In a recent issue of the New Yorker (the cover has a little girl in a red cap skating on a piece of ice in a pond in a city park dated Jan. 8, 2007) there is a great essay by Milan Kundera called Die Weltliteratur.
As the essay moved into the modern novel, Kundera named his ‘great pleiades': Kafka, Musil, Broch, Gombrowicz. He has named these authors before in other essays on the novel. They are stars not just in the celebrity sense but as beacons guiding his ship on rough seas. Again and again, back to Kafka, back to Gombrowicz. Where am I? Where is my mind? Where is the ship going?
When writing about these writers, Kundera called them, ‘poets of the novel. . .seduced by the imagination seeking to move beyond the borders of ‘realism' but at the same time impervious to seduction by the lyrical; hostile to the transformation of the novel into the personal confession. . .they, all of them conceived the novel to be a great antilyrical poetry.'
Ah-hah! I say. How often I desire to push the words into the stratosphere of lyrical fluffiness filled with so much confessional stuff like how I kiss and cry, yet I look on the overblown melodrama of such kissing and crying as an absurdity. I see so many who wish their lives to be written as a drama with grand gestures and ohhhhs and ahhhhs, but it can all be undercut by a joke (or snow---I live in LA).
I have been trying to write a piece about such people. I call them superlative people. I'm sure you've met superlative people in your travels. I've even behaved in a superlative manner myself at times. To behave superlatively, all you have to do is express yourself with superlatives---words like ‘perfect!' fantastic! wonderful! Extraordinary! Something is not just described or modified. It is turned into something heightened. It is turned into bad opera.
I recently caught myself making a superlative expression when perfection was not necessary. When I was ordering coffee, I asked the coffee shop girl to leave room at the top of the cup for milk. When she showed me the cup with coffee an inch lower than the rim, I exclaimed ‘perfect!' then frowned.
It wasn't perfect. It was just coffee. The coffee shop girl wasn't aiming for perfection. She just wanted me to not spill extra down the trash at the milk station. I didn't want to spill extra either. I just wanted room for skim milk. Why had I exclaimed perfect?
Has my need for positive energy and to be nice to all around me turned me into someone who makes melodramatic word choices? Or I could just blame my mother? Her favorite word is ‘wonderful' and she took me to the opera as a child.
A week later in the same coffee shop, I ordered coffee with room for milk. When the girl asked if she had left enough room, I said ‘yes, fine.' Sometimes, good, fine, and okay are enough---especially when one talks about coffee.
The coffee at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (aka LACMA) is pretty good. Connor and I took a coffee break there on Sunday after seeing the Magritte exhibition.
The exhibit was designed by John Baldessari whose design has been getting a lot of praise because he put in wall-to-wall carpeting of sky and clouds. He cut doorframes in Magritte-esque shapes and had the museum guards dress in black jackets and bowler hats (you could buy one at the gift shop).
I did not like the design. I thought the carpeting was dumbass and wrong. At first that was just a gut reaction. Was I just being rebellious? Then, as I looked at more Magrittes and other fun pieces of art, an idea started to form. At first it was more of a gesture. Then, in front of a Magritte, it came together, and I laughed. Connor laughed with me. As Connor and I laughed out loud, other patrons stared with concern while others didn't hear us at all---they had headphones on.
Magritte is just Magritte, and perhaps that's the joke. He does not ask for awe. It's as if he made art that was important by not being important. Nothing is important. Nothing is what it is. You don't need to walk on clouds to see Magritte. You just need the ground. Magritte will put you in the clouds---if he wants to put you there---but I don't think he does. Dude, it's a pipe, but it's not a pipe, but it is a pipe. Whoah.
I've been trying to relax my brain in the New Year, so naturally, I decided to watch a six hour film from Italy called The Best of Youth. It was a six hour miniseries which got a theatrical release in the States a few years ago. The spine of the film concerns two brothers and their family over the course of forty years.
The film begins in 1966 when the brothers have just finished taking exams at university. They have so much energy. They feel they can fix things and make everything better. However, as time goes on, their youthful ideals fall away. As I watched the brothers travel through time, I wasn't watching big dramatic things but how little things take on importance over time. Sure, big dramatic stuff happens to the family, but what I took away from it was the moments between characters. On a television screen, the camera got right up to the faces and sat still. The ending even has a benevolent ghost which I liked.
The next day, I went online to read reviews of the film. They were filled with raves and superlatives.