Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Shoulderpads of Giants

Art is expression, and those topics best understood are more likely to be best expressed. Much of what seems self-serving in art - music about music, painters' self-portraits, novels about writers - is often only the truest expression of artists' own concerns. This is their life, these are the wordly and etheral avenues around which wrap their thoughts and feelings. I'm not a fan of the notion of "art for art's sake" dredged up so often as justification for uninspired, thoughtless gestures passed off as somehow mysteriously meaningful in their very lack of meaning. It has been one unfortunate cardinal sin of postmodernism. However, great artists have often created excellent lessons for future generations through their more indulgent exercises in the craft.

I've been fond of Edgar Allan Poe's writing ever since listening to the parody of The Raven in that very first Simpsons Halloween Special from 1990. A Dream Within a Dream is probably my favorite poem and the one I quote as my signature on game forums. In his less angst-ridden moments, Poe seems to have had quite a bit to say against literary professions. X-ing a Paragrab or the twin farces How to Write a Blackwood Article and The Scythe of Time certainly don't pull their punches in mocking the pettiness of journalists and storytellers.

Then we're given those lovely moments of Poe just playing at writing, pushing his theory of storytelling and the impact of a unified "effect" through more experimental methods. Of the three I'm thinking of, the best and best known is probably The Bells, a rolling, roiling barrage of onomatopoeia dragging youth into the grave through a single rusting note. But then, it's the most concise. It's hard to think of anyone but literary critics and Poe fanatics sitting through something like Landor's Cottage with its painstakingly minute descriptions of the approach to significance, its page after page embodying the pregnant pause before the main action of a story, only to be cheated out of their promised narrative by the very last paragraph. It's hard to think of anyone at all enjoying The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket with its tortuously rambling abortion of a Romantic-age high seas adventure story. These are, however, even in their failings, highly valuable instructional examples as exercises in rhetoric.

We live in a short lull in the constriction of discourse. My own previous generation, this current one and possibly the next as well have access, through the Internet, not only to the greatest breadth of information in the history of the world but also to each other. We have discovered that we can be heard and are dutifully screaming each other deaf with white noise. Everyone has a blog. Rhetorical style becomes less of a taught and learned technique separating literatus from media-absorbing public, controller from controlled, than a dialectic between personality and social reinforcement. Is our online avatar our embodiment or the other way around? In a world with fewer and fewer traces of privacy remaining, we become our persona. We assume that we have to live our stories.

The petty feud Poe described in X-ing a Paragrab has digitized itself into today's forum flame-war. Endless guides and tutorials teach us just how to write Blackwood articles. In the virtual world, there's an art to being. Yet let's remember how the few true creators turned formula on its head, for the sake of the art. Look at Poe hammering that edge between ludicrous repetition and dramatic reinforcement in The Bells. See him turn the creation of an effect into the effect itself in Landor's Cottage. Watch the tendrils of a new myth creeping out of the scattered ramblings of Pym's journal. With but a pen to turn my phrases, I can turn your mind to fear a color; I can turn primate diurnal precepts on their head.

What's my point? Maybe I have none and I'm just wasting your time, one more blog among the millions. Or maybe wasting your time is the point. Maybe I'm shaggy-dogging you. Maybe it's a statement and maybe it's nostalgia. This is Art - to borrow a phrase from the master - as I found it.

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