Case Studies (2001)

John Geraets, ed.: brief 20 - aesthetics (June 2001)

Case Studies

Tell me where is fancy bred
Or in the heart or in the head?

– Shakespeare

  1. I - The Cliché

  2. II - Truth in the Cliché?

  3. III - The Psychic

  4. IV - Truth in the Psychic?

  5. V - The Road of Excess

  6. VI - The Palace of Wisdom

  7. VII - Memento


William Forrester published Avalon Landing, his first novel, while still in his early twenties (his only other recorded publication is a piece about baseball, “A Season of Faith’s Perfection,” New Yorker, 1960). Since then, and since the deaths of his brother, mother and father in swift succession, he has been living in seclusion in a small apartment in the Bronx, linked to the outside world by a pair of binoculars and regular weekly deliveries from his long-suffering publishers.

For, while other writers set out to write “the great twentieth-century novel” (a variant on the Great American Novel?), Forrester succeeded. The book is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning literary phenomenon, still in print after fifty years, and permanently on loan from all the public libraries in New York.

At any rate, that’s the central premise of Gus van Sant’s film Finding Forrester, in which Sean Connery enjoys himself rather too thoroughly playing the crusty old genius. (A Scottish birthplace had to be hastily cobbled up to explain the accent, even though Forrester is clearly intended to be as American as apple pie. The film abounds with ritual invocations of baseball, Yankee stadium, and other American pop-cult icons).

It’s an somewhat improbable tale, based mainly, one would conjecture, on the post-Catcher in the Rye career of J. D. Salinger (seen previously in the Kevin Costner vehicle Field of Dreams).[i] I suppose what interests me about it is the way it offers a fully-fledged “Writer” stereotype for our examination.

Americans have always had a fascination with the writer-recluse. Emily Dickinson, Thomas Pynchon … even H. P. Lovecraft. If they’re not bona fide recluses, they’re eccentric in other ways: repressed (Henry James, Marianne Moore); alcoholic (Faulkner, Berryman, Carver); hospitalised (Robert Lowell, Ted Roethke); suicidal (Hemingway, Plath, Sexton), or just downright dangerous (Fascist Pound, Junky Burroughs …).

Why does Forrester never go out? Why does he never publish anything? Agoraphobia would seem an obvious diagnosis when we see him swaying dizzily in the doorway of his apartment – but a visit to home plate with his new buddy Jamal soon cures that. It turns out to be because, after he published his book, people talked about it too much, and in too intrusive a way: “I decided I’d never do that again.”

Yep, just like poor Keats, it was those goddamned critics who scared him off, and who’ve made him shut himself away from the world, filling filing-cabinets with unpublished stories.

i. Based, in its turn, on W. P. Kinsella's 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, which names Salinger explicitly, rather than just hinting that the "writer" Costner goes out to find might be him. [2009]

[Gus Van Sant, dir.: Finding Forrester (2000)]


I spent all my 20s desperate to have others think of me as a regular guy who wrote a bit of poetry. Now I am happy to take advantage of the freedom my perceived eccentricity affords me. I can tell people where to go down the phone, in language not customary for council employees. I can wander out of the office at any given moment, for a pint or an hour’s window-shopping. Why? Because I am a poet. Mad.

– Conor O’Callaghan,
Poet-in-Residence of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.

I picked up a paperback in Whitcoulls the other day entitled The Poet. On the front cover it said: “He kills without rhyme or reason” (or words to that effect: I know they’d managed to get the notions of scribbling and killing in there somehow). There was also an atmospheric grey illustration of a mysterious death-dealing car driving somewhere to deliver.

Bring it on! At least people respect serial killers a bit. Try telling one of them to piss off and get a proper job!

Whenever I need to seem slightly more normal, like in a workshop or a book club, all I have to do is let them know that I have kids of my own. The facial expressions change visibly. They obviously reckon that if someone trusts me to mind two small children from time to time, then I can’t be a total psychopath …

continues the laureate of Dún Laoghaire. Don’t be too sure, Conor. The curious thing is that these clichés (writerly wisdom tempered by extreme eccentricity and irresponsibility) seem to me to hold a grain of truth. The image is certainly a persistent one. Check out the TV listings:

11.10: Film Boom (1968) Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Noel Coward. Tells the story of Sissy Gofarth, a reclusive millionaire writer, whose days consist of dictating her autobiography and begging for injections.[ii]

That cast list sounds like the kind of thing which would be rejected as ludicrously improbable in fiction, but one can’t help getting a bit of a thrill at the plot summary: “dictating her autobiography and begging for injections.” Now, that’s the life of the mind! Puts Kathy Acker’s “SUCK ME SUCK ME SUCK ME sex is sweet” to shame …

ii. Unfortunately that write-up was the best thing about the film, which turned out to be somewhat tedious and contrived. [2009]

[Michael Connelly: The Poet (1996)]


One morning when she was seven, lying in bed waiting to be called by her mother, Rosemary Brown felt a presence. Turning about, she found herself facing a man with long hair, dressed in unfamiliar period clothing. Although she was frightened, his first words were reassuring. He told her that she had a special destiny … Then he disappeared. She forgot about this visitation for some time until, one day when she was studying, she turned a page in her high school textbook and found herself staring in amazement at a photograph of the man she had seen in her bedroom. The name under the photograph identified him as Franz Liszt, composer and pianist. … More years passed. She married, then was widowed. Once again she was confronted by the apparition of Liszt, who now explained that she was to write music, and that he would help her.

– Hazel M. Denning, PhD, True Hauntings: Spirits with a Purpose (St Paul, Minn: Llewellyn Pub., 1996): 122.

Since then, Rosemary Brown has written a series of musical compositions, allegedly from the dictation of Liszt, Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Schubert, Stravinsky, and various others. Opinions differ on the merit of these pieces. British composer Richard Rodney Bennett has said: “A lot of people can improvise, but you couldn’t fake music like this without years of training. I couldn’t have faked some of the Beethoven myself.” Concert pianist Hephzibah Menuhin confirms that “Each piece is distinctly in the composer’s style.” Leonard Bernstein is also said to have been “highly impressed” by the music Rosemary showed him.

Unfortunately, none of them can be claimed to be as good as the works produced during their authors’ lifetimes, which throws some doubt on the notion of “dictation.” What is indisputable is that they are far beyond the mediocre training and abilities of Rosemary Brown, whose entire musical education consisted of a few piano lessons in her youth. What’s more, the speed with which she writes them down – often complete orchestral scores, with multiple parts – is faster than most composers could possibly manage.

Where do they come from, then? Certainly not from Rosemary’s conscious mind. Perhaps from beyond the veil; perhaps (as Rosalind Heywood, author of The Sixth Sense, suggests) she is “the kind of sensitive whom frustration, often artistic, drives to the automatic production of material beyond their conscious capacity.”[iii]

iii. You can find out more about Rosemary (1916-2001) from her wikipedia entry here. As that article puts it, somewhat guardedly: "The opinions of musical critics were varied on the merit of Rosemary's transcriptions." [2009]

[Franz Liszt (1811-1886)]


Pablo Picasso produced several drawings in both pen-and-ink and colour three months after his death. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Picasso-style drawings were transmitted through British psychic Matthew Manning, who had been trying to ‘get through’ to Picasso. While concentrating on this he had found his hand being controlled – apparently by the spirit of Picasso, or whatever signed itself “Picasso” on the drawing.

– Lynn Picknett, “A Gallery of Psychic Art.”
Life After Death (London: Orbis, 1984): 144.

Drawings are quicker and easier to judge than musical compositions. Anyone who glances through Matthew Manning’s portfolio of paintings and drawings in the style of Beardsley, Dürer, Klee, Toulouse Lautrec and Leonardo da Vinci will be struck by their remarkable resemblance to those artist’s styles. An air of crude pastiche might seem equally marked in most of them.

It is insufficient, however, simply to call them fakes. Matthew produces them with such uncanny speed, and with so little preparation (no preliminary sketching, no measurement of the paper), that they exceed the drafting abilities of most artists.
Is this the same thing as what is generally called “inspiration” – the divine afflatus – a visit from the Muse? Clearly not. These works purport to be by dead artists. They are communicated through someone of limited artistic talent, who does not claim them as his own work. Their quality is both impressive and disappointing. Impressive if we see them as compositions by frustrated housewife Rosemary Brown or troubled teenager Matthew Manning; disappointing if we compare them to the real work of Beethoven, Toulouse Lautrec et al.

The mind has hidden depths. Neurologists tell us that literally everything that happens to us is recorded there (like Madame Blavatsky’s Akashic Records, repositories of all the knowledge in the world – or, for that matter, Jung’s collective unconscious). The tiniest percentage of this is available to the conscious mind, but we know that much more can be recovered under hypnosis.

Few artists would claim complete control of their creative processes. If you know what you’re going to say next, if it all comes from your conscious mind, then it’s rhetoric, not art. You must, in some sense, be able to stand back and watch yourself at work, to feel surprised by what comes out next.

It doesn’t really matter which model you adopt to explain this process. Blake, like Manning and Brown, would see it as dictation from a higher sphere. Others have postulated a superior, transcendent self somehow resident within us. I feel that there’s a kind of statute of limitations preventing too close enquiry into these mysteries. One thing’s for certain. Ursula Le Guin put it best: “The counsel of the dead is not profitable to the living.”[iv]

iv. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Farthest Shore. 1973 (Harmondsworth: Puffin Books, 1975): 85. [2009]


I’d give up my sight just to see you
I’d beg I would borrow and steal
I’d cut off my hands just to touch you
I’d tear out my heart so you’d know how I feel

– Amanda Marshall, “If I Didn’t Have You”
(Tuesday’s Child)

Something in these absurd song-lyrics approaches sublimity. Imagine being pawed at by Amanda’s bloody stumps, as she stares blindly in your approximate direction! Imagine sending her out on the street to beg for you, a second Lavinia (you know … Titus Andronicus), Philomel with a tongue! I like it.

It’s not that they fulfil some obscure fetish of mine. It’s the excess of the whole thing that appeals to me. I mean, suffering grotesquely to win more affection from the beloved object is a cliché older than Catullus (older than The Epic of Gilgamesh, probably), but the sheer circumstantial detail of Amanda’s version takes it over into the world of the freak-show. Horror-show, very horror-show, as Anthony Burgess’s droogs would say.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s good because it’s camp. I don’t think it’s good because it’s well-written (“If it were better-written, it would not be so good,” as someone once remarked of the witches’ song in Macbeth.[v]) I don’t think it’s good because it’s honest (though it might well be). I think it’s good because it surprises you into inhabiting a dead metaphor for a moment. The violence implicit in it speaks to the violence inside us all (“He kills without rhyme or reason …”)

Hannibal Lecter ends up cutting off a hand for his petite amie Clarice in the Ridley Scott movie Hannibal (sorry if I’ve just ruined the plot for anyone). That’s just silly. I probably would have started laughing at some stage if I’d been Amanda Marshall, trying to sing those words (I’d cut off my hands just to manage a feel” – something like that). I do admire the courage of her absurdity, though. It’s the same courage which emboldens Kathy Acker to repeat the same paragraph over and over again, without even the leaven of obscene expletives.

“Well-written prose” – sounds like an oath, doesn’t it?

“Well -made play.”

Stick Terence Rattigan's[vi] head on a pole!

Kill the pig, drink its blood!

Simon’s[vii] sharpening a stake at both ends …

v. "Old actors believe the witches' song in Macbeth to possess the uncanny power of casting evil spells. Many actors, especially in England, avoid Matthew Locke's music for the play, quoting numerous stories of ill-fates befallen to those who have played, sung, or hummed it within the theatre walls." The Lytton Players (Stevenage). [2009]

vi. Sir Terrence Rattigan (1911-1977): author of French without Tears (1936), The Winslow Boy (1946), The Browning Version (1948) and a host of other stunningly successful and well-made plays. [2009]

vii. William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954). [2009]


Dans ton île, ô Vénus! je n’ai trouvé debout
Qu’un gibet symbolique où pendait mon image ...
– Ah! Seigneur! donnez-moi la force et le courage
De contempler mon cœur et mon corps sans dégoût !

– Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal (1857)

In your island, Venus, I found nothing upright
save one symbolic gibbet with my image
on it: – God, give me the strength and courage
to see my heart and body in the light,

without disgust ...

Alistair Paterson says of me (or, at any rate, of “Jack Ross”): “Neither his MA thesis, The Novels of John Masefield, nor his doctoral thesis … immediately suggests the kind of writer he is” [Poetry NZ 22 (2001): 10]. This bit of my MA thesis (U. of Auckland, 1986) does, though, I suspect – these lines translated from Baudelaire’s “Voyage to Cythera.”

Michael Onslow-Osborne, in his stimulating article “Pre-millennial Tinnitus: Noise-bytes 1999-2000” [brief 18 (2000): 79-90] appears to end up with white noise as the basis of his poetics: “The world is an outrage, the pertinent answer is noise to block it out.” No disrespect to Michael, but that doesn’t sound very sexy to me. It reminds me a bit of that Ken Russell movie Altered States. You remember, the one where William Hurt keeps on climbing into a deprivation tank and reverting to an apeman. He would have ended up as primordial matter if it hadn’t been for the love of a good woman (Blair Brown).

I want to contemplate my heart and my body without disgust. That’s not an especially easy thing to do. Am I extra disgusting? Worse than the rest of you? It’s hard to say. Asking the question at all implies:
  1. a strong suspicion the answer may be “yes;”
  2. an even stronger desire to be assured otherwise.

Is that the beginning and end of my aesthetics? I guess there might be a little more than that. A few scraps of mystical theology, a need to persuade myself that life – my life, your life, any life – can be redeemed somehow, or at any rate palliated if only one takes a passionate enough interest in the detail (“Crush it in your palm like a flower; inhale its fragrance,” as Nabokov advises in his Lectures on Literature).[viii]

viii. The actual reference is as follows:
Let me submit the following practical suggestion. Literature, real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain - the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed - then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flavour will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.
- Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers, 1982 (London: Picador, 1983) p. 105.


[Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)]


The more days move off into distance
scattering themselves, the more they return
to hearts of the poets. …

Memini: I remember; memento: “Object serving as reminder or warning, or kept as memorial of person or event” (Concise Oxford Dictionary); meminens: mindful. I’ve never been especially anxious to fry my brain with booze or drugs. Not because I think it’s naughty, let alone unreasonable – just because memory is what I am.

Buchenwald is there
that mild-mannered beech wood
with its accursed ovens: Stalingrad
and Minsk with its marshes and rotten snow. …

“Kids lose everything unless there’s someone there to look out for them,” says River Phoenix in Stand by Me. Part of our job is just that: not to forget, to insist on being the skeleton at the feast, stalking alone through the Masque of the Red Death.

Poets do not forget. Oh hordes of the lowly,
the conquered, those forgiven out of pity!
All things may pass, but the dead do not
sell themselves. …

Dignity is not the same thing as pomposity. “Shame on you … Shame,” says Howard towards the end of Raymond Carver’s story “A Small, Good Thing.” I cried when I first read that. It was his second try at it. The first, “The Bath,” ended in a far more deadpan way. It took him a long time to achieve that intensity.[ix]

I sing
the people, also their grief
muffled by sound of the sea, the mothers’
crystal-clear mourning: I sing the life of my country.

– Salvatore Quasimodo, “Il mio paese è l’Italia
trans. Kendrick Smithyman

Well, it’s worth a try, isn’t it? Even if no-one seems to be listening most of the time. Even if they are, but in a really crass way. Just the chance of it makes the game worth the candle. Doesn’t it?

ix. Interestingly, since I first wrote this in 2001, I've discovered that this isn't the case. "The Bath" is in fact a drastically reduced version of "A Small, Good Thing" constructed by Gordon Lish, Raymond Carver's long-time friend and editor, during the production process of his second collection What We talk About When We Talk About Love (1981). The information now available in the Library of America edition of Carver's Collected Stories, edited by William L. Stull & Maureen P. Carroll (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2009), makes it apparent just how much Carver resented and resisted this curtailment of his original story. [2009]

[Raymond Carver: Collected Stories (2009)]


brief 20 (June, 2001): 23-29.
[Available at: Papyri (2-9/10/09)]

[2751 wds]

brief 20 (2001)

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