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Posts from the ‘Life’ Category

MOBY DICK AND THE PURSUIT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM

Eagle in TreeFollowing is a temporary hiatus from my blogging hiatus. As mentioned, I have had to cut back on the very lucrative business of blogging each week in order to dedicate myself to the equally lucrative business of working on my PhD and my next book project. Theoretically, I could sacrifice sleep and live for the calling but I’m too vain to willingly sport the zombie look before my biological clock capitulates. Now the following blog entry will seem quite random, but I ask if you have read this far already, just go with it. Maybe I am not getting as much sleep as I should but it would be nice to think that someone, somewhere, actually took the time to read this and it is not a bunch of blabber into the void. So here it goes…

This past spring I attended a one-day seminar on Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street (if you haven’t read it, do. It’s not long and quite good).  Our group of about 30 students from all over the world discussed the story’s use in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s quite a fascinating glimpse you can get when you’re only one of two Americans in a room full of non-Americans discussing American literature. I’ve come to sympathize with those who, based on qualifiers and affectionate-sounding tones, obviously like America yet find themselves wickedly conflicted about a country that remains a rather unsolvable mystery. Problems solved long ago and solutions which are now so “self-evident” for Europeans such as universal healthcare, gun regulations, and free higher education are still actually topics of hot debate in the US. How can a country be so internet-of-things be so unapologetically yesterday? Now more than ever, many Europeans seem to be pounding their foreheads on their desks wondering “Why, oh why are you Americans so out of your blasted minds? You’re all so bat-shit crazy and you can bet your Wiener Würstel, you’re even proud of it to boot.”

So all this got me thinking about what it is that defines Americans in our souls and has long defined Americans in literature, films, and our self-image. This prompted me to focus a seminar paper I had to write on Moby-Dick on the Pursuit of the American Dream. I will spare you the entire 20-some pages but I thought, perhaps, you might be interested in the conclusion. I think it really may be what defines us to a certain extent. While Marxist literature critique paints “rugged individualism” as the problem of the American, and it may be indeed the trait that makes us all seem a bit Captain Ahab-like “bat-shit crazy” to outsiders, but it is likewise undoubtedly the very back bone of the American dream. In the end, it might mean we’ve placed ourselves at the helm of a Pequod, steering ourselves straight into oblivion in pursuit of the great white whale of a dream, but I hope not. I hope we can come to understand that there is a way to pursue and live each of our dreams without dragging down our fellow crewman into a watery grave. There is a way to pursue the individual dream together with the common dream. It’s there. We just have to strive for it.

Now the conclusion of that essay I promised:

Statue of Liberty

Lady Liberty – a beacon of the American dream

Marxist theorists argue that writers do not exist in a vacuum free from socioeconomic and ideological influences, and hence writers’ works are also ideological in character. Tyson writes, “like all cultural manifestations, [a novel] is a product of socioeconomic and hence ideological conditions of the time and place in which it was written, whether or not the author intended it so” (63). If this is true, then in the case of Moby-Dick, the time of its revival during the Great Depression is perhaps as significant as the time of its initial publication during the American Renaissance. During the Renaissance, American authors tried to codify an American dream. During the Great Depression, when all else seemed lost, American readers may have been desperate for a concrete example of a man who still believed in something, even if it were an ill-fated dream. Lisman criticizes Marxist theory for what he considers its narrow view that economic factors are solely responsible for man and everything which controls him. Lisman argues that as readers, we admire characters who are concerned with personal relationships and existential or spiritual questions (84). He writes:

To contend dogmatically that the best novels are those which advocate social change involves a failure to appreciate the formal requirements of good literature and a failure to acknowledge that there are other equally important subjects and themes. (Lisman 84)

The measure of Captain Ahab’s greatness is not in his success but in his ambition, tenacity, and perseverance to pursue his dream regardless of the consequences. Indeed, had Ahab been successful, it is doubtful whether he would have lived beyond the last pages of the novel. Though references to the novel in an everyday context may now have become synonymous with megalomaniac ventures most likely destined for failure, for Americans, at least, the image of Captain Ahab is not an entirely negative one.

All men (and women) have the potential to be Ahabs and to willingly and even recklessly sacrifice everything in order to heed the call of their personal drummer, beating the message of what they are meant to do and be in their short time here. The protagonist of the American dream is the JetBlue attendant who grabbed two beers, pulled the emergency slide and never looked back, or the NYC bus driver who, after an exemplary 17-year-long career with the NY transit authority, decided one morning to take a different turn and just keep going. Since his birth, Ahab has come to stand for dictators, tyrants, corporate executives, presidents, but moreover, every single one of us. “Melville felt that whatever essential meaning lies in Moby Dick could be found in the life of a living Ahab by an Ahab himself” (Myers 19). In the American dream, fulfillment of one’s destiny, even in light of possible self-destruction, is far more preferable than bowing to a colorless life of mediocracy and non-individuality. Captain Ahab embodies the promise that man can be more on this earth than an indistinguishable drop in the puddle as interchangeable as the machine parts of Ford’s first automatized production lines. The American dream is not what is to be believed but what is to be done. It is that yearning, burning need to unearth one’s purpose here and pursue it to its ultimate finish, whatever that might be. It can be as practically-minded as a chicken in every dinner pot or as outlandish as the chase of a singular great white whale swimming somewhere in the big, wide, unforgiving ocean.

The ambitious drive of the individualist that holds a negative connotation in some countries and cultures, is a positive and admired trait in America. As Emerson writes in “Self Reliance”:

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide[…] no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him (qtd in Izaquirre 20).

Captain Ahab’s quest to kill Moby Dick may have been doomed from the beginning. However, in his failure, he succeeded. He exercises his agency to at least try and proves himself a man by doing so. No what-ifs plagued Ahab during his final breath as his dream plunged him deep into ocean. Perhaps what Ishmael contends is true –who on this earth isn’t a slave? And yet in our brief time in this world, it is up to us to determine who and what we allow to be our master. In this manner, Captain Ahab and Bartleby are kindred spirits, both abiding their inner will as captains of their chosen destinies. They and they alone choose what to do with their time here. While Ahab exercises his self-evident right to action; Bartleby exercises his right to inaction. Both choices lead in the end to the character’s destruction. A Marxist might therefore argue that it is precisely the rugged individualism that is the destructive trait. Yet by criticizing this “cornerstone of the American dream” (Tyson 57), Marxist ideology drives a stake directly through the heart of an American conviction: within every man (and woman) resides a seed, that, like the majestic Redwoods of the American West, may need a fire for its release in order to become what it was always meant to be.

Every American is born with a thousand futures and every American will die with just one past. The American dream would have us believe that whether that past will be one of an eternal blaze of glory or a fast-fading fizzle of mediocrity is up to us. We may be equal in birth but it is our life that should forever distinguish what we’ve made of ourselves.

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HAPPY 2017!

Time flies. Make the most of it! I wish you all the best for 2017! Love – KC

PS Haven’t forgotten you – just busy working on the next book and Ph.D, living life and chasing dreams. Will try to post once a month in 2017! Thanks for following!

Lucky Pigs

Lucky Pigs

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SHAKESPEARE & CO AND KC BLAU

KC Blau public reading

KC Blau reads from her novel “Women and Wild Savages” at Vienna’s Shakespeare & Co

Many thanks to everyone who ventured out on the full moon this past Friday evening to hear me read from my novel, “Women and Wild Savages.” It was wonderful to read to a full house and get to meet so many of you!

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KEITH JARRETT: A MUSICAL GENIUS IN DESPERATE NEED OF A SNICKERS BAR

He walked onto stage and the applause swelled. I had never seen the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein so jam-packed full of people. Every single one of the 1744 seats and 300 standing places was filled with the face of an adoring fan anxiously awaiting the warm greetings of a Musical Meister.

What we got was the ranting, reprimanding threat of a diva: “I will not play a single note until the two people who just took a photo leave this concert hall. If you’re sitting beside them, urge them to leave or I won’t play.” Like a toddler mid-tantrum, he stomped off the stage and the lights went back up.

A disturbed chatter arose from the crowd. The Viennese consensus? He’s nuts. And they weren’t referring to the photo-taker caper(s). Just enough time ticked by for us to begin to wonder what the Musikverein’s refund policy is on our not-too-cheap tickets when the artist throws a fit and refuses to perform. In the nick of time, a gentleman (hero?) in a dark t-shirt rose from the center of the audience, about 25 rows deep, from a section where tickets no doubt cost upwards of 120 € each, stood up, bumped his way past the stunned fellow concert-goers in his row and exited the auditorium with a shake of his head. Many of us harbored serious doubts whether the departed was the culprit but the ritual sacrifice being made, the self-chosen martyr offered up, the show could go on.

A man in a suit who we recognized from before Cellphone Gate as the gentleman who informed us that there’d be a live recording and we must refrain from extraneous noises reappeared on stage. In a more apologetic than admonishing tone, he reminded us of the “Künstler’s” need to concentrate. Finally Mr. Jarrett re-entered and I no longer know if anyone clapped at this point. Here and there I believe but the unbridled enthusiasm of his initial entrance was history. Why? Three reasons. First, stunned people can’t clap, they’re too shocked to move their hands (see photo of my stunned face included herein). Second, who could tell what might set him off again – perhaps clapping out of rhythm, for example. Third, we all just wanted to put the embarrassing moment behind us as quickly as possible and move on with things.

Mr. Jarrett sat before his grand piano and pounded the keys as if they too were personally involved in the photo-taking infraction. Disjointed chords of choppy scales torpedoed into the loges left and right. Irritated notes wrestled in an angry sea of quick, successive sounds.

Keith Jarrett Tickets to Vienna Musikverein, July 2016

Keith Jarrett Tickets to Vienna Musikverein, July 2016

He was angry. The music was angry. And I was angry.

But by the third piece, then there was light. Staccatos grew more and more interspersed with light, playful notes. By the fourth piece, I could bring myself to join the others and clap, now convinced that it would have been a grave mistake to march out of the hall with Mr. T-Shirt Man in a show of solidarity and a refusal to accept such treatment of us non-genius, musical-lover mortals (as a firm believer in the age-old advice: you are responsible for how you let others treat you). But the lesson was obvious: Keith Jarrett could clearly get away with mistreating his audience members because he truly is a musical genius. The epiphany made me sad for artists specifically and humankind in general.

For years Keith Jarrett’s Cologne Concert, Paris Concert and Vienna Concert from his 1991 appearance in the Vienna Opera House have been some of my most beloved, trusted accompaniments while writing. Sit down, crank it up and within 5 minutes you are in the “mood” and the words stream across the page like currents in a waterfall.

He isn’t hitting pre-prescribed notes. This is improvisation. He is sitting at his bench and coaxing the keys to come together in just the right manner to take his listeners on a magical journey of his making. His music elevates all present to a higher, better, otherworldly place.

By the end of his concert I enthusiastically joined the standing ovation. Not just one but three – or was it four? — encores. His final piece, a playful, soulful version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” seemed like the artist’s version of an apology of sorts. It was that moving. Then he said, “Thank you,” but couldn’t leave us for the night with happy, fuzzy feelings to accompany us home. No. He just had to add, “Now aren’t you glad you were strong? Aren’t you glad you were smart?”

To quote Homer Simpson: “D’Oh!” [slaps hand to forehead].

The concert was recorded live. Mr. Jarrett’s hyper-sensitive (compulsive?) tendencies made me wonder why he does live recordings. Wouldn’t a studio recording be easier to control all variables possible when you pack 2000 people in a room? It’s a contradiction, I suppose. The man who demands such utmost control and obedience of an audience of thousands chooses live recordings and improvisation.

At the same time, after intermission, it wasn’t an apology, don’t get me wrong, but perhaps a justification. Kind of. Mr. Jarrett said that all the picture-taking makes him feel like a caged animal. He also added: “People who think they can interfere with processes is what’s f—ed up the world today.” I get that. But what’s really f—ed up the world is a general lack of empathy. And when thousands of people from all over the world, all walks of life who could be mid-living all the tragedies and challenges life can throw at you, re-arrange their day-to-day existence, coordinate and pretty themselves up to join together at a certain time and place to spend precious, never-to-be-re-gained hours of their life, just to hear you play your music, to join you on a journey to a higher place blindly following nothing more than the next musical note – that is something rather extraordinary and the opposite of f—ed up. And if you give that a bitter after-taste (or before- and after-taste), then shame on you.

There is a synergy between an audience and artist that no studio can give. A synergy in a Golden Hall that has been home to such beauty and artistry of some of history’s and the world’s best talents for over 140 years. A synergy that lingers beyond the 2 seconds the notes are held suspended, a synergy that transcends space and time and I think you must know that, Mr. Jarrett, which is why you record live. So chill. You’re playing jazz, the chillest tunes of them all. Appreciate the joining together to experience a precious parenthesis in time.

I’d like to end with a bit of advice for future concerts:

* to potential Keith Jarrett concert-goers: go, the music will be amazing, but for God’s (Keith Jarrett’s and the concert’s) sakes, keep that trigger finger off the camera icon.

* to Mr. Jarrett: get a grip, chill and have some empathy. If the audience peeves you off, do like Bob Dylan did when he gave a concert in Burg Clam – don’t acknowledge the audience at all. Not one word. Not “Hello” “How are you” or “Thanks.” If they’re like me, sure, they’ll feel snubbed but better snubbed than down-right insulted.

* to concert organizers, you saints, you:

  1.  if tales from a Berlin concert are to be believed, be sure to have the piano tuned before the concert;
  2.  hang up plenty of signs politely advising that the diva “artist” requires utmost concentration and concert-goers who cannot refrain from taking photos kindly will be asked to leave
  3.  give that musical genius a Snickers bar. Or two. Or three. (supposedly they’re good at humanizing divas). And who knows? Maybe there’s a commercial spot in his future and you can turn lemons into lemonade.

Anger advice: It’s better to distract than vent because getting it out can intensify the emotion. Go figure.

I love the podcast the Hidden Brain and this is a fascinating take on what makes Keith Jarrett’s Cologne Concert so phenomenal (though I doubt Keith would agree):
NPR Podcast, Hidden Brain: In Praise of Mess: Why Disorder May Be Good For Us

 

 

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