In Gainesville, Florida, the place where I am for the time being, there's an exhibit of Goya's Caprichos down at the local museum. Nobody gives a shit, and I'm not saying they should—but for Gainesville, a show like this is something, and recently my wife talked me into going. I'd seen the series before, in Cincinnati in the summer of 94, and remember being both astounded and a bit let down to see, in person, the etchings and aquatints that had made such an impact on me and my writing when I was in my late teens. I remember that Cincinnati feeling vividly. I went, I saw, I went back to my uncle's (where I was staying), drank fifteen Stroh Lights one after the other while listening to Bill Monroe and his Kentucky Bluegrass boys, and that was that. Whoo-hoo.
And so there I was in the Harn Museum of Art in Gainesville seeing them again, my wife fascinated and me of course seeing things in the prints I'd never seen before, all that, when I realized what I just wrote, she talked me into going with her, and I realized that I didn't give a shit, either. Not really—not about these objects, at least. I just ducked by the water fountain and popped a 25 mg tablet of what I believe was Effexor (an antidepressant I no longer take), and watched through the wall-pane window as the floats drove down 34th Street to the LSU game. Except what I was seeing were hordes of fratboys and aging alumni huddled together at the back of flatbed trucks waving huge banners that said, "Go Goya!" and wearing ratted black top-hats with candles around the brims like the artist did in that famous "Self-Portrait in Black"; crowds of people driving toward the Harn Museum, going ballistic, scantily-clad girls baring their braless breasts and the boys funneling cheap beer straight out of the keg, and others screaming Give Me a G!!! through huge bullhorns to the cheers and waves of the pedestrians, intoxicated elderly couples holding Go Goya seat cushions in one hand and the excited hands of their young grandchildren in the other, Grandma, Granddad, can we get his autograph? Can we? The children's faces distorted by the finger paintings on their little upturned faces. The security guards and local cops in front of the museum, getting ready for the onslaught, the excitement of so many drunk and frantic fans on a hot Florida fall afternoon. The booming PA's of passing vans:
Fuck Tintoretto, fuck Watteau—
We've got Goya, Go! Go! Go!
First and goal he's back to pass
We'll go for two! He'll kick their ass!
And my reverie ended quickly as it'd begun, leaving me mildly relieved.
Painting, composing, writing: these are notoriously solitary activities, and rarely come to fruition in a flurry of public glory. Yes, there are periods in history when many very talented people come together and create great and diverse work, both together and individually, as if channeling something out of the air: Florence in the 16th century, Austria in the late 19th. Paris in the twenties. The Beats in the fifties. The sixties, whatever. It seems to me that epochs are marked and defined by clusters, perhaps at the expense of the marginal and the peripheral figures and works that somehow fall through the fault lines of the world and its pesky turning. Even Goya, though he never knew it, shared marked similarities with his contemporaries Beethoven and Blake. The dawn of the Romantic era, they say.
And what, then, is ours? I'm bored with all the bullshit palaver about the end of the millennium and computer viruses and the Internet revolution. This is fuckin' great, but the fact is the same as it's always been: somebody's gotta write it, and somebody's gotta read it. And that's just the start, but, at least for the moment, it's half the game.
And write about what, for whom? I see less community among the artists and writers I know (and especially those who are doing something—much of my literary brandy & cigars talk has been a subtle excuse to not write, bless my heart) than at any time before I kicked off my writing life running open-mike readings in Five Points Birmingham in the mid-eighties. That's not long, but things happen fast these days, or so it seems. Or so they tell us.
Maybe this is just my own experience, and if you beg to differ, I'm cool with that. Perhaps it's where I am, when I am. Florida writing, Florida fiction . . . Southern literature has always been (even at its best and most microcosmic) written in the gap somehow, and Florida, well, is on the periphery of that. Maybe the M.F.A. people would disagree with me. But what the hell are they writing?
I've raised these issues with older, wiser professional writers of my acquaintance lately. James Purdy, the Ohio-born Brooklyn-based (Brooklyn Heights, now there's some literary and artistic action within a few square miles) said, "I feel as if nothing I've written, ever, has received the recognition it should have in this country," but that he writes "because it's what I do. I love it." So does Harry Crews here in Gainesville, who told me "I love writing the shit I write, no matter what anybody has to say. Fuck 'em. I write because I can, and so I do." You know, when he said that, I felt real good. There's beauty in action, and faith without works is, as they say, dead.
But contemporary art and letters are not, although I think we are in some kind of transition in which hypothetical muffin-tin "boundaries" of the past are being collapsed. Is it the Internet? Multi-cultural diaspora? Political turmoil, or a mass identity crisis? I doubt it. I speak only for myself, of course, but I doubt it. But I don't doubt the sheer power, the raw energy of transition itself: a movement of energies in some kind of ineffable conflict like a riptide that takes you along on a swim of its own. Changes are scary, and as with isolation and creativity it comes and occurs in an instant. Perhaps an instant in which you write because you like this shit, because you can.
And Time, moving on, is its own dark blessing. Bless this issue and everyone in it, those who inspired it, and you here reading it. Bless the margins and the riptides, bless Florida and California and the art exhibit in a town near you. Me, I'm here trying to write a fucking pulp novel set in Tampa, because it's the kind of shit I've always wanted to read and never quite have. So whoo-hoo, fellas. Give me a G.
October 22, 1998