Friday, May 27, 2016

Scatological Politics, 2016: Know Your Enema

"...the American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily who would be the envy of any novelist." -- Philip Roth, "Writing American Fiction," 1961 (collected in Roth's Reading Myself and Others)

The current American political situation is best expressed in scatological terms. The Republican Party attempted to use Ted Cruz as a laxative to hasten the evacuation of Donald J. Trump from its distended bowel. Unfortunately, that Texas-size rectal suppository quickly liquefied and dribbled sticky buttjuice out of the Greedy Old Party's inflamed anus.  So the future of our country and the world now depends on American voters using Hillary Clinton as an enema to flush Donald Trump from our political system. Even Jesus wouldn't counsel us to love our enema, but we must plan to use it on election day. For as Norman Mailer told us decades ago in one of his most ridiculous sex scenes,

"...there was canny, hard-packed evil in that butt, that I knew." (Mailer, An American Dream)

Old Norman's ass-evil has a name, and it rhymes with Ronald Slump.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

From Theodore Roethke: A Poem for These Times

Theodore Roethke, good American poet with a name that tries to anagram itself before stuttering to a stop halfway through, published more than 50 years ago in his best book (The Far Field, 1964) a near perfect poem for our and every dark, depressive time.

In a Dark Time
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;   
I hear my echo in the echoing wood—
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,   
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What’s madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day’s on fire!   
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.   
That place among the rocks—is it a cave,   
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,   
And in broad day the midnight come again!   
A man goes far to find out what he is—
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,   
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.   
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,   
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.   
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,   
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Personally, I can say that Roethke has me until he gets all Goddy in the last lines. Big Ted's 'God,' however, might be best understood as the godhead of Emerson, that old transcendentalist Oversoul, rather than the hateful superego of wizened Pat Robertson's sad, psychopathic projections. (I contend that Robertson hates Bill Clinton for one overpowering and supersecret reason: Bubba Bill is Dorian Gray and Pat is the portrait.) Roethke, in those rare moments when he was out of his cups, might have agreed with Wallace Stevens and Ludwig Feuerbach that "God and the imagination are one"--or One, if we must be Platonic about it. (The god stuff never bothered me in John Donne or George Herbert, but in a modern metaphysical poem, it grates, striking a historically dissonant, archaic note--like a Gregorian chant suddenly swelling into the midst of Berg's Wozzeck.)

What I've Been Hearing

It's darker than dark in America as we stare down the brain-stained barrels of our first fascist presidency. One election, just one, now stands between Donald Trump and the Oval Office. (After typing that sentence, I pause, shake my head, and laugh mirthlessly; it's time again to remember Philip Roth's great insight, written many decades ago, about the reality of America outrunning the imaginations of its novelists. Of our major writers, only Nathanael West might have written the tale of Trump--and called it An Ice-Cold Billion.) And judging from recent polls, the weather in Ohio one day in the first week of November may decide whether our next president is a competent centrist technocrat too comfortable in her corporatism or an unhinged cynical asshole pretending to be a right-wing nutjob. If Stephen Dedalus were here and not perpetually trapped in the glowing amber of Joyce's prose, he might remark laconically that the American present is a nightmare from which we all deserve to awake.

Awash in these foul waters, I'm remembering Roethke: "In a dark time, the eye begins to see..." And the ear, Big Ted, let's not forget the ear beginning to hear. Lately I've been listening to Bessie Smith, Amalia Rodriguez, Carminho, Cecil Taylor, Milton Babbitt, and Elliot Carter. That's the queen of American blues, two Portuguese fado singers,a great jagged mad jazzer, and a pair of American Modernists. They all come to remind me that there's a better America and a better world out there. Grab it before it goes.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Digging THE TUNNEL; or, I Enter a Sentence by William H. Gass

Chuck Close, Alex, 1987. Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio

When I think of William Gass's The Tunnel, I'm reminded of the gigantic portrait heads painted by Chuck Close, photo-realistic faces magnified far beyond human scale and composed of a grid of hundreds or thousands of miniature squares, each of which Close considers a separate abstract painting. At a distance these painted cells fuse to a recognizable likeness (as in his portrait of Alex Katz, above), but as we move closer to the canvas the image pixelates, becomes staticky, begins to melt into its materials (the exact opposite of Impressionist painting's 'mixing of the brushstrokes in the eye'). Close up, a Close isn't representational at all; it's a flat grid of colorful miniature De Kooningesque abstractions. At their best these tiny paintings can be as fascinating and labyrinthine as the illuminations in the Book of Kells.

The sentences in The Tunnel work in a similar way: beautiful and elaborate in themselves, they sum to a portrait of the repulsive William Frederick Kohler and his unfortunate chairy-flavored life. And just as I prefer the close view of Close, to stand a foot away from the enormous canvas and craze-out on the candy-colored components, when I tunnel into Gass's Tunnel, I dig it for those blood diamond sentences. For this Tunnel is less a novel than an old South African mine: dark, dangerous and bad to know. If we spend too much time there, Gass will breathe blackness into our lungs, pelt us with gemstone sentences, growl at us to get our asses off his fucking lawn unless we want to meet his fat evil buddy Kohler, the Man in the Basement--and we surer than shit don't want that, do we now?

The sentences are the thing. Enter the Tunnel anywhere and dig for its diamonds; you'll find some soon enough. The Tunnel seems at times a programmatic justification of the sentence-privileging theory of fiction adumbrated in many of Gass's essays, the idea that vividly realized characters, gripping stories, complex plots, are less important than the material textures and sonic structure of the sentences that con them into being. (That sentence verbed on a seems because reality comes contra: Gass's essays might more likely have been attempts to clarify his artistic practice during the long dark decades of (de)composition; the ideas might have been inspired by Tunneltripping rather than the Tunnel dug to justify them: it's a chicken-and-egg, dick-and-pussy kind of problem.) Like most critical theorizing that bears directly on a writer's own work, this is excellent description (of that work) but poor prescription for anyone else's. As critical doctrine it's fine as long as you spend your career writing only about Omensetter's Luck, The Tunnel and Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife; when  you branch out to Dog Soldiers or Dhalgren you might encounter difficulties. For the duration of this post, though, I'm writing about The Tunnel and taking Gass's sentences seriously. I want to climb inside one and have a butcher's around.

I won't be entering this lovely little number

I let the spoon sink slowly through my soup until I saw it shimmering beneath the surface of the broth like the dappled shadow of a swimmer. (p.13)

although its lyricism is positively Proustian; it's four or five bars of wordy music; listen to those s's and oo's sinking slowly down the side of this bowl-shaped sentence to touch bottom where we see it shimmering for a second until it fishtails back up into Cheever-y life. Lovely. Luscious. It epiphanizes the ordinary like a detail from Vermeer. It's a sentence like a Chardin.

Nor will I be passing through the portal of this miniature prose poem

Did he secrete his role in reality like a shell, and later become the snail, as one imagines Rilke did it, going from pose to poet, or did he begin as a sound and then exude some sweet pink conch to lie in like the sea's ear? (p.20)

even though it compresses an entire ontological theory of artistic subjectivity between its capital D from Rilke's Picasso elegy and its question mark curling like the ear's soft shell. The he here is ostensibly Andre Gide, but because Kohler always and only writes about himself (that's his prison and disease) the fatso fascist is me-mirroring once again, reflecting on the role of writing in the creation of his shabby self. The dead giveaway is the final image of that "sweet pink" cunt of a conch, an object of desire more operative for Kohler than for way-gay Andre.

Nor, unfortunately, will I be barging into the brutality of this dark dirge

These days the darkness that lies under the mind like the cool shade of a stream bottom yields our only safety, for to rush to the light is to Gloucester-out the eyes, bedazzled by death, to go over the top at someone else's whistle and war shout, to fume up and fizz fast, die dirty, die young. (p.69)

though I'm attracted to its contrarian anti-Platonism and love the verbing of Gloucester, where Gass pulls a trope on the old fool better than the trick Edgar played at Dover. And I must forgo, for now, pointing out the unbroken line this sentence draws from Plato's cave to the trenches of World War One to suggest that idealism is always eager to slaughter itself and that the Romantic coolness under the mind surely 'lies' in both senses of the word. For if The Tunnel argues anything, it's that there is no safety in the mind. Consciousness is our torment and torturer. To borrow a phrase from a great early essay by Gass, it's "the price we pay for being brained instead of finned." (A fishy image there too, dontcha know...)

No, none of those. Instead, I've chosen to enter this little labyrinth and pray I don't become meat for a minotaur as I thread my way through:

If we were leaves, Herschel, I sort of said, and there were only one wind, why then we might predict the path of our blowing; but we live in a world of whirling air just as Anaximenes concluded, a world of whiffs, puffs, breaths, zephyrs, breezes, hurricanes, monsoons, and mistrals; and if they all died away suddenly, and we were Sargasso'd in a sea of circumstance, then one small draft through a winter window might drive us at our destiny like a nail. (p.37)

We enter this sentence on the tiptoes of a two-letter conditional and ride two smooth, alliterative w's into the subjunctive tense where we immediately metamorphose into counterfactual leaves. So many leaves: leaves of paper (the fertile white earth of Kohler's barren world, so the noun puns the subjunctive into a counter-counterfactual (we are leaves, of course) until we get dizzy and fall onto leaves of grass:), Whitman's multiply meaningful leaves, Milton's leaves at Vallombrosa, Homer's soldiers falling like leaves... oh yes, Big Bad Bill has uncondomed the Western Canon and now with one word he's blowing its balls all over our faces. Gass here partakes of the classic image of leaves that Harold Bloom traced through the length of Western literature in A Map of Misreading and The Breaking of the Vessels, and although the image retains the elegiac force of its canonical usages (this sentence comes hard upon a shockingly pornographic depiction of a Nazi mass grave), Kohler self-protectively twists the trope away from its funereal implications (leaves like fallen bodies) and turns it into an image of life. If he could similarly Lazarus those six million Jews back to life, at least some  of his pathetic problems would be solved--but that's the tragic difference between rhetoric and reality. To Herschel, his Jewish colleague and imaginary interlocutor, he sibilantly sort of speaks in a snaky, Miltonic hiss and sends us leaves flying along an arrow-straight breeze of long o's and w's (hear that one wind in the vowels?) until we blow against the semicoloned wall of our own 'blowing.' A small and decidedly unerotic but clunks like a bad transmission as the sentence shifts us into another world, a world of whirling that begins with our familiar alliterative w's then nearly chokes us on the chicken bone of an obscure pre-Socratic philosopher's disruptively Greek name (Gass the prof here goosing Gass the pomo as both peep from under Kohler's pasteboard mask and the levels of textual illusion threaten for a split second to fall away and show us Fat Willie at his desk), but not to worry: all is well, and all manner of thing will be well here in Happy Kohlerland. Canonical Kohler comes rushing to his own rescue with Ulysses' Aeolian bag in his arms and a Homeric, Virgilian, Dantean, Rabelaisian, Burtonian, Miltonic, Whitmanic, Joyceanly ironic miniature musical catalogue of winds. O the Gassman gases wonderfully well for the length of a line, from that first tentative whiff until the mistral slams somewhat abruptly into that second semicolonic wall. A repetition of and before and after the final wind carries us smoothly over the semicolon (transforming it silently from wall to hurdle) and into a looking glass world where the the winds Kohler so professionally whistled up now die suddenly, leaving us stuck like the albatrossed mariner on a deathly, dropless sea. The only possible deliverance from here is a destiny indistinguishable from death that announces itself with the small, deadly d of a draft that chills and kills. The w's of our first wind return through a winter window, but they're quickly drowned out by the steady, staccato hammering of those closing words, every single syllable and clicking consonant hitting us like the hammer that magically transforms us from female leaf to phallic coffin nail at the full stop that can only mean death.

Yes. That may be the only way to read The Tunnel, if you really want to read it. Grab at a sentence that dazzles you and inflate it like an Oldenburg, paint it like a Pollock, tease out its meanings until you make it your own.

Criticism as Art

Most critical writing today is bad, bad, bad.* And by 'bad' I mean bad. Not the kind of 'bad' Michael Jackson told us he was but the kind he really was: creepy middle-aged pedophile bad, your favorite uncle arrested for masturbating outside a playground fence bad, The Day the Clown Cried bad. That kind of bad... Several years ago when I was reading a lot of academic criticism, I eventually reached a point where after reading the first few sentences of an article (or sometimes only the title), I could predict with impressive accuracy exactly where the writer was going and how she would get there. A lesbian feminist reading of Willa Cather? I would think. Well, surely the critic will begin biographically with Lillian Faderman on nineteenth-century same-sex friendships and then bring in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick on James for a bit of textual analysis to seal the deal. She will then end with an epigram from Adrienne Rich. If I could correctly guess this much after two sentences, why bother with the rest of the article? When I couldn't satisfactorily answer that question, I stopped reading the stuff.

When literary criticism ceased to be an arena for intellectual gamesmanship (Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling) or even brinkswomanship (Susan Sontag, Germaine Greer) and became a necessity of academic careerism, it rotted, then bloated, and eventually withered into predictable formulae, in much the same way that literary fiction, once synonymous with risk-taking experiment, has now academically hardened into an easily characterized genre.

That this sorry situation need not be, that we could have a literary criticism not only good but great, that criticism need not hold literature object-like at arm's length but can itself become art, can be as beautiful and provocative as a Modernist poem--these propositions can be easily proven with only a small amount of reading. Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael is a great example of criticism as art; likewise its precursor text, Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature. Shelley's "Defense of Poetry" is a masterpiece of prose, as is Walter Pater's Renaissance, as is John Ruskin's criticism (Ruskin, of course, being the eminent Victorian critic most likely to be arrested for masturbating outside a playground fence), as are Virginia Woolf's essays and the ironically Montaignesque meditations of William Gass and Gore Vidal. John Berger's essays point toward an art criticism that's as granite-hard and endlessly engaging as a great art object; Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence is as much Blakean prose poem as criticism of poetry; Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae is an outrageous work of comic art, criticism in the spirit of a novel by Philip Roth or Erica Jong; Oscar Wilde left us a handful of critical essays that are originally and exemplarily artistic, and he should have lived to leave us more. Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New and Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era are works of art in different registers that can be easily seen as two divergent views of the same Modernism. We might also mention Salman Rushdie's Imaginary Homelands, Greil Marcus's Invisible Republic (AKA The Old, Weird America), Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida, Sontag's essays, Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, Walter Benjamin's essays and Arcades Project, even, at a straining, straining stretch, Derrida's Glas... The list is long--long enough to imply that the only reason criticism is so bad today is that critics lack the talent, courage and/or motivation to do it better.

*I speak of criticism, the academic kind, and not reviewing, which is as bad as it ever was.

Some Recommended Art Books

Here, in no particular order, are fifteen essential books to form the foundation of a great library on Euro-North African-Middle Eastern-Western Hemispheric art (that topic formerly and Eurocentrically called 'Western Art').

1. The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes. It's tough to choose just one book by the late, great Robert Hughes. American Visions is later and bigger, vaster than Nebraska; his Goya book and the collection Nothing If Not Critical are equally essential. These are all books that will teach you something new every time you re-read them.

2. Selected Essays by John Berger. The same is true of John Berger's wonderful essays, in which the text of art often becomes a pretext for investigating questions as deep as the meanings and meaninglessness of life. Berger is our time's heir to Ruskin and Pater.

3. The Renaissance by Walter Pater. The unholy bible of Aestheticism. Don't read The Renaissance for facts; much of Pater's scholarship has been discredited by subsequent research. Come here to bathe in the most beautiful critical prose in the language, to luxuriate in a sensibility that has the power to transform your own. 

4. The Art Criticism of John Ruskin (edited by Robert Herbert). Pater's equal in prose talent and opposite in virtually everything else, the ridiculously influential Mr. Ruskin composed beautiful, interminable prose poems on the paintings of Turner and Venetian Gothic architecture. Everyman's Library or the Modern Library needs to bring out complete multi-volume editions of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice. Until they do (or more likely, since they won't), this old 'greatest hits' selection is a good bet.

5. The Arcades Project by Walter Benjamin. Neither a work of criticism (although it contains many marvelous insights) nor an anthology (although it consists largely of an encyclopedic collection of quotations), this is a High Modernist, poetically structured work of critical theory that reads like a fragmented archaeological survey of Paris after the bomb that never fell. There is nothing remotely like it in the critical canon.

6. A Life of Picasso by John Richardson (3 volumes, 4th in progress). The 20th century's greatest artist, a titan who revolutionized not only painting, not only sculpture, but also pottery and graphic arts, richly deserves one of the greatest artist biographies ever written, and that is exactly the gift John Richardson is presenting to his old friend. Richardson has his likes and dislikes among Picasso's circles of friends, and he can be bitchy at times (witness his stinging treatment of Gertrude Stein), but none of that alters these facts: the first volume of this bio will change the way you think about Picasso, and the second is the best narrative history of Cubism ever written.

7. Impressionism: Art, Leisure and Parisian Society by Robert L. Herbert. This is THE book on Impressionism. Herbert is a social historian with an artist's eye, his every interpretation grounded in the act of looking closely at paintings. This is refreshing in an age that thinks art interpretation should begin
(and even end) with readings in critical theory.

8. The Social History of Art by Arnold Hauser (4 volumes). Read Hauser's four volumes and then visit a great art museum. You will have the uncanny experience of walking through Arnold Hauser's head. This is one of the last century's fundamental artworld texts.

9. A Humument by Tom Phillips. The book as work of art. Many years ago, London artist Tom Phillips (he painted the wonderful portrait of Iris Murdoch in the National Portrait Gallery, London) purchased a copy of a forgotten Victorian novel and proceeded to wonderfully deface it, turning each page into a small painting that includes fragments of the original text producing an effect of aleatoric poetry.

10. Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston by Musa Mayer. The most important 'artist's offspring memoir' since Jean Renoir's, this book is rich with invaluable insights into Guston and his art. The quotations from Guston's journals are a highpoint.

11. History of Art by H. W. Janson and Anthony F. Janson. This is the best introductory textbook for Western Art, a huge, beautifully illustrated survey of art from cave paintings to Cindy Sherman. The illustrations alone are worth the price.

12. The Nude by Kenneth Clark. A once groundbreaking book that has, over the years, become a victim of its own success--its original categories and distinctions so influential that they've become curatorial clichés--Clark's Nude is still essential reading for anyone who wishes to look literately at paintings.

13. Letters on Cezanne by Rainer Maria Rilke. A great poet's raw reactions upon discovering a great painter. Picasso and Braque also attended this Cezanne exhibition, which decisively influenced Cubism.

14. Techniques of the Great Masters of Art by David A. Anfam, et al. This apparently little-known book is an invaluable reference for artists, art critics and art forgers. It tells in massively illustrated detail how artist's from Giotto to Lucien Freud created their paintings.

15. The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari. Vasari was a bootlicking Medici propagandist and he got just about every fact in his book wrong, but his capsule biographies remain delightful as works of art. Read this book as though it were written by Borges. It might have been.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Epigrams for Writers

[Here are a few epigrams that I've always found inspiring--the way a sculptor finds a block of granite inspiring.]

Art consists in going the full length.
--Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

It would have to be beautiful and hard as steel and make people ashamed of their existence.
--Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea

People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles”

We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.
--Henry James, “The Middle Years”

The characters in my novels are my own unrealized possibilities. That is why I am equally fond of them all and equally horrified by them. Each one has crossed a border that I myself have circumvented. It is that crossed border (the border beyond which my own “I” ends) which attracts me most. For beyond that border begins the secret the novel asks about. The novel is not the author’s confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become.
--Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I am on the side of angels and dirt.
--Stanley Spencer

What matters finally is not the world’s judgment of oneself but one’s own judgment of the world.
--Gore Vidal, "Norman Mailer's Self-Advertisements"

How can you, after Proust and Joyce and Kafka and Faulkner, sit down and write a novel?… Answer: you have to. And the you have to is a private cancer, a private tumor of the soul.
--George Steiner, Paris Review interview

We created the art before we had the society.
--Vladimir Tatlin

Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.
--Alasdair Gray

CALL ME ISHMAEL by Charles Olson

If Cormac McCarthy were to write a critical study of Moby Dick, it would probably look something like Call Me Ishmael. American poet Charles Olson's nearly 100-page meditation on the Dick (written in the late 1940s and available today in the volume of Olson's Collected Prose published by University of California Press in 1997) is more than a work of textual interpretation written in an exemplarily muscular prose--although it's that too. Olson's book, like its obvious precursor, D. H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, uses the literary text as pretext for a deeper exploration of the darker-than-dark American Insane. After a brief but harrowing, shockingly deadpan account of suffering and cannibalism among the survivors of the sunken whaleship Essex (a sinking that inspired Melville), Olson begins his commentary proper with a first sentence that deserves to be almost as famous as the one he borrows for his title: "I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy." A few sentences later he marries Melville's treacherous Pacific to the crazy weather and maddening geography of these Whitmanic states:

...a harshness we still perpetuate, a sun like a tomahawk, small earthquakes but big tornadoes and hurrikans, a river north and south in the middle of the land running out the blood.
      The fulcrum of America is the plains, half sea half land, a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and a man's job to square the circle.

      Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.

All this on the first page--and it's not even a full page of text. Later, about halfway through the work, the author interpolates a single paragraph gruesomely describing the 1824 murders aboard the whaleship Globe, a now-forgotten crime (a minor American mass murder) that again shines a blinding light upon the murky nightmare world of American history--a nightmare from which we, like Stephen Dedalus, are still struggling to awake. As in Lawrence's book, Olson's most powerful insights are suggestive and poetically compressed rather than rhetorically expounded. (Olson's above evocation of the High Plains, for example, has more in  common with Wallace Stevens' vision of "The American Sublime" as "The empty spirit / In vacant space" than with anything published in Critical Inquiry.) Call Me Ishmael might best be understood as a prose poem on themes from the Dick, a work of criticism that is also something criticism almost never is, a work of art. Seek out Olson's little book. Rescue it from obscurity. You won't forget it.

A Madness of Art

We work in the dark--we do what we can--we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.
--Henry James, “The Middle Years”

The writing of fiction is a kind of madness. Specifically, it is a controlled, voluntary delusion in which the mind's grip on reality is loosened and the writer permits her consciousness to drift away into unreality. A talent for fictional composition might be indistinguishable from a susceptibility to what our culture has decided to call 'psychosis.' There is thus an aspect of terror in all artistic creation (when it truly is creation, not imitation or hackwork), a fear that we're fucking around with the foundation of everything we are. Artists who, outside the arena of page or stage, have felt the brush of madness's wing, who have experienced their streams of thought slowly and involuntarily forking off from reality, and who remember the dull, blank fear ("Could it be Madness — this?") occasioned by such drifting, a fear like a hollow sphere embedded in the chest where the heart should be--these artists are the ones for whom creation is a game of fire, an activity so dangerous they might choose sanity and make nothing, nothing of themselves... For it is impossible to write--or even to imagine--fiction when one's mind is held at rigid attention, when consciousness clutches reality like a white-knuckled fist. If we are to create, it is necessary to ignore that fear of madness (we've been there, after all; we've done that; we've come through); it is necessary to open the mind's hand, to let go the dreary dead weight of reality and roar down the runway that flies us into fiction, to soar.


"Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist."
--Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

In these dark days, when the far right threatens to inflict upon the rest of the world its dark, demented, Trumped-up, ultra-conformist, cheer-the-bullies vision of America, it is meet (as the Elizabethans would've put it) to restate a lesson we all should have learned in junior high but, in most cases, won't truly understand before we are coffined and entombed: the most important parts of you, the parts you should embrace, are the things that set you apart, make you different from the conformist mass... Most Americans will lipserve this idea, but few have the courage to live it--for it does take courage, an enormous amount of it, to stand against all the forces (familial, social, corporate, economic, political) that flatten most people into coins thin enough to fit society's slot.

A good word to describe the rhetorical stylings (sic(k)) of Donald Trump: coprolitic, meaning 'having the qualities of fossilized excrement.' Trump's verbal spew is a coprolitic rhetoric voicing the fossilized prejudices and imbecilities of followers who love bigotry so much they have become it. This is hardly a new phenomenon. It's as old as demagoguery--which was democracy's evil Athenian twin. Jean-Paul Sartre saw it in French antisemitism 70 years ago:
"We can now understand [the anti-Semite]. He is a man who is afraid. Not of the Jews of course, but of himself, of his conscience, his freedom, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitude, of change, of society and the world; of everything except the Jews. He is a coward who does not want to admit his cowardice to himself; a murderer who represses and censures his penchant for murder without being able to restrain it and who nevertheless does not dare to kill except in effigy or in the anonymity of the mob; a malcontent who dares not revolt for fear of the consequences of his rebellion. By adhering to antisemitism he is not only adopting an opinion, he is choosing himself as a person. He is choosing the permanence and the impenetrability of rock... Antisemitism, in a word, is fear of man's fate. The antisemite is the man who wants to be pitiless stone, furious torrent, devastating lightning: in short, everything but a man." (from Sartre, "Portrait of the Antisemite," in Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre)

Whenever I see a news report from a Trump rally (as close as mainstream American politics has ever come to the sadistic obscenities of European fascism), I'm reminded of another quote from Emerson's great and widely misunderstood essay:
"Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their every truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us and we know not where to begin to set them right." -- Emerson, "Self-Reliance"

This weekend I watched filmmaker Guy Maddin's magnum opus, The Forbidden Room, and afterward, while decompressing (like one of the unlucky submariners on Maddin's S. S. Plunger) from this sui generis surrealist extravaganza, I scrawled the following paragraph into my notebook:
When I think of the films of Guy Maddin, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers; of the novels of Cormac McCarthy, Antonio Lobo Antunes, W. G. Sebald; of the paintings of Anselm Kiefer and R. B. Kitaj, of the books of Iain Sinclair--when I think of these or any other contemporary artworks that deeply impress me (leaving aside for the moment all the stuff from Homer and Ovid to Bunuel and Bergman that megatons my mind), they are usually works that exhibit a deeply individualistic style, that come from deep inside an artist unafraid to open himself... One gets the feeling that the work exists because it has to, that the artist was compelled to create it, to create this work and no other (to write Blood Meridian and not a variation on Louis L'Amour), that it not only comes from the deepest part of him, but might also be that deepest part. There's always an element of exhibitionism in an individualistic art. Dare we gaze upon a naked mind, a mind's hairy asshole, a mind's bushy pussy, a mind's cock and balls?

There is in all of us an internal, instinctual politics which might be at variance with one's external, intellectual political positions. Intellectually, I'm a left-liberal civil libertarian, but in my instincts I'm an anarchist.

Most Americans conform unthinkingly; they've been drinking the Kool-Aid of ideological interpellation since it mixed with the water that washed them in the womb. Others of us, the unlucky lucky ones, require conformity lessons from an early age. And if we're truly lucky, the lessons won't stick. If we're almost unbelievably lucky, lotto-level lucky, we might find a way to live well on the margins of this corporatized team-playing world. We might live like subversive, labyrinthine doodles in the margins of the social contract: lives like illuminations on medieval manuscripts. People will still wonder over us long after the text has become unreadable.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Proving again that I've yet to learn my own lesson about contemporary American literary fiction (not to mention the lesson of William H. Gass's biliously hilarious essay "Pulitzer: The People's Prize"), I picked up Elizabeth Strout's '08 Pulitzer winner Olive Kitteridge and was immediately disappointed by Strout's ugly, ungainly, car-crash-in-a-junkyard prose. Her attempts at lyricism tend to tangle, clank, and bloat; her sentences and paragraphs seem shockingly unedited; her modifiers frequently dangle obscenely. Her prose suffers from a kind of syntactic neurofibromatosis: too many paragraphs are clotted with failed phrases like so many unsightly tumors. Her narrative skills likewise lack essentials: she handles time clumsily, reaches for easy clichés, and tells stories that so predictably conform to generic expectations as to induce a feeling of deja lu ('Surely I've read this before...'). By page 8, I was reading with a pen in my hand and line editing the damn book myself!... Looking down at Olive Kitteridge on my desk as I type this, I see myself as a traffic cop at the scene of a fender-bender: Nothing to see here, folks; move on.

The best I can say about this well-reviewed and Pulitzered book is that at least it fails at a rather high level. It's not a Dan Brown-level failure. It leaps for lyricism and fall splat on its ass. But at least Strout makes an effort. An MFA program instructor, she knows what prose is, even if she doesn't write it very well. She aims at Updikean realism but lacks the talent to strike any but the outer circles of that hard target. Strout knows, technically, what she wants to write, but she doesn't have the natural talent to create it with artful ease. The unfortunately overrated Olive Kitteridge is dime-a-dozen MFA realism, standard stuff, nothing special, nothing new.

It's enough to make me choke to death on my second-cousin's vomit...

"Malcolm Lowry choked to death on his own vomit." That sentence, which recurs with minor modifications in every review, article or book about the alcoholic life and sickening death of the Consul's creator, leads me to ask if that last noun really requires such emphatic modification. Must we pedantically specify that Lowry's (or anyone else's) final, fatal barf was indeed his own? Should we not commonsensically assume as much, given the logistical difficulty of choking to death on someone else's? Medical examiners, many of whom make an avocation of collecting unusual deathcauses (with which to regale colleagues at conventions), have probably reported a few cases of individuals mortally aspirating the oral excrement of others, but surely, outside of Don Quixote or scat porn, even nonfatal mouthing of another's ralph must be extremely rare. Why then do we irrationally insist, in every single case, upon specifying that the vomit in question was the victim's own?

THE POT OF GOLD by Plautus

Writing about comedy is too often like explaining a joke--pointless and self-defeating. But here goes:

There's an interesting misprision about halfway through Plautus's Aulularia (The Pot of Gold), when the miserly Euclio misinterprets Lyconides confession of deflowering his (Euclio's) daughter as an admission of stealing the eponymous pot. The comic confusion of goldpot and honeypot suggests an identification, a reading of the play in which the pot of gold rather obviously represents Euclio's unseen daughter (tellingly reduced to a symbol of her genitalia). The work thus comments satyrically upon a society bonded by the circulation of women, a circulation entirely controlled, like the movements of the pot (symbolizing monetary circulation), by men. One might understand the confusion as satire of a society that objectifies and commodifies women to the point that even the most desirable among them is seen as no more human than a container of valuable coins. On a more abstract level, both pot and daughter can be understood as MacGuffins, objects of desire that impel narrative action by their movement in fictional space. They might be the archetype-establishing MacGuffins in the Western canon--unless one is tempted, as I often am, to proclaim Homer's Helen the great-grandmother of all MacGuffins... Anyway, there's surprisingly much for an au courant feminist reading to chomp on in this ancient little play.

Junot Diaz's brief, wondrous quote on sf and imperialism

In a recent interview published in vol.26 of the academic journal Paradoxa (and unfortunately not available online), Junot Diaz cogently free associates on the relationship between the science fiction imaginary and the material facts of 19th and 20th century imperialism. Here's the provocative quote that made me wonder why I'd never thought of this:

I’m not alone in noting the irony that a genre like sf, historically obsessed with alterity, should have so much trouble with actual people of color and women and LGBT peoples. But when one understands the degree to which nearly all our genres are haunted by, and have drawn a lot of their meanings, materials, and structures from the traumatic Big Bang of colonialism and its attendant matrixes of power (coloniality)— irony strikes one as the least of our problems.

Alien invasions, natives, slavery, colonies, genocide, racial system, savages, technological superiority, forerunner races and the ruins they leave behind, travel between worlds, breeding programs, superpowered whites, mechanized regimes that work humans to death, human/alien hybrids, lost worlds—all have their roots in the traumas of colonialism.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

The View From Machu Picchu -- A Poem by B. A. Oard

[The final selection from my recently rediscovered 1995-96 notebook. This poem was apparently my attempt to combine boozy Bukowski with "Instruction Manual"-era John Ashbery. I don't remember writing it, so I must have been on a serious Bukowski bender.]

The View From Machu Picchu

Bartenders around here have no patience
for the usual hard-luck story
(how I emptied all the joint accounts
and left my wife and two year-old
(he's 5 now) and rode the bus a thousand miles
and ended here, a full-time drinker where
even the ocean has a nice foamy head)
so I usually tell the tale of my
youthful trip to Machu Picchu.
It means "City in the Clouds" I tell them
and they believe me.
I speak of the ride in an old steam train
on tracks that wind through green mountains
and sun-splashed valleys,
I speak of the grass on mountainsides bright
as the felt on a brand new pool table,
of the jungle path we walked, alive with
dangling vines and stinging flies,
of the ancient steps of crumbling stone,
of the rush to the summit and first sight
      of ruins, a city of stone struggling out
      of the earth, among the white-shrouded
      mountains and the fog.
And I speak of the ancient stone corridors silent as
      --not as death, no, but as a cemetery on a Tuesday
      morning, where I walked in the footsteps of Incas.
And I speak of the holy chambers, the ancient sacrifice,
      lurid tales of glassy knives and hearts extracted
      beating and blood running like dirty water down the
      priest's uplifted arm.
And I finish with a flourish, holding them rapt, describing
      the moment I climbed the ruined wall and dangled my feet
      off the edge of a two thousand-foot cliff and how a cloud
      floated by far below. How I opened the bottle of tequila
      I bought two weeks before in Juarez and how I drank til
      my mouth overflowed and it rolled down my cheeks and
      my neck and shirt and puddled
      on the ancient stone. And how I finished the bottle
      and tossed it from the mountaintop and ran along
      the top of the wall singing and chanting in a language
      I'd never known.

And a gray old biker, thick-bearded at the end of the bar
"Yeah, Mack-you Pick-you. I saw that on TV last night too."

The Rules of Discourse -- A Poem by B. A. Oard

[Another poem I wrote in the mid-1990s and forgot about until yesterday when I unearthed a notebook equally forgotten.]

The Rules of Discourse

Once or twice a week I push it
too far and somebody kicks the shit
out of me--but that can be healthy.
(At least that's what I'm always telling me.)
I hang out in the real bars,
where the bottles are broken at midnight
and shards and fragments slide across the tabletop
and what's left of the bottle is in the middle of a fist
and the jagged glass comes at you like a knife--but
he's only joking. You know it. Just fucking
with your head.
That's what I told myself the second
time it happened
and the bouncer threw us both against the brick wall
      in the alley
where the white of passing headlights strobed across
      the scene.
"Frank! Buddy. I'm sorry but didja hear what this cock-
      sucker said?
Ahm gonna kill this commie-ass motherfucker."
So the patrons drifted out of the bar and formed a
to watch him throw me into trashcans with metal crashing
and the accompaniment of far-off dogs,
to watch him bounce me off the side of a big blue dumpster
until the shotgun went off in the middle of my head and I
that maybe this wasn't the optimal time to explain
that I was a left-leaning civil libertarian
and really rather conservative in matters of art.

Of Violence and Art -- A Poem by B. A. Oard

[Yet another forgotten poem from the mid-1990s.]

Of Violence and Art

The fist inside the heart,
feel it clenching, pounding
to be free.

This is the violence that art does,

the sound beneath the skin
the cry from ancient wine
sunlight's jagged fire on the surface of the sea

sussurration of a mountain stream
creaming a crevice hidden in the trees

a bone bleached white and beached
by the leaving sea...

Feel its fist inside the heart,
feel it clenching, pounding
your self free.

Evening in the Park, Almost Alone -- A Poem by B. A. Oard

[Another poem from my rediscovered 1990s notebook. This one finds the poet in a decidedly downbeat mood. I like the way this one begins free and slowly stumbles its way into a depressively mechanical meter at the end. Call it the fallacy of imitative form, but I think it's a pretty cool effect.]

Evening in the Park, Almost Alone

People have left their leavings:
crumpled candy wrappers, a Burger King bag,
Pepsi cans rattling across the distant parking lot.

That's the only sound.

Behind the clouds a thumbnail moon
ancient as an angel's scythe
floats glowing through forbidding murk.

I'm waiting for a knife.

Here is only darkest dark,
here the clocks unwind,
here I stumble in the mud,
here I lose my mind.

First Five Lines... -- A Poem by B. A. Oard

First Five Lines of a Late, Late, Late Beat Poem Begun Halfway up the Pacific Coast Highway between LA and SF and Abandoned in a Smoking Chevy Nova by the Side of a Road on the Southern Outskirts of San Francisco, Summer 1995.

I left the painted angels
down at Hollywood and Vine
to drive the olive coast and find
in the city of the saint.

Pieces of Poems / Poem in Pieces -- A Poem by B. A. Oard

[These fragments of poems from my mid-1990s notebook seem to work surrealistically well together. Let's call it a single poem.]

Pieces of Poems / Poem in Pieces

...for the darkness will lengthen like shadows
and threaten a drowning

...where the rose petals scatter
below the bush with blowing arms...

--zoning out--
blackness past the searchlight,
lost in the waves.

Remember the brown grass
that blows there
Remember the faces
that laid you in the dust

I know there is something crying
under the broken sidewalk

something barely human calling
something understood...

and an ancient secret
like a child
chained to a bed;

and the vision that failed you then:
a flock of geese rising to sunlight--
only to crash down and shatter
the water's dark glass...

a package of razor blades
bulging your pocket like the weight
of jingling change.

The mind a darkened corridor,
The soul a vacant lot,

The beast that lingers in the brain
behind the door to gone insane
appreciates the strangeness of the plot.

Politicks -- A Poem by B. A. Oard

[Here's another poem I wrote 20 years ago and have only now rediscovered in an old, forgotten notebook from the middle of the 1990s. Did I really write this? I feel a bit like the Burroughs character in Cronenberg's Naked Lunch who comes out of a drug haze to find his novel already written for him by his hallucinated animate typewriter.]


The political is a panicked eyeball stabbed with a sword of
      summer grass:
Television is a two-way mirror
in The General's interrogation room;
Economists impale themselves on tusks of murdered elephants
while The General fucks a knot-hole in a mortar-blasted palm
as The Secretary of State bursts into flame while surfing off

and children on the beach are building
houses we will never understand.

A 747 engorged with tourists explodes above the Technicolor
Plaid shirts purple shorts and boiled tennis shoes hang like
      laundry from the vines;
A peasant's shadow is reflected in a man-high fragment of the
sprouting knifelike from the steaming blackened earth;
He checks his hair and notices the smell
of burning pig
rising to the nostrils of the gods.
Television camera crews parachute to the rescue as The
finally comes against his palm

and children on the beach are building
houses we refuse to understand.

The General tours his torture chamber listening to the soothing
streaming from his screaming concrete rooms;
in his head a silver box with wires red and green controls
the bomb that turns the jungle red and green;
his eyes compile lists of enemies endless long. He sees them

skinned alive amidst the cheering of the marketplace and
grinds their bones to dust to feed the poor.
The President Of The United States commends his
      humanitarianism and
courageous adherence to the principals of a free market

and children on the beach are building
houses we will trample into sand.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Traveling Under Thomas Pynchon's Name -- A Poem by B. A. Oard

[Leafing through an old notebook excavated from the bottom of a desk drawer, I rediscovered this poem I wrote 20 years ago (and, it seems, immediately forgot). It's still fun.]

Traveling Under Thomas Pynchon's Name

Arriving incognito
in the fleshpots of Manhattan,
I heard the clerk at HoJo's calling,
"Mr. Pine-chawn! Mr. Pine-chawn! You forgot
your bag." I said, "It's Pin-chon, like you're
pinching someone." So I pinched him and he
was dreaming... of Celine's ellipses...    ...

The New York City sewer system smelled
like a dead cat's colon back in '41,
and deep inside that backward turning
I'm cornered by Gary Cooper playing
Plasticman... He looses the alligators
and far away a rifle ricochets...
"Anus mundi!" I yell into echoes
of beneficent Latin profanity...

...but listen I'm coming unstitched in time
and I Vonnegut myself back home...

Changing my name to Anthony Burgess,
who doesn't 'really' exist,
I marry a Maoist contessa
and argue with a thug-faced inspector
at Valletta Customs convinced my autographed copy
of Gravity's Rainbow is really the Anarchists'
Cookbook in pseudonymous guise...

(the poor fucker was right but 30 years
too early to seize
a book against the Maltese day)

At the Barnes and Noble in Salt Lake
City, I sign every copy of Lot 49:
"To my best buddy Brigham / Best wishes,
Joe Smith"... and for thirty-five mornings
I travel the Washington woods disguised
as a shaman with hiccups...

...a-and meanwhile back in Manhattan, a voice as
iron as Jeremy Irons announces, "Stay tuned
for the News of the World--"
Mary Maria Marina Masha Mashenka
my 53rd Street Ukrainian femme fatale
from Odessa by way of Fyodor's St. Petersburg
clicks off the television and runs
a pointy-nailed finger
painfully up my thigh...

Fuck the world
We are in love.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Six Waves of Modernism: A New Periodization of Modern Art and Literature

Instead of conceptualizing Modernism in terms of a facile Modernist-Postmodernist binary or--even more naively--as a univocal, monolithic movement that can be easily characterized, it might be more productive and provocative to think of Modernism as a series of waves, each successive wave of artistic production arising as a response to, reaction against, or transformation of, the previous wave. The six major waves (each of which contains multiple 'wavelets') can be roughly identified as follows. (Dating is highly approximate and reflects the years during which the identified tendency was at its height; like waves, the periods overlap, and characteristics of each period exist as minor tendencies in all others.)

1. Avant-Gardism; or, The Redemption of the Real (1860-1885). The first wave of Modernism begins with Manet's defiantly original paintings of the early 1860s (Luncheon on the Grass, Olympia), includes the whole of the Impressionist movement (Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Morisot, Sisley, Renoir, Caillebotte, Cassatt, et al.), and is also exemplified by the ironic lyrical realism of Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education, the naturalism of Zola, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, the great novels of Tolstoy and Turgenev, Chekhov's plays and stories, the realism and eroticism of Courbet, the paintings of Winslow Homer, the best essays of Emerson, the art criticism of John Ruskin, the space-carving, cathedral-like steel-frame architecture of the great 19th-century railroad stations, such as those still standing in Paris.

2. Decadence; or, The Fascination of the Object (1885-1900). Modernism's second wave pushes the avant-garde's redemptive gaze into a grotesque fascination with the object-as-other (or, in other words, the object as mirror of disavowed subjectivity). This wave is best exemplified by the poems of Baudelaire and Emily Dickinson, the paintings of Gustave Moreau, Dostoevsky's great novels, the works Huysmans and Lautreamont; Bram Stoker's Dracula; the portraits of Thomas Eakins, the portrait photography of Nadar, Matthew Brady and others, the films of Melies and the Lumieres, the sculpture of Rodin, the prose of Walter Pater, the fiction and later plays of Oscar Wilde.

3. Experimentalism; or, The Deconstruction of the Object (1900-1918). The Cubism of Picasso and Braque is the most obvious example of third wave Modernism's analytic fragmentation of the supposedly 'known' world, but we might also point to Matisse and the Fauves and their redemptive dissolution of reality into colors livelier than life. We can hear an Experimentalist impulse in Schoenberg's early adventures in atonality and Stravinsky's pounding rhythms. We see it in the chromatic slashing of Expressionist painting. We read it in T. S. Eliot's early poetry and the prose of Gertrude Stein; it's the real reason Pound could never make his Cantos 'cohere'. It reaches a probably ultimate horizon in Dadaism's anti-art provocations: Duchamp's urinal as an invitation to piss on the objects we have come to worship--a provocation repeated so often that it has now become clichéd (only the aesthetically ignorant could truly have been shocked by Serrano's Piss Christ).

4. Syncretism; or, The Labyrinth of Subjectivity (1918-1960). Cramming all the years between the end of WWI and the election of JFK into a single artistic period is surely the most provocative part of my proposed periodization. But I contend that these years, often seen as radically fragmented by multiple historical traumas (Stalinism, Great Depression, Fascism, WWII, Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Cold War), can be more usefully viewed as connected by a single--albeit radically pluralistic--aesthetic through-line: during these years the various innovations of earlier Modernist waves were syncretized in artistic explorations of the labyrinth of human subjectivity. (Webster's Ninth defines syncretize as "to attempt to unite and harmonize esp. without critical examination or logical unity," thus differentiating it from the logical synthesis of the Hegelian and Marxist dialectics. Syncretism is a more instinctual, artistic way of thinking, independent of the demands of traditional logic and reason.) Obvious examples of such syncretism are Joyce's Ulysses, Proust's voluminous A la recherche du temps perdu, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and The Waves; Picasso's paintings from The Three Dancers (1925) through Guernica (1937) to his explicit Old Master pastiches of the 1950s; Surrealist art with its cult of irrational juxtaposition of objects (literal syncretism) and its goal of exploring the unconscious (the labyrinth of subjectivity); the drip paintings of Pollock, De Kooning's women and Rothko's geometries, which can all be seen as bastard stepchildren of European painting of the 20s and 30s; expressionist cinema from Caligari to Laughton's Night of the Hunter; the literary through-line that runs unbroken from Kafka to Schulz to Borges to Kis; the tone-row compositions of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern; Berg's Lulu, Brecht's Dreigroschenoper and Beckett's Endgame; Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Welles' Citizen Kane, Hitchcock's Vertigo, Bergman's Wild Strawberries.

5. Anarchism; or, The Object Strikes Back (1960-1996). Academic discourse most often refers to this period as 'postmodern,' but it might with more historical validity be called the era of decolonization, postcolonialism, postimperialism, feminism, neoliberalism... Indeed, it might be named after any number of developments far more materially important than the collected works of Derrida, Foucault and Lacan. I prefer to think of these years as the era of artistic anarchism, a period of anti-authoritarianism in which artists radically critiqued the discourse of mastery that underlay previous waves of Modernism. We see this most dramatically in the final phase of Modernist painting's greatest capital-M Master, Pablo Picasso. In the paintings, drawings and prints Picasso produced from the early 1960s until his death, the elderly master becomes younger than he ever was; he throws off the weight of art history, the museum he carried in his mind, and proceeds to play in paint. The canvases of these years evince a new liveliness in the artist, a Matissean simplicity and vibrancy in his brushwork, a new and utterly uncensored concentration on the materiality of sex and the body. All authority gone, Picasso is left with all his passion still to spend, and in this last decade he spends it lavishly. We might also think of this as Picasso striking back against the forces that threatened to freeze him into an object, a safely museumed old master. And this points to the second (or is it simultaneous?) moment of Modernism's fifth wave: into the void of authority flows all the stuff that was previously silenced, marginalized, devalued, objectified. These former 'things' now seize the sites of subjectivity and speak for themselves. We see this in the science fiction novels of Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany, the fictions of William Burroughs, the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the novels and plays of Jean Genet; the hardcore postmodern novels of Barth, DeLillo, Pynchon and Wallace, as well as the softercore pomo of Vonnegut and Heller; underground film from Maya Deren to Kenneth Anger to Stan Brakhage; Warhol, Rauschenberg and the early years of Pop Art before it became corporate wallpaper; Toni Morrison's novels, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children and Shame, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass and other magic realists; the later figurative paintings of Philip Guston; Robert Crumb's comics; Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider; the hippie fiction of Richard Brautigan and Tom Robbins; Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Sabbath's Theater; the unhinged visions of David Lynch.

6. Cosmopolitanism; or, The Subject Goes Global (1996- ). Even Isaiah and Ezekiel would probably agree that prophecy is a mug's game, but if forced to guess the future's judgment of the most important trend in our present aesthetic moment, I would settle on cosmopolitanism, world-citizenship, with its connotations of pluralism, cultural liberalism and global humanism. (Despite everything from the stolen 2000 U. S. election to al qaeda, the Iraq fiasco and the rise of Herr Drumpf, I remain optimistic about this century; if we survived the 20th, we'll make it through the 21st.) Conrad and Nabokov might be seen as the multinational, multilingual precursors of our time. Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses and his subsequent novels and nonfiction are among our moment's quintessential artistic products. Likewise the four full-length fictions of W. G. Sebald, the works of Roberto Bolano, J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace, the sf and fantasy novels of China Mieville, Zadie Smith's White Teeth, the films of Guy Maddin, Charlie Kaufman's screenplays, Kiarostami's Certified Copy, the recent films of Lars von Trier, the literary and cultural criticism of Edward Said, John Ralston Saul's Voltaire's Bastards, the novels of David Grossman, Haruki Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro, Doris Lessing; the essays of Susan Sontag, the late poetry of John Ashbery, the paintings of R. B. Kitaj, Cormac McCarthy's borderless Border novels; William T. Vollmann's literary explorations of just about everything, everywhere...

(Needless to say--but I'll say it anyway--this schema is offered only as a generalized, shorthand way of thinking about Modernist art. It is suggestive, not exhaustive. It's an attempt at description, not prescription; and no judgments of relative aesthetic value are implied.)

Monday, March 7, 2016

A thought

On the critical rhetoric typically deployed in defense of Griffith's Birth of a Nation and the films of Leni Riefenstahl:

When content is utterly repulsive, formalism will always be the first stop on the justification train.

Fifteen Underrated Films

We all have a mental list of overrated movies (mine includes Raging Bull, the Star Wars franchise, Eisenstein's October, all Biblical films (even Pasolini's and Nicholas Ray's), and pretty much everything Steven Spielberg has ever done; your list surely differs). Such lists are harmless exercises in healthy contrarianism--no big deal, and rarely of interest to others, who have their own lists. More interesting are those films that didn't get the recognition they deserved from audiences and critics, great films in danger of slipping into oblivion, movies that got no respect. Here's my list of 15 that deserve to be lifted out of the Dangerfield zone.

1. Theatre of Blood (1973). One of the most literate horror films ever made, this bit of macabre, gruesome, campy fun stars Vincent Price as a Shakespearean actor who avenges himself on his critics by murdering them in elaborate scenarios inspired by the murder scenes in Shakespeare's plays. The Richard III episode is a delightful Pricean lampoon of Larry Olivier.

2. Lost Highway (1997). David Lynch lost most viewers about halfway down this weirdly twisting highway, a film that stands alongside Dune and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as one of Lynch's most underrated works. A film more interested in opening mysteries than closing them, this is Lynch's very modern, very American rewriting of Kafka's Metamorphosis.

3. The Trial (1962). Speaking of Kafka, Orson Welles's adaptation of The Trial is, along with F For Fake, one of the Whoreson Round Man's unknown masterpieces. Starring a perfectly-cast Anthony Perkins as Joseph K, this is a visually stunning work of high cinematic art.

4. Marnie (1964). Long derided for its transparent artifice, Marnie deserves instead to be celebrated both as an early landmark of postmodern self-conscious cinema (aligning the Old Master with the contemporaneous works of his French sons, Godard and Truffaut) and as Hitchcock's most psychologically complex portrait of a female character.

5. Secret Honor (1984). Philip Baker Hall's amazing performance as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's film is, in my opinion, the best performance by an American actor in the entire decade of the 1980s. This film is proof that cinematic greatness has nothing to do with budget size.

6. Bulworth (1998). Even I underrated Bulworth the first time I saw it. I noticed its warts but none of its worth, and I  thought its proponents were reviewing the message instead of the movie. When I watched it a decade later, I thought it was the most fearless political film ever made by an American director. Beatty takes more chances here than Oliver Stone has taken in his entire career, and most of the risks pay off.

7. Silent Bob and Jay Strike Back (2001). I never expected Kevin Smith to produce a film replete with Brechtian alienation devices and Godardian self-conscious irony, but in 2001 he did just that. Viewers who saw a stupid stoner exploitation comedy failed to realize that they were watching a David Foster Wallace-like ironic deconstruction of stupid stoner exploitation comedies. Judd Apatow's entire subsequent career seems to have been born out of this movie's butt.

8. Disgrace (2008). John Malkovich delivered the performance of his career in this near-perfect adaptation of J. M. Coetzee's great and haunting novel of life in the post-Apartheid South African countryside. This is one of those rare cases in which a great novel has become a great film.

9. The Grey Zone (2001). Barely noticed upon its release in 2001, this is one of the greatest films ever made about the Holocaust. The Grey Zone is the searing, unforgettable, unsentimental, almost unwatchably brutal film that Schindler's List should have been. I doubt if any fictional treatment of this subject has ever come closer to the daily reality of the death camps.

10. A Serious Man (2009). Between No Country for Old Men and their remake of True Grit, the Coen Brothers turned in this modern retelling of the Book of Job in the guise of an entirely enjoyable 1960s social comedy set in the suburbs of the American Midwest. Unlikely as it may seem, this Minnesotan Job is also the Coens' Call It Sleep melded with their version of Updike's Couples. And, unlikeliest of all, it works.

11. Daniel (1983). Sidney Lumet's almost forgotten adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's Rosenberg-inspired novel deserves to be rediscovered both for its recreation of a lost world of American radicalism and for its status as a first-rate primer on book-to-film adaptation.

12. The American (2010). Seemingly dismissed by most audiences as yet another George Clooney vehicle, Anton Corbijn's taut thriller owes more to Louis Malle and the Truffaut of Shoot the Piano Player than Robert Ludlum. It's a European art film into which Clooney seamlessly inserts his starpower. It should've been huge.

13. Julia (2008). If you want to know just how good an actor Tilda Swinton can be, check out her performance in this twisty crime drama cum psychological portrait. This is the job that should've won her the Oscar.

14. Margaret (2011). Notoriously stalled for years in post-production hell while everyone involved sued everyone else, Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is the unknown masterpiece of contemporary American cinema. A novelistically rich slice of New York life, Margaret goes miles beyond the usual NYC fare and dives directly into the biggest topics: life, death, art, sex, family, and the meanings of it all in post-Sept.11 America.

15. Bloom (2003). Not so much underrated as unknown, Sean Walsh's valiant attempt at an adaptation of Joyce's Ulysses is, overall, superior to Joseph Strick's earlier effort at this foredoomed endeavor. Wisely forgoing the impossible task of filming the entire novel, Walsh makes huge cuts to extract the book's spinal 1904 narrative and brings it to film with the great Stephen Rea as Leopold Bloom. The ''Nighttown" sequence of the movie is almost as outrageous as the book.