Thursday, August 16, 2007

clarity, confusion, shock

I am writing this from out in Marin County, California where up on this mountain one can go days without seeing anyone. I've been reading CHARMED CIRCLE, an account of the agglomeration of artists and arties surrounding Gertrude Stein in Paris before WWI: hijinks and gossip and a lot of how-the-who's-who-knew-who's-who. The effect of this treatment of capital-c Celebrity and celebrity creation (the author James Mellow has one theory of how Gertrude Stein cultivated fame by maintaining links with successive generations of young literati) on me here in the gloriously empty meadows on the coast of the Pacific Rim is rather strange. What do you do with people? Coming out here I feel vaguely haunted by the San Francisco Renaissancers--Spicer, Duncan, etc--and then the Berkeley/Oakland circles that followed. As if it might be possible merely be being here as I write and transcribe work to be a San Francisco or Bay Area poet ipso facto.

And now similarly by Picasso, Matisse, Apollinaire et al floating diaphanously around the Stein residence in Paris circa 1909. What is lost amid the scholarship of who did what when in Mellow's rather impressively exhaustive account of Stein -- who it turns out did live in Oakland in her adolescence, thus in spirit and despite her proud Allegheny PA lineage, setting her among the Northern Californians -- is how the connections happen. Her brother Leo goes off to Europe in a vague spirit of becoming an art critic, or a historian, or an artist as is hobnobbing with Bernard Berenson and Bertrand Russell as if this is merely a matter of course. And then the salons seem merely to materialize. I hope this is not merely some kind of class mystification exercise, such as in Apted's 21 UP when the maligned noble preps protest that a film of them at seven predicting the rungs of their ascents to Oxbridge turn out to be mostly accurate fails to capture the sweat, toil and sheer uncertainty of climb. As lawyer Andrew in the documentaries says not entirely convincingly "it all could have gone wrong." But what is wrong and how would you know if it were happening? In retrospect there are perhaps foggy recollections but essentially a narrative and one that is thus in its linearity, easy. This happened, versus could. And so they went to the studio of Pablo Picasso, about which she remarked...

Right now I am surrounded by fog blowing in off the ocean that is impenetrable laterally but through which the sun beats down. Despite the cloud cover one can get a sunburn. Perhaps this has me meditating on the obscurities. But a little clarity to wrap up:

I learned about CHARMED CIRCLE first in an aside during a class at Columbia on the '50s martinis-and-madness circle of Lowell, Berryman etc. taught by Liam Rector. Liam was caustic and open-hearted, aphoristic in a slightly orotund but also endearing way. He insisted on the depth of shallowness, repeatedly attacking a culture unwilling to embrace "look-ism," taking joy of gossip and diaries and private photographs and such. A necessary corrective perhaps to too much serious seriousness. Not that Liam Rector wasn't serious, but he liked to play. I just learned from Ron Silliman's blog that Liam died yesterday, news that is shocking and sad. I remember Liam decrying the latest puritans and pondering the difficulty of locating the current indefensible intolerances that are not without but within. For him it was possible we were living in invisibly situations of inquity and bad relation that would only become obvious in retrospect, or through a bracing encounter with perspective. Liam was I think always in search of this breath of fresh air.

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