26 May 2010

Synesthetic Anesthetic

from James Purdy's The Nephew:
"As they talked to one another in the dark, it even seemed to them that they were living their entire lives all at once, and were in command of their total personalities. Friends and relatives long dead entered into their conversation, and the hard implacable void of contemporaneity was dissipated. One could, so to speak, see land, breathe air. The night had lifted from night."

20 May 2010

Sincerest form etc.

I’ve been thinking about the question of influence and imitation, in writing and in other forms of art-making as well, about what it means to be conscious of your influences, to at times consciously attempt to replicate aspects of work by those you admire. I’ve been thinking about the line between interesting and clunky (purely derivative) imitation, about the ways that influence bleeds in even when you don’t mean it to. Sometimes, I think, the bits in our work that feel most “stolen” from another source are totally not identifiable as such by the average listener/reader/viewer—I always felt like I was throwing other bands’ riffs into Erase Errata songs, but in the midst of everything else that was going on in the song, and due to my admitted lack of actual technical virtuosity, I have a feeling these stolen riffs entered the world much transposed. In writing, you may not have bandmates’ cacophony to hide behind, but you still have the cacophony of your own brain-processes, your own contexts. Jason was recently telling me how transparently he felt that he’d ripped off a Sebald scene and thrown it in his novel, but the way he told it to me it seemed a) more a tribute than a theft and b) like probably no one would be able to tell. I think too about an anecdote I heard years ago about Stereolab, how they listed their songs on their set-list after the titles of songs they felt they’d ripped off to create them (“Percolator” = “Take Five”, etc.). Sure it makes sense when you think about it, but, usually, only then. When we feel the shine of influence so strongly, we think it must be blinding for everyone else.

But I’m also wondering about more insidious, less conscious forms of influence. What about when you love, say, an author’s work, but your work is kind of nothing like theirs? Does that influence still show up without your realizing it? For example, I am such a huge fan of Jane Bowles—recently re-obsessed via this amazing volume that Four Corners Press put out, featuring two stories each by Bowles and Denton Welch, another of my faves, with beautiful drawings by Colter Jacobsen. What I love about Bowles’s writing is the matter-of-factness with which her characters inhabit contradictions, the characters’ simultaneous absolute sense of self-awareness and absolute inability (or lack of desire) to adapt that sense of self in order to fit into regularly functioning human society. In Bowles’s work, indecision is everywhere, but ambivalence is nowhere. My writing, on the other hand, is often fueled by a sense of ambivalence. Where Bowles’s fiction is quick and amazingly on-the-surface, mine is frequently slow, lyrical, and very focused on the interior. So does my work still bare the mark of her influence? Is it there, in however transposed a fashion, in the way that all our experiences and contexts somehow come across as a trace (in the literal or Derridian sense) on the page? Should we deliberately push our art to echo the art we admire? For those of us who get obsessed with the art we love, I think we often want to join it, to get close to it, by paying testament somehow. But is it better if we don’t attempt to get close to all of our heroes, but leave some out that we can continue to admire, appreciate, from a fan’s safe distance?