Tuesday, December 30, 2014

42 Quarks: Getting from here to there

I've written 14 essays for 3 Quarks Daily over the past year. Now I've bundled them into a PDF, which you can download here:

Here's the introduction:

0. Introduction: here & there

Fourteen essays in a bit over a year. The first one appeared on Monday 16 December 2013 and the most recent one on Monday 15 December 2094. My basic routine is simple. During the week before publication I’d get an email from the editor, S. Abbas Raza, reminding me that I had an essay due on coming Monday. I’d start thinking about it and by Friday or so I would begin writing. I’d finish up mid-day on Sunday, upload the essay, and tell Abbas I was good to go.

That was the basic routine, a skeleton. One time Abbas forgot to email us, but I was working on a piece anyhow. Another time I started writing a week ahead of time and sent through six drafts. Just variations on the basic procedure, which went like clockwork, albeit the clock was not quite mechanically perfect.

Not so what went on inside my head. That was irregular. Despite the fact that I’ve been blogging for a while now, and am used to producing frequent long-form posts, writing for 3 Quarks Daily is different. The audience is different.

My blog, New Savanna, is just that, MY blog. I write whatever I want to & post whatever photos. To some extent it’s an extension of my notebooks – in fact my note keeping has all but disappeared into my blogging. While New Savanna is fully public in the sense that anyone on the web can read it, I don’t treat it as a public activity. It’s more like a private salon. I assume I am writing for people who have been following me for a while.

3 Quarks Daily IS public, though public in a distinctly intellectual way. Since I appear there only once every four weeks I do not assume I am writing for an audience that follows me. I am writing for an audience that follows 3QD.

Of the things I know, what would, or should – a different slant, no? interest the 3QD audience? Pondering that question makes writing for 3QD a bit different, a bit more strenuous than writing for New Savanna.
* * * * *

I decided to start off with an old chestnut: What good are the humanities? I am a humanist by training – SUNY Buffalo by way of Johns Hopkins, Dave Hays by way of Dick Macksey. For as long as I can remember, “humanists have been defending themselves and their work against all comers: politicians, scientists of all kinds, and disgruntled letter writers.” Thus opened my first sally into 3QD “Two Problems for the Human Sciences, and Two Metaphors.” What I didn’t say in that essay is that the main reason the humanities are so beleaguered is that they are dangerous, they afford us the luxury to rethink who we are, and that’s a luxury we don’t want.

And that leads naturally to my second piece, a profile of Charlie Keil, a very provocative humanist who is one of my intellectual heroes. Sometime in the late 1960s, when I was an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, I read his Urban Blues, a serious account of the music and life of electric bluesman such as Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and James “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business” Brown. Whooweee! that’s the stuff, said I to myself. Like much of white America I’m in love with black music and Charlie sure had the inside scoop. Like many who read that book I assumed Charlie was black, otherwise how could he possibly know such things and write in THAT way?

And THAT speaks volumes, both that Charlie Keil, a white man from Darien, Connecticut, could know and write such things and that so many assumed he had to be black. That book, though, is not all that Charlie is, and that essay says something about the rest of it. But only something. It talks about his political activism and his work with children, but says nothing about his two-volume work on polka (of which only one volume has been published), nor about the garden in his yard, nor about the free-form calligraphy he sends to any and all, or his habit of addressing envelopes on the back, and so forth.

Next up we have the strangest essay of the lot, a piece of fiction that’s a cross between Jorge Borges and Richard Pryor: “An Astonishing Tale about the Origins of Golf: A True Story.” I actually wrote that back in the 1990s and published it then as well, in a webzine called Meanderings. It began as a short email note to Cuda Brown, the editor, in which I satirized Afrocentrism. While Cuda and I were sympathetic, we were doubtful about the more inventive flavors of the brew. Thus I imagined that golf had been invented, not in the Scotland of venerable historical tradition, but an ancient and imaginary Nubia by one Pharoah Golfotep. What could be sillier? Over the next two weeks, however, this little bit of satire jes grew and grew, like Topsy, and became something else.

I have often thought that there must be more where that came from, that I could write other pieces in that voice and extending those conceits. Surely there must be other uses for a secret society called The Order of Mystic Jewels for the Propagation of Grace, Right Living, and Saturday Night through Historic Intervention by Any Means Necessary. But I can’t get back there. I can’t get into the headspace I was in during those two weeks when that essay just bubbled up out of my unconscious.

And so I took my next 3QD piece to home base: “Some Varieties of Musical Experience.” My title plays on a very well-know book by William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and it does so because the essay itself is in the same terristory. There is a reason that religious ritual is so often accompanied, supported, and propelled by music. Music transports us and unites us. That’s what this essay is about, a sample of anecdotes from various sources with some accompanying commentary.

The one source I omit from the essay, however, is myself. As I explained in a New Savanna post in 2010:
During the early 1970s I'd played for two years with a rock band called St. Matthew Passion. Modeled on Blood, Sweat, and Tears and on Chicago, the band consisted of 4-piece rhythm section plus three horns: sax, trumpet (me), and trombone. On “She's Not There” the three horns would start with a chaotic improvised freak-out and then, on cue from the keyboard player, the entire band would come in on the first bar of the written arrangement.

On our last gig it was just me and the sax player; the trombonist couldn't make it. The sax and I started our improv. The music got more and more intense until Wham! I felt myself dissolve into white light and pure music. It felt good.

And I tensed up.

It was over.

After the gig the sax player and I made a few remarks about it — “that was nice” — enough to confirm that something had happened to him too. One guy from the audience came up to us and remarked on how fine that section had been. Did he know what had happened? Or, if not ‘know’ exactly, did he sense a special magic in the performance?
Such experiences stick with you and shape you.

* * * * *

I could go on like this, writing a separate introduction to each of the 14 essays, grounding each one of them in something out of my past. But that would stretch this introduction beyond all reasonable bounds. Suffice it to say that it’s an eclectic lot, but not without order and perhaps even coherence. For one thing, they all touch on culture.

The two graffiti essays (numbers 7 and 8) not only are grounded in my neighborhood, but I am an artist, though I’ve never tried my hand at graffiti. And they are anchored in the future as well, or at least in my hopes for the future. For I believe that graffiti is one of the foundations of a future cosmopolitan cultural nexus that transcends national boundaries.

The other essays have a foot in the future as well. “Sing Me a Song of Hyperobjects” says we’re in the future already while “It’s Time to Change the World, Again” urges us to get cracking. And so it goes, in one way or another, with the rest of them. Always, how do we get from here to there? As for the 5th essay, “Bundling, Dream Space, Love, and the Farmer’s Daughter,” alas, I’ve not quite figured out which future it’s got a foot in, but it extends deep enough into the past that one might try siting a line into some future, any one of them.

I leave that as an exercise for the reader.

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