Saturday, June 13, 2009


Yes it is yes it's Bloomsday again, and if you don't like it, you can K.M.R.I.A....

Neither stately nor plump nor Buck Mulligan, I come to the stairhead of Joyce's tower at Sandycove and step out onto the roof. It's a cool, misty morning in the middle of May, and as I emerge into it from the cramped, curving stairway and walk to the round parapet that overlooks the sea, my overwhelming impression is of greyness, a grey so blanketing it must be spelled with the bland British 'e' instead of the more upbeat American 'a'. Grey sky, grey sea, long grey cargo ship inching across a grey horizon that might have been painted by Whistler, grey water splashing against dark grey rocks, on the coastal road a few yards below (the tower isn't tall at all) a gray-haired Garda officer leans against the grey stone retaining wall and works with intense concentration at a cigarette from which a pencil-thin line of grey smoke snakes upward. (Or at least that's the way I remember it now, a few years later, sitting at my desk in a far corner of a distant room in a house in rural Ohio a few days before the longest of the year, attempting to reconstruct the scene, flipping through old notebooks, fingering photographs like rosary beads, not so much recalling or reciting memories as creating them anew on the light-emitting screen of a technological device that probably wouldn't have surprised Joyce at all--as Beckett said, the man tended toward omniscience.) Even the tower itself is grey. I lean against the grey stone parapet and survey the roof, this empty space no more than 10 feet in diameter where the greatest novel of the 20th century, the Rosetta Stone of Modernism, begins. There's something missing here. It's a launch pad without a rocket. The old lapwing already flew. Whereto? Trieste-Zurich-Paris, as we all know. Yes... I turn around to face the land he fled. In Joyce's day the Martello tower was in a relatively desolate spot on a coastal headland, but today Sandycove is where suburbia meets the sea. It's a typical residential suburb of Dublin, distinguished only by the brightly colored houses that line the coastal road, part of a half-hearted attempt to 'brand' this stretch of coast as the Irish Riviera. The only bright spot, from my point of view, is that the coastal houses won't be here long. Year by year the sea encroaches upon encroaching suburbia. Landslips are moving within feet of the coastal road, and the retaining wall won't hold them back for long. Soon--sooner than the residents and realtors believe--suburbia will truly meet the sea... The mist turns to cool, grey rain, and I disappointedly trudge down the stairs while birds the color of melancholy soar overhead. The tower has run out of epiphanies... A few minutes later, walking along the winding coastal road to the train station, I glance back at the tower and appreciate its absurdity. Originally a lookout place, it now looks comically out of place, a stubby lingam of suburbia raising its unimpressive erection between a row of overpriced houses and a road that skirts the sea.

When I arrived at Dublin airport, a place so architecturally unprepossessing that it immediately reminded me of my old high school, an immigrations officer drowsily asked the purpose of my visit and I replied, "James Joyce pilgrimage."
He looked up. "James Joyce?" he asked, speaking the last name with a slightly suspicious emphasis. "You mean Ulysses? That fella?" (This moment gave me my first lesson in Irish pronunciation. The Irish pronounce the name of Joyce's novel with a strong emphasis on the first syllable: YOO-li-seez.)
"Yes," I replied, "that's the guy."
Still holding my passport, the officer gave me a penetrating stare and said, "That's a hard book... Have you read Ulysses?"
I paused for a few seconds to enjoy the moment. I was actually being asked--under penalty of perjury and deportation, no less--if I had read Ulysses. To hell with all the people behind me in line. This was a moment to savor. Glancing down at my passport still firmly held between his thumb and forefinger, I said, "Will you kick me out of the country if I say no?"
He paused before answering, perfectly deadpan: "That is a distinct possibility, sir."
"Well then, yes," I replied overenthusiastically, "Yes, I've read it several times. Yes, I have. Yes."
He handed me my passport and waved me into the country with a bored "Enjoy it anyway."

I did.

When I returned to central Dublin after my morning at Sandycove I walked up O'Connell street, passed the Rotunda, and continued north to another of the genesis sites of twentieth-century art, the studio of Francis Bacon. A few years after Bacon's death in 1991, his studio and all its contents (untouched since the painter's death) were transferred from Reece Mews in London to Dublin's Hugh Lane Gallery. The studio is installed in a separate room at the back of the gallery, past a small but impressive collection of 19th-century French paintings (some of the best of which are jointly owned with the London National Gallery, the result of a massive and seemingly endless Jarndyce & Jarndyce-style legal entanglement that began when Lane died in the sinking of the Lusitania before he could clear up some ambiguity regarding the disposition of his paintings). The gallery is free, but Bacon's studio is not, so one must buy a ticket in the bookshop before trekking back to the dimly lighted room where a short documentary on Bacon plays perpetually. The doc is worth viewing, but the real attraction here is the studio. The Hugh Lane employed a team of archaeologists to map the London studio like an archaeological site, carefully noting the disposition of every scrap of paper, every discarded brush, every empty, tossed-aside paint can. It was all catalogued, removed and shipped to Dublin, along with the studio's walls, door and floor, and here at the back of the Lane all of the pieces were put together again. It's not a large room, for an artist's studio. It's slightly larger than a suburban living room. But it is heroically cluttered. 'Messy' doesn't describe it. This may be the most cluttered room I have ever seen--and I've known some pretty messy people...Yes, this is where Francis did his dirty work... Bacon likened the mess in his studio to the contents of his mind, so this room deserves its place in an art gallery, because it is in fact a work of art, an environment created by an artist as a portrait of his own mind, an objective correlative for the place his art really 'comes from'. And it also deserves its place in Dublin (city of Bacon's birth), for this is a most Joycean work of art, a work that in another medium marries the autobiographical imperatives of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to the encyclopedic surrealism of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. A listing of the torn papers and illustration fragments lying at random around the floor would resemble one of the catalogs from the last two books and would constitute an index of the painter's interests. The studio is sculpture as surrealist autobiography... These thoughts came to me as I stood in the now permanently open doorway of Bacon's studio and stared through plexiglass at the interior. (Unfortunately, we can't go inside; we remain voyeurs peering in at the Baconian aquarium, trying to spot the sea monsters.) There are five orifices through which one can view the studio: the glassed-in doorway, two peepholes sunk into the opposite wall, and two windows in what was the exterior wall. Looking through one of these windows, I had the uncanny experience of seeing myself reflected in Bacon's oft-photographed round studio mirror. So I guess I did make it inside. The mirror captured my face, peering in like an intruder from the gallery's surrounding darkness.

The morning I arrived in Dublin, I passed Bono on the sidewalk. I didn't believe it, of course. After all, who really arrives in Dublin, takes a bus to the city center, drops his bag at his hotel, and steps out for a walk only to immediately cross paths with the world's most famous Irishman? Shit like that doesn't happen... Well, except when it does. Returning to my hotel later that day, I mentioned ironically to the desk clerk that I saw "some guy who looked like Bono." The clerk was unimpressed. "Yes, that probably was Bono," he replied flatly. "U2 owns the hotel around the corner from there, and they stay there whenever they're in the city." The next time I left the hotel, I fully expected to see Van Morrison ambling down Lower Baggot Street. Unfortunately, Van the Man was nowhere in sight.

One morning I sat in Stephen's Green and watched the Dubliners walking past. Every man and woman seemed to move inside his or her own story. How many interior monologues are criss-crossing here, I thought from my bench, what interweaving of minds. Who is this tall, gaunt man who wears his overcoat like a hanger, and why does he sidestep to avoid walking under the shadow of that grove of trees? Who is this young woman in a red coat walking with her head down and hair pulled back in a thick ponytail that bounces softly against her upper back as she strides along? Woman in red aside, Dublin is a city that wears black. Every man his own Dedalus, walking in perpetual mourning for that morning's fall in the stock market.

Every walk in central Dublin is a walk through Ulysses. The better you know the novel, the more names and places you'll recognize. Wandering in the cemetery from the 'Hades' episode, I seemed to see the last name of a Ulysses character on every other tombstone. Turning north just beyond O'Connell street, I passed Capel Street, home of the lending library used by one Leopold Bloom. Northeast of there, on Eccles Street, the home of the Blooms has been torn down, demolished to make way for a maternity hospital, but the other side of the street remains much as it was in Joycean times, allowing us to project its mirror image on the demolished side and see the street Joyce would've struggled to recall as he imagined it all in Trieste-Zurich-Paris 1914-1921.

Those dates still shock. Joyce started writing Ulysses the year Europe marched merrily off to hell in Flanders fields. Its writing spanned the whole of WWI, the Easter Rising, the Russian Revolution, the Spanish Flu, and the Irish Civil War. He finished the novel not merely in a different city but a different world. An obvious and enormous question arises: how do the events of its years of composition impinge upon the novel?... I'll let you think about that one.

Ulysses turns up in the most unexpected places. Click here to see a reproduction (much too small, unfortunately; a slightly larger and clearer reproduction is here, thanks to of artist Paul Cadmus's 1931 portrait of his lover Jared French. Their illegally acquired copy of Ulysses is featured prominently in this portrait, which was recently acquired by the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio. The illicit book, presented upside down with French's phallic fingertip disappearing into a crack in its up-turned bottom, is an almost too-obvious symbol of gay male anal sex. Cadmus uses the smuggled book to smuggle into his painting an image of the unrepresentable. This painting deserves a place beside Meret Oppenheim's fur teacup in that small gallery of 20th century gay and lesbian erotic art icons. (I fell in love with Jerry [the painting's title] when I saw it a few weeks ago, and I will eventually be writing about it at length.)

Finally, here's a Bloomsday to-do list (one item for each chapter):
  1. Start the day with rich white milk, not hers
  2. Try to awake from your historical nightmare
  3. Telephone Eden on your navelcord
  4. Discuss the works of Paul de Kock.
  5. Stupefy them with Latin
  6. Plant Paddy Dignam and watch him, Bloom
  7. Kiss Molly's Royal Irish Arse
  8. U.P.
  9. Prove by algebra that Hamlet's father was his mother's uncle's brother's cousin's mother
  10. Stalk Father John Conmee SJ from central Dublin to the hill of Howth
  11. Tunefully tup Mrs. Bloom
  12. Explain by science the hanged man's erection
  13. Come
  14. Read Saintsbury's History of English Prose Rhythm
  15. Visit a Surrealist brothel and be as bad as Parnell was
  16. Buck yourself up in orthodox Samaritan fashion
  17. Insert long round end
  18. ...and yes I said yes I will Yes.


Saturday, June 6, 2009


How good is this book? Just follow this link over to and buy yourself a copy. Right now. It's that good. (Alternatively, go to your local library and politely request that they acquire a copy for their Philosophy section.)

If a great book is one that shows you something more and different every time you read it, that changes with every reading because every reading changes you, then Inwardness and Existence is a great book. It's also a good book, the best kind in fact, the kind you can periodically re-read for the rest of your life. What makes it so special, sets it above most other books written by American academics in the last 30 years? It's a philosophically rigorous and at times mind-bogglingly ambitious book about the structure and construction of the self. While most academic writing on this subject today begins and ends with Foucault or Lacan and their followers, Davis's book begins with Hegel and doesn't really end. The book is circular, like a philosophical Finnegans Wake. It would probably be greatly illuminating to read Inwardness and Existence straight through and then turn immediately back to the first page and begin again, with the foreknowledge constituted by the first reading still fresh in one's mind.

Davis's book is 20 years old this year, and it's time for it to become more widely known in America and the rest of the world. (It appears to be slightly better known in Britain, where it has influenced the thinking of Britain's leading theologian, Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury.) This book and Davis's work generally should be at least as well-known as the works of Derrida, a thinker Davis surpasses and contains. One of the many high points of I&E (for me, anyway) is the section in which Davis compellingly argues that Deconstruction is a prematurely arrested moment of a dialectical movement that issues in Hegelian unhappy (or tragic) consciousness. Furthermore, Davis presents this demonstration not with a view to defending the battered ruins of traditional humanism but with the intention of radically destabilizing both humanism and deconstruction by means of a vast and Romantically ambitious synthesis of central ideas from the works of the four thinkers listed in the subtitle. Even more impressively, Davis doesn't simply lift useful ideas from Hegel, Freud, Marx and Heidegger; he reads each of them against themselves (as traditionally interpreted) to offer interesting and exciting new understandings of Hegelian self-consciousness, Existentialist freedom, Marxist subjectivity and Freudian psychoanalysis. (I did call it mind-bogglingly ambitious, didn't I?) And Davis's extended examinations of these schools of thought are so rich in insight, so powerful and compelling in their discussions of lived experience and of the meanings we give to life, that the book might as well have been subtitled "Subjectivity in/and Consciousness, Death, Culture, and Sex." (The book would probably have sold more copies with this subtitle.)

Both nouns in the title are crucial to understanding this book and Davis's work as a whole, but I want to focus on the second and think about Inwardness and Existence as a major contribution to Existentialism, probably the most important contribution yet made by an American thinker. This book takes Existentialism beyond Sartre, as he is popularly understood, by arguing that Sartrean freedom is not an a priori but must be achieved by a rigorous and extremely difficult process of rooting out the enormous intrusions of the Other upon the Self, the networks of internalized conflicts and ideologies that constitute most of who and what we are. This process of rooting out--called anti-bildung here and elaborated upon in Davis's later works Deracination and Death's Dream Kingdom--is the necessary preliminary to any of the authentic acts by which the Sartrean subject constructs his self, and it is such difficult work that few human beings ever begin it.

I know what you're thinking: If this book is so great, why haven't I heard of it?
Easy answer: You have heard of it now.


If no one has yet used the word 'decadent' to describe Bruno Schulz's prose, allow me to be the first. I have defined 'decadence' elsewhere as a mode of artistic production characterized by highly stylized excess, and even the briefest examination of a random page from The Street of Crocodiles is a more effective argument than any I could construct for the work's decadent nature. (I should probably add that to me the word 'decadence' is purely descriptive, connoting no positive or negative aesthetic or moral judgment.) Assuming the general faithfulness of Celina Wieniewska's translation (a controversial issue that I am not linguistically competent to pronounce upon), Schulz writes a lush, beautiful, gloriously decadent prose, the highly figurative lyricism of which overwhelms the narrative gestures in his fiction. Schulz's 'stories' are nothing of the sort. Nor are they Kafkaesque parables. The too-easy Schulz-Kafka connection (made easier by the seemingly obvious influence of Kafka on Schulz's conception of the Father character) obscures the fact that these two artists could hardly be more different. Where Kafka is dry and focused, Schulz is expansive and effusive. Where Kafka's descriptions exhibit scientific naturalism even at their most surreal, Schulz is a lush, poetic painter whose prose is as vividly colored as an Expressionist canvas. Where Kafka describes, Schulz mythologizes. (Gregor Samsa is very matter-of-factly described in his transformed state; Adela and her broom, by contrast, become a furious maenad with her thyrsus when she shoos the birds from Father's attic room.) In short, where Kafka is incomparably and outrageously deadpan, Schulz is gorgeously decadent. His prose is like a burst pomegranate; the over-ripeness is all. I love it.

Some of the pieces in Crocodiles are extraordinary (the title fiction, "Cinnamon Shops," "Tailor's Dummies," "Visitation," "Birds," "The Comet") while others are slight and forgettable ("Nimrod," "Pan"). At their best, these fictions demand re-reading, if only to catch the elements missed on a first reading. There is a Borgesian richness here, as well as--it must be said--a Borgesian sameness, a repetition of images and ideas that almost (but not quite) could be justified as musical form. There's also, at times, too much too-much-ness, a poetic concentration of idea and image that calls to mind Schulz's favorite poet, Rilke. The Rilke influence may, in fact, be more decisive than Kafka, given the resemblances between certain passages in this book and similar moments in The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

ANSELM KIEFER by Mark Rosenthal

Mark Rosenthal's Anselm Kiefer, the catalogue to the Art Institute of Chicago's 1987 Kiefer retrospective, is an average exhibition catalogue--and in its unexceptionality it fails to rise to the challenge of the artist who may well be our greatest living painter. (As I've written elsewhere, I consider Kiefer the only living painter to whom the adjective 'great' can be unhesitatingly applied.) The reproductions in this book are very good. My only complaint is that they are not larger and there are not more of them. (Cost considerations doubtless limited the volume's size.) With Rosenthal's text, however, I have some major quarrels. Most of them stem from his overly archetypal understanding of Kiefer's work. Drawing upon the writings of historian of religion Mircea Eliade (the University of Chicago's favorite Romanian fascist), Rosenthal's interpretations construct a Kiefer who is far too otherworldly, an alchemical-spiritual seeker of transcendence who concerns are increasingly divorced from historical and political reality. The most obvious problem with this 'Kiefer' is that he is not the artist who created most of the works reproduced alongside the text. The real Kiefer is an emotionally--indeed, furiously--politically engaged artist whose images deliberately and provocatively call up the reality of the present and the recent past. A single example of authorial misreading can stand as a synecdoche for the entire catalogue: Kiefer's 1986 painting Iron Path shows railroad tracks moving through a blasted gray-white landscape. Upon first encountering the image, most viewers will immediately understand it as a reference to the Holocaust. Not so Rosenthal, whose transcendental orientation forces him to interpret the tracks as an image of otherworldly connection, a kind of Jacob's Ladder. Almost perversely, his brief discussion of the painting fails to mention the image's most immediate historical resonance. Fortunately, Kiefer's art is strong enough to blow away Rosenthal's hackneyed ahistorical interpretations. Just turn to page 149 and spend a while looking at and thinking about Kiefer's Osiris and Isis (1985-87), a huge painting of a vast pyramidal monument to which Kiefer has attached a TV circuit board from which emanates a network of wires connected to ceramic shards. Think about the implications of Kiefer's surrealist collision of the ancient sacred and the technological sublime, and you will come to know the artist's work more deeply than does the author of this catalogue.

Having read many recent exhibition catalogues, I almost want to congratulate Rosenthal for not interpreting Kiefer's work in terms of some trendy critical theory du jour (Foucaultian, Lacanian). But unfortunately he feels compelled to embrace a hermeneutic dustier than the collected works of Northrop Frye.


Derek Raymond didn't look like a crime writer. He looked like a crime victim. In the photo on the back cover of the American edition of He Died With His Eyes Open, the skeletal Raymond looks like a member of an obscure 1960s British Invasion band who has spent the intervening decades in Treblinka. In other pictures from his brief late 1980s-early 1990s heyday, he looks like a guy who's been through hell and more than half enjoyed the ride.

This novel, the first of four that established Raymond as the Godfather of British neo-noir (the Brit James Ellroy, let's say, or the anti-P.D. James) is a fast, effective, compact and at times surprisingly complex police thriller. It touches all the usual tiresome generic bases (voyeuristic corpse description, a cast of increasingly creepy suspects, a touch of racism, misogyny, the odd reactionary aside, an ending in which the criminals are punished and the cop-narrator lives on to narrate another day...), but the book's real interest lies in those passages where it becomes more than just a good police procedural, those pages and paragraphs and even single sentences that seem to chafe at the restrictions of the thriller form. The novel's murder victim is a failed writer whose life somewhat parallels Raymond's life until his 1980s success, and the anger, bitterness and self-loathing transcribed from cassettes the victim recorded before his death (excerpts from the transcripts make up a significant percentage of the text) sound at times very much like Robin Cook (Derek Raymond's real name) writing nakedly behind the 'protection' of an essentially transparent mask. In a sense, there are really two books here, and they are at war with each other. Embedded within and often threatening to break out of the thriller form is a literary novel of lyrical beauty and intense self-examination. It includes a gorgeous account of laboring in a French vineyard and a harrowing description of the slaughter of a pig that serve to emphasize by contrast the numbing aesthetic and emotional poverty of the thriller narrative and its grey, urban world--and by implication to indict the genre as a corrupted product of that world. The victim's transcribed voice functions as not only the narrator's but also the author's bad conscience, especially when it speaks a line like this: "Anyone who conceives of writing as an agreeable stroll towards a middle-class life will never write anything but crap."

To be sure, this novel's thriller narrative contains a good deal of crap, but there are also a few metaphors that verge on the surreal (an alcoholic publican's eyes are "red and blue, like dartboards"; a hyperactive man's head "wobbled like an oyster on the end of a drunkard's fork") and a few lines of tough-guy narration that are like synecdoches for the entire genre: "Not only was he a murderer, but he looked like one, which as a policeman I thought was pretty stupid of him." There's a little of this, but not enough. Raymond/Cook, like the contemporary American novelist Jack O'Connell, writes like someone who has straightjacketed his considerable talent into a pre-existing mold. The tension created by this situation can be exciting and interesting, but the cost to the reader (For who can count the cost to the writer?) is that we are left wondering what the book might have been if it had truly exploded the form, if it had consistently broken the first commandment of genre fiction: Thou shalt do nothing to interfere with the reader's masturbatory pleasure. At bottom, Raymond's thriller narrative is still a cheap thrills machine, Mickey Spillane with an East End accent. It encourages the reader to identify with the antihero, fight and fuck alongside him, and close the book with a warm and comfy postcoital glow. The other narrative has the potential to deflate this fantasy balloon (erection?), but there's not enough of it to succeed. In the end, this book is the same old song transposed to a darker key.


Jesse Kalin's The Films of Ingmar Bergman is an exceptional, exemplary work of film criticism. Well-written, thoughtful, scholarly and focused, it is also wonderfully free of the academic jargon that makes so much contemporary film writing so obtusely boring. Kalin is indeed an academic, a philosophy professor with a Mellon-endowed chair at Vassar, but he writes like something better and rarer today, an intellectual. This is a book that actually takes Bergman's films as its subjects and watches them closely and attempts to understand them, rather than grandiosely 'performing' a Lacanian 'intervention' by mechanically reading those films through a lens ground 50 years ago at the Sorbonne. If more academics wrote like Kalin, more people would read them. The discussion of Sawdust and Tinsel/The Naked Night (which Kalin, to confuse matters even further, translates as The Clown's Evening) encourages me to re-examine a film I had previously considered minor. The introduction, titled "Geography of the Soul," in which Kalin shows us the lens through which he does see Bergman, a paradigm consisting of the development of several themes abstracted from the films themselves (yes, this is circular, but in a good way), is a magisterially concise introduction to some of the major themes of Bergman's oeuvre. Likewise, Kalin's chapters on Shame and Cries and Whispers are examples of the best kind of film criticism, exemplary instead of proselytizing. His interpretation of Fanny and Alexander's deliberately 'unrealistic' rescue scene--that by provoking the viewer's disbelief it causes a crisis in the viewer and forces him to choose between the fictionality of the story (as represented by Alexander) and the literalness of 'reality' (as defined by the Bishop)--is extremely compelling. (In fact, it's good enough to steal and repeat as one's own--the highest compliment.) My only initial complaint is that the book isn't twice as long. I wish Kalin had included extended discussions of Persona and Hour of the Wolf (I consider the former one of the greatest films ever made and the latter one of the weirdest, a stunning and haunting work of art).

Two criticisms: A book about Bergman's films that only mentions in passing such major works as Persona, Hour of the Wolf, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence, should probably be titled Some Films of Ingmar Bergman. We must also ask ourselves how Kalin's selection of films might present a distorted picture of Bergman's oeuvre, as any selection inevitably does.

And one more thing: Bergman's two 'psychological' films of the 1970s, Face to Face and From The Life of the Marionettes, are currently unavailable on DVD. (Are you listening, Criterion Collection?)


Flaubert knew exactly why most early readers didn't like Sentimental Education. In conversation with an admirer he explained that "The public wants works that exalt its illusions, whereas Sentimental Education..." and here the author demonstrated the effect of his novel by forming an inverted pyramid with his hands and then opening them, casting readerly illusions into the abyss. In this respect, Wallace Shawn's The Designated Mourner is a most Flaubertian work. That's right, I just compared the short, fat, bald character actor who played the psychiatrist on Crossing Jordan to Gustave freakin' Flaubert. On the evidence of this single play (the only work by Shawn I've read), the fact that the playwright is better known as a character actor is almost as bizarre (indeed, unseemly) as the fact that Sam Shepard (my candidate for America's greatest living playwright and one of our best writers, period) is better known as the guy who's in all the Westerns, a kind of highbrow Slim Pickens. Before reading the play, I had known of Shawn's 'other life' via Louis Malle's marvelous films My Dinner With Andre (co-written by Shawn) and Vanya on 42nd Street, and the fact that he was 'also a playwright' (as they say) had shown up on my radar screen, but I hadn't imagined that he was such a fine and troubling writer. Immediately upon finishing my first reading I decided that this was one of those 'you gotta read this' books. Don't bother trying to summarize it; just press it into your friends' hands and say, "Here. You can thank me tomorrow."

The Designated Mourner is a political and cultural horror story, a tale of terror and tyranny as sickeningly plausible as Orwell's 1984. Shawn provides no set description, giving directors maximum freedom, but the play calls for a bare stage and stark lighting. As I read, I imagined the actors sitting in three metal folding chairs (preferably gray) facing the audience and arranged in some kind of wide semicircle. The house lights should be kept up so the audience can't sink back into shadowed anonymity. The confrontational element of the play should be maximized. For this is a deeply confrontational play, and therein lies its Flaubertian power. It's a weapon aimed to unsettle its elite, culturally sophisticated and/or upper class audience (and that is, after all, the only real audience for plays like this; everyone else escapes to Andrew Lloyd-Webber). The play challenges the very humanist, leftist and aesthetic assumptions that draw people to see it. Nor do the play's challenges stop there, for it also subverts itself. Indeed, it ends on such a self-deconstructive note, with a lyrical 'urban pastoral' description of evening in a park that implicitly indicts its own lyricism as a flight from a horrifying political reality. This is a marvelous, beautiful, complex, poet's play that should have made its author much better known. Unfortunately, Wallace Shawn lives and writes in a country where theater is only valued as a local anesthetic. We all need to recall the words of Emerson: "People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them."

While writing the above, I had another thought, a counter-thought. I wonder if Shawn's plays are seen by at least some members of his New York audiences as a kind of penance, a bit of good guilty liberal self-flagellation by which they can vicariously and masochistically atone for the other parts of their lives. Does a member of Shawn's audience secretly--or even unconsciously--think: "Okay, now that I've seen The Fever or The Designated Mourner, I can go back to my office at Merrill-Lynch tomorrow and exploit the world with a clear conscience"? Hmmm...sounds like the sort of question Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory would talk about over dinner...

CUBISM AND CULTURE by Mark Antliff and Patricia Leighten

Reproduced on one page of this book is a ca.1910 photograph of Apollinaire by Picasso that makes me wish Picasso had taken more photographs, because he might have revolutionized that art too. The Apollinaire photo gives evidence of Picasso's wonderful visual wit (and thus functions as a kind of 'key' to understanding the wit of Cubism): the pudgy poet poses in a chair in Picasso's studio, his head intersecting the frame of a Cubist painting on the wall behind; his head is also turned so that the smoke from his pipe appears to lay in the plane of the painting, and the depicted Cubist figure seems to rise like smoke from its bowl.

Unfortunately, this single photograph is much more interesting than most of the text in this book. Antliff and Leighten's Cubism and Culture is yet another book on Cubism that fails to understand the true radicalism of the movement. Rather than doing the hard hermeneutical labor of looking deeply into individual paintings and constantly testing and re-testing their ideas against them, the academic authors are content to give us a tour of the Cubist zeitgeist that dubiously attempts to place the paintings in contexts to which they are tangential at best: anti-colonialism, Riemannian geometry, Bergsonian philosophy, feminism, etc. The necessity of arguing their dubious thesis about the influence of Bergson also leads them to grant undue prominence to 2nd- and 3rd-rate Cubists like Metzinger, Gleizes, Le Fauconnier, etc., ignoring superior works by Picasso and Braque. So the book is ultimately a triumph of thesis over art and of academic fashion over taste--in other words, a typical piece of contemporary American art historical discourse. This is what passes for the social history of art today, and it's a long way from Arnold Hauser and Robert Herbert (or even T.J. Clark).

The most important point the authors fail to understand (and they're hardly alone in this) is that Cubism is painting at its most self-conscious. Cubism is painting slowing down--and sometimes stopping--in order to think about itself, to reflect on materials and techniques, on strategies of representation. Cubist paintings therefore come to us with the imperative that we also slow down, stop and look and think--think about the myriad unexamined rules and conventions that determine how we 'see' paintings (and everything else in the world). Cubism is subjectivity cubed. The subjectivities of artist and viewer ideally collide and collude in the interpretation of the work.

Near the end of the book, the authors almost redeem themselves with a marvelous close reading of Picasso's Bottle of Suze. It's too little too late, but it suggests how interesting the book might have been had Antliff and Leighten paid more attention to paintings and less to current academic fashion.

NEW POEMS by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Edward Snow)

I've been reading Edward Snow's single-volume revised edition of his translations from Rilke's New Poems, and I'm surprised to find myself more impressed by the poems in Book One than by those in Book Two--surprised because the second volume begins with the poem that is deservedly Rilke's best-known short lyric, "Archaic Torso of Apollo." Unfortunately, the volume goes downhill from there. That's the danger of opening your book with a masterpiece. But I think the problem with the second book goes deeper. Compared to the poems of Book One, with their giddy transformational energy, their seemingly unlimited stock of metaphors, their wildness and freedom and daring, the poems of the second part seem more subdued and deliberate--even, at times, exhausted. Book One reads like a fearless flying leap into the future of poetry; Book Two is a more careful and craftsmanlike performance. If in the first book Rilke is conquering new territory, by the second he's already an old seigneur, surveying his lands and putting up beautiful buildings.

As to the hopelessly complex question of the quality of Snow's translations (a question that I, a non-reader of German, am completely unqualified to comment upon), I will say only that I find Snow's versions of Rilke a bit too prosaic, perhaps too literal. Stephen Mitchell's translation of "Archaic Torso...", for example, is clearly superior as a work of art to Snow's translation of that poem. I also find Mitchell's translation of the Duino Elegies superior as poetry to any other version I've seen.

"THE UNCANNY" by Sigmund Freud

Freud's essay on the unheimlich is worth re-reading. There's some good--yes, even uncanny--stuff in there, despite the predictable Freudian attempt to find an infantile etiology for everything. It's all right to have all the answers, but when all the answers are the same, I get suspicious. Especially questionable is Freud's delimiting, late in the essay, of the category of the uncanny so that it includes only those experiences which fit his theory--a theory derived at least partly from experiences that thus no longer fit it (fantasy literature, for example). Still, the essay is good and strange enough to qualify as a work of art (it shares this quality with the best of Freud's case studies), and I will surely return to it.


Ross Posnock's Philip Roth's Rude Truth is that rare thing today: a work of literary criticism written by an academic that might be of interest to the general reader. More than that, it's a marvelously enjoyable book. This is a most Rothian work of Roth criticism: intelligent, witty, wide-ranging, surprising, audacious and, yes, ballsy. This book has more balls than a sporting goods store. It's not enough for our author to place Roth in a 'tradition' (constructed on the fly by said author) of literary 'immaturity' that includes such exalted figures as Emerson, William James, Musil, Adorno and Gombrowicz. No, Posnock isn't satisfied until he has invoked Stephen Toulmin's Cosmopolis and placed Roth's work in an Enlightenment counter-tradition of thinkers who drink from the capacious well of Montaigne instead of crucifying themselves on the Cartesian grid. Holy fucking shit! The guy who showed us young Alex Portnoy violating raw meat is a descendant of Montaigne? It seems so. Mickey Sabbath would surely approve. Hell, maybe Mickey is our modern Montaigne, singing an outrageously funny and filthy song of himself with roots that sink way past Whitman to tangle together in the fertile soil of Fontainebleau-era France. Stranger things have happened in literary history. And even when Posnock isn't constructing suitably audacious pedigrees for Roth's fiction, when he's doing the more mundane critical work of reading and interpretation, he is never less than illuminating--especially in his chapter-length considerations of Sabbath's Theater and The Human Stain. With this book, American literary criticism finally 'finds' Philip Roth, and Roth at last finds a critic worthy of his achievements. From now on, Roth criticism begins here.


Edward Snow's A Study of Vermeer is a book I recommend to anyone who has an interest in looking closely at paintings. Snow has a very good eye and he writes well and (for an academic) clearly. There are a few "deflected gazes" in this book, but for the most part Snow keeps Lacan in the footnotes where he belongs. I was deeply impressed by the book's opening tour de force reading of Girl With a Pearl Earring, a painting that has never greatly impressed me but which will now capture more of my attention on my next visit to the Hague. There follows an interesting discussion of Degas's 'bathers' that leads into some highly arguable interpretations of Vermeer's genre paintings. I find myself agreeing with Snow about half the time, and I think that's about as much as I agree with any good work of art criticism. His interpretation of the Berlin Glass of Wine (a work that blew everything else in its room off the walls at the Met's 2001 Vermeer exhibition) seems much too harsh, as though Snow is attempting to rationalize a 'gut-level' dislike of the painting. And I wish his discussion of Girl Interrupted at Her Music (I'm using the traditional titles that Snow, like most scholars and curators today, eschews in favor of newer, blander ones.) lingered longer on the disruptive force of the girl's Luncheon on the Grass-like gaze out of the canvas. (Where's Lacan when we need him?) Still, Snow's book is well-argued and thought-provoking. It showed me a few things I had not noticed in many hours spent in the presence of these paintings, and I really can't ask a critical book to do more than that. It's a book I enjoy arguing with--high praise.

One such argument arises when Snow spends altogether too much time discussing the minor, early Procuress, surely the worst aesthetically of the canonical Vermeers. Admittedly, his reading is interesting, even poetic (Snow is also a translator of Rilke), but the painting simply isn't good enough to justify extended study in a book that gives far greater paintings shorter shrift. (I should come clean at this point and admit that I'm a member of an extreme minority (perhaps a minority of one) that doubts the attribution of The Procuress. When I saw it in 2001 amidst so many other 'authenticated' Vermeers, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was either an apprentice work by the young Vermeer and other hands or by a different painter altogether. The 'signature' on the canvas doesn't concern me; signatures can be forged...And yes, I am entirely aware that I'm starting to sound like a character in Gaddis's Recognitions. The signature just doesn't impress me because the painting itself fails to impress.)

Overall, I disagree with many of Snow's interpretations and find a few of them clearly and obviously wrong (his reading of Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, for example), and yet I still value the book and know I will return to it. When Snow gets a painting right (as in his readings of A Maid Asleep, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Woman With a Balance and The Artist's Studio), he gets it powerfully and compellingly right. And his eye is at times stunningly acute. For example, Snow points out two spatial anomalies in the Studio that I hadn't noticed before, even though I've spent the last 7 years living with a large reproduction of the painting. His book makes me feel both chastened and argumentative. Like Vermeer's works, when it's good it's damn good.

FAUST, PARTS ONE AND TWO by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I've just finished Goethe's Faust, finding it an almost incomparably wild and wildly uneven ride. This is surely a work that can only be read in the original German, but since I don't read German (my second language is French) I used the modernized 1967 Washington Square Press edition of Bayard Taylor's 19th-century English version. But even through the distorting lens of translation and the backwards telescope of time, the work's major merits and demerits are clear. Faust is, as one would expect, a beautiful and learned book that displays in various passages the full range of Goethe's Enlightenment-Romantic genius. We are given tastes of philosophy, geology, philology, economics, political science, theology, pedagogy, etc., but these are rarely more than tastes. Goethe's mind, as restless as Faust's desire, alights on a topic for a few lines, expounds upon, mocks and/or satirizes it, and then flies off to the next order of business. It seems by book's end that Goethe is the man who really can't bring himself to say, "Stay, thou art so fair." Faust is a self-portrait of its author's eternally restless mind. (Such intellectual restlessness is, of course, one of the defining characteristics of what we call 'genius.' More interestingly, it's one of the roots of the essential unhappiness of genius.)

Faust is also an extremely disjunctive work--and I'm not only referring to the obvious disjunction between Part One, published in 1808 when Goethe was 60 (he had been working at earlier versions for years), and Part Two, a work of the poet's old age published in the year of his death, 1832. The easily noticeable (and thus probably overstated) differences between the two parts repeatedly suggested a question as I read: At what point between the completion of Part One and the beginning of work on Part Two did Goethe go completely and permanently insane? The question is not entirely facetious. The poet may not have gone mad, but his poem certainly did. While the first part reads like an atypically intellectual grand opera libretto (which is exactly what the Romantics made of it) with a strong narrative arc and three central characters (Faust, Mephistopheles, Margaret), the second part explodes this form, forsaking a strong central narrative for a form more befitting Faust's pathological restlessness. The narrative becomes much more episodic, leaping from story to story, character to character, often introducing and disposing of potentially major characters in the space of a few pages (Euphorion and Baucis & Philemon are good examples), a strategy that seems calculated to create discrete, self-contained scenes and eliminate any hint of narrative arc. And most radically of all, Part Two contains several meta-theatrical moments that a modern reader inevitably calls 'proto-Brechtian' even though these elements are more properly seen as yet another link in a chain of metatheatrical 'fourth wall-breaking' that passes through Shakespeare and goes back at least as far as Aristophanes' Clouds. It is uniquely disquieting, though, when one realizes that Mephistopheles, not Faust, is Goethe's 'artist' figure, the play's internal playwright/director/actor--disquieting not least because whereas Faust is an ultimately failed artist/creator, Mephistopheles is a brilliant success. At the end the audience/reader 'applauds' all that Meph. has shown us. (Mephistopheles' stature is also elevated by the fact that like all literary devils, from Milton to Pacino, he gets the best lines, i.e. "...grey are all theories / And green alone Life's golden tree.")

The bifurcation of Faust might be too-neatly summed up by saying that Part One is a work of Goethe's maturity while Part Two emerges from his wild old age. Like the late poems of Yeats, the late novels of James, and the late paintings of Titian and Rembrandt (and unlike Wordsworth's forgettable late lyrics--with the 1850 Prelude as a large if problematic exception, WW was a poet who died artistically long before he ceased to breathe), Faust, Part Two is a touchstone of 'late' style in art. It's loose, risky, more than a little self-indulgent; it steps up to the edge of absurdity and probably slips over a few times (the chorus of insects; Euphorion). But it also contains (and here the comparison with late Rembrandt, the painter of The Prodigal Son and The Jewish Bride, is most appropriate) the entire work's most beautiful and affecting section, the Baucis and Philemon episode. Act V--until the rather arbitrary ex machina salvation in the epilogue--justifies better than anything else Goethe's classification of Faust as a tragedy. Faust's drive to build an edenic paradise in land reclaimed from the sea and his mutually fatal conflict with Baucis and Philemon is Goethe's final and perhaps greatest artistic triumph, an entirely successful synthesis of Romantic heroism and Classical tragedy that truly reads like the spirit of Greece resuscitated in a 19th-century text. It's a piece of sublime artistic magic. My only complaint (in addition to the one about the bogus ending--which I half-jokingly contend is Mephistopheles's final trick on the audience) is that Act V isn't longer. It should be at least as long as the tedious "Classical Walpurgis Night."

Friday, June 5, 2009

DIALECTIC OF ENLIGHTENMENT by Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno

Horkheimer and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment--yet another book I've put off reading for far too long--is a fine, important and still challenging work. Written in LA in the mid-1940s by two refugees from Nazi Germany, it stands alongside Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, Hermann Broch's The Death of Vergil and Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus as a testament to the fact that while the Nazis persecuted and scattered the German intelligentsia, they failed to destroy it. The Dialectic is in many ways a preliminary, exploratory work. There is a sense throughout that despite their authoritative tone, the authors are 'trying out' ideas that will be elaborated in subsequent works. (Adorno's late Negative Dialectics, for example, a book W.G. Sebald called " boring as Hegel." As a young scholar in the late 1960s, Sebald admired Adorno's earlier work and corresponded with him in the last years of his life.) But the Dialectic is still valuable, both for its surprisingly compelling critique of enlightenment, showing how the concept has been inextricably bound up with domination, and for the brief glimpses--barely intimations--the authors give us of another way, a true enlightenment that has left domination behind and which can be achieved by a rigorous process of "negative" dialectical criticism, or "determinate negation." Yes, even these harsh critics of enlightenment find it potentially self-correcting--or rather, capable of correction. (Leftist critics of Adorno have cited this idea as evidence of a sentimental attachment to the Enlightenment. I am drawn to Adorno's side of the debate, questioning the wisdom of throwing out the enlightened baby with the bloody, imperialist bathwater.) The Dialectic, though, is an uneven book overall, with much that remains compelling alongside much that's questionable and dated (although the authors' prophecy that TV will be an interpellation machine beyond the wildest dreams of radio-bound 1930s fascists does appear to be on the money). The first two chapters, containing a general critique of enlightenment and a reading of the Odyssey that shows domination entangled with enlightenment at the beginnings of Western thought, are markedly superior to the chapters on Sade and the "culture industry." The latter, for all its renown and influence, seems to me the weakest of the book's four proper chapters. For an argument against the effects of the mass entertainment industry written in that industry's hometown, the chapter is far too abstractly and generally argued. And when the authors do stoop to concretize, they often stumble. A good example of this is the well-known passage on Chaplin's The Great Dictator. In their haste to equate the entirety of 1930s sentimental kitsch to European fascism, they compare the "amber waves" at the end of Chaplin's film to the tousled blonde locks of Hitler-approved 'Aryan' children in Nazi propaganda films. The comparison is superficial and demagogic, the sort of thing one would expect to read in the works of the overrated Allan Bloom or other intellectual disinformation artists. (On the other hand, the passage's larger point, on the alienation of human beings from nature via ideological popular 'nature' imagery, is probably valid.) That said, there's still much in the chapter that remains provocative and useful. Even a few hours spent vegetating before a TV in 2009 is enough to make Max and Teddy look like true prophets.

Thinking of the Dialectic's concept of enlightenment in conjunction with a viewing of Bernardo Bertolucci's disappointing 2004 film The Dreamers, I see the young American in the film as a nascent Adornoan, trying desperately in the final scene to express a vision of enlightenment without domination, resistance without the 'fascism' he finds even in the students' Molotov cocktails. This thought and the film's strong ending make me wish Bertolucci had gone all the way and made a truly extreme erotic film instead of the rather vanilla Playboy piece the final edit created. I wish he had explored the gay male side of the triangle, spent more time on the psychology of the hermetic, incestuous, movie-mediated world that the French brother and sister have created for themselves, explored the girl's relationship with her father, gone deeper into the collisions of politics, aesthetics and sexuality--in short, I wish Bernardo had given us a 1900-like three-hour erotic epic. That would have been the masterpiece The Dreamers isn't.

GRAVITY'S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon (Part IV)

Now I'm thinking about the theories of fascism adumbrated in Pynchon's novel. The one he belabors in GR--and which gets him into artistic difficulties--is also probably the weakest: fascism as the deployment of sadomasochism (usually gay male) by powerful elements in society. This is the old pop Freudian Nazism-as-sexual-perversion/anal-sadism theory, and it has a seriously problematic relationship to historical fact. Nazism, far from deploying and/or celebrating non-normative sexuality, punished it severely both in its own ranks and the general society. (Recall the purge of the reputedly sexually 'deviant' SA and the Nazi imprisonment of homosexuals.) The Nazis were, for the most part, deeply conservative, petit-bourgeois resenters who opposed anything that smacked of 'modernism' (hence their cozy relationship with the 20th century's most reactionary pope). Pynchon clearly knows these facts, but he doesn't allow them to get in the way of his theory, a serious aesthetic and intellectual flaw. (And it occurs to me now that it's time to put this mostly bogus theory of fascism to rest by showing it to be an ahistorical postwar back-formation, a reading backwards onto Nazism of postwar sadomasochists' attraction to Nazi regalia as symbols of ultimate evil power--the 20th century's substitute for the Satanism of 19th-century Decadents. This historical fallacy married to then-popular Freudian notions of sadism and anality produces a serious misunderstanding of Nazism's relationship to homosexuality.)

Fortunately, Gravity's Rainbow also contains a more general, more deeply disturbing, and thus more interesting theory of fascism. It comes in the 'icebox exploration' riff (pages 677-8, in my edition), where fascism is troped as "thermodynamic elitism": "...the Grid's big function in this system is iceboxery: freezing back the tumultuous cycles of the day to preserve this odorless small world, this cube of changelessness..." Here, in a parenthetical aside buried in one of the book's silliest moments, is what may be its most explicit and far-reaching theory of fascism. Fascism is 'thermodynamic elitism,' the desire to 'freeze' systems in their present state of fascist control, thus forestalling entropic change, halting the dialectical movement of history. The old Marxist dialectic is an explicit object of Pynchonian satire in the late exchange between Tchitcherine and the drug salesman Wimpe; it is also, of course, implicitly satirized in GR's overall dialectical structure, Force giving rise to Counterforce. But Pynchon isn't just singing that Ol' Time Dialectical Religion to leftist true believers. He's criticizing the dialectic in a shocking and terrifying way. In Gravity's Dialectic, Force co-opts and/or obliterates Counterforce. This is a dialectic of tragedy of the sort outlined by A.C. Bradley in Shakespearean Tragedy (a book TP might have been forced to read at Cornell). Bradley writes: "Shakespeare's general to show one set of forces advancing, in secret or open opposition to the other, to some decisive success, and then driven downward to defeat by the reaction it provokes." The London Counterforcers end up like Byron the Bulb, knowing exactly how to subvert the System but so enmeshed in and dependent upon the System that they're impotent to act effectively and can only become "pet freaks" of the System, uselessly elaborating dialectical dreams. Make no mistake, at the end of GR (and, by implication, in our world, because our world is the world announced in 1945) fascism has already won. Period. Have a Nice Day in Happyville...

...Or maybe not. Because there is another story told in the last 100 pages of the novel--if we care to see it. Even under Pynchonian technocorporate fascism, a kind of dialectical movement persists. At this fascism's most extreme moment, the obliteration of Hiroshima, Slothrop is not frozen into the hard, reified subject that fascism desires. Rather, he is blown entropically apart, a centrifugal movement that is the dialectical opposite of fascism's rigidly centripetal motion. After the Bomb, we see Slothrop only in fragments. We can create no coherent picture of him, but this may not be because the bombing has obliterated his subjectivity. It may be that Slothrop has gone almost entirely "off the grid." He is living outside the rational categories and structures of power, and power can only detect him when he flits within those structures, always on their margins (an album by an obscure London rock band, disorderly harmonica playing in Nixon-era LA). Interestingly, Pynchon gives 'Slothrop' (we should use quotes when discussing the ritually disassembled 'character' at novel's end) the kind of life the novel's dedicatee, Richard Farina, might have lived: a folkie on the margins of popular music with some shadowy connections to the Sixties counterculture--and oh yeah, there's that novel he wrote back in the Sixties that no one reads anymore, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (the recent Penguin edition has an intro by TP). And this thought leads inevitably, like Robert McNamara's dominoes falling, to the other person Slothrop more than slightly resembles: an American writer of most improbable bestsellers who has scrupulously avoided the mass media Grid for his entire adult life, so that the only pictures of him floating around on the Web are geeky high school yearbook photos and a goofy ID pic from his Navy days. A writer whose avoidance of the media hasn't kept him from leading a full and non-reclusive life--J.D. Salinger he ain't, despite what some have said. Yes, Slothrop's final fragments may be a fanciful self-portrait--and don't hold your breath for a less grainy one. (A few years ago, I saw a photograph of Pynchon walking on an NYC sidewalk ca.1997. My first thought was that the photographer had screwed up and snapped a picture of Kurt Vonnegut. The two writers do kinda sorta vaguely resemble each other in grainy, distant photographs.) So it does appear that authentic life remains a possibility even under the fascism triumphant at novel's end. But it's a life that those interpellated by the ratio (that's us, folks) can't see. So we move through our lives oblivious to it, until by sheer good/bad luck it crashes like a rocket (or a novel) straight into our heads. This may be the deepest meaning of the novel's ending, and its only note of hope--the maybe-not-entirely-illusory pot of gold at the end of Pynchon's Rainbow.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

GRAVITY'S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon (Part III)

A-and speaking of endings, how about the end of that Tyrone Slothrop? What happens to Slothrop over the course of the novel and why? That question can only be satisfactorily answered at essay- or book-length, but I would like to sketch out a few ideas here. Recall that our introduction to Slothrop consists not of a description of his person but of an archaeology of his fabulously untidy desktop. (Recall also that among the many items on Slothrop's desk are a few jigsaw puzzle pieces--"...the orange nimbus of an explosion (perhaps a sunset), rivets in the skin of a Flying Fortress..."--that when put together in the reader's mind add up to Hiroshima.) So as the novel begins, Slothrop is not yet a 'subject,' in jargon terms; nor is he GR's subject in the usual sense of the word, since the book begins inside Pirate Prentice's mind. Over the course of the first section, we readers construct Slothrop's subjectivity from the seemingly random information we are given, until by the end of the London section he seems as hard or harder, more solid and rounded, than any of the other characters. We readers are exemplary paranoids, sometimes even making connections none of the novel's characters can see. Over the rest of the novel, Slothrop's seemingly solid identity is placed under increasing pressure and gradually begins to disintegrate, as symbolized by his comic costume changes, role playing, etc. In the latter parts of the book, simultaneous with the distortions brought about by bringing the novel in contact with the concentration camps, Slothrop begins to lose "personal density," the solidity of one's personality, which by Mondaugen's Law is directly proportional to "temporal bandwidth," the extent to which one is conscious of one's past and future. Continuity, then, is subjectivity, and living only in the Now reduces the thickness of one's self toward zero. (Mondaugen's Law is both a satire of the kinds of equations Pynchon was forced to memorize as an engineering student at Cornell and a critique of one strain of pop 'existentialism' that found its way into the Sixties counterculture.) In the book's last 100 or so pages, when Slothrop wanders through northern Germany, he appears to regain (or construct) his 'self' in communion with nature. These scenes, the novel's most traditionally Romantic, culminate in a stunningly eroticized Lawrentian vision of a rainbow: "...Slothrop sees a very thick rainbow here, a stout rainbow cock driven down out of pubic clouds into Earth, green wet valleyed Earth, and his chest fills and he stands crying, not a thing in his head, just feeling natural...." Some time later, Slothrop finds a fragment of newspaper with a photograph of the Hiroshima mushroom cloud, described in imagery that horrifyingly transforms the earlier rainbow: "...a wirephoto of a giant white cock, dangling in the sky straight downward out of a white pubic bush..." The imagery of sublime natural beauty has been transformed utterly by the annunciation of the atomic age into an image of colossal pornography. An image of all-encompassing love has "become death, the destroyer of worlds." The unassimilable horror of Hiroshima blows Slothrop away. Henceforth we see him only in fragments, memories, legends. In philosophical terms, the Bomb puts a period to Slothrop's personal dialectic of subjectivity by shattering the synthesizing self. The spectre of nuclear annihilation has blown his mind, as it should really have blown all of our minds--and as it would have, had we not been culturally insulated and interpellated by ideologies that tried to defang its horror. The final, fragmented, Orphic Tyrone is a barometer of human existence in the nuclear age. His disintegrated madness is a form of sanity in a psychotic world. (Another echt-Romantic notion.)

This is but one possible sketch of Slothrop's trajectory through the novel. There are many others. (It would even be possible to argue that Slothrop dies somewhere around page 360 after drinking tainted water in the Tiergarten fountain and the rest of the novel consists of his dying, feverish fantasies--but that's probably a longshot.) My reading does, however, correspond well to another of the book's major themes, the eroticization of thanatos and the thanatization of eros. (I'm now following interpretive tracks laid down by Walter A. Davis in his book Death's Dream Kingdom.) It's a theme dramatized most obviously in the Blicero narrative, culminating in Blicero encasing his beloved Gottfried in a rocket, symbol of death. Returning to the Hiroshima newspaper fragment, we see an image of a militarized pinup girl (the "old fashioned" eroticization of thanatos) contrasted with the mushroom cloud as something of a different and far more shocking order, the thanatization of eros, the life instinct being wholly co-opted by desire for death. It's an insufferable situation that (in one reading) finally destroys Slothrop's coherent self or (in another) reveals the incoherence and randomness beneath the paranoid construction that we readers(its partial creators) called his 'self.'

And even having written three posts now (with another longish one still to come), I know I've merely scratched the surface of this novel's greatness. Here is a 760-page novel in which the first 100 pages, the middle 100 pages and the final 100 pages are equally brilliant and surprising--something that almost never happens in long novels. Even more remarkable, on the level of craft, is the fact that this book hardly ever lags. There's very little slack in GR. It's a big book, but there's precious little excess fat on its bones. There may be no other novel of its generation that's both this long and this tight. And did I mention that it's funny as hell? And that it contains cogent, knowing critiques of technocracy and corporatism that sadly remain relevant 35 years later? And did I mention that this is the only--the ONLY--'postmodern' novel that doesn't look like a bloated masturbating midget when placed next to Ulysses? (Really. It's that good.) A-and...Aw shit, just read the damn thing--at least twice.

GRAVITY'S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon (Part II)

Having finished Gravity's Rainbow now, I'm attempting to see the novel whole--a task complicated by the fact that the first 100 pages, read a week ago, seem to be a great distance back in time. I can now see the surprising and perhaps ultimately tragic progress of the Force-Counterforce dialectic. By the novel's midpoint, we seem to have settled into an almost comfortable oscillation between tragic images of horror and death and the wildly comic imaginative flights that Pynchon associates with life. But Pynchon refuses to let the novel remain in this steady state of dynamic oscillation (a position I'm tempted to compare to the 'endpoint' of deManian deconstruction: two mutually exclusive and equally plausible meanings oscillating around a point of radical uncertainty). Pynchon pushes his own construction further, until it begins to break down when it encounters horrors unanswerable by even the darkest comedy. The turning point comes, fittingly, just past the novel's halfway point, in the long episode I'll call "Franz Pokler and His Daughter(s)." It's a beautiful and terrible sequence, one of the novel's many high-points, and it focuses on the SS's strategy for controlling rocket engineer Franz Pokler by manipulating his deepest parental and erotic desires, allowing him to spend a few days each year with a girl presumed to be his daughter, who spends the rest of the year in a concentration camp. (Franz's uncertainty as to whether this girl is his daughter and his suspicion that a different girl is being sent to him each year are perfect touches that raise this little narrative to the level of Kafka.) At the end of the episode, with the war nearly over, a disillusioned Pokler forces himself to walk into the Dora concentration camp (a historical camp that fed slave laborers to the Nazi rocket program), forces himself to face the reality that his equations, his devotion to rational thought, forced him to repress, even as that reality was consuming his ex-wife and daughter. So Pynchon takes us inside the concentration camp. The scene is short (a mere two paragraphs) and impressionistic, but it's arguable that the movement that has governed the structure of the novel until this point is irrevocably altered by it. For here is a horror that comedy cannot answer. (The one time that TP does attempt to play the camps for laughs, his satirical description of the SS-themed sado-masochistic 'stadt' set up by homosexual prisoners from Dora, is the novel's biggest comic misfire. It's not satire of fascism but fascist satire, a genuinely repulsive passage that's probably the result of authorial homophobia (on display in a few passages here and there throughout the book) and Pynchon's reductive theory of fascism as S-M (about which I'll have more to say in a later post).) After this point, throughout the book's second half, the oscillations into comedy become more desperate, hysterical, and sometimes self-cancelling, as in the endless song "Sold on Suicide." The narrative voice also becomes more digressive, more apt to shift tones on a dime, more aggressive and insolent toward the reader. The ultimate failure of the comic strategy becomes clear at the end, when the self-proclaimed 'Counterforce' is reduced to pissing on board meetings and grossing-out wealthy diners, a kind of petty pranksterism that, while funny, doesn't affect the balance of power. The pranksters are doomed,like Byron the Bulb in his Grid, to become 'pet freaks' of the system, exemplary misfits whose continued existence and antics allow the state to advertise its 'tolerance.' The last we hear of the Counterforce, one of its members is giving an interview to the Wall Street Journal. Enough said.

Or is it?
The narrative of the most militant face of the Counterforce, the Schwarzkommando, is left unresolved and ambiguous. The narrator attempts to foist a transparently phony resolution upon the reader by showing Enzian and Tchitcherine meeting unknowingly on the road, but by this point in the novel any non-lobotomized reader should know not to trust the narrator. As he tells us--in one of his voices--"there's nothing so loathsome as a sentimental surrealist." So what happens to the Schwarzkommando and Rocket 00001? (I suspect, by the way, that this narrative gave TP some difficulties. It reads as though he wrote it without being quite sure where it was going. The other narrative lines don't give me this feeling at all.) About the Schwarzkommando no answer can be given apart from extratextual speculation, a labyrinth I prefer not to enter, but as to the question of Enzian's rocket, Pynchon has constructed one gaping ambiguity on the novel's final page. The rocket that crashes into the cinema is not explicitly identified as Rocket 00000 carrying Gottfried (God-fried/God-freed) to his death. And given the radical discontinuity of the novel's final pages, we may not be off the mark to interpret the final 'Descent' section not as a description of Gottfried's wartime descent but of the fall of the Schwarzkommando's missile, Enzian's anarchist terrorist 'revelation' visited upon a peacetime cinema to show that "Nowhere is safe," that safety, like Faulkner's 'victory,' is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

And let's think further about that ending for a moment. All of the book's audiences, the viewers and voyeurs who comprise one of its motifs, can be easily interpreted as stand-ins for Gravity's Rainbow's audience--you and me. That hurts, doesn't it? It should. We are Osbie Feel behind his camera, Grigori in his tank, the horny viewers of Alpdrucken and the far hornier Anubis orgiasts turned on by a performance of pedophile S-M. Yes-sir-ee, we're the rubes who've stepped right up to Tom Terrific's Flickering Freakshow, paid our two bits and spent a week or two inside. Fun, wasn't it? Let's see now: atrocity, genocide, murder, serial killing, rape, pedophilia, incest...heh, heh. Just good clean American fun here, folks. And this audience/reader-as-voyeur theme culminates when a cinema audience, frustrated because the film or projector has broken (itself an instance of the novel's 'persistence of vision' motif as well as a mirror reflecting back at the reader his own frustration at the novel's discontinuities), is transformed into the ground zero of a missile strike, an event that ends the novel (in midsentence) with an annihilating symbolic attack on its readers. It's hard to think of another novel that ends this violently, with such a sledgehammer-subtle assault on its own readers. Even Blood Meridian, surely the most superficially 'violent' of great American novels, doesn't fit the bill.

GRAVITY'S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon (Part I)

Almost 300 pages into a re-reading (my second complete reading) of Gravity's Rainbow, I'm finding it a much richer and more beautiful book than I remembered, and no less complex. Thinly disguised as an antiwar novel (a disguise as transparent as those donned by its characters) GR is actually the Great American Anti-Corporate Novel. It investigates, in a more complex, knowing and entertaining way than any other novel I've ever read, the tragic human effects of capitalism in its 'permanent war economy' mode. And even as I write that, I reel at its terrible reductiveness. Gravity's Rainbow exceeds and dissolves our interpretations by creating a seemingly horizonless comic world, an imaginative stage as big as reality, and by reading us as we read it, frequently breaking our suspension of disbelief to position us as voyeurs at its spectacles. This is what the novel's most self-conscious moments are ultimately about: denying the reader an 'exit' into the novel's fantasy world, keeping us positioned in our world and opening a wormhole into the reader's time. (I'm getting fuzzy and mystical and altogether too Psi Section now. I know. Too much time at the White Visitation...) More violently--and this is a work that sometimes treats its readers with great violence--Pynchon shows us at one point that we are like Pointsman's Pavlovian dogs (or more specifically, Grigori the octopus), responding on cue to TP's textual stimuli. This is not a book designed to make its readers comfortable, and those who come away only amused are surely misreading it. (Not, of course, to downplay the amusement, because GR is funny as hell--but that's hardly all it is.) Anyone who reads GR without understanding that Grigori in his tank watching the film of Katje is an image of himself reading about Katje is conveniently missing the most violent thing this novel does to its audiences. (Well, until the end, that is, when TP drops a rocket on us...)

If our understanding of the novel can be organized around a single theme (a rather absurd project, given a novel so varied and polyvocal), my candidate would be the idea of Force and Counterforce, of ultra-rational corporate power and the spontaneous, anarchic resistance that rises up in opposition to it. The deathly order of Power can be anarchically resisted by improvisation (bending the notes away from the "official frequencies"), an area in which TP is the John Coltrane or Charlie Parker of our literature. (I just paused to put on my CD of Coltrane's album Giant Steps, music for thinking about Pynchon.) This is the reason, the best and deepest justification, for all the novel's digressions and wild flights of fantasy and imagination. The novel exemplifies in its own form the kind of resistance it describes: Slothrop's slapstick antics, drinking games, stupid songs and labyrinthine plots are his improvised, spontaneous, anarchic acts of resistance to the forces of Death that represent power in the novel: Slothrop's "They," a group that stretches to include all military, governmental, scientific and corporate technocrats of death. Against them comes spontaneous life, wild sex, unsentimentalized love--all that is most Romantic in Pynchon. In the novel's form, at the level of narration, Slothrop's actions find their counterpart in Pynchon's choices: his multiple voices, incessant clowning, self-consciousness, goofball surrealism, slapstick comedy, long digressions, proliferating narrative lines. All of this characterizes Pynchon's resistance to traditional fictional forms (which he also clearly adores; the best analogy here is probably Pop Art's ironic relation to mass production) with their fixed formulas and rational rules, those carefully calculated equations that all add up to the death of art--or an art of death.