Imagine a throng of katydids, crickets and grasshoppers, in the scraggle woods surrounding a lake. Imagine that they make the most beautiful racket, like a thousand instruments playing in interlocking harmonies that crowd into your mind as if you were in a symphony of bug. Imagine you're walking down a broad trail, with a hip-looking microphone held high over your head, a portable tape player at your side, trying to record the sounds. You picture yourself, a kind of missionary from the insects to the infidels, trying to capture this Moment as if the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven are rendered in the notes of aphids. You stand, some suburban Freddie Mercury, capturing a National Geographic moment so unexpected and delightful that you know you'll change reality when you replay it. You'll drop it into Audacity, you'll mix it with reverb and echo loops,and you'll create a simple ballet of sound, to which a few special but treasured cogoscenti will dance.
Then imagine that you replay the tape, and all you hear is the hiss of the tape and the wheel of the rotors, turning the tape, and the faintest buzz in the background.
Somehow, when you hit the button on Magix that changes the waveform, you inadvertently hit "white noise".
I notice that throwaway cameras shoot well only at 4 feet of distance.
One of the fellows who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes wrote a rather long
section which I'll quote here because it's part of my point:
"Vanity of vanities, said Ecclesiastes: vanity of vanities, and all is vanity.
What hath a man more of all his labour, that he taketh under the sun?
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth standeth for ever. The sun riseth, and goeth down, and returneth to his place: and there rising again, maketh his round by the south, and turneth again to the north: the spirit goeth forward surveying all places round about, and returneth to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea doth not overflow: unto the place from whence the rivers come, they return, to flow again. All things are hard: man cannot explain them by word. The eye is not filled with seeing, neither is the ear filled with hearing. What is it that hath been? the same thing that shall be. What is it that hath been done? the same that shall be done".
I think of the limitations of the throwaway camera. You see, when you've got a throwaway camera in your hands, you see the world in a new and different way.
Suddenly, everything is a picture, a vignette, a moment in time. But when you carry a throwaway camera, it's a moment of time you can't quite capture. I have the proof, on film. I have pictures of field prairie wildflowers, out of focus. I have a haunting shot of a deer on New Year's Day, indistinct. I have butterflies upon which I could not focus, and birds flying which become specks in the image.
I used to long for better equipment, an eye that was not so exclusively inner, and
a telephoto lens as to which all the metaphors I can imagine are tastelessly inadequate and mildly vulgar. Over time, though, I came to accept that this form of expression had an inherent shortcoming, which was in fact a form of strength. I learned to frame pictures with an eye to the limitations of the camera. I learned to take snapshots that would work on a pre-focused limited canvas equipped with cheap film. I began to learn to be the camera of my limited imagination.
I've come to take this idea as a metaphor for so many things about living. My perusal of a recording equipment catalog last night illustrated to me that each year the technology improves just one more notch. Never mind that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was recorded on a 4-track machine with rather ordinary overdubs.
Somehow for just four hundred dollars more, one can now have 64 channels of digital power, ready to lay down tracks. I will digress for a moment, by the way, to say that a strong exception to this rule is the new mini-synth which emulates a mellotron, which I almost bought at 99 dollars just for the sheer thrill of playing a mellotron. But mellotrons may make my point. They were the ultimate in limited, fixed-purpose technology used with joy and insight.
So many things about personal creativity seem bound up in that throwaway camera. I can't write fictional prose to save my life, for example, but I can sometimes get a bad poem published. Even when I did that thing where I wrote a novel in ten days, the result, which I still intend to self-publish, came out like my weblog, only with some rather batty plot details. Yet it's kind of fun, and not altogether dissatisfying, to realize that my own throwaway camera of a muse is to write fairly craftless and artless free verse that a narrow set of people find congenial to read.
I can write a poem which only focuses at four feet, and yet sometimes I can get the right shot taken.
Ultimately, perhaps this mortal coil--or should I say rewind--is 27 shots or so, allowing for a few spoiled negatives. I don't mean that in some goth-rocker doom-and-gloom way, but in the way that if we are lucky, we all get to take our own little snaps, and savor the images we conjure. We walk through our own lives, waving the microphones in mid-air, hoping to catch amazing song. It really doesn't matter that so often our creative endeavors only capture a tape hiss and perhaps the low hum of anxious pause-pushing.
Point. Shoot. Click. I have a dozen or two dozen cameras in which pictures lie, undeveloped. The experience of shooting them--of taking flowers and butterflies and hawks flying high overhead--overwhelms the virtue of the pictures themselves.
I know that the pictures lie in the little paper and plastic boxes. Sometimes developing them is almost beside the point. Yet one cannot live only on what one imagines resides within one's own creative camera. Sometimes you have to develop the snaps, to acquire a sense of touch--a flavor if you will--of one's own reality.
I vaguely remember the old Burgess Meredith episode of The Twilight Zone, when armageddon comes in the form of world-wide destruction, and a curmudgeonly bookworm finds himself delighted to be the last man on earth, among the books of a huge lending library. But then his glasses break.
I suspect that whatever it is we are here for, it is not to be the last readers on earth. I imagine that it is kindness we are suited for, because kindness is such a rare commodity, and can do so much good. But it may be that we are suited to merely
daydream about pointing and clicking and making photographs.
In one sense, I think it's important to make our photographs as real as we might. Yet that odd fellow Baudelaire attacked the idea of the literal photograph, suggesting that ""A revengeful God has given ear to the prayers of this multitude, Daguerre was his Messiah." I wonder, sometimes, if art "for art's sake" does not itself run risks greater than an art of depiction or metaphor.
Although I love a pithy phrase, I love, too, that pith alone can be a pleasant diversion rather than a trenchant insight. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, for example, succintly expressed the mildly banal but amusing "In life, as in art, the beautiful moves in curves", and yet his own "beautiful" paragraph in one of his novels managed to put this celebrated prose-bound mouthful forward in Paul Clifford
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
Who need read a novel when one can read a paragraph like that?
But that's so often the problem with creative expression. No doubt Mr Bulwer-Lytton
felt the muse calling him to write that paragraph. After all, the muse made him a very rich man and a peer with a kind of Rowling splendor. Yet the muse is fickle,
and the pictures that look so appealing through the lens-less focus aperture of the throwaway camera seem so much less impressive when committed to film and developed.
But isn't all life that way? One dreams of being one thing, and then one finds one is another. One dreams of being one thing, and then one finds that the thing for which one dreams is actually something else. Ultimately, one is left smiling based on the simple things--figuring out the notes to "This Land is Your Land" and "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" without sheet music and writing a poem that does not make one wince to read.
I think that the sheer art possible in living so far exceeds the ability of most of us to expess that art in word or picture. It's not just "who can paint a sunset?", but also that we live our most "artistic moments" in our very artlessness. So many times the studied effort to "experience" things is far inferior to the sheer abandon of living experienced without reflection. The Indigo Girls song suggested that the less we think about it all, the closer we are to fine, but I am not quite going that far. I am instead suggesting that this thinking and pondering of the meaning of it all can be part of the experience, and not merely part of the recording of the experience.
I like that fellow Charles Ryder in the novel "Brideshead Revisited". He is always outside looking in a bit, and retelling the story to himself in cinematic terms. The narrator in another novel I love, Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier", takes it a step further, and misperceives all of what is going on about him (or does he?) through the faux romantic haze in which he lives his life.
Perhaps we need these escapes in a world of suicide bombs and land mines. We need to puzzle questions outside our daily experience--compare Nelson Mandela with Robert Mugabe and wonder at how destiny works, read up on theories of open source music and
netlabels because the ideas dance pleasantly in our heads.
I like that I can buy a throwaway camera for four or five dollars, and yet get tens of tends of dollars worth of fun from the way hiking with one in hand causes me to view the world. I wonder what I could do if I viewed the world with a throwaway compassion, in which I gave freely and without fear of over-exposure. I was worse because I wished myself better, and consumed my self-improvement time in wishing for self-improvement.
There is, after all, no easy exit. As Mr. Bulwer-Lytton notes, "[t]he same refinement which brings us new pleasures, exposes us to new pains". One might be a dog in Heaven or a prince in Hades, but the sublime pleasure of complexity is not
as rewarded as smiling obliviousness in some ways. It's all a distraction, a distemper if you will. "Refuse to be ill. Never tell people you are ill; never own it to yourself. Illness is one of those things which a man should resist on principle", Mr. Bulwer-Lytton cautions, no doubt on a dark and stormy night. People worry so much about so many things. "Sing then the core of dark and absolute oblivion where the soul at last is lost in utter peace,", said D.H. Lawrence, and though I am not inclined to hymn my oblivion, I understand the feeling.
The reality is that we are all granted our own box of finger-paints. Some get the gift of good eyes--some bear the scourge of over-thick and graceless fingers. But whatever grade there is must be more than a matter of whether one's genetic make-up includes a talent at drawing straight lines.
I drove today to work through a town called Murphy, in which a street called Pecan Orchard features houses built literally in such an orchard of pecan trees. In my mind, the ranch houses spread comfortably in forests of nut trees painted a picture of domestic peace. Yet the people living in the houses no doubt have the same puzzles of ant-stress and termite-strain with which we all live our lives. The problem of compassion is that there are no deserving poor. We all are undeserving, and we all are poor in so many ways. Some manage incredible feats of grace in their allotted seven score, while others lose their lives to drunken drivers on the wings of their most-anticipated moment. I hear public radio biographies of slain soldiers and cry.
Yet if we are to savor this life, I wonder, sometimes, if we don't need to lift our cheap microphones high overhead, and still tilt the windmills our throwaway camera joust. In this world, getting the "D" string in tune is a miracle, because the drone strings then follow easily.
I have tasted reality, and it tastes heavenly, and I cannot bake it, but I will try to slice and heat what pieces I may. The would-be lover in the Rodgers and Hammerstein song sings that he "has dreamed that your arms are lovely", and I somehow approve of the idea of unseen arms dreamt about, and lovers who sing in unison "in these dreams I love you so". Yet we all love a bit, and curse and spit a bit, and sometimes eat brownies or tater tots or whatever we choose to eat.
It's all got a disposability about it, I suppose, but I am not sure if that if a damnation or a saving grace, but I suspect strongly the latter. I think that eternal things can last a moment as well as an eternity. Point. Click. Shoot.