Wednesday, October 28, 2020

THE MARS ROOM by Rachel Kushner

In one of my favorite literary quotes, Randall Jarrell defines the novel as "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." Rachel Kushner's The Mars Room is Jarrell's kind of novel, a good book with a host of flaws. First the flaws. Too much of The Mars Room seems obligatory, cliched, scripted by popular culture. There has to be a prison break in the novel, for example, not because Romy's escape is at all credible but because that's the expected climax of a prison story. There has to be a tough Latina, an outrageous intersexual, etc. not because they add anything to the novel but because that's how our culture imagines women's prisons post-Orange is the New Black. Elsewhere, the entire Richard "Doc" Richards storyline could've been excised by a more stringent editor, and the book would've lost nothing except a character who wandered into Kushner's imagination from the world of James Ellroy. Likewise, Romy's victim Kurt Kennedy seems to have been lifted from a Robert Stone novel. In fact, the entire novel seems to steer too close to Stone, as Kushner's earlier The Flamethrowers foundered on the rocks of DeLillo. (I'm the rare Kushner reader who considers Flamethrowers the weakest of her three novels and Telex From Cuba probably the least flawed.)

So what's so good about The Mars Room? A pathway into the novel's profoundest insight can be found in its ending, which I initially rejected as a failed attempt at epiphany that collapses into the hoariest Romantic nature cliches. Further consideration, however, led me to revise this opinion. The ending's nature epiphany and Romy's ambiguous capture (or killing) actually succeed as an encapsulation of the Kunderan "secret the novel asks about" (quoting from my favorite passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being). Kushner's deepest theme is something we might call "the prison in the garden": the transformation of America, in its citizens' imaginations, from a land of Romantic promise to a carceral state. No, that ending isn't flawed at all; it's Kushner's ticket to the Great American Novel sweepstakes, her book's major statement about the way we live now.

Another plus is Kushner's prose. Like much well-reviewed contemporary litfic, The Mars Room impresses me most at the level of sentence, paragraph, voice. Kushner arc welds some marvelous metaphors, ably ventriloquizes a diverse set of characters, and can orchestrate a paragraph of free, indirect narration into a soliloquy that ironically reveals a character's ultimately fatal narcissism. (I'm thinking specifically of the long paragraph on pages 304-305 of the hardcover, in which Kurt Kennedy thinks around his visit to Cancun and his obsession with Romy/Vanessa.)

But even with these important positives, the book still feels rather 'thin,' a minor novel trying desperately to be major. Given that I had the same thought about Jesmyn Ward's two recent National Book Award winners, this probably points to a larger problem in our culture--about which, see the parenthetical last paragraph of my post on Jesmyn Ward, below.

Swings and Misses: On Jesmyn Ward's First Three Novels

Two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward's first and least heralded novel, Where The Line Bleeds, is the kind of book critics like to call 'promising.' Just good enough to spark interest in what the writer might do next, it's an unexceptional example of MFA program social realism, more a member of the Dreiser-Farrell-Wright school (descending ultimately from Zola) than the Faulkner-Ellison-Morrison line (with ancestry in Melville, Hawthorne, Poe) to which Ward is generally considered heiress-presumptive. This novel lacks any of the gothic strangeness that energizes the best American fiction. Nor does it feel like a tale that particularly needed telling. And Ward's tale and telling are far too predictable. Still, it was a good enough novel to hold my interest to the end (if it had been 200 pages longer, that might not have been the case) and push me forward into Ward's next story of the African-American inhabitants of the southern Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage.

Salvage the Bones begins (here comes that word again) promisingly. There's an immediately engaging narrative voice, an agon with Faulkner signaled by an explicit intertextual relationship to As I Lay Dying, prose that pumps up the lyrical volume, and even a hint of the gothicism notably missing from her first novel. But within the first hundred pages things start to go awry. The intertextual thread is lost or dropped, an initial gothicism gives way to the less interesting realism of Where the Line Bleeds, and even the prose flattens as the Katrina wind rises, causing this reader to lose interest even as the action climaxed. (The fact that this novel is, again, very predictable didn't help.) The beginning of Salvage the Bones makes Faulknerian promises that the Steinbeckian-Caldwellian remainder fails to fulfill. Harold Bloom might have called this an example of a failed agon. Ward faced Faulkner and flinched.

If Salvage the Bones was 'a swing and a miss' at William Faulkner, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a too-slight, minor attempt at an agon with the Toni Morrison of Beloved and Song of Solomon. It's a very well written book--there are nearly perfect sentences, similes, metaphors scattered (albeit too thinly) throughout all three of Ward's novels--but the supernatural elements somehow fail to Morrisonianly mesh with Ward's more topical concerns (mass incarceration, police violence), and the book overall seems a thin, too-predictable, un-rereadable thing. Ward's rather tepid magic realism doesn't grant her novel the "anything can happen" quality we find in Garcia Marquez and Morrison. I was impressed, but not overly impressed. Still, I'm hopeful. Jesmyn Ward's first three novels chart a progression toward artistic excellence and imaginative originality--also, a movement from strict realism to a gothic-tinged Morrisonian magic realism--so I await with interest her fourth novel, hoping it will blow me away. Her first three did not exactly strike me with gale force.

(And now to parenthetically turn to the elephant in the room. Why did Ward's two relatively minor novels win National Book Awards, the same honor given to such undeniably major works as Ellison's Invisible Man, Bellow's Augie March, Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Styron's Sophie's Choice, Walker's Color Purple, etc.? I suspect that the answer has less to do with individual judges advertising their wokeness than with a general decline in the quality of American literary fiction. Litfic in America has hardened into a safe, delimited, academicized genre that no longer has much room for huge groundbreakers like Invisible Man or Gravity's Rainbow. Of recent NBA winners, only William Vollmann (who won for Europe Central, one of his more accessible books) imagines novels on that fearless level. Our culture also seems to have lost the 'sweet spot' where high artistic quality and bestsellerdom can coexist, a spot occupied forty-some years ago by The World According to Garp, Song of SolomonRabbit is Rich, The Executioner's Song, Sophie's Choice, etc. We have a smaller literary fiction today, I sadly and pessimistically suggest, because our high culture is contracting under pressure from a low, lucrative, relatively mindless, and wildly popular techno-culture. People who spend their ever-contracting semi-free time looking at antisocial "social media" aren't in the market for difficult fiction. The fictions that move them are provided by Russian intelligence.)

BROOKLYN by Colm Toibin

If Junot Diaz's Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the definitive contemporary American immigrant novel, Colm Toibin's defiantly old-fashioned Brooklyn, written around the same time, is an immigrant novel Jane Austen could (almost) have written. (Since I don't idolize Austen, that's not exactly a compliment.) Indeed, Toibin even lifts the lineaments of the typical Austen plot, hinging on the central female character's single life-defining decision of whom to marry. But unlike the best of Austen (Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Emma), Brooklyn is a too comfortable, too sentimental, overly nice novel; duplicitous characters, unlikable characters--in short, interesting characters, are kept carefully minor. But perhaps the harshest criticism I can make of Brooklyn as a work of literary art (and I should probably mention here, parenthetically, that I rather liked the book--almost as much as I'm liking slagging it) would be merely to mention that the novel adapted perfectly to film. I think virtually everything in the book made it to the screen, with only a few minor alterations. It translates to film as easily as a men's room sign translates to Spanish. This is an indication not of the film's Stroheimian greatness but of the novel's slightness. No one who has seen the movie need read the book, a work that comes to seem, weirdly, like a slavish novelization of the film adapted from it.

HOTEL DE DREAM by Edmund White

In a conversation about Jean Genet (on KCRW's "Bookworm" program), Edmund White described himself as a "minor novelist," and his late, short novel Hotel de Dream might have been written to prove this uniquely modest self-characterization. It's an interesting minor novel--not great, not even exceptionally well written, little more than an intriguing jeu of the literary imagination. When I heard that the Nabokov-praised author of Forgetting Elena, Nocturnes for the King of Naples, A Boy's Own Story, the definitive biography of Genet, a good brief life of Proust, and The Beautiful Room is Empty (my favorite of his novels) had written a novel on the topic of Stephen Crane's perhaps apocryphal male prostitute novella, my hyperliterary mind was intrigued. But another part of that mind suspected that Hotel de Dream would be what it is: yet another 'piggyback' novel in the imaginatively bereft subgenre Michael Cunningham made lucrative (with help from Nicole Kidman and a fake nose). This novel finds White doing Cunningham's already unoriginal thing. It's clever and interesting, but nothing more... For the real problem see below:

At age 51, I no longer have time to waste on books that don't blow my mind. Or at least breathe on it strongly enough to redden the coals.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

After reading a half-dozen Cambridge Companions...

At the end of a week spent reading six volumes in the Cambridge Companions to Literature series (namely, the CC's to Narrative (i.e., narratology), American Gay and Lesbian Literature, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, William Faulkner and Herman Melville), I declared myself disappointed and underwhelmed--and unsurprised. These collections of essays by various academic specialists in the eponymous writers and fields display no enthusiasm, no passion, no wit, no humor, no joy in the writing, and very little in the way of original ideas--although I know the academy well enough not to have expected much of the last. The Gay and Lesbian volume taught me little I didn't already know (I'm fairly well-read in Gay Studies / Queer Theory and, more importantly, the best of the literature these theories foreground.) and demonstrated the depressing extent to which potentially revolutionary ideas have been carefully sealed away inside 'Academia Inc.' by means of exclusionist jargon, the numbing repetition of dogma, and the embrace of an identity politics-motivated counter-canon that's actually narrower and much less inclusive than the lists in the back of Harold Bloom's Western Canon. On the positive side, queer theory impresses me as the polymorphous perverse side of contemporary intellectualism, and I'm impressed by Judith Butler's idea of heterosexuality as an anxious mimesis of an imaginary ideal. That's an idea good enough to steal--except in my case no larceny is necessary, for I've independently developed an existentialism-influenced concept of personality-as-performance that subsumes sexuality into a more general performance of subjectivity.

In the Pynchon volume, I was briefly intrigued by Brian McHale's notion of the Modernism-Postmodernism distinction as a shift of focus from epistemology to ontology, from questioning knowledge to questioning the 'subjects' who claim to possess it. It seems a powerful abstraction until you apply a bit of intellectual pressure and watch how quickly epistemology and ontology become inextricably intertwined. A theory of knowledge, pushed far enough, becomes a theory of being, and every ontology necessarily implies an epistemology. But at least McHale's idea, unlike most in these volumes, is good enough to mentally argue with. For the most part, these books consist of essay after essay in which academic minds cruise along institutionally-approved rails and arrive at expected conclusions. It's all as predictable as the train from Leonardo da Vinci Airport to Termini Station. To adapt a line Henry Miller wrote (and attributed to Anais Nin), the English Department needs a blood transfusion. Indeed, it needs more than that...


Lorrie Moore, for whom I had hope, disappoints me with the first half-dozen of her COLLECTED STORIES, a hefty, great-looking Everyman's Library volume that deserves better contents. The stories are alphabetically arranged, so the first six form a mini-retrospective of her career, and from this I judge her to be an above-average 'program writer'. Her prose is surprisingly good, her voice sometimes flashes a caustic humor, but her work doesn't approach greatness. These aren't stories on a level with Munro or Proulx or Carver. There's nothing shockingly new or wow-inducing in Moore's work, no revelations. She composes the sort of entertaining, work(wo)manlike stories typical of MFA program professors (we can even fairly classify her as an 'academic writer' a la David Lodge); and like most capos of the MFA mafia, she's handicapped by the 'write what you know' dogma. Like her professorial contemporary George Saunders, she's too traditional for her own good (Saunders' overpraised oeuvre consists mostly of warmed-over Donald Barthelme, and his stories' irrealistic surfaces serve to advance an underlying, and ultimately conservative, sentimental humanism.), and like her fellow prof Richard Ford, her reputation has likely been artificially inflated by her institutional affiliation. She's worshiped by former students (like the one whose hagiographic introduction dubiously graces this collection), but I can't find the knockout greatness in the work. What I did, repeatedly, find was a tendency to end her stories with unearned epiphanies. Instead of putting in the hard imaginative work required to bring a complex story to a satisfactory conclusion, she simply pulls an arbitrary epiphany out of her buttcrack and calls it an ending. Lorrie Moore leaves my mind unblown. What Gore Vidal grandly called "the matter of America" deserves a better teller.

THE DEER PARK by Norman Mailer

Coming to Mailer's Deer Park after Play It As It Lays throws into relief the weaknesses of the former novel: a prose too-often clumsy and cliche-ridden, only rarely rising above mediocrity and sometimes suffering pratfalls in the attempt (and in many spots descending to near-Dreiserian dullness); characters that either strain credulity or seem the merest ciphers from Central Casting; a blond, blue-eyed, six-foot Hitlerian posterboy of a narrator who seems an obvious (and slightly sicko) authorial compensatory fantasy; sex scenes sadistically bound by mid-1950s censorship (for which we certainly can't blame the author, but still... Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch around this time.) All of this detracts from the novel's major plus, an exploration of sexuality (including, by more than implication, the homoerotic element in male friendship) that at least equals Lawrence.

Another negative: early in the novel, Mailer's choice of an impotent (anti-)hero narrator signals an intertextual relationship to The Sun Also Rises. Always boxing Papa, Norman here follows up his Farewell to the Bell Tolls (The Naked and the Dead) with a post-WWII California Sun. But, as in all of his many rounds of Ernest-fighting, Mailer's merely shadowboxing in the ring of his mind; Hemingway has already won the bout. Having established his hero's impotence, Mailer wastes no time curing it, an artistic and imaginative failure of the first order that figurative transfers the stigma of impotence from character to author. Norman's the one who can't get artistically hard (and keep his hero soft), while Hemingway stands there rigid, pharaonically displaying a novelistic dong impressive enough to keep Jake Barnes soft for the duration of Sun.

PLAY IT AS IT LAYS by Joan Didion

 I should have read this thirty years ago... Why didn't I read this back in the early nineties?... These thoughts recurred several times while I read--belatedly, inexcusably--Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays. Long an admirer of Didion's journalism--Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album are beautifully written cultural landmarks that deserved their 'instant classic' status--I have inexplicably avoided her fiction. (Similar story between Susan Sontag and me, equally inexplicable: enjoy re-reading the essays, haven't read the novels.) So when the first volume of the Library of America's collected Didion came into my hands, I was very pleasantly surprised by the excellence and risky beauty of her second novel. (Here's hoping the LOA soon publishes a two-volume edition of Sontag's fiction so I'll have another opportunity to be surprised.) Play It As It Lays, seemingly an artsy, au courant (for 1970) novel of affluent angst among the Fitzgeraldianly careless moviemaking side of Sixties Los Angeles, surprised me by turning explicitly existentialist at the end, Maria's journey terminating (or, more precisely, continuing) in nihilism and death, existential anxiety taken to its limits. Stylistically engaging and formally original, this short novel is, at the very least, what critics call 'a minor classic' (maybe we should lose that minimizing adjective) and deserves to be as much of an LA landmark as the Getty Center or LACMA. It's the kind of artful, existentially engaged novel no American writer writes anymore. (Well, Rachel Kushner at least tries to write them.) I finished it mourning the fact that it has birthed no native sons or daughters.

FLOW CHART by John Ashbery

Eighty pages into Ashbery's Flow Chart, in the restored Library of America edition, I found myself just beginning to understand it--this book-length poem that ideal readers will perpetually 'begin to understand,' without any of that Keats-derided "irritable reaching after fact and reason"--I began, that is, to understand it as a kaleidoscopic late-late-Surrealist love poem. As such, it belongs to the line of Surrealist art about love and sex highlighted in the ca.2002 exhibition catalog Surrealism: Desire Unbound--an exhibition JA probably saw at the Met (incidentally, for our purposes, since it arrived a decade after the poem's publication). I also find obvious affinities with Dada, Pop Art and, more pointedly, the assemblages and 1960s paintings of Robert Rauschenberg--as well as their ancestors in the collage paintings of Picasso and Braque from the 1910s. Ashbery's text also winks and nods--obscurely, its gestures clouded by Cubist cigarette smoke--towards other, more specifically literary precursors (of the sort that might have popped into the late Harold Bloom's echo-capturing mind as he read the poem): The Bridge, Leaves of Grass, The Cantos, and that lodestar of Modernist difficulty, The Waste Land. And of course (bien sur), Mallarme and the French Symbolists are in here too, swirling in the Ashberian cyclone.... Ashbery's poem, however, embodies a difficulty beyond the High Modernist, a difficulty we might consider characteristically 'postmodernist,' due to the work's anarchistic skepticism with regard to language, meaning, narrative and form. If such earlier Ashbery books as The Double Dream of Spring, Houseboat Days, and Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror might be collectively considered JA's Ulysses, Flow Chart is his Finnegans Wake. A work of remarkable local beauty (line by lovely line, image by startling image), it presents difficulties of global interpretation (the Alfie question: "What's it all about?") that might keep its select few readers guessing for lifetimes--or lead them to run up the white flag of aporia and surrender to France, reducing the poem to a textbook illustration of Derridean radical skepticism, the post-structuralist circulation of meaning, and any number of other ideas powerful enough to keep grad students off crack during the 1980s.

Upon finishing this first reading--complete but necessarily inconclusive, like any reading of Ashbery's best works--I thought Flow Chart a remarkable enigma, an exquisitely difficult pleasure with enough moments of beauty to inspire multiple readings and the desire to pluck the mystery out of the poem's heart. I hesitate only slightly before calling it a great poem (the hesitation a first-reading's hedge); it is Ashbery's magnum opus. And as to what it's all about: all is what it's about. It's a tragic, comic, goofball meditation on life, death and everything in the indecent interval between. It is 'about' (in the sense of 'man about town') the Lucretian-Epicurean rain of imagistic atoms flowing from John Ashbery's mind to his writing hand as the nineteen-eighties stumbled to a close.

This is all but a raw, tentative reaction to a first reading of Flow Chart, and as such it fits the blog, because Mindful Pleasures for the past 12 years has been a place to prose-out my raw readerly reactions. Pretty much everything here is a trial piece. If I'm ever able or willing to write the book-length commentary that Flow Chart deserves, I will title it, from the poem, Exquisite Nitpicking.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Unpopular Opinion #257: Contra 'Cultural Appropriation'

When asked what it means to be a humanist in the twenty-first century, I like to quote, unoriginally, that locus classicus of humanism from the ancient Roman playwright Terence: "Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto": I am a man, and nothing human is alien to me.

As a humanist, I consider the entirety of human cultural production to be the inheritance of every human being. This idea obviates and negates the currently popular discourse of 'cultural appropriation,' an idea born of identity politics, tribalism, ahistoricism, aesthetic ignorance, misdirected political energy, and a kind of xenophobia just as stupid and pernicious as that spouted by Trump supporters wearing MAGA dunce caps. Anyone who has studied deeply any aspect of human culture--art, politics, economics, religion, whatever--knows that the history of culture is a history of cultural appropriation. To appropriate another Latin tag, ex nihilo nihil fit: Nothing comes from nothing. Every cultural product--every poem, every painting, every novel, every economic theory--comes out of, is influenced by, borrows from, earlier products of its own and other cultures. This is how cultures live and grow. Or as that great literary cat burglar T. S. Eliot once wrote, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." Years ago on the Guardian books site a commenter remarked that the brilliant contemporary London writer Iain Sinclair "stole everything from the Situationists." I replied with the following sarcastic mini-diatribe:

"Yes, in the same sense that the writers of the New Testament stole the Messiah idea from the Old Testament, later Christians stole the Jewish sacred texts and renamed them the 'Old Testament' (what chutzpah!), Homer stole the Troy and Odysseus tales from folk tradition, Socrates stole his peripatetic philosopher shtick from the Sophists, Dante stole Hell, Purgatory and Paradise from mystics and theologians, Shakespeare stole the events of Titus Andronicus from Ovid's tale of the rape of Philomel and the Sonnets from Sidney and Surrey, Milton stole from the book of Genesis (which stole from even more ancient Mesopotamian sources), Blake stole from everyone Milton stole from as well as from Milton himself, Fielding stole from Cervantes (as did Sterne, Diderot, and all the postmodern novelists from Barth through Rushdie), Joyce stole from Homer, Woolf stole from Joyce, Nabokov stole from Lewis Carroll (who stole everything from poor, pedophilic Charles Dodgson), and so forth and so on unto the last syllable of intelligent writing (which may be written any day now). As T. S. Eliot (and George Eliot, who stole from Balzac) knew, it's not whom you steal from; it's what you do with the stuff you steal. And Iain Sinclair has done fantastic things with what the Situationists left lying around."

A similar expostulation might be written for every field of human endeavor. In art history, Picasso invented Cubism partly by appropriating the figural style of African masks; in turn, Latin American painters such as Diego Rivera, Wifredo Lam and Roberto Matta appropriated some of Picasso's styles and techniques. The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist appropriation of Japanese prints is well known, but more obscure is critic Kirk Varnedoe's argument in A Fine Disregard that the characteristic style of those prints was influenced by European Renaissance paintings and drawings, prints of which circulated in Japan in the 1700s. Likewise, in the history of cinema we might mention Akira Kurosawa's appropriation of John Ford and Quentin Tarantino's later appropriation of John Woo. In the history of thought, Marx and Engels were influenced by American anthropologist L. H. Morgan, a student of Iroquois culture. In politics, Mahatma Gandhi's satyagraha (nonviolent resistance) was appropriated partly from the writings of Thoreau; Gandhi's idea was then appropriated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the American Civil Rights movement, and so on... 

The life of human culture knows neither borders nor oceans nor differences of tongue. Appropriation is the beating heart of culture. If we attempt to police or control it, we might stop the heart and kill the mind.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

"The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost

Here's a close reading of Robert Frost's little masterpiece of ambiguity, "The Road Not Taken". It's a poem commonly oversimplified, with one of the two likeliest interpretations almost always overwriting the other, so this reading will seek to bring out the work's often overlooked complexity and difficulty.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

We are with a wanderer in the woods, some latter-day Thoreau or Muir or John Burroughs, an American Romantic naturalist escaping urbanism to commune with the wilderness. But we are also in a more specifically literary elsewhere. Any poem that begins with a speaker "in a yellow wood" should remind us of Dante at the opening of the Inferno, lost in a symbolic selva oscura, a dark or shadowy woods. This echo, however faint, should put perceptive readers on guard against an unproblematically optimistic interpretation of the poem. We are dealing here with something more than an archetypal American nonconformist's self-congratulatory ode to individualism. Something different and darker is also going on.

The most important word in the line--indeed, arguably the only word of poetic import, since the others serve simply to state a situation and construct an allusion--is that curious adjective, yellow. Why not 'an autumn wood,' or 'a colored wood,' or even 'a turning wood'? Why does Frost characterize the wood by specifying a single color? (Most North American woods contain more than one species of tree and thus turn multiple colors in the autumn.) This word choice, like the infernal allusion in which it is embedded, is Frost putting us on guard again. The color yellow suggests not freedom and self-determination but weakness and subjection to sickness. It is the color of excrement (urine), of jaundice, even of death. More colloquially, yellow connotes cowardice rather than courage (In Frost's day, cowards were commonly called "yellow."), so a wood of this color should trouble an interpretation of the poem as an encomium to the courage to choose an untrodden path.

And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

Far from eagerly choosing the less trodden way, the speaker regrets the necessity of choice. Like all of us, in the honesty of our ids, he wants it both ways, wishes life were both-and instead of either-or. If only he could miraculously Jehovah himself into multiple personalities and still remain a single entity (yes, Frost is slyly, satirically nodding toward the three-in-one dogma of the Trinity), he could dispel the anxiety--technically, existential anxiety--that keeps him paralyzed here at the fork in life's road.

And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Peering into a possible future, he can see only a short distance, is blind to where the path might lead. But more interesting than this banal paraphrase is the fact that he chooses to look down this path seemingly at random: it's a toss-up; neither path beckons, and he could look either way. We might also note Frost's choice of the word undergrowth as another darkening device. Slant-rhyming with 'underground' and used in conjunction with the speaker looking down, it again faintly rings the dark Dantean bell. One of these paths might lead to an Inferno, the other to a Paradiso; inability to choose leaves him in a Purgatorio of angst.

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And this most momentous choice is, like the lesser choice two lines earlier, seemingly random, a coin-flip. The two paths are essentially indistinguishable. The choice is a monument to that boyish 'whim' Emerson celebrates in "Self-Reliance": "I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. Expect me not to show cause why I seek or why I exclude company..." (And just as we oversimplify this poem by reading it as Emersonian self-congratulation, we imbecilize Emerson by ignoring the proto-Nietzschean darkness in his work.) In Frost's twentieth-century context, it can be understood as the necessary Sartrean existential choice performed in a world of Camus-esque absurdity and meaninglessness. Like every important life-choice, it's a leap into the unknown.

And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

And immediately our speaker denies the whimsical, absurd nature of his choice and begins to retrospectively rationalize it. He chose this second path not at random--perish the thought!--but because it was grassy and less worn. The choice, thus rationally arrived at, defines him as a ruggedly individualistic nonconformist, one who chooses the path others fear to tread.

Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

But he can't even convince himself that he has made a rational choice, for the evidence of his senses, that empirical 'best evidence' of scientific rationality, forces upon him the fact of similarity. Neither path is noticeably less trodden, neither road not taken by common travelers. He has chosen a path as well-traveled as the other. His ego-affirming, archetypally American identity is founded upon nothing more than a momentary delusion. (We would not go too far afield were we to mention the comparable mentality of Trump supporters. Believing themselves bravely nonconformist in their denial of 'political correctness,' science, decency, reason, etc., they are in fact as slavishly conformist as the stupid red hats they wear.)

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

From its opening interjection to its closing exclamation point, the line rings as false as a paper bell. Again, the speaker can't even convince himself, as the next lines show.

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

Unidirectionality is the tragedy of time. It can go only forward, never back, never really repeat. Even if the chosen path loops around to this fork again, we will have been changed by our going and will re-arrive as slightly different selves. The choice is once and forever, and therein lies the root of existential anxiety, leading to a vertigo even more paralyzing than the one that rendered Jimmy Stewart incapable of saving Kim Novak. Frost's narrator knows this, but represses the knowledge as soon as it worms its way into consciousness.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:

The sigh is a carefully crafted Frostian ambiguity. We sigh in disappointment, frustration, yet also in times of intense happiness, contentment, satisfaction. Here it might signify an irruption of bad conscience before the narrator's self-protectively delusional final pronouncement.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--

Why the pause, why the Dickinsonian dash? I--I think it dramatizes the speaker's final choice. Recounting his tale, he can either tell the truth of randomness and contingency, or he can ease into self-mythology. Of course he chooses the well-trodden path of mendacity.

I took the one less traveled by,

A lie, as we know. The paths were equally worn. With this bit of deception, and self-deception(?), the speaker eases himself into the cultural role slotted out for him: he is the self-made, self-determining American man; the rugged individualist, the proud nonconformist (Emerson: "Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist."), the walker along the road less traveled. But the slot is not a flawless fit. That repetition of I is a sign of anxious self-doubt. On a level deeper than his imagined lie, he's so uncertain about himself that he must speak the self-signifying pronoun twice. The gentleman doth protest one syllable too much.

And that has made all the difference.

At the beginning of this reading, I called the entire poem a "little masterpiece of ambiguity," and that's also a fair description of its last line. As in the writings of Jacques Derrida, interpretation here centers upon one's understanding of difference. The word is a hinge upon which the line (and the entire poem) turns toward optimistic and pessimistic readings. Optimistic interpretations swing difference in a positive direction, hearing the speaker say that his life has turned out much better than if he had taken the other path. Pessimistic interpreters read a negative difference; we hear the speaker sigh in disappointment at the beginning of the stanza and understand him to be lamenting the botch of his life and the fatal choice that caused it.

Is one interpretation more valid than the other? When I began this close reading, I was tempted to say no. I intended to end the reading in a classic deconstructive aporia, a point of radical undecidability between mutually exclusive interpretations. I was then going to point out the ideological distortion that promotes one reading over the other. But over the course of this writing, I have determined that the poem is considerably less ambiguous, and the ideological distortion much more severe, than I had imagined. As I hope I have demonstrated, the pessimistic reading is clearly more valid than the optimistic. It goes more deeply into the text, teases out Dantean allusions, and deals forthrightly with contradictions (e.g., the lack of substantial difference between the paths) that an optimistic reading must either finesse away or ignore.

Why, then, out of two competing interpretations, one substantially more convincing than the other, do most general readers choose the facile positive over the complex negative? Likely for the same reason that strict party line American voters will identify as 'Independent' when a pollster calls. The hegemonic ideology of our culture values the appearance of independence, individuality, autonomy, freedom. Americans mouth the words and feel their power even when they belie them in every moment of their lives. We are therefore ideologically primed to accept the optimistic interpretation, even in the face of contrary textual evidence. The extent to which we read "The Road Not Taken" as a positive statement of nonconformity is a good measure of the extent of our ideological programming. When we read Robert Frost's poem, the poem also reads us.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The First Sentence Project, No.1: Philip Roth's SABBATH'S THEATER

This post inaugurates a new feature on Mindful Pleasures. The First Sentence Project will be a series of occasional close readings of opening sentences that I find brilliant, remarkable, or merely unusual. We begin, out of sheer joyous, Dionysian dirtymindedness, with the first sentence of Philip Roth's fierce and filthily funny 1995 novel Sabbath's Theater.

Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.

That's it: nine words, none of more than two syllables, comprising a sentence that can only in the most technical sense be called 'complex.' And not only is this Sabbath's Theater's first sentence; it is the entirety of its first paragraph. Let's pause over these seemingly superficial details to appreciate the Rothian irony. This novel that is in many ways--linguistically, stylistically, sexually, philosophically--Roth's most extreme work, a novel of excess and transgression written in a prose that ranges from Hemingway-Carver minimalism to Joycean complexity and the comic heights of mock-Euphuism, begins with a spare string of straightforward mono- and disyllabics. The novel that is arguably Roth's most unrestrained performance begins in ironic restraint.

Let's examine the line word by word:

Either. That's no way to begin a novel, certainly not a novel starring that Dionysian antihero, that paragon of polymorphous perversion, that personification of the irrational id, that self-ordained "monk of fucking," Mickey Sabbath. Does any other major, canonical novel begin with the word either? I can't think of one. It's a word that fits more comfortably in a computer programming language: Either do this, computer; or do that... It's a signal of bald, logical statement, a signifier of rational discourse. And therein lies its irony in this context. For Sabbath is not a Kierkegaardian either-or kind of dude; he's a both-and man. He wants it all, both the nasty and the tender, both King Lear and crack, both James Joyce and piss-drinking, both pussy and asshole, both life and death. He is to logic and reason what R. Crumb's Mr. Natural is to Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty.

forswear. An interesting archaism--and again, not a word one is likely to find in the first or any other sentence of most contemporary novels. In good Sabbathian fashion, forswear both elevates the line's diction to a near-Shakespearean height (thus setting up the next word's precarious fall) and sounds the first subterranean note of the novel's Hamlet theme (part two titled "To Be or Not To Be," Nikki as the lost Ophelia, Sabbath as the suicidal Jersey Jewish Hamlet haunted, of course, by the ghost of his mother--that little substitution is worthy of Woody Allen) by containing the demand of "the fellow in the cellarage," the underground ghost of King Hamlet: "Swear!" If Roth checked his dictionary before deciding on 'forswear' (most writers would probably have chosen 'forgo'), he would've found that the word means both "to renounce something under oath" and "to swear falsely," the latter being the only way Sabbath could have sworn this particular oath.

fucking. Another fine old English word, but hardly an archaism, fucking nosedives the sentence's diction down to obscenity, where Sabbath lives. As James Wood has shown in my favorite passage of his How Fiction Works, this kind of breakneck register-shifting is a stylistic hallmark of Roth's novel, so it's entirely appropriate that it first occurs in the first sentence. That said, the usage is, I believe, unique in the Roth oeuvre. There's fucking aplenty in Philip Roth's novels (although fewer 'sex scenes' than most people seem to think), but I think this is the sole time he dropped the F-bomb in a first line, a choice entirely appropriate to his most extreme book.

others. There are always others. The other is Sabbath's necessity and his curse. While Sabbath's Theater depicts, on its surface, a compulsive penetrator of others, much of the pathos of the novel lies in its depiction of a Sabbath multiply penetrated by others. A porous subject, he's being figuratively fucked in every orifice by the ghosts of his dead. Drenka, Yetta, Nikki, Morty--these are the most important players in his private theater, the puppets his unconscious controls.

or. The mate of either. Just a conjunction, folks... Nothing to see here. I'm not going to push this close reading into absurdity by noting the or/ore pun and suggesting that Roth here constructs a hidden metaphor (metaph-ore) for the mining of Sabbath's consciousness that is the primary action of the novel... No, I'm not going to mention that.

the. This definite article is easily passed over, but there's a subtle oddness deserving of mention. If Sabbath is fucking so many others--which, to add another turn to Roth's ironic screw, he actually isn't--why is the relationship with Drenka the affair, a singular thing? Perhaps because Drenka, the ostensible 'speaker' here, understands that this relationship has crossed into the region of what, for Sabbath, might be the ultimate taboo: love.

affair. In the tradition in which Roth writes, nothing is more novelistic than an affair. From Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina to Rabbit, Run and Fear of Flying--hell, from the Provencal troubadours to Sarah Treem--adultery has been close to the heart of Western fictionalizing. In addition to immediately placing his novel in this tradition, Roth's word choice also efficiently sets up the initial conflict--while simultaneously misdirecting us to expect a novel of adultery instead of the existential crisis narrative Sabbath's Theater very soon (thanks to the death of the affair's partner) becomes.

is. The simplest verb, is is the sharpest possible contrast with the first half of the sentence's forswear and another example of Roth's uncharacteristic restraint.

over. and out. Every ending stinks of death, and the ending of this sentence is no exception. Like most of middle and late period Roth, Sabbath's Theater is death-haunted. (Early Roth, by contrast, is haunted by the possibility of life (sex) in a repressed Fifties America.) The trajectory of the entire novel, like that of this sentence, moves from fucking to death--when everything, the whole affair of life, is over.

[you]. But unlike Roth's sentence, my reading is not quite over yet. No reading of this sentence should end without a nod toward its absent presence, the mangy dog that does not bark, the subject to whom it is directed. Between either and forswear, Roth suppresses the word you, subject of the sentence, signifying the sound and fury of Sabbath. That Roth's least repressed central character is suppressed in the first sentence of his novel, made to haunt it like the ghosts that haunt him, may be the subtlest irony hidden inside these nine (ten) words.

As in the history of cubist painting, after analysis comes synthesis, so let's put this sentence back together and listen to its music:

Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.

Listen to those rhyming long e's at the beginning of each clause (either, the) and how they're complimented by the slant-rhymed o's at the ends (others, over) and how this sonic orchestration is further held together by the alliterating f's of the first half that are picked up by the double f in affair. Listen to forswear beautifully rhyme with affair (a rhyme worthy of a fine poet). Or look at the repeated o's strung across the line like Christmas lights (forswear, others, or, over). Listen... The late great William H. Gass, whose style of criticism I'm imitating now, might've loved this fucking sentence.


Readers of this blog who've been wondering what the hell I've been up to for the past year can satisfy their curiosity by reading my latest book, Suicide: A Memoir, now available for purchase as an ebook and a paperback at Amazon. Here's the back cover description:

At age fifty, Brian Oard--writer, blogger, art critic, intellectual, aesthete--found himself at the bottom of his life. Broke, hopeless, going blind, suffering severe depression and social isolation, facing the prospect of homelessness, and stressed to the breaking point by caring for his dying elderly father, he decided to end his life. This brief book is the story of his journey to and through suicidal depression. We follow the author from his initial loss of hope, through the decline and death of his father, to his preparations for suicide, climaxing on the morning of his planned demise, when he thinks his way out of death and into the possibility of a new life. Combining brutal, self-lacerating honesty with flashes of grim, gallows humor, it is a harrowing work of psychological insight. Written in a powerful prose both beautiful and poetically compressed, it is also an impressive, original work of art.

To almost quote D. H. Lawrence: yes, I have come through--through suicidal depression and into the opening act of a new life. It's hardly a spoiler to mention that the last line of my memoir is, "This is me, bouncing." From the bottom of my life in rural Ohio, I've bounced all the way to western Colorado, where I was delighted to discover that screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo (Johnny Got His Gun) was born in nearby Grand Junction and is memorialized in a public sculpture of the writer at work in his most creative place, the bathtub. So there are now two leftist writers in Mesa County, Colorado, and here's a picture of both of us:

It's been a major and completely unpredictable change of life, this disorienting relocation to Kit Carson country. I arrived here at night--rocketing over the Rockies in a steep ascent out of Denver--and experienced severe landscape shock when opening my windows the next morning onto snow-capped mountains, a massive mesa of black volcanic rock, and a big beautiful blue western sky. I, who have always lived in the Midwest and faced intellectually and artistically eastward, toward New York, London, Paris, Dublin, am now a westerner (Watch out, Cormac, 'cause there's a new bad motherfucker in town.), and I'm experiencing the coronavirus epidemic not by hunkering down in an eastern house and binge-watching The Wire, but by 'social distancing' the western way, as illustrated by this picture of your umbral author standing on a cliff along the Old Spanish Trail and looking down on the Gunnison River. It's not all bad.


Thursday, July 25, 2019

Philip Roth's Late Aesthetic Statement

I'm deeply impressed by this passage from a speech Philip Roth delivered at his 80th birthday celebration at the Newark Museum, March 19, 2013. Into a single, beautiful paragraph, Roth packs both a statement of his personal aesthetic and an implied program for the realistic novel generally. This is also an example of late, late Roth returning to the aesthetic idol of his collegiate youth and striking a Master-fully Jamesian stylistic note. One can almost imagine Roth dictating these lines to a typist as he gazes out over the garden at Lamb House, Rye, Sussex, circa 1905:

"I was saying that this passion for specificity, for the hypnotic materiality of the world one is in, is all but at the heart of the task to which every American novelist has been enjoined since Herman Melville and his whale and Mark Twain and his river: to discover the most arresting, evocative verbal depiction for every last American thing. Without strong representation of the thing--animate or inanimate--without the crucial representation of what is real, there is nothing. Its concreteness, its unabashed focus on all the particulars, a fervor for the singular and a profound aversion to generalities, is fiction's lifeblood. It is from a scrupulous fidelity to the blizzard of specific data that is a personal life, it is from the force of its uncompromising particularity--from its physicalness--that the realistic novel, the insatiable realistic novel with its multitude of realities, derives its ruthless intimacy."

Tuesday, June 25, 2019


Now that Mindful Pleasures is over a decade old and past its 600-post mark, I guess it's time for a bit of curation--if not exactly a "Mindful Pleasures Greatest Hits," at least a "Best of" CD. So here's my personal selection of the best things I've written on MP over the past ten years. (Click on the links to read the posts.)
And here are links to all of my "Adversaria" posts, lengthy collections of random ruminations, quirky quotes, and asinine alliterations culled from my utterly disorganized notebooks:

Friday, May 24, 2019

Summer Reading Recommendations

Summer's coming. Time to trundle out the 40-gallon barrel of SPF90 sunscreen and spread it frosting-thick over all exposed flesh to deflect those dastardly UV rays. And don't forget to have fun... Here are my reading recommendations for this year's hot times (click to buy at Bezosland):
We begin with singer-songwriter-poet Leonard Cohen's second and last novel, 1966's Beautiful Losers. If Ralph Ellison can be considered a major American novelist solely on the basis of Invisible Man (and he can, obviously), then Beautiful Losers marks Cohen as one of Canada's major novelists. This is the Great Canadian Postmodern Novel, and if Cohen had not shifted into a performance career, he might have been the Canadian Thomas Pynchon. Next, we catch a transatlantic flight at YYZ (cue the Rush instrumental) and land in the terrible, horrible, no good Portugal of Antonio Lobo Antunes' savage imagination. Tragically timely, The Inquisitor's Manual is the great Portuguese novelist's masterful anti-fascist novel; we might think of it as an Autumn of the Patriarch for the Salazar regime. And we might think of its monstrous, and terrifyingly human, central character, Senhor Francisco, as a prescient satire of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Fleeing from that dread thought, flying back to Canadian freedom, we pick up Alice Munro's only novel (a novel-in-stories, of course), Lives of Girls and Women. If you're looking for a female equivalent of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, this is it. Munro's kunstlerroman is really that good, and it deserves to be much more widely known and read. After Munro, we soar back across the ocean, rent a James Bond sports car, and shift into a radically different imaginative gear for Ballard's High Rise. A great, imaginative, well-written, surrealistically vivid, cinematically lucid science fiction novel, this is also a good social allegory, an interesting dramatization of the intersections of technology and psychology, and, I would argue, a knowing parody of structuralism that is simultaneously a self-deconstructing structuralist horror novel. (I'll explain the last part, briefly: A novel so binary with regard to gender, told entirely from three male points-of-view, permits--indeed, provokes--a deconstructive reading. The male-centrism encourages a female-centric counter-reading. The novel's demonstration that the original gender binary and its reversal both lead to hellish domination thus radically destabilizes the gender binary upon which the novel only seems to be built.) Yes, Ballard pulls all of that off, and does it in under 200 pages--the mind boggles... And we bring our boggled minds back to earth at last with Lisa Halliday's Asymmetry. Last year, this novel received some rather voyeuristic attention in the bookchat media due to its first part, a roman a clef about the author's affair with Philip Roth (apropos of which, Roth gave Halliday the ultimate good review, telling a friend, "She got me."). But Asymmetry is much more than its first section. Unlike virtually all the Brooklyned and Iowaed novels swelling the litfic cybershelves these days, this is a genuinely, and interestingly, original work of art. Formally, it's a dialectical novel, following a strict Hegelian triad: the first section, the 'Roth' narrative, constantly and deliberately risks a descent into chick-lit vapidity; the second section is an absolute negation of the first; and the briefer third section attempts a synthesis. The whole is one of the more remarkable American novels of recent years. Enjoy....and stay out of that damned sun.

A thought on "The Rock" by Wallace Stevens

Reading the pages on "The Rock" in Harold Bloom's Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, I found the florid one's commentary illuminating but--as usual for the works of Bloom's 'theoretical' middle years--too hermetically literary. Like Cleanth Brooks (an old Bloom bête noir) figuring Keats's urn as an ideal New Critic, Bloom tends to trope (to use a favorite Bloomverb) every poet he writes about as a version of himself, a revisionary reader of poetry. This can be a fruitful critical line, but Bloom hews to it too exclusively. He thus, unsurprisingly, reads 'The Rock' as metapoetic statement; I read it as an existentialist aesthetic crisis poem; others might read it as a deconstructionist drama, or even as religious allegory--and all four readings might well be compellingly supported by Stevens' text. Although I--and this may merely be my bias speaking--suspect that an existentialism-inflected reading that understands the poem as dramatizing a dialectic of being and/from nothingness might subsume all the others.

My reading, nutshelled: The rock is a symbol of the existential nothingness that underlies reality, the nothing on the other side of Ahab's "pasteboard mask." Upon this vertiginously terrifying nonfoundational foundation, the mind projects Being (leaves, lilacs) as a protective barrier, a prophylactic, a shield. This Being, an imaginary creation--like a work of art, a poem--so enraptures us that our act of creation is repressed and we reify our projection as the Real, the cure, the panacea for our existential angst. And, ecstatically, if only for the duration of the poem, the medicine works.... Something like that seems to be the through-line of "The Rock."

A Heretical Theoretical Thought

A thought upon finishing the late M. H. Abrams' eminently reasonable, humanistic (and thus multiply deconstructible) critique of deconstruction in "The Deconstructive Angel":

I wonder if deconstruction may be one of the least interesting things language does. What if it's little more than a banal, paradoxical quirk in our species' principal representational technology (language)? Perhaps the deconstructibility of linguistic forms is an inconsequential, rather meaningless 'flaw in the glass' of the linguistic window through which we represent reality, just as Zeno's Paradox is a similar flaw in the mathematical glass through which we represent space and motion. (Zeno's Paradox functions only in the mathematical representational grid, not in reality. We prove this every time we move.) Perhaps deconstruction is no grandiose portal to a utopia "beyond metaphysics," as some of its apologists have claimed. Maybe it's merely a quirk of language, a reminder (that is, a meaningful sign) that our species has developed representational strategies so efficient, so empirically 'close' to the represented real object, that these strategies tend toward transparency. We can see through them, so we need the flaws to remind us they are made of glass.

ALL THINGS SHINING by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly

For reasons unconscious, I'm finally reading Dreyfus and Kelly's All Things Shining. I guess Gary Wills' definitive takedown of the book in the NYRB didn't entirely convince me. It should have.

Subtitled "Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age" (an idea that I find quite attractive, given that I've been doing it since junior high), this book promises so much and actually delivers so little that I'm tempted to remark that with friends like these, the "Western Classics" don't need enemies. Dreyfus and Kelly's arguments are weaker than a dying cancer patient, built on evidence so obviously cherry-picked that it belongs in a produce aisle, and stated so hyperbolically that I checked the copyright page for a Trump trademark. Additionally, the book's over-reliance on the writings of, and post-suicide hagiography around, David Foster Wallace marks it as an immediately dated artifact of the early 2010s. All the DFW references seem pretty pathetic today, a misguided attempt at trendy 'relevance' that weakens the book's 'long view' of the Western canon. It's as though Harold Bloom had ended his Western Canon with a Snoop Dogg-style rap about Fernando Pessoa. And in case that's not irritating enough, the Simon & Schuster copy editor must've been Sleepy Dwarf, because the text is riddled with elementary grammatical errors. Additionally, the academic authors' dismissal of existentialism (Sartre's) is a fatal blindness, for Sartre shows how the nihilism they decry is not an end but a beginning, point zero of any authentic life. There's no need for the unwise professors' giddy leap into mysticism; the Nothing is simply where we begin.

All Things Shining, in short, is not one of those titular things. In a time of fascism, religious fanaticism environmental catastrophe, and murderous corporatism (BP, Boeing...), a book offering a dubious 'cure' for the supposed 'nihilism' of a relatively tiny number of privileged Americans does seem direly beside the point. And that's how Dreyfus and Kelly's ahistorical approach leads them to shipwreck on the shoals of their book's inescapable now.

That said, the section on Moby Dick is actually not bad. They should've published it as an article and ditched the rest of the manuscript.

Itinerary for an Intellectual Orgy

Amidst all the cat videos, conspiracy theorists, and painfully pathetic self-promoters on YouTube, the discerning searcher might even in these bad times find, hidden like crusty porn in a cyber back-cupboard, videos of actual intellectual value. As proof, I offer the following itinerary of a day-long highbrow orgy drawn from the Dark Tube.

We begin with a late-1970s interview (general topic: philosophy and literature) with novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch, conducted by philosopher Bryan Magee:

Next, we raise our brow-height a few more feet when Magee interviews Noam Chomsky. Check out Chomsky's amused grin at the end when Magee brings things to a close as soon as Chomsky mentions the word 'anarchism.' They should've done two episodes:

I disagree with Bryan Magee's evaluation of Sartre, but I'm impressed, in all of his interviews, by the amazing amount of ground he can cover without ever seeming to rush the conversation. Here he discusses Existentialism with William Barrett, author of the classic 1958 study of the movement, Irrational Man:

Continuing with the existentialists, here's Magee and Hubert Dreyfus discussing, with surprisingly lucidity, the fundamental ideas of Husserl and Heidegger:
Next up, we fly our mental planes to Frankfurt for Magee's 1977 interview with Herbert Marcuse. This is a great example of two men who profoundly disagree on many issues and are secure enough in their thoughts to have a calm, civil, enlightening conversation. We need more of this in the world of today.

Next up is Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick's portrait of Jacques Derrida, a documentary in which we see Le Grand Deconstructeur as a man living a fairly ordinary bourgeois academic life in the Paris suburbs:

Here's an interesting, albeit melodramatic, take on the life and (some of the) work of Michel Foucault. Really, how can any doc on Foucault avoid melodrama?

And to bring it all to a close, check out this lecture by art historian T. J. Clark on Picasso's Guernica. Fascinating.

And if all this still leaves you intellectually and aesthetically unsatiated, check out this BBC documentary called "Picasso's Last Stand," a wonderful account of the artist's great but underappreciated late period.

Walter A. Davis on YouTube

Yep, I'm bringing Mindful Pleasures back from the Valley of the Shadow (which only Orson knows...). After letting this blog lie liminally near death for an almost total circuit of the Sun, I've decided to roll out the crash cart, apply paddles to bared chest, yell "Clear!", and Lazarus this sucker back to life. The lilac in my dooryard says the time is right:

The immediate occasion for this vernal resurrection (cf. lilacs out of the dead land, blossoms on a bough, all those dusty Victorian volumes of Frazer...) is the recent appearance on YouTube of two videos featuring Walter A. Davis. Philosopher, actor, literary theorist, cultural critic, playwright, Davis is an American intellectual (yes, we still have a few of those) whose name will be familiar to frequent readers of this blog. Among his many books, Inwardness and Existence: Subjectivity in/and Hegel, Heidegger, Marx and Freud is merely the most important work in Existentialist philosophy of the past half-century (this year is the 30th anniversary of its publication, so celebrate by checking it out), and his Get the Guests rethinks the possibilities of theater through impressively close readings of five classic modern plays. 

Here is a cinematic adaptation of his own one-man play, Hamlet at 75, an exercise in performative criticism that achieves a theatrical synthesis of the aforementioned books:

And here is an enlightening, entertaining, wide-ranging podcast interview with Davis: 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Adversaria 2018

For my 600th post here at Mindful Pleasures (and likely my last for a while), a collection of random ruminations, pithy parentheticals, crabby comments, quirky quotes, and hopefully thoughtful asides culled from my notebook of the past year-and-more:

("Hopefully thoughtful" is probably the most we can ask for in Trumptime; "thoughtfully hopeful" is about as likely as the resurrection of Philip Roth.)

William Gass's obituary in Le Monde (newspaper of record for a country that still has a literary culture (of sorts)) refers to Gass as a prosateur, a word that deserves a place in the English lexicon, that ShakesJoycean trickbag of Tristy wordthefts and phunny portmanteaux. Prosateur: a prose stylist (fem. Prosateuse, for the old-fash and/or gynocentric). I'm attracted to its sonic similarity to provocateur, something all good prosateurs should be. (Gass certainly was. His best sentences are long-fuse wordbombs set to blow your mind.)

"One reads poetry with one's nerves." -- Wallace Stevens, in his notebook

Every dystopia is the utopia of its ruling class. (Until we understand this, we will not understand the actions of the Trump regime.)

Against identity politics as a motive for fiction: A novelist who cannot imagine her way into the mind of a central character radically unlike herself should probably find another line of work.

"[P]hilosophy must beware of the wish to be edifying." -- G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. (The same can be said of art.)

The problem for writers of fiction in 2018: How to capture the feeling of life in America today, this sensation of nightmare surrealism, of the inability to wake from a dark dream of slow-mo moronic fascism, this Trumped-out Amerika like a bad acid trip where we hallucinate ourselves trapped inside a sewer pipe and unable to move anything but our heads, Christopher Reeved inside a giant tube of shit--and always, in a shadowy corner of a tiny cupboard at the back of our minds, lingers the idea that these last 18 months have been a dream we're dreaming on the night of November 7, 2016, and in 24 hours we'll be celebrating the ignominious end of Donald Trump's political career... Oh, what the hell do you do when your worst political nightmare comes true? (This is the question the American left must answer in the streets.)

This is what fascism looks like: you wake up one morning and find half of your country cheering for your nightmare.

Picasso: "Art is a lie that tells the truth."  A fine definition of good fiction, a fair description of what a good novel does. Cien Anos de Soledad, for example, overflows with the fantastic, the surreal, the unbelievable, but most if not all of this comes in the service of truths about Columbian history, politics, culture and psychology. Likewise Catch-22 and the American way of war, Naked Lunch and addiction, Joyce and early 20th-century Irish life, Proust and erotic desire, Kafka and the darkest sides of modernity, Nathanael West  and American psychosis, Pynchon and techno-corporatism, Eugene O'Neill and familial resentment, Sade and domination, the books of Joshua and Judges and the unspeakable, giddy, Lacanian enjoyment of genocide.

A single episode of any Kardashian-related TV show should be enough to convince us that it's time for a French Revolution in these Whitmanic states. Indeed, compared to France in 1789, we have a far larger do-nothing parasitic aristocracy ripe for head-harvesting...

In an interview, Salman Rushdie tells the following anecdote: When he first met Robert Gottlieb of Knopf, Gottlieb handed him a copy of Junichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters, a book that sold few copies, and told him, "I'm keeping this book in print because it's better than Anna Karenina." In the 21st century, America's commercial publishers appear to have jettisoned the idea that books deserve to be published simply because they're great. Today, even William Gaddis's The Recognitions, one of the few true classics of midcentury American literature, has fallen out of Penguin Classics into the relative limbo of Dalkey Archive Press.

William Faulkner was fundamentally a tour de force writer. His lesser achievements tend to be the books he carefully planned and deliberated over (e.g. A Fable), while his greatest (Absalom, Absalom!, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Go Down, Moses; some of the short stories) seem like orgasmic dam-bursts, gushings, overflowings, all written at white heat with steam rising from his ink and pen piercing paper.
That is to say, Faulkner wrote fiction like the ecstatic Romantic poet he secretly believed he was. Not the Melville of Mississippi, but Oxford's Keats. After the turbulently productive years of his 'long Thirties' (from about 1928 through 1942), he relaxed into 'mature' deliberation, his prose lost some of its hypnotically baroque texture (a development today's critics, their brains laved in Iowa Waiter's Workshop (not a typo) dogma, should loudly cheer), and he began to repeat stories like a tiresome old man on the porch at Varner's store.

In The Liberal Imagination--a book from 1950 that the America of 2018 sorely needs--Lionel Trilling writes of adolescence as "the age when we find the books we give up but do not get over." That's perfect, just perfect.

Clarice Lispector seems to have been so impressed by the park scene in Sartre's La Nausee that she made it her body of work, dove into it the way Turner dove into the sunlit skies of Claude Lorraine. Because she first came to semi-prominence in America in the 1970s, her work championed by French feminist literary theorist Helene Cixous, Lispector has been reified as a feminist writer, but it seems more illuminating, and closer to her texts, to read her in light of existentialism, that great philosophy of anti-reification: Sartre, Camus, Beauvoir, Heidegger, the Pessoa of The Book of Disquiet (the great unacknowledged classic of 20th-century existentialist literature), the Beckett of the 40s and 50s, early Robbe-Grillet.

For me, D. H. Lawrence is an almost sui generis paradox: a humourless novelist whom I cannot take seriously. (I speak only of Lawrence the novelist. Lawrence the poet is one of the major writers of English Modernism (largely on  the strength of the poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers), his short fiction can be quite good, his travel writing excellent, and his Studies in Classic American Literature is one of the foundational texts of American literary criticism. It's important to remember in this officially xenophobic time that a work of such importance to America's understanding of itself was written by a foreigner.)

"The book we begin tomorrow must be as if there had been none before; new and outrageous as the morning sun." -- George Steiner, "The Pythagorean Genre," Language and Silence

In mid-December night falls fast, like a wino from a highwire.

Reading Freud's book on Wit (the opening pages of which might have decisively influenced the style of Finnegans Wake) is like watching a comedy team in which the straight man never gets out of the clown's way. The jokes are (usually) good; the analysis is laborious (emphasis on the second syllable), falling prey to the irony inhabiting all 'serious' writing about comedy: the examples will always overpower the text because the examples solicit a physical reaction (laughter) alongside the intellectual one, while the analysis appeals to the mind alone.

Jarry's Ubu Roi--a great play to read in this time of Trump, just as Pasolini's Salo is the movie to watch--contains my all-time favorite stage direction, "A clown explodes." I recall this every time I see Trump speaking without a script, every time I see Sarah Huckleberry Sanders speaking, period.

Ideas in fiction, especially the ideas closest to us, should be dramatized, tested in fictional action, not merely stated. Similarly, an idea in our lives is mere verbiage unless and until it is lived.

In Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, Pope Northrop I commands the totality of literature to dance to the music of Poussin's time.
Nicholas Poussin. A Dance to the Music of Time. ca.1635.
Wallace Collection, London.

"The only important elements in any society are the artistic and the criminal, because they alone, by questioning the society's values, can force it to change." -- Samuel Delany, Empire Star (Needless to say, this naively Romantic sentiment hails us from the heart of the Sixties. Ignore the naivete and feel the provocation.)

The Jean Genet of his five early novels (Our Lady of the Flowers, Miracle of the Rose, Funeral Rites, Querelle, The Thief's Journal) is both the foremost French surrealist novelist and the foremost French disciple of Proust. Perhaps only Claude Simon has an equal claim to the latter distinction.

Description of the prose style of Notre Dame des Fleurs in Frechtman's English translation, Our Lady of the Flowers: hardboiled Proust.

"No man is a hero to his valet," a line that Proust or Wilde might have written, is in fact from Hegel's Phenomenology, paragraph 665, a passage that finds GWFH in a surprisingly Proustian mood.

On being 'inappropriate': Art is an inappropriate act, and life the most improbable, inappropriate thing of all. Most of our universe is empty, and atoms are mostly air; so it seems the most appropriate thing of all is the void. Given a choice between MOMA and the void, I'll take Manhattan--and then, with Leonard Cohen's help, I'll take Berlin...

Walt Whitman throws his arms so wide to embrace the All that he risks dislocating his shoulders. But the All he embraces is most often a matter of matter, defiantly material, a vulgar (in the best sense) challenge to vulgar (in the worst sense) religions: "The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer..." (Song of Myself, section 24).

Moralism can be as much of a scourge as its erstwhile fuckfellow, religion. Both, at their worst, try to paralyze critical thought under a lava flow of dogma. (To my Joycean ear, magma sounds like moral dogma, and dogma like canine regurgitant--which is exactly how it feels in the mouth.)

"The great thing about playing with Cecil is that when you play with him, you know you're going to go all the way, and you're not going to stop until the music gets where it's going." -- one of jazz pianist Cecil Taylor's sidemen, quoted in the re-readable article "The World of Cecil Taylor" by Adam Shatz, New York Review of Books online.

You lose your grip
and then you slip
into the masterpiece
             --Leonard Cohen, "A Thousand Kisses Deep"

One way American artists can fight fascism is to win back the carnivalesque for the side of liberation--of life, of excess, eroticism, freedom, self-exploration, Dionysian transgression, anarchism. All in opposition to the nauseating fascist carnivalesque of the Pussygrabbin' Prez and the child-molesting Republican Party of Roy Moore and Denny Hastert.

At a time when one of our two viable political parties has become a cartoon caricature of repressive desublimation, those of us on the other side can recapture eros from the forces of death by the counterforce of a liberating desublimation. (See Marcuse's late essay "The Aesthetic Dimension" and Adam Philips' essay "Against Inhibition.")

All consensual sexual acts are matters of taste, not ethics or morals.

"There are no dirty words." -- Leonard Cohen

No false modesty: At the root, perhaps, of my distance from our current leftist identity politics is the fact that my ideas on sex (a matter of acts, not identities), gender (a socially constructed grid floating upon a fluid reality), race (a scientifically meaningless category designating superficial evolutionary adaptations to environmental differences), etc. are so far ahead of theirs that until they catch up with me, I have nothing useful to say to them.

Given the fluidity of sexuality over the course of a life, defining oneself in terms of one's sexuality, sexual partners or sexual acts constitutes a severe mutilation of the omniperverse human self.

Kafka's "A Country Doctor," a lesser-known tale that deserves to be widely read, is perhaps the most nightmarish thing his formidable imagination ever conceived. It's darkly marvelous, Kafka unbound, the author tossing all inhibition to the void, writing--it seems--directly from his unconscious, and creating this dreamy, Expressionist phantasm that reads like the best short film Guy Maddin has never (yet) made.

It is little remarked that in The Shining Stephen King created an impressively complex portrait of an alcoholic adult victim of child abuse. Jack Torrance is a psychologically astute characterization and by far the most impressive thing in the book. If we can read past its generic clichés and pulpy residue, we find in The Shining a fairly successful psychological novel in which the supernatural elements can almost be interpreted as psychological externalizations.

I can now no longer claim not to have read Jane Eyre, and I found the book less ridiculous than I feared. Also less sentimental, more gothic Romantic, and somewhat better written than I expected. I do, however, find myself in agreement with the critic who remarked that if the book had been one chapter longer, Rochester's hand would've grown back.

Puritanisms come and puritanisms go, but the three stately plump volumes of the Grove Press Marquis de Sade remain in print. He was neither a great writer nor a great thinker, but I wager his perpetually influential books will still be read when our current puritans of right and left have been time-transformed to dust.

Wizened, weary, wasting, wise Harold Bloom, frail now in his mid-80s, remarked in a rare recent interview that bebop is the kabbalah of jazz. Putting words in that loquacious mouth, I might expand on this point: If the Great American Songbook is our Torah (and it is), then bebop is indeed our kabbalah, a genre of radically (re-)visionary commentary, and John Coltrane is our Isaac Luria. The Bloomian analogy is perfect.

Building my own analogy upon this, I will argue that Philip Roth is a bebop prose stylist and present as supporting evidence (Exhibit No. 1 for the goateed prosecution) James Wood's close reading of a passage from Sabbath's Theater in How Fiction Works (a wildly mistitled little book with some valuable things inside). Roth's darting among various registers of discourse, ably analyzed by Wood, analogizes closely to the intervallic leaps in a Coltrane solo.

Thought experiment: Imagine a culture that takes as its sacred text Walter Pater's The Renaissance. An aesthetic culture, a culture of pleasure, hedonism, beauty, a pansexual culture, a culture of appreciation, an intelligent culture.

Reply to Hegel: The only Absolut spirit I recognize comes in a vodka bottle.

...back to art, I'm always coming back to art: In a dark time, art is our refuge, our weapon and our transcendence (our transcending dance). Art is eros, the life that transcends death--where death is understood not as the banal end of this painful vapidity of pulse and breath and absence of thought, but as that vapidity itself, the daily Beckettian death-in-life of conformity, atomization, alienation, repression, oppression, depression, all the forces that deprive human beings of freedom and authentic life, all the dark Blakean mills that crush life into mere existence. A fatuous existence is my definition of death. (I embolden that line because it's an epigram to live by.) The garden variety corpse-chewer is definition number 2 or 3 in my mental dictionary. It's a banality. Happens to everybody.

"...all writing worth reading comes, like suicide, from outrage or revenge..." -- William Gaddis, Agape Agape

Let the imagination run like a wild tiger; it will kill nothing that does not deserve to die.

Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady, like Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter and even The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, can be easily interpreted as a hermeneutical novel. (Is this a distinctively American 19th-century subgenre? And if so, why here? why then?) Like the Dick, the Portrait is substantially about the difficulty of interpreting its title character. James repeatedly foregrounds this in the novel's Wagnerian leitmotif: other characters frequently find Isabel Archer 'hard to read.' The ambiguities of James's novel are not so much its "problems" as its point. The characters' and narrator's inability to 'read' Isabel is clearly an allegory of our own reading of the novel. And of other people. And of ourselves. (Yes, even in the rarefied air of Henry James--perhaps especially here--we collide unexpectedly with the psychoanalytic unconscious.)

The greatest prose is a kind of vers libre, a poetry free and unbroken.

A characteristic rhetorical movement of John Donne's Songs and Sonnets can be likened to the act of turning a glove inside-out. In "The Good Morrow" and "The Sun Rising," for example, the speaker begins by stating a straightforward, traditional poetic argument. This is the glove inside-in. Over the course of the poem he methodically turns the glove inside out (turns the argument around), pulling out the palm, unfurling the fingers, until by poem's end his argument is exactly the opposite of his initial position, but still, eccentrically, it works--very like a glove turned inside-out, strange-looking but still functional. It still fits the hand. (Months after writing this in my notebook, I discovered that I unconsciously lifted the glove trope from the clown Feste in Twelfth Night, act 3, scene 1: "A sentence is but a cheveril glove to a good wit. How quickly the wrong side may be turned outward." I've long considered Feste's lines in this scene to be deconstruction avant Derrida; now I add that his image is a fine commentary on Donne.)

When in despair, quote Flaubert.

"The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy." -- Gustave Flaubert, letter to Mlle. Leroyer de Chantepie, Sept. 4, 1858

Death is an unoriginal ending. Avoid it.