You call your book “An Absorbing Errand.” How come?

Isn’t it a great title? I stole it from Henry James. But the concept is wonderful. One of James’s characters claims that the only way to have true happiness is to have an absorbing errand – something that takes you outside of yourself and keeps you there. I think James means that your life is made much better if you’re engaged in something purposeful – like an art form or serious craft –  that gives you a lens through which to approach the world. So, if you’re a wood worker, you have a reason to look closely at the work of all the other wood workers who came before you. You might decide you need to visit lots of houses, or workshops, or other countries, just to see different pieces of furniture. And you’ll need to learn about and acquire various tools, and you might have to take classes or apprentice yourself, and befriend other woodworkers. Before long, trees will have huge new meaning to you. You suddenly have a rich way to enjoy life. And more than that, you have a reason to engage the world – to go outside yourself.

Artists seek to express deep emotions, and to capture what feels alive and vivid to them. And even without mania, much of art’s energy is sexual. Or, as the quotation attributed to Renoir succinctly put it, “I paint with my penis”.  One rarely hears women exclaiming anatomical equivalencies, but there’s little doubt that the silence does not negate the sensation. Aroused sexuality may stimulate creativity; intellectual and creative excitement may expand into seductive excitement, and both may boil over in messy ways. Furthermore, highly energetic, ambitious artists may possess large egos and large sexual appetites that want feeding.

When I first read The New York Times write-up “Fiona Apple Faces Outwards”, I am struck by how deeply her transformation over the past seven years from big-eyed girl-woman to gaunt and isolated artist has affected me. Apple was always talented, but this write-up of The Idler Wheel encapsulates how Apple has transcended the fleeting pop stardom that is often offered to young, attractive female artists and has instead become a full-fledged musical auteur.

Whenever my father and I clash, he shrugs and says, “Artists and writers are difficult people. What can you do?” Being my father’s daughter, I just shrugged when I came upon the following question in the reference form for the MacDowell Colony, the prestigious residency program in New Hampshire.

Few books in recent memory have caused as much of a stir as Reality Hunger, the 219-page “manifesto” by David Shields.

It’s a book that defies easy classification.

An argument.  A clarion call.  An affront.  A life story.

An unapologetic assault on the literary status quo.

An essay-memoir-pointillistic-literary-collage-and-exercise-in-appropriation-art, one which argues that a new artistic movement is forming, a movement which prizes as its virtues things like randomness, self-reflexivity, reader/viewer participation, and the total obliteration of the line between fiction and nonfiction.

The book has been greeted as a revelation.  A game-changer.  A thunderous ars poetica.

The book has been greeted as reprehensible.  Tired.  An irresponsible attempt to subvert existing copyright law, all while generating a massive wave of cheap publicity.

Writers in particular have reacted strongly to the book.  Some with venemous anger; others, a fit of nervousness; others still with unbridled enthusiasm.

“To call something a manifesto is a brave step,” writes Luc Sante in the New York Times.  “It signals that you are hoisting a flag and are prepared to go down with the ship.”

Shields—as far as I can tell—is still afloat, and he was kind enough to speak with me recently about his life, his work, and his assessment of the cultural moment.

With the twentieth century only now starting to recede into the distance a little bit, spending a little time working out what one doesn’t believe in somehow seems to be a better use of time than deciding what one does.

For what it’s worth, here’s my five so far:

Nihi List Five

1. Boundless individual economic mobility

2. Crab sticks

3. Guy Ritchie

4. Twittering as an art form

5. Hypnotism

“It’s easy to be cynical,” people say. Does it follow then that being a nihilist is like falling off a log?

Rejecting all systems of belief or belonging on the basis of their existence, no matter how attractive or unattractive they might be?…

I don’t know about you but that sounds pretty difficult to me.

100% pure negativity has got to be pretty exhausting. How does the average nihilist get up in the morning? Do they have to set fire to the sheets to give themselves an impetus to get out of bed? (On the wrong side, obviously.)

Maybe the true nihilist never sleeps, just so he can pack the maximum amount of swingeing spite into the day.

Those same people who tend to profess a disbelief in everything also say, “do what you want as long as you’re happy”. It’s the ethics of the Knightsbridge Hippie:

Place yourself at the centre of the universe!

Choosing a position in the middle of opposing forces and seeking to balance their flow through the body is the first principle of the physical expression of the doctrine of Taoism: ‘Yang’ approximate to the tendency to disperse, and ‘yin’ to the tendency to gather.

The movements of Taoism’s physical mode of expression—the ancient art of Tai Chi—attempt to describe this circuit of equal and opposite intensities in physical space with as little entropy as possible. Yet, it’s still almost impossible not to regard the Self as the epicentre of the flux.

Bertrand Russell’s view of Taoist precepts was of a system describing, “production without possession, action without self-assertion, development without domination”. Especially now, in the age of ‘free’ content, producing anything without a specific, fixed place for it assured is to be subject to the same kind of Janus-faced condition:

The maintenance of a dedicated passion and zealous commitment to a piece of work and a blithe indifference to whether or not anyone might ever value experience of it at some time in the near (or distant) future.

As Captain Beefheart so sanguinely said (from his position as a professional musician),

“Music should be free, because from where I got it, I didn’t have to pay for it.”

Photo by Carl Van Vechten (CC)

Writing for Esquire in 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald mentioned the necessity of accommodating two equal and opposite ideas in the head at the same time (appoximate to Keats’ ideas of negative capability), commented on here by Allen Ginsberg in an interview with John Lofton from Harper’s in 1990:

“…the quality of a very great poet like Shakespeare was his ability to contain opposite ideas in the mind without an irritable reaching out after fact and reason. Meaning that that part of the mind which judges, and irritably insists on either black or white, is only a small part of the mind. The larger mind observes the contradiction, and contains those contradictions. The mind that notices that it contradicts itself is bigger than the smaller mind that is taking one side or the other.”

But doesn’t even that place the writer’s Ego at the centre of things?

Paying even scant attention to the media, it’s tempting to think that maybe all that any of us has ever been, or can ever aspire to be, is an acted upon product of economic propensities: Skills, qualifications, career choices; relationships and peers even start to seem like nothing more than signs and signifiers of an upset balance of payments, or the almighty Budget Deficit inscribed in human flesh.

Is there more to life than this, and more importantly, is anyone writing about it, now that Vonnegut, Deleuze, Guattari, David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson and J.G. Ballard are all dead?

The Occam’s Razor of Thatcherism/Reaganomics and is that it’s foolhardy to believe in anything other than yourself. But what happens when the individual realises he is no longer his own hero?

A lot of Chuck Palahniuk’s work is about the necessity of finding something larger than the self to believe in, and to hitch the wagon to, (especially ‘Fight Club’). As many contemporary writers and theorists have pointed out at length, the mind has a desire for belonging, if not a desire to be led (the source of and inherent attraction of fascism, and the psychological explanation of religion), but can anyone point me in the direction of any writers that have really addressed the problem of distortion by the writer’s Ego as the point of reference for everything?

Until we get past that, aren’t we all doomed to repeating the same literary mistakes of the last hundred years?

IMAGES: Screen grab from clip of ‘The Big Lebowski’ posted on youtube.com, all others used under CC Creative Commons licence.