Tuesday, July 24, 2007

dot dot jot

12 days remaining before I go to press with my massive course catalog. The pressure is like nothing else I experience ... my skin tingles as I try to sleep. Last night I dreamt about following a small animal up the scree of a steep mountain as I tossed out course descriptions along the way. I was vaguely awake, as I am sure anyone would understand. Not actually awake. But aware that this is a dream even if I have no way out of it without actually waking up.

Three curious pieces of writing in the last little while:

1. Barry Bonds' now defunct mistress has announced that she will spill the beans in Playboy in a piece that will be illuminated by pix of her nude body. Her name is Kimberly Bell.

Now I'm not a prude. If moderately attractive people want to pose nude, go for it. A lot more nudity would make more than a tiny difference in this world of prudes and murderous moralists. But, of course, trading her modesty for some filthy lucre will no doubt eliminate any credibility in the federales' attack on Bonds. That, too, is fine by me.

But what struck me about the article was its puddling around with that most bizarre of au-current ideas, self-esteem.

Ms. Bell asserts that her posing nude "was one of the most liberating experiences of my life." Meanwhile, "If I had more self-esteem when I was younger," she said, "I wouldn't have been caught up with such a rotten man."

Hmmm, self-esteem is posing nude for money, but screwing around with a big-time athlete who slips you $80K for a down payment is anti-self-esteem.

I need a calculator, because this doesn't seem to add up.

The concept of self-esteem is one of those zero-dividers ... when you include a zero-divider, an equation can end up anywhere, and so it is with nonsense like the idea of self-esteem. We are given to assume that it is a good thing, but how do we explain the current generation of whining mommy-addicted youth who have an excuse for everything because they, inexplicably, feel good about themselves regardless of evidence... oops, perhaps that is a little too cranky. More pointedly, how would we explain a phenomenon like the self-hating genius as against the sickening reality of the self-admiring drug dealer, with "self-esteem" as a guide ... you see self-esteem never adds up.

But it can always be used as a cheap writing trick, and no reader dares to think twice lest s/he be accused of not being sympathetic, or whatever the current self-flagellation.

So, dear Kimberley, strip down if you wish, but it is of a piece with your money-grubbing with Bonds back when you suckered him for $80K. I have no problem with that ... to each his own ... but you need to call things by their real names. Self-esteem, whatever that may be at a given moment, has nothing to do with it.

2. Let us now praise editors is a little piece that appeared in Salon.com today. I can endorse that.

Editors are craftsmen, ghosts, psychiatrists, bullies, sparring partners, experts, enablers, ignoramuses, translators, writers, goalies, friends, foremen, wimps, ditch diggers, mind readers, coaches, bomb throwers, muses and spittoons -- sometimes all while working on the same piece. Early in my editing career I was startled when, after we had finished an edit, a crusty, hard-bitten culture writer, a woman at least twice my age, told me, "That was great -- better than sex!"

I like to say that editors are like dentists ... they may be painful but the cosmetic result is well worth the short hours of discomfiture.

I've always been an editor, but only professionally for the last six years, seven bulletins, as we call MRU's course catalog. The last six years has been a deep, gut-wrenching learning experience. It has improved every part of my wordsmithing.

But editing is gut-wrenching in another way. I become attached not to my own prose, but to my take on the prose of others. It is always hard to let go of prose, but it is equally hard to let go of what I do to someone else's prose. Now, what I do professionally is technical writing in the sense that I reduce hundreds upon hundreds of pages of prose to a single, flat, authoritative style. But each little chunk comes from a different angle, and bears with it a different personality. None of that can shake my resolve to be loyal to my book and its single-minded vision.

Ah ... all of this in the greater scheme is a tempest in a teapot. I yearn to edit beyond the comfy confines of my Bulletin. But in the meanwhile, I enjoy what Gary Kamiya writes:

In an odd way, the exchange between writer and editor encapsulates the process of growing up. The act of writing is godlike, omnipotent, infantile. Your piece is a statement delivered from on high, a pronouncement ex cathedra, as egotistical and unchecked as the wail of a baby. Then it goes out into the world, to an editor, and the reality principle rears its ugly head. You are forced as a writer to come to terms with the gap between your idea and your execution -- and still more deflating, between your idea and what your idea should have been.

3. New-Look Bonaparte. This piece will be gone into the impenetrable New York Times archive shortly, but it is worth a read.How much more dramatic must French life be with active public intellectuals who make arguments as cranky and contradictory and erudite and just plain maddening as this:

I am only saying that there is in Sarkozy a relationship to memory that troubles and worries me. Men usually have a memory. It can be complex, contradictory, paradoxical, confused. But it is their own. It has a great deal to do with the basis of who they are and the identities they choose for themselves. Sarkozy is an identity pirate, a mercenary of others’ memories. He claims all memories, meaning that in the end he just might not have any. He is our first president without a memory. He is the first of our presidents willing to listen to all ideas, because for him they are literally indistinguishable. If there is a man in France today who embodies (or claims to embody) the famous end of all ideologies, which I cannot quite bring myself to believe in, it is indeed Mr. Sarkozy, the sixth president of the Fifth Republic.

There is an odd feeling in having a president about whom so much (his foreign policy, his generosity, his style) draws you together and so much else (his vision of France, his memory-greed, his cynicism) profoundly separates you. Such will be my lot for the next five or 10 years. Then again, why not? It’s fine.

Bernard-Henri Lévy wrote this. I think that we have no public intellectuals who could write something like this. And we are the more poor for it.

Again, I have to fall back on my utter exhaustion from the current mad dash to publication to slide by a deeper analysis. But read this article while you can. And wonder where we can find such dense, contradictory writing in our pages.

BTW, I actually tend to think that Sarkozy is the right guy. I tend to think, notwithstanding a lifetime's credentials as a youthful socialist cum aging liberal, that Royale would have been a captive to the least dynamic forces in French life. We shall see.

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