Postwar Philosophy

I am struggling to read John Fowles‘ “The Magus” – and I may not finish it. Despite its place in popular literature as a significant postmodern work, it may join a small set of its literary fellows: books I’ve only begun and dropped through lack of interest.

It’s not the writing; the writing, while fairly archaic for modern readers, is fine. On a technical level, even a literary level, it’s executed well. Plus, bad writing isn’t that much of a deterrent for me; as an editor, I’ve … seen a lot of it. And I respect content over form: I’ve read Puzo’s “The Godfather,” and enjoyed it, despite Puzo writing like Mario Puzo. Same for Ayn Rand: I appreciated what she was trying to say, even though I don’t agree with it the way I think she wanted me to, and even though it’s written childishly.

It’s not the impotence of its characters. After all, I’ve read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant – a story in which the author purposefully set out to create a protagonist as an impotent anti-hero. And that’s not the only such story I have read; there have been other post-war writings in which the protagonists are leaves upon a stream far beyond their reckoning. (“One Hundred Years of Solitude,” for example.)

It’s not the post-modernism; as mentioned, One Hundred Years of Solitude, as well as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas… I don’t think I fear postmodern literature, despite my personal distaste for postmodern philosophy.

It’s not the anti-war sentiment. I don’t think I’m as anti-war as they come, I guess, but I despise war and those who would choose it willingly. But this is where I break with the characters of The Magus.

Their attitude is that war is only relevant on a personal level. Death is pointless, they say, and there is no meaning to tribe that can justify it. While I respect the intellectual decision here – much war is incredibly stupid – I find it impossible to respect.

The Final Cut

I was listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Final Cut” yesterday, in particular to “When the Tigers Broke Free.” In particular, two stanzas crystallized for me:

It was dark all around
There was frost in the ground
When the tigers broke free
And no one survived
From the Royal Fusiliers Company C

They were all left behind
Most of them dead
The rest of them dying
And that's how the High Command
Took my daddy from me

They’re stirring lyrics, no doubt. I appreciate the emotion and intent, and respect the artistry… but it ignored a core aspect of the action being documented:

High Command didn’t order the Tigers’ advance.

Yet they’re given agency here: High Command took Waters’ father. He was killed by their choice, not the enemy’s action. The enemy is irrelevant here; only High Command gets the blame.

Why?

What did Waters’ want? On a personal level, of course, it’s entirely understandable; he wanted his father! And if I had a way to grant that, myself, I would. War is stupid.

Yet the Nazis – the ones pushing the Tigers forward in the song – were and are evil. They’re our modern-day Babylonians, our Assyrians, our hobgoblins. In fact, when describing the Assyrians, one can easily imagine them being described in terms of the Nazis to modern audiences, rather than the other way around.

The Assyrians were bad. Like, really bad. So bad that after they were utterly destroyed, other civilizations – including our own – doubted their existence, assuming they were made up to frighten other cultures or their children – or provide points of reference. (“At least we’re not as bad as the Assyrians” or “We’ll treat you like the Assyrians would have!”) Modern historians who doubted the Bible’s records of Nineveh were surprised when it was actually found to have existed, and its destruction seems to match the Biblical record pretty well. It’s like they’re history’s version of the Nazis. Thus… my point.

So why is Waters railing at the High Command, those who have a responsibility not only to each man under their command, but to the larger strategic vision as well? I understand the bitterness, but at the same time, High Command probably had to make a choice, a choice with the best information at their disposal – and at some point, someone had to stand the ground to protect the larger interests.

I don’t know the specifics of Fusiliers Company C – maybe they were left in place through idiocy or incompetence or evil. I recognize that; I acknowledge it. I also recognize that the commanders are themselves flawed men. Mistakes are made, with the cost of such mistakes being beyond repair within our mortal ken.

But everyone dies. Just because this one died now, and that one will die in a decade… while every life is to be treasured, no life will be spared. Expecting otherwise is stupid and unkind.

The body count never changes. The number of people born will always equal the number of people who will die; nothing we do will ever add to or subtract from the body count, except within a specific timeframe, a mere blink in the life of the universe.

Again, this is not to diminish the value of every life… but then again, maybe I’m affected by my own Jewishness. Waters’ father died, yes. So did most of my family, in the Holocaust, and if not for the willingness of some to fight evil, more of them might have died.

And Waters’ unwillingness to accept his father’s death says that he’d rather countenance the loss of mine than the loss of his. Meanwhile, I’d rather sacrifice mine and myself for the sake of the higher concept of the defense and advance of Good. I will always try to defy evil, because to not defy it is to accept it. That defiance has a potential cost, and for me to count it is to make myself a mercenary.

Again, I fully understand – personal loss compared to the conceptual loss of others… but if mankind was unwilling to die for the concept of good, well, Waters’ would have been speaking German after a while, because there’s no reason America should have bothered helping England at great sacrifice to itself and its citizens. Americans died to preserve Europe from the Nazis… and Waters seems to spit on their deaths, all because he wanted his father back.

Back to The Magus

In The Magus, there are two characters who share that kind of personal nihilism: it’s all for one… and that’s it. They demand recognition and contribution, while granting nothing beyond manipulation. They negate themselves. They fear, certainly, and fear is normal… and they run from the fear, and defy it by not being willing to encounter that which inspires the fear.

That’s not actually defiance of fear. That’s avoidance of responsibility. That’s abandonment of the human tribe.

As a result, every time I read their thoughts and portrayals, I see pure venality. I see worthlessness, chosen. I see enlightenment rejected as being unworthy of respect, as one who values gold but rejects its power by declaring it has no value. Loving, the characters betray the love, not as an act of will or power, but through impotence they associate their impotence with love, negating it and avoiding it, even while suffering and benefiting from it.

I am not enjoying the book. I may not finish it.

Changes

I believe that art has to be a source of mutation to be any good. It has to change the person who’s viewing or listening to the artistic work; it has to change the artist; it has to change in form. If it fails in any of these, it’s not art any more, it’s just effort.

Art has to change the person who’s viewing or listening; otherwise, it’s muzak, or just a pretty picture on a wall. A true work of art makes one sit back and say “… whoa.” It transforms the viewer. It makes them evaluate something about themselves or the world they live in. Otherwise, we say it fails to grip the reader or viewer or listener, and we’re right. It’s just… there.

Art has to change the artist. When I write, I seek to explore something about myself, to transform myself through the act of creation into something better than I was, and I can’t imagine that I’m unique in this. Otherwise, my art is merely lecturing an audience; it is dead from its moment of creation, even though it might have innate quality even in death.

If art fails to change in form, then it’s the same thing it always was, even if the exact details might be different. If I take a black and white picture of a young child in a specific form of lighting and in a specific pose, you might see the balance of light and shade and say, “Well done…” but if I do it again and again, even with different children, eventually you’re going to expect me to do something new. Otherwise it’s just going back over the same old ground, again and again… and honestly? Chances are that an expression of this specific form is repetition anyway. Ansel Adams (and countless others) have done this kind of photography; this is no longer art. It’s been done.

Art is creation, art is mutation.

It’s all art, too. I don’t have a particular “sound” in my music – there are common factors, to be sure (in that I tend to prefer swirling, giant guitar sounds, and I like to be able to hear bass, and I can’t sing worth a flip so I tend to cater to my vocal weaknesses… and there are certain vibes to music that I prefer and target) but if you were to listen to track after track, you’d hear many different approaches to almost every aspect of my music.

This song emphasizes a rough sounding guitar, in your face; that one uses a synthesizer; this one uses a piano; that one, a hammer. (One of my old “liner notes” for a song had “Joseph Ottinger, keys” — and I meant keys literally. Like, a keyring. What can I say? I didn’t have a tambourine and the keyring fit the sound I wanted better anyway.) That one uses stereo vocals, this one has a vocoder, this one has a harmony line, that one uses only the harmony line…

I don’t like to repeat myself. I don’t mind going back over songs if I think I can do them better, but I don’t especially enjoy that process – I enjoy the knowledge that I’m happier with a particular recording. But rerecording isn’t art (not for me) and that’s usually what I’m going for.

The context of this goes back to music and literature.

I’ve been writing a lot lately – mostly fairly “meh” poetry, because I like the forms I’m coming up with. I’ve noticed a bit of sameness: I offer a thought, modify it, modify it, then change it with a related tangential summarization… but I’m still exploring that mechanism, and I’m not reusing it intentionally. There’s potential there that appeals to me, and I’m searching.

I almost wrote a new story a few days ago, but abandoned it because I recognized the roots of the story – my expression of the story would have been three parts “Bicentennial Man” and two parts “Frankenstein,” and I found that to simply not be good enough even though I know exactly why the formation is what it is. Mixing influences is fine, but I need it to have something essential, and it wasn’t there. (I may still write it but I need it to have a lever that it currently lacks. Right now I could read it, and write it, but it wouldn’t change me, therefore it ain’t Art.)

When I read, I expect the same thing. Maybe George R. R. Martin can get away with writing the Song of Ice and Fire as if it’s the same series with decades of effort – because it is the same series. But given how slowly he writes nowadays, I think he also is searching for the artistic endeavor at this point.

I can tolerate consistency in a series.

But when an author is done with a series, I expect him or her to change. I loved the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (the first trilogy) – and I loved the second as well, because they used the same characters but the author (Stephen R. Donaldson) didn’t stay the same. He pushed himself. Sometimes the direction wasn’t what I wanted, but that’s his vision, and by golly, it was effective. I respect that. It’s art.

Even if the words are from the same dictionary, the expressions have to change – the author, the reader, the form themselves – or it’s not art.

Musically, there are three things going on: Roger Waters, YYNOT, and my own recording efforts.

I’m looking forward to Roger Waters‘ new album, “Is This The Life We Really Want?” He’s released one of the tracks from it, “Smell the Roses,” and while I appreciate the song and I’m definitely going to get the album… I’m not truly impressed yet, because he also is saying the same things he’s already said (on multiple albums!) and he’s actually reusing musical forms, too.

Is Waters a better musician and writer than I am? You bet he is. But he’s not creating art; he’s regurgitating feeling and sound. Like I said, I’m going to get the album when it comes out… but if it sounds and feels like the track he’s already released, I’ll enjoy it and appreciate it but it won’t be art.

YYNOT is a Rush .. tribute band, I guess, where a set of musicians records themselves playing fairly live versions of Rush songs, usually centering on the earlier albums (i.e., albums before 1984, although they’ve done some later stuff too.) They had some drama where they decided to switch drummers from an amateur drummer to a working musician; the drama was because they removed all credit from the original drummer (he took it badly, and I can understand that) and “fired” him for inconsistent reasons (“We want to be West Coast-based, even though the bass player is still on the East Coast.”)

There are multiple ways of interpreting the sequence of events. I talked to both “sides” and made my own decisions; I thought both groups acted inefficiently, and told them so. But the guy who got fired listened and understood why I said what I said, and the YYNOT guys blocked all communication, even though I was more critical of the drummer than I was of them… and that convinced me that the guy who they’d “fired” had more of a point than YYNOT did.

So they’re still making the Rush covers, and that’s fine – that’s what they’ve always done, that’s more or less what they wanted to do (although they do have a few “Rush-inspired originals”) — but they’re covering the songs that they’d already done (basically replacing the original drummer for real.)

The originals are okay, they’re impressive in that they managed to do them, but they’re also kinda just there. There’s a lot of skill in having done them, because they’re trying to evoke Rush’ complexity, and that’s certainly not trivial to do… but they also lack something, maybe because they’re trying to evoke someone else’s feeling. (At the songs’ best, I’m thinking “That’s just like Rush might have done it on the album from…”)

But that’s not transformative. It ends up being kitsch, or effort… and ultimately neat but not good. They’re not pushing themselves. They’ve set their sights on being a Rush cover band, and they’ve succeeded, and that’s going to be their ceiling unless they break away from it. They’re certainly not changing me through listening to their songs – when I want that feeling of transformation from Hemispheres, I listen to Rush, not YYNOT. YYNOT just doesn’t have that power, even though they’re playing it very well (better than I could, certainly.)

What’s odd is that they’re “Rush-inspired” but the primary inspiration Rush has to offer musicians is the willingness to do their own thing. YYNOT isn’t doing that.

Oddly enough, neither am I, really; I’m recording some Rush covers as well. I already released “Analog Kid” and I’m working on two others – and it’s funny, too, because I’ve been recording music for more than thirty years and this is the first time I’ve ever actually recorded a cover of anyone else’s song. It’s fun; I’m trying to actually do more than play just the songs as written, by changing things where I think it expresses me more naturally…

But is it Art? I don’t think so. I think it’s more than what YYNOT is doing (even though they’re better musicians and they are produced better), because I’m not trying to be a slave to the original performances, but it’s not really art. It’s not a meticulous recreation, so it’s not quite as kitschy (or as popular, hey) but it’s still not art.

I can play Analog Kid a hundred times and appreciate the song (after all, it’s the song that finally got me into Rush) but it doesn’t change me to play it; the change from Analog Kid happened on the road in Leesburg where I first heard it. That was art. My recording is… not as artistic, by its very nature of being a cover. It’s effort.

My art is in my own writing, and my own performance of it. My art is in digging inside my soul and trying to find something new to show, something that changes me, and has the potential to change others.

That’s art.

Be an artist.