best seller? No film adaptation? Nope. Not yet, anyway. But we’d value the novel and the wholehearted effort required and it would perhaps define the continuity of our shared perspective and expectation; our stance, the core of our otherwise unwavering faith in what could be, in the best of things and our place within the Mystery of it all.


1. https://www.learningtogive.org/resources/mellon-paul

2. Ibid.


Home Safe. Or, the Transmigration of the Scythian Boss

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Materials for the Study of Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art: A Record of Tradition & Continuity. Author image.

Safe and sound. I received all the volumes and individual books as described, in very good condition, as close to fine as can be expected, really, given that only imperfection is the fading and mild discoloration of the bindings. Otherwise, this entire publishing enterprise by Carpenter, published privately via his wife’s Rock Foundation (she inherited her portion of the Schlumberger oil equipment fortune) seems almost an impossibly monstrous thing: literally too physically large and heavy to accommodate ease of use. I knew this before I bought it, of course, having borrowed it via interlibrary loan (and recalling that there are only 600 copies originally in existence) but, really, I would have advised publishing this in the style of, say, an old fashioned, print version of the Encyclopedia Britannica or something similar. Which is to say using a smaller typeface and smaller images, all more densely formatted on the page so as to, well, make this thing smaller. Sure, I understand the unlimited funds type of attitude that inspires folio sized books and slipcases and all that but, frankly, it just gets in the way when you’re trying to work with it. And, yes, the Campbell/Zimmer Art of Indian Asia has similar issues if only in two volumes. And of note, beside Materials, if you look closely, I’ve placed Campbell’s Historical Atlas, also folio sized. So be it.

Materials for the Study of Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art: A Record of Tradition & Continuity. How to reasonably reference this absurdly unwieldly title in my discussion? An acronym, otherwise routinely sufficient, would hardly suffice for the title. My only recourse is to truncate the thing as Materials.[1] For citations, I’ll employ the following nomenclature, namely, Vol:Book, page. So be it.

The irony, inevitably a savage one, is that both Carpenter and Schuster, having been infected with their PhDs early in life, and in spite of the glimpses each provides of having surpassed the symptoms, inevitably suffered from what I hereafter refer to as PhD Disease (PHDD), the diagnosis of which would require a dull monograph of its own to fully explicate. But in short, its major symptom is a pathological obsession with the illusion of one’s own objectivity and, oftentimes, a poisonous compulsion to dismiss out of hand any published interpretation outside that of the original field researcher. The result? I offer a review of the anthropologist Dorothy Lee’s Freedom and Culture (1959) by David French:

The title of this selection of essays by Dorothy Lee reflects the two major facets of her writing: a concern with human problems and a utilization of a broad concept of culture to describe and highlight human variability. In view of the scattered and obscure sources from which they were reprinted, very few anthropologists will ever have seen her essays that employ anthropological data to explore questions of individual autonomy, the joy of participation, equality of opportunity, freedom, responsibility, and other matters likely to concern us more as citizens than as scholars and scientists. In fact, the book is an appropriate one for a thoughtful person of any occupation who has these concerns.

Except for her Wintu fieldwork and her early experience in Greece, Dr. Lee relies on the writings of others. These days one often hears of “Method” actors, who live their parts; she is a “Method” anthropologist….

Having insights is laudable; one is usually convinced by a given essay and delighted with it as well. Furthermore, there is no doubt about Dr. Lee’s diligence in attempting to surmount presuppositions derived from her own culture. As with certain writings of Ruth Benedict, however, the reader may have no way of knowing whether a particular passage really contains a valid insight or not. She does not document her writings extensively; she does not present all of her reasoning.

David French, review of Freedom and Culture by Dorothy Lee as it appeared within American Anthropologist, Issue 62, 1960, 1067-68.

Matters likely to concern us more as citizens than as scholars and scientists. Dr. Lee relies on the writings of others. She is a “Method” anthropologist. Disparagements all, of course. And I’m compelled to ask: (1) How it is that we can ever be a scientist without also being a citizen? – the implication, a little frightening I must say, is that a scientist isn’t fully human. (2) Of what use is writing if a serious scholar isn’t allowed to reference it? – we all can’t spend our time in the field, after all, it’s a different job to fetch the data versus interpret and articulate it. (3) As humans and citizens aren’t we necessarily imprisoned, to some extent, within our cultural perspective – isn’t it ultimately insurmountable – and what would be wrong with that if it allows us to project ourselves into that of another? That last one was three questions, sorry.

Inevitably, encountering a victim of PHDD invokes a sense of being between a rock and a hard place; between the devil and the deep blue sea; of being trapped within a catch-22. All the cliché analogies apply. And the sense of having the life sucked out things, to disinvest everything of its intuitive immediacy, if it possesses it, its vibe, its mystery and its zeal. The cart is being put before the horse, the world is a topsy turvy mess of impossible anxiety-inducing nonsense and nothing suffices. Imagine being a person like this. How to proceed? Teach. Teach what? It simply doesn’t matter because nobody will be listening.

The fact is that people, even PhDs, are people. As such, we are the stuff of mythos and to that we exclusively respond. Patterns of Culture? (Ruth Benedict). Patterns that Connect? Yes, but it misses the most interesting point. Nobody creates an image with the intention of connecting. The connection is not the driving force. It is not the muse. Any sense of connection comes after the fact of the aesthetic arrest. We are gripped or we are not. We create an image that affects us. Or, if we’re incapable of that, we seek out affecting images rendered by others. It’s just that simple.

Carl Schuster apparently was keen to discern between so-called folk art and what he termed palace art (1:1, 17). The former he preferred as somehow more authentic; more directly connected to its original intention, even if that intention had long since been lost. The other he regarded as diluted, contrived or false – pornographic in Joycean terms in the sense that it is intended to make us do something. I’m interpreting this within the context, of course, of my own interests and biases. Hence, I won’t go any further to here to argue the merits or demerits of any of the zillions of anthropologists past and present who would argue all this further, which is to say interminably. If, as Carpenter suggests, Schuster did not abide by and could not be labeled according to the “[p]ast foolishness by popularizers” who provided “labels of derision: Diffusion, Pyschic Unity, Universals, Archetypes, etc.” then I’m not at all sure what in hell the man was on about.

Carl Schuster’s primary interests were patterns of organization underlying traditional arts. To discover such patterns, he turned from historical analysis to pattern recognition. This meant foreswearing context in favor of an unflinching look at the designs themselves.

Carl Schuster; Edmund Carpenter, Patterns that Connect: Social Symbolism in Ancient & Tribal Art, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1996), 9.

Insert exasperated sigh. The use of the term “art” or “arts” within the context of cultural imagery that was created prior to our modern understanding of the term as implying art-for-art’s-sake drives me to distraction and coming from anthropologists it’s especially frustrating. They ought to know better that all imagery is not art. That is to say, art as we understand it today implies a composition intended to render an artist’s vision and an audience to view it for its own sake as such. Mythological imagery, on the other hand, implies symbology and the utility that comes with it. Mythological imagery has a function entangled with its contemplation. Hence, Carl Schuster and Edmund Carpenter, when they reference meaning and intelligence and anything to do with patterns that connect are experiencing both the window to transcendence – the aesthetic arrest that J. Campbell identifies – and the utility that mandates a practical function – clothing, food dish, weapon, container for remains, house, boat, status symbol, doll, object of my affection/attachment, what have you. Which reveals that nothing (apparently in contrast to modern life which is full of irreverently rendered imagery) when it had to do with the prehistoric or paleolithic or Aurignacian “modern” human was ever crafted for pure utility. Antiquity might be defined as life entangled comprehensively with symbology, hence mythology, for better or worse. As soon as we began discerning the difference between a thing’s pedestrian utility and its cosmic utility, say, I think we became modern.

Meanwhile, the above was in fact Carpenter’s second try at describing Schuster’s primary interest, which Cammann described as the study of folk symbols. “He believed,” suggests Cammann, “in keeping his findings on a ‘high scientific plane,’ avoiding discussions of the meanings which interested him so deeply, feeling that it was almost impossible to explain these except to others whose thoughts ran in the same channels” (Materials…, 16).

Meanings which interested him so deeply. Of course they did. If he suffered from PHDD at least it never managed to kill him. Carpenter, in his first try at describing Schuster’s interest:

Like the riddles he liked to decipher, Carl Schuster’s writings are not as they first appear. They first suggest a dilettante interest in the diffusion of art motifs. Actually, his interest lay in the intelligence behind man’s earliest iconography. To decode this ancient system, he traced a memory link from the present back to paleolithic times. He was not the first to attempt this, but he was the first to succeed.

He saw language as a great echo-chamber, preserving the past in deeply-buried metaphors. He was particularly interested in silent assumptions underlying art and in rules obeyed without understanding. From these elusive sources he decoded two ancient iconographies. [I assume Carpenter is here referring to (1) The so-called Sunbird which possess at its center a circle or hole that symbolizes the Sky Door leading to Heaven (1:1, 42), and (2) “the significance of the ‘hocker’ or squatting figure with ‘joint-marks’’ which depicts an ancestral figure excerpted from genealogical pattern (Ibid)].

Carl held the old-fashioned belief that a son learns a great deal from his father and a daughter learns even more from her mother. The power of tradition, he felt, was especially strong among nomadic tribesmen, in the way, say, mothers taught daughters to make fur clothing. In fact, the arts of native women proved to be his primary sources, providing him with his strongest evidence of continuity in cultural history (1:1, 33).

All of this rings both true and false. True because both Carpenter and Schuster, despite themselves, in my opinion are pursuing the origins of consciousness, they are researching Time and Mind, they are concerned with penetrating the essence of who we are both personally and culturally by way of affecting images, hence by way of mythological symbol, hence by way of metaphor. With all this I agree.

Falsity? It’s more akin to naivete. On behalf of great scholars? Yes. Specifically, I do not understand the idea, nay, the possibility of an absence context. I’m one who believes we can never successfully picture, within our mind’s eye or elsewhere (on the page or canvass, for example), the absence of a thing. Try as we might, by imagining the lack of a thing we imagine the thing itself. Refuse to choose, and you’ve thereby made a choice, and all that. As such, all images, intentionally symbolic or overtly utilitarian express a context; otherwise, they are rendered unintelligible as images. And no image is unintelligible if it was made by Man. Scholarship at its best, then, is the search for and revealing of proper context.

Schuster, arguably and paradoxically in terms of what Carpenter suggests, was both convinced that context could indeed be lost or permanently, irretrievably forgotten and at the same time indeed sought “the intelligence behind man’s earliest iconography.” So that nothing Man creates can ever really be forgotten. Jung would argue perhaps that the context is within us, always, as archetypes. I would argue that Schuster and Carpenter and Jung are expressing the same idea while perhaps insisting that they aren’t. But then I’m a mythologist (novelist), comparative mythologist, mythographer and I study the psychology of religion. So I believe my context is as comprehensive as it can get. Barring some new revelation of consciousness.

Life is inevitably an interpretation, a heuristic hermeneutic that is fueled by intuition and inevitably reveals the entanglement of our subjective and objective capabilities. The world is both what we make it and what we cannot unmake of it. It is active educated imagination in Northrup Frye’s terminology. It is a true fiction. Our experience of life is both an immaculate reflection and an inevitable distortion. But it is all of a context. Once cured of PHDD, even a scholar can perceive this. Mythology is what it is to be human, nothing more or less. “When in doubt,” suggests Robert Fripp, “reference tradition.” There you have Schuster, I’d say. “When still in doubt,” Fripp continues, “reference experience.” There exists Carpenter and perhaps Jeffrey Kripal. “When still in doubt, reference the body.” Here we’d evoke J. Campbell and C. Jung. And of course lists of others as appropriate.

It amounts to a naivete regarding the supremacy of mythology, of the inescapably fourfold function or phenomenon of being human. Schuster and Carpenter both suffered in their mild way from PHDD but the contradictions they communicate by way of their work (and lives) are merely examples of the same symptoms being overcome by the same self-cure. Live a mythologically oriented life, one attuned to the symbols, to one’s affecting images in personal and cultural terms and the predicament, the Mystery, becomes if not completely intelligible, then at least a wholehearted experience of being properly alive. Wikipedia provides a helpful little sampling of Schuster’s interests:

  • Continuous-line drawings, including such related forms as string figures, mazes, and labyrinths. These art forms were related, in turn, to joint marks.
  • The design of fur garments using a technique of small, interlocking skins. The resulting designs were later transferred to other media where they formed a kind of primitive heraldry, serving to identify group membership and the social standing of the owner.
  • Crossed figures (human or animal) engaged in primordial copulation at the center of the world, representing the foundation of society and the cosmos. The point of intersection of these figures was often indicated by hatching or a checkerboard pattern, used for divination and gaming in later periods. These ideas can be connected to the origin of writing systems and to early mathematical ideas.
  • Y-posts, notched sticks, notched disks, rosaries, and other mnemonic devices, where the notching represented generations. These forms were related to counting systems and heavenly ladders which, in turn, were tied into the cosmological system as a means of returning to heaven by retracing one’s ancestry back to the First One.
  • Finger amputation and cannibalism, which related to ideas of rebirth and kinship.

Whether or not I’ll eventually rediscover all this within Materials as conclusions that Carpenter has proffered isn’t the point. When I borrowed this set via interlibrary loan some years ago I recall being frustrated both by Carpenter’s interpretations, however tentative, and the hard fact that he was indeed popularizing (or attempting to) when he said he wasn’t. PHDD. I would expect him to come to speculative conclusions because the images are compelling. You can’t look at this stuff and not ask yourself what they could possibly mean and if any of it is related, diffused, comparable. Because it goddamn is. Ultimately, Carpenter endured exactly the criticism he seemed keen to levy at folks like J. Campbell and C. Jung. (If only he’d managed to also acknowledge the irony then I’d be happier to indulge him and sympathize). Perhaps by way of the following he felt the irony went without saying.

A friend of mine, who kindly corrected errors & misspellings in Chapter 17, added: “I really find this type of ‘butterfly collecting’ objectionable. I would be hard pressed to say anything good about it – I find such comparisons farfetched and, indeed, uninteresting. I cannot see how it gets us anywhere. There is no analysis, no evidence, only speculation that shortly turns to fact. Each time a question is posed, my answer is, ‘No.” Although it is stated that the intention is morphological, the outcome smacks of diffusion from (ultimately) a paleolithic source. At the end I only sigh and say, ‘So what.’ I suppose this will upset you, but I suspect most anthropologists will agree with me, unless they just want to be kind (3:3, 450).

And here we find echoes of our other PHDD victim, David French. But enough diagnosis.

Materials, then. What to make of it? What to do with it? It’s in a good place here in my house and within my reach, that’s all I can say. Carl Schuster was all about joint-marks – he wrote a monograph on them, “ Joint-marks: A Possible Index of Cultural Contact Between America, Oceania and the Far East” – and on this at least we agree, the importance of them, that is. I am still driven to examine the transmigration of this component within mythologically potent imagery that culminates in the Northwest Coast versions. Why is it that we are compelled to render anatomical joints (both animal and human) in this manner? Mere stylistic affectation? Why did the practice not only endure but evolve? Why did the imagery indeed migrate from Asia across the Atlantic Ocean to the shores of the New World? Did it indeed have paleolithic origins? What is it about Northwest Coast imagery that explodes with compellingly entangled mythological dynamism?

Belt Plaque with a Monster Attacking a Horse. Gold; hammered and soldered, inlaid, 4th-3rd century BC, Southern Siberia, State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, published in Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia, St. John Simpson & Svetlana Pankova, eds., BP Exhibition, The British Museum, (Thames & Hudson: London, 2017), frontispiece.

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Note: A so-called “boss” here refers to a design element, namely, in this example, the joint-marks.

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Meanwhile, begin with your affecting images and move on from there, let them work on you as J. Campbell suggested, sometimes that’s all we can do. It’s a heuristic hermeneutic that I abide by because it provides me the experience of being properly alive. That, and shoving some of this stuff into my sci-fi novels, all in good fun. Serious good fun. Meanwhile, genealogical symbolism in the “hocker?” Patterns that connect in this way? I’m still digesting most of what Schuster managed to collect besides what he managed to imply, at least by way of Carpenter’s wholeheartedly authentic presentation. Inevitable criticism notwithstanding, Carpenter predicted that folks would be studying this stuff and here I am one of them. Thanks Carl. Thanks Ted. And to my readers, thanks for reading, see you next time.


[1] Patterns That Connect, Carpenter’s title for the single volume “greatest hits” version also fails because it both restricts and over-expands the topic. Much better would have been to reference what Carpenter himself interpreted as Schuster’s “favorite field, which might be called the Study of Folk Symbols” (1:1, 14). There you have it. My suggestion? Indigenous Symbols. What does “indigenous” refer to? After all, it can be argued that there is always something or somebody that came before…. Anyway, you have to keep it short and it has to be compelling. Otherwise a project is presented as hopelessly academic from the start. One of the things a book title possesses the opportunity to do is indeed symbolize the contents of the damn book. J. Campbell had a knack for it but only after he’d begun with painfully pedestrian working titles. How to Read a Myth (for The Hero With a Thousands Faces), for example or, in the case of The Masks of God series, The Basic Mythologies of Mankind. Both titles describe and represent but neither symbolizes, let alone affects us in any vital manner. An image is either affecting or it isn’t just as the mythologies they seek to express is or isn’t.