Category Archives: Daydreams and Rants

The Russian Futurist Movement

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Robot musicians! Moon cities! Immortality in pill form! Overwhelmed at the breakneck pace of inventions and technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution, artists and scientists alike were thinking big at the turn of the 20th Century. Nothing seemed out of reach. Many of the things we take for granted every day – automobiles, bicycles, refrigerators, street lights, air conditioning, plastic, vacuum cleaners, light bulbs, radio broadcasting, movie cameras, laundry machines, etc. – were invented in rapid fire succession, practically overnight. Every year – almost every day – there was a new invention that could revolutionize modern life. Influenced by the Italian futurist movement, a network of daring young artists in early 20th-century Russia advocated pushing art to its most extreme limits. The futurists were fascinated by the rapid development of urban life and they worried that many aspects of Russian culture lagged behind, including the Russian language itself. In his most well-known poem, the futurist Velimir Khlebnikov seeks new uses for old words:

Invocation of Laughter
By Velimir Khlebnikov

O, laugh, laughers!
O, laugh out, laughers!
You who laugh with laughs, you who laugh it up laughishly
O, laugh out laugheringly
O, belaughable laughterhood – the laughter of laughering laughers!
O, unlaugh it outlaughingly, belaughering laughists!
Laughily, laughily,
Uplaugh, enlaugh, laughlings, laughlings
Laughlets, laughlets.
O, laugh, laughers!
O, laugh out, laughers!

“Unlaugh” is not a word. But why not? In this poem, Khlebnikov adds existing suffixes and prefixes to the root “laugh,” many of which hadn’t been used in language before. Literary scholar Nandaka Maduranga writes that the poem “explores numerous possibilities that are embedded in language, but that had hitherto been ignored.”

 

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A really cool resource at the Getty Research Institute that allows you to experience “sound poetry” from the Russian futurist period

 

In fact, Khlebnikov frequently uses intuitive word-building rules to create new words that he does not need to define:

Rus’, you are but a kiss in the frost
By Velimir Khlebnikov

Rus’, you are but a kiss in the frost!
The midnight roads are blueing.
Lips joined in a blue lightning bolt,
Clasped, he and she are blueing.
Sometimes at night lightning would spark
From the caress of two mouths.
And a blueing, languished lightning bolt
Would swiftly outline two coats.
And the night would shine intelligent and dark.

We can say something is “turning blue,” but we can’t say something is “blueing.” Why not? What is a word, anyways? Who has the authority to tell us what are “real” words? (Modern day linguists still have no answer to those questions!) I am determined to use the word “blueing” on the first page of my next book.

 

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Pavel Filonov, a futurist painter, sought to deconstruct and re-purpose Medieval painting techniques

 

The Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov, who died in 1903, predicted that scientific advancements promised radical life extension and, very soon perhaps, even an affordable path to biological immortality. Khlebnikov himself seemed to question if the end of life was a fixed certainty:

When Horses Die
By Velimir Khlebnikov

When horses die, they breathe
When grasses die, they wither,
When suns die, they go out,
When people die, they sing songs.

Futurism was by no means limited to poetry. The art movement, which flourished between 1912 and 1921, encapsulated much more, including painting, drawing, architecture, typography, cinema, and even fashion design.

 

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Futurist artist Natalia Goncharova sought a radical break with the past in her fashion designs

 

All the old Golden Age writers of Russian yesteryear were despised by the futurists. Tolstoy, Dosteovsky and Pushkin, according to the futurists’ manifesto, should be “heaved overboard on the steamship of modernity.” Ultimately they lost this bet against history. Dosteovsky is still read by millions today and taught in universities all over the world. The futurists, on the other hand, have been all but forgotten. I remember having a conversation with a scholar of Russian literature at a conference a few years ago. He had no idea who the futurists were. Perhaps the most famous futurist poet (famous at the time, that is) was Vladimir Mayakovsky, who was a rather intense fellow. He advocated poetry as a channel to glorify the individual, writing poems with titles like “To His Beloved Self, The Poet Dedicates These Lines,” which includes lines like “Where am I to find a beloved equal to myself? / Such a woman has no place in the tiny heavens!” A bit full of yourself there, Mayakovsky? He continues praising himself in his poem “A Cloud in Trousers:”

No gray hair in my soul,
no doddering tenderness.
I rock the world with the thunder of my glorious voice,
strolling, looking good –
twenty-two.

If you prefer,
I’ll be pure raging meat,
or if you prefer,
as the sky changes tone,
I’ll be absolutely tender,
not a man, but a cloud in trousers!

You can probably tell where this is going. The communist authorities, once they took power, were apprehensive at Mayakovksy’s glorification of the self rather than the larger social class. Other futurists sought to pare poetry down to its bare minimal elements. There was a minimalist sub-movement within futurism that produced extremely short poems. Some of Vasilisk Gnedov’s poems aren’t even a full word. Really. One of his poems (untitled) is simply “Cruelt.” Another, “The Poem of the End,” is literally just a blank page (a sort of prelude to modern art, perhaps?). One of my favorite Russian minimalist poems is “Burial (A Sonnet)” by Vladislav Khodasevich.

 

Burial (A Sonnet)
By Vladislav Khodasevich

Forehead –
Chalk.
Coffin
Pale.
Priest
Sang.
Shaft
Bang!
Day
Sacred!
Crypt
Blind.
Shade –
To hell!

 

The futurists were very much involved in the politics and social issues of the day. They ridiculed the traditional way of life in Imperial Russia and advocated radical change. Mayakovsky in particular savagely hated Tsar Nicholas II and heaped praise upon Vladimir Lenin, who he idolized as a hero. Unfortunately for Mayakovsky and the rest of the futurists, that feeling wasn’t always mutual. It wasn’t long before the futurist movement as a whole had run afoul of the authorities in Communist Russia. The futurists had high aspirations after the revolution. They dreamed of dominating the artistic spheres of influence under the new regime, and did their best to help the cultural apparatus of the new government. But it was not to be so. Futurism began sputtering out in the 1920s. Mayakovsky’s death in 1930 was ruled a suicide, though the circumstances remain mysterious. Then Joseph Stalin came to power and they were all put up against a wall and shot. The End. (Okay, well, a few of them were actually executed and sent to gulags and what have you, but others simply renounced their work and bent to Stalin’s will. In any case, Russian Futurism was over.)

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In books published during the futurist period, the typography on the page was often presented in strange and unexpected ways

Against Bite-Sized Content

An early draft of this entry began as follows: “I know, I know. The irony. Railing against ‘bite-sized’ content in a measly 1,000-word blog post.” Then, whilst prowling the interwebs this morning, I stumbled upon the following advice from John Rampton at Forbes in defense of longform blog content:

We’re talking about 1,000 words or more. If that sounds insane, it’s not. It’s actually pretty common. Why would someone sit down and write so many words? Because it’s good for SEO.

Silly me! This Tolstoyan epic of word meat might well come equipped with SparkNotes and a character list. I mean, 1,000 whole words (1,253, to be exact). The insanity. How long did that take to write, what inspired you to write it and can you autograph my copy? And let’s not neglect the last line. Why did Melville write Moby Dick? For SEO, of course.

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Over-writing is, obviously, a thing. Longer content is not automatically of higher quality, and not all short content is shallow or poorly researched. Tom Scocca, writing in the annals of Hulk Hogan’s jockstrap, ponders the dilemma of longform journalism thusly:

Some articles should be short. Some articles should be long. No articles, as Vox and its SB Nation demonstrated, should be longform… Editors have traditionally sized up stories when making assignments—based on how interesting a piece seems likely to be, how much money they want to spend on it, and, in the olden days, how much physical space they had to fit the words into, around the ads—but an open-ended length is unhelpful to everyone. It’s like a cartoon cutout holding a ruler at the roller-coaster gate: Over this much, you’re a big-boy writer.

Charles Dickens wrote long novels because he was paid by the word (well, okay, it’s a bit more complicated). Sylvia Plath called writers “the most narcissistic people.” Clearly there is good long and bad long, and that mostly depends on a writer’s skill. Marieke van de Rakt at Yoast warns that “If you aren’t the best writer, try to maximize the words of your post around 700-800.” Seems a bit arbitrary, but okay. Protip, though: few people on the internet admit they “aren’t the best writer.” Haven’t you heard? Everyone on the internet is an expert on grammar.

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I am a novelist and college professor with a master’s degree in linguistics and six years of experience teaching writing. I got credentials, man. But credentials don’t impress much in my field. Try arguing with someone on the internet about language. Why would they listen to me (i.e. an expert)? They’re experts themselves, you know. They’ve gone to high school and they can Google things.

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[meaningless filler content because a picture before a headline with no intervening words somehow triggers my OCD]

Life in the Slow Lane

Longform content is more time-consuming to create. That’s a good thing. Maestro of slow living Carl Honoré writes “the central tenet of the slow philosophy is taking the time to do things properly, and thereby enjoy them more.” Writing this blog post took me a long time. I harbor no delusions of crafting a literary gem, but finding good quotes, continually honing my opinion through research and revising, revising, revising, is a lengthy process (when done right). Sure, I could crank out ten blog posts per week. I’m a professional writer who once wrote 12,000 words in a single day. But I’d like to think that writing is a thing writers should enjoy (unless you are Philip Roth). We live in a world that values quantity over quality when it comes to entertainment, food, alcohol, sexual partners, resume items, extracurriculars, and yes, I’m obviously aware it extends to word count as well. Research shows that human beings feel a constant need to be busy, and often correlate business with happiness. And this is not a smartphone-induced hypermodern mindset. In 1945, poet Edna St. Vincent Millary penned the following:

We have gone too far, we do not know how to stop: impetus
Is all we have. And we share it with the pushed Inert.

We are clever, – we are as clever as monkeys; and some of us
Have intellect, which is our danger, for we lack intelligence
And have forgotten instinct.

Progress – progress is the dirtiest word in the language – who ever told us –
And made us believe it – that to take a step forward was necessarily, was always
A good idea?
In this unlighted cave, one step forward
That step can be the down-step into the Abyss.
But we, we have no sense of direction; impetus
Is all we have; we do not proceed, we only
Roll down the mountain,
Like disbalanced boulders, crushing before us many
Delicate springing things, whose plan it was to grow.

We have no sense; we only roll downhill. Peace
Is the temporary beautiful ignorance that War
Somewhere progresses.

Her poem speaks to a point made a couple years earlier by Winston Churchill:

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What I take from that is that we should only do things if and when there is a need beyond our imagined need to do things.

But Oh, How the Poor Reader Suffers

Brain science tells us the average human attention span is eight seconds. And, no, that is not a default state of human nature. A similar study in 2000 found a 12 second attention span. (Some problems.)

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Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the year 1840, seems prophetic on this point as he laments the secularization of society. He argues that “In the ages of faith, the final aim of life is placed beyond life. The men of such ages are therefore used naturally and, as it were, involuntarily, to fix their gaze for many years on a static object towards which their progress is ever directed.” He argues that viewing one’s life as a single long-term project is good for attention span and happiness. He continues:

As soon as they have lost the way of taking a long-term view for their principal hopes, they naturally tend to seek the immediate gratification of their smallest wishes, and it seems to me that from the instant they give up the hope of living forever, they are inclined to act as if they were to live for only one single day. In skeptical times, therefore, there is always the danger that men will surrender themselves endlessly to the casual whims of daily desire and they will abandon entirely anything which requires long-term effort, thus failing to establish anything noble or calm or lasting.

As a teacher, I don’t discipline students for texting in class. I don’t pick on the kid in the back who looks like he’s not paying attention. Heck, in the future I don’t even think I’ll penalize late work. I talk to my students often about taking responsibility. I can’t force someone to be successful, or creative, or even to be smarter. It’s a conscious choice on their part. Students in my classes end up with the grade they want.

smartkid

So why should bloggers contribute to soundbite culture by cranking out daily hot takes on Donald Trump and the Kardashians? Not only is that dumb, it’s not even a good way to drive traffic to your blog. And, believe it or not, I got to take my time writing this blog and actually found it enjoyable. Approaching the subject from a cross-disciplinary perspective – neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, religion, history, poetry and literature – left me with a deeper understanding. There’s nothing old-fashioned or counter-cultural about living slowly. It just means you like doing things right.

Probably the weirdest thing I’ve ever written

My hard drive failed a couple weeks back. Most of my stuff was backed up but horribly disorganized. Years of memories and files going all the way back to high school were scattered across external HDDs, flash drives, email attachments and cloud docs. Scrounging through the shreds of my life I came across a ton of old writings, mostly fragments, half-finished drafts and experiments of writing under the influence. I’d forgotten about most of these. They’re pretty terribad in terms of the actual writing, but they have fantastic titles. One is called “Some Weird Lesbian Fantasies I’ve Had.” Another is titled “Notes On A Coke-Fueled Orgy Held On The Occasion Of The Seventieth Anniversary Of The Sinking Of The Battleship Bismark By Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.” I’ll post those when I need some clickbait. But I think this one’s gotta take the cake in terms of sheer weirdness. I wrote this about six years ago right after I moved back to Ohio from New York City. Yeah I was going through a bit of a phase or something, I don’t know. There’s really no explanation.

 

A Masochist’s Guide to Manhattan

Tucked between the scripture-sprayed graffiti canvas of East Village dive bars, within earshot of the Tompkins Park’s acoustic panhandlers, a sidewalk’s length from the number 6 line, in a back room off a back room off underneath Luigi’s Tavern, a man named Sergei will punch you in the testicles for a dollar. In a corridor starved of clean oxygen, the men squeezed tight. The ceiling leaked black tears. Bass from the tavern’s jukebox shook the walls and the stench of feces and newspapers grew stronger the closer the line moved to Sergei’s office. I tried making small talk with a Japanese businessman beside me, but everyone seemed withdrawn and embarrassed, sheathed in shadows and silence. Here is the world’s forgotten crawlspace. Here are pennies lost beneath cushions. Every so often a man would stagger past us, clutching his crotch, stopping every so often to reel over in pain. “Anyways,” I said to the Japanese businessman, “I’d say it’s a bargain. Not much you can get in New York for a dollar these days.”

On the uptown Q train there is an MTA employee named Willard who will beat you with a broom if you board the train drunk. Most days I don’t have money for booze so I just shamble around like a puppet corpse flailing and shoving and pickpocketing until someone calls the cleaner. After a time I began to recognize the regulars. Some men from the line at Sergei’s made weekly appearances before Willard, but some women were return customers too, the trash of the city, come not to be cleansed but swept uselessly, bouncing around a filthy bathtub without a drain, drowning but not dying, existential excrement.

On 86th and Fourth there is an alcoholic named Valeria who will slash your face with her fingernails in exchange for an argument and red wine. After a particularly brutal beating, Willard palmed Val’s business card into my jeans pocket as I lay bleeding amidst a forest of apathetic feet. He whispered something in my ear but that time I really was drunk and I don’t remember the details. We watched Humphrey Bogart movies and drank and I found her clipboard between the couch cushions. She shrugged.

Kathy, a retired classics professor in Chelsea, will break your heart once per month if you agree to water her plants and feed her fish at precise intervals. Once I deviated from the schedule and killed a goldfish named Sam, and Kathy showered me with so much love that I had to stand at the ledge of her apartment rooftop and threaten to jump unless she’d promise to spit on my grave.

Dollar Wash, a dry-cleaning service on Broadway run by two identical Lithuanians named Natalie, will hire and fire you once per week. The sisters wore matching outfits every day. Nothing at Dollar Wash costs a dollar. Once I stumbled in drunk and started a fight with a customer and ended up damaging two of the industrial strength washers and a Lithuanian mobster beat me near to death with a wooden bat. A week later the sisters hired me again.

On my last day in the city I stumbled through the park, nursing my scabs and my scars. I found a plot of grass under a willow tree and watched children throw a football in a field. Summer sun felt scalding on my scalp. I sat and watched a mass of humanity circulate like an atmospheric pressure system, laughing and sobbing and texting and walking dogs, eating ice cream and flying kites, hailing taxis and holding hands and watching planes write love notes in the sky. And if I could have that moment back, just for an hour, an instant, a day, just one last time, just a blink of a strip of film negatives to be experienced afraid and alone just once more.

The Ambitious Experiment

When I was in high school my friends and I formed a garage band called The Ambitious Experiment. Well, “band” is a matter of definition. We bypassed the whole “making music” part and split before cutting our first single. We could barely play our instruments, we had opinions on minimalist sculpture (Tony Smith FTW) and our bassist had a fantastic mustache. That’s some serious street cred, pre-destining oneself for failure. But we tried. I mean, I guess. The point is… well, I’m not sure what the point is. Would you like to see a picture of a pipe-smoking Walrus named Tricheo who likes to be referred to as “The Judge?” Yes? Good. We understand one another. Click here.

Today I am engaged in a new ambitious experiment – a brave, semi-quixotic adventure into the world of publishing. This blog and website will function as part of my all-important “web presence” needed to succeed as a serious writer person. I’ll share cat pictures, advice for others attempting to get published in print, drawings of cats, photos of cats, videos of cats, and updates on the status of my adventure. The difference between this experiment and my decade-old dud is that this time I’m not giving up. See, I have a plan. It looks something like this:

1. Start a blog

2. Start a blog war

3. ?????

4. Use newfound celebrity status to get out of speeding tickets, meet Snoop Lion, etc.

If you have opinions on books, bourbon, craft beer, the (early) films of Wong Kar-wai, linguistic relativity, optimality theory (actually just go away) and/or the use of “and/or” in contemporary blogging, please proceed to leave a series of increasingly arsenic-laced comments so that we may jumpstart the war and use it to our mutual pageview inflation.

If you would like to read a steady stream of cries for attention thinly veiled as self-deprecating humor, you can always follow me on Twitter. Expect more general awesomeness in this space in the near future. I’m off to down another gallon of coffee and nervously check my inbox for the hundredth time this minute.