Find below the final installment of my presentation on Charles Bukowski (the abridged version).
In conclusion, it is true that Charles Bukowski was what Time magazine called “a laureate of American lowlife.” Yet his influence went far beyond that demographic, suggesting that what Bukowski ended up writing about, especially in his Notes of a Dirty Old Man, was the story of the lowlife in each of us, whether we are poor, rich, cultured, or clueless. Within the stories he wrote for OPEN CITY, Bukowski traced a line of narration down the centre of the human psyche, a line maintained by the energy of tragicomic hope. For Bukowski, within every tale of woe there is a joke; within every joke, a longing for a world where one doesn’t need the joke to stall the bitterness of suffering; within every hope a loop back into that appropriate pain mentioned above, where both writer and reader engage in a kind of narrative jousting, nudging each other back and forth between history and fiction, between honesty and justifiable escape. Bukowski’s tomb is inscribed with the words, “don’t try,” advice he would often give when asked how one should go about writing poetry. There is a tragicomic loop there too; for trying not to try is still trying. But Bukowski knew something about the mystery of the human interaction with reading, with human sharing through writing and reading. Perhaps what he knew was akin to something St. Augustine said in a sermon on the Gospel of St. John,
I am not speaking in order to make [the text] understood, but to tell you what hinders it from being understood…. [This text] wasn’t read in order to be comprehended, but to make us humans grieve because we don’t comprehend it, and to make us discover what hinders our comprehension, so that we remove the hindrance, and hunger to perceive the immutable Word, ourselves thereby being changed from worse to better.
This says well what Bukowski is doing, if we take it as a sort of analogy. Augustine is saying, “i’m talking about the text not because we understand it but because we don’t!” Bukowski is saying something similar, “I’m writing about my life and the lives of those fucked up people i know, not because i understand my life or their lives, but because i don’t understand, and neither do you!” The comedy is that this is, of course, a profound kind of understanding. As it ever was, this is the beginning of hope, not the end; not the finish line, happy or sad, but the starter pistol announcing that human beings are at it again, and someone better write it all out, so that we don’t go crazy.