Sunday, September 28, 2014

A Matter of Lying

“Always in this region at about this time they began to speak the truth at each other. The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being-- it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.”

No writer of the twentieth century quite mastered the heartbreak of married old men in love with younger women in wartime frontier posts like Graham Greene did. The Quiet American is more famous (due the fact it too is excellent, it was made into a decent movie in 2002, and that it is the first novel about the Vietnam War), but The Heart of the Matter-- a surprisingly tense, bitter telling of a policeman, Major Scobie, an honest do-right old-school type in a loveless marriage delving into lies in order to pursue a relationship that brings him some happiness in some godforsaken colonial town in the middle of World War II-- might be the best written book of Greene's wonderful oeuvre.

Scobie is married to Louise, a high-strung devotedly Catholic bibliophile who doesn't do idle talk well and is a bit of a pariah among plain-spoken bureaucratic types.  When the Europeans gather for gossip and spirits, she is distinctly uncomfortable and nearly always unhappy. However, a recent arrival on the lethargic colonial scene, Wilson, has a secret love of poetry and falls in love with her; so much so he is openly contemptuous of Scobie, whom he might be spying on and reporting for transgressions. Louise isn't quite flattered by Wilson's clumsy amorous declarations and pushes her husband to find some means to get her on a boat out of the colony, preferably to Cape Town, South Africa where she has friends (England being too dangerous to return to during the war).

A dated photo of Freetown, Sierra Leone, 
where Greene admitted to being the setting of The Heart of the Matter

Scobie, a by-the-books honest cop who never learned how to accept the appropriate bribe resorts to a loan from Yusuf, a Syrian trader with a bad rep in town and who may or may not be smuggling diamonds. The loan is straightforward and legal, and Yusuf is unfailingly polite and friendly, but to be on any kind of business terms with Yusuf, especially for a police officer, is suspicious. But with the loan, Scobie is able to send Louise away. Her emotional instability no longer a living tension, Scobie, while in debt, looks forward to a relatively uncomplicated life.

However, there is a ferry accident up the river. One of the survivors, a Mrs. Helen Rolt, newly widowed and too traumatized to make the long return to England stays on in the town and the rapport she has with Scobie, a man twenty years her senior, develops into a clandestine love affair. Scobie promises to see to her needs devotedly, only to have Louise return early to the colony complicating his life, as is his business with Yusuf until the policeman's moral character is stretched to a breaking point.

By the end of WWII, it had become difficult to rationalize the existence of the Christian God, for what kind of Omnipotent Force would have permitted the outrageous atrocities overwhelming the world throughout the 20th century? Like Ingmar Bergman's doubting priests and spiritually fraught christian knights, Greene's heroes are often men who know all the words of the Lord's Prayers, but who have lost all faith in their meanings. Godless and isolated thus, Scobie has his own moral playbook, but the pages are torn out one by one in an enveloping complex of lies.  In his futile attempt to please everyone and compartmentalize his feelings, Scobie becomes completely unmoored and his nervous breakdown has a palpable sense of doom.

The author, Graham Greene, 
around the time of the publication of The Heart of the Matter

There are few novels that capture the painful tedium of loving your partner without being the least bit in love as The Heart of the Matter does. A loveless marriage is a horrible thing to bear and Greene brings an immediacy to the day-to-day walking-on-eggshells hopelessness: “People talk about the courage of condemned men walking to the place of execution: sometimes it needs as much courage to walk with any kind of bearing towards another person's habitual misery.” It is lies that unravel Scobie, but he'd long inured himself to reality, forced pleasantries with his wife, whom he wholly pitied and loved not at all. Our hero is a noble failure, but there is a bit of him in all of us, trying for goodness even when exhausted, even when it would be so easy to just give up and move on. "No man is an island," the poet John Donne famously writes, but then Greene writes, less romantically, but perhaps more truthfully, “When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity...”

Devastating, isn't it?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Ginsberg Guru

“And I will worship him by eating bananas!”

--Allen Ginsberg

You would have thought that the guy that wrote the legendary poem Howl (“I saw the best minds of my generation...”) and who (along with Jack Kerouac) personified what was perhaps the most important cultural movement in 1950s America would have felt some satisfaction in a life well lived. But Allen Ginsberg, Beatnik genius, was a mess of confusion and anxiety when JFK's New Frontier era began. A born traveler, though always a poet of limited means, Ginsberg's insatiable curiosity for life would take him across the world. Deborah Baker's A Blue Hand is the wonderful story of Ginsberg's sixteen months spent in India in 1961-2. Told in non-linear fashion, the story shifts often, like a moth zigzagging towards a light source, jumping between Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky's rendezvous with Joanne Kyger and Gary Snyder (Jack's hero Jahpy Rhyder in The Dharma Bums), Allen's camaraderie with Calcutta's coffeehouse poets, his desperate search for a guru in Benares, and being stoned out of his mind at the funeral pyres, then rewinding to his teen years, New York, the scene in San Francisco, friends like Kerouac, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso and a femme fatale named Hope Savage flitting into the narrative, backwards and forwards and back again, much like the mind might reconstruct existence on a sleepless night wondering how it all came together, this seemingly random chain of events that is called life.

Ginsberg's spiritual quest begins with his famous Blake vision in 1948. Twenty-two years old, confused by his homosexuality and whether or not he should dedicate his life to poetry or follow the American Way and occupy a real job, he experiences an auditory hallucination of William Blake's voice narrating his poem “Ah Sunflower!” He realizes then that “a poem might open the door to the cosmos” but also that the flip side of a mystical experience is paranoid delusion. Nevertheless, he decides to “never forget, never renege, never deny the sense sublime.”

Thus years later the trip to India. And “tripping” for Ginsberg is a loaded word. It involves drugs: pot, of course, mescaline in Mexico, ayahuasca in Peru, and Allen is conversant with Tim Leary on the social revolution they might engineer with LSD. But tripping for Allen was also the clumsy pratfalls of looking for meaning in foreign lands when one tires of the empty promises of home. Ginsberg was neither the first, nor certainly the last, Westerner coming to India assuming its exotic traditions was the answer to existential dilemmas. After more than a year abroad and no closer to replicating the sublimity of his Blakean vision, Allen is devastated. There is no guru who can nurture in Ginsberg some guidance to a higher enlightened state. Drugs have become “a blind alley” and anyway his friend Gary Snyder, an ascetic disciplined in meditation and koan study, often chastises Allen for even considering drugs could be the means for a breakthrough satori.

“Don't you want to study Zen and lose your ego?” Gary Snyder asked his wife, Joanne Kyger, who famously answered, “What! After all this struggle to obtain one?” This conundrum of mind-body balance-of-power affects many travelers to India, including Allen. However, while worrying and wondering what effect ego might have on mystical truths, Ginsberg finally learns that while he might never rein control over visionary powers, he nevertheless concludes being stuck as Allen Ginsberg isn't the worst. The purpose of the journey evolves-- India is not epiphany or new poetry, so much as acceptance of self, that is a gay, spiritual, sensitive, charismatic, questing, uniquely original Jewish American poet whose words have made many of us feel a little less lonely. Why embrace the Indian deities when William Blake might be his saint? An Indian sadhu tells Allen how he “had spent thirty years waiting for Krishna to appear to him, only to realize himself that it was not Krishna he sought, but the love he inspired.”

And that is the thing about Ginsberg: it is love, self-love, yes, everyone needs that, but more importantly brotherly love, love of Man, true, gentle love-- certainly more than Kerouac or the other Beats, and most other poets, who in trying to interpret God in verse, end up careless of others' feelings. For all his friends' emotional abuse and failure to reciprocate kindness, Allen is always there to give. That quality of goodness becomes evident in his friendships with the Calcutta coffeehouse poets, one of whom he helps leave India for America for a fellowship and whose life is thus transformed. At the heart of the Beats' stormy plans for poetry, revolution, and life, Ginsberg is the center of it all, the guiding light. He is nervous, silly, impressionable, high-strung but also reflective, empathetic, brave and strong, one of those artists who is wise enough to understand the monumental consequences of giving himself wholly over to poetry and does so anyway. We often travel to lose ourselves, to be free (as Thoreau wrote: “to reveal our truest self”) but in the end, coming home, we occasionally realize we were never quite so lost in the first place.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Human See Human Do

“The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.”

It is important for the photographer to have a verbal vocabulary of what, how, and why he sees. Such working philosophies rarely emerge from a vacuum but are often a compendium of ideas amalgamated from different sources. A book like John Berger's Ways of Seeing, though somewhat outdated (originally published in 1972) and in need of a contemporary update, is a worthwhile read not only for the visualist, but the layman as well (supposedly everyone who goes to art school reads it at some point.) It is easy to take “seeing” for granted and most of us do in fact (I know I did). This is true especially if one does not travel much and becomes accustomed to familiar landscapes. But Berger, coming from a Marxist humanist background, persuasively argues that there is a subtext to our conclusions of seeing-- that they are colored by education, upbringing, prejudices, social standing, and wealth (or lack of it). But for purposes of clarity, Ways of Seeing is focused specifically on art and advertising.

A short book that can be read in one intense sitting, the treatise is divided into seven parts, four verbal expositions and three pictorial “stories.” The first essay reiterates Walter Benjamin's classic pamphlet The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction; the second explores the depiction of women in oil paintings; the third essay discusses the long period of oil painting 1500-1900 as a province of the rich in a class war context; the final piece ruminates on advertising. More or less, the pictorial montages in between the four written works visually supplement his ideas.

For a small book, Berger covers a lot of ground and utilizes paintings and/or adverts to illustrate his points. Many of the ideas are familiar if you've delved into social and media criticism, or if one is thoughtful and has a tendency to look beyond surfaces into perhaps more truthful contexts. Context is extremely important. Everything has layers of meaning that suggest economic, political, and social histories, whether they be paintings or advertisements, not to mention residences, stores, amusement parks, office towers, restaurants-- just about anywhere and anything.

Berger's prose style, though academic, is mostly free of jargon and his takeaway points are on message. The visual world and how we process what we see has economic roots, more than ever in the advertising age, where visual stimuli are intended to foster our insecurities so that we consume what we don't actually need. Berger writes, “The purpose of publicity is to make the spectator marginally dissatisfied with his present way of life. Not with the way of life of society, but with his own within it. It suggests that if he buys what it is offering, his life will become better... All publicity works upon anxiety.” In 2014 this criticism of advertising has become quite commonplace. Yet in spite of knowing better we continue to spend more than we need, as American credit card debt statistics will attest. But for some, particularly those of a naturally cynical disposition, such revelations are like the light in Plato's Cave, of which we can never get out of our mind and so the material world takes the form of a television commercial montage from which there is not much hope for escape.

See anything?

Berger ends his polemic with the challenge, “To be continued by the reader...” So some casual observations from a personal viewpoint then: More than forty years since Berger laid down his arguments, exposure to visual stimuli has increased manifold, particularly since nearly everyone in a considerably broad age bracket in wealthy, industrialized countries carries a mini-computer in their pocket for which putting away seems somewhat difficult. This distraction (for even if one is doing work emails or reading an essay on Sufism in The New Yorker one is still distracted from one's immediate environment or company). As that rare young(ish) person who has decided to disavow smartphones from my life (at least for now, though I am considering procuring one for work reasons), I've noticed that most people are constantly occupied with their mini-entertainment systems. Often on subway trains it is just myself, young children and the very old letting our eyes wander. Not only are most of us then not witnessing our environment, but for those who have chosen to see, what we get for our effort is a collection of individuals hunched over their devices in defiantly anti-social postures. As a photographer whose significant inspiration comes from the streets, these are rather uninspiring tableaux from which to work, and which I nearly always refrain from shooting (pictures where the subject is disengaged from his or her environs are almost always boring). The pleasure of seeing then has become a little lonelier.

Indeed in my frequent travels to historic cultural sites, I find most tourists rarely let their vision wander over the ruins, the palaces, the ruined castles, the verdant riverbank, but scuttle about clutching iphones, ipads, and large digital cameras. Seeing only through their screens, they take dozens of pictures, sometimes hundreds, probably all of them very bad, as a very good photograph requires some consideration as to point-of-view, composition, and the angle of light. But I have noticed that in refraining from picture-taking altogether, I am much better at sensory-mapping my experience so that the memory is stronger, and when conjured, is a more sensational nostalgia-high than what one hundred photographs could ever deliver. The point of travel is not picture taking, but that the experience enriches your life so that is fuller, deeper, better lived. Anyways, as there are a million images of any place on earth accessible via the internet, I don't often see the point in taking yet another redundant picture just so that I can prove I've been somewhere (even if my artistic avocation is that of photographer). 

 Our evolving landscape 
(though particularly eloquently rendered here by the wonderful Jakob Holdt)

To be honest, I'm rather concerned with our collective future of seeing in general and the state of photography in particular. Though I would advocate the use of film over digital to any photographer who can afford the traditional medium, it is not the digital camera itself that worries me but its application. When you need to take fifty images when one will suffice then you are not seeing properly, or perhaps not at all. And with everyone staring with Pavlovian anxiety at their phones awaiting “likes” and “faves” the corporate advertisers have to work that much harder to secure our attention, becoming louder, larger, and more obnoxious in order to cut a slice of our diminished attention spans. It all compounds so that the world becomes an increasingly uninteresting place to exist. If this is so, what would become the point of seeing? You might as well join the screenheads, for at least they can filter their content when the Earth has become a neon-glowing billboard.

That would be an absolute shame because the world still has moments of extraordinary sublimity-- you just have to look longer, see more. Seeing took me years to learn to do properly and had I never left my native Los Angeles, perhaps I never would have learned. But coming to Japan and later traveling in India, Africa, and the Middle East, whose places' various scripts I was illiterate to understand, striking visual cues helped me navigate and make sense of my environment. From these cues slowly emerged colors, then forms, and eventually mise-en-scene which could be extravagantly beautiful but not by any conventional standard (which is easy to see anyways and psychologically conditioned for us, right, Mr. Berger?). I would say this hypothesized moment of beauty is inexplicable, but that is being evasive. What I'm talking about is a personal vision, one that arrives only with experience, not just with seeing, but also from reading, loving, learning, losing. It is the sum of life lived with eyes open. 

So I worry then for the future. When I was a child I had video games and television but I gave those up for girls and football in High School. I didn't have a mobile until I was 25 years old and I've never owned a smartphone. And it's taken me this long to learn how to see. How will today's children, weaned on screens from the age of two, ever learn how to see so that the world might become a uniquely complex personal vision? I'm not talking about photography here but a life philosophy attached to seeing. Listen, I'm not always pessimistic. I like to believe that the current trend of 'mindfulness' -- call it neo-Luddite if you will-- will become a full-fledged movement to disconnect from our convenient distractions for the more arduous, but infinitely more rewarding pleasure of wandering and seeing and, eventually, understanding.