It’s official: I’ve arrived in Buffalo, NY, population ~260,000, home of my forefathers (and foremothers) and step-stone to My Future, whatever that is. The lakes are huge, the town is wacky, and the new apartment is perfection (except on the hot days). The journey here was a blast as usual: following I-40 east till you cross the hundredth meridian, the giant valve of Gulf moisture gets thrown wide and the world gets really green again. The little Mazda, despite being completely loaded down with the rudiments of my new life, didn’t flinch on the way, and sipped gas, barely more than it does when empty.
There’s not a whole lot to tell, just scraps and impressions, mostly experienced on the radio as I sat encapsulated in my air-conditioned car-bubble for hours, eighteen inches above a reeling ribbon of interstate. I was after all in a hurry this time.
Outside Oklahoma City I unexpectedly found great gritty old-time rock and then soul over the radio, playing whole albums at a time. Good stations always stand back and let you immerse yourself. So as I passed east of town and the sun hung low like a ripe peach against the ramparts of Dixie, I sank into the kaleidoscopic lyricism of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and thrilled to the propulsive verve of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Pieces of a Man”. I still find myself murmuring
Could you call on Lady Day
Could you call on John Coltrane
Now ‘cause they’ll
They’ll wash your troubles
Your troubles your troubles
Your troubles away
Kept on through Memphis, where I pulled off and found, on famous Beale St., the true meaning of gumbo. Never has such ugly, excremental-looking slop managed to conceal such a shocking, raucous, unforgettable deliciousness. Then on across the hills of Tennessee to Goodlettsville, north of Nashville proper, where under a noxiously sticky warm fog I ventured out from my hotel to finally catch the new Star Trek movie, “Beyond”. It’s an awe-inspiring work of visual effects with at most a thin paste of detectable plot and characterization. The giant space city “Yorktown” is magnificently rendered but eerily impersonal and anthill-like. The alien Jaylah, which I heard some people say is the best-rendered character in the movie, seemed to me mostly like a rehash of Zoe Saldana’s character in Avatar, with the same stock-cutesy-primitivistic way of speaking. “Don’t break my house”, she tells Kirk, as he improbably flies the long-lost USS Franklin through a storm of deadly drone ships. (In defense of the mostly-forced Franklin subplot, though, it is refreshing to see a starship bridge not obviously modeled on an Apple Store.)
Next up Kentucky, where lay my main mid-trip objective: the Mammoth Cave complex and national park in the southwest part of the state. This had been a back-burner goal of mine for years, and I chose this route to finally let me cross it off.
As a general rule I don’t care much for national parks, outside of Alaska and North Cascades: they nearly always give an over-crowded, over-processed experience, with sprawling visitor centers, lines of tourists’ cars and way too much asphalt, which in my book generally defeats the point of going out into the wild in the first place. You get a “theme park” experience overlaying everything, which you are left to scrape beneath for some sense of authentic discovery.
Mammoth Cave is not much of an exception, with access limited to large tour groups on a tight schedule. The cave floors, once rugged and rocky, had just recently been paved–to increase the banality of the experience to a government-approved level, I suppose–and the rangers get real nasty if you linger to take a picture anywhere you’re not supposed to, probably because of past idiots who fell down crevasses or choked on stalactites or whatever Darwin-award-worthy things people manage to do. So put out of your mind any poetic notion about getting silence or solitude, away from the grumbling of kids and the maundering of 200 other adults, in which to contemplate the riddle of existence or something. Step lively folks, this is guided-tour-only.
Given all this the effect was certainly not as profound as my visit to the Malpais, but still immensely worthwhile. A mammoth cave theme-parkified is still a mammoth cave, after all; I for one couldn’t stop gaping voidly at the… gaping void. Many sections of the 2-hour journey left me completely speechless, standing stock still (despite the increasingly angry ranger) and goggle-eyed. There is something agelessly gripping about this immense embrace of rock, these cool inner spaces of the earth, this darkness that seems not menacing but sure and comforting. Worth the $14? Absolutely! But how I wish I could have been one of those few elite visitors back in the 1890s, who got to write their names in lighter smoke on the roof–in quite good penmanship, I’d add. (Vandals today just don’t care about the little things.)
One of the most interesting experiences from the trip, going back to radio, was a piece about an obscure writer, X, who spent his life outlining what he considered a collection of rather earth-shattering ideas, in the form of a series of novels and quasi-philosophical works. Alas the world was not much interested, for his lot in life was to have only one of these books published in his lifetime, and a few small articles. Diagnosed with cancer, and having written all that he felt he wanted to convey, X resolved to commit suicide. On the eve of his death, the story goes, X emailed 12 different writers with an account of his strange life, his aspirations for his work, and his fateful final plans. (He did go through with it, jumping off the roof of a hotel that night.)
I couldn’t help but be reminded of a footnote in “The Myth of Sisyphus”:
“I have heard of an emulator of Peregrinos, a post-war writer who, after having finished his first book, committed suicide to attract attention to his work. Attention was in fact attracted, but the book was judged no good.” [p. 7]
Anyway, the piece ruminates quite tactfully on these writers’ reactions to this completely unexpected announcement–the extremely complicated mixture of annoyance, concern, mystification, and there-but-go-I feelings any reasonably successful professional might have when confronted with such a cry from the depths.
Naturally, as a completely obscure blogger myself, and embarking on a new chapter in a new city, such a story was bound to hit somewhat close to home for me. And so I went forth onto the Internets to find out what I could about X and his work. The main artifact of his ill-starred career I was able to find is a blog, mostly of ask-the-master type posts, uploaded just before his suicide. So, in a dismal Ohio roadside inn, as monstrous thunderstorms beyond gave the impression of a Trafalgar re-enactment, I settled back with a warm can of Arrogant Bastard ale and dipped in.
Probably the most haunting thing about this for me was that, while X viewed himself as having been committed to his “ideas” and their elaboration through his books, there were simply no great ideas that I could discern in the articles. (The original radio story perhaps tactfully hinted at this by noting that none of the 12 writers who were contacted have since taken any interest in X’s work.) There were rather generic complaints about the advance of technology, the idea of going back to nature, and somewhat tedious summaries of novel plots, but nothing with any clear or novel philosophical thrust.
I thought: X could have made a worthy life doing any number of things; instead, in a kind of tragic illustration of the Dunning-Kruger effect, he seems to have convinced himself he was a “visionary philosophical author”. He died alone, unremarked, estranged from wife and daughter, claiming a kind of abstract fulfillment that no one shared in. It seems, in effect, that he was so tone-deaf to the world of ideas that he never let the fact that he didn’t really have any stand in the way of his believing how grand theywere.
Indeed the most disturbing impression from reading that ghostly blog of “ideas” is that in place of great or surprising ideas, we are drawn into X’s endless self-absorption concerning his self-identification as a “writer”. It appears X’s writing career was all identity, no substance; it was about being what he had already envisioned himself to be, and filling out a finite retinue of “ideas” he already had concluded he simply must have, rather than discovery and development.
I’d dare say in X’s defense that this makes him unwittingly emblematic of our self-obsessive times, for here we have a writer whose writing is predominantly about the act of trying to be a writer. It creates a kind of “anti-Bildungsroman” pattern, since instead of adventure and personal development towards a triumphant coming-of-age, we see the programmatic, almost mechanical unfolding of a preconceived self leading towards a dismal end.
The writing itself is not actually bad. Alloyed with a showman’s or a mountebank’s self-promotional instincts, X’s confidence in his own writerly mask could have sufficed to float a limited, fading notoriety; without these, the result is one of life’s awkward thuds, a reminder of the sterility of intellectual pride and self-enforced isolation. The veil of self is ever-shifting, but what are we to do when it leads us to invest in an image or an aspiration that does not fit our gifts, and leads us into empty space? X bought into every stereotype of “being a writer” and it only dug him deeper. For instance:
“…[be] an “informed mongrel” out there in the streets, following scent trails, knocking over trash cans, pissing on various people’s property to gauge their reactions. You’ve got to taste everything, love everything, suffer everything, if you’re going to have any inkling at all of what the human drama is all about.”
That kind of Kerouac-style abandon is admirable and very romantic but by itself it ignores the role of craft and the most basic fact of all: writing is a form of communication. I have also noticed the picaresque appeal of the writerly life, accompanied by considerable encouragement by mentors, friends, family. But X shows where that impulse leads without a commitment to the world or at any rate something outside oneself–so that perhaps even great talent alone would not have been enough to save him.
But what, then, are we to make of this comment?
“…while I’m understandably not happy about not being published more, I’m content that I did what I felt I was meant to do. My life has been meaningful to me.”
X’s life was meaningful, to him, in all his isolation and obscurity and ultimate demise. Is this enough? Is this the victory from the jaws of defeat (and from solipsism)? Is it enough to construct a beautiful world all of your own if you believe it fiercely enough? Is this, in fact, exactly the kind of Sisyphean triumph of sheer will in the face of ultimate absurdity that so captured Camus’ imagination? These questions hung heavy in the air that night, and they still do.
So that brings me to Buffalo. The city is down on its luck they say, but not much more so I think that most non-A-list cities in America these days. There is evidence of a stubborn thick-skinned pride in the people here, plus a hint of outpost-like exoticism that I connect with having a foreign country just across the river (even if it is Canada). The big Neoclassical and Art Deco buildings still stand in downtown, marking the glory days everyone hopes will come again. Many of the old neighborhoods are magnificent, meltingly green and elegantly columned and gabled. Like much of Rust Belt America, I think the place still has something to say about not giving up, has something to show for itself that its relative obscurity has only temporarily disguised.
It’s been incredibly warm just before I arrived–high 80s and even 90s. Global warming. Everyone tells me ominous tales about the Great Lakes winters, and that Lake Erie, being so weirdly warm now, will in a few months’ time transmogrify into a monster snow generator from hell. My landlord today told me of struggling with depression during these winters, despite loving the city itself. But in my little loft with no A/C, I still can’t wait for the cold weather.
One frustrating thing about the way the city is built is that it is hard to get a good look at Lake Erie–a pretty spectacular sight–even though the city is built right up against its eastern shoreline. Instead there are tangles of canals, old factories, promontories, abandoned docks, rusting granaries, and big stone breakwaters. Like Camus said of Oran in “The Plague”, “the city turns its back upon the sea”. Not having experienced the legendary madness of a lake-effect winter since my very early childhood, I might just not get that there’s a very good reason for that. But it didn’t stop me the other day from taking the sad little subway down from my digs near the University to downtown, and from there walking the two miles to where the industrial blockade finally settles down and lets you see the two blue lips of the horizon, where lake kisses the sea. From a tiny hill I watched the sailboats in the distance and thought: it is hard to imagine such storms brewing from something so subdued and lovely. But whatever this old bucket of a town has to offer, let me receive it gratefully.