Here are the first few lines of Charles Bukowski's one-page late poem "Zero" (You Get So Alone At Times it Just Makes Sense, Ecco 2002, p. 104, originally publ. 1986 by Black Sparrow Press):
sitting here watching the second hand on the TIMEX go around and around . . . this will hardly be a night to remember sitting here searching for blackheads on the back of my neck as other men enter the sheets with dolls of flame I look into myself and find perfect emptiness.
Here is an adolescent effort of mine when I was literally an adolescent:
tiredly picking my nose listening to the grinding sounds of clocks, air conditioners and refrigerators i can hear it all this night snarfing a fart now and then, tiredly checking beef pies cooking in the oven picking at a jammed-up typewriter in confusion dancing around on featherweight fright flights and tiredly picking picking my nose & my acne and eating it is this any way to run an airline?
I'll grant that Bukowski's poem, published when he was around 66, especially if you read the whole of it, is better than mine, which is not saying much. But there are plenty of common elements: self-indulgence, self-absorption, diasaffection, alienation and disconnectedness. My excuse is that my adolescent rubbish was written when I was 16. At 66 that particular excuse lapses.
Money in my pocket, food in my belly, clothes on my back, a roof over my head, physical and mental health. What does it say about us that the possession of things like these is not success enough? Aim high! Try high! Forget Bukowski.
Some write because they like the idea of being a writer. It's romantic or 'cool' or something. Others write to say something that they need to express. Most combine these motivations. The better the writer, the stronger the need to express something that not just needs expression for the psychic health of the writer, but that is worthy of expression.
Charles Bukowski wrote from genuine need. (See so you want to be a writer?) It was his therapy. He could not have believed in the early days of his scribbling that he would ever be able to make a living from it. But from what I have read of him so far, what he wrote is not worth reading except in the way that his writing was worth doing for him. What do I mean?
His writing was self-therapeutic; our reading is motivated by something like the pathologist's interest. We read him to learn about diseases of the mind and spirit.
Through Charles Bukowski I discovered John Fante who I am now reading (Ask the Dust, Black Sparrow, 2000, originally published in 1939) and reading about (Stephen Cooper, Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante, North Point Press, 2000). Here is Bukowski's preface to the Black Sparrow edition of Ask the Dust in which Buk recounts the day he stumbled upon Fante in the L. A. Public Library.
Both lived in and wrote about Los Angeles, which explains part of my interest in both. And then there is the Catholic connection, stronger in Fante than in Bukowski, and the Italian resonance in Fante. Ten years before Kerouac broke into print, Fante's writing had that mad, onrushing, intoxicated Kerouac quality as witness the following passage three pages into Ask the Dust:
Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.
A day and another day and the day before, and the library with the big boys in the shelves, old Dreiser, old Mencken, all the boys down there, and I went to see them, Hya Dreiser, Hya Mencken, Hya, hya,; there's a place for me, too and it begins with B., in the B shelf, Arturo Bandini, make way for Arturo Bandini, his slot for his book, and I sat at the table and just looked at the place where my book would be, right there close to Arnold Bennett, but I'd be there to sort of bolster up the B's, old Arturo Bandini, one of the boys, until some girl came along, some scent of perfume through the fiction room, some click of high heels to break up the monotony of my fame. Gala day, gala dream!
A good aphorism should swim suddenly before the mind fully formed. If you have to piece it together it will show its seams. Grunts of effort rarely produce good ones. Bukowski's "Don't try" finds application here. The good ones are grantings -- from Elsewhere. Be grateful for them, on Thanksgiving, and every day.
He had no appreciation of nature. That says something about a man. And what it says ain't good. I'll have to dig up one of his anti-nature poems for documentation. I recall one in which he has good things to say about smog, the atmosphere of LaLaLand, the oxygen of (fallen) Angelenos. Those last cute phrases are mine not his.
A Bukowski binge appears to be in the offing, following hard on the heels of Beat October, all part of ongoing ruminations on styles of life and modes of muddling along the via dolorosa of this vale of samsara enroute to points unknown. Here is something that came out of my pen early in the predawn:
Barfly and gambler, flâneur and floozy fritter away their time. And they are condemned for so doing by the solid bourgeois. But the latter thinks, though he may not say, that the pursuits of the monastery and the ivory tower, though opposite to the low life's dissipation, are equally time-wasting. Prayer, meditation, study for its own sake, translation and transmission of culture, the vita contemplativa, Pieperian leisure, otium liberale, moral scrupulosity, mindfulness, the various disciplines of palate and penis, heart and memory, working out one's salvation with diligence -- all will evoke a smile from the worldly bourgeois fellow, the man of substance solidly planted in the self-satisfied somnolence of middle-class mediocrity. He's tolerant of course, and superficially respectful, but the respect becomes real only after the time-waster has managed to turn a buck or secure a livelihood from his time-wasting by becoming a teacher in a college, say, or a pastor of a church.
Both refused to live conventionally. The Laureate of Low Life and the Red Virgin. Both said No to the bourgeois life. But their styles of refusal were diametrically opposed. Both sought a truer and realer life, one by descent, the other by ascent. For one the true life, far from the ideological sham of church and state and family values, is the low life: drinking, gambling, fornicating, drug-taking, petty crime like busting up a room and skipping out on the rent, barroom brawling. Not armed robbery, rape, and murder, but two-bit thievery, whoring and picking fights in dingy dives. Nothing that gets you sent to San Quentin or Sing-Sing.
For the other the true life is not so readily accessible: it is the life in pursuit of the Higher, the existence and nature of which is only glimpsed now and again. (GG 11) The succor of the Glimpse -- this is indeed the perfect word -- is unreliable, a matter of grace. One is granted a glimpse. A matter of grace, not gravity. It is hard to rise, easy to fall -- into the the bed of sloth, the whore's arms, the bottle. The pleasures of the flesh are as reliable as anything in this world. In that reliability lies their addictive power. Satisfaction of crass desire breeds a bad infinity of crass desires. Desire is endlessly reborn in each satisfaction. One is not granted the rush of the lush-kick by a power transcendent of the natural nexus; it is a matter of determinism once you take the plunge. Drink, snort, shoot and the effect follows, which is not to say that one does not freely decide to drink, snort, shoot. The point is that the free agent's input sets in motion a process utterly predictable in its effect. Not so with the "lightning flashes" (GG 11) that reveal the Higher.
At best, one positions oneself so as to enjoy the gusts of divine favor should any come along. Like al-Ghazzali in search of a cooling breeze, you climb the minaret. There you are more likely to catch the breeze than on the ground, though there is no guarantee. One cannot bring it about by one's own efforts, and the positioning and preparing cannot be said to be even a necessary condition of receipt of the divine favor; but the creaturely efforts make it more likely.
Bukowski versus Weil. The Dean of Dissipation versus the Categorical Imperative in skirts. Self-indulgence versus self-denial as opposed paths to the truer and realer life. Dissipation versus concentration, versus Weil's attention. "Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer." (Gravity and Grace, p. 106)
The low life (Buk) will not renounce but dives head first into the most accessible goods of this world, the lowest and basest and commonest. The angel in him celebrates the animal in man thereby degrading himself and 'gravitating' towards food and drink, sex and drugs. You just let yourself go and gravity does the rest. The fall is assured. No self-discipline in matters of money either. Our man worships at the shrine of Lady Luck, betting on the horses at Santa Anita, Del Mar, and Hollywood Park, all within striking distance of his beloved Los Angeles.
The spiritual aspirant who aims high and beyond this life, though tempted by booze and broads and the whole gamut of the palpable and paltry, seeks the Good beyond all finite goods. Pursuit of the Good demands detachment from all finite goods (GG 12 ff.).
The Aporia. Positivistic dissipationism versus a concentrationism that is hard to tell from nihilism. Self-loss via dissipation, the dive into the diaspora of the sensory manifold versus self-loss by absorption into a Transcendence that cancels individuality. Salvation of the self by annihilation of the self. ". . . the object of all our efforts is to become nothing." (GG 30)
October's scrounging around in used book dens for Beat arcana uncovered Barry Miles' biography of this laureate of low life. It has been holding my interest. Bukowski, though not an associate of the Beat writers, is beat in the sense of beaten down and disaffected but not in Kerouac's sense of beatific. A worthless fellow, a drunkard, a lecher, a misogynist, a shameless user and betrayer of his benefactors, Bukowski (1920-1994) is nonetheless a pretty good scribbler of poetry and prose. (I call him a worthless fellow, but child is father to the man, and Bukowski had a terrible childhood.) If I need an excuse to poke into the particulars of his paltry life, there is my masthead motto, "Study everything, join nothing," and the Terentian homo sum, nihil humani, etc. The other night I read about him in bed, a mistake, since the night mind should be primed for its nocturnal preconscious ruminations with ennobling rather than debasing images. In compensation I read Simone Weil in the predawn hours of the next day. A comparison of the two would be an interesting exercise.
The Dean of Dissipation versus the Red Virgin. A celebration of the base, sordid, cheap, tawdry, depraved, degraded, of the complete abdication of the spirit to the flesh and its lusts, versus an anorexic asceticism bordering on nihilism.
How wild the diversity of human types! How impossible to be bored in a world so populated. How should we live? There is no substitute for finding your own path.