Donald Barthelme in The New Yorker, Dec 1, 1980:
Financially, the paper is quite healthy. The paper’s timberlands, mining interests, pulp and paper operations, book, magazine, corrugated-box, and greeting-card divisions, film, radio, television, and cable companies, and data-processing and satellite-communications groups are all flourishing, with over-all return on invested capital increasing at about eleven per cent a year. Compensation of the three highest-paid officers and directors last year was $399,500, $362,700, and $335,400 respectively, exclusive of profit-sharing and pension-plan accruals.
But top management is discouraged and saddened, and middle management is drinking too much. Morale in the newsroom is fair, because of the recent raises, but the shining brows of the copy boys, traditional emblems of energy and hope, have begun to display odd, unattractive lines. At every level, even down into the depths of the pressroom, where the pressmen defiantly wear their square dirty folded-paper caps, people want management to stop what it is doing before it is too late.
The new VDT machines have hurt the paper, no doubt about it. The people in the newsroom don’t like the machines. (A few say they like the machines but these are the same people who like the washrooms.) When the machines go down, as they do, no infrequently, the people in the newsroom laugh and cheer. The executive editor has installed one-way glass in his office door, and stands behind it looking out over the newsroom, fretting and groaning. Recently the paper ran the same stock tables every day for a week. No one noticed, no one complained.
Middle management has implored top management to alter its course. Top management has responded with postdated guarantees, on a sliding scale. The Guild is off in a corner, whispering. The pressmen are holding an unending series of birthday parties commemorating heroes of labor. Reporters file their stories as usual, but if they are certain kinds of stories they do not run. A small example: the paper did not run a Holiday Weekend Death Toll story after Labor Day this year, the first time since 1926 no Holiday Weekend Death Toll story appeared in the paper after Labor Day (and total was, although not a record, a substantial one).
Some elements of the staff are not depressed. The paper’s very creative real-estate editor has been a fountain of ideas, and his sections full of color pictures of desirable living arrangements, are choked with advertising and make the Sunday paper fat, fat, fat, fat. More food writers have been hired, and more clothes writers, and more furniture writers, and more plant writers. The bridge, whist, skat, cribbage, domino, and vingt-et-un columnists are very popular.
The Editors’ Caucus has once again applied to middle management for relief, and has once again been promised it (but middle management has Glenfiddich on its breath, even at breakfast). Top management’s polls say that sixty-five percent of the readers “want movies,” and feasibility studies are being conducted. Top management acknowledges, over long lunches at good restaurants, that readers are wrong to “want movies” but insists that morality cannot be legislated. The newsroom has been insulated (with products from the company’s Echotex division) so that the people in the newsroom can no longer hear the sounds in the streets.
The paper’s editorials have been subcontracted to Texas Instruments, and the obituaries to Nabisco, so that the staff will have “more time to think.” The foreign desk is turning out language lessons (“Yo temo que Isabel no venga,” “I am afraid that Isabel will not come”). There was an especially lively front page on Tuesday. The No. 1 story was pepperoni — a useful and exhaustive guide. It ran right next to the slimming-your-troublesome-thighs story, with pictures.
Top management has vowed to stop what it is doing, not now but soon, soon. A chamber orchestra has been formed among the people in the newsroom, and we play Haydn until the sun comes up.
With Orson Welles, host Huw Wheldon and actor Ernest Milton on Monitor (October 1963, BBC)
ABV 40%. The Schlenkerla Brewery and Tavern in Bamberg, Germany is well known for their Schlenkerla Smokebeer. Distilled from this classic beverage, Aecht Schlenkerla Smokemalt Aged Rauchbier Spirit has been matured for months in Michel Couvreur casks with freshly smoked barley malt. The resulting spirit is bold, rich and full-flavored, with balanced notes of smoke, hops, barley and spice complemented by a light, malty sweetness.
For somebody who made himself so intensely, incorrigibly available, [Robert Frost] is a well-guarded figure. You could say his availability became his way of maintaining his guard. Here’s his reply to a critic who wrote in 1915 to congratulate him on his success:
Dr Mr Eaton:
It’s not your turn really. Before I have a right to answer your best letter of all there are a whole lot of perfunctory letters I ought to write to people who have been rising out of my past to express surprise that I ever should have amounted to anything. You may not believe it but I am going to have to thank one fellow for remembering the days of ’81 when we went to kindergarten together and once cut up a snake into very small pieces to see if contrary to the known laws of nature we couldn’t make it stop wriggling before sundown.
Like many of the letters, this has the makings of a Frost poem: an intimacy conjured up out of thin air, coupled with an unpredictable sense of where that intimacy might lead; talk of triumph over recalcitrant circumstances, alongside an implicit reservation about what the triumph really amounts to; and a dark toying with ‘the known laws of nature’ to see where your limits lie. A page later, Frost is talking to Eaton as if he has known him for ages (‘you know I don’t mean that’), while offering tips to the newcomer (‘I am really more shamefaced than I sound in a letter’). Eaton should feel privileged to be told that some things do not need saying, even as he is left wondering about what these other things are that are not quite being said ...
Sometimes this slippery, furtive posture makes you wonder what Frost is hiding, and sometimes it makes you wonder what you’re hiding if you don’t play along. He’s not generally the sort of person who makes a joke and then says, ‘but seriously’. His letters are instead interrupted by the phrase ‘but seriousness aside’, as if to imply that a certain type of serious thinking is holding him back from what’s really worth saying. ‘Perhaps you think I am joking,’ he warns one correspondent. ‘I am never so serious as when I am.’ He is ‘Sinceriously yours, Robert Frost’, and he wants it understood that words like ‘sincerely’ and ‘seriously’ may be overrated. This roguishness can become wearing (he sometimes flaunts it merely to get himself off the hook), but more often it indicates his willingness to explore the values as well as the dangers of being precariously placed. Humour becomes a sort of confession:
Any form of humour shows fear and inferiority. Irony is simply a kind of guardedness… At bottom the world isn’t a joke. We only joke about it to avoid an issue with someone … Humour is the most engaging cowardice. With it myself I have been able to hold some of my enemy in play far out of gunshot.
This is revealing, although the exaggerated, almost self-lacerating tone is dropped elsewhere when Frost conceives humour not only as ‘engaging cowardice’, but also as a method for engaging with cowardice by reimagining avoidance as an achievement.
Inside and outside the letters, he appears to be searching for ways to be afraid that won’t make him feel like a coward. In his introduction to Edwin Arlington Robinson’s King Jasper, he quotes a couplet from Robinson’s ‘Flammonde’ – ‘One pauses half afraid/To say for certain that he played’ – and adds:
his much-admired restraint lies wholly in his never having let grief go further than it could in play. So far shall grief go … and no further. Taste may set the limit. Humour is the surer dependence … His theme was unhappiness itself, but his skill was as happy as it was playful … One ordeal of Mark Twain was the constant fear that his occluded seriousness would be overlooked. That betrayed him into his two or three books of out-and-out seriousness.
... ‘My poems … are all set to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless,’ Frost wrote in 1927. ‘Ever since infancy I have had the habit of leaving my blocks carts chairs and such like ordinaries where people would be pretty sure to fall forward over them in the dark. Forward, you understand, and in the dark.’
Several letters in this volume – especially those in which Frost explains the acoustics of literary craft – have long been considered essential for casting light on his dark arts. ‘Free rhythms are as disorderly as nature,’ he writes to one correspondent, ‘metres are as orderly as human nature and take their rise in rhythms just as human nature rises out of nature.’ Frost wants to get into print sounds that appear to come from the body before they come from the mind. The sounds are creaturely, uncivilised things:
[A poem] begins as a lump in the throat … It is never a thought to begin with.
A certain fixed number of sentences (sentence sounds) belong to the human throat just as a certain fixed number of vocal runs belong to the throat of a given kind of bird.
All I care a cent for is to catch sentence tones that haven’t been brought to book … They are always there – living in the cave of the mouth. They are real cave things: they were before words were.
Like the strongbox, or the dark house, or the woods, the cave of the mouth is another of those Frostian dark places both cherished and feared – sometimes a shelter and sometimes a place from which one must emerge. Edward Thomas appreciatively remarked that North of Boston contained language ‘more colloquial and idiomatic than the ordinary man dares to use even in a letter’, and the letters are similarly daring. Their recipients are told that the only way to read them satisfactorily is to ‘renew in memory from time to time the image of the living voice that informs the sentences’. ‘This pen works like respiration,’ he observes, and once he’s paused for breath insists on having a conversation rather than a correspondence: ‘What do you say?’; ‘Let’s see what I was going to say’; ‘You don’t listen with much patience, I notice.’
Those who are willing to listen will notice that Frost keeps returning to one of his central principles – he calls it ‘the sound of sense’ – with devious energy. Whatever else this tricky phrase signifies, it points to the way tone enhances and complicates meaning: ‘Suppose Henry Horne says something offensive to a young lady named Rita when her brother Charles is by to protect her. Can you hear the two different tones in which she says their respective names, “Henry Horne! Charles!” I can hear it better than I can say it.’ On other occasions, Frost makes his point by rewriting the ostensibly toneless – ‘The dog is in the room. I will put him out. But he will come back’ – as the vividly toneful: ‘There’s that dog got in. Out you get, you brute! What’s the use – he’ll be right in again?’ His most famous example, in a letter to John Bartlett, is full of provocations:
The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words. Ask yourself how these sentences would sound without the words in which they are embodied:
You mean to tell me you can’t read?
I said no such thing.
Well read then.
You’re not my teacher.
This is a bracing yet wily prose poem of sorts. It focuses on one person’s possible misinterpretation of what the other person means, and yet just because they ‘said no such thing’ doesn’t mean they are in fact saying that they can read. ‘You’re not my teacher’ could be stalling for time or covering for embarrassment, or it could be a genuine refusal to take a lesson from this upstart pedagogue. The sound of sense can be heard clearly, but the sense that lies within or behind the sounds is not wholly clear. And that’s when we know the words, not when we’re behind the door. If that is indeed ‘the best place to get the abstract sound of sense’, what is obtained is an intimation of meaning, not its confirmation. Whichever side of the door you’re on, things are murky.
I realize I don’t want any record of my days. I have the kind of brain that erases everything that passes, almost immediately, like that dustpan-and-brush dog in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland sweeping up the path as he progresses along it. I never know what I was doing on what date, or how old I was when this or that happened—and I like it that way. I feel when I am very old and my brain “goes” it won’t feel so very different from the life I live now, in this miasma of non-memory, which, though it infuriates my nearest and dearest, must suit me somehow, as I can’t seem, even by acts of will, to change it.
I wonder if it isn’t obliquely connected to the way I write my fiction, in which, say, a doormat in an apartment I lived in years ago will reappear, just as it once was, that exact doormat, same warp and weft, and yet I can’t say when exactly I lived there, who I was dating or even if my own father was alive or dead at the time. Perhaps the first kind of non-memory system—the one that can’t retain dates or significant events—allows the other kind of memory system to operate, the absence of the first making space for the second, clearing a path for that whatever-it-is which seems to dart through my mind like a shy nocturnal animal, dragging back strange items like doormats, a single wilted peony, or a beloved strawberry sticker, not seen since 1986, but still shaped like a strawberry and scented like one, too.
When it comes to life writing, the real, honest, diaristic, warts-and-all kind, the only thing I have to show for myself—before St. Peter and whomever else—is my Yahoo! email account, opened circa 1996 and still going. In there (though I would rather die than read it all over) is probably the closest thing to an honest account of my life, at least in writing. That’s me, for good and bad, with all the kind deeds and dirty lies and domestic squabbles and bookish friendships and online fashion purchases. Like most people (I should think) a personal nightmare of mine is the idea of anybody wandering around inside that account, reading whatever they please, passing judgment. At the same time, when I am dead, if my children want to know what I was like in the daily sense, not as a writer, not as a more-or-less presentable person, but simply the foolish human being behind it all, they’d be wise to look there.
From Michael Chrichton, Jasper Johns (1977):
As a young child living in his grandfather’s house, he remembers being dressed in the kitchen, by the cook, in a new white linen suit. He didn’t want to wear it, and thew off the suit, which landed in a skillet of hot grease on the stove. His grandfather came in and began throwing him in the air, catching him, and spanking him as he fell.
He lived with his grandfather, but his father lived in the same town and saw him intermittently. Once his father promised him his watch when he was grown up. Soon after, Johns decided that he was grown up; he went to his father’s house and took the watch. His father came and took it back. “I guess I wasn’t grown up, after all.”
… Today, looking back, it is amazing to me how externalized the culture of that tropical metropolis was—how heavily its emphasis fell on civilizing the weed-strewn, arid wilderness of Southern California. This was a new world that required new accouterments. So the painters were abstract classicists like John McLaughlin and Frederick Hammersley. Writers, poets and artists from Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg to Peter Voulkos looked to Asian civilization for spiritual, philosophical, and design agendas. It was a time when most of the intellectual population looked forward to California becoming a Pacific culture, with emphasis on the pacific. The heroes were architects and designers, Frank Lloyd Wright and his son, Richard Neutra, Rudolph Schindler, John Lautner, and the Eameses, Charles and Ray.
People talked about inventor-designers like Steve Baer, father of the “zome,” a strategy of asymmetrical architecture. They talked about George Barris, whose custom cars would reconfigure Detroit product and prefigure its future. They talked about Tom Morely, the Wernher von Braun of surfing, whose concave-tipped boards would ultimately influence the aerodynamic design of jet-age aircraft. In this sense, even surfing was part of the civilizing urge: to draw a line, as fine as Ingres, on a translucent wall of water rising up above your head; to decorate the raw power of nature, make it beautifully to beach, and transit the pure intersection of nature and culture.
Surprisingly our crowd didn’t talk much about the movies except as “the industry,” where short-term jobs were available for artists, musicians, writers and designers. This intermittent work (there was a lot of it) sustained a large jazz establishment devoted to “cool,” with icons like Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bud Shank, and Chico Hamilton, most of whom could write music and read it, most of whose improvisations aspired to delicacy and nuance rather than “gut.” One night at the Lighthouse my dad introduced me to the great lyrical drummer Chico Hamilton. I asked Hamilton about the absence of hard bop anger in Los Angeles music. The ever-dapper Hamilton, talking street, which he was anything but, told me that nobody but an asshole would pretend to be angry when he wasn’t. “I’m playing music, writing music, recording music, and paying my bills, so why should I be angry? When they remind me I’m a nigger, I tell them I’m the future of being a nigger.”
Hamilton’s droll remark touches on the deep reserves of decorum that everyone presumed were necessary to live in Los Angeles—reserves that one may still detect in Ken Price’s manner—the Zen permissiveness, the beatific tolerance, the disinclination to go on about one’s inner feelings. Living, as we did, out on the edge of the world, one guess about how one should feel was as good as another. I remember my little sister, who was maybe in the fourth grade at the time, remarking casually over dinner that “those nudists who live down the street are pretty cool.” Nobody blinked, since my sister worshipped Esther Williams, who lived in a mansion a tier below us on the Palisade, so we could watch the shining Esther in her scanties swimming away in her turquoise pool. That was Pacific Palisades at the time, a posh slum, with nice houses around the edges overlooking Sunset Boulevard and the Pacific Coast Highway.
Inland, there were tract houses, convenience stores, patches of raw desert, clumps of brush, and verdant gullies full of hideouts and strange fauna of the sort kids love. Above us the sky dwarfed everything, even the ocean, and the atmosphere itself was not a space but a live void, a particulate ambience full of dust and water within which everything blurred together and glowed. Palm trees shimmed in the sun-shot mist, and below us and always in our sight was the domain of the surf, the beach edged by crinkled cliffs, coves, and tidal pools, where waves that ranged from insulting in their tininess to butt-clenching in their lofty acceleration deposited foam, soup, scum, slime, mud, and whatever dead things showed up—mostly sharks, jellyfish, and starlets, as I remember. So you stood on those beaches facing this liquid wasteland sweeping out to the Orient, an ocean away but still closer, somehow, than the chilly woodlands of New England. Behind you, the human infestation of artifacts and architecture spread inland, gradually losing the ambience of the edge without establishing much else in the way of presence.
But I was the happiest of all, the fountain of my enjoyment being our magnificent Macak—the finest of all cats in the world. I wish I could give you an adequate idea of the affection that existed between us. We lived for one another. Wherever I went, Macak followed, because of our mutual love and the desire to protect me. When such a necessity presented itself he would rise to twice his normal height, buckle his back, and with his tail as rigid as a metal bar and whiskers like steel wires, he would give vent to his rage with explosive puffs: Pfftt! Pfftt! It was a terrifying sight, and whoever had provoked him, human or animal, would beat a hasty retreat.
In respect to water, Macak was very fastidious. He would jump six feet to avoid wetting his paws. On such days we went into the house and selected a nice cozy place to play. Macak was scrupulously clean, had no fleas or bugs, shed no hair, and showed no objectionable traits. He was touchingly delicate in signifying his wish to be let out at night, and scratched the door gently for readmittance.
Now I must tell you a strange and unforgettable experience that stayed with me all my life. Our home was about eighteen hundred feet above sea level, and as a rule we had dry weather in the winter. It happened that one day the cold was drier than ever before. People walking in the snow left a luminous trail behind them, and a snowball thrown against an obstacle gave a flare of light like a loaf of sugar cut with a knife. In the dusk of the evening, as I stroked Macak’s back, I saw a miracle that made me speechless with amazement. Macak’s back was a sheet of light and my hand produced a shower of sparks loud enough to be heard all over the house.
My father was a very learned man; he had an answer for every question. But this phenomenon was new even to him. “Well,” he finally remarked, “this is nothing but electricity, the same thing you see through the trees in a storm.” My mother seemed charmed. “Stop playing with this cat,” she said. “He might start a fire.” But I was thinking abstractedly. Is nature a gigantic cat? If so, who strokes its back?
Ken Schles, Melanie at Veselka, 1986