Awareness that all living creatures must die has different effects on different people. Some just deny it. Some look for a magic formula that will let them escape to a different world. Some put their energy into their children as a form of immortality. Some try to get themselves into a position where they can at least improve the quality of the bit of life we actually have. A few want to become famous so their reputation will survive.
I’m out of sync with my family generation as well as my neighbors. Also, some people note that “humanities” is a shrinking, discredited discipline, much battered by scientific discoveries like the genetic origins of humans and the cosmic scale of life of any kind. The result of this change in the Big Picture, plus the fact of being old, female, poor, educated, and living in a small prairie town is both an advantage (no one really understands what I’m doing or why) and a disadvantage (I must be up to no good). The last thing that they suspect is that I work ten hour days seven days a week and love it.
Immigrants hold tightly to the past as emotional sustenance and a general principle: family and heritage is everything. The indigenous must reach back past tragedy to a life so far away that it is hard not to romanticize, but Blackfeet at least are still on the land that shaped their ancestors. I’m choosing both approaches, but with this difference: “family” is not just living things but the planet itself, and the land is the language of felt values, recorded in the whole body as emotion and story. It is all a fabulous coded weaving.
My female friends and relatives, esp. those who are my age, devote themselves to their biological family. A few are interested in genealogy, but their real agenda is the welfare of what are now their children and grandchildren. Family is the meaning of life. Many of the women have devoted themselves to their husband’s work or, remaining single, to institutions. In the Sixties I did both, but mostly dedicated myself to Bob Scriver’s work. His body of work is still not studied or valued because it has been seen as a way of making money: buy it up, hoard it, then inflate the value and sell. This is what the art wheeler-dealers do.
Since that time I’ve been barely earning a living while tending my own talents, which is a partly a matter of accumulating knowledge, partly increasing skill at writing (one of the skills being the habit of work), and partly building the part of my brain that sees humanities and scientific patterns. The parts of the brain that are used will grow in strength. Learning is not done as a check list, but as a gymnasium. Currently as a nation we are hypnotized by checklists, convinced that filling in bubbles on test sheets will tell us who counts -- or failing that, prizes and certificates to use as indicators. But beyond all that we depend on commodification: the numbers of commerce. How many people bought tickets to the movie, how many people bought books (or ebooks), how much money do the students of certain colleges make over a lifetime.
I’m past all that. Now I have created a instrument in my skull. So what do I do with it? In some ways this blogging is weaving Penelope’s shroud. You remember the story about Odysseus’ wife left at home, putting off her suitors by saying she must finish weaving a shroud -- which she unravels at night. Maybe long-form serious blogging is like that -- weaving and weaving that comes undone in the dark. No more significant than all the bizzybizzybizzy stuff online. Until I get it printed and a cover put on -- suddenly in many minds it exists.
The phrase that comes to me is “a body of work.” Not a shroud but the actual body. I threw the idea out to a couple of women friends with husbands who understand the term. Both are academic, one in photography and one a scholar of Robinson Jeffers. Both have been as much cramped as supported by our Procrustean academic practices. Rob Scott is gone now. But his “body of work” is gradually coming back to consciousness, floating up to the surface. The photography professor is younger, still working.
Years ago at the Montana Festival of the Book I was jolted by a publisher who said he simply wouldn’t publish any work by an author who wouldn’t get out there and promote the work for him. He offered as a model an old woman who had written a memoir and who stubbornly read from it at some festival where there was a cold rain and no shelter. She stood blue and shivering, determined. That’s his idea of a fine writer. He didn’t even fetch an umbrella to hold over her. To many publishers and much of the public, writers are simply product. Not real people. Valued only by usefulness and profit.
But authors have been too dependent on those who exploit them, believing praise, obeying agents, pandering to the readers. It’s a genre industry, churning. I find it repugnant and I eschew it. (I love that word: “eschew” -- it implies teeth.)
So what’s my alternative? It took me a while to realize that creating a body of work is a time art but that one should actually end up with “product.” Something that can be shared with others. But it should not be dependent on the approval of the others, who are responders rather than owners. I used to have a co-writer, but we have evolved into something like co-muses. The old pattern was Greek: the achieving man with a hovering female. When I try to think of a more modern example of co-muses, I come up with Patti Smith and Mapplethorpe, because their very location on the edge of society was part of their interdependence. In fact, they were part of a cluster, a creative community. Their bodies of work did come to be admired but were largely created without any approval or subsidy. They were not just performance but also participation. The sexual valence of their nonconformity was a protection.
In our times we pretend to have a Greek regard for bodies, but actually we want to be the Furies, to tear them apart in Dionysiac storms of emotion, both desire and destruction. I watch law and order procedurals a lot in the evening as they struggle with the conflicts between justice and mercy, culture and instinct. (Last night featured bloody photos of guts cut open to get at condoms full of drugs. Tonight it was a prosecutor at her first autopsy, handed the liver of a 12-year-old girl.) In the daytime I watch the abstract think pieces coming out of EDGE and TED and read all sorts of material about science and culture, but mostly science. Then I work some more.
There’s an old story about how human life is like a bird that flies into a lighted room through an open window and then flies back out the other side. (Chuck Gaines, a UU minister, used to say it was like a flying fish leaping out of the ocean of existence and then falling back in -- he may have been quoting.) Then there is a contemporary variation, probably drawn from experience, of a writer working under a light at a table in an unscreened room with open windows. A bat came zooming in, after the bugs under the light. Okay. But then it came back for more bugs. And again. And again. By this time the writer was tired of the distractions. He got a tennis racket and the next time the bat came through, he whacked it back out the window. It didn’t return. He neither closed the window nor looked outside to see whether he’d killed it. He just went on working.
A really good Gestalt guide, asked to interpret this story as a dream, would not say, “Oh, you are the bat and society is the racket and darkness is death and the writer is God.” The guide would say, “Be each part of the story and free associate with it. Be the bat, be the racket, be the window, be the lamp, be the writer -- be the writing. Now write it. Then you will have a body of work, endangered though it might be."