Monday, October 22, 2007

Indecent Exposure: Show MeYour Beard; I'll Show You Mine..

  • "When you're writing a song you sort of, as John Lennon put it, you sit down with your guitar and open a vein and whatever comes out comes out." -Bono
  • "If writing's a beard on loss...I wear my own beard." -Jonathan Lechem
  • "See my beard..Ain't it weird...Don't be sceered...It's just a beard" -George Carlin
  • "And if I show you my dark side, would you still hold me tonight?" -Pink Floyd

At a time when the emerging church is defined (in part, of course),
by the serious (?) debate over the appropriate type of beard to sport..

(see "Goatee or Soul Patch")

along comes one of those bearded non-Christian prophets
(Jonathan Lethem) writing "The Disappointment Artist, " a new (to me) book with a brilliant chapter entitled:

"The Beards"
(I was thrilled to find a pre-publication of this chapter online, and it is from this PDF version that I quote throughout)

I love (hate?) writing which helps us navigate the knotty role of self-disclosure/transparency, especially in the life of pastorfaith and churchkklesia (aided by architects and accidental theologians like Buckminster Fuller in works like:
"Ideas and Integrites: A Spontaneous Autobiographical Disclosure")

And in the life of INFP (emphasis on the introvert's lively

Click to view my Personality Profile pageinterior life, and occasional apparent extroversion a smokescreen for narcissism..ouch)
pastor types like me. Suffice to say this is an issue close to home.


And too close for comfort.

Which is precisely the point.

Partly because the writer grew up in my generation; with my music, the book (which views life and selfhood through the lens of books, movies and music) resonates remarkably and painfully well with me. And since I have been recently been revisiting and re-reviewing some of the definitive music of my earlier era and current soul (plundering for Godhauntedness and soulpsyche implcations), this quote nailed me:

"I rarely listen to Chet Baker anymore. I haven't read Bradbury or Brautigan since I was a child, partly becaiuse I'm afraid of what I'll find, partly because they have been inscribed on the interior surface of the eyes through which I read others."

I gulped as I read that, and remembered with terrified delight how much I gleaned from a seminary paper (!) I wrote on...well, Ray Bradbury, an author I hadn't touched since childhood (and later met and prayed for here). What kept me afraid of fantasy writing of "going there" ? I joked with my prof about buying the book in a brown paper bag and smuggling it as contraband into the hallowed halls of the sacredseminary.

It was porn.

Or juvenile.

Or a mirror.

Those three are all the same thing, anyway.

I never literally lost a mother, as Lethem did during the 70's. But as Letham recalled how Pink Floyd pastored him through the grief (all due to a hippie friend of his dad's initiating him into a drug-induced, headphone-enhanced apophatic experience of euphrigasmic Floydmusicmass) I wondered/plundered what I had lost unawares. And I grieved at not grieving:

Bob had given me a gift. It was as though he’d said,
"Jonathan, the time for you to pretend you are an adult
among adults is through for the night. You’re a charming
kid and we like you very much, but the strain is showing.
So quit pretending you understand things you only half
understand, and return yourself to wonderment, to
masturbation, to dreaming."

In recollection, the shiny, self-pitying grandeur of Pink
Floyd is among the uneasiest tokens of my teen-age
tastes. A year or two later, I’d give myself to the band’s
paranoiac epic "The Wall," memorizing and debating lyrics
in the company of friends my own age. With my pals Joel
and Donna, I made a pilgrimage to the Nassau Coliseum
to see Pink Floyd play the double album live while sharing
the stage with a fake wall, which was destroyed at the
show’s onset by a fake airplane and rebuilt throughout the
evening. Then we slumbered in a stoned fever, heads
lolling on one another’s shoulders, as we rode home on
the Long Island Rail Road. Yet Pink Floyd was at odds
with the musical tastes I’d cultivated, those more along
punk lines, and requiring Talking Heads- or Elvis
Costello-style ironies to deflate the sort of hippie pieties
that thrived, unmistakably, beneath Pink Floyd’s wounded

Such self-conscious posturing (my own, I mean, not Elvis
Costello’s) doesn’t stand a chance against the kind of
helpless love I still feel if I play "Shine On You Crazy
Diamond, Parts 1-5," especially on headphones. This was
a group that had lost its genius and its spiritual center, and
had had to carry on. And, paradoxically, its masterpiece
(for that was what I believed "Shine On You Crazy
Diamond" to be) had been achieved without his help, but in
his honor. Syd Barrett wasn’t dead, but "Shine On You
Crazy Diamond" was memorial art. It suggested that I
didn’t have to fall into ruin to exemplify the cost of losing
someone as enormous as Judith Lethem. My surviving
Judith’s death would in no way be to her dishonor. I’d only
owe her a great song.

I read that and (almost) wept.
I considered that I did owe my mother a song (
"No sad songs allowed").
But instead I showed her something else; something the author in the last chapter devastatatingly suggests we all wear:

a beard.

This image takes a page (literally) from Woody Allen:

In "Broadway Danny Rose," Woody Allen plays a theatrical
agent whose star performer, a married singer, is carrying on an affair. In order to protect the singer, Allen escorts the
girlfriend around town, allowing them to be mistaken for a
couple in order to provide his client with deniability. When
this leads to disaster, and threats of death (the girlfriend is
a mafioso’s ex-moll), Allen begs off. "I’m the beard," he
says. "I’m only the beard!"

Allen’s use gave new currency to this vivid term, often
used to describe the heterosexual escort of a secretly gay
movie star: the beard. A cloak on passions that those who
required a beard might be unwilling to discuss or even
consider, the beard was itself a figure of power and
mystery. For we are revealed not only as our disguises slip
or are abandoned but in the nature of the disguises we
choose. Pretenses are always insufficient,
overcompensatory, or both. Masks melt into our faces and
become impossible to remove precisely at the instant we
realized they were transparent all along.

More generally, my obsessiveness about books, songs,
and films was a beard on growing up, which I didn’t want
to catch myself doing. I wanted it behind me even as it was
ahead of me. This exertion of will--if I’d seen more Godard
films than any adult I knew, or read more books by
Norman Mailer, then maybe I’d have proved something,
even if I didn’t understand them--was also an act of
sensory deprivation, of self-abnegation. The two--will and
deprivation--were weirdly compatible. I tried to obliterate
my teen-age years in movie theatres because my teen-age
years both embarrassed and saddened me. Between
double features of French films, between putting down one
book and picking up the next, I’d glance at my wristwatch
to see if I was in my twenties yet
No, I didn't write this book. But it's mine. After that last except, I'm feeling a bit vulnerable.

Am I am in my twenties

Finally, the book title itself:

Attempting to burrow and disappear into the admiration of
certain works of art, I tried to make such deep and pure
identification that my integrity as a human self would
become optional, a vestige of my relationship to the art. I
wanted to submit and submerge, even to die a little. I
developed a preference, among others, for art that
required endurance, that mimicked a galactic endlessness
and wore out the nonbelievers. By ignoring my hunger or
my need to use the bathroom during a three-hour movie by
Kubrick or Tarkovsky, I’d voted against my body, with its
undeniable pangs and griefs, in favor of a self composed
of eyeballs and brain, floating in the void of pure art. If I
wasn’t afraid of this kind of dissolution, I shouldn’t be afraid
of death, so I’d be an evolutionary step ahead.

By trying to export myself into a place that didn’t fully exist,
I was asking works of art to bear my expectation that they
could be better than life, that they could redeem life. I
asked too much of them: I asked them also to be both
safer than life and fuller, a better family. That, they couldn’t
be. At the depths I’d plumb them, so many perfectly
sufficient works of art became thin, anemic. I sucked the
juice out of what I loved until I found myself in a desert,
sucking rocks for water.

This was especially true of anything that assumed a
posture of minimalism or perfectionism, or of chilly,
intellectual grandeur. Hence my rage at Stanley Kubrick,
Don DeLillo, Jean-Luc Godard, and Talking Heads. The
artists who seemed to promise the most were the ones
who’d created art that stirred me while seeming to absent
themselves from emotional risk--so these were the ones
that were capable of failing my needs most violently. It was
as though in their coolness these artists had sensed my
oversized needs and turned away, flinching from what I’d
asked them to feel on my behalf. I blamed them, anyway.
My declaring a writer or musician or director my favorite, it
seemed, contained a kind of suicide pact for my own

The disappointment artist was me.

And then the book closes with an X-ray of...perhaps...why I am really writing this, right now. Maybe exposes once for all why anyone writes, at all.

Which means I can't possibly comment after the quote. I'll sign off now.
And vow not to write another word.

Until I'm twenty (again) and can grow a proper beard and blog.

Buy the book.

Here it is:

Since then, I believe it would be fair to say, I’ve been in a
hurry. Writing is another meditation that’s also a frantic
compensation. As if wearing headphones, I’m putting
some of myself to sleep, rushing to the end of my days:
there’s a death wish in reducing life to watching one’s
fingers twitch on the alphabet. I’m as pathetic as that kid
watching double features alone, but also as vain. Writing’s
an aggression on the world of books, one reader’s bullying
attempt to make himself known to others like him. My
heroes Greene, Dick, and Highsmith left many dozens of
novels; I’m on pace to write, at best, ten or twelve of the
things. Still, I’m building my shelf. Like the comedian
Steven Wright, who said, "I have a large seashell
collection, which I keep scattered on beaches around the
world," my teen-age room is still expanding, like the
universe itself. If writing’s a beard on loss, then, like some
character drawn by Dr. Seuss, I live in my own beard.

Really, what’s one supposed to say when the mask comes
off? Is there an etiquette I’m breaking with? John Lennon
recorded a song, for his first album after the breakup of the
Beatles (what a grand beard that was, art and
companionship blended together, and the worshipping
world at his feet!), called "My Mummy’s Dead." I suppose
this is my version of that song. I sing it now in order to quit
singing it. Mine has been a paltry beard, anyway, the
peach-fuzzy kind a fifteen-

year-old grows, so you still see
the childish face beneath. Each of my novels, antic as they
sometimes are, is fuelled by loss. I find myself speaking
about my mother’s death everywhere I go in this world.

Someone once said that every good poem’s true subject is
death, yet to write more than one poem you’d better find a
way to forget you heard that. If life itself is, after all, only a
beard for death, why couldn’t the reverse be true as well?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Hey, thanks for engaging the conversation!