Tuesday, November 6, 2018
Irving Wallace's "The Seven Minutes" Thoughtfully Explores Censorship, Sex and Intimacy
Wallace's sympathies for freedom of expression are clear but he also gives a fair portrayal of the thoughts/motivations of the well-intentioned opponents of the book's publication/distribution. In a conversation after the trial, the prosecuting attorney tells the defense attorney that even a free society must have rules and boundaries: you cannot just drive your car on any side of the road that you choose at a given moment. The prosecuting attorney sincerely believes that some books are obscene, have no redeeming artistic value and pose a danger to young, impressionable minds; the defense attorney counters that for a society to remain free ideas cannot be suppressed but must be out in the open to be considered and debated. Pure hate speech and/or incitement to violence should not be protected but otherwise artists have a right to create while the public has a right to purchase/read/view or to decline to purchase/read/view.
The book's courtroom scenes and debates between various characters highlight how difficult it is to determine what is "obscene" and what is not "obscene."
Meanwhile, various characters encounter situations that cause them to question their own personal thoughts and decisions about relationships, sex and intimacy.
I have seen reviews of The Seven Minutes that wax eloquently about how great of a book it is and I have seen reviews that dismiss it as a "potboiler." It is not great literature in the classic sense--and it could have benefited from some editing in terms of both length and writing style--but Wallace dares to thoughtfully explore issues that are central to the meaning of life, of love and of freedom, so he deserves credit for his ambition. That ambition is largely fulfilled, as Wallace provides a lot of food for thought while also weaving a tale that commands your attention and piques your curiosity.
Near the end of the book, Wallace quotes from "Last Will of Charles Lounsbury," a document that used to be widely shared among attorneys and is still worth reading more than 100 years after it was first published. The document's author, Williston Fish, drafted the fictional will as a tribute to an ancestor of his named Charles Lounsbury, a person who Fish described as "A strong, vigorous man filled with the joy of living." The piece was first published in "Harper's Weekly" in 1898 and then as a booklet in 1907 but it soon took on a life of its own, being reprinted in a variety of sources, often with numerous mistakes. Fish lamented, "Some writers can boast that their works have been translated into all foreign languages, but when I look pathetically about for some little boast, I can only say that this one of my pieces has been translated into all the idiot tongues of English."
Here is the 1897 version, which is a fitting coda to the profound themes examined by Wallace:
Friday, November 2, 2018
Ray Bradbury's "Zen in the Art of Writing" Exudes Joy and Wonder
The title of Bradbury's Preface captures the book's spirit: "How to climb the tree of life, throw rocks at yourself, and get down again without breaking your bones or your spirit. A preface with a title not much longer than the book."
In the Preface, Bradbury recalls that in 1929, when he was nine years old, he tore up all of his Buck Rogers comic strips because his fourth grade classmates made fun of Buck Rogers. A month later, he determined that his friends were "idiots" and he resumed collecting Buck Rogers comic strips. He declares, "Where did I find the courage to rebel, to change my life, to live alone? I don't want to over-estimate this, but damn it, I love that nine-year-old, whoever in hell he was. Without him, I could not have survived to introduce these essays."
Bradbury asserts that writing teaches us two very important lessons: (1) Life is a "gift and a privilege" that "asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation." He acknowledges that art cannot by itself save us from the myriad forms of suffering in the world but nevertheless it "can revitalize us amidst it all"; (2) Writing is "survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that. Not to write, for many of us, is to die."
It is hard to conceive of a better writer's creed than those brief, eloquent statements.
Bradbury says that writers must work at their craft every single day and he uses the analogy of a pianist who stated that if he missed one day of practice he would know, if he missed two days of practice his critics would know and if he missed three days of practice his audiences would know. The point is to rely on your own individual high standards and not to be satisfied to fool the audiences or the critics.
Bradbury summarizes the necessary attitude/approach: "You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you." Life is often filled with suffering and inequities but writing enables us to "use the grand and beautiful facts of existence in order to put up with the horrors that afflict us directly in our families and friends, or through the newspapers and TV."
So how do you develop your writing talents? In the essay "How to Keep and Feed a Muse," Bradbury offers simple advice: "Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don't use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition."
Reading poetry helped inspire many of Bradbury's stories and helped sharpen his writing skills. Bradbury also believes that the best stories reveal themselves to you: "My stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg--I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off. That is the kind of life I've had. Drunk and in charge of a bicycle, as an Irish police report once put it" (from the essay "Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle").
Bradbury laments, "By the time many people are fourteen or fifteen, they have been divested of their loves, their ancient and intuitive tastes, one by one, until when they reach maturity there is no fun left, no zest, no gusto, no flavor. Others have criticized, and they have criticized themselves, into embarrassment. When the circus pulls in at five of a dark cold summer morn, and the calliope sounds, they do not rise and run, they turn in their sleep, and life passes by" ("Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle").
It is important to never lose that spirit to "rise and run." Recall the line from Cummings' poem "Since Feeling is First": "In even the laziest creature among us, a wisdom no knowledge can kill is astir."
In the title essay, Bradbury lists three keys to incorporate Zen into your writing and he put each of them in all caps: WORK, RELAXATION and DON'T THINK!
Bradbury extols the virtue of work in its purest form, work with the purpose of honing your craft; work that is made with an eye primarily on profit and/or reputation "is a form of lying." You must instead be "curious about creativity" and seek to "make contact with that thing in yourself that is truly original. You want fame and fortune, yes, but only as rewards for work well and truly done."
When you work in that mode, you will achieve RELAXATION and that will enable you to follow Bradbury's third precept, DON'T THINK! Bradbury describes how athletes, painters, mountain climbers and Zen Buddhists become so absorbed in the purity of their work that they stop thinking and just do (Bradbury does not mention explicitly the concept of "flow" but that applies here).
It all starts with WORK--not drudgery, not busy work, but work that flows from your passion for your art. WORK that way and, Bradbury suggests, you may discover a new definition for WORK: "LOVE."
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