Wednesday, May 11, 2016

61 Books: #25

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–24 are just below this post.

25. Geoff Dyer, White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World (2016) (5/11/16)
I've had Geoff Dyer on my radar screen for quite a while (I own two other of his 18+ books, Out of Sheer Rage and Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, though they are packed away somewhere at the moment). I'm not even sure how this one came into my hands, but it proved a thoroughly enjoyable— thoughtful, funny, sympathetic —dinnertime companion for me this last week as I slaved away at a book arts/metalwork workshop in the Gold Country of California. The dinner break was my down time, and it was so nice to sink into this book, spend time with a new (undemanding) friend, after a long day of focused concentration and interaction with strangers.

The fact that I was elsewhere fits, because White Sands is about being elsewhere—adventuring, conducting pilgrimages, making associations between at-home and out-there. It comprises nine chapters: "Where? What? Where?" (about Gauguin and the South Pacific); "Forbidden City" (Beijing); "Space in Time" (Walter De Maria's Lightning Field, New Mexico); "Time in Space" (Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, Utah); "Northern Dark" (Svalbard, Norway); "White Sands" (picking up a hitchhiker in southern New Mexico); "Pilgrimage" (the house that Theodor Adorno lived in in Los Angeles); "The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison" (Watts Towers, LA); "Beginning" (an ischemic stroke). Each chapter begins with a prelude, though the book ends with a prelude that lacks a following chapter; the final words of the prelude, and of the book: "Time is alive, permanently."

So the book is about place, definitely. (The back-cover keywords are "travel:essays.") But it is also very much about time. The preludes often take us far back into Dyer's youth—setting the scene, you might say; but the chapters bring us fully into his fifty-ish sensibility, erudition, curiosity, wondering.

And when I say the chapters are "about" those things: well, yes and no. Chapter 8, for example, "The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison," is about Watts Towers, yes; but it's also about jazz (very much about jazz), heritage, cathedrals, art, scale, ambition, disillusion—and more. Jazz is evoked in "Where? What? Where?" as well, which, yes, is "about" Gauguin and the South Pacific, but even more it is about how we, today, experience place (and our time), given the mythologies from the past (both cultural and our own), which so often bring disappointment in our real-time experience, our dreams, our idealizations.

Here's a representative passage, with its leaps: "After the museum we went to Mataiea and Punaauia (now a featureless suburb of Papeete), where Gauguin lived and where some of his most famous works were painted. I suddenly had the idea that yellow might be a symbol for banana, but apart from that my mind was completely blank and I couldn't think myself into Gauguin's shoes, couldn't see the world through his eyes. As I stood there, however, seeing what he had seen without even coming close to seeing as he had seen, I did get an inkling of the attraction of Islam. Impossible—not even conceivable—that a Muslim, on making the mandatory, once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca, could be disappointed. That is the essential difference between religious and secular pilgrimage: the latter always has the potential to disappoint. In the wake of this realization there swiftly followed another: that my enormous capacity for disappointment was actually an achievement, a victory. The devastating scale and frequency of my disappointment ('I am down, but not yet defeated,' Gauguin snivel-boasted) was proof of how much I still expected and wanted from the world, of what high hopes I still had of it. When I am no longer capable of disappointment the romance will be gone: I may as well be dead."
I thoroughly enjoyed Dyer: his wit and humor, his British moroseness, his exuberance, his intelligence—but especially his perceptiveness and thoughtfulness, the way he can snap disparate ideas together and make a new something to wonder about. I flagged many passages in this book, and right now I'm thinking it's not impossible that I will go back and read the whole thing again. Maybe next time I'm off at a workshop, looking for a diverting dinner companion. (Or maybe I'll have dug through my boxes and found the two aforementioned titles. I bet they'd do the job just as well.)

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