Sunday, May 31, 2009

I lost it at the movies

(for Amie)
I know many people who, while being fully literate and even liking to read, manage to read only a half a dozen books per year. Now, it is the quality of the reading that counts, of course. Yet, I think that there is more going on here than simply lack of time. I suspect that there is an almost physical discomfort with large blocks of reading.

Myself, I am as immersed in reading as a fish is in water; however, as a reviewer, I am sometimes confronted by a book – for instance, an eight hundred page novel from Syria I recently reviewed – that reminds me of the sheer physical process of reading. It turned out that novel was a ‘fast’ read. But that mental resistance, which appears to me as a physical resistance, comes up for me not so much in reading as in watching movies.

I used to think that my problem with movies (and my problem with tv) was simply with popular American movies. It was the problem of plausibility. Metz, in an essay on movies from 1967, wrote a rather profound bit about this:

We know that for Aristotle, the plausible (Vraisemblable) (to eikos) is defined as the totality of what is possible inhe eyes of public opinion, and is thus opposed to the totality of what is possible in the eyes of people who know (this last “possible” being supposed to make a unity with the truly possible, the real possible) The arts of representation… don’t represent all the possible, all the possibles, but only the plausible possibles. The post-aristotelian tradition – for instance, the notions of the plausible, of bienseance, of the agreed upon among the French writers of the classics of the 18th century – has taken this idea and enriched it with a second sort of plausibility, not so much different from the first and yet totally absent, it must be said, from Greek philosophical thought: what is plausible is what conforms to the laws of established genre.”

Of course, our critical stances to movies will correspond to, move among, these different parameters of plausibility. There are those who accept anything; there are those who watch for the illogical moment, the break in the chain of the real; there are those who, accepting the supremacy of genre over the real, treat the question of plausibility solely in terms laid down by genre (would superman be able to do this or that? A different question than, say, the notion of a superhero fighting crime in a society founded on crime, say the Apartheid reigning in the U.S. during the golden era of the superheros). I like watching thrillers with my brothers – on video, of course – because they are sharp-eyed for technical implausibilities in the story. How Hero Y knew about Villain X, or whether he’d have the time to escape danger in Location A and get to Location B in time to save the day – although usually this is on a finer level. And sometimes, I feel like the supposition that I will buy into the world of possibles presented by the movie strikes me as simply degrading from the outset – it is as if a fully adult person started talking to me as though I were five years old. The later speech act could convey anything – how to build an atom bomb, for instance – but would seem absolutely unserious and degrading.

However, my real problem with movies is on a deeper level. Like the well intentioned reader, I often confront it as a medium that seems to demand something tiring from me – an effort that makes me restless. This may sound like I am talking about intolerably slow movies, but it is jus the opposite – it is the sense of not being able to hold onto anything which I find much more frustrating. This isn’t just American pop movies – which solve the problem of plausibility the American way, by speeding up. It is, for instance, the Innocent, a Visconti film I rented and saw this week, that I couldn’t finish. Partly this was because the plot of D’Annunzio’s novel, from which the film is lifted, is, by now, much the chestnut. Partly it was the technical expertise of the film – the costumes and locations seemed very late 19th century, and thus were simply too opulent, too crowded, for me – and seemed to crowd Giancarlo Giannini, the reason I was watching the film, too. I have, perhaps, too often seen him play a marginal, the faux playboy, to accept him as a rich decadent. But all of this projects upon the film my problem, not the film’s: which is that I can’t find my point of anchorage, to use Barthes term – that control from which one can understand the denotative and connotative level. Film seems to tend more to what Barthes called the relay – the advancement from one point to another in a narrative, a sequence of images – with a sheer speed that confuses me.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Love song for Judith Warner

One thing the NYT gets: the op ed page should be opened up to a much wider variety of comment on a much wider variety of subject than is normal for a big paper. The Washington Post not only fields a mostly rancid old crew of farts, but a rancid old crew of farts who write in the most tiresomely predictable ways about the most tiresomely predictable subjects. Admittedly, it is fun that the internet version of WAPO has a comments section where you can hurl baseballs at the clowns, but basically, Hiatt is not only another rancid old fart, but a terrible editor, a coddler of just those writers the second audience – the country club audience – likes, but who have no appeal beyond that. True, the regular columnists at the NYT do the same thing – witness the NYT’s search for a “conservative’ to balance the liberals that ended up foisting Douthat upon us –but the marginal columnists, the occasional ones, the subsection on drinking, for instance – has been a brilliant use of op ed space. That they have Olivia Judson doing a science/environmental column is brilliant – and really, that is the space they should be filling in the regular columnist spot, conservationist, not conservative. Rebecca Solnit should be begged, offered big bucks, whatever to get her to write a twice weekly column for the paper.

But this is a love song for Judith Warner.

In my head, I have several pictures, Van Gogh once wrote his bro’. No shit! And in my head too! My pictures are of the impossibly limo liberal society of the late sixties, which I have read about not only in the satires of Tom Wolfe, but in the novels of Paula Fox, the stories of John Cheever, the essays/fictions of Norman Mailer – where they function as the appalled onlooker. Moneyed people, who all went to the Ivies and all came out to make more money while, at the same time, retaining a certain large interest in the culture at large. The kind of bourgeoisie that the artist was made to slug – until they disappeared into the black hole of the “business school’, and came out with zero sense of culture – not even a middle brow sense of culture – and an incredibly childish worldview shaped by Ayn Rand and business inspiration books. One has to be lucky in one’s enemies. These enemies, though, were simply pod people. The urge felt by liberals to compare everything bad to the Nazis is a way of covering up for the tissue of terror and mass murder that make up our own history, which contains villainy enough. But the advent of the Nazis in Germany, setting aside the other crimes, was the advent of a new type, something the artist had never seen before. The bourgeoisie was vulgar, selfish, vain, and wanted sentimental trash to wallow in and platitudes to feed the kids. But their was a certain community of interest that made fighting with them worth while. The Nazi generation, though, could care less. The cut through the sentimentality about culture by, indeed, ‘drawing their guns’ when they heard a whisper of it and killing it.

Similarly, the Rand generation wasn’t just politically sick, but proposed to bring about a word in which poetry would simply not exist, replaced by consumer reports.

Judith Warner gives me faith that the Randian tide is receding. In one of the bright spots in this zona, she simply wrote the graduates of the Ivy biz schools out of the party – she wrote a column that destroyed the notion that the “best and brightest” went to work at Wall Street. It was the most beautiful act of class snobbery I’ve ever seen committed in an American paper, a tremendous, beautiful, multi-tasking snub. I had been wavering about her before – but that column did it for me. I fell in love.

Every one of her columns seems to emanate from a haute bourgeois liberal sector that I long thought I had merely dreamed. These people, it turns out, do exist!

This makes me very very happy.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Notes on a drunk

I don’t have the stamina to be an alcoholic. You have to have a purity of heart in order to will one thing, as Kierkegaard said – no matter what that thing is. I have never had that purity of heart. I’m an adulterated man, and in some ways I fear that I am just the sort that God will spew out at the last judgment – half and half, lukewarm, on the one hand and on the other hand, the clauses coming out of my mouth from some infinite spool. Ratiocination is organic with me - I sweat it. To be mediocre is never, ever, to rise from the mix, just once – never to crystallize, even if as a kind of human shit. I am unadulterated only, perhaps, at the edge of sleep – mostly, I am a self riddled with the holes of non-existence, an inveterate duck-er.

But if I am questioned as to why I refused to become an alcoholic on that last day – and don’t think we can use our human standards to understand those rules, it is the hints, the exceptions, the times we weren’t “like” ourselves that we get a glimpse into our real chances in this universe – I will have to mention the stamina thing. Last Saturday, for instance, I go to a party at my friend and client’s house. R. R. has arranged for some students of hers to pick me up – I can’t bike up the fifteen miles to where she lives. The students are extremely sweet. I am introduced, at the party, to R.’s family – who are all also extremely sweet – as well as the whole Austin Lebanese community, or so it seems. And finally, fatally, R. introduces me to the largest bottle of tequila I have ever seen.

Me and the bottle seem to be getting along well. In fact, it seems to be giving me excellent advice as I chat up this woman named … well, with an unusual name. Who, it is true, seems to have come with this man, who rather fades into the background for me, although I have this feeling (as I write this) he was in the foreground for himself.

Eventually, though, the bottle got altogether too territorial, and laid claim to many of my most valuable proprioceptive functions. We went outside, and there, in a corner of the yard, in the rain, and the darkness, I threw up just the smallest amount. Almost practice. However, being a half and half, a moderate, I recognized this as a sign that perhaps I should go, and tracked down the students, who were themselves thinking that it was time to go. They had a babysitter.

Somehow, at this point, it was not noticed that I was stepping carefully from one maelstrom to another – which I attributed to the poor construction of houses in North Austin. Surely they should fix those maelstroms! But I was discrete, and didn’t say anything, and in fact in the car, I was going to be my joking self. This was the plan. As soon, that is, as I got the window open and practiced a little bit again. Unfortunately, it was some kind of child proof window - which is a thing that intoxication can't abide. I imagine a child could have opened it, really. I couldn't, though. Thus, I ended up practicing on myself – about which I was immensely relieved. Not on the seat of the car or anything, or at least much, or at least that I noticed.

And then it was six o’clock in the morning and I woke up feeling rather – excellent. That tequila had truly been good – no hangover, just a feeling of energy in my limbs. And the oddest thing of all was that I did not feel at all guilty towards the poor guys who had transported me. I called and apologized, of course, once again – but somehow I felt I deserved this.

In the second best novel about alcoholism, Moscow to the End of the Line (the first best is, of course, Under the Volcano), the narrator is a Moscovite who desires, just once, to see the Kremlin, which you would think he would have seen except that all kinds of obstacles – social, vehicular, and mostly bottle-uar – continually obtrude themselves on his quest. At one point he makes a very wrong turn before he gets to the Kursk subway station, which leads him to an interlude in which he wakes up in some unknown hallway. But what happened in the interlude? And he writes this: “No, I’m sorry because I just calculated that from Chekhov Street to this hallway I drank up six rubles—but where and what and in what sequence, to good or evil purpose? This nobody knows and now, nobody will ever know. Just as we don’t know to this day whether Tsar Boris killed the Tsarevich Dmitri or the other way around. What sort of hallway was it? I haven’t the slightest idea even now, and it ought to be that way. Everything should. Everything should take place slowly and incorrectly so that man doesn’t get a chance to start feeling proud, so that man is sad and perplexed.”

'Everything should take place slowly and incorrectly so that man doesn’t get a chance to start feeling proud, so that man is sad and perplexed' – this, and nothing else, is at the heart of alcoholism as a metaphysical disorder. Sobriety leads to pride, and pride leads to sobriety, and when the two form an impenetrable syndrome, watch out! --- that is when the system of the world loses its mind, that is when it 'works' so well that it drives us all, man, beast and angel, to ultimate destruction.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

the zona sings a song of itself

The poetry of the sinking ship, the mysteriously vanished vessel, the strayed Antarctic expedition, is all in the last message. This is it. SOS. The food is running out. Today, we killed the last sled dog. The sender is putting his final moment into the words that will fail to save him. In the Zona, things are a bit different. This is never it. There is a form of negative infinity that is made in America – it is called the (un)death of the salesman. Two pieces of poetry from the Biz page of the NYT today:

Mr. Ginn says his remaining properties will eventually pay off. “My belief is that when the depression ends, there will be a pent-up demand for happiness,” he said in an interview at his offices at the Hammock Beach Resort near Daytona Beach. “Sometime between 2035 or 2040, Florida will double in size.”

“You need to buy when there’s blood in the streets,” he said with a shrug. “Even if it’s your own blood.”

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Fourteen cages plus one

A little translation work today - another of my attempts to English the great Kurt Tucholsky! First part

Fourteen Cages plus one
By Kurt Tucholsky

We drive down to the old harbor, where, at the quay, many small boats are docked that can be rented for three francs. What was once the line drawn under the sum of someone’s life is now a pleasure cruise. The motor growls, the boat starts. There lies Marseille.
The houses stand there, narrowly build, around the basin of the old harbor; to your left, up above, you are greeted by the church of Our Beloved Lady who Watches, on the hill. A golden doll. The boat glides under a very high iron construction, to which pennants are attached. To the Fort, in an inlet of the sea. We stop at a small islet.
The islet is the Château d'If. It lies – in case you have your atlas at hand – before the city of Marseille, opposite the islands of Ratonneau and Le Frioul, which are connected through a levy. Is there anything on them? No, unfortunately not. The Chateau d'If is the island on which Edmond Dantès was imprisoned, the Count of Monte Christo.
The small island emerges, becomes visible. You can see a concrete gray, half fallen in wall, we attach ourselves. Above, a winding path through the lower walls, above. A crumbling barracks with the Bourbon lilies still stands there: the castle was built in the year 1592, a Bastille of the South. Francois I laid the foundation stone already in 1524, over a phial of oil and a metal box with grain and a glass of wine. It is a white, crumbling wall, the wall and the stones of the ground have almost assimilated one with the other. There is a small pedestrian bridge out of wood, the planks of which are loose, then the arch and the court of the prison.
The court is very small, surrounded with four walls that are not so high; from above one sees a square of the radiant blue sky. Below, the light is modulated, milky and bright coffeebrown. Below there is a well and on one of the walls a rack of postcards. And all about are the cachots, the cages.
Some lie on the ground level. And above, around the courtyard, along all four walls, there runs a small gallery with an iron ladder by means of which one can access the higher cages. Before every door there is a wooden plaque, on which stands painted, who had once been imprisoned there. As in a zoological garden, one misses the postcript: a gift of Council Friedheimer. I go in.
The guide has you admire the spacious room: “bien aërés et avec vue sur la mer.« Yes, it goes through the small gaps, and when one leans one’s head on the iron grating, one can see a piece of the sea, in which the free fishes live. The ground is walled off, black traces on the walls show where a fireplace once was. It must have gotten devilishly cold, back then… There they also sat.
It was mostly political prisoners who sat here, all people that the regime couldn’t, or didn’t’ want to kill, and whose freedom made it highly uncomfortable. At the time, it was very simple: you only needed a lettre de cachet in order to achieve an end that you now can only achieve through the sitting of a whole people’s court, with all the this and the that: the previous investigation, a hearing, onesided, as only hatred can be, a lynchmob ppress and the whole gigantic apparatus. Thus it was simpler. Many times, aristocratic families even let their sons be a little imprisoned, simply for …
There sat –
A rich Marseille businessman, because of a supposed conspiracy against Cardinal Richelieu; took a chance on a hungerstrike, which he maintained for eleven days; died on the twelfth. A Marseille sailor, who had struck down his superior; sat thirty one years. An Abbé Faria – he and the sailor had even sat here in the nineteenth century. – And how! There’s a hole, a windowless space, in which you wouldn’t put a dog, with a depression as an exit. In that, the convinct was shrived.
On the other side, Dantes sat, the one whose fate Dumas had used in his page turner. The prisoner had tunneled out a connection to Abbe Faria, which is still shown.
At that time there was still a cachot in the ground that is not accessible to the public. In the year 1871, there sat one hundred sixteen prisoners. Communards. One hundred sixteen – that is no number for us others…

Up to the small steps on the upper gallery. There sat: an abbe who had supposedly seduced a girl; a ministerial official who had conspired with England; a man who had sought to murder Napoleon; the famous man in the iron mask; Louis-Philippe Égalité; Mirabeau (there was no political prison in which he didn’t sit); a M. Mollard, who sat there for sixteen years because that is what his parents wanted. Later,iIn this place, a revolutionary tribunal held sessions. A great poisoner, who was burned in Aix in the year 1588; and a street robber and a man named Meynier and… and… and…

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How not to write a review: Dwight Garner, file number one

I say this with all the rancor and envy I can muster: why the fuck is Dwight Garner being groomed to be the NYT's book reviewer?

I had some minimal dealings with Garner when I reviewed a few books for Salon. He was a nice enough person. But he never struck me as a literatus. It is with horror that I have watched his rise at the Times. I am well aware that working for national media requires a mind well leavened with mediocrity. The occasional genius, the suspicious hermeneut, the investigative reporter, or stylist will be forever the outsider in those precincts. But Garner's mind has no leavening at all - it is, at best, a flatliner's shadow.

Take this review. Now, reviewing is a much abused art, and it is in parlous state in these here times, but this... is shocking.

First, an intro paragraph that sounds more like a parody of the discussions of some hi concept movie in The Player than a review. Especially as Garner, after throwing out a number of names gets down to business by ... dismissing his own buildup.

"If you could create the perfect rock biographer, he or she would probably be equal parts Robert Caro, Greil Marcus and Nick Tosches. That is, part buzz-saw researcher, part warm-blooded public intellectual and part roguish street-corner hustler. The resulting book — a biography of Randy Newman? Neil Young? Aretha Frankin? — would be, to quote the soul musician Swamp Dogg, total destruction to your mind.

Let’s not hold it against Barney Hoskyns, a journeyman British music writer, that he is not all that — or even particularly close to all that."

Now, it isn't that the Garner's first paragraph shouldn't have been written - as any reviewer knows, you write a first draft first paragraph on the largest lines, so that you can radically change it or just dump it once the review starts showing some sign of life further down the page. Garner, though, simply kept the first draft first paragraph. And a NYT that seems increasingly disconnected from actually editing its book reviewers let him.

Of course, once started on the game of pointless name-dropping, Garner can't quit. Thus, his next maneuver is to attach Nick Hornby's name to poor Hoskyn's hull, like some cancerous barnacle. Garner even picks Hoskyns own name dropping passages to quote in his 1200 words:

Now 59, Mr. Waits has been so good for so long that he is easy to take for granted. He was only a few years out of high school, after all, when he wrote “Ol’ ’55,” a song the historian Simon Schama has called “the single most beautiful love song since Gershwin and Cole Porter shut their piano lids.” Mr. Hoskyns’s book is a chance for a multiangled reappraisal.

Mr. Waits is not an easy man for a biographer to approach. He would not speak to Mr. Hoskyns, and asked others not to. But as Mr. Hoskyns points out: “He is no rock-and-roll version of J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. He never hid out in the mountains like Dylan after his motorcycle accident, or like Bucky Wunderlick in Don DeLillo’s novel ‘Great Jones Street,’ ” adding, “Generally he’s been on hand to give good quote in support of the latest album.”

So, what do we have so far? A review of a book which is not by Robert Caro, Greil Marcus or Nick Tosches, or about Randy Newman, Neil Young or Aretha Franklin. It is about Tom Waits, who, it turns out, is not J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon, Bob Dylan, or a fictional character in Delillo's Great Jones Street. Readers who wondered can now wipe their brows. Whew! Glad that is cleared up.

At least we know that Garner is not a reviewer like Cicero, Cyrano de Bergerac, or Pierre Bayle, if they were reviewers, which they weren't.

Monday, May 18, 2009

5 degrees

Faire une recherche, faire des recherches, mots voluptueux; tout pleins,tout gonflés des promesses ultérieures.

(Do research, do some researching, voluptuous words; full, swollen with ulterior promises)

This is from the mouth of Peguy’s Clio, who obviously understand the obscure, persistant, immersive pleasure of a project that consists of tracking down innumerable sources and putting together innumerable facts. Facts, like jigsaw puzzle pieces, are, after all, made to be put together – and like puzzle pieces, the shape of the edges reflects the factory decision as to where, precisely, they fit.

But in contradistinction to the jigsaw puzzle, the historian is always seeking some dreamy fact, some key fact, from which one can go outward, ever outward, to the world. For in history, the box contains too many facts – and, of course, cut the piece differently and you will find a different place for it. Although it will bear, on its surface, one hopes, that glimpse which, collected with all the other glimpses, will give you a picture, a piece of verisimilitude.

It is in the spirit of Clio (version Peguy) that I read, with delight, the Peter Hennesy’s review in the TLS of Brian Harrison’s Seeking a Role: the United Kingdom, 1951-1970. I couldn’t resist the first paragraph:

“Brian Harrison has a special gift which historians prize. He can turn the grains of history into fascinating and convincing patterns. How about this as an example of his grasp of the granular? From a journal to which I was hitherto a stranger, Heating and Ventilating Engineer, he has gleaned that in the UK, the “average living room was over 5° Fahrenheit warmer in 1970 than in 1950”. In terms of what one might call the softening of Britain, this is hugely significant. Those of us on the rim of middle and old age can vividly remember living in homes with but one warm room enlivened by a coal fire and, on winter nights, leaping into bed and hoping to fall asleep before the chill bit, and waking up to patterns of frozen condensation on the window panes in the morning. I have been a weaker man since the winter of 1966–7, when the underfloor heating of St John’s College’s new Cripps Building in Cambridge corrupted me for ever.”

Of course, in that special code of class that the British sneak into all statements, the way Chinese restaurants in the U.S. use MSG, we learn, from this, about Cambridge – it is the neverending echolation of class that will forever keep me from understanding Britain. I admit it. But that 5 degrees – oh, that lovely 5 degrees! Of course, to the inattentive reader, it might seem like only 5 degrees – but to those who love to track a fact, back through its distortions in the literature – and you will find that the simplest facts (to change my metaphor) are as distorted, in their transmission from one text to another, as the faces of the protagonists in the Fun House mirrors at the end of Lady from Shanghai – to some sure source, that 5 degrees is everything. The holy of holies. And whether at Cambridge or in some room in a housing project, that the reviewer recognizes the role played by 5 degrees in his life makes it all the sweeter.

If I were a historian, I cannot imagine a more positive review – at one point, Hennesy actually compares Harrison to Macaulay. For the sake of the 5 degrees alone, I am going to read this book – or maybe review it myself.

And so I’ll hie me hence – and leave this to end my song:

To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not
imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it
stopping a bung-hole?

'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.

No, faith, not a jot; but to follow him thither with modesty
enough, and likelihood to lead it: as thus: Alexander died,
Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth into dust; the dust is
earth; of earth we make loam; and why of that loam whereto he
was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O, that that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall to expel the winter's flaw!

Friday, May 15, 2009

wastepaper (for amie)

In moments of idleness, I sometimes go through my back pages at LI. I wince at the misspellings, the clang of cracked sentences, the leaps in logic. I am appalled by the boring lengths of certain of my posts. But, overall, I am pleased that I leave this trail behind me. This paperless trail. This waste paper.

But of course it isn’t paper.

Two writers – Lichtenberg and Rozanov – left behind “waste paper” books. Rozanov’s were intentionally named “baskets” Lichtenberg’s Sudelbücher were, I think, named by his son in law, who edited them. But I believe he was naming them in the spirit their author intended.

The pretense that one is publishing a “lost” manuscript has a long and honorable tradition in fiction. Several functions are served by pretending that the text was lost and then found. For one thing, it treats the text as a kind of arcana imperii – secrets of state. Secrets of state are written with one eye on the possibility that they might be “lost” – that is, might fall into the wrong hands. Thus, they are always on the edge of being in secret code. The “lost’ manuscript fell into the wrong hands of the world – the chest, the back of the desk drawer, the space between the bookshelf and the wall.

The book that is lost is the equivalent of the author that is dead. So, to “find” a manuscript gives the author the rare privilege of rediscovering himself – becoming his own posterity.

But a waste paper book is at the opposite pole from a lost manuscript. Far from emanating the secret of imperial power, a text composed of those sheets of paper one has balled up and thrown away is a text composed of defeats. Of course, I admit it is odd to call Lichtenberg a defeated author. And yet, aware as he was of Kant’s critical system, and of other systems, too – like Lavater’s – and dubious as he was of all of them and of all systems in general, he was still driven by a fatal systematic desire – or rather, a desire for a system. Systemlust. That he never produced one could be put down to his hypochondria. The irritated gesture of throwing away his thoughts is certainly in response to his being neither and nor – a stranger to systems, the outsider who longs for insider status, but directs all his energies against insider-dom.

Rozanov, too, was a hypochondriac. He also fashioned himself into being an underground man – and not only by marrying Dostoevsky’s old mistress. Dig through the trash and you will find nasty things on the thrown away papers – sputum, spots of blood, snot, stains of unknown origin. Rozanov turned these things into prose, and presented himself as a nasty creature, always playing tricks, always backstabbing, an antisemite, a sado-masochistic Christian in his fits, more like Pere Karamazov than Ivan or Alyosha.

Myself, I am a neurotic in just this vein. I have, on the one hand, a nasty disposition. I’m always willing to wave my dirty underwear as a flag, and weep over myself while doing it. On the other hand, I have that systemlust, and no system. Like Dylan’s immigrant, “who lies with every breath/who passionately hates his life/and likewise fears his death”, I’ve invested who I am in this life in an ultimately futile project: wastepaper.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

my nerves are bad tonight. Speak to me. Speak.

One of my more unpleasant, but seemingly ineradicable habits is that of bursting into nervous tears after a stretch of work that ends with some narrow escape, usually making the money I need to pay the rent. This is always a cliffhanger, the question of whether I will be late, whether I will make it, depending on when the newspaper or the magazine cut my check. And when I am secure, when I am paid, when I’ve written and edited, and even been praised, it is then that I am most easily touched. It is then that I am most easily plunged into a depression. It is then that the tussle of self-pity and self-hatred becomes a demonic, or, if you'd prefer, an angelic wrestling match, like Jacob pitted against the angel in Gauguin's painting. A garish clash.

So, being in this mood, last night I watched Henning Carlsen’s 1966 movie, Hunger. Normally, I have an intense dislike of movies about writers. This isn’t because writers live undramatic lives, which is the usual criticism leveled at this sub-genre of film. It is because the films fail to take the opportunity to strip themselves of drama, to royally purge all action, all theatricality, in favor of film’s own interiority, which is all in the lens, in the very timeframe of the shot, that glassy essence to which action here should be subordinate.

Hunger is Hamsun’s novel, his first real novel, and he produced it with the intent to strip out all clutter and sentiment, all drama, all high teas and ballrooms, as he said. Carlsen not only respected that, but he stripped the novel down further. But it is only because of Per Oscarsson, the actor playing the protagonist, that the film works, and works, and works.

What does the film show? A man in a city, Christiana, in the late nineteenth century, who is a writer. But he is not Victor Hugo or Arnold Bennett; he is, rather, a creature formed in that strange and mysterious interzone between all the classes. The interzone in which there is no division of labor – and thus he bears the doomed, archaic features of such a creature let loose in the world of money. A creature come from the country, the stranger. His instinct – it is an instinct more than a plan – is to approach the limit of what is socially possible, the limit of extreme non-necessity, the limits of the social necessity of the individual in him or herself. Why is this the writer’s task? Because this kind of writer is bold enough to address the whole world. Having no function, having stripped off the ties that would make him necessary in some way, he is at the opposite end of the scale from the great. He is, in this way, the very negative of a politician, He only represents that limit, that up-against-it, where, in the brief flare of his cry, one can see that there is no need for this particular person or any other. And thus he cuts the thin threads that keep us here on earth. Somebody’s love, somebody’s appointment.

Yet, at that boundary, the writer is full of pranks. He can’t help himself, when he talks, he has to lie, and when he lies, he believes himself. How can events have so conspired that there exists, like a crushing weight posed above him, this disproportion between himself, a man who feels sure that he can and must address the world, and the city of Christiana, where his application to be, even, a bookkeeper at a small grocery store is refused? This is how his hunger becomes a metaphysical trait, because, the more he sees food and the people who dine, the more childish it seems, deep down, this need to stuff your mouth. And yet he has to - he finds a bone and chews it, he chews on paper.

There is, as well, a business throughout the movie with his glasses. At one point he tries to pawn them. And he has these episodes in which the city blurs, it gets milky. He can’t accept this – for his spectatorship, his possessed spectatorship, is his one inalienable possession. It is the last thing, too, he can convert into cash. His last chance at elevating himself from the archaic, infantile world before the division of labor, that level in which he is stuck and which condemns him to a shabbiness and a lack of seriousness that he refuses automatically, to the cash nexus.

There is a marvelous scene at the end of the movie. The writer has one article to write. However, the landlady in the travelers hotel he has been staying at kicks him out, since he hasn’t paid. At that moment, he gets a letter containing 10 kroner. The messenger tells him it comes from a woman – the woman we’ve seen earlier in the film, a daughter of the upper bourgeoisie. The writer crumbles up the bill, throws it at his formerly landlady, and stumbles down the street. His eyes have been bothering him, clouding up, and they cloud up now. He tries to correct his article, leaning against a pillar, but he can’t see, he makes a number of marks with his pencil and they are not only no good, they mess up the page. Then suddenly, as though all the exclusions to which he has been subject hit him then and there, he tears up the pages, he throws his hat down, he tears off his glasses, and he begins to screem, Ladies and Gentlemen, all is lost, all is lost! Which is precisely true. Like Lear, he has learned that there is no place in this world where they reason not the need. It is reasoned to the least jot and tittle.

All is lost, Ladies and Gentlemen! All is lost!

Friday, May 8, 2009

sanity and poetry

How much madness we’ve flushed down the drain!

In the London Review of Books, there is a review of the correspondence of Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. Bishop stood for sanity, as much of it as she could stand. She grew up in a house with a mad parent, her mother. Lowell stood for insanity, or sanity shaken to vertigo – and of course suffered from madness himself.

“Some of their exchanges remain fascinating, such as the letter in 1957 in which Bishop responded to a draft poem (which became ‘For Elizabeth Bishop 2: Castine, Maine’) that Lowell had written about her in which he mentioned that her mother had tried to kill her. ‘I don’t remember any direct threats,’ Bishop wrote, ‘except the usual maternal ones. Her danger for me was just implied in the things I overheard the grown-ups say before and after her disappearance. Poor thing, I don’t want to have it any worse than it was.’ The following year, it must have struck Bishop with considerable force to learn that Lowell, who had had a breakdown, was incarcerated in the same mental hospital as her mother had been. ‘My mother stayed there once for a long time,’ she wrote to him. ‘I even have some snapshots of her in very chic clothes of around 1917, taking a walk by a pond there.’”

We have, of course, invited the wires in since 1917 – we calmly speak of hard wiring, as though we were all appliances. A vision that has its roots in the maddest of delusions, truly of Schreber-like proportions. Wires, of course, don’t go mad, they rust, they misfire, they loosen. There are shorts, there are circuits.

It is a funny thing, but for me, it is only together, only in the circuit of their friendship, that I really appreciate Lowell and Bishop. We do like to take our writers one at a time, but often they come in twos – Blok and Bely, for instance; Verlaine and Rimbaud. Perhaps it was the unhappiness of Baudelaire’s life that he really didn’t find a pairing – he was always the albatross. Folie a deux – granted; But sanity is a deux, too. Don’t credit yourself with it if you have it – cause you didn’t make it, baby. You didn’t make it.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Beckett and a stream of pee

There’s a famous story that Beckett was so impressed by Jules Renard’s journals that he read one of the entries out loud to a friend and said that this is how he wanted to write.

It is the final entry in the journal. “Je veux me lever, cette nuit. Lourdeur. Une jambe pend dehors. Puis un filet coule le long de ma jambe. Il faut qu'il arrive au talon pour que je me décide. Ça sèchera dans les draps, comme quand j'étais Poil de carotte.”

“I want to get up. Heaviness. A limb hangs outside. Then a stream flows down my leg. It had to reach my heel before I decided. It will dry in the sheets, as when I was Carrot top.”

The reference to Poil de carotte is to Jules’ childhood name, which he made the title of an authobiographical novel.

What did Beckett love about this passage?

For one thing, there is the fact that this is the last entry. In the Journal, the editor discretely makes an appearance at this point to inform the reader that Jules died, thus taking care of any more entries.

Another thing is, of course, an objectivity that amounts to detachment. It is the author’s limb, the author’s pee, the author’s heel. But the prose seems to take its tone from, to blindly grope forward to, the verb secher – dry. One recognizes, here, the underground influence of the stoics. To detach oneself from one’s life is an exercise in which the mind divides and then puts together, thus showing the artifice beneath the appearance. The more one sees the artifice, the less afraid one becomes of the ultimate detachment, which is from life itself. Unlike the stoics, however, the modern temperament no longer believes in that moment of courage. Turn on the machinery of detachment, by all means, but don’t expect anything to be saved.

Which is, of course, how something, the smallest and tiniest thing, is saved. Peeing. Carrot top. That these things, hollowed out by time, insignificant in themselves and, used as a standard, making insignificant those natures of which they formed a part, can open up, still, to something infinitely kind … this is the astonishment of art towards which thhe artist strive through every negation and pettiness.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Rabbit is no longer rich

“RUNNING out of gas, Rabbit Angstrom thinks as he stands behind the summer-dusty windows of the Springer Motors display room watching the traffic go by on Route 111, traffic somehow thin and scared compared to what it used to be. The fucking world is running out of gas. But they won't catch him, not yet, because there isn't a piece of junk on the road gets better mileage than his Toyotas, with lower service costs. Read Consumer Reports, April issue. That's all he has to tell the people when they come in. And come in they do, the people out there are getting frantic, they know the great American ride is ending.”

Ah, but Updike’s character is not going to hell in a handbasket as the world ends in 1980, not he. Rabbit, pulling himself out of his sexual maelstroms, his jock nostalgia, the investment of his bile and love in Vietnam, ends up selling Japanese because his father in law was ahead of the game, there in the East Pennsylvania town of Mt. Judge where Rabbit’s life keeps threatening to dribble away, a story preserved in newspaper clippings framed and under glass and yellowing in his office. And yet, just as Rabbit had gravely misjudged Vietnam and the Lord’s work there, his bloodyhanded work there, so, too, he misjudged the great American ride – it just seemed like it was ending, then. That was before the Great Moderation, or the great immoderation of responding to two consecutive global oil shocks by doubling down on the tonnage, making the Jeep, the truck or at least its underbody the big cash cow for the big cash cow Americans, debt coming out of their assholes. The river is deep and the lane is wide, and we have to get to the other side – and so we will by main force, herding together to and from work, which gets more tiring and more pointless and makes more money for more ghosts, ghost money for somebody somewhere else, while the restless body, that daytime tomb for the wandering, culturally starved spirit, aspires to 30,000 dollars worth of vehicle, mall weekends and houses that one can ATM the home equity from for another pop at the good life, however ill advised, however little parents, school, tv, and church had prepared you for one, for even knowing what one looked like if it bumped into you, instead selling you a lemon, “happiness”, a “happy life”, a term of imprisonment not to exceed the carcinogen count down ticking away in your liver, thyroid, prostate, brain.

“A hundred twelve units new and used moved in the first five months of 1979, with eight Corollas, five Coronas including a Luxury Edition Wagon, and that Celica that Charlie said looked like a Pimpmobile unloaded in these first three weeks of June already, at an average gross mark-up of eight hundred dollars per sale. Rabbit is rich.”

Rabbit is lucky. And then there are the Arnolds, featured today in the NYT:

“The Arnold Pontiac dealership is not one of those glass-encased bazaars winking from the main drag, with a showroom the size of a parking lot and a name that sounds like a law firm with too many partners: “Acme Chevrolet Buick Jeep Hyundai Volkswagen Kia Saab. How may I direct your call?”
No, Arnold Pontiac pretty much says it all.
The dealership sits exactly where the Arnold family began a car business back in 1916: on the corner of North Main and East Pike in the pit-stop Western Pennsylvania town of Houston, right next to the First Presbyterian Church, where Arnolds are baptized. Small showroom downstairs, service and parts upstairs, free Pontiac calendars everywhere.”

The Arnolds face, of course, the problem that selling Pontiacs will soon be a job like wrangling dodoes – it will lack an objective correlative. The Pontiac has been given a thumbs down by GM. The NYT story is heavy on color. Dan Barry is trying to reflect, in an Updikian way, on what the end of this phase of the American ride means for America. Here’s the obit part:

“His son, who started working at the dealership when he was 6, using a step stool to dust the tops of gleaming Bonnevilles and GTOs, is still trying to process the apparent evaporation of this chunk of his inheritance. “I’m not going to entertain that just yet,” says the younger Mr. Arnold, who sold his first car in 1987. (“Green Sunbird.”)
As Detroit and Washington work to save the car industry from going over a cliff like some roadster in a black-and-white melodrama, entire families have been upended — families that long ago linked their surname to the name of Pontiac in commercial banns of marriage.
For example, the Arnolds are friends with the Mikans, a longtime Pontiac family in Butler, about 60 miles north of here. Robert Mikan, 76, and his son, David, 39, watched last Monday’s devastating news conference on a computer screen in their dealership, in a back room where an old plaque from the Pennsylvania Automotive Association hangs tilted on the gray paneled wall.
After a while the son, whose first sale was a used white 1988 Pontiac Grand Prix, turned to his father, whose first sale was a gray 1946 Pontiac Torpedo, and said, “Dad, I think that’s it.”

I think that’s it. Hit the road, jack. Creative destruction. Behold, thou hast heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands by destroying them utterly; and shalt thou be delivered? Oh no, we shall not be delivered, for Assyria has a precontract on the American heart; it has written the word market on that heart, and though the organ throb and moan, it will never bust through that sublime phrase. Dan Barry’s article may sprinkle color over this extinction, but you must read the other half of it, the comments section, to understand the American "love affair" with the car, the American ride - that deeply fucked up knot of contradictory impulses. There is nothing Americans hate like mourning a business gone bad. You can gawk to your heart’s content at the wreck at the side of the road, but let’s not get sentimental about the bloodshed – especially of a car dealer. For this is the thing - in this love affair, there has to be some way of unloading the deep reserves of hatred, the psychotic and jagged shadow that the car leaves behind, its trace in the air.

“I have never bought a new car but that I wasn't lied to, cheated, or ripped off. I have absolutely no sympathy or pity for dealers going under; they richly deserve it. It is particularly irksome to hear those guys whine. Stop whining. Get a job.”

“My first job out of undergrad was in Houston, PA and the car I bought with my first paycheck: a 1995 Pontiac Grand Am, from that very dealership. That car, incidentally, was also the reason why I switched to, and continue to drive Hondas.

My dad recommended the Grand Am to me; he was an Oldsmobile man who worked his whole life at United States Steel Corporation. From my first week of ownership, that Grand Am had serious electrical problems; the engine would stall on I-79 even travelling at full speed. A mechanic at the dealership told me that it was a bad model and that a lot of them were just “thrown together in Detroit with such high speed that many had serious problems.” He then walked me over to a shipment of fresh cars; each had a box of parts in the back that GM hadn’t installed at the factory, which the dealer mechanics would have to do, often without proper training.

The first trip to my Dad’s house in my Honda Civic (after only 3 months of Pontiac ownership) he wouldn’t allow me to park in the driveway. He now owns a Toyota, giving up on GM himself after the end of Oldsmobile forced him into a sub-quality Cadillac: people don’t make expensive mistakes twice.

And so Pontiac dies a shortened, yet somehow also prolonged and painful death, a bit like Elvis. It really won’t be long before Buick, Chevy, and Chrysler follow. For there’s one thing the American auto industry still don’t get… we aren’t impressed by companies that make only one decent car in a sea of otherwise sub-standard products. The fact is, you won’t find a single model from Honda or Toyota that isn’t at the top of its class. But you could find every Pontiac at or near the bottom.”
And what I want to know is: how do you like your blue eyed boy Mr. Death?

Friday, May 1, 2009

on a sentence of bely's

I like this sentence of Bely’s”
“I remained healthy by removing my skin.”

This is the only known cure for the sickness unto death. I suffer from the latter myself, but I admit I’ve never removed enough skin. Never. This is the great failure of my life.


My old man never killed anyone.
He never, for example, burned the skin off a child. He never shot anyone in the stomach. He never shot anyone in the head. He never crippled anyone, he never put a bullet in anyone’s back, he never put a knife in anybody’s gut.

Yet there he was, my old man, as much a part of the twentieth century as his kids, as me, as much under the missile thumb, the nukes just beyond the horizon. Our sky, so beautifully latticed, by the planners, with missile and countermissile in the last spiral down. The last bit of the World War which, the plan was, we would get stuffed down our throats. Out of that invisible web of death came the real web of highways, suburbs, computers and the web I publish this on. Out of the collective death wish, our collective death in life.

Anyway, the old man was part of the generation in the U.S. that was drafted to go to Korea. He avoided that draft. He was too young to have been in WWII.

But the killers in our midst, from the first World War onward, were numerous. In the millions. Myself, I was too young for the killing in Vietnam, but I do remember my older sister’s then fiancé announcing that his draft number – this must have been 71? – came up real low. Came up so that he wouldn’t have to sacrifice his body, or his sanity, to destroying Vietnamese. He was very happy. Of course, even if he had gone, it all turns out just like in the tale of Bluebeard, where you can hide any number of dead bodies in a locked chamber. Or at least for the majority, and for the marginals, there are any number of mood altering drugs, and if necessary, there's prison. And so it was that millions came home, having been trained as killers, armed to kill, and threatened with being killed if they didn’t kill. The chamber in which all that was remembered was locked, and no bride was going to get that key. For these were not Bluebeards by choice.

And so it is that normality sits at a table and eats, goes to work, makes love, makes money, retires. And the normality of dropping a bomb, shooting a gun, marching past a torched street, dodging an child’s shot and shooting the child, every bone and hair of these arduous proofs of masculinity, the human meat grinding machine in all its everydayness, it is all shut up nicely. That is, in the post killing societies - mustn't forget the societies in which killing is the new normal, Afghanistan, the Congo, Iraq, etc. In the brain, in the tv show, in the movie, we watch the killing soften. The state, the generator of the wars, becomes as well the generator of the normal.