Sunday, June 29, 2014

Diary: Life as narrative


Recently, in a review of two books on the painter Lucian Freud, the writer Julian Barnes distinguished between two types of human nature, episodic and narrative. Freud, he said, was an extreme example of the first type, a person for whom life was "one damn thing after another"; on the other end, life is a story and the events within it are part of its unfolding. 

I fall in the latter category, but "narrative" doesn't quite capture what I experience. Nor does "destiny," at least not in the sense of something that overrides everyday reality or makes more of my life than is actually warranted. It's not a sense of self-importance that I've felt since childhood, but more a sense of being among people and situations that in some cases tie together, occasionally in a very specific way. 

In his memoir, Words, Sartre talks about how, filled with the biographies of the great he read in volume in childhood, he kept looking for the turning point in his own life, the moment when his destiny would appear the way it always seemed to do in those books. I have had a few experiences that I would regard as turning points or, more accurately, as moments of recognition, but what they pointed to was in no sense set. This is why "destiny" doesn't seem right. What life hands us, in my view, are circumstances. Are they nature's dice-rolls, karma, or the outcome of some kind of interstitial conversation among the principal players? 

Moments of recognition are mostly to do with others. Many just float by us, but a handful of people appear to be there by design. Viewed in retrospect, it can look like we and they are on separate trajectories that cross, seemingly by accident, propelled by overlapping intuitions or clues. The joys and pains of the crossing are part of life, too. The Buddha counsels us otherwise, but it's hard to sidestep much of what we encounter - it seems too uncanny, when it arises, and then we plunge - the glittering sea that Horace described, with its deceptive calm and howling gale. It can also look like we've found each other again, but this too has its issues. Who is this other? We are and we aren't who we were, I would say, and considerable time goes into sorting this out, dealing with the residue we carry with us, however much we may try to shed it.

As your life unfolds, what you intuit manifests, often with "false positives" - those crossing trajectories - followed by certainty. And while you stake your life on the certainty, its main benefit is a willingness to persevere, even (or often) in the face of whatever wreckage everyday life produces. I believe this extends to the rest of the cohort - the people that matter, one's fellow actors in an unscripted narrative that each one would recount differently. 


Sunday, June 15, 2014

Diary: 15 June 2014

Thomas Heinser and George Homsey.
Yesterday, my wife and I drove out to West Marin to have lunch with the photographer Thomas Heinser, the graphic designer Madeleine Corson, his wife, and our mutual friend, the architect George Homsey. I've known George for 43 years, I thought just now, remembering how he used to play opera on the radio when I worked in his office for six weeks in 1971. One morning when we were both there early, a woman sang especially memorably. We spontaneously shared our admiration, a moment that has stayed with me as the probable origin of our friendship. 

Our lunch, European in quality and pace, took place on the terrace of an elongated, New England-white farmhouse. The surroundings would be heaven to a landscape painter, with long views of hilly pastureland. Being close to the sea, the terrain isn't as parched as places not very far to the east. 

The main course: grass-fed beef brisket.
Driving George back to the city, I found that, as always, he's completely up to date, asking my opinion of buildings here and in Europe. For a long time, I've felt that George deserves his own monograph. He won the Maybeck Award, but he needs a book. Two friends, Helen Degenhardt and Noreen Hughes, have put together an oral history, I understand, which could inform the text. I've tried to interest EHDD in getting behind the project, but it hasn't happened. 

In the car, I mentioned to George that I twice interviewed Allan Temko, the late critic and art historian, late in his life. He was a Chekhovian figure at that point, I said. A memorable one, too, prone to telling jokes. In the first interview, I asked him if it bothered him to make enemies. I was remembering an episode I witnessed of a prominent local architect trying and failing to freeze him out at lunch, when Temko dropped in to see how the first "beauty contest" of the San Francisco Downtown Plan was going. It didn't bother him, Temko said, because "only third-raters hold grudges." Now there's a good rule for life!