Sunday, June 30, 2013

My Top 10 TV Shows (a list for Natasha)

A reader named Natasha recently sent me an email asking about my favorite television programs. Because too many childhood hours spent watching The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show have rendered me absolutely defenseless before women named Natasha, here's my all-time TV top ten:

1. The Decalogue. Krzysztof Kieslowski's 10-part series made for Polish television in the 1980s is the greatest TV program I have ever seen. Each episode is a nearly perfect one-hour film, many of them as beautiful and impressive and poetically compressed as short stories by Chekhov or Joyce.

2. The Wire. Great novels kick my ass all the time, movies much less often, but no TV show has ever kicked my ass as definitively as The Wire. Over the five seasons of this program, David Simon and Ed Burns created a Balzacian panorama of contemporary American urban life that demonstrates exactly what most American literary fiction is missing, namely the world outside the white, suburban, corporate middle class.

3. The Twilight Zone. To Serve Man is a cookbook. Enough said... Watching the TZ marathon on the SF Channel around New Years is like overdosing on a  volume of Borges's collected fictions, a great way to end/begin the infinite cycle of time.

4. Monty Python's Flying Circus. I've never wanted to be a lumberjack, never purchased a parrot, never been slapped with a fish, never applied for a grant at the Ministry of Silly Walks, and never barged into a doctor's office screaming "My brain hurts," but I have loved MPFC for many, many years. And now for something completely different... 

5. Homicide: Life on the Street. The best drama in American TV history until David Simon's next one, this was an incomparable blend of tragedy and absurdity, great writing and great acting. NYPD Blue declined after the third season, but Homicide remained excellent and surprising for the duration of its run. Andre Braugher deserved a mantel full of Emmys for his work on this program.

6. The Simpsons. How can I not like a TV show that can convince Thomas Pynchon to do a cameo? I want to mosey down to Moe's and pop open a Duff.

7. Twin Peaks. An incredibly risky show that stretched a thin line between silliness and horror and then tried to walk it. Easy adjectives like 'surreal' and 'absurdist' don't quite fit Twin Peaks.

8. The X-Files. I'll admit it, I'm a sucker for sewer monsters...and Gillian Anderson. At its best, when it kept the mythology of alien invasion in suspension between reality and paranoia, this program was as close as TV has ever come to a Pynchon novel.

9. Police Squad. Painfully punny, this series made me laugh until fluids began to pour from every orifice. Watch out for the toe truck!

10. The Untouchables. The original 1959-63 series is a great, stylish, noir melodrama that deserves to be rediscovered. Whenever I think of this program, I can always hear Walter Winchell's distinctive narration: "Meanwhile, across town, Capone thug Frank Nitti is relaxing with his moll and a doomed duo of stool pigeons named Solly and Webb..."

As always with top ten lists, there are oodles of also-rans: Star Trek, Seinfeld, Frasier, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Six Feet Under, MASH, Night Gallery, The John Larroquette Show, St. Elsewhere... For some reason, The Sopranos never appealed to me (maybe the reason was 'mob fatigue' brought on by all the neo-noir movies of the 1990s). I also found Berlin Alexanderplatz less impressive than much of Fassbinder's cinematic work. Among current shows, I like Breaking Bad, Mad Men and Girls, but I've been an infrequent TV viewer for the past few years.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

On The Ethics of Posthumous Publication

Our thinking about the ethical questions regarding posthumous publication (something I've been thinking about since the publication of Nabokov's notecards for/as The Original of Laura) might benefit from a categorization of the various types of posthumous books. I think we need six categories:

1. Books finished and prepared for publication by the author but published only after his death. (Forster's Maurice, the English translation of Sebald's Nach der Natur.) No ethical questions should arise in this case, provided the book is published as the author intended.

2. Books finished by the author but not edited and published until after her death. (The later volumes of Proust's Recherche; Ellmann's biography of Wilde.) There is no significant ethical problem here, but such books will always be read under a thin cloud of suspicion about possible changes the author might have made had she lived through the editing stage.

3. Books left unfinished at the author's death and published as unfinished works. (Kafka's The Castle, Musil's The Man Without Qualities, Ellison's Three Days Before the Shooting, Wallace's The Pale King.) This is a much more troubling category. The ethics of publication seems to be directly proportional to the manuscript's level of completion. Kafka's The Trial seems a much more ethically acceptable publication than Nabokov's The Original of Laura. (However, for both books, see category 5 below.)

4. Books posthumously edited from much longer, unfinished manuscripts. (Hemingway's The Garden of Eden; Ellison's Juneteenth). This category is ethically problematic, to say the least. I loved The Garden of Eden, but a compelling argument can be made that it should never have been published except in an edition of the complete manuscript Hemingway left at his death, a manuscript that reportedly continues the story beyond the scope of the published 'novel.'

5. Books published contrary to the express wishes of the author. (Virgil's Aeneid; Kafka's works; Nabokov's Laura). I would not wish to have lived in a 20th century without Kafka's fictions, but the publication of those works against the author's deathbed insistence that they be destroyed was clearly unethical. (None of Max Brod's excuses convince me, but the world owes him an unpayable debt for his betrayal--the same, sadly, cannot be said of the late Dmitri Nabokov.)

6. Books neither prepared for publication by nor envisioned by the author. (The Letters of James Joyce; Flaubert in Egypt.) I enjoy leafing through the published letters and diaries of great writers, and part of that enjoyment surely arises from the ethically questionable nature of my snooping. Again, I would not have wanted to live in a 20th century without Joyce's erotic letters to Nora, but the publication of these letters is almost certainly unethical--provided that we base our ethical judgments (as I have throughout this post) on the apparent intentions of the writers. Given both the highly problematic nature of determining intentions and the number of great works this basis would eliminate from the canon, it appears that we require a different basis for judgment.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Comic Sense of Life

"There is a god, and his name is Aristophanes." -- Heinrich Heine

Comedy and tragedy are battling in my brain, and after several rounds of rope-a-dope (a phrase that always flashes an image of an aging hippie in purple-tinted glasses sucking on a burning rope), comedy is throwing the slow-motion knockout blow. For the past few years I've tried to toil in the tragic, writing psychoanalytically-inflected, pseudo-autobiographical fictions that, however funny they might be, tend to resolve into allegorical Freudo-Lacanian cartoons or tragical-weepsicle fictional confessions. (I want to take this opportunity to patent the Weepsicle, a popsicle made from frozen tears cried while reading popular 'agony memoirs' of childhood trauma. It's salty and delicious. Maybe I can get James Frey to do an endorsement.) The brick wall I have repeatedly slammed into, like a crash test dummy trapped in a film loop, is the unavoidable fact that my sensibility is decidedly untragic. Tragedy, for me, may be the biggest lie. My own pretentious weltanschauung is a lighter, less Teutonic 'worldview.' And that skewed worldview is a comic sense of life. This is born of a deep appreciation of the meaninglessness, absurdity, and absolute contingency of existence, as well as an abiding knowledge of the horrors of history, all of which issues in a determination not to surrender my humanity to human inhumanity, not to perversely deify the horror and luxuriate in a tragic pose, a ludicrous affectation of affliction. The point, the challenge, is to meet even the worst of life with life, with derisive defiance, satirical laughter and (that most grotesquely devalued word) love.

A joke was told in the Warsaw Ghetto: An SS officer comes to a Jewish man's door and announces, "I will permit you to live if you can answer this question: which of my eyes is made of glass?"
The man looks carefully into the Nazi's face and then replies, "The right one."
"Correct," says the German, surprised, "How did you know?"
Without hesitation, the man answers, "Your glass eye looks more human."

To meet life with life, this is the comic sense of life, the energetic, vital flipside of tragedy's co-dependent marriage to despair. Comedy is not a giddy flight from the fatal facts, not a denial of life's tragedies. It is a response to life on the side of life. Tragedy--like its tragically successful vulgarization, religion--is a response to life on the side of death. Drawing its power from that ultimate pit, from our boundless narcissistic fascination with our finitude, tragedy may seem an insuperable opponent, a horizon of human thought. But comedy is the more powerful force. Comedy can dissolve tragic pretensions in a fit of fou rire. (Tragic attacks on comedy, on the other hand, tend to be priggish, prudish, puritanical, and, well, rather comic.) Even Hamlet, that archetypal tragic hero of the tragically pretentious everywhere, is an incomparable anti-tragical comedian. We might point to the brilliant, bawdy wordplays by which he comically tears at the fabric of tragedy's web, tries to free himself from the tired plot that has entrapped him, but the case is best made in the play's final scene. Even at his moment of greatest extremity, as he dies before the throne he should have sat upon, he cannot resist an ironic deflationary jab at Horatio's eagerness to play the tragic role, to die alongside him as "more an antique Roman than a Dane." "Absent thee from felicity awhile," Hamlet tells him, and that "felicity," signifying death, should be spoken in a tone very close to sarcasm.

"Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that 'a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes.' " -- Matthew Bevis, Comedy: A Very Short Introduction (a fine and funny little book just published by Oxford; I assume the sequel will be written by Matthew Butthead)

A comic sense of life struggles to remain equally aware of the scandal of nothingness and the wonder of being. It's a weird fusion of Beckett and Updike, Nag and Nell in their garbage cans and Rabbit with his riches. Comedy's answer to the fundamental question of philosophy, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is to juggle the words until they reply, "Nothing is the why of something." Schopenhauer, that German Romantic stand-up act, may have been essentially correct, but his concept of omnipresent Will (a deity-like transcendence sneaking in through the back door of that great philosopher's atheism) should perhaps be replaced by a Matrix-like "desert of the real." Take the red pill and realize with Melville that there may be nothing behind these pasteboard masks. And realize further that the horror of this nothingness is the motivation for all that we create and perceive. On a certain, perhaps unthinkable level, horror vacui is what we are. Sartre was probably more correct than he knew when he wrote that "[n]othingness lies coiled in the heart of being--like a worm." Something exists not instead of, but because of, nothing. Nothing is the ironically spongy comic bedrock of everything we know, the Why of Being.

Comedy plays Eros to tragedy's Thanatos, and I am convinced that I have spent time enough in the dominion of death. It's time to Orpheus myself upward into a life of writing on the side of life, where laughter shatters the dingy real like a kabbalistic vessel burst by light, and even the most violent setback can be dismissed as "merely a flesh wound." Comedy is profoundly subversive and ridiculously anti-defeatist. Comedy, as Philip Roth knows, is the art of life doing what life does best: going on and on and on and, ludicrously, terribly, absurdly, on... and always beating the alternative.

Q: What is the meaning of life?
A: Meh, it beats the alternative.

Comedy is Northrop Frye's 'mythos of spring,' which goes to show how little Northrop knew. Let these ideas stand for solstice and summer, the season of sex comedy, as Shakespeare and Woody Allen know. (Or as a woman I knew once rhymed it, "Hey, hey, the first of May; / outdoor fucking starts today!") It is when our minds are trapped in winter, though, and the tips of our feelings touch degree zero, and everything seems a flattened snowy field, that we most require the very serious amusements of comedy's muse.

"...But the cruiser had driven off, leaving Sabbath ankle-deep in the pudding of the springtime mud, blindly engulfed by the alien, inland woods, by the rainmaking trees and the rainwashed boulders--and with no one to kill him except himself.

And he couldn't do it. He could not fucking die. How could he leave? How could he go? Everything he hated was here."
                                           -- Philip Roth, Sabbath's Theater

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bloomsday 2013

Cage Uncaged
Joyceday blooms again, finding me in a Waking mood. For the ultimate in avant- garde Joycean sonic adventure, here's a link to John Cage's Roaratorio, an "Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake." But beware: listening too closely might drive you inseine (or at the very least, inliffey). You'll definitely need a Guinness after this.

The Cure For Cage

Turning to Ulysses, nearly a century of scholarly oystrygods gaggin fishygods and several decades of near-universal (dare I say 'kneejerk'? Yes, I dare) acclaim have succeeded in obscuring one of the central facts of this multifaceted book: it's a comic novel, a funny book, an outrageous read, a rip-roaring, rollicking Irish circus of a literary production conceived and executed by an artist who makes madman John Cage look like a smoking-jacketed mandarin paring his Flaubertian fingernails. Ulysses is also very serious, of course, as all the best funny books are, but if we allow the morbidly obese library of scholarly commentary--social historical, deconstructional, narratological, scatological, Farxical-Marxical, tragical-weepsicle, Lacanical-Freudical, Polonian-Hamletical--to crush out the comedy like a puritanical winepress, we will be left only with the dull dregs, a philosophical fiction Derrida or Dennett might have done (or, much more likely if less alliteratively, Jean-Paul Sartre). Ulysses is meant to be laughed with, laughed at. Read it to ridicule it, if that fits your fancy. The point is to read it--to read it voluntarily, and to read it publicly. Read Ulysses in bed with the windows wide open; read it in bars, at bathhouses and boathouses, coffee houses and funeral homes; read it at McDonalds and Jack in the Box; read it for 99 cents at Wendy's and phallicly at Subway. Read it on subways and buses, in the back of Travis Bickle's taxicab, on planes and trains and the stained backseats of automobiles. Read it aloud while strolling through the Amsterdam red light district. Read it at Jones Beach and Coney Island and Malibu and Sandymount Strand. Read it in your cubicle at work when you should be preparing a Powerpoint presentation. Read it on ferris wheels and rollercoasters and carousels and teacup rides. Read it on a rickshaw if you're feeling orientalist; read it in a public men's room between solicitous interruptions (and if you're reading it in a London loo during the 1950s, say hello to John Gielgud for me). Read it one-handed while masturbating to the photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading it in a public playground. (But don't read it while masturbating near a public playground; that would be too, too Nabokovian.) Read it everywhere and as often as possible and in all possible positions. If Ulysses is permitted to become a book read only in classrooms under professorial duress, it will already have died.



It is entirely appropriate that the widely-acclaimed 'greatest novel of the 20th century' is a comic novel, for the European novel is a fundamentally comic form. Whether we date its origin to Petronian Rome or Cervantean Spain, to the Satyricon or the Quixote, the novel is conceived by the spirit of comedy rolling over the ocean of prose. Swift, Sterne, Fielding, Diderot and Voltaire descend from Cervantes and pass his influence on to Dickens, Twain and Carroll, who keep it alive during the age of the Dowdy Dowager that it might burst forth more beautifully at the long 'moment' of Modernism: Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Woolf, Beckett, Bulgakov, Nabokov, N. West, F. O'Brien, Calvino, Kundera, Pynchon, Burgess, Rushdie, Heller, Amis pere et fils, Gaddis, Grass, Gass, Barth, Barthelme, P. Roth, Garcia Marquez, D. F. Wallace, and on, and on, and on. Taking the longest view, it's possible to see the Victorian novel of 'high seriousness' (the long and often tedious line that stretches humourlessly from Richardson through Lawrence) as a historical aberration resulting from the puritanism of a rising middle class. A novel shouldn't frown disapprovingly at us like an antiquated nanny; it should throw its head back and laugh--or at least wickedly grin.

Ancient prejudice aside, part of the reason for the continuing tendency to privilege 'serious' over 'comic' novels might lie in the fact that comedy can be uniquely disturbing. Tragedy we can handle (Aristotle taught us how), but comic ideas insinuate their way into our minds while our mouths are wide with laughter. Comedy, at its highest and best, can unsettle us more profoundly than tragedy because comedy's disruptions are more surprising. Whenever we think a great comic novel is standing us on solid ground, reaffirming our values and confirming our right-thinking ways, it's time for the author to appear in magician's garb and pull the rug from under our feet so we find ourselves like Wile E. Coyote shuffling above the void. This is the classic Nabokovian trick, but Melville performed it a century earlier and Cervantes a quarter-millennium before that. So perhaps we should call it 'the classic novelistic trick,' or more simply, the rhetoric of fiction. Speaking generally, comedy may represent an ultimate horizon of human creativity: comedy can unleash its derisive hailstones upon anything, but only comedy can deflate comedy.

Monday, June 3, 2013

On Paul Bowles on Tourists and Travelers

In the best-known passage of his novel The Sheltering Sky (a masterpiece of American literature and surely among the most accomplished and controlled 'first novels' ever written), Paul Bowles writes of the distinction his character Port Moresby draws between tourists and travelers:

He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another....[A]nother important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.

I find the second part of the definition much more to my liking than the first, which strikes me as a little masterpiece of self-congratulatory elitism (this is probably how Bowles intended it to be read, so the reader could draw the appropriate conclusions about Port's personality). To my mind, it's not how far you travel or how long you stay that makes you a traveler. It's more a matter of motivation and accomplishment. Anyone who goes to Europe, for example, to see and do specific things (stand in line at Madame Tussauds, stare at the Mona Lisa, get whipped silly at a Berlin SM club) is a tourist. All business travelers are tourists. All those busloads of American retirees napping their way across Europe are, needless to say, tourists. A traveler, by contrast, is someone for whom the point of travel is self-transformation. Anyone who goes away to be changed is a traveler. A tourist thinks he has accomplished something when he completes a column of checkmarks along his list of objects to see; a traveler is someone who takes 'seeing' so seriously that he might spend hours or days looking at a single painting or sculpture, wandering through a single building or neighborhood, seeking that sublime experience that might never come. A tourist is someone for whom a cellphone photo of a cathedral facade is vision enough for a decade; a traveler tries to see everything as intensely as a man who knows he will be blinded at midnight. For a tourist, the pretense of 'capturing' an object is all. A tourist coined the phrase 'been there, done that.' For a traveler, the experience of seeing has precedence over the object seen; the experience is the object. A traveler wrote the line "You must change your life." A traveler is, therefore, the sexier thing to be. Travelers have rocky abs and moody minds and quote Sebald before cunnilingus. Tourists have too much body fat, not enough hair, keep their passports in fanny packs, and call their wives 'mother.' All tourists, accordingly, believe themselves to be travelers. Almost all of them are wrong.