Friday, 3 February 2017

The Road to Hell and Back Maybe - Umberto Tosi

Gilgamesh, the Babylonian king,
back from the underworld,
 on the wall of an eponymous
Indian-chic eatery in London.
"For the record," used to mean on paper. Now, not so much. I mused on this while going over one of my favorite books on writing, Negotiating With the Dead, by the grand dame of dark irony and literary feminism, Margaret Atwood. I'm wary of the hidden traps awaiting all writers - the beguiling allure of presumed permanence, the fantasy of fame, the chimeras of book covers, notices, prizes, and reviews, of writing for posterity, of measuring oneself against what's gone before, of wondering if I have anything to say.

Comes with the territory, says Ms. Atwood. Towards the end of her memoirist exploration, she makes her hypothesis plain: "all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality - by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead."

She cites fictional voyages to the great beyond starting with Gilgamesh, considered the first action hero, so to speak. The mythic king of ancient Mesopotamia (2500 to 2800 BCE), as you may recall, journeyed to the underworld in search of his departed frenemy, the Wookie-like wild man Enkidu,  to learn the secret of eternal life from Utnapishtim, a Noah-like immortal man. Gilgamesh completed his task but forgot the secret on his arduous return home. Exhausted, he carved his story in stone. That was the best he could do, he said. That's the best any writer can do - from Virgil to Dante, Lewis Carroll to Tolkein, me and you - tell the story.

It's a thankless task, but worth it, says Ms. Atwood, and we can't help but do it: "All writers learn from the dead. As long as you continue to write, you continue to explore the work of writers who have preceded you; you also feel judged and held to account by them."

Margaret Atwood, at the
2015 Texas Book Festival,
Larry D. Moore, cc by -SA 4
She explores the history of memorializing words in writing, from stone tablets to high-speed presses and movies. Her volume doesn't get around to e-books, but that is understandable given that she based it on workshops she developed over years past and published in 2002. Ms. Atwood has certainly not shied from electronic media since then, however, as attested by Anna Baddley in a 2013 Guardian article that called Ms. Atwood a "doyenne of digital-savvy publishing" with works published widely in Kindle and who already had nearly half-million Twitter followers by then.

It's hard to believe that Negotiating With the Dead was written 15 years ago. I cringe at remembering that I was feeling quite puffed up around that time about how many citations to my various writings I could find when I entered my name in that new, hot search engine "Google."

This followed years of dragging boxes of my articles and books everywhere so I could show clips whenever I had to make a pitch that required such corroboration. Now I could recycle most of those boxes. Bad move. Within a year or two, nearly all of my of my laboriously crafted published disappeared from the Web as the industry reorganized, magazines and publishing companies went belly up, or merged, and Websites were updated. Poof! I had neglected to think it through. The articles weren't in my possession, they were on someone else's server, displayed on someone else's Website - usually owned by one or another corporate publishing giant. They weren't public libraries or universities interested in preserving anything but their brand identity.

We say we write to express ourselves and perhaps entertain our readers, but Atwood points out that there is a primal need - particularly among writers, more so that other creative artists, to replicate and leave some traces of ourselves in the scratchings we make on paper, or cause to appear on screens - the latter being by definition more ephemeral.

My inamorata, the narrative imagist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, says this is common to visual artists as well. "I have a fantasy that sometime in the far distant future archeologists will open up a vault and discover it filled with my paintings," she says, "and the paintings will become priceless treasures to be put on tour. Really, though, they will have found only a storage locker."

The boy king, spearfishing. Artist unknown
Eleanor's dream flashed me back to seeing the Treasures of Tutankhamun Exhibition when it came to San Francisco in 1979. I was lucky enough to be on a privately organized walkthrough during which I could linger over individual pieces in that magnificent array of artifacts. The boy king truly had returned from the land of the dead - and, unexpectedly with him, the artisans - I daresay, the artists. Though they probably would not have been named as such in Pharaonic times, and though they may have been slaves or priests or craftsmen, it seemed plain to me viewing these works up close, that only artists in every sense could have created those exquisite sculptures and friezes.

The expressiveness of these pieces transcended the cliches and the rituals with which they are associated and reached directly into my consciousness - communicating one-to-one across three millennia. I recall how each one struck me, in particular, a small sculpture of the boy king spearfishing from a raft that seemed to carry pathos, innocence and all the transient grace of youth. Surely some ancient, anonymous Bernini had molded this delicate gold piece with precise, loving hands beyond the dictates of the 18th Dynasty's priestly burial traditions. These artists would have known that their work would be entombed, possibly forever - whether or not they believed devoutly in the dogmas of their day - sent special delivery with the mummified boy king to the land of the dead - which turned out to be populated by us, 3000 years in the future. Art had transcended time in that personal moment. I felt a kinship.

King Tut notwithstanding, writing for posterity is an ultimately fruitless ambition, given the perishability of all media, from cuneiforms to parchments, to paper, and now ephemeral files saved in "the cloud." Nevertheless, content survives in culture, not just in physically or electronically recorded files. Homer's works survived in oral tradition long before they were written down. Looked at this way, it's not about how long the paper or the memory drives survive. It's about how long the memories linger among us. Regardless of the odds, creative artists remain driven, at least in part, by that will to bring forward something or someone from that unknown land from which no traveler returns, but fictional characters sometimes do.

Lillian Hellmann
Every so often I catch myself playing out a little Woody-Allen dramedy, imagining whatever I happen to be writing as my last words. I wonder who will immortalize those last writings- or at least publish them in some small journal. Would a footnote someplace be asking too much? The fantasy visits me more often these days as I edge past the respective ages that my mother and father departed back in the mid-1990s. But it's not new. I remember daydreaming something like this back in the 1970s as an editor of Francis Coppola's City of San Francisco weekly when we were able to run a previously unpublished, posthumous short story by Dashiell Hammett provided to us by the then-still-living dramatist, Lillian Hellmann, with whom he had been famously involved.

That sort of thing is rare of course, and I'm no Dashiell Hammett. Nevertheless, if we're lucky, the finely honed creations from our imaginations can, and often do outlive the initial media on which we render them - the way a piece music outlives the sheets on which it may have been notated. Our words and imaginings live on through resonance - through memes that we create or alter, consciously or not, during our brief creative lifetimes. Shakespeare - the prime example - doesn't survive through his fragile folios, but through his characters, their tragedies and comedies, and above all in sublime phrases that enrich our language.

Maybe we're all adding our music to an infinitely grand hologram of what we call - or compose as - our existence, pixel by pixel, and the best we can do is make it as illuminating and expressive as our talents permit.

Umberto Tosi is the author of Ophelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry, during the 1990s an oughts. He has been editor of San Francisco magazine and California Business, and has written extensively for major metropolitan newspapers, magazines online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies. He resides in Chicago with his partner, noted visual artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris.


Dipika Mukherjee said...

Great post! I love Atwood's work -- who doesn't?- and caught the Tutankhamen exhibition in Chicago years ago. Your words resonate.

Rosalie Warren said...

I love the 'infinitely grand hologram', to which we all add our few pixels. Next time I despair of anyone ever reading my work, now or in the future, I will remember this.

Marsha Coupé said...

Insightful and illuminating as always, Umberto. Perhaps the greatest legacy of all is having the freedom to express ourselves in whatever manner we choose.

Dennis Hamley said...

Wonderful post, Umberto. Like Rosalie, I love the 'infinitely grand hologram', which seems to add cosmic significance to Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent and has left me feeling strangely joyful this morning. So thank you!