Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Creole Insinuation

I sing the birdsong of my desert ground
To mark my territory well.
No one will listen; no one will hear:
Why risk your bliss for hell?

All heterodox, I follow the tangents;
I'm quite the eddy-floater:
I, the rebel with my uncause,
Invisible to the voter.

Uncataloged, unclassified,
Unsigned, unclubbed, unlabeled,
Disliked, discarded, maladroit,
Malapropos, and disabled,

With malice toward none and malarkey toward all
(Clarity? Such baloney.),
My dissed divorce from reality
Doesn't provide much alimony.

Refused by the Salon of the Refused!
Don't cry for me, Guatemala!
I'm a citizen of the USA,
and that's a hard fact to swallow!

I'm the melungeon who got away:
The creole insinuation
Into the KelticK Kremery
of your inbred imagination.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


I've been trying to find an opportunity to watch Entre les murs (The Class), the French movie that won the top prize at Cannes in 2009. What it's about (from what I've read) is a year in the life of a middle school French class in inner-city Paris--which means the students are ethnically diverse and anything but privileged. Even though I've not seen it, I have found some scenes on TV5, including one in which an Antillean student named Carl delivers his "autoportrait" as part of a class assignment. He says:
I like to play soccer. I like to play on the computer. I like to flirt with pretty girls. I like to go on vacation to the Antilles. I like fries, zouk, and dancehall. I like to watch MTV Base. I like my parents and my brother. I like my friends, and staying up all night. I like the show Bitter Tropics. I like my apartment complex. I like the show Internal Security. I like to eat out and daydream. I don't like people who cry over nothing. I don't like techno and techtonic. I don't like showoffs. I don't like visiting my brother in prison. I don't like New Star and Star Academy. I don't like politicians, the Iraq War, goths, and skaters. I don't like mean teachers. I don't like math, racists, and I don't like Materazzi. I don't like Paul Eluard College and I kind of like being here.
Likes and dislikes. This is who we are, isn't it? How many of us, asked for an autoportrait, would come up with something much different in substance? We might even want some help, as seems to have happened here, along the lines of "just say what you like and then what you don't like." A strange thing happens, though, going from likes to dislikes.

The likes make sense as a category, because, no matter what it is, it's something that produces a simple pleasure. What's zouk? I had to find out (it's an Antillean dance), but it didn't make any difference. Included in the list of likes, whatever it was, I knew it was something that somebody enjoyed.

The dislikes, though, lack that kind of immediate understanding. Rather, reading through Carl's list of dislikes produces a destabilizing, complex, questioning attitude. The only thing immediate about it is the question "Why?"
  • people who cry over nothing
  • techno
  • techtonic [techno dance]
  • showoffs
  • visiting my brother in prison
  • New Star [French TV show similar to American Idol]
  • Star Academy [French reality TV show featuring wannabe pop singers on tour]
  • politicians
  • Iraq War
  • goths
  • skaters
  • mean teachers
  • math
  • racists
  • Materazzi [the Italian soccer player who, in the 2006 World Cup Final, provoked the French player Zidane to head-butt him, which led to Zidane's expulsion from the game. Materazzi had grabbed Zidane's shirt; Zidane said if Materazzi wanted his shirt he could have it after the match; Materazzi--according to himself--countered with "I'd rather have your sister;" that's when Zidane went all metalogical on him.]
  • Paul Eluard College [French middle school]
Why, for example, does Carl in a single sentence lump together math, racists, and Materazzi? Don't these represent different types of dislike, and various degrees? The sentence, however, is a confrontation: it challenges this reaction. Judge, jury, and executioner, it condemns the lot to a confraternity of badness and loads them into a guillotine-bound tumbril (hey, this is France).

Just like the dislike button on Youtube.

I've never used it myself, but it's been used on me, or rather on some videos I've posted to exhibit an oboe technique I've developed called the Celtic oboe, most recently one that gave a little explanation as to what it was and how it came to be. 

Celtic oboe is one of my many follies. It's a frivolous, fringe example of the phenomenon known as "the adjacent possible" in which someone takes things lying around, well-known and well-used, like wheels and shoes, puts them together and, voilĂ , roller skates. Well, there was the classical oboe, and there was traditional Irish music as played by the uilleann pipes; put the two together and, voilĂ , Celtic oboe.

Except it was anything but as easy as that. I had to learn circular breathing. I spent hours tinkering with different fingering combinations and applying them to music. The inventing continues. As far as oboe is concerned, when I started this folly there was no technique, no tradition, and certainly no teacher.

In general the purpose of the videos has been to say "Hey, random oboe player out there in the universe, this is interesting. You might like trying this yourself. You might figure out something else to do with this kind of technique. Like put it on roller skates."

I don't know if it's had that effect at all. I do know that there are people who dislike it enough to go beyond ignoring it and punch the dislike button. I'm imagining that the haters are either oboe (classical) purists or Irish trad purists who think I've committed an act of mongrelization that shouldn't be allowed to stand. You know, the kind of thinking that produces Aryan supremacists and ethnic cleansing.

But, painful as it is to think that my cherished folly (I don't deny that it is folly) properly belongs in some cultural landfill, I've learned to put things in proper perspective through a series of serendipitous encounters with books.

I recently (back before the most recent Youtube dislike) started reading How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, by Elijah Wald (and liked on its back cover by Tom Waits: "It nailed me to the wall."). Wald's introduction explains how his history will be different. He would try to go beyond such labels as "jazz" and "rock," which, as shibboleths, have become in our time static categories rather than the fluid potentialities they were when they were being invented. Those fluid potentialities were being transformed by all kinds of influences and factors--like the commercial one--that purists would just as soon forget.

But what stands out is Wald's adoption of classical pianist and modern music expositor Charles Rosen as his guide to how we should go about explaining music. This quote from Rosen (in slightly altered form) heads Wald's introduction:
Dislike has no significance and no importance if it is not accompanied by understanding--and that implies the admission of at least the possibility of love.
Wald joins Rosen in his assertion that "Some of us are willing to try to understand what is alien to our experience" unlike those whose respond with outrage to something that is "disconcertingly new."  Wald says of his historical work, "The most difficult thing about understanding the past is appreciating the choices and tastes that seem strange or disagreeable and trying to confront them on their own terms." [my emphasis]

Then, reading Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis, I encountered the notion of the adjacent possible, which seemed to fit Wald's expository apparatus like a glove. Finally, preparing for a session of my book club and familiarizing myself with When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, by T.M. Luhrmann, the author's own summation of her approach to her subject jumped out at me: "Anthropologists are taught as students to seek to understand before we judge."

It all stacked up, from the music historian, music critic, technologist, anthropologist: admitting the possibility of love, appreciating music by confronting it on its own terms, discovering via the adjacent possible, understanding before judgment. All of these writers contributed haphazardly to the idea that the Celtic oboe, however foolish, had some value ... because someone valued it.

But it's important, too, to go back to Carl's equality of dislikes and remember that we're talking about music. We're not talking about racism. Rather, we shouldn't be talking about racism. But opinions of music that don't admit the possibility of love have descended to the same gutter that flows into racism.

So there you have it: serendipity, with the capstone from a book about God, clearly evidence of divine favor on behalf of my folly. Dislikers, be warned: someday down the road you'll be working your way out of purgatory and will catch sight of me in the angel band of Celtic oboes and will disappointedly exclaim "Oh. My. God." And you will go right back where you belong: to the Garden of Perpetual Dislike.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

My Name Is Mud

My name is Mud. You renewed your acquaintance with me last weekend, when you washed me out of the filters of your pond's fountain pump.

The jet from the water-spitting carp fountain had been progressively weakening in the past weeks. You'd last cleaned the pump quite a while ago--last summer? that long?--and you were sure you'd find me in there, gumming up the works.

It's unfortunate, I suppose, that your painstakingly-dug French drain ne suffit pas toujours, and a global-warming, torrential downpour (they happen more often, don't they?) conjures me out of the ground and lets me cloud the water in the pond so that you can't spy upon your goldfish: unfortunate for you whose view must always be clear.

Less so for me who makes you work to regain your clarity.

You didn't want the pump motor to burn out, so you unplugged it, hauled the pump bag up from the bottom of the pond, and marveled at the weight after all the water had drained out. "Mud," you thought.

Yes. Me.

You'd never let the pump go this long without cleaning. Your French intestine de bassin and pump filter allies had done a pretty good job of keeping me out of the water and in my wet ghetto, but you were right: I was forcing someone else to pull my weight. Time for a cleansing.

All you had to do was dismantle the little net house that held the pump--take out the walls, the floor, the ceiling--and shower them in a strong jet of water. Out I flowed. Down the driveway, looking like a runnel of mocha. But you were much too aware of my provenance in clay and fish shit to make that comparison at the time. Nor did I suggest a sunset's draining of the light from the sky or a cloud-streaked moon or any such happily romantic notion. Your memory of squishy lake-bottom wading was too strong for that. Nor did my purging even conjure any current-event regrets that you couldn't donate me as enriched water to some millet farmer in east Africa.

Instead, you spiritualized me into metaphor. I suppose I should thank you, since that is supposedly the substance of the hereafter--spirit, I mean. Maybe metaphor too. Or conceit. As in angels. How could conceit not be the argot of angels?

But it was nothing so lofty. I can't even claim "metaphor," actually. It started with an adjective, and maybe it just ended there. It was just you with a hose consigning me to the storm drain of history and thinking about a book, analyzing its style, deciding it was "muddy," and wondering if it was the translation. 

The book was My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate. (You can claim that he stole the title from you, since your playing with My Name Is Mud goes back a half-century.)

You've never distrusted the translator as much as you did with this book. But the translator has won prizes too! So you decided to make me the scapegoat for the unsettled state of the rhetoric, the murky atmosphere of so many of the scenes in which the characters careened from one emotion to a different, remote one--for example, from fear to love, or vice versa--as if they were playing tackle hopscotch in pea-soup fog.

Lacking any verisimilitude of a real, inner state, you the reader felt alienated from the narrative, when you prefer to dive into it and swim around in it and shake fins with the manta rays. The characters seemed to be allegorical constructs rather than flesh-and-blood people (except they did bleed). "Cartoonish" doesn't quite catch the reality.

Which is too bad, given that most of the characters were illustrators of illuminated books.

But maybe unsettlement was part of Pamuk's purpose? The chapters were all told from the perspective of a different "character," whether an actor in the story or a book illustration (such as a dog or a tree or a color, which is all the title of the book means). Some characters recounted their own violent death as it happened--obviously, then, part of the point was to create a certain distance between the narrative and the events being described, the same kind of distance that exists between an illustrator and his or her illustration.

The kind of distance that exists between mud and its cleansing.

With art occupying the center of this book, you found myself wanting an entirely new genre, or an entirely new literary/artistic phenomenon, which would involve the display of artistic details--as they occurred in the telling--simultaneously with the telling itself. Pamuk's alternative was to resort to long lists of things being depicted, which you perceived  liturgical quality, like the names of victims read at remembrance ceremonies, as if the mention of them has spared them the fate of a final disappearance. But did this not, in fact, disembody the art? Trick it out as a meaningless babbling in tongues? If Ottoman and Persian artists drew horses from memory instead of from live models, what did they look like? You the living lack those memories. Only with the sight of their art can you make sense of things. Can you live clearly, without mud.

You did think it ironic (as you watched the filter wash go from brown to khaki to tan to silver) to complain about the limitations of this novel--limitations to do with the written word--when its most significant theme is the conflict between calligraphic, Islamic art and representational, "Frankish" art. In the Middle Ages, the illumination of books seems to have been a way of bringing representational art into Islamic cultural productions; as long as the miniature illuminations were marginal conjectures of "what Allah sees," they were approved. Whereas, now, with this book, you wanted to see what Allah sees just so you'd have a companionable representation of what Pamuk wrote. What you got was reduced to words on a page--and it wasn't even calligraphy.

I drained away, leaving you imagining a flash of universal comprehension and calling it cosmocallipsychosis. How will you breathe life into that lump of garbage? From mud you came, and to mud you will return.

Your name is Mud.