Monday, October 13, 2014

Additional Adversaria from the Summertime Notebook

In a novel, originality of form and language are fine and necessary, but in the absence of an interesting story they are frosting without a cake.

In the words of biologist J. B. S. Haldane, "The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose." I would say the same of Henry James.

Having just re-read J. G. Ballard's "The Garden of Time" and "The Drowned Giant," I find myself agreeing with Anthony Burgess that these two stories should surely be considered canonical. They exist on a level with the best of Kafka, Borges and Calvino. (Any writer who convinces me to compare him with Kafka is a master worthy of the highest respect.) Ballard is one of the very few 20th-century writers whose work can be as good and strange and cutting as Kafka's without also being derivatively 'Kafkaesque.'

Certainty is a vice of fanatics and fools.

Neal Stephenson's late (1992) cyberpunk novel Snow Crash begins promisingly, oozing supercool attitude and Tom Robbins-y metaphors. But the novel founders about 100 pages in, when Stephenson loses his cool, dials down the hyper-troping, and falls into a narrative rhythm of clumsy, repetitive exposition interrupted by increasingly ridiculous action scenes. Snow Crash may not have been intended as a parody of cyberpunk, but that's how most of the novel reads.

In the reverently silent cathedral of the tragic I give myself cramps trying to stifle a fart.

Picasso's relation to Surrealism, like Joyce's, follows the paradigm of Manet's relationship to Impressionism. He is the 'outside member,' part of the group yet apart from it, influencing it yet also influenced by it.

It is a fact of American life, exemplified again and again, that high school geeks become cool adults and high school coolios become mindless conformists and assholes.

This morning I gave myself an object lesson in the decline of American literary prose. I read the first page of Mary Gaitskill's Veronica (2005) and then the opening half-page of Stanley Elkin's The Franchiser (1976). One might expect at least a faint family resemblance between two works of literary fiction by two well-reviewed American writers, but these books differ in ways more fundamental than can be satisfactorily explained by the 30-year age difference. They spring from different aesthetic worlds. Gaitskill's prose is tediously typical of contemporary litfic: that lame, tepid, unadorned, faux-na├»ve bullshit that MFA students, editors, agents, etc. have all been brainwashed into thinking excellent. It is a prose that excels in nothing, except perhaps slavish conventionality (and this from a writer with a reputation for 'transgression'!) What a contrast flashes from Elkin's first page: he's manic, word-drunk, smart, witty, perceptive, a little loopy; he's fun and generous, and his prose sets off strings of linguistic firecrackers like New Year's in Chinatown. You can almost nose the hazy gunpowder. Elkin's prose makes me want to leap up like a pentecostalist at a revival meeting and holler, "Yea-yess! I can feel the spirit!" Next to Elkin's energy, Gaitskill seems constricted, her prose constipated, a slow, painful extrusion of strings of similar syllables. (Get her some stool softener, please!) She's shooting for insinuation instead of exaltation, but that's a conventional, academically-approved (and, today, positively old-fashioned) gambit. We need novels that grab the reader at sentence one and don't let go. We need to put some life back into our language--and from that living language build a literature that lives and laughs, loves and lusts, and leaves us wanting more.

No one will ever admire your fasting. Get busy.

Disease is the body's way of telling the mind, "Check it out, motherfucker, I'm in charge here." The body is very Al Haig.

In my most pessimistic moods I think of the human race not as nature's botched science experiment--that's too kind--but as a sixth-grade science fair project that got way out of hand. We're a baking soda volcano that won't stop erupting.

A negative reaction to a given book may signify nothing more than an inopportune reading moment. Encountered at a more appropriate time (for the book and the reader), the same book might blow us away. To be impressed by a book, we must read it at the right time. This is the unspoken element of contingency in all criticism. The positive or negative valence of a critic's first reaction to a book--the 'gut reaction' that his review will attempt, unconsciously, to rationalize--arises from a vast number of factors mostly unrelated to the text in question.

Art is life punching back at death.

"Every writer creates himself as best he can, all by himself, following no one's advice. And that's excruciating, but there's no other way." -- Pedro Juan Gutierrez, Dirty Havana Trilogy

Jonathan Franzen writes the kinds of books Anne Tyler might have written had she been an English department grad student during the 1980s. Franzen is Tyler plus postmodernism.

The reason almost all pornography is both grimmer and less awkward than actual sex is that pornography is fundamentally an elaboration of pre-sexual fantasy, the sexual fantasies of 13- and 14-year old boys.

The greatest American literature is a controlled madness. It's a thing of great formal beauty built out of bad craziness and apocalyptic visions. The greatest American literature has always 'worked the dark side' of our national consciousness, the side that D. H. Lawrence saw and imagined so well one hundred years ago in his little book on American lit. The great American artists burrow into those lightless caverns cut by genocide and slavery, by capitalism gone insane and madness in the name of gods. From Captain Ahab to Judge Holden is but a step, and those two points sufficiently define the main line of our literature. It is a line carefully sidestepped, avoided like a third rail, by the tepid suburban social realists continuously churned out by the MFA machine. Poor writers will always be with us, but good writers need not notice them. They should ponder instead the darkness that is their inheritance as Americans, the darkness without and the darkness within. (Written immediately after reading August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone.)

The novels of Russell Banks are the works of a literary Naturalist who thinks he's a Great American Symbolist. He may think he's writing in the tradition of Melville or Faulkner, but his imagination runs in a groove closer to Cather or Dreiser. In novels such as Affliction, his obvious Symbolist ambitions are constantly frustrated by an overly Naturalistic imagination.

The trouble with Nabokov as critic: He was a literary Mikey who hated everything.

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

In case the name doesn't ring Hector Salamanca's bell, the painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was one of the great originals of 20th-century British art. His range encompasses Blakean visions, WWI military scenes, Lawrencian nudes, Riveraesque industrial murals, attractive landscapes, and the only truly impressive religious paintings of our time. (Check out his late Crucifixion (1958) or any of his bizarre and unheimlich Resurrection paintings.) The 2001 exhibition catalogue Stanley Spencer, edited by Timothy Hyman and Patrick Wright, is the best introduction to the full range of his work. Be warned, however, that too many of the illustrations are unfortunately printed across the gutter between pages, and parts are inevitably lost.

The art critic Leo Steinberg on Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, from his 1972 essay "The Philosophical Brothel": "The picture is a total wave of female aggression; one either experiences the Demoiselles as an onslaught, or shuts it off." Good luck shutting it off. I've spent a lot of time at MOMA being stared at by Pablo's women, and even when I turn my back on them and walk toward another gallery I can still feel their eyes drilling into me.

Critics allegorize; artists imagine.

Our culture of overspecialization has assigned Marxism to humanities professors so that two birds can be more economically murdered with a single stone.

The best songs by The Band, like many of Bob Dylan's best, seem to have been built out of baling wire and old tractor parts and held together with secret spells. They're as American as Grant Wood and as Gothic as Edgar Allan Poe.

"...dreaming is another kind of remembering..." -- Sigmund Freud, "Wolf Man" case history

In his American Masters documentary, Philip Roth speaks of Chekhov's idea of the duty of the writer: "the proper presentation of the problem." The problem, not the solution. Solutions are for fanatics and math teachers. Problems are more interesting.

Belief is much more dangerous than doubt.

I'm attracted to the idea that the fearsome void of nothingness can be understood dialectically as the origin point of authentic being. The void appears hellish only to those who see it through glasses ground by Paul, Augustine & Aquinas, lensmakers to the Lord. The fear of freedom is theirs; it need not be ours.

Alienation is out of style. If it weren't, it wouldn't be alienation.

In the end, as in the beginning, making art is about trusting yourself and following your vision, your imagination, your worldview. But the vision must be yours. Mine, perhaps the only thing besides my body that I can truly call mine, is my vision of reality as a place where maddening nothingness alternates unpredictably with intoxicating beauty; my idea that art and sex, aestheticism and eroticism, run off the same circuit of desire; my knowledge that corporate dominance, like religious and state hegemony in the past, is devaluing and degrading individual human life; my idea (stolen from science and Sartre but now mine by long possession) that all of life is meaningless, a product of pure chance, a lucky coup de des of astronomical and biological variables, but that individuals can produce meaning in their lives by acting in freedom. And the first act must always be the act of freeing oneself--first, last, and lifelong. Freeing oneself is a fight to the death.

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