Thursday, December 3, 2015

An Adorno Moment

I'm having something of an Adorno moment this morning. How can we write poetry, fiction, plays, musicals, symphonies, etc. in a world where a husband and wife carry out a military assault on his office Christmas party in San Berdoo, where people are executed for the crime of attending a rock concert or the even greater crime of drawing cartoons? In a time of insanity, what is the place of art? Is any expression other than a howl of pain or outrage somehow immoral, unethical, imbecilic, escapist? Is artistic creation anything other than an admission of impotence in the face of a world that horrifies us? Is art anything more than a narcissistic escape into representation and imagination, a fearful flight from reality?

Days like these (and these days are becoming a weekly occurrence in America), I want to throw up my hands in disgust and despair and rename the country 'Active Shooter Situation' (the acronym fits) or 'the U.S. of N. R. A.' Mass murder has become so common in these Whitmanic states that our responses to it have hardened into ritualistic repetition. Every week we mouth the same tired lines, offer the same empty prayers and impotent clichés of condolence, watch the same reporters report the same stories over and over, only the faces changing, only the faces... We look upon the victims we did not know and weep shallow, sentimental tears that should burn our faces... We should put our eyes out like Oedipus before we defile the memory of the dead with our false, self-cleansing grief... We acknowledge for a moment that we live inside a madness and then a day later we continue living inside that madness, calling it the only sanity we can know. And we go on and on inside the madness, continue blindly playing the terrible, absurdist play our world has become (Endgame or No Exit as rewritten by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Quentin Tarantino).

This is the sickening kabuki of American atrocity, the no play of the nothingness we are:

Act One: An asshole or two walk into the local semi-auto gunshop and buy a bunch of weapons that no sane nation would make available to civilians.

Act Two: Said sphincter gets really pissed-off and turns to his holy handgun for solace and support in his time of troubles.

Act Three: The angry anus, disguised as a dick, drives to a public place and indiscriminately ejaculates metal drops of death.

Act Four: Wolf Blitzer announces the 'Breaking News' and simulates sanity by pretending to be shocked at events that have now become tediously routine.

Act Five: Politicians offer shaking heads and formulaic words and hands clenched in powerless prayer.

Act Six: We see the faces of the innocent dead and avoid thinking of how quickly they will be overwritten in our memories by the next week's display of  the next group of faces of the innocent dead.

Act Seven: Return to Act One and repeat the play until you choke to death on your own vomit.

So what is to be done? What can we do to change this world in which we can no longer live, this place where closing our eyes and going about our daily lives is an act of near-criminal negligence?

Franz Kafka, the only true prophet of our world, wrote in his Blue Octavo Notebooks, "In a world of lies the lie is not removed from the world by means of its opposite, but only by means of a world of truth." This thought is like the tiny doorway into Alice's garden; it offers a narrow exit from the position of Adornoesque ethical despair. In a world overtaken by death, a place increasingly resembling a Yeatsian apocalypse where the worst vomit forth their Trumped-up intensity and the best keep quiet lest they risk the bully's fist, the most needful thing, the most desperately necessary activity, is the construction, slowly and brick by brick, of a world of life.

And this is where art, stomping on cothurni and clad in the tattered rags of centuries, enters stage left to steal the show. For art is life's way of punching back at death. And art is a very dirty fighter. Art doesn't respect the rules. Art punches below death's belt, gouges out his eyes, picks the sorry motherfucker up by the ankles and slams him headfirst into a concrete floor. Art will pick up the nearest lead pipe and go all Louisville Slugger on death's all-powerful ass. Art is our secret weapon and our best defense. It's two fisted middle fingers raised in a colossal 'fuck you' to death. It is the thing we must do, the beautiful curse, the hunger that eats at us until we feed it. We not only can create art after such events; we must. Despair is not a crushing weight; it's the air we breathe, the substance of our lives. Take it in and transform it. Get busy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

For My 500th post...a comic credo

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

Heine's line recurs to me on this raincloudy gray November day, and for my 500th post here at Mindful Pleasures, with a mind to the horrors that are being unleashed around the world in the names of gods, I want to expand upon Heine and state my own little comic credo, my modest ejaculation on the side of life, and let it stand as a Lenny Brucean "unfuck you" to everyone and everything on the side of death in this sometimes terrible sometimes wonderful world. Pardon my parataxis:

Oard's Credo:
There is no god but Aristophanes and Petronius and Boccaccio and Chaucer and Rabelais and Cervantes and Shakespeare and Congreve and Moliere and Swift and Pope and Fielding and Sterne and Diderot and Voltaire and Carroll and Wilde and Joyce and Kafka and Bulgakov and Beckett and Nabokov and West and Heller and Grass and Vonnegut and Irving and Pynchon and Barthelme and Rushdie and Roth and Vidal and Jong and Wallace and Amis the father and Amis the son and that holy goat Anthony Burgess--and Henry Miller is His profane prophet.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Quite Possibly the Funniest Commercial Ever Made

This commercial for Squatty Potty is sheer comic genius. It's Rabelais meets Don Draper on a jolly Sgt. Pepper-era acid trip through Samuel Delany's The Mad Man.  Mindful Pleasures doesn't endorse this product (yet), but the ad is the funniest thing I've seen in months. You'll laugh until soft serve ice cream slides out of your butt.

Literary Readings and Conversations: Thirteen Valuable Recordings

In this interview from the early 1970s, Katherine Anne Porter speaks in a voice that is half Irish-American and half an approximation of what Marilyn Monroe's voice might have sounded like had she lived into her eighties:

Here are Norman Rush and his wife and muse Elsa at a reading and interview moderated by Mona Simpson

Here's a link to a 97-minute interview with the great Portuguese novelist Antonio Lobo Antunes. It took place in 2008 at the New York Public Library. Lobo Antunes is a laconic, difficult interview subject here, but that's probably because he's uncomfortable speaking in English.

In 1975, 60 Minutes featured a dual profile of Henry Miller and Erica Jong. Yes, Mike Wallace really interviews Henry Miller in his bed. Miller is wonderful, as always, and Jong looks poignantly young.

One night in 1981, Dick Cavett conducted a dual interview of John Cheever and John Updike. That's right, it's a Dick and two Johns. Updike and Cheever spend the half-hour complimenting each other--and they're meta enough to joke about the fact.

Here's an audio recording of Paul Celan reading his best-known poem, "Todesfuge" (Death Fugue):

Here's W.G. Sebald reading and speaking in an October 2001 appearance with Susan Sontag at the 92nd Street Y in New York:

And here's an hour-long audio recording of Vladimir Nabokov reading at the same locale almost 40 years earlier:

Junot Diaz gives good interview, and this discussion with Hilton Als at the Strand bookstore in Manhattan is an especially good example of the Dominican-American whirlwind in performance mode:

A Canadian surrealist and a literary talkshow host walk into a bar... Here's a video of a very interesting conversation between KCRW Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt and Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin. America's best literary interviewer talks with North America's most engagingly original film artist. (The introduction is long, but (unlike most such intros) quite interesting. Don't skip it.)

Here are Silverblatt and William Gass talking about and around Gass's massive magnum opus, The Tunnel, and his later Cartesian Sonata:

In 2002, Silverblatt traveled to John Berger's farmhouse in rural France and recorded this two-part conversation with the great British writer.

Finally, here's the raw unedited recording of a 2003 German TV interview with David Foster Wallace. The interviewer isn't miked, so it's necessary to adjust the volume whenever she speaks. The great thing about this interview is that Wallace knows "90% of this is going to be cut anyway;" he thus speaks more naturally, more haltingly, more intimately than he ever did on Charlie Rose, for example.

And as a bonus, here's a 1995 recording of an unknown young author named Barack Obama reading from his first book and taking audience questions. Oh, for a time machine, so I could travel back to this small room in Cambridge, Mass., and inform the audience that in 13 years, the skinny Harvard grad at the podium would be President of the United States. Check out, at 44:48, young Obama's cheeky remark about Cornel West: "Cornel West has to go back to his Bible. You gotta have faith."


Allow me to underline what John Oliver said (click the link at top of YouTube screen below to watch the clip at their site):

Yes, you sick suicidal motherfuckers, I will see your vile misinterpretation of the Koran and raise it the collected works of Voltaire, Balzac, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Rimbaud, Zola, Huysmans, Proust, Cocteau, Breton, Sartre, Beauvoir, Camus, Robbe Grillet, Duras, Yourcenar, Simon, and even Jacques fucking Derrida....You galactic arseholes just attacked a country where the national anthem boasts about French soldiers watering their fields with the blood of their enemies:

Aux armes, citoyens!           To arms, citizens!
Formez vos battaillons!        Form your battalions!
Marchons, Marchons,           March, march
Qu'un sang impur                Until the [enemy's] impure blood
abreuve nos sillons              Waters the furrows of our fields

(National anthems tend toward jingoistic militarism, but La Marseillaise is especially over the top; it's almost as though it were ghostwritten by the Marquis de Sade.)

I love Paris. In a sense that goes far beyond accidents of birth and residency, Paris is my place, my city, my home. It's the only place in the world where I've ever felt that heimlich emotion of existential belonging. One evening in late April of 2002, while marching in an anti-fascist demonstration at the Place de la Bastille, I looked at all the Parisians marching around me--men and women, young and old, black and white and brown, European, African, Asian, suited straights and leather-clad gays, yuppies, hippies, the works--and I, the foreigner, the American in their midst, was overcome by the certainty that there was no place on Earth where I would rather be, should rather be, than here on this boulevard teeming with Parisians, all chanting over and over in one voice into the chill night air, "Nous sommes tous des enfants d'immigres!". This was my home. J'aime Paris.

And last Friday those unspeakable motherfuckers tried to kill the place I love. Look at their targets and you will know their deepest motive, deeper than religion, deeper than politics. They attacked a soccer stadium, a bistro, a concert hall--places where people have fun, places of pleasure. They could have attacked any number of places and inflicted the same amount of pain--the Metro at rush hour, a crowded funeral at a Parisian church--but they chose to murder people who were enjoying themselves. If puritanism can be defined as the overpowering fear that someone, somewhere, at this very moment, is having a good time, then the attacks of 11/13 can be understood as manifestations of a murderous, religion- and resentment-fueled puritanism. A puritanism pushed beyond the point of obscenity, a puritanism in league with death, that's what attacked Paris last week. We can neither pretend nor attempt to imagine the pain those sons of bitches inflicted before they blew themselves to bits. Their deepest desire was that the orgy of suffering they unleashed would be the only thing to outlive them. Fuck them. Fuck them...  Today I look at the crowds and candles on Place de la Republique and I think: The assholes have already lost. Paris is alive. Paris is life. Paris, je t'aime.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Adversaria 2015: Randoom Ruemynations of a Joycean Materialist

In the Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 'adversaria' (from the Latin adversaria scripta, 'things written on the side') is defined as "Miscellaneous collections of notes. The kind of things that most writers accumulate in a notebook, day book, journal or diary." As a Joycean materialist who enjoys focusing on the material components of art--the Van Gogh brushstrokes, the Wake-ish weltwords--I'm drawn to the look of the word 'adversaria,' the way it begins like an advertisement then metamorphoses like Mad Men into an aria of aversion, twisting and turning on its sinuous little s, the sibilant snake in this word's garden... It's a word with a rattle on its tail and poison in its teeth, and that's why it makes me think of the South Dakota afternoon when I stepped out of my car at Badlands National Park and heard a rattlesnake in the nearby brush and thought, "That sounds just like a rattler on a movie soundtrack; now I know I'm in the West."

A 'Joycean materialist'? Yes. That's the label I just invented on the fly to signify an angle of vision that privileges the material (i.e., historical, empirical) causes and components of phenomena ranging from Ulysses and  Voyna i mir to the human species and the rock it rose upon. Call it philosophical materialism with a sense of humor and beauty. Call it the intellectual carnivalesque. Call it Ishmael if you're into seafood. Just don't call it a hermeneutic, a word that always makes me think of the censoriously neutered herms of ancient Greece.

While 'intellectual' and 'ineffectual' will always rhyme, there's no need to make them synonymous.

A thought on the progression of James Joyce's art: if Dubliners was conceived and composed at the level of the story, each tale a discrete and complete act of creation, then we can say that the Portrait is composed at the level of the paragraph, Ulysses at the level of the sentence, and Finnegans Wake at the level of the word. Joyce's career can be likened to a microscope that discovers increasing complexity in progressively smaller objects. His oeuvre has a kind of fractal structure.

Malcolm Lowry, sober perhaps and speaking somewhere of Under the Volcano (that beautiful, doomy, sugar skull of a book), quoted Edmund Wilson's description of Gogol as an artist of "the forces in man which cause him to be terrified of himself." I find this fragment haunting, profoundly haunting.

On possessions and personality: The discourses of consumer capitalism address an ontological emptiness at the core of the capitalist self and offer to heal this wound by filling it with commodities. (And what is religion but another commodity? Give me ten percent of your income and I'll get you out of Hell.) New Age types used to tell people, "You are not what you own." But of course, as the statement implies (for otherwise it need not be spoken), we are the things we own. That's why we bought them. Our impossible consumerist mission is to magic ourselves into the lives of the implied owners of our stuff. We want to be the things we own--or more precisely, we want to be the kinds of people we believe would own these things.

Official American Literature, the effluent of the MFA programs, stands stubbornly stuck in the sole-sucking muck of the damned dead twentieth century. (I like that sentence; I'll leave it unelaborated.)

Literary arguments--genre vs. literary fiction, modernism vs. postmodernism, realism vs. fantasy, moralism vs. play--all seem increasingly like so many Bartleby-esque dead letters in this era of technotriumph where we find it difficult even to imagine a life without screens before our faces and phones clipped to our hips. Whither War and Peace in a world where a 140-character tweet is considered a composition?

The dirty realists of the 1980s--epigones all, to some extent, of the great prose poet Raymond Carver--composed polite, digestible fictions of impolite people and things for a polite, upper middle-class audience. These stories and novels allowed Upper West Siders to feel fine about blinding themselves to the homeless guy pushing a shopping cart along their sidewalks because they had already experienced revelatory transports of sympathy for imaginary lower-class characters in a Carver story. Dirty realism let its readers be altruistic in their minds instead of their lives--a much more cost-effective proposition than actual charity.

One must not live a stupid life. Avoid at all cost the typical, thoughtless, merely nominal existence of those who confuse breathing with living. The things that individualize you, that set you apart, that make you different, these are the things that--to the extent that they are not gratuitously harmful to self or others--you should allow yourself to love about yourself. This is my ethics, briefer than Aristotle's.

The form of adherence that vulgar American religiosity calls 'faith' is often nothing of the sort. American religion values not faith but certainty--certainty of sin, certainty of salvation, certainty that anybody who doesn't love Jesus can go to hell. And certainty, this fanatical fundamentalist certainty that brooks no doubt, is the very annihilation of faith. The certain have no need of faith; they know--or think they do, in their overwhelming pride. True faith, as a self-evident matter of logic, can only exist in the context of true doubt. Doubt is the classic Cartesian matrix from which intelligent, authentic religious belief is born and in which it lives. This type of faith is probably as rare as an existentially authentic self.

Nietzsche in Beyond Good and Evil calls for a "new species of philosopher" to synthesize the sentimental antitheses of traditional moral philosophy, knitting truth to deception, altruism to selfishness, etc. He calls these transgressive thinkers "philosophers of the dangerous 'perhaps'." (He is, rather obviously, calling forth himself, as Christ presumably did in the tomb.) We could use such philosophers today. Our conformist world needs more imaginists of the dangerous 'perhaps.'

The reduction of literary fiction to the status of contemporary poetry--an academic avocation, something professors write in their spare time--would be a disaster for our cultural imagination. The impulse that pushes punkish life back into letters, if it is to come, must come from outside the academic echo chamber. New voices, genuinely new ones, won't twist their mouths to the received ideas of corporate prose (for academicization is, alas, corporatization). Self-made selves (and what could be more traditionally American than that?) will inevitably have their own ideas. That's the trouble, from a corporate viewpoint, with authenticity; that's why it must be pressed to death under the double doors of poverty and oblivion. The new is always the strange, the weird, the uncanny. Originality is a country without maps; it's a county in the High Plains depicted as blank white space by Rand McNally but in fact a site of sublime desolation, way out, out there in the vastness. It's hard to see the new, literally impossible to re-cognize it. Our difficulty in describing it arises from the dearth of consensus clichés. When new things stare us in the face, we often fail to see them.

Something different, something new.... The new is a wound in the fabric of reality. It is a passage, a door. The new is an event, a bonfire of the mediocrities. True artists warm themselves there and wander home in the crazy shadows cast by its light.

Language is the instrument; prose is the music.

I just stumbled upon my favorite goofy-nihilistic Derridean title: "The Almost-Nothing of the Unrepresentable." Apparently it's an old interview with Derrida (new ones would be seances), but it could've been the subtitle of David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress. Or most of Beckett, I suppose.

David Foster Wallace was doomed to write late 20th-century academic fiction; that is, he wrote the fiction one would expect from a talented artist enclosed from birth in an academic environment and intellectually formed by the critical theory-delimited world of the 1980s American English department. Infinite Jest is as much an endless riff on Lacan as on Pynchon or DeLillo. It may well be the most Lacanian novel ever written. Wallace tried to break out of the box in his final decade, but his best-known fiction is written from and to an academic trend (postmodernism) that now sometimes seems as quaint and antiquated as a dance card from a widow's hope chest.

John Cheever, in his journal, writing of the men's room at Grand Central Station and its homosexual temptations: "The sensible thing is to stay out of such places." ... The sensible thing is a bore. No one wants to read a novel about people who do sensible things. We want Raskolnikovs and Mickey Sabbaths, vile underground men ranting in Gassean tunnels, murderers, punks, pimps and whores--the whole Ringling Brothers-Jean Genet Circus. We want Nabokovian madmen gunning their doubles down. We want Hazel Motes in his glare-blue suit riding into yet another town. We want William Burroughs probing for a vein, Henry Miller risking clap in a low-rent brothel. To hell with the sensible thing.

Authenticity means living the self you freely create, not fitting your life and mind into the hand-me-down personality that was forced upon you before you had the power to resist.

Comedy is the juice, the electricity, the soulsap, the Sun. It's a shard-sharp counterpoint to tragedy's doomtone, that music of death, Wagnerian and gloomysweet. Comedy is the psychedelic popsong of life, the Joycean cacophony, the blab of Whitman's pave. It's the white noise of blazing static, too many stations and too much information, rock and roll...

In an interview, Jonathan Lethem lists Henry Roth's Call It Sleep, Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, James Baldwin's Another Country, Anthony Powell's massive A Dance to the Music of Time, and Samuel Delany's endless, enigmatic Dhalgren as novels that exhibit a "sprawling, shaggy lifelike-ness...They spill and swell and stagger...They're shaped like bags, which take the form of what's contained" (Conversations with Jonathan Lethem, 44).

One leftist's view of political correctness: Smart conservatives secretly cheer whenever the academic left goes P.C. crazy, because such fads allow them to almost-credibly project their own rightist authoritarianism upon the left. And there's also the not negligible benefit of all that leftist energy expended in ephemeral campus politics while conservatives take over the country--the real country, the one off-campus. As Lafayette remarked when he rode into Paris during the revolution of 1830, I've been here before. The P.C. 2.0 that's currently the bane of American university humanities departments will eventually come to shipwreck, like all illiberal liberalisms, on the rocks of its glaring internal contradictions. This happened to original P.C. back in my day (the early 90s), and I suspect that the current revival of this tiresome, self-defeating claptrap is an ironic result of that most conservative of academic things, tenure. Grad students who conformed to old school P.C. in the 80s and 90s are today mid-career academics moving into leadership roles. They are the bearers of an outdated ideology that exists only on an institutional respirator. Maybe it's time to ask ourselves, What would Dr. Kevorkian do? (This is my first and last statement on P.C., a topic I find approximately as interesting as belly button lint.)

The Frankfurt School and the more mandarin styles of critical theory often exhibit an odd (and sometimes perversely, quirkily appealing) aesthetic masochism. They do not permit themselves to enjoy any cultural artifact that doesn't hurt. Yes, listen to Schoenberg, they tell us, but not the later, beautiful Schoenberg, only the Schoenberg that sounds like 27 cats being electrocuted in a bank vault. This cold Germanic (perhaps, ultimately, Lutheran) anhedonia is the very thing that turns many readers away from Adorno. (For a sharp contemporaneous contrast, consider the Surrealists and their enthusiasm for the Marx Brothers.)

A Twelve-Step Cure for Political Correctness:
  1. The Satyricon by Petronius
  2. The Metamorphoses by Ovid
  3. The Arabian Nights
  4. Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia
  5. The London National Gallery's collection of paintings by Titian
  6. Shakespeare's plays and poems
  7. The Dunciad by Alexander Pope
  8. The paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and pottery of Picasso
  9. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
  10. Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth
  11. The Mad Man by Samuel R. Delany
  12. The director's cut of Lars Von Trier's film Nymphomaniac

There's a natural tendency for 'voice novels'--novels written entirely in the highly distinctive voice of the central character (examples: Tropic of CancerPortnoy's Complaint, Money)--to become one-character pieces in which the narrator is permitted to be complex, contradictory, attractive/repulsive, as round as the globe, while the rest of the novel's world is populated by pancake people. Lolita might be an exception to this rule--maybe.

The vast majority of our contemporary American writers are mere technicians. They apply formulae learned by studying genre novels or by paying for MFA programs. (In most cases, the acronym MFA dilates into 'mediocre fucking authors.') They are, at the higher end, ideologues of one or another stripe penning exemplary tales, ideological sermons; at the lower, more generic end, they are pre-programmed entertainers...The point of writing, too often lost in the academic and commercial smog, is to write novels that haven't been written before. It's as simple and as difficult as that... Literary artists, true artists, are as rare today as they have ever been. Artists are the creators who don't come programmed. Artists write their own codes.

Life is a stuttering progress, a choppy montage. Real life never cuts clean--until it does.

Writers of literary criticism should resist the temptation to slip from description into prescription. Likewise, readers of criticism should resist the tendency to interpret description as prescription. Much misunderstanding would be avoided if people would just follow these two simple rules.

Revolutionaries are the traditionalists of transgression.

There is a disturbing tendency among naïve leftists to make a sort of category mistake by which aesthetic conservatism or traditionalism is equated with political reaction. While this connection arguably held until the late 19th century, the birth of the Modernist avant-garde definitively cut the cord. After Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso and Pollock, artistic tradition is a tradition of radical aesthetic revolution.

Czeslaw Milosz once wrote, "When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished." In a recent New York Times piece ("Minotaur in His Maze," 9/10/15), Michael Chabon adds his own valuable tuppence to the mythology of the writer as family monster: "It is a proven tendency of families to view an incipient writer in their midst as a kind of monster. Whether they have the blessing or disapproval of their families, writers grow up feeling that they do not belong in the house they were born into. Writers are mutants; some crucial part of their existential DNA is unshared with their parents or siblings.... For the family of a writer, as for the royal family of Crete, there will be always a monster in the house, a creature who remembers things nobody else seems to remember, notices things everyone else seems to have missed, wonders things that no one else would ever bother to wonder; a creature who comes to dwell at the heart of a labyrinth of his or her own making — a labyrinth of words."

Practical nihilism. By this phrase I mean a visceral consciousness of the void of nothingness that underlies all being and underwrites all human freedom. It terrifies us at first, this glimpse of the meaninglessness of human life, the pure contingency of existence. But if we stare long enough into the void, the terror might shift to vertigo--a dizzying, thrilling but still self-destructive impulse--and this might modulate in turn into an exultation at the prospect of freedom, the pure morning and open sea of freedom granted us by this absurd nothingness. Arising out of nothing, possessing no meaningful essence, we bear within ourselves the freedom to create ourselves, to live an authentic life. The fundamental ethical act is to embrace this freedom that nothingness implies. This is the personal heart of my Sartrean existentialism.

This Thing We Do...

It is a truth not widely enough acknowledged that inspiration comes during composition, not before. The way to write is to write. Put words on paper and work them until they strike fire. Recall the Chuck Close quote that Philip Roth references in Everyman: "...Amateurs look for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work." These are some of the wisest words ever spoken on the process of artistic creation; they render superfluous all those dusty, thumb-stained volumes of Paris Review interviews. The wait for inspiration is a "Beast in the Jungle" trip: you John Marcher your life away waiting for the muse's moment, and your dying thought is, Wow, what a great novel this would've made... I think it's probably healthier for a writer to consider herself a craftsperson, one who makes things, a builder in words, than to identify as an "artist" with all the post-Romantic bullshit the A-word still implies (torment, longing, suffering, starvation, alienation--that crazy caricature of 'the artist' that makes conformists feel good in their everyday idiocies). We are craftspeople, after all. We are workers in words, constructors of crazy labyrinths in the fake land of langue. Working with words, we build machines of story, from the exquisite miniatures of Kafka and Borges to the history painting-size grandes machines of Tolstoy, Proust and, yes, George R. R. Martin (not that Ser George rides in the same rank as Count Leo and cher Marcel, but his fantasy Song is indeed impressively gargantuan). This is not to say (needless to say) that all books are created equal. No, they are endowed by their creators with varying degrees of excellence--or its lack. Most novels are formulaic, mass-produced, undistinguished and indistinguishable; they roll off the pseudo-creative assembly line like so many identical Fords. Truly exceptional novels are a different kind of machine, a class of machine about which no further generalizations are possible. Each sits alone, a genre of one. Pynchon builds vast Tinguely machines that exist only to destroy themselves. Cormac McCarthy's books are elaborately trimmed 19th-century locomotives steaming straight to hell. Proust's novel is an imaginary art nouveau Parisian hotel designed by Gaudi and located in the neighborhood of the Arc de Triomphe (a 'machine for living,' indeed). And Joyce? He's a builder of cubistic labyrinths, Danielewski houses made of leaves, Braque studios that accordion inward into unexpected depths. All writers, from Grisham to Vollmann, from King to Proulx, are makers. Our magic lies in the making, in the process of writing, not in the endless Barton Finking of reading, research and preparation by which we avoid the fateful confrontation with the empty page.

And on the other hand (there's always another hand; my ruminations are like Hindu gods), we are artists, and we should embrace that word on our own terms. Toss overboard the ballast of bourgeois bullshit and understand ourselves as prose artists. Writers are artists in prose, poets in paragraphs, sculptors of sentences; architects constructing, chapter by chapter, novels as surprising as the height of a High Gothic ceiling soaring above us as we step from a honking, gassy, sunlit city street into the dark blue air of a cathedral that has stood for centuries. That sharp, shocking shift, like passing through a portal to the past, is very closely analogous to the experience of reading great fiction, wading naked into the rising tide of an amazing novel until its waters close above you and the supposedly 'real' world seems a muffled, wavering, filmy thing, phony as a failed magician's trick, flimsy as a cardboard fortress tornadoed by a gentle summer breeze. Reading the very greatest prose artists--Proust, Woolf, Faulkner, Joyce, Sebald, Borges, Gass, Lobo Antunes (a list betraying my Modernist bias)--can be a most hallucinatory experience, as dis-orienting and re-orienting as a psychedelic trip (a simile betraying my Sixties nostalgia). Of course the authors of such experiences are artists--and so, on the lower frequencies, is every writer who truly is a writer, an artist of prose, and not merely an 'author' of 'titles.'

Man, The Liar

In my younger and more naïve--or was it 'less suspicious'?--days, I tended to assume honesty in all my interlocutors. Why would he/she lie? I would tacitly ask myself, considering the question purely rhetorical. Despite the multitude of mendacious examples that appeared in my life as frequently as Wall Drug billboards along I-90 in South Dakota, I was not yet prepared for the obvious answer. Many years would pass before I began to understand that we lie because we're human, and that lying, like facial cumshots, is something only human beings do. Lying may be our true defining characteristic, the one thing that makes us a species apart. We're not really homo sapiens or homo faber, and not even a megadose of Cialis could turn us back to homo erectus.  No, we are homo duplicitus, man the liar. Some of what we once called 'brute animals' are designed to deceive--chameleons being the most obvious example--but that's the Dennettian 'dumb luck' of evolution, not self-conscious subterfuge. The homo difference seems to relate to the development of self-consciousness, another of those crucial factors that set us apart. We can't really lie unless we know we're lying, unless we've evolved a self-consciousness that crouches in our brains like a tiny Bertrand Russell and applies our every statement to a hair-splitting truth meter. Animals (other animals, I should have said) seem to lack this Bertie-in-the-brain. Eagles don't weasel, foxes don't fudge the facts, wolves are more honest than state legislators any fucking day. But men and women will lie anywhere, anytime, about anything. An example:

"How ya' doin', Frank?"


But of course Frank's not fine. Frankly, Frank's pretty fucking far from fine. Frank has a persistent dull ache in his lumbar region, his coccyx hurts like a cocksucker, his left eye is half-blind and his right flooded with floaters, his asshole bleeds when he shits and itches like hemorrhoids when he can't (twice or thrice per month), his teenage daughter hates his chronically aching guts, his silent son stalks about the house as sullen as a serial killer, his wife has been fucking a neighbor three times a week for seven months (Frank has done the multiplication and calculated the total number of cuckolding copulations), and recently Frank voluntarily taught himself what the barrel of his Glock tastes like. So no, our man is not exactly fine. "None of your business because I doubt if you really give a fuck anyway" would've been a more honest answer to his friend's casual inquiry. But a fine lie is so much more polite.*

*An Aesthetic Footnote: As we are the only creatures who lie, we're also the only ones capable of enjoying a good lie, losing our minds (temporarily, one hopes) in the mazy twists of elaborate fictions, in sprawling cities and countries of narrative, from the London of Bleak House to the Albuquerque of Breaking Bad to the skewed Medieval England of A Song of Ice and Fire. Tell us a story; a good one might hold us for years.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Emily Dickinson on Donald Trump

Everyone knows that Emily Dickinson is the mother of American poetry, birthing the tradition in pharaonic union with her contemporary, opposite and brother, Walt Whitman. Few realize, however, that Dickinson was also a peerless political prophet, as evidenced by this perfect description of Donald Trump:

A face devoid of love or grace,
A hateful, hard, successful face,
A face with which a stone
Would feel as thoroughly at ease
As were they old acquaintances --
First time together thrown.

                                 --Poem 1711 (Johnson edition)

As the politician formerly known as 'The Donald' is a reductio ad absurdum of pretty much everything on the right wing, it's fitting that his rhetoric is also a masterpiece of psychological projection, that favorite defense mechanism of ideologues. (I have long contended that the best way to know what conservatives really believe is to turn back upon them the rhetorical charges they hurl at liberals. For example, liberals don't 'hate America,' but hardline so-called Conservatives seem to, hence their desire to radically change the country.) In Poor Donald's case, the projections appear pathetically personal. Whenever Trump calls an opponent 'weak' or 'a loser,' we should probably hear Trump's father saying to Young Donnie, "You're a weakling, Donald. You're a loser." Today's Trump, all these years later, projects upon his opponents the disavowed parts of his own self-image.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

A wide-ranging Philip Roth interview online at Web of Stories

Readers interested in  Philip Roth should check out the long, wide-ranging, and apparently little-known interview he gave in 2011 to the website Web of Stories. It's a 2-3 hour-long goldmine of Rothiana: 163 mini-videos (length ranging from under a minute to a few minutes each) in which Roth reflects on his life, work, opinions, attitudes, influences (including Henry Miller), the death-haunted genesis of Sabbath's Theater, writing about sex, arguing Vietnam with Updike, and much more. To give a taste of the whole, here's a sample from the transcript of the video titled "Living With the Character You Invent" in which Roth speaks of the unique way that both writers and readers can 'know' fictional characters:

ROTH: ... you invent the character and you live with the character. And the fact of the matter is that there's no one in this world you know, including yourself, as well as you know the... that character. We don't know people outside of books, of fiction, the way we know them when we either write the book of fiction or read the book of fiction. Everybody who's ever read Madame Bovary knows Madame Bovary better than they know any other woman in their life. This is the... this is the great charm and value of fiction, among others, and that is that we know in ways... the reader knows in ways he or she can't know in life.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


A superficial undergraduate seminar on Joyce's Ulysses presented in lightly novelized form, The House of Ulysses might be of interest to first-time readers seeking a reader-friendly guidebook to Joyce's great novel, but experienced Joyceans will learn little here. Considered as a novel, Rios' book is even less interesting. He gestures toward character-creation but fails to sufficiently differentiate his multiple speakers; he never successfully turns them from 'speakers' to 'characters.' And the book overall fails to achieve even the most limited autonomy from the far, far superior text it parasitizes. Rios seems to have been shooting for a Calvinoesque novel-as-seminar, an If On A Winter's Night a Traveler... of Ulysses; but he clipped the target on a corner, flipped it upside down, and produced this seminar-as-novel, a readable, jargon-free intro to Ulysses, and nothing more than that.


According to legend, the late Elmore Leonard switched from writing Westerns to a life of crime immediately after reading George V. Higgins's The Friends of Eddie Coyle. It's easy to see what impressed the Dutchman. Coyle is a crime novel, of course, and a good, atmospheric one. Higgins has a way with words and sentences that sets his book above the genre mean. But mostly this is a novel of talking, a book about the way people in a certain milieu (Boston organized criminals and the prosecutors with whom they exist in symbiosis (e.g., the career of James 'White Rat' Bulger)) talk amongst themselves. The story is told almost entirely in dialogue, good, colorful dialogue--as good as David Mamet at his best--and thus we receive the narrative obliquely, akin to the way we receive it in avant-garde fiction (John Hawkes' The Lime Twig , for example, or, more to the point, William Gaddis's JR). We get the whole story, but it's told in pieces by bent people who tell it slant. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is a novel we overhear. Reading it is like listening in on a very high-quality wiretap. I recommend it. (I also recommend the remarkably faithful 1973 film adaptation by Peter Yates, starring Robert Mitchum in the title role and the ubiquitous Peter Boyle as Dillon, the part-time contract hitter who takes Eddie out. There's a beautiful Criterion Collection DVD rentable from Netflix.)

SPIDER by Patrick McGrath

Patrick McGrath's Spider is a superior psychological thriller, but considered as a 'literary' novel, as a work of narrative art in prose, it's pretty good but not mind-blowing. Formally, it's a monologic and fairly obvious unreliable narrator novel that contains a few genuinely chilling images of psychosis (I found the Battaile-esque descriptions of Spider's anatomical delusions to be especially powerful). It depicts, with creepily convincing success, the first-person consciousness, the twisted inwardness, of the type of psychotic most of us would surely cross the street to avoid. Ralph Fiennes did perhaps his best and riskiest work to date portraying this character in David Cronenberg's adaptation, a film that, far from 'spoiling' the novel, actually adds ironic sharpness to a few early, carefully understated passages. Knowing the story, we notice ironies we would probably have missed on a 'cold' first reading.

LUST by Elfriede Jelinek

Grim, grim, grim, unrelievedly grim, Elfriede Jelinek's Lust is a pornographic satire in the nauseating mode of Pasolini's brilliantly disturbing film Salo, but Jelinek's novel, unfortunately, is not brilliant enough to be truly disturbing. Lust is a deliberately ugly, intentionally unassimilable 200-page anti-bourgeois, anti-heterosexual diatribe that reads at times like the outrageously perverse sermon of a radical leftist puritan. Jelinek seems to have intended to compose a pornographic satire, but her ideas about pornography and sexuality are so ideologically warped in the direction of 1980s anti-porn feminist discourse that her pornographic imagination contains not an iota of lightness, not the slightest flash of comedy--not even dark, absurdist comedy (and human sexuality is nothing if not absurd). (The sole ludic element in the novel, Jelinek's wordplay, seems clumsy and clunky in Michael Hulse's translation and may be deliberately so in the original German.) Unlike her earlier, psychologically acute novel The Piano Teacher, which I admired after a second reading, Lust is little more than an ideological sermon: monotonous, humorless, soporific. There is no space for psychology here. Her characters are reduced to cardboard cut-outs and their actions are mechanical, robotic. The world of Lust is so (I repeat it) unrelievedly grim, so one-dimensional, so alienated from any recognizable human reality that Jelinek has defeated her own satirical purpose and produced a work of weird sexual surrealism, an unfunny cartoon in words, the unlovable bastard child of the Marquis de Sade, Robert Crumb and Andrea Dworkin. Jelinek called it Lust; if Roman Polanski hadn't preempted the title she might more properly have named it Repulsion.

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Nabokovian Singularity

Consider the singularity of Vladimir Nabokov's achievement: the Humbutterfly Hunter went from being one of the major Russian writers of the twentieth century to being an even more major English-language writer. If he had never written an English word (not a single plaintive and, not a single breathy the) his Russian novels alone would have assured his canonical status in world literature--and the same is arguably true of his English novels, if, by some strange historical accident, he had never written a Cyrillic nyet or a funny-looking da. It's a critical commonplace that Lolita, Pnin, Transparent Things, and (for some critics) even Ada are uncommonly fine, but less common, for some reason, is the idea that Despair, The Defense, Invitation to a Beheading, and The Gift can stand alongside any other Russian-language works of the grey and gloomy Soviet years--even Bulgakov's supreme The Master and Margarita and (to name a work Nabokov surely despised from the Olympian height of his brow) Doctor Zhivago. Offhand, I can think of no analogous case of a dual-language major novelist. There are multiple examples of novelists writing in 'non-native' languages: Conrad, Beckett and Kundera form a very strange troika of such double-tongued ones. But Conrad, as far as I know, wrote little of note in Polish; Beckett's English work is (probably unfairly) less highly regarded than the books he wrote originally in French; and Milan K. seems to have traded his position as a major Czech novelist for a late-life minor niche in the cathedral of French literature. Is Vlad the Inscriber's achievement unique, or is there an analogous case that's stubbornly staying out of my mind?

(A half-hour after sending out this post, a possible contender comes to mind: Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who has written major works in both English and the Gikuyu language of his native Kenya. And there are surely other examples from the formerly-colonized world...)

Friday, July 24, 2015

Erotic Criticism: Making It Explicit in Six Theses and Five Objects

"In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art." -- Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

"In ancient Greek philosophy, in the texts of the pre-Socratics, Plato and Aristotle, aithesis refers to lived, felt experience, knowledge as it is obtained through the senses, in contrast to eidos, knowledge derived from reason and intellection, from which we get the word idea." -- Clive Cazeaux, "Introduction," The Continental Aesthetics Reader

1. In a few recent posts, I've been trying to apply, to concretize, my heretofore abstract idea that art and sex, aesthetics and erotics, run off the same circuit of desire in human consciousness. Art is sex, I contend, and sex is art. (The latter part of that sentence, the idea of sex as an art, was common knowledge in Ovid's day, but the phrase 'art is sex' remains jarring; maybe the fact that hardcore puritans have always hated both should have clued us in.) When we enter a gallery or art museum, we are alert to anything that attracts us. In a very real sense, we are 'cruising' the art, scanning the walls and vitrines for potentially pleasurable or even transformative experiences, just as a man or woman in a nightclub or bar might be cruising for a good lay.
Warren Cup. Roman. 1st cent. AD. British Museum. (The image shows opposite sides of the cup.) This ornamental drinking cup, apparently excavated near Jerusalem in the early 20th century, depicts two scenes of male-male anal intercourse: on one side a youth rides a bearded man, and on the other a youth penetrates a young boy. This is the finest surviving example of Roman erotic silver and one of the great masterpieces of Western pornography. The Warren Cup effectively demonstrates that pornography is art and always has been.

2. We homo sapiens sapiens (the species so nice we named ourselves twice) seem genetically engineered to be creatures driven by desires in search of objects. The desire is prior to what seems to provoke it. Objectless desire, a desire that precedes and exceeds all objects, could be the fundamental fact of human consciousness. Psychoanalysts might counter that the desire isn't objectless at all; it's provoked by the loss of a first object, the mother's breast, for which all other objects are substitutes (or substi-tits, as it were). Regardless, by the time agency arrives, long before maturity, our desires are experienced as floating free of any single object and constantly in search of a more  promising one. There is at least a little Don Juan in all of us.

Bronzino, Allegory with Venus and /Cupid, ca.1545. National Gallery, London. The enigmatic allegorical meanings in this densely packed painting are overshadowed by its outrageous eroticism: Mother Venus slips her son Cupid the tongue while he pinches her erect nipple in the V between two of his fingers. Meanwhile, Cupid's green quiver is positioned to resemble an enormous dildo aimed directly up his ass. Bronzino's jewel-like coloring adds to the erotic intensity and simultaneously chills it, deflecting the viewer's ocular desire. Unlike the worlds of most erotic works, this one excludes us. It is too perfect to be polluted by our lesser presence.

3. The desire to experience an art object seems / feels / is essentially identical to sexual desire. Both are desires to experience beautiful things, to feel the intense pleasures they alone can bring. And both posit a phantasmatic parallel economy where pleasure is the coin of the realm and beauty is more valuable than gold. "How much is this worth in cold, hard cash?" is an even more vulgar question in the bedroom than in the art museum.

Hedy Lamarr in ecstasy in Ecstasy (1933). This scene is one of the first and finest depictions of female orgasm on film
4. Likewise, when we permit ourselves to look so intensely at and think so deeply about a work of art that we 'lose ourselves' inside the work, that release from the mundane buzz of our daily lives is directly analogous to the moment of sexual climax, when the mind empties and the world retreats and we experience those few seconds of perfectly ecstatic inner silence that are probably as close as we will ever come to floating in pure Being.

Pablo Picasso, Reclining Nude With Necklace, 1968. Tate Modern. This very impressive work from the artist's still-underrated final period depicts the female body as volcano, gusher, geyser, a veritable Yellowstone National Park of boundary-bursting sexuality. This is Picasso '68" Sous les paves, la a la plage, la femme.
5. Just as the experience of art can be understood sexually, so can its creation. When I stood in front of the large, late Picasso nude in the collection of the Tate Britain (above), I profoundly appreciated the extent to which art is not sublimation but excess. The Freudian doctrine of sublimation implies in its hydraulic metaphors a libidinal 'scarcity economy' that misrepresents the dike-topping (pun absolutely intended), geyser-gushing, bottomland-flooding excess of sexuality--as biology, emotion and idea--in the human animal. As in Picasso's late nude, even the borders of the body are transgressed by the signs of sexuality. In the most literal, biological sense, we squirt and secrete, dribble and drool, spit and swallow all manner of bodily fluids during sexual intercourse. Products of our body quite literally become parts of the other's, and vice-versa. And as emotion and idea, as feeling and fantasy, sexuality does not flow within a Corps of Engineers-maintained channel carefully designed to prevent flooding--and to divert the flow into the reserve channel of sublimation when necessary. No, sexuality is the flood that drowns all channels. This wild excess, this "will in overplus," as Shakespeare called it, can be imagined as a product in a post-scarcity universe (call it Pornotopia) where there is more than enough of everything needful. In the minds of artists, this excess flows into the forms of art; it is the raw, impulsive fuel behind novels and paintings and operas and plays. Art, therefore, is not sublimation's anal / Apollonian channeling; it is sexuality's ecstatic Dionysian overflow.
Paul Cadmus, Jerry, 1931. Toledo (Ohio) Museum of Art. Cadmus's masterfully original and remarkably intimate portrait of his lover, artist Jared French, was virtually unknown until the Toledo Museum acquired it in 2009. By the end of this decade, it will probably take its deserved place among the masterpieces of American gay art. My favorite detail is the outrageous anal sex reference encoded in the copy of Ulysses at lower right. The sitter marks his place in this then-banned and scandalous book by inserting his phallic finger into a crack in the book's bottom. Cadmus thus both conceals and reveals the then-unspeakable (male-male anal intercourse) by hiding it in plain sight, purloined letterishly, inside a copy of the then-unpublishable Ulysses.

6. Created erotically, art can also be experienced erotically. The point is to experience art with our minds and our bodies. To think about the artwork, yes, to intellectualize it as much as we can,* but also to pay attention to how the work makes us feel, how it affects our bodies. Is my heart beating faster? Am I afraid? Did I just catch my breath? Am I widening or narrowing my eyes? To what part of the painting / sculpture / etc. is my sight repeatedly drawn? Am I attracted? Repelled? Does the image turn me on? Is my dick hard / pussy wet? These questions, especially the outrageous last one, should be considered as valid as inquiries into the possible motives for a Cezanne color choice or Picasso's decision to distort a face in a specific way. In the discourse of art, the reactions of the penis and the pussy are as valid as those of the eye and the brain.

* In opposition to the anti-intellectualism that is rampant today, it is necessary to be actively pro-intellectual. Personally, I'm so philo-intellectual it hurts. Even reading Foucault makes me hard.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Clinic and the Brothel: A Thought on Two Constructions of Sexuality under Modernity

If Foucault and his followers are at least partly right--as they probably, partly, are--and we partially create through our discourse the very sexualities that we purport to 'represent' or 'investigate,' then the sexuality that we have constructed for ourselves under modernity can be seen to exhibit a curious and obvious bifurcation. Sexuality as constructed by intellectuals, scholars and scientists differs drastically from that created by modern artists. The intellectual discourse of sexuality, descending through Freud from the pioneering 19th-century sexologists (old Crafty Ebbing and Have-a-look Ellis) to Kinsey and the comedy team of Masters and Johnson, et al. (to say nothing of the longtime owner of Courbet's l'Origine du Monde (and who because of that fact, as we shall presently see, should have known better), Jacques Lacan), has yet to successfully fight free of its clinical origins. Indeed, the way intellectuals (especially scientists) have talked and written about sex for the past century is almost a parody of medical discourse: a robotically hyperrational, Vulcanly calm, Spockianly emotionless scientific language. (Of course I'm overstating; hyperbole is my pianoforte.) The intellectual discourse, in short, has yet to leave the hospital where it was born. By contrast, the artistic discourse of modern sexuality, from Courbet's pathbreaking pussy painting to Deborah de Robertis's 2014 performance piece in front of it at the Musee d'Orsay, has long been a discourse of the brothel. I'm thinking not only of Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec's literal (and literary) brothel scenes, but also of Matisse's sinuous odalisques and Philip Pearlstein's enamel-cool nudes. The sexuality of modern art is matter-of-factly and rudely embodied; it meets our gaze like Manet's Olympia and dominates us as powerfully as Picasso's mademoiselles from Avignon (the Barcelona brothel, not the French papal city, although that anticlerical ambiguity is surely intentional). It is a sexuality unconstricted and pornotopic. In Nietzschean terms (often the best terms for anything), the sexuality of modern art is a Dionysian display that bursts the bounds of the Apollonian critical discourses that attempt to 'explain' it. This perhaps explains the embarrassment and hesitation, the distaste, the rhetorical distancing, that characterize most intellectual engagements with erotic or pornographic artworks: because the sweaty art of the brothel is a threat to the deodorized discourse of the clinic, the critic must condom her language in a sheath of poststructuralist jargon before approaching the dangerous object. The result: articles about Picasso's 'deployment of the signification of the phallus' and Manet's 'deflection of the male gaze'--articles that rehearse critical commonplaces without ever coming within viewing distance of the paintings' true powers. To discuss modern art, we need a discourse less clinical and more pornotopic. We need to (temporarily) put down our Freud or Lacan or Zizek or whomever and let Picasso teach us how to read Picasso, let Degas instruct us in the language of Degas, let Deborah de Robertis show us the origin of the world.

Addendum, 2/26/16: I note that the ridiculous gang of  Victorian spinsters who run YouTube have now removed the above video, charging it with a series of crimes of which it is not guilty and failing to mention that they removed it because it showed a part of the female anatomy they would prefer to pretend doesn't exist. Plus ca change, even in our highly dubious techno-u-dys-topia.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Picasso's Kahnweiler: Reflections on a Portrait

Pablo Picasso, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, 1910. Art Institute of Chicago

“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” -- Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

It was Gombrich, I believe, who analogized Cubist space to the space-time of memory. An object remembered or imagined comes to consciousness as a field of vague impressions, like a detail from a Cubist painting: a drinking glass is a rectangle with a circle on top, a bottle is an oval with a neck, a tree is a column topped with a flabby balloon; a hated lover’s face is a pair of staring eyes, a set of tearing teeth, the machined edge of a jaw, a flat plane of bloody red like a mirror of her loved-hated murderous mind. In a way that language--locked in sequential motion, flowing with the fall of phonemes--can never begin to approximate, impressions rise simultaneously to the mind, like a drowned painting, flotsam from time's shipwreck, floating back to the surface. The knobbed valley of a spine I love to run my fingers down arrives alongside the eyes that slowly close when you rise to my kiss and all is encircled in the curve of your legs embracing my hips as we ride into bliss. Picasso and Braque were the scribes of the mind, and ours is the consciousness they described.

When someone remarked to Picasso that Gertrude Stein looked nothing like his portrait of her, the painter replied simply, “She will.”

When I attempted (with rather spectacular unsuccess) to draw from Picasso’s 1910 portrait of his dealer Daniel Henry Kahnweiler in a gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago (while other visitors wandered past my back making inane comments: “Some a this stuff is like Night Gallery paintings.” “Like what?” “Night Gallery stuff.”), I began to appreciate that Cubism is painting’s period of polymorphous perversity. Like a young child whose sexuality has not yet been tortured into penis or pussy, whose entire body is an erogenous zone, and for whom there is no unerotic touch, a great Cubist painting is charged with meaning over every inch of its surface. There is no negative space in the Kahnweiler portrait, no neutral patches nor pleasingly traditional backgrounds on which the viewer might rest his eye. The whole body of the canvas is touched with energetic life. Even at the extreme edges--dead space on most portraits--the painted surface is broken into the tesserae of brushstrokes and pulled forward into the gray-brown cloud of the picture plane. (Brown and gray like a cigar and its smoke, the very palette reeks of Paris past and tempts us always into sentimental digression. But enough of that.) As we pass into the image proper (a motion that Picasso‘s assault on the propriety of the image strives to render impossible; we cannot move to where we are always already located), the painted meanings multiply into a sometimes highly enigmatic Finnegans Wake of visual puns. The curves of Kahnweiler’s thin moustache, below the inverted bottleneck of his clearly penile nose (drooping below testicular eyes), rhyme with the watch chain near the painting’s center, which might also be seen as a displacement of the moustache (and/or vice versa). And because both curves also suggest female breasts as well as buttocks, we can push the psychoanalytic analogy a bit further and state that the painting’s polymorphousness--its all-over-ness, as well as its representation of the simultaneity of perception--solicits from the viewer a polymorphously perverse gaze that sees every passage of the painting passing into something else, something often, but not always, explicitly sexual. We have already witnessed that gaze transforming the sitter’s staid, suited self into a transsexual contortionist; and now we might notice the watch or ornament that dangles like a lone Hitlerian testicle from the right chain/tit/asscheek. How many things can we imagine this thing might be? No answer is necessary, for the question itself cuts deeply into the meaning of the painting. (“Computers are useless,” Picasso once remarked. “They can only give you answers.”) Near the top of the painting, the fashionable waves of Kahnweiler’s hair are echoed on the form at upper left, an almost indecipherable tribal mask that resembles a gaslight in a wall bracket. And these curves also occur elsewhere in Picasso’s oeuvre as the talon-like fingers and/or pubic hairs of female nudes. (Fuck this ‘and/or’ bullshit. Cubism is always ‘and.’) We have mentioned the nose, and it is only one of the phalluses sprouting up in the painting’s field: the mentioned mask, the bottle at lower right, the oblique white plane on the right of the sitter’s face, the form hovering in air to the right of Kahnweiler’s head (which looks like an undistorted, blatantly obvious erect penis pointing rocket-like into the sky)…Phallus, phallus everywhere, it seems, except where it naturally belongs, at the bottom of the painting, where the sitter’s easily readable clasped hands anxiously conceal and protect the organ Picasso has put so multiply into question. Taking this angle of view upon the painting, we have no difficulty interpreting the whole as a psychological portrait of male sexual anxiety: the prudish sitter projects his phallic anxieties into the world around him, generating the omniphallic environs of Picasso's painting. We should not allow the work’s totalizing eroticism, however, to blind us to an equally important aspect that exists in extreme tension with erotic totality: this is a portrait of a radically fractured self, a human being ripped apart, shattered, smashed, and reconstructed by the mastering will of a titanic artistic Other. Seekers of the tragic in Cubism need look no further than the area above and to the left of Kahnweiler’s hands, where his body is invaded by the whiteness that in this phase of Picasso’s work signifies incommunicable nothingness, meaninglessness, pure abstraction. The bottle beside this area appears to exist much more definitely than the sitter. He is being eaten away by infinite space, dissolving into the snowy whiteness that James Joyce also notably associated, in these same years, with all-encompassing death. (I refer, of course to the ending of Joyce's story "The Dead.") After this knowledge, we note that even the ‘solider’ parts of Kahnweiler are under invasion by otherness. The head, for instance, is positioned in parallel with the aforementioned tribal mask, deconstructed to near-nothingness at upper left. And if we take a horizontal cross-section through the painting at the level of his shoulders, we see an image that remarkably resembles the view from an artist’s studio over the cubistically overlapping rooftops of Paris. This is personality as cityscape. Picasso’s Kahnweiler is a Zelig built from the bits and pieces of whatever environment happens to be passing through him.* It is a portrait of the self as a landscape of others.

*And in Picasso's studio, one suspects, that environment would be exceptionally phallic, so the work's eroticism might be ultimately understood as another aspect of its portrayal of fragmentation. (Pardon me for offering this potentially major, synthesizing insight in a funky footnote.)**

**And pardon me again for getting my DFW*** off. Call it an homage.

***David Foster Wallace****(1962-2008), American writer whose life and work were tragically truncated by suicidal depression. Elaborate, extended, ramifying, digressive footnotes and endnotes were a hallmark of his style. Wallace was a 1980s literary theoryhead, so it's entirely possible that, aside from the obvious Nabokovian influence, Wallace's style was decisively licensed by a single, rather amazing footnote (on the subject of footnotes) in the Adorno chapter of rockstar lit theorist Fredric Jameson's early work, Marxism and Form. Jameson writes (in a footnote no less, a clever example of formal criticism as imitative form and/or vice-versa): "The footnote in this context may indeed be thought of as a small but autonomous form, with its own inner laws and conventions and its own determinate relationship to the larger form which governs it--something on the order of the moral of a fable or the various types of digressions which flourished within the nineteenth-century novel. In the present instance, the footnote as a lyrical form allows Adorno a momentary release from the inexorable logic of the material under study in the main text, permitting him to shift to other dimensions, to the infrastructure as well as to the wider horizons of historical speculation. The very limits of the footnote (it must be short, it must be complete) allow the release of intellectual energies, in that they serve as a check on the speculative tendency that might otherwise run wild, on what we will later describe as the proliferation of "theories of history." The footnote as such, therefore, designates a moment in which systematic philosophizing and the empirical study of concrete phenomena are both false in themselves; in which living thought, squeezed out from between them, pursues its fitful existence in the small print at the bottom of the page."*****

****Do you have any idea of the intricate hand-eye coordination involved in boldfacing only those single letters in those words? No, you probably have better things to geek out on...

*****Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971). p. 9.****** Despite Jameson's (only partly deserved) reputation for forbiddingly dense prose and near-unintelligiblility, his early works are quite lucid and interesting. I recommend Marxism and Form and The Prison House of Language.

******I've been reading this book off and on, a chapter or so at a time, for about a year now. I find Fredric Jameson, like the eponymous Irish whiskey*******, best taken in smallish doses.

*******Jameson Irish Whiskey********, best medicine for the Dublin flu.

********Will they send me a free case for plugging them here? (I'm keeping all ten fingers crossed.)*********

*********And perhaps I should add that Ben and Jerry's makes a fine ice cream and that Rolls Royces are excellent automobiles. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Sexual Surrealism of Meret Oppenheim and Man Ray

Meret Oppenheim, Objet (Le dejeuner en fourrure)
Gustave Courbet, l'Origine du Monde
Meret Oppenheim (1913-1985), was a German-Swiss Surrealist artist and model, best known for her Objet (Le dejeuner en fourrure), a fur-covered teacup, saucer and spoon that is Western art’s most purely cunnilingual image since Courbet’s The Origin of the World (l'Origine du Monde). She was a more pointedly powerful surreal objectifier than the equally important but much better known (because compulsively self-promoting) Salvador Dali.

My Nursemixed media sculpture by Meret Oppenheim, 1936. (Permanent Collection, Moderna Museet, Stockholm.)

From the side, it looks like a Thanksgiving turkey on a metal serving tray. Its upturned legs are covered with those curlicue-topped paper stockings, like tiny chef’s hats, often used to adorn the drumsticks of sumptuously prepared poultry. When we move closer, however, and look down through protective glass at Oppenheim’s object in its museum vitrine--our downward gaze symbolizing the backward glance into deepest childhood--we see this strange bird (old, old Britslang for female) transformed into something that solicits a very different and more urgent desire to stuff. A pair of white leather women’s shoes, upturned and bound together with twine, are positioned in the middle of a metal tray. The spike heels are both concealed and emphasized, like stockinged legs, by the white sheaths that blunt their threatening tips into soft spirals of papery fantasy. Every element of the piece is a commonly fetishized object (your shoes, mon amour, that I sniff for your scent and rub against my cheeks and squeeze my cock between and fuck hard like your cunt your mouth your ass; your heels that I caress and kiss and suck like twin clitorises grown to cocks; the leather cooler and smoother than your skin but as exciting, in its way, as my fingers sinking into the flesh of your ass; the worn brown soles the shape and color of those turds you squeeze onto my forehead, warm and falling like my semen on your face; the twine that binds me to the bedposts, tied so tightly, mon amour, I wear the red marks like bracelets for days), and these individual objects come together, sum automatically like integers in an equation, to produce an outsized icon of the female genitalia. The tray is the labia majora; the central curving leather sides, invitingly open vaginal lips; the vertical seam, the entrance to the vagina’s unobservable depths; and the (w)hole is sewn together, sutured like the pseudo-hymen of a phony whorehouse virgin, by lengths of light brown twine that fray into tiny, almost invisible fibers of lovely blonde pubic hair. But beware those upturned spikes: Do not fall for their papery disguise; for they are aimed always at your Oedipal eyes. And the spikes are also trophies of the genital they adorn, a Castor-Pollux pair of castrated phalloi guarding the entrance to Cybele’s cave. And the entire ensemble, this desired and devouring vulva, this toothless dentata, this thing that destroys the ones who love it, is also exactly what a small child sees when staring up the skirt of a dominant female: past fantastically foreshortened white stockinged legs, a massively magnified pudendum: Mother: first object: creator and destroyer: the only deity we can know or need: Brahma-Shiva to whom memory plays Vishnu and preserves. And also--but not finally, for Oppenheim’s object is a bottomless bottom--the silvered tray that reflects at its edges the shadowy contours of the viewer’s head represents an antique oval mirror, a quaint and most monstrously distorting glass in which each face sees itself reflected as the impossible object of its deepest desire.

Veiled Eroticphotograph by Man Ray, 1933. (Private Collection, Paris.)
In Man Ray’s great photograph, the nineteen year-old Meret Oppenheim, her hair cut boyishly short, stands nude behind the large wheel of an antique printing press. Her right hand, its arm mostly lost in shadow, curls like a masturbator’s around the thick iron circumference of the wheel. The strange gesture of her left arm--raised, bent at elbow and wrist, and covered in black printer’s ink that flattens it, producing the illusion that it is pressed against the picture plane like a face flattened against window glass--exists somewhere between the stylized gestures of kabuki and the emotive overacting of grand opera. Her face, by contrast, is subdued, thoughtful, her gaze lowered to the axle of the wheel. Around her neck is a tight metal ring, thin as the cut of a guillotine's blade, that belongs more to the world of machinery than jewelry, more press than person. The already thin line between woman and machine, along with other, more time-honored barriers, is definitively blurred farther down her slender body. Below her navel, the wooden handle of the press wheel juts out into the viewer’s space like an erect, uncircumcised penis. Below and behind it, Oppenheim’s alluringly luxuriant pubic bush doubles as a shadowy scrotal sac.

The handle-penis attracts our attention so powerfully that we might fail to notice the other two phalluses more directly attached to Oppenheim’s body. Her left arm is elaborately phallicized: held erect, stiffly frozen, transformed by ink (bloody liquid of poison pen(i)s) into a magical organ of fertility that reproduces its image upon everything it touches, everything it presses. (For this image also teases us into thoughts on the erotics of printing, and more generally, on the eroticization of mechanical things and the mechanization of eros. We are not far from the world of J. G. Ballard’s Crash.) The arm’s esoteric gesture, a fleshy triangle with the back of the palm pressed against the forehead, will remain forever uninterpretable, its meaning as lost as the memories of earliest childhood, the time before language. It has become the sign of an enigma. In sharp contrast, Oppenheim’s obscured right arm is easily interpreted as a flaccid phallus. It hangs limply from the shoulder, proposing no mystery, provoking no interest. It is a phallus asleep, dream-breeding the techno-scientific monster of metal and wood that rises from below. (Maybe Mary Shelley's unsacred monster is also not far away from Man Ray's image.) With this robotic handle-penis--its double identity soliciting a doubled desire to touch--we pass from the enigmatic to the impossible. It is a phantom out of Freud, the phantasmatic maternal penis imagined by the child-hero of Sigmund’s grim tale. (Psychoanalysis is the best commentary on Surrealism because Surrealism is the greatest of all commentaries on Psychoanalysis; mutual misunderstanding ideally adds complexity and nuance to their mutual misreadings.) The Freudian boy’s first fleeting glimpse of mutter’s pussy, that Oppenheim Nurse with its heels broken off, induces a castration anxiety so intense that the word ‘anxiety’ seems far too weak; call it ‘castration certainty.’ The child seeks metonymic compensation for the missing maternal penis by investing nearby objects--legs, stockings, feet, shoes--with libidinal power, and the fetishist is born. (And anyone who is not a fetishist is not an interesting person.) Man Ray’s surrealist collision of a woman’s beautifully boyish body and a femininely curved press wheel thus comes to climax with an image of the ultimate unseeable: Mommy’s hard cock, begging to be sucked like a nipple (that first lost object) until it fills your mouth with warm white milk. It is an image of the impossible object of every desire that lies in the caverns under childhood.