This is the first installment in what, if intentions hold, will be a weekly series of columns at The House Next Door, written on Sundays (with no advance preparation), published on Mondays. Intentions are notoriously malleable, of course. There’s that old saying (perhaps excuse), “Life gets in the way”—a favorite fallback of mine when things don’t go as planned. But such futility (whether truly inevitable or, more often, self-created) doesn’t mean we stop trying to wrangle some kind of predetermined regiment and order out of our own chaos. The recent changing of the guard at The House has forced, as I knew it would, a reevaluation of priorities. One of these is to maintain a more ubiquitous presence on the site, via my own reviews and in the comments section, though not to such a degree that it overwhelms the very necessary and unique voices of our contributors. Just enough, as they say, to show you that I’m here. That the lights, even dimmed to pitch, are always on.
So this column is a bit of regimented maintenance, like “Links for the Day,” only with a much more personally focused slant. It’s therapy and autobiography, a place to get out some of my thoughts at a particular moment in time. So let’s begin with that moment: right now, I’m in a bit of a blue funk, coming down from what I can term a particularly hedonistic weekend. If I were to name the two extremes I often find myself between, it would be the hedonistic and the monastic. Play comes very natural to me, as does solitude, though I find the scales tip out of balance more often than not, one extreme affecting the other. To this end, solitude is the harder terrain to navigate, probably because there’s no other literal body besides mine on which to focus my energies. Distraction thus comes easy, all the more so now for having recently purchased a Playstation 3, primarily for its Blu-ray capabilities, but also to reestablish some of my youthful facility with gaming.
I suspect gaming will only ever remain a hobby. Indeed, I insist on that because other long-gestating and/or neglected projects beg my attention. But the challenge, among many, remains: to game or to write? Would it surprise you to learn that I all but had to beat the temptation out of me to play Grand Theft Auto IV in lieu of writing this column?
This begs a confession: as a process, I can’t stand writing. The very act of ordering my jumble of thoughts and feelings on the page is sheer torture to me, especially at the start when facing that blank white space, soon to be filled—so deadline or self-abnegation dictate—in the hours or more to follow. Not a new observation by any means, but still a challenge that I face day-in, day-out, and one that, I personally feel, most often results in failure. Writing is a monkish profession, and one suited to those who can separate themselves from the hustle and bustle. I’m much more the social butterfly in that I count the hours until my next scheduled engagement, or welcome the ring of my phone as if it were Gabriel’s trumpet announcing the Rapture. And should all else fail, my numerous vices provide enough of a roiling incentive and instigation to leave the writing desk behind.
The need to compartmentalize the life focused and the life heedlessly lived is a constant forge. It’s often other artists who help to get me back on track, to help me balance out and recognize that, though the process may not satisfy, the end result always does—if not in quality, then in the mere act of completion, of the lone “perfect moment” where I say, “Yes, this is done,” and allow it into the world. This week, the words of artist Don Bachardy have helped to settle my inner turmoils, particularly this passage from his catalog introduction to his exhibition of nude portraits, “One-Day Stands”:
“In the early days of my sittings with nude men, my drive to be a serious and successful artist was at war with my lust. The possibility of having sex with my attractive nude sitter, if not in the forefront, was often in the back of my mind. On several occasions I did, in fact, manage to mix business with the pursuit of pleasure, but always at a price: my work and the sex were made unsatisfactory by compromising my full concentration on either. The awful grinding of gears as I switched from artist to sexhound canceled my enjoyment of both roles. (I cannot really enjoy myself without fully concentrating on whatever I’m doing.) It took me many years to settle the confusion and dissatisfaction arising from these conflicting drives, and I did it in the only possible way for myself. I made a choice between the two, a choice that was endlessly delayed and finally, with nature’s help, made easier once I found myself in my sixties. By keeping all of my erotic feelings in my head and allowing their expression only with my brush, I have finally managed a synthesis based on sublimation which has intensified my enjoyment of my work as well as improved the work itself.”
“Conflicting drives” is a good way of describing the torment I experience during the creative process. I don’t mean for this to come off as a plea for sympathy: what’s wonderful about Bachardy’s tone in the passage above (one no doubt shaped and sharpened by his mentor and elder lover, Christopher Isherwood) is that it is nakedly self-confessional without being pitiable. It is a series of statements of personal fact, discussed even-keeled and without shame. Bachardy’s got a few years on me, so I can only hope experience (and nature) hones my ability to turn the examining eye so directly inwards. One of my main hangups, thus far, is a fear of bringing autobiography to the fore. There seems always to be a danger: of hurting someone else, of coming off as a self-aggrandizing egotist. The trick, then, is to learn how to write of the self (implicit, explicit) with an absence, or, perhaps better, a balance of selfishness. Possible? Only action will tell.
And so to turn this confession even more personal: today is a particularly special day for me, as it marks the seventh anniversary of my relationship with fellow House writer, and love of my life, Dan Callahan. We met at a Cinco de Mayo party in 2001, having heard about each other for years through our mutual friend Lynne. Surprising that we were in the same college class (Tisch School of the Arts, ’99) and our paths had never crossed. (It’s such occurrences that, seen especially in retrospect, make me something of a fervent believer in a fateful guiding hand. Someone was preparing us for just the right moment.)
I think I can say for certain that it was love at first sight, and it’s been an endlessly stimulating and sustaining love in all the years since. Our frequent readers should know that Dan is something of an older film connoisseur, which makes for a perfect complement with my more present-day focuses. Just this weekend, he showed me Carrie, William Wyler’s adaptation of a Theodore Drieser novel, starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones. As always, it’s wonderful to watch Dan’s reactions to a film—wide-eyed, attentive, and confident, determinedly scribbling in the latest of his archival notebooks. He teaches me new things every day, and even our disagreements (over The X-Files and Spielberg, in particular) act as a necessary challenge—to be always engaged and searching, to make my points with intelligence and passion, and to allow for the multifaceted reactions of others without losing my conviction. The world seems a little brighter, a little sunnier each day we wake up together.
I dedicate this inaugural column to him, who inspires me so.
Keith Uhlich is editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.