Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Charlie Don't Surf

"Duplicity--the refuge of the weak and the cowardly."
                                --Joseph Conrad

          I'm concerned that in the long run, this gentleman will not receive proper literary due outside of Poland and maybe San Francisco.  It is quite possible that, had I never seen Apocalypse Now, based on Joseph Conrad’s short story, Heart of Darkness, or hadn’t attended the University of Toledo for a total of 2 quarters, the gifted author may have never appeared on my reading list radar.  One of the two instances in which I recall the title and author being mentioned was, of course, in reference to the movie.  It was in some obscure interview with Francis Ford Coppola, the director of the award-winning film.              
          I was strictly a news reader until the last couple of years.  I would read 80% of the front section of the New York Times in one sitting.  It’s like a current history lesson and you will see items in it that you won’t see anywhere else.  Then, for some not clearly identifiable reason,I switched to mainly reading books, originally planning to
re-read the ones I liked most in high school, full attention to which I neglected at the time.  After giving it some serious thought, though, I realized there were only a few, really.  I got the ones at the top of the list out of the way—Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men.  I had a job that required an inordinate amount of sitting and doing nothing, so I had a lot of time to read.  Odd coincidence, huh?  Then I got this crazy idea that I wanted to read books spanning history, starting with one from each century.  Next thing you know, I’m reading Plato, Orwell and Dante.  Strange for a guy who previously would pick up a book once in a blue moon, isn’t it?   Penny Lane strange, baby.  As far as reading something from every century is concerned, I think I may have the second millennium CE covered, but I’d have to do an itemized count to make sure.  
          While browsing at Borders Books one day I came across that company’s publication of three of Conrad’s short stories in one set: The Secret Sharer, An Outpost of Progress, and Heart of Darkness.  Though I don’t like the idea of a bookseller undercutting publishers, I have to say that except for a noticeably higher than normal number of minor editing oversights, Borders’ publications are great to read.  They come in that size that’s a step up from the standard smallest paperback, they’re printed in text of a great size and font and while they are technically a “paperback,”, the cover is actually made of plastic.  If there’s ever been an acceptable use for plastic, I’d say it is the cover of a book.  On top of all that, they’re very affordable. 
          I’d always been a big fan of Apocalypse Now and I’d had a mind to read the original story for quite a few years, so I picked up the Borders set.  After reading those three novellas, it was clear how Conrad really weaves the plot in a challenging way, but it was the prose he uses to describe human interaction and psychology that really stood out.  It wasn’t until I read his full-length novel, Victory, though, that I really got an idea about his full literary arsenal.  After reading this one, I am of the opinion that Conrad, a native of Poland who wrote in English--his second language, which he didn’t learn until past the age of 20--is unmatched in crafting creative descriptive prose.  Also, his knack for analyzing human psychology through close examination of the relative thoughts of characters involved in a cat-and-mouse game is positively fascinating.  Finally, he weaves highly insightful social commentary with a Dystopian thread into the story more seamlessly than any other author I've read.  It’s not like a Huxley novel where an everyday character all of the sudden goes into an extended and profound philosophical speech.  Conrad’s social commentary comes in bits and pieces, some larger than others.  I noted so many passages, I hate to list just one.
          This passage is about the protagonist Axle Hyst’s burial of his father, a jaded anti-social writer.  “His son” in this entry refers to Axle.  It’s not as much the content as the prose in the second half of this passage that I like:

His son buried the silenced destroyer of systems, of hopes, of beliefs.  He observed that the death of that bitter contemner of life did not trouble the flow of life’s stream, where men and women go by thick as dust, revolving and jostling one another like figures cut out of cork and weighted with lead just sufficiently to keep them in their proudly upright posture.
Here are 2 notable quotes:
For every age is fed on illusions, lest men should renounce life early and the human race come to an end.
There is no strong sentiment without some terror as there is no real religion without a little fetichism.
In Victory, it is spelled with a “c”—fetichism.  Here’s a pair of quotes regarding diplomacy:
Yet, when one thinks of it, diplomacy without force in the background is but a rotten reed to lean upon. 
A diplomatic statement is a statement of which everything is true but the sentiment which seems to prompt it.
That’s pretty thought-provoking stuff if you ask me.  If you can manage to look past the occasional racially or ethnically bigoted reference, it's well worth it to read Conrad.  The only other bad thing I can say about Victory is that there is a plot twist or two in the latter part of the story that he didn’t completely sell me on. 

          I believe I mentioned something about the University of Toledo.  In 1992 I attended that fine institution of higher learning for 2 quarters before transferring to The Ohio State University.  I took a very unique and enjoyable English Composition course there in which all we did was watch war movies and write about them.  The instructor, a guy by the name of Cary Arnold, a laid back graduate student who’d earned his B.A. in English at Ohio State, conducted the course in a manner that was refreshingly Bohemian, particularly for an English course.  He strongly encouraged open discussion.  There were less than 30 people in the class, which also helped to facilitate a casual atmosphere conducive to creativity.  Shockingly, I guess, there was never a problem with anybody shooting up in the back of the room or having sex in the corner.  It was a very positive and productive setting.  
          We watched the John Wayne flick about the SeaBees.  We watched Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Cain Mutiny Court Marshall, featuring Boggie at his best, and Platoon.  We watched The Longest Day, which became an instant favorite of mine to be joined later by Black Hawk Down.  
          We also watched Apocalypse Now.  Cary surprised me when he read my paper on it, “The Stench of Lies,” (That's the one I'd like to get back.) aloud in class.  (Hhhhaw, hhhhaw, polishing fingernails, sniffin’ smugly like Barney Fife.)  My thesis was that Willard, by experiencing many of the same bizarre atrocities Kurtz had through the course of his pursuit and study of him, was becoming more and more like Kurtz himself, likely destined to indeed become another Kurtz, thus illustrating a self-perpetuating destructive cycle.  Sure, this analysis might seem a bit obvious now; rudimentary, even, but a valuable fable nonetheless.  I guess Cary thought it was a pretty good analysis for a 21-year-old.  Maybe it was just the writing.  
          Speaking of fables, a former journalism pro who's thinking about starting a blog told me recently that she's considering one featuring stories that include a moral and I thought that might be a nice feature to add to CBS occasionally.  So what's the moral of Willard and Kurtz?  When you're pursuing someone, be they persecutor or player, crank or con-man, take care to maintain your personal integrity and relative superiority--that's what they're trying to hack away at.  The beauty of movies like Apocalypse Now and literature in general is that by simply being aware of the possible unseen effect of such a situation on a character like Willard, one is properly armed against it.  Indeed, knowledge is power.  
          It didn’t occur to me until I decided to write this piece, nearly 20 years later, that Cary Arnold and my experience in his course, "English 118, Composition II--Film," was a big reason for my move to Ohio State.  All things considered, that’s quite an interesting revelation, wouldn't you say?  I look forward to reading more Conrad.   

Writing Notes
This one sat about 75% complete for at least a week before I got around to slapping a conclusion on and letting it fly.  I deleted a lengthy digression/rant about an unbelievable idea I have for a political/sci-fi thriller that would have come after the Penny Lane reference.  Someone suggested to me recently I might try writing sci-fi.  The problem is, I'm not a fiction writer.  I write non-fiction.

The Borders paragraph illustrates different approaches on can take toward different types of non-fiction work.  In terms of a serious journalistic report or scholarly work, one might be quick to call it a digression, but for this blog, I'm willing to let it fly if it is informative and constructive, both of which I think the Borders tip is.  I like perusing mom-and-pop bookstores, but I don't like how many folks who frequent them tend to look down their noses at a place like Borders.  They carry some pretty cool stuff.

When I write something, I have a really hard time letting it go until it produces, at least to some extent, the desired effect.  Kreig Zimmerman had mentioned something to me about posting more often, adding, "Not everything you post has to be genius.  "Genius??"  What?  Do mean to imply that I actually wrote something that is genius?  "That's crazy talk."  Besides, as I said in my actual inaugural post which I've since deleted and I believe may have been titled, "Ideas," I'm not going for genius in my writing.  I'm going for ingenious.  Indeed, much of what I do is not straight journalistic reporting so I have the luxury operating free of word limits and deadlines, though I have made a commitment to post weekly.  Either way, it's my blog which was started and continues to be for the purpose of serving as an online writing portfolio.  I did not start this blog as a news outlet which I thought might actually gain a following.  Nevertheless, I am positively thrilled that it apparently has.  I guess I must be doing something right.  Please keep coming back.  Even so--and this isn't to suggest that every single thing I write is professional level writing--very good writing will continue to be my number one priority with the goal of professional quality prose and story-telling, something I would deem prerequisite in a professional journalist.  Investigating and reporting is what you learn on the job.  This is a general interest blog and it would be silly of me to think I could compete with actual news outlets that employ professional reporters.  I'll post on CBS as often as I see fit.  When someone's paying me to write, I'll have no problem with deadlines and word limits both of which I understand the value and necessity of.  At FNC, where I did some copywriting as a P.A., we would reduce 1000-word A.P. stories to 4 or 5 sentences.  I believe the Red, Blue, and Green posts linked on the right of this blog both had word limits and I banged out both of those, soup to nuts, in about 2 hours a piece.  No worries--I've shed the weight.  And, I will add that, with the exception of one early post--"58 Million Gallons," I believe--these pompous, long-winded, self-indulgent pieces of claptrap of mine are self-edited and self-proofread.

Anyway--I actually made substantial amendments to the last 3 paragraphs of this piece between starting the paragraph you're reading now and finishing the second Writing Notes graph.  You never know when you're going  to find the hammer that will drive the nail home.  I find that my final edits, often made after I thought I was done, are a gloriously enjoyable crawl to the finish line, driven by that gnawing, nagging feeling that "something's not right and you just don't know what it is."  

I know what it is, and I know who it is.  I intend to fix both.  Actually, I get the feeling the "what" is out of the way.  I guess I'll focus on the "who."


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