Thursday, October 8, 2009

In pursuit of joy

You are driving about the city--no, not that city, not the L.A. you fled to get to this city--on a round of chores.  Pick up cleaning.  Leave off cleaning.  Get new color cartridge for damned, finicky printer.  Have Yaris washed.  You are momentarily out of range for a static-free reception of the station that plays jazz from 9 a.m. until noon, thus you rely on the powerful classical station that extends outward from the greater L.A. area like a metastasizing growth.  You have come in close to the opening of Mozart's String Quartet in A Major, # 18, which fills the car and you with a bouquet of nuanced pleasure.  Whatever you were before, now you are happy beyond the words expressing the awareness.  Words, in fact, are not necessary.

Many of your male friends trace the memory of this feeling to the time of their first completed sexual encounter (as opposed to messing around in the back seat kind of encounter), and while it is true that your own memories of such events have their transformative effects on you, the first time you can recall such a sense of pure happiness was when you managed to sneak into the Shrine Auditorium where an early edition of Jazz at the Philharmonic, those early, cusp-of-be-bop concerts, were held.  Nat Cole, whom you regarded well as a musician, took an extended solo on Body and Soul that produced a stunning effect that became a benchmark for pianists ever since.  It's haunting series of ascending chord changes performed open-heart surgery on the listener.  If you are careful, you can hear that solo as counterpoint to the crackle and hum of the audience.  The finale of Stravinsky's The Firebird has the same effect, ditto Coltrane's soprano sax musings on My Favorite Things and of course his harmonic bravura on Giant Steps, done via the Selmer B-6 tenor saxophone.

Nearly all of Dvorak and Ravel have the same effect.  Not to forget Bill Evans' combined improvisation on My Favorite Things transitioned to Baubles, Bangles, and Beads, or nearly anyone doing The Well-Tempered Clavichord.  These are enough of the musical peak experiences to illustrate the point that they produce a landscape of soaring, transcendental happiness of an intensity that surprises me.

Books were next.  Of course the Twain did meet.  Huck Finn, Life on the Mississippi, Roughing It, The Innocents Abroad, which you sought to find in other writers to the point of causing you despair that there weren't any.  Of course there were, but the search for them became a long, harrowing venture into despair, with only occasional moments of reward.  Then you met Rachel, who would become your mentor, and she more or less clarified things for you, not only with much of her own material but with the most frightening prognosis of all, which was that if you truly want to be made happy by something you have read, you have to be the one to have written it.  There are a few things of yours you can look at that still produce such a result, but the bar seems set tremendously high and as a consequence you have taken diversions from your quest in hopes of discovering the things you need to get embedded in your writing.  Did becoming an editor help?  Did becoming a teacher help?  Does having reviewed over 500 books add anything to the calculus?

The last book that did it for you was Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves.  Before that, it was Richard Powers' The Echo Maker, and to a lesser extent his The Gold Bug Variations.  Before and during, it was nearly everything of Jim Harrison, and Annie Proulx's The Shipping News.  

Try writing books and stories that lift you as these books do, and remember crusty, bombastic Beethoven, working on even into his deafness, trying to get something he admired as much as Mozart's String Quartet in A Major.

Try setting all that aside and stepping off the cliff that is the cliff of going to a day's work.  Go ahead.

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