Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Quintessentially Zinn, Quintessentially Bukowksi
Charles Bukowski died on March 9, 1994. My group of comrades celebrate Buk Day, by starting to drink as soon as we're up, staying drunk all day, reading Bukowski short stories and poems, watching footage of him reading his work and bits of the documentary "Born Into This." The better of us also get some writing done--I was not one of the betters this year. What I was, however, was recklessly emotional, and looking at Buk through a very different lens, after attending a Hollywood-studded tribute to Howard Zinn last week.
I watched a series of famous actors (including some favorites of mine like Viggo Mortensen, Tim Robbins, and Marisa Tomei) read from Zinn's collected works. No frills, no effects, just good voices, good writing, good people, good intentions. A clip from The People Speak, a new documentary about Howard Zinn's life and work, ended with the line: "Don't mourn, organize."
I stomped my feet and sang my heart out with Tom Morello, Boots Riley, Exene Cervenka, and Ben Harper, as they led us in the "missing" 3rd verse of "This Land is Your Land," and we all--famous people, not famous people, artists, business-heads, publishers, weed-smokers, drinkers, AA vets, strippers, writers, directors, journalists, assistants, moms, out-of-towners and Hollywood-ites, we all were, it seemed, for one shining moment, agreeing on a few very important things. Like how miraculous it was that we were there, together. Many of the attendees were public faces, entertainment-industry people for whom being called "a radical" is of more potential social/financial consequence, which made the night even more poignant. Not that anyone might mistake Josh Brolin for anything else. The point is, everyone mentioned Zinn's cheerfulness in the face of such adversity in the world, and one of my favorite readings came from "The Optimism of Uncertainty," in which he wrote:
"An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places--and there are so many--where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."
I taught a set of poems by Charles Bukowski in my "Infamy and Cultural Deviance" class at Emerson and he was usually met with half-enthusiasm and half-terror-manifesting-as-disgust. The argument never centered on whether he was "honest," because even the scared people can see that--the argument centered on whether it was right, or useful, or helpful to the world, for a person to be as relentlessly critical as he was. He wrote poems about his boredom with current literature, current music, current culture. He wrote poems lambasting normalcy and sanity and people who seemed to believe they were doing something important in the world. He told readers to quit fucking around, quit lying, quit "trying," and above all, quit making him watch their bullshit.
If Bukowski and Zinn had been sitting at a table together, though (and I wonder if this ever happened, since I couldn't find any record of it) I think they would have hit it off. Not because Zinn would ingratiate, or because Bukowski would perform. Not because Bukowski would be erudite, or Zinn would be funny. Not because they'd agree on what to talk about, even. I think they would have recognized in each other, through their fundamental difference in "style," three other, more important fundamentals: (1) a well-researched and deeply felt dissatisfaction with the world as it is, (2) an irrepressible desire for people to wake up, change, do new things, surprise them, and (3) a belief that the latter is actually possible.
If Bukowski was a miniaturist, a writer focused on the most pertinent details of the current, real moment, then Zinn was a panoramic thinker, someone seeing the history of the world in long, wide strokes. Asking their texts to speak to each other is a bit like asking Jane Austen to write a manifesto on...anything. But why not? Why not imagine them at the table?
Zinn: Education can, and should, be dangerous.
Bukowski: My next university lecture will be "THE POSITIVE INFLUENCE OF GAMBLING AS A MEANS OF DEFINING EXPERIENCE AS SOMETHING THAT CAN BE TOUCHED LIKE A BOOK OF MATCHES OR A SOUP SPOON."
Those are both quotes. Think about how much more exciting that conversation could get.
After the Zinn tribute, we were shuffled into an extremely posh party at the Beverly Hilton. We were "under" dressed-- or wrongly dressed, is what it seemed--as Linz bounced forward in her Ivory Coast soccer jacket, Anthony wore jeans next to men in tuxedos, and I sprawled on a white leather pouf in a T-shirt with a big red star and "EZLN" written across the front. We drank wine. We got tired of not being able to hear ourselves. As we left, we were handed bags of swag. This is what the letter, impeccably placed in a glossy black folder in the glossy black bag, said to us.
"Thank you for your support of Artists for Peace and Justice. In honor of your attendance at this evening's 3rd Annual Hollywood Domino Pre-Oscar Gala, I am delighted to personally extend to you a special invitation to join Quintessentially, the world's leading Luxury Lifestyle Group."
The letter, at one point, asks this question:
"Want to charter a jet to take ten of your closest friends on a spur of the moment trip to a private Caribbean island?"
What? I was hot with protest music and hope, fired up on the potential radicalism in a town where image usually seems more important than content, and suddenly, this, THIS was in my hands.
The letter might as well have said:
"Want to ensure that the unjust distribution of wealth in America remains totally unchallenged, as you stroke your ego by donating a tiny bit of your money to a mostly-vanity-run charity?" or "Want to be a part of the world's mostly-white ruling class, and remind yourself of your inflated importance by continuing the exploitation of workers in colonized and post-colonial nations?"
And then, I knew, someone would say, YES! YES I DO! and fork over $5,000, and they would be happy that they now have a brand new leather luggage tag and a 24-hour global concierge. For their NEEDs. Needs like massages and price-inflated champagne.
Oh Howard Zinn, I thought, I'm sorry. And yesterday, I wanted to run to Bukowski's house and give him the ridiculous letter, and let him make a poem about it.
Instead I will make the poem, since he's dead.
Thank you for your support.
We are Artists
You are right to love us.
You have needs, and we know someone
Who can help you.
Your needs are special.
Your place in the world is special.
You yourself are incredibly special,
and there are many people
who are less special than you
who would like to help you
Don't worry, they want to.
They really do.
They need jobs.
Planning a trip to Athens, and
need to know the hottest places to sleep, eat, and play?
Need a woman, who is pretty?
You crave things.
You can have them, easily
With our help.
Thank you, for your support.
Our membership is tiered, and
is priced beginning
at the low, low, extremely insignificant price
which of course you could send
directly to a local artist
or to Amnesty International
But we know many
we know more
pretty women with massage licenses
in more countries
and we know how to fulfill
Here is a Buk poem to read to your friends' voicemail:
Nobody But You
nobody can save you but
you will be put again and again
into nearly impossible
they will attempt again and again
through subterfuge, guise and
to make you submit, quit, and/or die quietly
nobody can save you but
and it will be easy enough to fail
so very easily
but don't, don't, don't.
just watch them.
listen to them.
do you want to be like that?
a faceless, mindless, heartless
do you want to experience
death before death?
nobody can save you but
and you're worth saving.
it's a war not easily won
but if anything is worth winning then
this is it.
think about it.
think about saving your self.
your spiritual self.
your gut self.
your singing magical self and
your beautiful self.
don't join the dead-in-spirit.
with humor and grace
wager your life as you struggle,
damn the odds, damn
only you can save your
do it! do it!
then you'll know exactly what
I am talking about.
--from Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, The Line, the Way
What is most hopeful about this poem is the last line--the implication that once you've committed, once you've gone over to the side of those who refuse to be dictated by the hegemonic systems around them: capitalism, sexism, racism, etc., that you'll find a true community on the other side, a big BBQ where Buk and Zinn and Boots Riley and Dostoevsky and Tom Morello and Mike Davis and SARK and Che Guevara, and thousands others, and the Cristofanis, and the Teds, and me, with such gratitude I include myself, are already drinking salted Pacifico's (or shots of Jack, or water, or whatever), planning the next move. And singing. And writing. And laughing. And loving, and fighting, and getting waylaid, and getting back on track, and starting again.
As a Frenchman once said to Linz (excuse the lack of correct punctuation):
Join the fete!
at 4:23 PM