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Wednesday, April 26, 2000
By Paul Ford
I is an intellectual type, when I don't watch myself. Ah well.
Author's note: please forgive the namedropping; it was how the conversation happened.
Friend: Like in the Village Voice.
Paul: I get so angry at them. Was there a need for months of coverage of club kids? And the music reviews or film reviews—
Friend: Every one begins with the writer talking about themself, 12 paragraphs at least.
Paul: Something like, "I heard my first Choke the Wranglers album when I was 14, strung out on crystal meth in the back of a bar in Alphabet City. The barkeep was a 56-year old Russian emigre and..."
Friend: And on and on.
Paul: You remember those articles on club kids? Michael Alig. These people are disgusting. Peter Gatien. They're on the cover of the Voice, over and over. Why is that a story?
[Paul Auster is mentioned, but I have deleted the passage for reasons difficult to explain.]
Paul: Did you know that Paul Auster shops at Barney's? There's an article posted in the humidor. It said that Barney's is the model for Smoke.
Friend: Did you see Smoke?
Paul: No. It said Paul Auster's shopped there for 15 years.
Friend: Lou Reed's in it. He's good. Madonna's in it. Michael J. Fox. He's actually funny as hell.
Paul: I went up there yesterday. I found a office supply store. I don't want to go to Staples anymore or any chain stores. OfficeMax. Barnes and Noble. I can't stand it. "Court St. Office Supplies." It's run by Orthodox Jews, with the sidelocks, and stuff piled everywhere, pretty cheap. It's a block from Barney's. I bought some file folders to send out manuscripts. I went into Barney's and got two Punch Churchills yesterday. I'm saving them for when we get to Bloom in Ulysses. We'll smoke them. And some H. Upmann ascots, 10 for $10, and I got the last box of the little Ashton's, there weren't any more.
Friend: I like H. Upmann's. I smoke those all weekend. But those Ashtons. That little bit of pepper in them. Paul Auster's last book is about a dog. I think he's becoming a cocksmoker. I mean, who cares about a dog?
Paul: Yeah, there have been enough books about dogs.
Friends: It's bullshit. It's boring, like Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley. Jim Jarmusch movies are so boring you want to bring a TV to watch something else. Hal Hartley wants to be Godard, so he puts in these scenes. But French movies, you don't expect anything to happen, and it's interesting when something does. It's a relief from all the coffee-drinking.
Paul: American movies, you need a big lizard to tear down the buildings. I kind of like that, though.
Friend: Hal Hartley films are moving along and then all of a sudden he slows down time, you feel like you're being frozen in your seat. You're like, God damn, don't do this. Coitus interruptus. Your dick falls off.
(We walk in silence for a few seconds.)
Friend (cont): Auster has a cool setup. That's where I heard about Schimmelpennincks. He goes to this room he rents to write. There's a piece of wood on cinder blocks and a typewriter and a bare bulb and some Schimmelpennincks. Nothing else. He just smokes Schimmelpennincks and writes all day. That's it. [Further comments about Auster deleted.]
Paul: Maybe he should switch to Ashtons. (Pause for new thought.) Sometimes these movies impersonate art film, there's a difference between a movie that impersonates art film tropes and a movie that actually aspires to something. Like it's not enough to just have small sets and long silences and bad relationships. But people think they're saying something with those long silences, that those scenes of people's eyelids build character. These houses, that house is nice. Look at that. People take such care.
Friend: How do you think we'll remember living here? I think we'll remember sitting on the roof smoking cigars.
Paul: I think we'll be amazed that we lived in such small apartments.
Friend: I won't miss much. I'll miss you, but the rest of this shit I won't miss.
Paul: I won't miss those motherfuckers in the pizza shop. I won't miss heroin blood on the floor. (Pause) The thing with the Voice. I've been thinking this out, but I've been reading some criticism, and I've been reading The Economist, and the thing with The Economist is that the articles are so clear, and they don't have bylines, and they're written with such a grounding in the facts that you can make a decision, you can make a somewhat objective decision. You can use them, where the Voice and most other new journalism, or Salon, on the Web, you read it and you try to come to a conclusion, it's exhausting, they don't vie you knowledge, they just give you more and more context and promise that the truth will be delivered if you keep reading every week. Just to figure out what they think you have to peel out the author, you have to strip them out of the piece, they're not brave enough to have opinions without biography.
And you can't get to it, I can't read that stuff. I get too tired, I feel bad about myself, I lose my identity. I read the Voice or New York Press or Salon and I can't internalize what they're saying because it feels so soft and empty. I can't swallow it. I just choke it back up. Every article is wrapped in this cult-of-personality castor oil. Or.
They just dictate to you, they tell you. There's this, I think of it as a, and I think there's a critical study, there's work you could do with it, but a Rhetoric of Celebrity, a way that these people construct their texts—texts, sorry (rolls eyes) — so that they are impenetrable to anything but adoration and sympathy. Good writing doesn't put filters up, but they do, they keep saying, "well, I'm a woman and I've experienced this," or "my own experience in postcolonial criticism led me to think that" or they write about their sex lives, they stand like seraphim or whateverphim over their own words, you have to get past the flaming pens to find out what they mean. And I know if I met them at a party I'd like them but so little out there is for me, it just makes me more lonely.
They're not brave. But it's a rhetoric of aspiration, of needing so much attention, of needing to be watched and seen, and to not allow anyone to question that, you can't question that fundamental issue. Or not even aspiration, attention seeking, a rhetoric of attention-seeking, is what works its way into most journalism.
Friend: Why is that?
Paul: I think it's...we're so permeated. I don't know. I think about the great essayists, I mean I think about Montaigne especially, and they were brave enough to risk all their ideas, to not hold back. The Voice writers, and it's not just them, it's the trend with most things....
It's, maybe it's like this: celebrity seems to be this compromise, where you'll only get so much, you can never get it all. You look at the Internet, these computer guys take photoshop and take the famous actresses like Jennifer Hewitt or Claire Danes and add their heads to naked bodies so that they can get it all, get under the clothes, because the whole thing with celebrities is you can never fill your plate, they don't offer anything but a quantity of images.
That's not quite it. I'm not there yet. But the Voice writers, they put themselves into the music review, they put themselves into the middle of it, they kind of do the same thing as the people putting the naked bodies on. They graft their own need to be somebody important into the situation, they try to crack the work of art or the story by putting themselves into it, making their eyes essential to the seeing, but then if they're going to do that well then they really have to introduce the nakedness, they have to introduce real vulnerability, or they'll lose me. Maybe they want to lose me. Maybe I'm so far from the ideal audience that it doesn't even matter. But I don't think I'm that strange. I can't be the only person feeling isolated when he reads the paper.
I don't feel isolated when I read The Daily News. Or even the Times, mostly. Real essayists, not new journalists, you don't need to see them naked because they are naked. Ulgh, that's not it. I don't know. But F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Crack-up. There's nothing held back, nothing that you need to know after you read that. Or Montaigne. Or...um. Death of a Pig or The Death of Tropmann or some of Joan Didion but not all. Or Cynthia Ozick.
What I think, my friend Jim was saying, is the Web is bad for writing because when you're done you just go do something else. It's like a newspaper, you go to the next story. When you stop reading a book you take a minute and live in the book, you say goodbye to the characters. You don't just pick up another book that second and start at page one. There's closure.
Friend: Ozick. She writes good short stories. Alexander Cockburn once included something he'd written in high school into a piece for The Nation. I mean, come on, you cocksucker.
Paul: Yeah, it can be bullshit.
Friend: I saw on Ftrain you were talking about Jerome McGann. He wrote something about the Romantics, right?
Paul: Yes, that's him, he's big on Rosetti.
Friend: What's that called?
Paul: I don't know. He wrote a bunch of books, he edited an anthology, too. I met him once. He came to a conference, I was helping to organize it, and I asked specifically for him to come. I was really into him in a way, even though I didn't get much of it. He was doing great stuff with textual criticism and technology. He was fascinating.
Friend: Did you talk to him?
Paul: No. What was I going to say? I was 20. I just wanted to listen to him. I walked him to a phone in the English department to make a call. Smart, though. I used to really want to go to UVa. (Breath, short silence.) You know, two of my professors read Ftrain.
Paul: Yeah, I can tell; their IDs show up in my logs, with the name of the English building. Which is Seidlin. Seidlin Hall. One is computer 37 and the other is 34. I know who one of them is, but not the other. It's weird. I see the names and it takes me back to the building. I think I should write something about it on the site, since they're reading, write a recursive essay called Digital Decontextualization of Reader Self-Placement: the view from the postdigital colony. But it'd be pathetic and meaningless to do so. Right. Something.
The place seems absolutely far away. But I remember the seminar room. I was a lousy student. I never read what I should have. The whole place...I got the campus bulletin, they're replacing the one hall that was great, Kanakadea hall, they're gutting it, leaving the brick but it'll all be white walls and carpets, making it into a mall, making it the Barnes and Noble. They keep asking for money but I can't support it. I can support janitorial services or books for the library but not gutting the best building, the one that rattled in the winter. It made you feel connected to more than your 4 years of college. It feels like they don't want you to remember anything. They're worried that you might come away connected. And I think about myself then, it's like, if I was 18 again I'd kill myself. Or someone should have killed me. I was a total broke-dick idiot. The professors were pretty nice, actually. I mean, if I'd had to teach myself, I would have grabbed a goddam baseball bat and made some sense of things for myself.
Friend: I was thinking that today, how it's, I'm so glad I'm older. I know for sure it's not going to get any better, so it's easier to live with.
Paul: Yeah, and you know it's your own fault.
Friend: Where is McGann? Duke?
Paul: University of Virginia. He's a cool guy; he's got a Web site. He's Distinguished Professor of Everything.
Friend: Is he with James Cargile? No, that's philosophy. But his book was good. How old is he?
Paul: Like 40-something. Not old. I don't know Cargile.
Friend: Jesus. He must have written that book on the Romantics when he was in his 30's. This course was great, grad course, we read M.H. Abrams —
Paul: The warhorse —
Friend: And Carlyle, on heroes, what is it?
Paul: Um, On Hero Worship, no, it's Heroes and Hero Worship or Heroism and. I never read it.
Friend: Duke, Jesus. That was an English department. I used to go over to their seminars to just watch.
Paul: Stanley Fish. Who else is there?
Friend: Oh, Jesus. Frederic R. Jameson, Sibylle Fischer, Barbara Hennstein Smith, Eagleton, I think, Frank Lentricchia. Lentricchia, he was kind of the bad boy of literary theory, he published a novel, he always wanted to get into a fight. He was buddies with my friend. Can you imagine putting together a thesis committee that wouldn't kill each other?
Paul: No, I can't even, I need to read more theory. I feel dull. All those Marxists. And they'd all hate each other. (Quiet for a moment.) I need to read Marx.
Friend: I can't read any more Marx. I read it. I can read Freud, I'm reading the Peter Gay biography now, and it's great, I can't stop reading it. But I can't take anymore Marx. I can't read anymore Foucalt. Freud is great.
Paul: But a lousy scientist.
Friend: He was a really respected neurologist. He read about a ton of primary source material to write this one monograph...but yeah, he had this one friend who kissed his ass, who was an ear-nose-and-throat doctor, and Freud would work around it, even though this guy was a terrible doctor, where he nearly killed this woman, she nearly bled to death, Freud said that this was because of repression, all that blood. She's bleeding, she's repressed. But he's just so fascinating.
Paul: His stuff is crazy, but it belongs to him. More philosophy than science.
Friend: Like Nietzsche. But Jesus, he speaks to me. I never get sick of it.
Paul: I used to like Jung.
Friend: I like Jung but when he gets onto the archetypes...
Paul: Yeah, see I used to like that but it's such bullshit, he just wants you to take it on faith. It's a great big diagram and all the arrows point to this box at the center, and the box says "don't ask." I need to read Foucalt. My girlfriend, my ex-girlfriend, she's reading Foucalt. I think she's reading Madness and Civilization.
Friend: Foucalt, he liked rough sex, he came to New York to give a lecture and the night before the lecture he went out and got the shit beaten out of himself, he was all fucked up and bruised.
Friend: Oh, shit, a bloody kotex. Not what I wanted to see.
Paul: Oh, fuck. Yeah, there it is.
Paul: When I was a kid the dog used to get my mom's kotex out of the trash and tear them around the house. Man you get depressed coming into a house and there's all that everywhere. And like I'd clean up if the dog got into the trash but I just can't pick up my mom's used tampons. I was 14, 15, I just couldn't, I just went into my room and pretended to not see it. (Pause)
Paul (cont): Man, we're walking around Brooklyn and we're talking about these people, all these professors. I looked at the Carnegie Mellon PhD in rhetoric today on the Web. I keep thinking I should apply. Either CMU or UVA. But it's not like I have much to bring to them. My GPA was okay but not great. And I don't really have enough background in the materials.
Friend: Yeah, but. Why would you go and do something like that? You're a good person.
Paul: No, see, and then it's like when I nearly got the job with the computer language design company in California, or when I had the job in digital branding, or the job as a copywriter. It's not what I want. It's close. Each one of them is close. Grad school is close. It's a place to think about language and words. But it's not actually what I want. I don't want to teach. Teaching's a motherfucker.
Friend: I hated teaching. You start to hate the study. You hate the students. You don't make dick.
Paul: I don't want to be a professor. You know, my father can tell an English professor on sight? He came up for my graduation, and we're in the car, and my friend's father gets out of the car in front of us. And I've met this guy before through my friend, he's a poetry professor at Rutgers, and my father looks at the guy, and says "there's an English professor." And I looked over and saw the guy and said, "yes, it is, how the hell did you know?" He said, "I just know." To me, that's terrifying that you could look so much like something, grow into the part. I don't want to look like a job. I grew up around English professors, and I wanted to be one when I was a kid. Other kids wanted to be a fireman, I said professor. And then I started to say "truck driver" when people asked me when I was 10 or 11, thinking that everyone would get the irony, that I was clearly professorial material, and no one ever looked twice. They just said, "truck driver, cool" and patted my head. I guess people don't expect kids to be ironic. Of course, now I sometimes wish I was a truck driver.
Friend: Truck driving is hard damn work. How was the guy dressed?
Paul: Brown sportcoat but no elbow patches. I mean, there wasn't a giveaway, like a pipe, or a copy of Glas or The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics under his arm, or even glasses. (Long silence.)
Paul: We should probably turn around.
Friend: Yeah, let's cross so we don't end up by that kotex again. That really...
Friend: So, listen, when are you going to finish those chapters and send them to the editor so we can smoke those Griffins? Man, I just look at them in the humidor, they're gorgeous. You got to hurry up and finish that shit.
Paul: (Shrinking) I printed a draft, I can't finish anything. I'm so late. Saw a review of a novel written by a 24-year-old reviewed today. They compared her to Dickens. I'm writing Science Fiction, right, for my big novel. Me an Asimov.
Friend: Shit, I'm 35 and I'm writing a cock-off crime story.
Paul: But you're at least done with it. You're revising. Revising, that's like a dream, like a fantasy.
Friend: That last two pages was absolute shit, it took me a month, though.
Paul: I know. And the time before last, when I read them, I was totally sick of them. But the last draft is excellent. You pulled it through. You have to know that.
Friend: I don't know what I did, though. A month for two pages.
Paul: Yeah, but you'll figure it out. You did it. You've learned and you won't have to learn again. I can't get through like that. I can't get to it.
Friend: At least you're not writing that story about being a young sensitive man in New York.
Paul: No, that's my Web site. I mean, having a "home page," it's humiliating. My friends tell me, "I tell everybody about your site," and I'm like, shit, Jesus, why would you, I mean, you know, it's like saying, "I published my own verse of verse through a vanity press." You can't give it away.
Friend: I don't know. I mean, I'm looking forward to reading your sci-fi stuff. I even read some Philip K. Dick to warm up.
Paul: I need to find the balance with work. You know how work just saps you?
People call me up and say, "great job" when I write a 4-page report on some site's Information Architecture, and I write about how the site needs a new "narrative flow and overarching brand strategy." Advertising and Web terms are like postmodernism but for businesspeople. It feels good to get the thank you, though. I mean, I write advertising, and people want to give me money and they say "thank you." The rest of the stuff you spend hours and days on something that people read in 10 minutes. It makes me feel guilty when I'm not working, pandering, trading out dignity for dollars or whatever.
Friend: I understand this, but you know better than to try to stop.
Paul: No, I'll just be back and have to start up again. I think that's it with grad school, it's such a good idea in a way, I'd have time, I'd meet some other people, but then I made as much money as a standard year's assistantship in a month, in December. So it would suck to go back to zero income. And at least with GE or KPMG or E&Y or Chase or HP or NBC or whatever they're doing something, they can point to something at the end of the day.
But then, sometimes when I think about going to a job I feel I've scraped out all but the skin from my life and if you start scraping anymore you'll just tear holes in me. I can't handle that morning rush, the impoliteness of people pushing on the train, not their impoliteness as much as my own, the way I starting shoving too and trying to get on and get a seat. I found this presentation I'd written and the top slide was "K2000: Changing to Enable Change. Coming out of the IS department to prepare us for Y2K...and beyond." I read that shit, I threw it in the trash, I realize, I'm part of the problem. I'm reading a book by Wayne Booth, this book The Company We Keep, it's an ethics of fiction. But not necessarily postmodern, he's looking for methods of examining literature as an ethical force upon the reader, criticizing it that way, which makes sense because we're all made up of stories, our heads are linked together in story-patterns. And I believe his thesis, except then I realize that I'm writing about yet another e-commerce product of absolutely no real human value, that does nothing good for people except fill their lives with more bullshit, more meaningless celebrity rhetoric, and I write that this is "the best option" and "a completely new solution" and hint that you need to know about it to be a full person. And when I see myself writing that, I know that my own ethics are shit, financially motivated shit.
Friend: You have to live, you can't forget that. I go to work every day and it's the same thing, people compliment my writing and I like that, but there's no real choice, it's hard to turn myself into a writer at night. But I can't just stay home.
Paul:I get so jealous of the 24 year old writer, she's a year younger than me and I remember even that her novel has 418 pages, it's about people in England, even the writers in the magazines I hate, they take the risks, they get their voice out. It eats me alive. I'm scared, I wonder if there isn't another book to read before I can start to really be a person. I have so little theory, I never read Samuel Johnson, I never read The Winter's Tale, I never finished Mastering Algorithms With Perl, I can't speak frankly on the economics of the Information Age, I skimmed 20 pages of Rhetoric and I honestly can't remember the difference between metonymy and meronyms.
I see myself a corner a vertice a core inside of this mess and I want to be able to write that part of it, which is why you write every day, the habit, so that when it's willing to come it comes, but. I mean I keep trying. But no matter what kind of ink you use words fade. They're not alive. They're not babies. They're little machines. Semantic nanobots.
Maybe that's it, writing simulates living, assembles enough inorganic symbols to seem chaotic enough to be like a mind. A map of language is all you need to construct a whole human being. That's AI, that's literary studies, deep structures, transformative grammars. Noam Chomsky.
You put down these symbols and publish them, and people build an artificial intelligence, a model of you in their heads, and they can ask questions of it, they can carry it with them, literature and philosophy as a portable intellectual computer.
Which is more alive, the Paul squeezed in their heads or the one doing the writing? To them, it's the one in their heads. I think if you were really good you couldn't tell, that the two would be absolutely inseperable. I worry I'll get concerned too much about that Paul-in-the-head, and end up writing those Celebrity tropes, making myself into something I'm not, writing to take off pounds, writing myself as something unique as opposed to the bag of bones punctuated by a brain that makes me up. Then, how can you know I'm not telling the lie, writing some newspapery myth of myself? I don't even know.
To prove that point, we didn't have this part of the conversation.
The buildings along Clinton St., the little library, the bodega, the cafe, are still there, you and I are walking past them, we are exchanging symbols, building models of ourselves in our own and each others minds, vibrating the air with our larynx, mentioning name after name of people we've never met but through their words, their faces, their concepts on paper.
Both celebrities, crafted human objects of fascination, symbols themselves, and others who we know simply because they followed their impulses, and it's them we seek to really know by backtracking through their words and pictures and saxophone solos. The celebrities we can draw naked, but the other ones are naked, if we just get the right angle on their music or their words. Or something like that.
I want to avoid that Celebrity trope and I want to avoid the lie-myself, but if I get rid of those two things, all the easy stories disappear, boil away, and leave this unsatisfying ending.