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.

1 comment:

Harvey Morrell said...

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

This is the perfect line for these times. Thanks!