“My king, something has been created that no one has created before.”
So wrote Enheduanna, an Akkadian priestess of the 23rd century BC, in her collection of Sumerian hymns, Exaltation of Inana. Much of it has survived, in fragments, and there are several English translations, yet in each her poetry comes through. Enheduanna was a gifted writer, a great writer, in a written language not yet designed for florid prose. Nor was cuneiform just something one could dash off quick thoughts with. But she managed both, in beauty and verbosity, and her works were held in esteem long past her lifetime for a thousand or more years. She was the first, it seems, who showed the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent just what a truly beautiful thing the written word could be:
On the wide and silent plain, darkening the bright daylight, she turns midday into darkness. People look upon each other in anger, they look for combat. Their shouting disturbs the plain, it weighs on the pasture and the waste land. Her howling is like Iškur’s and makes the flesh of all the lands tremble. No one can oppose her murderous battle — who rivals her? No one can look at her fierce fighting, the speeding carnage. Engulfing water, raging, sweeping over the earth, she leaves nothing behind.
At her loud cries, the gods of the Land become scared. Her roaring makes the lesser gods tremble like reeds. At her rumbling, they hide all together. Without Inana the god An makes no decisions, the god Enlil determines no destinies. Who defies the mistress who is supreme over land between the mountains? Cities reduced to ruin mounds and haunted places, shrines become wasteland.
A deluge. An earthquake. A windstorm. A total eclipse. Four thousand years later you can still sense the awe and terror. Enheduanna looked upon the ruins of ancient cities, already dead two thousand years, and pictured a goddess’s wrath. Even in her time the plains of Mesopotamia were littered with vanished civilizations. Without history, each would have been evidence of some unforgiven sacrilege. Hubris, perhaps, or worshipping the wrong gods. The result is always the same. Ruin mounds and haunted places, she writes, and shrines become wasteland. That, as they say, is some writing.
A votive disc of Edheduanna, carved in her lifetime. She is at center.
Fyl’s watching yet another Stephen King movie. Apparently that is all IFC shows anymore, Stephen King movies. Or is this Sundance. Or whatever channel this endless series of commercials punctuated by monsters, violence and really bad acting is on. After an afternoon of this, as I rush about from one household crisis to the next (refrigerator is dying, which is actually a lot more of a hassle than a dead cat, let me tell you), I’ve a genuine appreciation for the old studio system, in which these two howling babes, possessed of the devil or whatever, would have been left spinning on their stools at Schwabs. Oh Lord, what hath Brando wrought. Method acting for dummies.
If only King hadn’t let his characters talk so much. Nobody ever mumbles in a Stephen King story. No one ever just shuts up. He’s from Maine, I know, but in Maine they appreciate silence. Yup. Nope. That’s a whole conversation right there. There are more words spoken in a single Stephen King movie than in the entire state of Maine in an entire year.
Another half hour of commercials and then back to the movie. One of the principles–a bad guy, I think–is talking and talking and talking. I could be watching a hockey game and instead someone is putting a curse on someone in ten thousand words.
Ohhh…the guy exploded. I think exploded. Something. I thought he was going to make it with the hot blonde but he exploded or glooped or turned inside out or something. Then this tentacle thing shows up and it’s the blonde’s turn. This all makes sense to Stephen King fans, of course. They never seem the least bit confused by his stories. It’s like trying to listen to Alan Watts lectures on KPFK and thinking they’re complete nonsense while all around me people are omming. I say I don’t get it. This is just babble. They look at me and shush. I ask my wife where the tentacle thing came from. She looks at me and shushes. I want to ask about the hot blonde but decide against it. But does anyone ever get laid in a Stephen King movie? Without getting schlorped into the other world, I mean.
Vinicius de Moraes was a lyricist unlike anything in English, his stuff was so extraordinarily literate it read like real poetry, great poetry, with such imagery and feel. Check out this one, a remarkably good translation of Arrastao from the Portuguese, set to an Edu Lobo tune. The version here is Elis Regina’s classic take with the Zimba Trio, recorded live in Sao Paulo in 1965. It is intense and huge sounding yet it is just Elis with an acoustic trio, piano, bass and drums. There was absolutely nothing in American music like this at the time, not in jazz or rock, or in words even. Here below is the lyric, in English, awash in syncretic meaning, the ancient Mediterranean Roman Catholicism and Yoruban candomble intertwined, orishas and saints one and the same in the way the Holy Trinity is one in the same, consubstantial. Hypostatis the scholars described in it late Roman days, in Greek, a concept rejected by the Arians with great slaughter, but is now so embedded in Catholicism that the holies and spirits and gods of other religions become one with Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit, and with the Madonna and the saints and martyrs, and of course Satan and his minions. Thus our narrator here guilelessly prays to Yemanja the goddess of the sea with syncopated piano and rolling drum meter; then to her Catholic side, Saint Barbara, in a melody like the inside of a cathedral, soaring, the notes hanging in the still air. The people go out into the sea in boats and let float candles on tiny rafts and the bay is filled with points of light and the silhouettes of fishermen, and the night air rings with drums and chants and the low mumble of prayers. Yemanja answers, Santa Barbara answers, and the nets are filled with fish and hearts with love. Somehow, Vincinius tells all this in a simple fisherman’s prayer on a night spent trawling, in Portuguese arrastao.
Eh! There are dinghies in the sea Hey! hey! hey! They’re trawling today Eh! Everyone fishing Enough of the shade, JoãoContinue reading →
I was gonna pass by Raymond Chandler’s place in Silverlake. Just drive by it. Slowly. Pass by slowly and think that Raymond Chandler used to live there. It was his birthday. He’d have been 125. People don’t get to be 125 years old. Not yet. And certainly not writers. Too many vices. Too little money. Too much truth, and lies. A lotta lies. But if you’re good no one can tell you’re lying.
He lived on Redesdale, on the eastside slope of Micheltorena Hill, maybe a third of the way down. The streets are like switchbacks there, the way they wind, and they send you back and forth, never really getting anywhere. You can get stoned and be lost forever up there, wending your way this way and that, at random. If you get to the top of Micheltorena Hill you can pull over. It’s dark there, with a view that goes all the way to Japan almost. The lights are intoxicating, scattered across the city’s plain, over that vast flat expanse of one story houses all the way to the beach. There would have been less lights in Raymond Chandler’s time. Less houses then. Less trees. Less cars. Less people, too. But the ones there were, what a lode of characters they must have been.
I started this a long time ago. I was gonna write about Raymond Chandler’s procrastination. But I waited so long I can’t remember just what I was going to write about. So now I’m never going to finish it. They call that irony. Like those pretty orchids reeking of corruption. Me, I like orchids. But I don’t write hungover.
The wife drew open the drapes and the sun is pouring in through the windows. There’s ten feet of window across, I think, another six feet high. You could see the whole city all the way to the ocean but for that ridge in the way. Because of it the rest of the world besides our hill and that hill and the little valley in between appears cut off from the rest of the city, the state, the planet. There’s just us and it, that ridge. It’s steep and green and cluttered with houses that go back to the late thirties and through the war years. We breathe art deco around here, scarcely notice it. The slightest little shop is deco, the fronts of houses, even an old gas station they just tore down and left an empty lot. Famous architects went nuts around the lake, building crazy wild modern homes for the moneyed hipsters of the day. A lot of movie star money here once, long ago, a lot of industry people. A couple guys–now dead–told me about the old days. The castle across the way–it has multiple floors and a turret, and while it looks like a house from the front over there, it looks like a castle to us over here–would throw huge parties, with orchestras, and Judy Garland would sing into the wee hours, echoing everywhere, keeping people awake. Drove them nuts.
Raymond Chandler was gone by then, dead, unfinished. A little forgotten. Drunken writers, I mean the truly sodden, generally have to wait a generation to be discovered again. The people that knew them die, the fumes dispel, the sad later years are forgotten. Kids read the books, the wonderful classic books, and try to figure out what the hell is going on in The Big Sleep (I’ve watched it a dozen times, easy, and still I’m lost by the time he leaves the bookstore) and they marvel at just how good a writer Raymond Chandler was, and how he shaped in many ways who we are. You don’t live in Hollywood and thereabouts and not have your Philip Marlowe moments. The dame wraps her stems around the barstool and no way you’re not gonna answer her look, buy her a drink, take her up on the smoke. You might not even smoke cigarettes but there you are, looking cool, smoke wreathed around your head, thinking of detective novels and jazz and sex. I told a little prick off once, he was being an asshole to a couple dames next to me at the bar. He scuttled off, scared. I let him go. He gave me the eye. I laughed. The women laughed. He stumbled backward, fell. I reached out and helped him to his feet. Careful fella, you can break a leg that way. He laughed nervously and thanked me and came back to the bar. Scene ended. Just one of those things. Phil Marlowe wouldn’t have handled it that way at all. Phil Marlowe would have socked him one, the little wop, and the punch would catch him straight on the chin, knock him out cold. Glass jaw. The barroom beef would drag his crumpled form out and dump him on the sidewalk. The cops would pick him up. He’d come to, spluttering, say the wrong thing, get the hell beaten out of him. Thirty days. Later he and his paisans would come looking for revenge. Vendetta A rough town this place used to be. Nothing hippie about it then. Men were men. Women women. They’d fight and fuck and cheat and fall in love. That took care of everything by the end of the book or the closing credits. The sad divorce tales were a generation in the future. Lana Turner. Mrs Robinson. One word: Plastics. But for now, two words: It’s Chinatown.
Raymond Chandler didn’t write Chinatown, of course. Getting way off track. Free associating made up stories. They didn’t free associate in Raymond Chandler’s L.A. That was far in the future. Things were too tough to wander off into random connections. Stories needed structure, narrative, had to make some sense. Even The Big Sleep‘s screenplay pretends to follow a narrative. Bogart pulls it off. The breathless pace that allows it to work. Had they stopped still for a couple scenes, the unconnected dots would stand out, drive you nuts, ruin the movie. But they don’t. You blow through that like Illinois Jacquet blowing through Flying Home in 1946, the Basie band a great roaring machine behind him, unstoppable. That’s Bogie in The Big Sleep. Unstoppable. But you couldn’t fool Raymond Chandler. He sat in his upstairs studio office, smoking, pouring rye after rye, wondering if he could ever write a good story again. The secretary walked in, said something, walked out. He watched the seams disappear up the back of her legs. She swished, each step perfectly placed, like choreography. He wondered if her lipstick tasted like apple or strawberry. He wondered, wandered, stared out the window, and a story disappeared, forever.