Sunday, December 24, 2006

Thoughts on Boswell

Boswell's reputation--he was once called the stupidest man ever to write a great book--is well known. Indeed I suspect he was a more likeable man in person that he comes across in print--or even than he came across in person to many people who ran across him. The publication of his journals with the salacious details of his adventures with women of the town, which as you can imagine have not been neglected by modern scholars, when contrasted with his strident and at times rather buffoonish adherence to conservative positions and religious propriety in his published writings, does not contribute to his making an attractive figure in the eyes of posterity. Even the portraits and drawings of him which remain make him look a little ridiculous, some no doubt by design; he is often drawn as stiff-necked man of unimposing height with a three-cornered hat rather overwhelming his oddly bland-featured, unprofound face. Even when he complains of melancholy, it appears he is really complaining of boredom, for he only appears to be afflicted by it when he has to work or is apart from the social life of London. When he is at a dinner party or a romp he always seems to be in excellent spirits, which certainly is not usually the case with people given to what I would consider severe fits of depression.

On the other hand he had some genuinely unique qualities in an author, as well as good luck in his subject, that served him well in his undertaking. He obviously had what we would now call personality, and if his learning was considered only so-so among the highest circles, he must have possessed a fair degree of amusing quick-wittedness at least, as he maintained intimate ties with a very intellectually and socially demanding crowd for many years. He reminds me in many ways of one of my own old friends, who was not the most diligent student but was intelligent, witty, had legitimate and serious intellectual interests if not the work ethic to make a figure in academia, loved pleasure and had the ability to converse with almost anyone who had some interest in common with him in an entertaining manner regardless of background. I suspect Boswell had many of these qualities. Boswell also seemed to have the combination, very rare among educated men in our time, of social skills without needing to be the Great Man or the center of attention in every instance. By all appearances Johnson loved him, a little bit like a son perhaps, as much or more so as a comrade or fellow adventurer in the life of the mind, as well as the life of the world. I cannot think of another prominent biographer (though I am sure there must be some) who held such personal status in his relationship with his subject. Of course it helped considerably that Johnson was so socially accessible for a great man, and not too much committed to grand undertakings as to sever his connection to the activities and rhythms of ordinary but still vital life, as great people often appear to be today.

I was surprised in reading the book at how much attention was given to Johnson's illnesses and the rather excruciating treatments he underwent in the last few years of his life, which demonstrate if nothing else how much it takes to kill a human being, or at least one with a strong native constitution. These accounts take up a sizable portion of the book.

The passage where Johnson takes his last leave of Boswell in the carriage the summer before his death and totters solemnly down the alley to his apartment is extremely affecting and in fact caused me to cry a little. The only other time tears have overcome me in such reading is during the deathbed scene in Don Quixote, which is interestingly another book largely about the friendship of grown men, one of whom is this case is known mainly for his addiction to reading. I wonder if I sense some kind of void in my own life. Certainly the vigor and largely shared spiritedness of the Johnson/Boswell relationship accounts for the success of that work down to our time above any other feature.

There was one more topic I wanted to address with regard to Johnson. There was a recent novel (1999) called England, England by Julian Barnes, the premise of which is that some large swath of old Blighty has been turned into a historical theme park with thatched roofs, afternoon tea, cricket, black cabs, etc, which naturally all the tourists, as well as many English people, prefer to the real, modern, relevant, messy England that exists outside the park. Among the attractions of the park is an actor in the character of Samuel Johnson that drinks with the tourists in a traditional pub and presumably regales them with colorful examples of English wit. The choice of Johnson for this character is quite an interesting, and a telling one. One could readily think of other possibilities for this entertainment: Dickens, Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde, Tennyson, perhaps a Byron character who drank and seduced women, maybe even a watered-down Americanized or globalized Shakespeare. All of these authors have been or remain to a certain degree popular abroad, especially perhaps in America, often as much for their personalities or what they represent as for a deep understanding of their work. Johnson, who is often viewed in the U.S. as something of a counterpart to Benjamin Franklin, who was his exact contemporary, appears to have attained somewhat to this iconic status without his work or his nature being particularly well known, and even among those who have studied him, I suspect our author Mr Barnes would say, many rush to make a claim of intellectual and temperamental affinity with the man that is, to say the least, most implausible. Many of the famous quotes--"A man who is tired of London is tired of life"; "to be a hero, one must drink brandy"; "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel"--are deployed quite frequently, and often by people who give little indication of either deep learning or interest in the subjects addressed (And regarding the London quote: it is 230 or so years old. London happily remains a vital place, but I'm sure somebody once said the same thing about Babylon). What is more, I sense that Johnson's status, or maybe it is just the sense of his relevance, is at an all time low among his own countryman, who seem to see him, especially when repeating one of his aphorisms, as much a blubbering, sententious old fool as one of the sages of the nation. When I went to Johnson's birthplace the man working at the desk (there is some kind of tension going on between me and the people who work at these museums; See "The Game of Art, Part I) asked me why Americans liked Johnson so much, and said that Americans were the only people who ever came in the place. He did not betray any warm feelings for the great lexicographer himself. I had not been aware of this phenomenon at the time, and had to say that I knew nothing about it, that I was merely a fan of an old book. But going back to the Barnes novel, I think there is a sense that Johnson, who once represented something substantial and real, has been allowed to become via certain American and global, Non-European appropriation of the stories and the mythology of European and more specifically English literary and cultural history a cartoon figure of a literary man, by a world that hasn't the foggiest idea of what that entails. I have certainly felt a part of such processes myself, though in fairness these have also always been present in literary history, and the English of Johnson's time into the Romantic and Victorian periods, vis-a-vis the Greeks and Romans and their primitive forbears in Britain, were among the more extravagant makers of caricatures who ever lived, yet still produced worthwhile achievements of their own driven by these imperfect understandings of the past. We like in our age to have, or have access to, full philosophical and historical understanding of figures and societies of the past; that an artist need only detect something beautiful or noble in the composition of a story or a ruin and have it still be of great value to him, and direct him to interesting and pleasing works of his own though at a far remove from intellectual pureness or authenticity as regards his influence, seems to be a difficult idea for us to accept. However I think there is evidence that our non-acceptance of it is strangling our ability to see ourselves as artistic beings and to "create" new works certainly in the traditional forms.

This idea is not really brought to a conclusion but I am tired now and wish to let it go.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Unplanned Digression from Johnson: Picasso Worshipping Alert

There is a exhibit currently at the Guggenheim on Spanish painting in which you-know-who is, at least in the New York Times article on the exhibit, being promoted as the star attraction:

'When he was 85, Picasso painted 'Musketeer', a brazenly humorous depiction of a nobleman in the foppish fashion of late-16th-century Spain.'

The picture is reproduced in the paper, along with portraits by El Greco and Velazquez that are also part of the exhibit. I can't quite get around the idea that Picasso's picture would have made those painters split their sides with laughter, unless it were at his expense, but obviously he knew them, and they would have known him, better than I will ever know any of them, so this is to be expected

Now believe me, I would love to be able to pass away a weekday afternoon at an exhibit like this in New York City, even if Picasso is prominently featured in it and it promises to be crowded with his overbearing fans. I can't quite bring myself to despise them after all. though I think, based on what is reported in the paper, that I would try to avoid reading or listening to any of the guides produced specifically for this show. The gushing over 'Musketeer', which did not affect me as particularly brazen or humorous or exciting, and the apparent subordination of the two seriously imposing painters to roles as precursors of the great modern that seems to be hinted at, does not inspire me with a lot of confidence in the curators' vision. I have accepted that at this point of my life at least I am not connecting on a human level with Picasso, as so many apparently do, and that I have consequently been cut off from many potential friends and lovers in the community of art admirers that I might have liked to have had. This is because Picasso is really such a symbol of a particular worldview that people who don't get him really incompatible with those who do. When I think of 'humorous painters' I'm think of Hogarth, Phiz (illustrator of Dickens's novels), some of the more pathetic efforts of Van Gogh, maybe some of the over the top historical painters like David (I love those paintings, like the 'Tennis Court Oath', but the drama does make me laugh) ,the Venetian who slipped in some dwarves and monkeys in his rendering of the Last Supper. When I look at Picasso's work, even where the talent is obvious and the skill and conception of a high order I just see a chilling, cruel, clever, unscrupulous, mocking soul on the canvas. It mesmerizes me that so many people admire and write about him in such breathless, absolute terms of approbation.

The curator of the show, one Carmen Gimenez, displays in the course of the article a number of the traits which make Picasso's modern devotees so frequently repulsive that one comes to the conclusion the man must be radiating evil. To begin with this particularly unilluminating, obnoxious and, well, asinine quote:

'Black is a traditional color for Spanish clothing. But it's a simple black, not the kind we wear in New York.'

Saying something like this serves no purpose but to establish the speaker's persona as a with-it insider New Yorker who does not take any crap but service people. Manhattan is apparently entirely given over to such people now. A friend of mine tells me it is not uncommon even for men to get a $100 consult on their hair before and separate from the actual cut, and this type of ludicrous expense is considered essential to differentiate oneself from the common scum. While I may be a petty and envious provincial, I have always been a New York lover from way back. One of the three or four real regrets of my life is that I never took a shot at living there when I was just out of school (my excuse was that I had no identifiable purpose I could convey to people there). My bookshelves are full of New York-based writers from the 1880s to the 1950s, not just literature, but baseball and children's books and books about tunnels and bridges and the subway and the parks. I read E.B. White's essay "This is New York" the other night and a lot of the old impressions I had formed came back to me, and I wanted to go even now, though I still have no identifiable purpose there. I have several art books published by the Metropolitan Museum and other NYC cultural institutions in the 40s and 50s, and however arrogant that generation of elite New Yorkers may have been in private they generally had the good taste to suppress it in their writing and maintain the ability to address intelligent if unhip readers as human beings having something in common with themselves, which is a skill that sadly seems to be on the wane today.

Other annoyances in the piece addressed briefly: We are told that an inscription 'using the less familiar names of El Greco, Rembrandt and Velasquez...illustrates Picasso's wish to be identified with these artists and his self-proclamation as the last great master of classical painting.' Have you ever noticed that Picasso's devotees seem to affect an especial confidence when speaking about or for him? Why? If the era of classical painting is over--which regrettably seems probable--and if Picasso is the last great master of it, and no one presently is alive is capable of approaching even his feats--does that not leave us in a bit of a forlorn state as people who identify themselves as nourished by the arts? A culture in which there is no realistic hope of anything great being produced in the foreseeable future--and I fear we have very much reached that state with regard to the arts among the most deeply learned in them--cannot expect to thrive solely dependant on the genius of the past without meaningful application to actual life in the present. If Picasso really believed he was the last of a long line of brilliant, civilization-defining figures, and that after him, there was to be nothing further, and especially if, as seemingly happened, he was able to persuade many to come around to his opinion, then anyone alive now has comparatively nothing to do with that entire epoch, and certainly any claim they have to understanding it must be viewed with skepticism. It seems, and has always seemed to me, that if even if his opinion of the direction of art is correct, there is no credit and little value to be gained by agreeing with him so enthusiastically, for he could not possibly have been painting with such a person as you in mind.

I don't want to spend my whole life combating with this silly article so I will let it go.

In a related item did you catch the special Picasso print (a drawing of a naked woman on a sofa) that was offered to Times readers a few weeks back? Of course in the classic fashion of this sort of thing we don't just order the picture but get the whole titillating backstory of who the woman is...Met Picasso in Paris while an undergraduate to do an interview for the college paper...He was 64 at the time...Five years later they became lovers...Moved to the Riviera...He drew her naked...Captured her soul with his pencil...We can infer that many G-spot orgasms were produced...Yes I want the whole package, my friends will ask about the picture, I'll deliver the story, maybe they'll think I have something of the same spirit in me. At the very worst they'll know that I am aware these kinds of things happen to actual people. My reputation for innocence will be a little lightened.

While on the subject of my deepest regrets, I never understood why if artists could entice strange women to pose naked for them while they painted them, why a poet could not do the same thing as a regular course of study. "Will you pose in the nude for me while I compose a sonnet on you? It will be very satisfying, just like with painters." I guess I don't regret asking this of anybody so much I regret never bringing things to any point where such a request would have seemed a natural conclusion.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Reflections on Johnson 2

Johnson being now established as one of my very favorite authors, I was especially excited when I returned to London in 2001 to finally go and see the house in Gough Square where I could imagine myself imbibing something of the atmosphere of 18th century London, which I consider myself as being able to do without too elaborate a concatenation of circumstances. I entered Johnson's Court and found the house, along with the famous statue of Hodge the cat (though Hodge almost certainly never lived in the house at Gough Square). However it was closed for renovations. We eventually carried on to Lichfield, where Johnson's birthplace was open, and which I will recapitulate in a later section.

In 2004 I 'studied' the Preface to Shakespeare and the poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes". (I have read other essays and poems of Johnson's too for purposes of general amusement, without attempting, I suppose, to engage them as objects of study. I am especially fond of "The Prologue at the Opening of Drury Lane Theater, 1747", though I like all his poetry generally.) This is from the notes I took on the Preface at the time:

Clear and even inspiring little treatise on the excellences and spirit (best spirit) of literature. Humor and wisdom augmented by learning and understanding are so much more attractive than mere dogged cleverness. He is able to admire and appreciate Shakespeare while still relating to him as a man, acting himself a man and giving the reader the benefit of the doubt as to being something of the kind as well. This in large part accounts for his (Johnson's) attractiveness as a writer. For W.S.'s excellence does lie primarily in his naturalness and liveliness rather than as a chiseled, precariously preserved intellect of the high modernist/post-modernist model.

I will add that in his prose, though Johnson says many times that the object of writing is to instruct and inform, he does not to my mind ever come across as condescending to his reader, certainly compared to almost all modern writers, though I am aware he had somewhat of this reputation in his own time. However, I think perhaps due to the rigor and high quality of his social intercourse, he was able to develop a style in which he is able to imagine and address the reader as a person at a level of understanding and knowledge comparable to himself, or at least to that of people who were actually his friends. American writers in particular, many of whom probably have gone through their entire lives without having a natural, easy social type conversation as an equal with another human being on the intellectual matters most dear to them, are prone to write as if most readers were not merely idiots, but scarcely conceivable to the author as members of the same human species. They write ever for authorities instead of for men and women.

As a poet I do not think it can be said that he is underrated or undervalued, his poetry still being readily available in print, but it (the poetry) is also not much talked about. His longer efforts build up a tremendous head of steam and pull one along through them with great force. In his best poems his lines, images, narrative and ideas are in each separate part almost uniformly strong, which is an exceedingly difficult effect to produce. A comparable strength of intellect and handle on the form of a poem and the English language as well as the histories of both combined in the same author is rare. Stevens or Pound would be the most recent English language poets that I would confidently say had similar levels of skill in all these various particulars. I suppose it is true that Johnson lacks sublimity, which is not an inconsiderable deficiency, though many of his points are notable for the elegance of their conception (as well as the force of their execution).

I was going to reproduce some favorite quotes from the Preface that I notated but I am not at home and I left the book there so I will skip it and move on to something else.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Reflections on Johnson 1

Having finished the Life of Johnson on Sunday, I am going to clog up cyperspace a bit with my own history with this legendary duo. Parts 1 and 2 will be devoted to me and Johnson, Part 3 to Boswell, and Part 4 to a account of my 2001 pilgrimage to Lichfield, perhaps even with my very own tourist photos if I can figure out how to do that.

I do not remember exactly when I became conscious of the figure of Samuel Johnson. He was not particularly well-known or prominent in our household, and I don't think it was much before I was twelve or fourteen that I became aware that he was the subject of a famous, but very long and very old biography, and I still did not have any idea why anyone would have written about him anyway. This was before I had even read Dickens or knew any basic English history, so the impression I had of Johnson, if any at all, was that of a stuffy, scholarly type from a faraway time and place. His very name struck me, in the early 1980s, as hopelessly and embarrassingly whitebread (mine being nearly as bad in that regard I was extra sensitive about the matter). He aroused no interest in me. I am not sure how much my father knew about him, but as his tastes ran more towards political history, war, exploration, etc I am pretty certain he hadn't read either Johnson or Boswell. I remember asking him once who Samuel Johnson was, since the Life was a part of most series of classics that I liked to collect at flea markets and the like at that time, which he scoffed at dismissively, saying "No one reads that anymore," adding too that Johnson had not liked Americans, which, being a great patriot, especially where the generation of the founding fathers is concerned, he took as a personal offence. I have heard him on other occasions denounce English books of the period as being unreadable because there is "too much damn Latin" in them, which would certainly apply to Boswell, though he never failed on the other hand to extol the likes of Jefferson and Hamilton on the grounds of their superior learning and deep understanding of the Greek and Roman classics compared to modern leaders.

Having passed through high school without ever perusing a page or handling a volume of either Johnson or his biographer, I proceeded on to a college that if it is well-known for anything is well-known for an almost perverse and willfull anachronistic biblophilia, where I don't believe I heard either the name of Johnson or Boswell uttered once in four years, though the English literature section of the library at least had much material on and many editions of the works of both. Since I killed a lot of time in that section over the years after dinner waiting for it to be late enough to start drinking it is probable that I at least looked into one or other of the books then, though I do not remember anything gripping me. They had the Yale edition of Johnson's complete works with illustrated plates on the title pages. I remember looking at the famous Reynolds portrait of the elephantine Johnson in one, and in another I believe an illustration of the great man leaving the drawing room on the occasion of his perceived snubbing by Lord Chesterfield (seeing as I am referring to this episode 250 years after the fact, by way of an artwork, is it any wonder why otherwise rational people harbor ambitions of literary fame?).

I graduated, and then began my current reading list the year I was 24, though it would yet be 4 years before I would get to anything by Johnson. When I was 26 I finally made it to London for the first time, where, in wandering about the City, I could not help taking note of the signs for Johnson's house in Gough Square, though not having read him at the time I did not venture to even look at the house, intending to preserve that pleasure for a time when it would have more moment to me, though even then I still did not have a clear idea of the massive figure Johnson still makes in the English literary imagination. In 1996 the London of my imagination was primarily Dickensian, with a little Bloomsburyan/Edwardian channeling around Hyde Park and Marylebone and Victoria, and what I knew from the Restoration and 18th century authors coming to life only in the City churches and oddly enough in walking along the banks of the river. Finally, on March 6, 1998, I commenced reading The Lives of the English Poets.

The Lives of the Poets is one of the most entertaining, as well as instructive books, both historically and literarily speaking, that I have ever read. By instructive I do not mean that Johnson is the most accurate recorder of facts or that his criticism is perfect upon all occasions. He does something that is perhaps equally as important, demonstrates what a collectively shared history and literature of an outstanding quality means to a society, and the men in it, over a fairly extended period; that England would not be England, and all that proceeded from this circumstance even after the age of Johnson, without its poets; and that any human mind ignorant of poetry and the poetic heritage of his own language at the very least can make little claim to wholeness.

Here are a few favorite quotes and word choices/phrases from the Life of Cowley:

'the mist of panegyric'
'The true genius is a mind of large general powers, accidentally determined to some particular direction.'
'the morose Wood'
'the courtly Sprat'
'...instead of seeking shelter in America, wisely went only so far from the bustle of life that he might easily find his way back, when solitude should grow tedious.
'a race of writers that may be termed the metaphysical poets'
'The metaphysical poets were men of learning, and to show their learning was their whole endeavor.'
'...the reader, far from wondering that he missed them, wonders more frequently by what perverseness of industry they were ever found.' (regarding the thoughts of the metaphysical poets)
'nature and art are ransacked'
'wrote rather as beholders than partakers of human nature'
'Their wish was only to say what they hoped had never been said before'
'confused magnificence'
'A lover, burnt up by his affection, is compared to Egypt'
'The lover supposes his lady acquainted with the ancient laws of augury and rites of sacrifice'
'Who but Donne would have thought that a good man is a telescope?'
'A coal-pit has not often found its poet; but that it may not want its due honor, Cleveland has paralleled it with the sun.
'Their expressions sometimes raise horror, when they intend perhaps to be pathetic.'
'unnecessarily and unpoetically subtle'
'I know not whether Scaliger himself has persuaded many readers to join with him in his preference of the two favorite odes, which he estimates in his raptures at the value of a kingdom.'
'His elegy on Sir Henry Wotton is vigorous and happy, the series of thoughts is easy and natural, and the conclusion, though a little weakened by the intrusion of Alexander, is elegant and forcible.'
'even the morality is voluptuous'
'Finding himself able to live in the greatest extremities of love, he concludes the torrid zone to be habitable.'
'sluggish frigidity'
'The same thought is more generally, and therefore more poetically, expressed by Casimir'
'The rights of antiquity were invaded, and disorder tried to break into the Latin'
'Every reader feels himself weary with this useless talk of an allegorical being.'

I will break this post off here.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Game of Art SUPPLEMENT: The Cult of Picasso

Pablo Picasso is, unless I have badly missed something, the man most widely considered to have been the greatest painter in the Western World during the twentieth century. It also seems to be widely considered that no one comparable to him in stature has emerged since his death, which, though not that long ago yet, still with every passing year nourishes the idea that perhaps no one so great ever will emerge again. As I have noted in an earlier post, he seems since my childhood to have replaced Rembrandt as the demonstrative model for serious art writers when they are trying to explain to the philistines in mass market publications why the likes of Andrew Wyeth are mediocrities. I cannot contest Picasso's greatness, though for the most part I must admit it remains elusive to me. I think I am not completely in the dark regarding what he was doing; I have read Freud, and seen vividly the connection in his writings to Joyce, and have discerned the definite Cubist sensibility, whether intentional or not, in Hemingway, as well as, I think, being reasonably sensible to the general movements in history and the arts at the time. When it comes to Picasso however I have clearly failed to put together the various parts and impressions and feel the awe. That the awe is there to be felt however, it is futile to dispute, since it was widespread among his contemporaries and immediate followers in his own field, as well as the wider artistic community, which was a few hundred times more educationally and socially interconnected in the France and Spain of 75 years ago than anything we know of here. In addition it was of a level and intensity that is truly rare in any human endeavor, such that I must take it on faith that there were legitimate reasons for the respect.

Picasso's fans, especially in the United States, are another matter however. They are the most obnoxious of any of the artists in the Game. They are not the snootiest, though I don't know that I've met one who wouldn't like to be; but for this one would have to exclusively build up artists and genres as the only ones that are worthwhile which he is certain the people he intends to intimidate have never heard of, and he has to be impeccably correct that the person concerned has never heard of them in each individual case. Caravaggio fans are nearly as obnoxious on a number of levels, first in their assumption that because they did not discover their man until they were already adults, neither has anyone else, but mostly because they affect to identity with and revel in the raw sensuality and violence depicted in the art while being the kind of people who would frantically call the police if anybody remotely similar to the painter or his models ever came within thirty feet of them. Unironic Impressionist fans have been universal objects of ridicule for some time. Generally few people want to sleep with hardcore Dutch Master fans either. Michelangelo/DaVinci/ Raphael are too universally admired to contribute much to a distinct social or intellectual identity unless one has written a well-regarded book on the subject. Klimt fans are pretentious but often adorable. Modigliani fans are too cool and good-looking to ever encounter losers on a frequent basis anyway (case in point: I have never actually met one. I have only read about them in books and articles that are beyond the reach of middlebrow criticism). Middle class Picasso fans and hagiographers tend to be wannabes with mean streaks, which is not an attractive combination.

It is said of Picasso that if he got an inclination to work during dinner or a social visit, he would simply leave his company abruptly and go to it. This is reported not infrequently and with approval of great artists and other successful egomaniacs, and we are accustomed to acknowledge that great results justify any amount of mere rudeness, though with Picasso my impression always suggests to me that this had no small share of gamesmanship in it and served to make a specific point of insulting his company, who were presumably his friends and supporters. Though perhaps much of this is simply the nature of emphasis in modern biography and memoir, which is obsessed with the details of who dominated and more importantly, who was dominated. At any rate, perhaps because he did not linger over dinner, Picasso was an incredibly prolific painter, so that besides every museum worth its name in the Western world having enough original works to have its own Picasso room, besides there being numerous entire museums dedicated exclusively to the work of the great man, it is not uncommon in the United States even among people of relatively modest wealth to possess an original Picasso of one's own. I have even been in a couple of such houses myself, though in one I did not bear enough status to be allowed into the gallery. In the other the owner had hung it in his bathroom on the wall beside the toilet. It was a framed cocktail napkin sized piece of cardboard or paper with a couple of broad black strokes like eyebrows encasing on three sides a few other shorter black marks and streaks. The owner had hung it in his bathroom on the wall beside the toilet. I don't have the slightest idea what its subject was supposed to be, and if the owner did he kept it to himself, besides which that was secondary to its being a PICASSO of course. He had not bought the thing to instruct or entertain as an object of art in itself, and having it had brought him some local notoriety. This all strikes me as quite bizarre. Perhaps it is not really as I see it, perhaps there was some communication of joy or insight which this man received from the painted figure and not just from the signature beneath it but if so this was a joy that stifled itself quickly upon turning again to engage the world.

Another trait of Picasso lovers is that they become very quickly defensive if they feel their position is being questioned or trivialized. I remember in school once an irreverent but very sharp fellow declared that Pink Floyd's "The Wall" was a more meaningful work of art than anything by Picasso but that he would be glad to be set right if people would undertake to explain to him how it was not so. The response was interesting. The pro-Picasso faction was mostly indignant that somebody who could pose such a question in a class had been admitted to the college in the first place, though several were so stunned, or sickened, or enraged at the insinuations which had been proposed, that I observed several heads to redden, veins to throb, and fists to clench. It was evident to me that these people had acquired some idea that to be the sort of person and to live among the sort of society they aspired to, the greatness of Picasso was accepted as a given, and appreciation of the master one of the tests and qualifications for acceptance therein. Even at eighteen they were ferociously defensive of their claim to this position, and did not care for any reminder that they might not have attained to it.

But why Picasso? Why for that matter all these modernists who arouse such contempt in their adherents towards those who criticize or attack or simply don't get them? Charles Dickens fans I daresay do not get so ruffled when their man is ridiculed, and there is certainly a case to be made that many modern intellectuals don't get him. The excessive cleverness of the modernists, the strict refusal to give sentiment or the consolations of religion or tradition or public experience (i.e. school) an inch of ground, their ruthless exclusivity where even the consumers of their productions are concerned (intellectually speaking) all contribute to a cultural worldview where to misstep, or be led or tricked into a misstep by a representative of the masses becomes akin to the death of one's intellectual pretensions, in instances where money and other types of status are absent to one's very self-identity. To which I can only ask, is this what art (or life) is really supposed to be about?

I can never think of Picasso without recurrence to an experience I had once at the Philadelphia art museum, which was for many years my "home" art museum and in which I had therefore a greater proclivity to wander about without maps and so forth. It happened that after passing through the regular 19th century European galleries, pleasant seaside and garden pictures and so forth, I wandered wholly unconsciously into the Picasso room and thought "these pictures have nothing beautiful about them," amending my thought when I realized what I was looking at to "though I sense they are the work of someone exceedingly clever, doubtless infinitely moreso than I am." This is not a pleasing sensation to have, and I can see why a person attuned to these sorts of goings-on would rather be able to say "I perceive the brilliance of these pictures and my intelligence is of a rather similar cast to that of the artist." To appear in a position where others can gleefully declare you to be intellectually intimidated is one of the supreme social calamities of the age, though this can never be but a secondary or tertiary purpose of any succesful artwork, if it be one at all. But of course the Game of Art has very little to do with the consideration or understanding of artworks in isolation (which actually only become cause for intimidation the greater one's understanding of the processes and mind of the artist), otherwise hardly anyone in the bourgeoisie would have the interest or the capacity to play it.

P.S. We are almost to the end of the Game as far as I am involved in it.

P.P.S. No one has visited my profile in 2 months now. I expected to have a limited readership but 4 people?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Game of Art, Part 5

At the next level of the game we get to the high moderns, Matisse, Modigliani, Picasso, perhaps Chagall. These painters have the status of being names widely known to the more conscientious end of the general museum-going and Europe-touring public though how accessible their actual art is to the intellects and sensibilities of the same is even more widely thought than usual by the experts to be open to conjecture. It is not uncommon to overhear people express excitement upon reading that a certain church they are going to see has a Chagall window or a museum a substantial Picasso collection, though in many instances the works inspiring these effusions would appear to be among the least of the artistic attractions at these sites. I cannot disparage them however, for with the exception of Chagall, whose horses and circuses rather annoy me, I become excited myself at the prospect of intimacy with the aura of this generation of painters. Not, I am afraid, for the works themselves (we are well past that part of the Game for me), but because I anticipate that I will find a crowd that is by my standards very good-looking, affluent and elegantly dressed, excellent hors-d'oeuvres wrapped in grape leaves, and perhaps even port, wherever these works, or a strong association with these artists are to be encountered.

Whatever their youthful struggles may have been, I think most people associate the high modernists, and certainly those who catapulted them to undying fame, with a very desirable mode of living, in many ways a sort of bourgeois heaven. Prime ocean view real estate on the Riviera before the masses (or was it the Americans?) ruined it. Your mistress and your second mistress (your wife being conveniently back in Paris)--both beyond gorgeous and intellectually beyond any humanities grad student currently living--grappling and pulling each other's hair in contest for your affection on the carpet at your feet. The apartment on the Quai--I forget what Quai exactly, but you know what I mean. Dissipation and free love with the Bohemian crowd in the same (maybe this is only my heaven). Food and drink of excellent quality at all times, taken among scenes and with beautiful people who can appreciate it. Lovemaking of a titanic quality. And, of course, there is still something tantalizing about Art tangibly embodied in persons, or environments, or scenes, and the modernists were very gifted at presenting this image in every aspect of their lives.

The peculiarly insidious strand of professionalism that has infected the collective psyche of the western world over the last twenty years, combined with the apparent decline of humanistic education, appears to have killed off this very attractive spirit, which has not gone unmissed. Many professionals, including some at a very great level of wealth, amuse themselves by attempting to re-create such lively and satisfying scenes as the lives of the Artists were thought to have consisted of, mainly through gourmet dinners, stylish furnishings, select and attractive company, expensive pictures and other objets. Perhaps they are even well-satisfied with their efforts; the accounts one reads in the papers indicates that they are, though evidences of deep learning, artistic achievement or sensibility, or wit are always in scant supply in them in comparison with those of professional and material success. These latter have come almost to be accepted as surrogates for any other type of quality, at least in the realm of culture, that a person wishes to be possessed of. This is why the French protest so vehemently when 55-year old American millionaires decide to set themselves up as gourmets and wine connoiseurs. These are qualities of one's mind, of one's entire approach to and outlook on life, that must be lived and immersed in and thought upon from early youth. One may acquire a taste, or study the matter as a hobby later in life, of course, one may even become a patron and a very respected and knowledgeable one relatively, but one cannot become the thing itself, however much money one spends, and it is ridiculous to imagine otherwise. This is an attitude, I know, that Americans find obnoxious, and maybe money and the willpower that accompanies it is too strong to brook protest on the matter, but I think there is something in it, which the whole cult and culture of Art especially seems to bear out.

I wanted to do a bit on the Cult of Picasso among a sizable part of the elite college/business crowd in the U.S. which has always struck me as rather odd, but I think I will publish that in a bonus supplement.
Another Johnson Interlude

An interesting contrast to the authors discussed in the last post, here is a very brief assessment (in a footnote nonetheless) of Johnson's romantic character:

"Let not my readers smile to think of Johnson's being a candidate for female favour; Mr Peter Garrick assured me, that he was told by a lady, that in her opinion Johnson was 'a very seducing man.' Disadvantages of person and manner may be forgotten, where intellectual discourse is communicated to a sensible mind..."

He goes on to relate some tidbits regarding Johnson's proclivities for a couple of ladies, the perhaps overly pious Hill Boothby, for the notice of whom he engaged in an unfriendly rivalry with George, Lord Lyttleton (the Poetaster), and the delightful Miss Molly Aston, all rather moving and at the same time ludicrous in its own way as all romantic attachments I suppose are.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

White Male Novelists--Having Macho Sex?

For those who missed it, the NY Times Book Review did a piece last Sunday on the memoirs of one Alice Denham, with whose name I had been previously unfamiliar. Ms Denham, accompanied with a 1962 photo of her handsome self in a negligee with a open-lipped, closed teeth come-hither sort of expression is mainly noteworthy, it appears, for having been very hot and having slept with a lot of literary figures in the 50s and 60s, nearly all, as far as I can tell, white American males (though I am not certain about Anatole Broyard). This last fact was made an especially big deal of by the reviewer (Stacey D'Erasmo--don't know her) as if the very idea of straight white American male writers being taken seriously or as artists, toughs, arrogant egomaniacs, desirable sexual partners or anything slightly dangerous in general were too ludicrous to conceive of. The opening sentence of the review is "Ah, for the days when the Big White Guy Writers roamed the streets of Manhattan, swooping down on comely maidens in the Cedar Tavern and carrying them off to their lairs for a bit of ravishing in between reciting lines from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Why not? It sounds like a far more enjoyable way to pass an evening than anything likely to happen there now. But in a world where even prominent and sexy authors such as Mr D.F. Wallace denigrate writers of these earlier times on the basis that his "female friends" find them revolting, it would almost be in bad taste for a wafflng, confused, half-educated gentleman to demur from the judgement of a strong, intelligent, well-educated woman, as ones suspects Ms. S D'Erasmo must be. However I am going to follow my instinct and do so for the sake of practice.

The immediate impression that is made however is that a certain class of male author has lost a serious amount of esteem over the past 25 or so years with its particular female type, which has the adverse effect of further lowering its status among society in general. To put it another way: athletes, fraternity studs, cocky businessmen, doctors, Australian adventurers, etc, besides acting in ways desirable to many women, maintain a standard of quality and an expectation that association with them must quickly come to a crisis of sexual decision that women submit to in a proportion of numbers highly favorable to the limited number of males in these positions. Many male writers, apparently, have surrendered any such expectations or demands, which, if the desire to be such a bastard is not quenched with it, is going to result in some very pitiful and lifeless art regardless of medium. This is not the same as repression or frustration, and it is certainly not an indifference to sexual matters but an acquiescence in one's own sexual irrelevance, a voluntary castration, in exchange for...what in exchange for actually? Comfort? The hollow title of Writer, stripped of all its power? Where men become thus etiolated that they cannot assume any privilege for themselves in their dealings with women their work will be stillborn regardless of the endeavor. I cringe to say it myself, lest some pretty lady writer get infuriated and unleash her condemnation on me; but I have deferred to the lady writers for too long and only received contempt from them anyway. There is no future, I am afraid, in playing pleasantly.

I am not actually a particular fan of most of the writers named in the article, though I have always retained a soft spot for Goodbye, Columbus. (Phil Roth, by the way, was rated "on fire" as a lover. I bet he was!) I certainly could done without knowing that James Jones had an abnormally small penis (what does that mean anyway? Length? Circumference? Mass? The girl really regrets taking you on?). Like most modern writers, myself included, they probably thought and wrote about sex too much. Indeed, they probably had sex too much, and certainly invested it with too much intellectualized egoism to be healthy for clear-headed artistic work. This attitude has got much of literature on the whole into a bind which it seems not to know its way out of anymore. Everything is reduced to a question of the author's personal sexual success, or more often his failure, and everything else in the world must answer to this single struggle.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Literary Interlude

For about the past month I have reading Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, as may have been discerned by several references on this blog. I am generally only able at this time to read 25-30 pages of literature a day due to my young children, the constraints of paid employment and so forth though to be honest I do not mind going at a leisurely pace through such books. I have been wanting to read this book, and to have read it, for many years, especially since I read some of Johnson's own work and visited his birthplace at Lichfield, but I waited for its turn to come up on my list. I intend to write a couple of long and indulgent essays with regard to my thoughts about these men and books later on, but being now a little more than halfway through I wanted to put down some impressions I have had.

Before the age of 17 or so I had no real sense of what made a book Great or not great, though I was interested in the idea that certain books were supposed to be better than others, and sought them out. Still, I primarily judged them by how amusing I found them. For about 10 years starting around age 17 I became more receptive to the qualities of a Classic and I was frequently, for the lack of a better expression, deeply impressed by many masterpieces I came across in this time. Since turning 30, however, I have found much abatement in the intensity of these experiences. I believe that in part this has to do with the anticipation I have for Classics now. When I read Plato or War and Peace as a 20 or 23 year old I had no expectations of what I was going to get. I knew nothing substantial about either the authors, or the contents or nature of the books. I had done enough reading however, and was at a receptive enough age that I was conscious of my understanding of the possibilities of life, of language, of morality, of virtue, constantly expanding and improving. I had the good fortune to encounter very many excellent works before this sense of expansion and improvement began to be exhausted.

I was 34 when I finally got around to tackling Remembrance of Things Past. We had translated the first couple of pages of Swann's Way in my college French class, when I had been very innocent even of mainstream canonical literature and susceptible to its impressions, and I was anticipating an elevating experience of the first order. And indeed I did get one; only, to my mind, confined to particular episodes and isolated images. As I read further and further into it I thought the book repeated itself too much and could have easily lost 500-1000 of its 3000 pages without regret. It is still a superior book, full of brilliant dialogue and many unforgettable scenes and images that I will carry with me forever. The hotel and beach at Balbec, the conversation of St-Loup and Monsieur de Charlus, the sight of the airplane over the bluff where they have taken an outing, the earnest digression over whether the fashions people wear to go motoring will improve--these are all wonderful delights for people like me who to a certain extent live to find life portrayed in such terms. Yet I could not help throughout having a nagging sense that I had missed the great point, the real brilliance of the whole. The parts about the book I found to be enjoyable were nothing that would excite a real philosopher or intellectual much, and yet such people have been excited by the book. I understood it as an attempt to transform actual human experience, through the ostensible vehicle of the memory, as wholly as possible into art. He succeeds in this to a high degree too, though like all literary authors he can only rise to such heights as his imagination ultimately will bear him, and his imagination at times is unable to support his memory. Still, there is imagination of such an extent, and so relatively near to our own time, as to induce an acute nostalgia for the manner of life which it describes. I feel its absence heavily in my own life, for all the prodigious goods and achievements that our society has produced just in the short span of my adulthood. I genuinely find it rather depressing however to live in a society where the smartest and wisest people are reckoned to be economists, and the sign of an educated man is the ability to think like one as closely as possible. As a civilization, what we once sought with art we are apparently now going to attempt with biology, the results of which I am somewhat curious to see, though the early returns as regards things like plastic surgery and steroid enhancement do not indicate that we stand to gain as much wisdom or aesthetic sensibility as might be hoped. And while cognitive enhancements sound tantalizing, what does this mean? I have read something of the contents of computers being downloaded into people's brains, which has if any advantages a utilitarian one, though I suspect most people would just as soon do without it, and I have also read about gene selection or upgrading for IQ (and I suppose other vital qualities like willpower, energy level which are the supports of the thriving intellect). I have a lot of skepticism about this though, for reasons which I hope will be hinted at in my bit about Sam Johnson, which I will get to now.

To return to an earlier theme, Boswell's Johnson is one of those Classics--and there aren't too many left for me at this point--that I really anticipated as possibly affecting my life even at age 36 before I read it. I still felt that, despite everything else I have read over the last 12-20 years, I could not fully consider myself really and truly a serious devotee of English Literature, but that having read this book, I would really be pretty much there. I had quite loved what I had read of Johnson's own writing (perusing his Preface to Shakespeare the other day I was struck by how many of his points I had internalized and put forth in my own recent essay about that author), and this was supposed to be better than any of his work. As such, I found myself on page 400, enjoying the reading but at the same time ominously questioning whether this were really one of the Greatest Books of All Time, or, as the dust jacket of my edition states, one of the four pillars of the literary tradition of the anglophone world, along with the King James Bible, Shakespeare, and the Pilgrim's Progress. The book is dependent on the vividness of the Johnson character and the particular milieu that he inhabits for its charm, and it takes a long time for that to begin to be established, a lot longer, to be honest, that most modern readers are probably willing to endure, especially if they have no extensive familiarity with or affection for 18th century England and its literature and culture, or if they are women (this is a man's book about men). A lot of very great books build themselves up so slowly and so minutely such that their greatness does not really seize you fully until you are 700 or 800 pages in. I suppose this harbors ill for the continued significance, or assuming this to be already gone, revival of literature as a major force in the lives of the best minds of the future.

There are certain periods in English history--the Elizabethan, the 18th century, the Greene-Waugh-Powell-Orwell between the wars generation--when the nation's educated classes burst forth with a particularly attractive combination of confidence and wit vis-a-vis both other nations and the weight of history. In these eras even the national efforts in music and painting are not regarded with the same oppression of inferiority that they inspire in other periods, and likewsie the general system and results of the national education do not produce the sense of horror and despair (mainly regarding the rest of one's fellow citizens). Whenever I read an author from one of these periods I always regard it as an antidote to the damning, dismissive, insuperably learned and logical works of modern Germanic authors which I have an unhealthy attraction to and which nearly convince me that there is absolutely no point in continuing to live, for the likes of me especially (this may enhance their value in the minds of some readers). Here is Boswell on Good Friday in London, 1778:

"It was a delightful day: as we walked to St Clement's church, I again remarked that Fleet Street was the most cheerful scene in the world. 'Fleet Street (said I) is in my mind more delightful than Tempe.' JOHNSON. 'Ay, sir; but let it be compared with Mull.'

There was a very numerous congregation to-day at St Clement's church, which Dr Johnson said he observed with pleasure."

It is a simple passage, but it gave me a certain joy and restored to me a hopefulness about the prospects of life that I rarely find even interspersed in the writings of modern intellectuals. It even inspired me to seek deals for a brief jaunt to London to restore my spirits in the Boswellian fashion (I can't go, but has some excellent combined air and hotel packages for the budget tourist, especially when one factors the price of London accomodation [Poor Uncle Giles from Powell would be hard-pressed even to maintain his shabby hotel room in Bayswater nowadays]. Round-trip flight, transport to and from the airport and 6 nights hotel for $500-$600 a person for a double, $700-$800 for a single through the winter). Of course there are the passages where Boswell defends the African slave trade, and Johnson offhandedly dismisses the Indians and Chinese as barbarians, and the indigineous peoples of America and the East Indies as savages, where the collective feminine intellect is regarded as incapable of undergoing serious study or thought; these positions will surely render the book's authentic delights impenetrable to most modern readers, as probably the positions staked out by many of the modern European as well as various anti-western intellectuals render their particular glories impenetrable to me. And I do doubt whether Boswell or Johnson, remarkable as the latter was, have a universal appeal, but merely a limited one, to a type of person whose cultural position in the world, at least, appears to be on the decline.

The other observation I wanted to make was that much of the appeal of Johnson is that he leads what we would call a collegiate lifestyle while being undoubtedly a serious and substantial adult in his society. By this I mean he rises late, lives with a number of housemates who are not related to him, lingers over meals and sits late into the evening talking with friends and various interesting people, spends several hours every day in a library or other study, as well as walking in town, has the time in the summer to go touring or stay with friends for weeks or months at a time. This is not apparently an uncommon lifestyle among European and Middle Eastern intellectuals even today, and I must say I am a little jealous of them, as I have not been able to do most of these things, and the others only in severely truncated spaces of time, in many years. Of course I went to the writer's conference, but I failed to make any figure there and was disappointed in the social aspect of the thing.

I will close this too long essay (my inability to be concise has already been my death, and I must accept the fact) with some more wisdom from Johnson.

"You may be wise in your study in the morning, and gay at a company at a tavern in the evening. Every man is to take care of his own wisdom and his own virtue, without minding too much what others think."

Thursday, November 16, 2006

I am going to try again to write a short one.

I have a great love for the word toys, which being perhaps the most unserious and inoffensive word in the English language, must reveal something unflattering in the character of a 36-year old man. Nonetheless whenever I see it written or otherwise spelled out in an elegant or poignant context I am able in that instant to come to some peace with the world for the purity of experience, or attachment, or hopefulness, or whatever it is that I have come to associate so strongly with this word (Old Eng. toye meaning dalliance according to my excellent 1965 Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary). A few years back when I used to go down to Brookline, Mass every week for French lessons, there was a very small store near Coolidge Corner on one of the big streets there (Franklin Street perhaps?) that was always closed in the evening, and always dark, but which one could see through the window was packed ceiling to floor with all kinds of stuff, one of those cramped, narrow-aisled, 40s or 50s type set-ups, that had an brown and white awning around the door that had TOYS written on it and nothing else, a lone streetlamp shining on it, and that was what caused me to think "what a lovely little word" for the first time.

Monday, November 13, 2006

I am Going to Try to Write a Short One: Thoughts on Some 1980s Teenager Movies That Have Unduly Affected My Psyche

1. Can't Buy Me Love. This is the one where the pitiful nerd pays the blonde cheerleader type $1,000 to pretend she is his girlfriend for a month. For his expense he is not allowed to lay so much as a finger on her though presumably she gives the muscular types whatever they want for free on a regular basis. I was struck at the time that this was an excellent illustration of the desexualization, demoralization, emasculation, what have you, of the nominally intelligent but utterly dominated and personality-less state of modern suburban maledom. He never feels himself in a position of power, and indeed is quite grateful that the object of his desire accepts his money after she initially wavers over his harsh condition that she sacrifice some of her social status for his perverse gratification, which I suppose is the point of the movie. The real point of the movie, however, is that he, and others like him in his generation, have surrendered all sexual claims upon women whatsoever, have simply ceded that entire area of their lives to women's discretion and mercy, and accepted their judgements on the propriety of their own desires and conduct. The character in this movie had no understanding that a man's status among women and his insistence on maintaining his own sexual prerogatives and privileges cannot be separated, that one cannot negotiate the privileges in exchange for the status. The situation reminds me a little of Bunuel's Obscure Object of Desire, in that the male desirer allows his frustrated sexual obsession to reduce him to a kind of animal fury. But at least he tries to rip off the impregnable corset and has to be confined in a cage before his love can freely cavort with another in front of him. Our suburban fools apologize to women when caught in a look that suggests they might be having such a thought.

When I was at the height of my own desperation, around age 17-20, I frequently thought about offering $1,000 to various girls I knew in school to have sex with me. I suppose I thought the sum would indicate that I was "serious", as well as explicitly lay out my real objective. A series of dates might not achieve the result I wanted, and I was not confident that I could even get the dates in the first place. The girls I was planning to offer the money to besides were not girls I especially "liked" as far as companionship, nor were they very hard-to-get or unreceptive to boys who knew what they were about. They tended to go to colleges that were a hundred times more famous for partying than they were for intellectual rigor. In other words I thought my offer might have a shot, with the money providing a more convenient excuse for them to say yes, so that they did not have to pretend they liked me, and give up all their power. Unlike going to a prostitute, who advertises and makes no discretion between men beyond who can pay
the fee, I imagined this would not really be about money, that I would simply be showing especial favor on someone of my own choosing, who I kind of liked, which would be our little secret, and who would still be in a sense "exclusive" to me as opposed at least to other losers at my school. Obviously I never carried out any such scheme, but the most interesting of these teenage movies are the ones where the plot is simply an acting out of the ridiculous ideas and thoughts that occupy the minds of hopeless boys...

2. For example, Zapped!, surely one of the rawer manifestations of the true adolescent psyche ever brought to light, in which the protagonist comes into contact with some kind of toxic waste or something and emerges with the power to kinetically make women's clothes fly off any time he wishes. What more can really be said about this film?

3. Encino Man. While I would have liked to have introduced this as the undisputed masterpiece of Pauly Shore, he is actually an insignificant force in the film, which of course centers around a couple of nerds who dig up a block of ice in their backyard (in southern California) in which is contained a man from the Paleolithic period who turns out when the ice is thawed to be both alive and still a teenager. Though the caveboy has no language, prefers to eat out of the dog's dish rather than at the table and has little propriety as regards his bodily functions, he has long hair and rippling muscles, so naturally the nerds enroll him at their high school, where his barbarism is not only indistinguishable from most the other students, but is considerably more attractive. When he sees the cheerleaders walk by he is totally unrestrained and immediately moves to grope their breasts and attack them right in the school's crowded hallway, but he is such a hunk and so up front and in command with his desires that naturally they love it. The caveman in fact in almost no time has become the most popular kid in the school, all the while completely unconscious of where he is and what he is doing (I think he casually beats up the school bully in instinctive defense of his friends, which makes him immediately an awesome figure in the collective mind of the student body). A large number of the hottest female students openly declare a desire to have sex with him. I believe one of the underlying themes being hinted at is that in the raw and untamed state of humanity we discover something essential to the condition that is sensually very attractive, and that the spirit of the typical modern suburbanite is so molded in the image of the plastic which is the dominant feature of his world that it is not capable of being a serious force in any aspect of life, including that of the shell in which it resides. For several days after seeing this movie I told myself that I must act like the caveman at school and parties, and surely I would get some action. But this was hardly a reasonable persona for me to even imagine adopting.

4. Hamburger: the Motion Picture. I begin by saying that I have only watched the 1st ten minutes of this abomination of the human spirit, which stars Dick Butkus, of all people! One can only hope he really needed the money. The plot of this film centers around a guy who is due to inherit about a zillion dollars, with the stipulation that he must get a college degree 1st. (There was another movie starring Judd Nelson and Andrew Dice Clay which I forget the title of, but had the same theme of the inheritance riding on the character's getting a diploma. Is this a common condition in the wills of incredibly wealthy people who only have a single very indolent young man as a plausible heir?) The guy keeps flunking out of college however, I kid you not, because every time he attempts to go to class he ends up having sex instead. If he tries to take a shower two sorority girls immediately jump in with him and compel him to go to town. If he tries to slip down the back staircase a medically diagnosed nymphomaniac with D-cup breasts and clothing that has shrunk to half its original size in the college dryer on will be lingering on the next landing. Even when he is called to the dean's office to receive word of his expulsion, the secretary tears her shirt off and jumps on him while he is waiting to be received. In a word it is quite possibly the stupidest narrative ever produced for the consumption of human beings and yet...

This was around the time when sex addiction was in the news a lot, and men in varying degrees of trouble would confess that they suffered from this terrible affliction whereby they were powerless to resist constantly having sex with different women. To a 20-year old who cannot get any girls to save his life and who can daily sense his mind becoming irreparably deranged as a result, this is the most fascinating idea in the world. "There are people--men--who can't stop having sex with woman after woman after woman even if they want to?" I never believed any of the self-proclaimed sex addicts were the least bit sincere in their regrets, though the phenomenom remained awesome to me. When I was in college there was a fellow who was such a ladykiller and stirred up such violent jealousy and general havoc among the ladies on one floor that the administration had to ban him from going there any more, and one report said that they requested him as well to try to refrain from seducing anyone else at the school for a couple of weeks at least, which of course would hardly be a challenge for most people, but for this guy to make it through one weekend, which he did, I think out of a sense of the comedy and also the furious envy and hatred it must produce in all the inferior men, required an almost extraordinary effort, for naturally a decent bulk of the school's friskiest ladies rallied to his defense when the loss of emotional control he had produced in some of their rivals became public.

Mr Spectator naturally had wise, if not comforting, observations on this matter, delineated in no. 602, October 4, 1714:

"...there is no Sett of these Male Charmers who make their way more successfully, than those who have gained themselves a Name for Intrigue, and have ruined the greatest Number of Reputations. There is a strange Curiosity in the female World to be acquainted with the dear Man who has been loved by others, and to know what it is that makes him so agreaable. His Reputation does more than half his Business."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Travels of a Born Tourist, Chapter I: Emotional and Literary Origins

Long before the revolutions in politics, technology and aviation over the past fifteen years that have made travel to formerly remote and strange nations common and to familiar ones so routine as to hardly constitute the name any longer, I was composing my first lists of cities to visit on a great future tour I intended to take, in anticipation of meeting up with fellow travellers or idle free spirits and beautiful women and having adventures. These adventures were to follow the pattern of the road stories ubiquitous in literature--in my case not so much Kerouac as the Oz books, or perhaps The Pickwick Papers, or Tom Jones, or Humphrey Clinker--in which any dangers would be such as a boy of my origin possessed of a little pluck and genuine good nature would be able to find his way out of, even if they should arise in an alley in Detroit or along the side of the Cross-Bronx Expressway. Anyway, such dangers as I might encounter would be requisite for the achievement of the Goal; which it is not hard to imagine was conceived by me as becoming cool enough to get action with girls and to be able to move up to a cleverer and more imaginative and worldly social milieu than I had known theretofore. I thus early on had an intimation that travelling would be for the likes of me a game no less than art was; and in time I came to see that also like art it was a game that I could only have a chance to win if I played against myself. I would never be able to defeat other competitors, living or dead, who sought the same social advantages from these pursuits as I did. Plenty of others might perpetually lose alongside me with varying degrees of ineptitude, it is true; but a shared void in the mind or spirit provides no common ground for meaningful friendships to take root.

I had settled upon the idea of forming my lists of places to go out of associations with authors by the age of 14 or 15, as I had already determined that literature more properly suited my temperament and sensibility than any other serious field, so that such cities and places as had numerous connections to famous writers must appeal to me. That this method was likely to favor long-established and over-touristed cities rather than the newly vibrant, the tumultuous, the exotic or the naturally stunning was not of any concern to me. There is a quote in Boswell's Life which I have looked for but am unable to find (it is a big book) in which Johnson says something along the lines that he would much prefer to walk a hundred miles to encounter one wise or mentally energetic man than to walk 5 to see some glory of nature. My attitude was somewhat similar to this. That tens of millions of people had gone to London or Rome and drunk and made love and commented on the relics of former times already was of no moment, for I had not gone there and done those things, and it was these places of ancient renown and the mythical institutions and monuments of humanity associated with them, as well as the sorts of people I imagined must still go there and live there, and who must have some element of spirit convivial to my own, that fired my imagination.

My earliest list was a simple record of the cities or towns of birth of all the writers with a work featured in the literary supplement in the back of every volume of the Illustrated World Encyclopedia, a 1960s publication aimed, I presume, at adolescents. This list of books, off which I read quite extensively through high school and still experience a little tingle of satisfaction if I come across one of its many out-of-print titles in an antiquarian store, consisted primarily of novels, familiar classics as well as bestsellers of the 1900-1950 era, followed by plays, long poems and autobiographies. It did not have a single black author on it, and its non-Western titles were limited to the Arabian nights and something by Rabindranath Tagore, which I must confess I did not get around to reading. (I do remember that Tagore was born in Calcutta, however, along with Thackeray. Throw in Kipling and Orwell, and I had to plan for a mini-tour of India, at least). The latest book on the list chronologically was Doctor Zhivago, which was published in the U.S. in 1958. On the positive side, this list was stronger, or at least deeper, in good 19th-20th century Continental writers than most comparable lists one finds today, especially in French, German and Scandanavian writers. The list was decidedly light on modernism, with the exception of Ulysses, as the books were supposed to be accessible to earnest Americans trying to supplement their educations alone and in their free time. As with most American-based literary lists based on birthplaces, the cities with the most representatives were London, Paris, Dublin, New York and Boston, with a second team of Moscow, Athens, Edinburgh, Rome and Cambridge, Mass. At one point I expanded the list to include title characters of various works based on real people (Abraham Lincoln, Cyrano de Bergerac, Shakespeare's various kings and Romans) and actual sites that featured in titles of works (the Alhambra, Notre Dame cathedral). Some of the early and abortive adventures I undertook with this list in hand will be recounted in later chapters of this short work.

As I got older and went to college I decided that this list was a little too limited and contained a few too many inferior authors (about many of whom it was difficult even to get basic biographical information). Also as the aimless wanderings and loneliness that proved to be the results of my initial journeys had convinced me that I needed more specificity upon entering even the greatest cities, I decided to collect information on the actual houses or addresses where my subjects were born, as well as the sites of their graves and any museums associated with them. Though this method of touring, particularly among nondescript people, is mocked by the sort of people whose cultural status I aspire to have, it has a long tradition in the West going back at least to Alexander the Great paying homage at the tomb of Achilles, and I have taken some consolation in carrying on in the manner of so many illustrious predecessors. Besides which it is a necessary mechanism for me to direct myself as near as possible to spots that might be expected to possess the atmosphere and people I have forever sought, to many of which I would certainly never have gone to otherwise, apart from the general educational value that I remain in such a state as to be capable of deriving much benefit from. The sites and monuments nonetheless merely constitute a structure; if a troupe of actors or a bewitching woman were to alight on me while I was wandering about looking for Voltaire's birthplace and pull me in some other direction I should naturally deviate from the list until my adventure exhausted itself, at which point I would pick it up again from wherever I should find myself. Time and money, of course, were never taken into consideration in the formation of these plans. They were essential to them and one must have them, but as how to get them is the great mystery of life to most people I did not think it in the proper spirit to allow their lack to hinder my conceptions of what could and should be under ideal circumstances.

As regards the lists, I have always toyed with the idea of doing a compact six-month to year long tour based on the Britannica Great Books series, which is a fairly small number of authors, few of them modern (Freud being the most recent in the original set, though there was an update in 1991). This tour would have a heavy Mediterranean focus, with many sights being in Turkey, Egypt and Israel (though I have never found a satisfactory way to determine which Biblical authors and figures get on the list and which have to be cut. If one includes the whole Old Testament, Amos, Obadiah and such names as this, the list becomes very unwieldy and expansive). In November 1994 I began working through all the books that appear as questions or potential answers in the GRE English literature test guide, because it seemed pretty comprehensive and had a randomness to its order that I liked. After 12 years of continual reading I am about halfway through through the second of the six tests, which leaves me on pace to finish this list in 2045, when I will be 75 years old. This list is very thorough on the English classics, meaning lots of poetry, Restoration plays, belles-lettres like Chesterfield and the Spectator, 18th-century novels. It is fairly light on American writers (who don't come off so well as a group once you read a lot of British lauthors) and anything foreign with the possible exception of the French. The most recent work I have encountered on this list is Nadine Gordimer's A Sport of Nature (1987) (which I must say held my interest and had some definite qualities as literature, though the beating middle class Americans take at the hands of our author, being portrayed as childish, sexually retarded (there is no other word for it) frivolously educated and disgusting in our material security, while African Communist revolutionaries are presented as significant and serious men who know how to make love to beautiful strong-willed white women, was difficult to take sitting down, even if evidence suggests that the sexual part, at least in my case, is true beyond a doubt, though otherwise the book traffics extravagantly in fiction, though it is often no less charming for that. Meanwhile on the subject of serious travel, the heroine Hillela demonstrates how it is done: when she goes to a beach it is untamed, devoid of commercial activity, full of brilliant, gorgeous, politically committed hardbodies antagonistic to the United States and everything it stands for who frequently engage in mind-blowing sex and either don't need money or live for weeks off tiny or infrequent payments for revolutionary newspaper articles, afterwards moving up to such arenas as war, social change, statecraft, economic policy. There is no compelling need to see the Mona Lisa when one leads such a life as this. Her trip to the United States to try to procure money [why else would anyone go there?] for her causes has very much the air of a visit to the regions of the dead. There is nothing for a person of spirit to do there at all. Note: in the print edition we should put this parenthesis in a footnote.)

With regard to the travelling list, I have been adding authors, subjects and places as I read them, which is beginning now to grow a little large, especially since I have only been getting to 2 or 3 sites a year over the past half-decade, while adding 30 or 40 to the list. I have currently 53 things to see in London alone, and over 150 in all of England, though I did make 3 journeys there between 1996-2001 and have "done" maybe 50 sites already. Still, if one had the time and so forth it would not be unmanageable, but as I get older I am not sure that the time for having "adventures" has not passed, unless I adopt a Don Quixote-like persona, nor if this particular list serves any purpose any longer, though for now I am keeping it up to date. But at age 36 one is not likely to be formed much by touring any more, and it becomes a matter of what one has to bring to the places one goes when stripped of youthful energy, beauty and hope, even if I never had excessive quantities of any of these. I have primarily melancholy, emotion and nostalgia, with which reception is certainly to be found in many of the legendary and formerly great sites of Western Europe if one can get nothing else from them, and which certain parts of the U.S.-Maine, Vermont, upstate New York, the old mountain and mill towns in Pennsylvania come to mind--are able to inspire and reciprocate as well. But this is generally accepted to be an inferior way to live as well as motivation to travel. I have nothing more to give at the moment however and the desire, or something like desire, to look at things and feel things--even in an inferior manner--remains.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

My Official Statement Regarding the Authorship of Shakespeare's Plays

(By the way, 2 more people have now visited my profile, doubling the total [to 4]. Who are they? Does this mean I am taking off in the Blogosphere? If I get to ten I must get those books out of the library and figure out how to get some graphics on here...)

Since the question, or skepticism, surrounding the Shakespeare authorship appears to be in its own way as immortal, as well as popular, as the works themselves, it seems to me that every commentator of literature and the arts for a middlebrow readership ought to declare his position on the matter. Highbrows are: A. simply more interested in the ideas and use of language contained in the works than in figuring out who could or couldn't have written them; and: B. aware of who the author is in a far more intimate sense than any identification of a long-dead man, even one of excellent birth, would be able to provide them with. I, however, am not at this level, so my emotional stake in the question remains quite high, and has indeed prompted the necessity of writing an essay about it when there are so many more pressing issues to discuss.

While the question about whether the glover's son from Warwickshire could really have been the greatest writer in the history of the English language has been raised since at least the 19th century, it is of a type that is especially suited to several conceits that seem particularly current. The first of these conceits has to do with intellectual credentialing, and the second with the belief that our knowledge and understanding of history is superior to that of all previous ages, often including those who lived in the times under consideration themselves. Recently published histories, with very few exceptions, are always assumed to supercede in accuracy and theoretical rigor those from the 1950s or 1930s or, heavens, the very dark ages that preceded these, with little consideration given to the often formidable minds that composed these earlier studies. Sometimes an old historical-themed book of exceptional intelligence and literary merit such as Henry Adams's Mont-St-Michel and Chartres will be permitted to survive under the umbrella of literature, but I do not find that it is often referred to by professional historians as recommended reading on its subject, nor indeed is anything else more than ten or so years old.

There is apparently a new candidate for the "real" Shakespeare, an alpha-man named Sir Henry Neville, impeccably educated, who served as a diplomat and spoke 8 languages, can be presumed to have been familiar with royal courts and falconry and the law, had a number of events in his life which closely mirror episodes in the plays, etc. I do not know where the idea that Shakespeare must be some kind of great gentleman originated, especially of this exceptionally polished and rather effortlessly perfect variety represented by the Nevilles and DeVeres and so forth. I think it is a great stretch to imagine that men of such prodigious gifts and station would aspire to write so assiduously for the theater, which we are told was an occupation so far beneath such people at this time that we can hardly suppose they passed many hours at rehearsals and in the company of actors, and for which they would have had to use simple Bill Shakespeare as a proxy to present their ingenious productions to the world, either unbeknownst to everyone else in the company, or with the secret persisted in by all to the grave (I am thinking of the 1st Folio of 1623, largely compiled by surviving actors in honor of the supposed author, including the famous engraving of our large-browed poet). I could be wrong about this, but I believe most of the great playwrights of all time are pretty dyed in the wool theatrical people who have worked in numerous capacities in that milieu relating not merely to writing but in all aspects of putting on productions. Certainly the author of Hamlet appears to have been such a man. This seems to go for film as well, and I suspect also for opera and other musical concerts where the performance aspect is at least as important as the writing aspect, a circumstance which especially straight book scholars seem to have difficulty understanding. There is likewise very little history of people engaged for the most part in aristocratic pursuits or diplomacy or falconry or law producing masterpieces in performance-oriented artistic fields. The writing of books or even poems, if one lives in an age where poetry is not an alien means of approaching and experiencing language as our own is, is an essentially solo act, and can be done well in a certain degree of isolation and in idle hours separate from a wholly different occupation, but the performing arts at the highest levels especially are an intrinsically different matter, and the writer must be deeply immersed in the peculiar culture of his art--indeed it must be the dominant reality of his existence--for him to really succeed in it.

The above reason, however, I take as merely an aside, because I am convinced by other reasons that "Shakespeare", whoever he was, was a person of a background more like Shakespeare of Stratford than an aristocrat. The greatest objection made against the tradition of Shakespeare as the author is that he did not have the education that would have been necessary to produce such works. Presumably thousands of other people, including many prominent living scholars, have had such an education over the past 400 years, and most have not come close to approaching works of similar quality themselves, so I think it is hard to say exactly what this education must consist of. Shakespeare is most celebrated for, roughly in order, his domination of the English language, his knowledge of the souls and characters of men, his knowledge of the world, alike in its human and natural and cosmological organizations, including professions and stations as disparate as physician, soldier, lawyer, prince, clown, etc, his wit and humor. His was quite obviously a unique intellect, of the very rare sort that does not merely absorb the lessons of a mentor or collect information, but embellishes and redefines human experience and understanding of such phenomena as he is presented with. I do not think it unreasonable to suggest that such a person, perhaps having been arrested on an occasion or two and gone through a process of law, or been engaged in a lawsuit, would not be able rather easily to decipher the customs and principles which prevail in that milieu. I have passed a few days of my life in district courts myself and following the processes in person for several hours does much to demystify the various auras which educated people especially tend to invest in fields of knowledge outside their own expertise. I suspect the same would apply, for intelligent people, in other professions requiring forbidding amounts of experience such as medicine, politics, the military, etc, if we were not so easily intimidated by the idea of knowledge. Shakespeare was not intimidated by knowledge. Nor was Aristotle, nor Tolstoy, nor Wittgenstein. They appropriated to themselves the right to present and declaim upon all subjects as these presented themselves to their intellects. Of course one must have a modicum of intelligence to justify oneself in doing so, but good native intelligence of this sort is not so rare as our current culture appears to have artificially rendered it.

But of course the best, as well as most indispensibile, means to become wise in societies where writing has made any advancement at all, is by reading, and reading no doubt was an activity in which Shakespeare, even if we presume by this to mean the Stratfordian, engaged in often and with an admirable degree of skill. It is also here that the most compelling argument for the middle-class origin of our author is to be made. For in the Elizabethan period and indeed for some time afterwards, men of the best formal educations would have done most of their primary reading in Latin; indeed they would have written in it foremost upon serious matters too, as dissertations on science and philosophy, legal treatises, requests for favors to important people, etc, were generally composed in this tongue. Authors of this class such as Francis Bacon or even Ben Jonson, when they take up English demostrate a decided Latinate influence on their diction and style and bring with them a whole host of allusions and devices from Latin literature that are absent from Shakespeare, who when set beside such learned authors has such a fluency in his sentences as mark in one for whom English was his first language both of reading and composition more than any other prominent writer of the age (I will try to provide some demonstrations in a future post, I don't have time to dig them out right now). Also I think it is instructive to note that the sources from which Shakepeare gets his plots--Holinshed's Chronicles, Plutarch, the book of Italian romances that contained the seeds of Romeo and Juliet, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, etc--are fairly limited in number and are all books that were available in English in that time. The Roman plays especially it must be noted (Caesar, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, etc, are all out of Plutarch. Any influence of Juvenal, Seneca, Plautus, even Virgil and Horace, which formed the backbone of the reading of those educated in the universities and from which influence few men of letters could escape who were once taught them, is decidedly muted in comparison to other English poets and playwrights of the era, appearing as it were at second or third hand if one insists on its being present at all. This may be the effect of Shakespeare's genius steamrolling even these titanic authors in its expansiveness, but if this is the case then I don't see why it is necessary that he must be an Earl to do so. This is not to disparage the learning of Latin, of course. People who are capable but not possessed of genius ought to learn as much Latin and anything else that they can certainly, and so even should the genius, but the genius can get away with a few more imperfections in his learning because his insight in other places is so exquisite.

I cannot believe how long it takes me to write these articles. 3 little boys under 5 is my excuse, though I am aware that Dickens wrote 4 or 5 1,000 page novels in the span from 1837-41 in the corner of a room full of young children, guests, men of the world and ladies. But his was a unique intellect.

Friday, October 20, 2006

The Game of Art, Part 4

People who have had some humanisitic education but are still poor at traveling, or writing, or discussing ideas in cafes, or arousing erotic desire in members of the opposite sex often console themselves with the thought that their minds are for whatever reason not attuned to the age in which they happen to live, its politics and economics and geography, but properly belong to other, better times and places, wherein they would have made real figures. I have determined that my own mind, as far as aesthetic taste, cultural comfort level, pace of life, compatibility with women, preferences in food and drink and transportation and hotel accomodation seems to measure on the magnetic scale of ages and places somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, hopefully on an ocean liner, equidistant from New York, Paris and London--or, to be more precise, probably Utica, Nottingham and Le Havre, around the winter of 1947-1948, which unfortunately was several decades before I actually happened to be born. Almost all the developments that have taken place since this time--increased specialization of knowledge, globalization, feminism, drugs, computers, exercising, bourgeois luxury (whatever happened to the good old simple but self-respecting middle class hotel that cost $45 but managed to keep the riffraff out anyway?), the reassessment of the Western and more particulary the Anglocentric tradition--have only left me, who remain stubbornly rooted in the mindset of 1948, further and further behind.

People with this unfortunate affliction only become worse when they attempt to go abroad to some country they may have had read a little about. In England I have reached the point where I am able to persuade myself it is just about any time between 1700 and 1960 depending on whatever monument, gritty alley, arrangement of furniture in a tavern or boiled beef dinner happens to present itself before me. I am not able to channel the middle ages or the Elizabethans so directly; however I think I can at least approach the idea of the middle ages with a suitably Romantic mindset or that of Shakespeare with enough of a Victorian sensibility to salvage something of the experience. The modern Britain full of snide people go around calling each other wankers and snogging and easy girls who vomit on the street I obviously have nothing to do with, nor it with me, however much I might wish it otherwise; so it by necessity fades away. France I have taught myself to regard as essentially medeval, which is the only way for me to combat the cult of epicurianism that has consumed the tourist industry of that "fantastic nation", but which besides is still present and haunting in the layout of towns, roads, and the landscape, though I also at times can acknowledge a cinematic France (1930-1970) and an interesting expat France (1850s-1950s). The art, music, literature of the bourgeois France of the post-Waterloo era through the Dreyfus affair interests me greatly also, but as a tourist its spirit has remained surprising inaccessible. The peninsula of Italy is also many things, almost never the current upstanding member of the EU with its standard 21st century problems. I am not deeply intimate with either the glories of the Roman empire nor the lives of the Catholic Saints but I am conscious of being within the pages of those books and the aura that only empires and religions of antiquity can suggest to the mind from the instant of descending the foot of the last Alp, and I know not enough to wish to escape from them for the duration of my holiday.

One of my favorite countries to experience in this vein is the late and sometimes lamented empire of Austria-Hungary, the pleasure of being in which was not the conscious work of my imagination but which came upon me over the course of being in that part of the world for some months. It is not merely that the old routes and railroads of this formerly single state remain largely intact though they now spread across many borders, nor is it exactly a similarly of diet, of religious custom, of musical heritage, of cafe and restaurant customs, of the geography of towns or those haunting empty roads crowded with lines of trees along either side of it throughout the region, that force this impression on one. This is a large area in the middle of Europe that, while maintained beautifully in certain crucial aesthetic points and functioning as a modern society, is loaded with pockets of which the only comparison I can make that captures the deadness, the unrealness, the displacement in time and persepctive, is the atmosphere of Kafka's The Castle. I have experienced on numerous occasions in these lands--walking across a field cleared of trees in a snowstorm in the dead of night in Spindleruv Mlyn (where, I later found out, Kafka actually started writing the book I have referred to); peering through the shuttered windows and wandering around the porch of the doomed Empress Elizabeth's little cottage at the emperor's hunting lodge at Bad Ischl (an unbelievably modest and accessible accomodation--no gates, walking distance to the shops in town, etc--for the potentate of a major power who lived within a century of my writing this, and thousands of whose former subjects must still survive) on a brilliantly but cold afternoon with snow patches over the immaculately kept but apparently unsupervised grounds; walking several miles from any of a number of antiquated train stations in rural Bohemia along similarly antiquated dusty paths or through planted forests devoid of undergrowth with no town or castle or other people in evidence until some natural obstacle can be cleared--the conviction that this must resemble death in some way, which idea I have never felt any place else, though my wife claims to have had the same sensation when she was in the panhandle of Texas. I however, have not been there.

In the Game of Art for the mass consumers of higher culture, this is where Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele--who is promoted heavily in Prague and especially Cesky Krumlov to the tourists that are desperately looking for an historical name or two to identify with these towns full of people who, as Neville Chamberlain pointed out in another context, are about as well known to the general population of the Anglosphere as the Incas--come in. Klimt's Kuss of course is, or at least was in my time, on the short list of college girls' favorite artistic icons (the rest of the list that comes immediately to mind is Doisneau's other Kiss, Prufrock, Truffaut's Jules and Jim, and Billie Holliday's greatest hits). The adoration of this painting however, while striking even when seen on a poster, like much else from the time and nation it comes from, is enigmatic in its origin. Compared to the other items on that list it springs from apparently nowhere and doesn't seem to lead anywhere particularly, for its modern admirers, either. My freshman roommate had the poster strategically placed so as to attract art-minded girls passing by our room (and indeed, it lured a quite amazing number in momentarily, though upon seeing us most retreated hastily). Before this time I had been entirely unfamiliar with it. I observed that people who struck me as more than worthy of all the delights of a good education and a proper introduction to the manifold delights of European culture were often eager to praise and identify with this picture, the idea and composition contained in which seemed to cast a spell over some of the sharpest and most realized people I ever encountered, as if it were their unattainable image of ideal life. What it was about it that made it so, however, I am afraid I was never able to discover.

The Austrian artists therefore have a rather high status in the game, with me personally almost the very highest, because the girls who like these painters are the ones I tended in my youth to feel the most passionate about with the least chance of "getting" however one wishes to define that term. The level of education and humanistic culture attained even by failures in the society that was Vienna 1850s-1930s makes me, I will confess, ashamed of my own mind, and if it doesn't make most modern-day Americans so for whatever reason, should at least make them blush to refer to themselves as learned or possessed of an artistic sensibility or even sophisticated about food (surely you read the article in the NYT about the Viennese steakhouse where the patrons could be counted on to understand what part of the cow each dish on the menu originated from and what it ought properly to taste like. Sadly, these patrons are nearly all dead now). I do not write these words because I hate my own nation or even its positive contributions to world culture, which I believe are not negligible. It must be understood, however, that I have always been a poor American, and I don't think I will ever be a good one. I did not fully understand this until I went to Europe of course. Foreigners did not wish to hear my opinions about opera, or opera houses, or literature, or wine or whatever even if it were their own interest. Such things are not, and never will be, the proper provinces of Americans, especially white ones. Even among Communists and the staunchest anti-modern media cultural conservative types, a real American worthy of their respect is financially successful, even a little ruthless, and is a master, completely free from any torments brought upon by philosophy or liberal education, of the sort of technology and attitudes toward marketing and globalization that are likely to crush smaller and more localized enterprises and cultures. These people may despise the system almost so as to define their being, but as an American and therefore assumed to have privileged entry into as well as no substantial intellectual misgivings against it, to be visibly unconnected to it without establishing a notably vibrant alternative following such as tempts the great system to partially co-opt you, marks one as a failure within the terms of one's one culture, and therefore hardly a serious person.

In brief, my point is that it is perceived to be natural, and not terribly difficult, for a American of ordinary mental abilities to become by global standards fairly wealthy and knowledgeable about markets and technology compared to those of other nationalities but virtually impossible for him (our hypothetical American) to become highly cultured and deeply learned about anything compared to the same; and that this is very painful for the American who was hoping to escape the sense of failure life in his hometown must inevtiably confront him with or find a community of minds more sympathetic to his own abroad. Unless one can demonstrate a very unique and pleasing superiority to those abandoned he will always be measured first by their standards before he will be assessed on any other terms.