Monday, March 31, 2008

I Think It Is Time For Another Music Post

N.W.A.--During the height of my recent Kenneth Clark period, as if I needed an antidote to so much refinement, I would unwind by playing Straight Outta Compton in my freezing, paper-cluttered office, safe from the rain of machine-gun fire--back in the day one was supposed to feel a little sheepish about this--before repairing to a peaceful slumber. I have always felt that this song was a sort of masterpiece of perverse genius; it seems mostly humorous now, but these people really did move in a scary, totally nihilistic world where a lot of appalling things happened, not infrequently at their own instigation one suspects. Nonetheless I am not aware of a more successful poetic effort in the language that relies so heavily on the F-word; there is nothing like it even in Shakespeare of which I am aware of. P.S. I know it became fashionable in after years to trash the late Eazy-E, but his solo is in my opinion by far the best part of the song.

The Floaters--Float On. I hadn't heard this song since about the time it came out, when, thanks to the marvels of satellite radio, it re-entered my life. There is not much that expresses the general atmosphere that was 1977 so entirely as this song. I was only 7 years old in 1977; it was a strange time, I think, to be a child. I was aware that certain major conditions of life in those years had only recently emerged among normal people--shameless cohabitation, lots of divorce, lots more crime, lots less church, inflation--but being a child I took these new conditions to be the normal state of existence, and everything that had presaged this upheaval to be irrecoverably lost. Indeed I still tend to view the world through this lens. In the back of my mind I always expect inflation and crime to return to the levels of the 1970s, I view religion observance as a curious but somehow artificial activity, and so on.

The rest is going to be divided between bubble gum and wistfulness.

Nancy Sinatra--Sugar Town. This is another one I had not heard in years; indeed, I can't say for sure that I had ever heard it, though I think I must have. I guess this song about drugs, though there is some dispute as to whether heroin or LSD is the experience being celebrated. Who cares? Whatever drug was the inspiration, it worked for me on this occasion. Sometimes--often I suspect in music--it pays more to be nonsensical than to strain to be clever. Nancy Sinatra, whose name is almost never invoked anymore without being accompanied by the tag "Diva of 60s Rock" gives off strong pherenomes of a particular character of that period involving a combination of leopard-skin underwear and artificially seasoned heavy breathing that is generally too much for me to handle, though the memory of it still seems to drive guys of a certain age wild with desire. On a further curious note, Nancy Sinatra at one time within the past ten years or so was the next door nieghbor of Morrissey in Los Angeles and frequently took tea at his house.

Here is a Czech version of the same song. This video is mostly nauseating but I like the umbrella sequence in the middle. The Czechs recorded their own versions of many famous anglophone hits during the Communist era which were still played regularly on the Czech oldies station, which was much my favorite station when I was there (though I know Eastern Bloc Communism was one of the blights of the whole 20th century, I personally would probably have been a pretty good, docile little communist). If you liked the moc krasna Zuzana Norisova--and I don't see much reason not to--here is her version of "Downtown". There is apparently an entire musical, "Rebelove", dedicated to the peculiar Czech dream of having had the 1950s American high school experience that was denied them. I don't think this is entirely a joke either. The Czech-language production of "Grease" was hugely popular when I was there (of course, so was "Jesus Christ Superstar"), and one of the schools at which my wife worked, and which is still in operation, was named the Elvis school of English, that great singer having been a hero of the school's founder.

If we are going to be on a foreign oldies kick, of course all roads eventually lead to Kyu Sakamoto and his immortal hit, Sukiyaki. What a tremendous chance hit it was! We as a culture at the present moment are in desperate need, in my opinion, of this exact kind of winsome foreign language hit, maybe from Turkey, or India, or Kazakhstan--someplace in a similar cultural transition from profound and esoteric local tradition to flashy globalized materialism as Japan was in the 50s and early 60s. This song has many of the same attractive qualities that the Japanese films of the period which were sent in contemporary times have; there was one in particular which I cannot remember the name of, it didn't have a big plot--the family was getting a television or something like that, and how this changed life for the boy--it had a lot of remarkable shots, very subtly placed, almost as background, of the power lines, high rise apartments, rail lines and stations, etc, being raised all over and around what is left of the traditional Japanese villages and landscape. This sounds like a cliche, but it was done very effectively, and it was not in the attitude of a protest or an aesthetic assertion so much as an elegy for a death, that, like all deaths, was inevitable. This song makes me feel something of the same.

George Hamilton IV--Abilene. Exquisite specimen of what Americans can do when they give a simple but pleasing impression some time to work on their minds. Ever since I have heard this I have thought Abilene would be a good name for a girl, or least a girl character in a book. One of the many brilliant things working in the favor of this song is that despite all of the trends shrinking the globe, in information, travel, etc, to most people in the Northeast U.S., even if they've been to Singapore 50 times, Abilene, and West Texas generally, still seem like remote, isolated places that have only a hazy reality. I know dozens of people who have been to India, but I don't anyone who has ever been to Abilene, where the women, many of whom are probably pretty darn good-looking, don't treat you mean, and the average high temperature in the summer is 94 degrees.

Tammy--The movies may demonstrate only too well why a lot of people were ready to blow up the whole society by the mid-60s, but I love the song. Alas, I had a Tammy of my own, too. I was not normally given to having crushes on older, married women when I was young, but there was one instance where I had occasion to experience this rather satisfying manifestation of love. We worked in the same office--everyone else in it except for her was dreary--and she was about eight or nine years older than I was. Her husband was a big hairy truck driver, quite the opposite of me. She was very into God, and talked about Him a great deal, but she was so pretty one did not mind--I would rather such a person talked to me about God anyway than about George Clooney's love life or going to casinos or any of the other topics which constitute most people's conversation. One night (we worked in the evening) I had had a few drinks before going to the job--alas, this was not unknown with me--and as I was feeling rather despondent about the state of the world except for a few people like Tammy I had the impulse to pluck some flowers out of a garden on the way--I think they may have been lillies--and present them to her when I arrived, which, unlike my usual practice, I actually did, such ease did the beauty and holiness of this lady set me at. She accepted them in a most gracious spirit, with a slight blush of momentary embarrassment perhaps, but I believe she understood my meaning in some degree of fullness, which has happened to me only a very few times in all my life. Besides which I think she may have liked me a little after her own manner.

I have even more songs but I will hold them off for another time.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The White Negro--Part 3
This one should be short. With authors of one's own country, particularly one's own general native region, there are always so many little points or flourishes, even trivial ones, that one notices and wishes to comment on.
There are a few more sentences in this essay of which the ultimate sense is questionable but that are nonetheless remarkable in their conception, execution and bombast:

"It is this adoration of the present which contains the affirmation of Hip, because its ultimate logic surpasses even the unforgettable solution of the Marquis de Sade to sex, private property, and the family, that all men and women have absolute but temporary rights over the bodies of all other men and women--the nihilism of Hip proposes as its final tendency that every social restraint and category be removed, and the affirmation implicit in the proposal is that man would then prove to be more creative than murderous and so would not destroy himself."

I am not terribly intimate with the writings of the Marquis de Sade, but my impression is that he is mainly considered remarkable for the singularity of his character in contrast to anyone's usual conception of what is standard, which I take to be the appeal of "Hipsters" also, rather than for the actual desirability of implementing any of his ideas on a broad scale. There is too great a portion of humanity--most old people and children for beginners--to whom the obsessions of essentially oversexed people--of whom, don't get me wrong, I am deeply envious at some moment almost every day of my life--just don't apply.

"...the organic growth of Hip depends on whether the Negro emerges as a dominating force in American life. Since the Negro knows more about the ugliness and danger of life than the white, it is probable that if the Negro can win his equality, he will possess a potential superiority...Like all conservative political fear it is the fear of unforeseeable consequences, for the Negro's equality would tear a profound shift into the psychology, the sexuality, and the moral imagination of every white alive." I believe "shift" in this sentence is used in the sense of a faultline in an earthquake, which is a usage I don't believe I have ever employed myself (hence the note).

Some ideas along these lines, or close variations of them, were very influential when I was growing up, even for me, though in any case I was certainly slow to get my head around them or adapt to their implications. The idea, frequently proclaimed, of the outsized influence, and even superiority, of blacks in serious American artistic and cultural matters, and the implied hopelessness of whites, or at least dead-normal whites like me, in the same, was of especial interest to me, since I had hopes of contributing something to the national life in this area from a fairly early age. I am pretty sure I believed that this superiority, if it did indeed exist, must be in large part the result of this greater knowledge of the ugliness and danger of life, and if I was not so desperate to have or give the appearance of having a great deal of this same knowledge as other kids from my background were, I did spend a not infinitessimal amount of time brooding over having been so ignominiously cut off from any serious hope of attaining it, if it was that important. This was, no doubt, the wrong approach to take. The idea, especially if one was white, I think, was that one ought to free oneself from racial self-consciousness and ideally open one's mind and senses to the extraordinary alternative talents and understandings that people from different backgrounds, culture, etc, had to offer without, for once, trying to compete with them or worse, insist on asserting one's, and by extension one's group's, own primacy. This will to assertion of course is hard to smother unless a person's ego is completely shattered, and will simply seek some other means of manifesting itself, unconsciously and even with the best intentions of not provoking or offending other people. As to the shift being torn "in the psychology, sexuality and moral imagination of every white alive" by black equality, I think "every white alive" while making for a grand gesture, is obviously an exaggeration. This may well happen in instances where people with large emotional investments in white supremacy are struck all of a sudden with some visceral, undeniable awareness that they are not by mere virtue of being white greater than "blacks" are, and are actually pscyhologically, sexually, morally, etc inferior to many of them; I guess this sort of thing did happen on a pretty wide scale in the 1960s and 70s. There does seem even now with many middle to working class white people to be a gigantic hole where some kind of personality or joie de vivre ought to be, but I cannot believe it is all attributable to some lost sense of racial superiority.

In a section about the intellectual antecedents of the current (1950s) generation, Mailer gave us a list of figures--I love these kinds of things--that included Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller and Wilhelm Reich. I had never heard of Wilhelm Reich, but I deduced that he must have something to do with sex, albeit in some twisted Mitteleuropean sense that would probably be unhealthy for Americans raised on chewing gum and Tarzan movies to try to dive into too much. I was not going to pursue the matter further but, in one of those weird coincidences that happens in life the very next time I got in my car the radio station that was on happened to be doing a profile on this very Wilhelm Reich. There is even a Wilhelm Reich museum in Maine in the Rangeley Lakes area, the centerpiece of which is the Orgone Energy Observatory, where I guess one observes orgone, a physical, biological energy in all living matter that Reich is said to have discovered in the 1930s. There are cabins you can stay in for as low as $525 a week if you are seriously into this program.

This essay is included the collection titled Advertisements For Myself, which is essentially like reading Norman Mailer's blog from the 1950s, including reader comments (i.e. letters), most of which appeared in the Village Voice. There was one somewhat amusing page that had two columns Hip and Square, with various items underneath, i.e Hip: wild, Square: practical, etc. Other examples include Hip: Heidegger/Square: Sartre, H-Catholic/S-Protestant (?), H-call girls/S-psychoanalysts, H-T-formation/S-Single Wing (ironically a variation of the Single Wing, in the form of the Spread Offense, has been making a comeback in college football in recent years), H-Thelonius Monk/S-Dave Brubeck. This one really slayed me. I knew a guy in college who as much of a real jazz aficiondo as I am who used to break out Thelonius Monk's Straight, No Chaser whenever it was time to clinch some romantic deal--we would stand out in the hall and lay bets as to how long it would be before the Thelonius Monk started up whenever a girl went in there. I think it was the only jazz record the guy even had but of course it worked 80-90% of the time because most suburban girls don't know enough either to call you out on it; they want action and they want to feel cool, maybe a little light danger but nothing violent or criminal above a misdemeanor. I didn't get this of course until much later and imagined that when I had amassed a music and liquor and picture and bar glass collection above middlebrow criticism--a moment which never arrived--that then I would be ready to go into action. This is one of the lessons I hope to impart to my sons.

All right. This is the end of Norman Mailer for the time being, I promise.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Florida Pictures II

Sarasota's beaches, and Siesta Key's especially, are famous for their white sands. These are indeed pleasing alike to the eye, the smell, and the feeling sensations of the body. As you can see the sand is very velvety and adheres to the body almost like cake frosting, but is laid so delicately and evenly as to make for a firm ground with a soft, tempering cover. They merit their reputation.
The baby reposing after a sojourn in the pool. The luxuries at Jamaica Royale do not much postdate the 1960s in their complexity and the level of ability and education needed to fully indulge in them, which I am much more comfortable with than I would be with more up-to-date amenities.

My only real lament with this resort, and I did not realize that this was what was nagging me until the second year I was there, is that we do not have our own grapefruit and orange trees outside the bungalow from which to procure a fresh morsel for breakfast in the morning, which we had had when I went to Florida with my grandmother in 1981 and stayed with her friend Marge. Fruit trees of any kind in fact are rather sparse in Sarasota, which is a shame, as these are one of the simple and beautiful delights of the Florida experience, and one almost forgets about them if one doesn't see them.

Devoted readers of this blog will perhaps be astonished to discover that I spent an entire day of my trip at the Busch Gardens mega-amusement park. This excursion was a gift from a very generous relative who I suppose wanted to give my children one day of carefree fun as a respite from the strict regimen of Greek drills, music lessons and political debating to which I ordinarily subject them. While I am not a fan of theme parks, and would not at this point be willing to shell out for us all to go to one myself (at least one of the really expensive ones), I am not so grand as to be able to dismiss such a gift by impressing upon those who would give it onto the point of shame that I, as well the children, are too sophisticated and dignified to have the slightest interest in such vulgar mass entertainments.

Busch Gardens in Florida, for such readers as may have too much dignity to know anything about it, is basically a large zoo with rides and several scattered clusters of eateries, gift shops, arcades, toilets, etc, the architecture of which are supposed to represent various countries in Africa. If one reads a lot of yuppie travel literature, which I do, one of the standard mantras of the genre is some variation of the idea that ordinary Americans believe that going to a theme park representation of a foreign country is pretty much the same as going to the actual country, indeed better because they don't have to deal with any discomfort or unpleasantness, physical or cultural, which many commentators nowadays hold to be a necessary element not merely of good travel but of every area of life that is worthwhile. I snapped the photograph below in the "Morocco" section of the park. The building is a theater and when I stood beside it I was quite impressed by the effort taken by the architects to create a Moroccan fantasy. It is, when removed from any context, a quite beautiful structure, and if were very wealthy and had to live in Florida I would be delighted to live in a mansion just like it. I did not imagine, however, that there was anything remotely connected to the real Africa about it.
In addition to gigantic roller coasters and water slides Busch Gardens had lots of kiddie rides. This one had Sopwith Camels alternating with the Red Barons but what boy is not going to choose the red plane with the scary-looking cross on it?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The White Negro--Part 2
I am writing more about this essay because the author in the course of it eventually got around to offering some definitions of "cool"; and as gaining some insight into the mysteries of this almost unimaginably exalted state of existence is one of the raison d'etres of my entire literary career, I thought I could not let these pass without commentary.

I am however going to pass over the lengthy section in which it is determined that the hipster "is a psychopath, and yet not a psychopath but the negation of the psychopath, for he possesses the narcissistic detachment of the philosopher", all of which however is distinguished from the psychotic, who is a different beast altogether (not surprisingly, I determined from this essay that I am much more psychotic than psychopathic, psychopathy being presented as the much more desirable condition). Later in this same he section he lambastes psychoanalysis as "no more than a psychic blood-letting" that leaves the patient "worn out--less bad, less good, less bright, less willfull, less destructive, less creative," as well as "able to conform to that contradictory and unbearable society which first created his neurosis". This is one of the clearer descriptions in the whole piece, and as such suggests itself as being at least plausibly accurate depending on one's particular point of view regarding the case. That human beings are only realized insofar as they live as constantly as possible at the extremes that their thought, consciousness, instinct, sensation and so on will allow them, free from all restraint, while not the most reassuring prospect to someone like me, is not one that I can easily dismiss either; this certainly seems to be Norman Mailer's peculiar vision of life's potentiality, as well the source of both his energy and his fairly vigorous following.

"What makes Hip a special language is that it cannot really be taught--if one shares none of the experiences of elation and exhaustion which it is equipped to describe...For example, there is a real difficulty in trying to find a Hip substitute for 'stubborn'. The best possibility I can come up with is: 'That cat will never come off his groove, dad.' But groove implies movement...There is really no way to describe someone who does not move at all. Even a creep does move--if at a pace exasperatingly more slow than the pace of the cool cats...To be cool is to be equipped, and if you are equipped it is more difficult for the next cat who comes along to put you down." It seems like it should be easy either to make fun of all this or take offense at it--as pure idea even apart from its surface absurdity it is a shallow conception of life, having nothing of a sustaining quality, let alone the foundation of anything really meaningful. The bit about elation was interesting --exhaustion less clear as a source of unique experience; exhaustion from living at the extremes, and in constant opposition to the oppressive pressures of square society I suppose. I never feel even viscerally that I want to "be" Norman Mailer, in the sense of occupying his exact position in the intellectual, literary, even sexual world, as often happens to me with prominent figures, but I am always aware that he has in many areas of existence, and writing actually perhaps the least of them, succeeded where I have failed. At least where real life, social life, was concerned, Norman Mailer seems to have caught on at a pretty early age--which more earnest people never do--that generally no one, especially Bohemian intellectual types, cares whether anything you say is actually correct, or about the depth and thoroughness of your knowledge on general topics of conversation, so much as that you speak about them in a provocative and exciting manner. Most people don't know or care about anything much more than anyone else does, but they want to believe in the importance of certain things nonetheless. When Mailer died recently, all the obituaries lamented that he "had made literature seem important, and there is no one like that left." This seemed rather silly to me, but apparently a lot of people felt this way.

I don't how popular Norman Mailer is among black people who care about things like essays written for alternative newspapers while smoking marijuana but my general impression is that this piece is regarded with at least as much bemusement as disdain. Mailer seems to have hung out in Harlem at certain points seeking certain experiences and conducted himself in such a manner at these times as to procure him a certain low-level degree of credibility among at least some of the natives. There is something to admire in this, I think, though I am not certain it can be proven that any noble issue was actually involved in the case.

I am just too tired to write these essays. I have to stop.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Florida Pictures I
I am still new to laying out pages of pictures, selecting pictures, taking pictures, etc, for the computer so there will be an element of roughness to these first few efforts.
I went to Florida again about 2-3 weeks ago--I wrote a long essay about last year's trip on this site, so this report will be more like a revision/update for a new edition.
For us it is a fairly monumental journey--since we drive and stop frequently along the way it takes the better part of three days to get there--so for most of this first set of pictures we will not even have made it to Florida yet. The first two are taken at a rest area in North Carolina. Note at this point we are still in our winter garb. This was the first time the guys had set foot on actual earth (i.e, as opposed to snow and ice) in several months.
Child #3 in his trademark Elmo sweatshirt also enjoyed the warm weather.
Some South of the Border action, as seen from the highway. I have not stopped at this legendary landmark yet, though as someone who still gets a mild thrill out of roadside attractions, rest areas, visitors centers, gift shops, etc, of any plausible interest, I am not philosophically to doing so. I have just not happened to pass by at a convenient time. Apparently you can go up in the giant hat and have a commanding view of the road and the terrain of the two neighborhoring states (N.C. & S.C.) Of course one never sees successful-looking people, real winners, over the age of 25 at any of these kinds of places--real winners I think don't take long trips by car anymore anyway--but they are the crossroads of the road-bound portion of the nation, the carriage inns and stations great and small on the routes of pilgrimage, all offering, in their goods and spectacles and foods, not exactly fun nor rapture nor beauty nor understanding in themselves, in their real selves, but the promise that one or all of them might be found at some point beyond the door or further down the road. Which is the same illusion of course that we have all been falling for for the last 200 years, and which is what the winners understand. All right, now we have finally arrived at the Jamaica Royale beach resort, Siesta Key, Sarasota, our winter home away from home. As you can see in the background this island, which in 1940 was populated by 300 people, all of whom according to the tourist brochures were fishermen and their families, has not retained the most natural atmosphere, and it is probably impossible to have any kind of genuinely high-art-level interesting or profound experience there, but after a couple of days I get into the spirit of the place, which is the typical Florida beach-with-retired- people-experience: wall-to-wall resorts/palm trees/heavy pesticide use/appalling traffic/one pleasant older (pre-1970) block where some independent restaurants and businesses are. It is pleasant but not particularly exciting; not enough, I suppose, to make one feel its existence in its current state really justifies itself, as I imagine one can feel from time to time in a place like Las Vegas if one has really lived it up and done all the outrageous things that it is said people do there.
It is probably just me, but I cannot persuade myself that this child does not have an athletic-looking running form.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Norman Mailer--"The White Negro" (1958) Part 1I was not looking forward to reading this. I have never developed much of a sense of Norman Mailer either as a great pure writer, or as one who could be trusted to hit reasonably close to important truths on any kind of consistent basis. The prospect which this particular essay presented to me seemed even more than usually wince-inducing in these regards, and by wince-inducing I do not mean in the tough and challenging way that is generally thought to be beneficial to overly comfortable and placid people. I concede that he is sometimes amusing, and I acknowledge that at least compared with the likes of me he had some genuine audacity which actually got him somewehere; he is far more frequently tiresome, and this is just in his writing. As to the general outrageousness of his life--the provocative political and social stances, the punchouts, the nine children by six different women (all legal wives at the time I should note for the sake of the bourgeois segment of my audience, though really who cares?), the greater than ordinary boasting and self-promotion--I make no claims to being, or desiring to be, a moralist, and I can appreciate what he was trying to get at. To my mind however he simply did not do an effective enough job of getting at it.

Every age has its peculiar obsessions. In many instances these fade or resolve themselves over time, but those of the 1950s are notable both for how pervasive they are in almost all the literature of the period as well as how the most emphasized and dreaded conditions--conformity, infantilism, emasculation--appear from our point of view to be far more advanced in our own time than they were in that decade, which, indeed is now frequently hearkened back to as an era where traditional independence, maturity and masculinity were both flourishing and expected of every adult male. It is true that the ordinary men of that era seem from a distance to have been collectively a little tougher, have been more likely to have and be willing to use guns, been more comfortable exercising authority, been more adept at mechanics and other basics of home maintenance such as plumbing and electrical wiring (women seem to me to complain about their men's lack of this a lot nowadays). It is often claimed that there was a generally stronger work ethic among men at this time, though I am skeptical of this; there were many more physically demanding, industrial-type jobs in the economy of that time, which gave the appearance of an overall much more industrious society, though it seems on the surface that white-collar professionals work a lot harder today, or at least with more visible strain, than they did in the 50s. It is worth noting, I think, that many critics of today's society enthusiastically promote the idea that military service functioned in the past as an antidote to infantilism and emasculation, and serves the same purpose today for the statistically small percentage of men who still respond to their nation's call to arms. I am not certain however that military culture in many instances does not exacerbate these conditions for such men as are molded by it. A far greater percentage of men in Norman Mailer's generation, including himself, had been in the army--in a colossal war, no less--than in almost any other. These same men then moved on to the 1950s, which to men of my generation (though only, I assure you, in moments of weakness when they are especially bored) looks like a veritable sexist paradise, and perceived the forces of emasculation to be devouring their very innards. My guess is that because nearly everyone had been in the Army, that this A) did not confer any special status or feeling of manliness on most of the men who had been in it, and B) tended to expose men's shortcomings vis-a-vis other men in a harsher, more open manner than is ordinarily the case in civilian life. One of my grandfathers was born in 1923, the same year as Mailer, and was also a WWII combat veteran, but he never referred to this experience as having made him a more virtuous or even a braver than usual man, and certainly no one seems to have regarded him as such. My other grandfather, whom I never met, received a Purple Heart in the same conflict, but was universally regarded as a scoundrel and regarded by his own children as one of the worst people in the entire world, not worthy the name of a man at all. I do not say that his military experience is to blame for his deficient character, but he does not appear to have benefited from it much either.

With regard to the work at hand, the general premise is that the combination of societal conformity and existential angst brought upon by the horrors of World War II and the spectre of atomic annihilation has drained all the vitality and courage out of mainstream white America, and that if such people want to reclaim a portion of their souls they are going to have to adopt something of the more dangerous approach to life which in Mailer's view only black men in America have in any appreciable numbers. As a composition it is a bit of a mess. Mailer does not present his ideas at all in a clear way, which, considering the heavy air of dubiousness which surrounds even most of the more intriguing ones, is crippling for his purposes. By the standards of any author who wrote clean and precise sentences--Swift, Addison, Turgenev, DeMaupassant come immediately to mind--Mailer is a terrible writer. He is, as I acknowledged earlier, sometimes amusing, but I cannot make out why anything he did is considered literature. His thought and his writing are not tight; his ideas wander. For example his formulation that the ideological oppressions of the Cold War era had made being a radical so risky that everyone had become afraid to proclaim any radical positions I found to be rather awkward; I had always considered that putting one's neck at risk was implied in the definition of being a radical. Similarly a sentence like "Indeed if one is to be a man, almost any kind of unconventional action often takes disproportionate courage" seems to me not to be harmonious in any of its parts. "Disproportionate courage" I don't like as a condition for either being a man or taking an unconventional action--one has courage that is worth something, that is based on some kind of core principle that it cannot waver from, or one doesn't. The construction of the sentence also suggests that being a man consists entirely in taking unconventional actions, which strikes me as a confusion of two separate problems. Mailer's conception of what it is to be a man, as far as I can tell, is that it is actually an escape from normal life, that it is not in itself a normal condition, but is achieved by "new kinds of victories" which "increase one's power for new kinds of perception" and the avoidance of "the wrong kind of defeats", which "attack the body and imprison one's energy until one is jailed in the prison air of other people's habits, other people's defeats, boredom, etc." I know where he is coming from with this, and certainly many people in America, including me, perceive the struggle of life to be in fact as he has described it; however the man who views every action or non-action in terms of victory or defeat, strength or decay, admits to having no essential, semi-permanent self at all. It is this that is the problem, and one isn't going to find that hanging out and doing unconventional things with hipsters, or blacks, or French people or anybody else if it hasn't been developed to any extent before.

There are many more such overstuffed sentences which could be examined for a wide range of incongruities of language and thought, but I will spare you them here. The "jazz is orgasm..." sentence is one, the observation on the atheist's "eschewing the limitless dimensions of profound despair has rendered himself incapable to judge the experience" is another. As the essay goes on, one begins to take it all as more or less equally goofy

I guess I will do two posts on this. I feel I ought to write some comments about the later parts of the essay.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Lord Clark--Part IIClark's relentlessly aristocratic vantage point on all matters can occasionally wear on one whose background and mature intellect is not developed to such an exquisitely airtight degree. Particularly when he gets to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the population explosion, in his view, made the management and control of the resultant masses through huge bureaucracies, police forces, monolithic architecture and uniform, mass-produced goods and clothing (most of which unsavory developments he seemed to have managed to avoid in his immediate person however) civilisation's primary problem, one realized that the distance between reader and author had widened since the earlier chapters when both stood more or less side by side beside the desolate beach and stone church of Iona, or in the narrow lanes of Assisi. As the centuries pass and societies grow, and institutions, attitudes, and aesthetics develop, and new areas of work are formed, one finds that somewhere along the road he has not kept up, or at least become diverted, that life as seen by the other intelligence has suddenly taken on a very different and not easily perceived hue compared with that seen by his own.

One of the reasons I was surprised that I had not heard of Clark before was that he lived practically his whole life right in the heart of the circle of men who dominated most areas of British society, literature not least among them, from the 1930s through the 60s, a crew with whom I had thought myself pretty well acquainted. Among the writers I can name right off hand who knew each other dating all the way to school days at Eton or Oxford, and often both, are Clark, George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh (b.1903), Graham Greene (1904), Anthony Powell and Henry Green (1905), Betjeman (1906), and Auden (1907), as well as other people like Cyril Connolly and Malcolm Muggeridge who were prominent figures in the literary world of the 40s and 50s and often served as bridges between people like Orwell and Powell who otherwise might never have hung out together. Clark, who was the director of the National Gallery at the time, rather famously found a job for the hapless Betjeman, the poet of train stations and unattainable tennis-playing girls, in the civil service during World War II, which the wits of the day declared one of the more impressive achievements of the war government. Reading Clark and seeing him on the program (I have managed to procure the DVD set on a couple of occasions and have seen the first 4 episodes; I will comment on this below) it is easy to imagine him sliding right in as a character in one of the novels written by this set, especially Powell; indeed, something about Clark reminds me of Archie Gilbert, the guy who went to all the dances and was always impeccably dressed and polished on the dance floor in the early sections of Powell that were set in the 20s when these people were young, though Archie did not otherwise have much of a character. I don't remember that he had any formal connection to the art world or artistic interests that might indicate he was at all modeled on Clark, in the same way that the Erridge character is thought to be partly modeled on George Orwell, and various other characters on other well-known figures of the period.

When one considers Clark in the context of this group of peers, it is not hard to see where his attitudes come from. When most of the artistic and political leadership in one's society--and Britain still pulling proportionally more weight globally at that time much of this influence extended internationally as well with greater impact that would comparatively be felt today--have come out of the small circle in which one has moved one's whole life, with which one has gone to school from early years, which primarily resides in a geographically confined area, and congregates socially and culturally in a handful of locales, when the same basic set of people have held most of the leadership and organizational posts in a successful war against one of the gravest threats ever to menace the nation of which this group of men is the elite, it is not surprising that one would be quite satisfied he was near the center of everything interesting and worthwhile that might be going on anywhere in the world, or that any such news would make its way to him in acceptable time. The Davos men and other well-connected global titans of today are thought to have created a society somewhat similar to this, having gone to the same exclusive schools, formed institutions and clubs and annexed picturesque locales, etc, to pursue their mutual interests, but the intimacy of a real shared youth and shared culture like these old Brits had, which though most of them would have disparaged the notion of its having serious depth, nonetheless seems to have made deeper personal connections than what the brilliant and beautiful crowd has today, though doubtless there is a new Powell out there right now who belongs to this world (he or she is, alas, probably an Indian or a South American; that seems to be where the literary energy and talent is most widely distributed nowadays) and is distilling the experiences of it into delectable form for those of us haven't been able to make out yet what one would have to be like to flourish in it.

As I noted, I have watched the first four episodes of the series so far--I don't know when I will have time to get to the rest--and I think they are worth seeing, as much for the comparatively unspoiled and undeveloped beauty--fewer cars, fewer tourists, less harriedness, more simple elegance, etc--that still prevailed in the cities and Western Europe in the late 1960s as anything else. Clark is very much at home among the glories of Western man, as we would hope him to be--when he fondles a gold chalice or the carving of the prow of a Viking ship that no one but him would be allowed to touch you feel somehow he is doing it for all of us. Obviously many of the young people who are glimpsed in the background of these films are still around and leading very different sorts of lives today than what they probably imagined they would live in 1969, as I may be around and leading some life completely unfathomable to me now in another 30 or 40 years. Indeed, I am certain that when Kenneth Clark was a young man in 1923 or even when he was my age in 1941 he never imagined the greatest renown of his career would come through hosting a television documentary.

Here is the opening segment of the series. Here is the section on Montaigne, with whom Clark seems to have felt a strong affinity.

Here is a blog I like that seems sincerely to have been inspired by the spirit of Kenneth Clark. This guy has such exquisite taste in everything that my impression would have been that he would have thought Clark's condescensions to the PBS-watching, Provence and Tuscany-vacationing suburban cohort put him beyond the pale of aesthetic credibility, but he seems to think that no one has heard of him, unless--which I don't rule out--he is being subtly ironic in his championing of Clark so as to mock the rubes, which admittedly seems like a waste of an intelligent person's time but I never underestimate clever people's delight in tormenting those who cannot keep up with them. This guy's sensibility, for what it is, strikes me as pitch perfect. That is, nothing ever strikes one as out of place. I cannot begin to approach his pure, clean sense of the proper situation of objects, and even movements, in space, and even moreso the absence of improper ones. In the first place I have children, which it is pretty clear to me this writer does not. In the second I cannot help myself from being forever tripped up by and attracted to enough second rate or worse specimens of art, music, design, etc that ultimately coarsen my aura, intellect and character and exclude me from professional level, serious intellectual circles. (As an addendum to this, this writer's delectable taste in women, as based by the pictures he has on his site, suggest to me that he is probably gay; no straight man could pick such a line-up of incontestably superior women without one slip-up, one slightly boring or vaguely bland-looking or imperfectly sophisticated selection who struck his fancy for whatever reason at a given moment).

This same person has another worthwhile site, though it seems at the moment to be on extended hiatus. The site held my interest for some time though I have no especial interest in high-end European cycling culture. I did go on some bike trips in the countryside with the school where we worked when I lived in Prague, which at that time consisted of throwing on some Communist-issue athletic apparel, breakfasting on vodka shots and tins of meat and then riding from one village to another with a casual stop at each one's old church, if it had one, and its pub, which every one did. There were actually many interesting aspects about these trips, some of which I may have cause to introduce in later posts, such as, to name one, the experience of being in whole towns where the rules and culture of capitalism have scarcely any bearing; but as I said I will save these for another time. The Esthetecyclist has the wonderful ability, of which I am always envious, to do things like assert with real conviction that the industrial revolution produced but one worthwhile result as if that entire epoch of history were a personal imposition on his enjoyment of life, and to ridicule people who take pleasure in driving cars, or think driving has any meaningful aesthetic value. In this latter however I think he is not quite right. There are times when one is on an old and lonely road (Pennsylvania has a lot of these kinds of roads) in the dead of night when the towns one is passing through are full of darkened and sleeping old houses, and the lights of others come and go glittering on the sides of hills or in distant valleys, and the only radio stations you can pick up are call-in shows for the lonely or are playing forgotten hits of the 50s and 60s, and somewhere, maybe in the next town, there sits a diner or an old-style all night gas station where a dreamy girl, somehow lost in a forgotten town in the middle of coal country, is waiting behind the counter...I mean, that isn't something?

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Everyman--(ca. 1485)I finished this December 11--I have fallen behind in my journal-keeping--so its particular impact is no longer burning in the forefront of my mind. Judging from such notes as I jotted down at the time it evoked a lot of satisfying images and feelings about the tactile objects of Northern European culture--books, makeshift stages set up in fairgrounds, crosses, bare, wind-rattled branches, heavy gray skies, meat stews poured into wooden bowls, which I am especially susceptible to the attractions of I think at that season of the year. This is the morality play which is the complement to the mystery play I wrote about a couple of entries ago. It is of course an allegory, and I have been gradually developing a certain fondness for allegories. The more stripped-down, religious-themed varieties of this form I am at this point better able to get a handle on than the longer, more extravagant ones. The manner of characterization of the abstractions in Everyman, especially Death, I found to be more than usually appealing. I suppose there is much to be argued for making Death a frenetic, bloodthirsty madman or at best a wholly impersonal, dimensionless bureaucrat with a lot of paperwork to fill out; but I still retain some idea of its being quiet, intelligent, possessed of a full philosophical understanding of its purpose when it comes to men, while still being stern and dutiful, which is the way it is portrayed in this play. That is however because it is as much the way I would like it to be as I believe it actually is. I have frequently imagined an elaborate, literary-inspired scene of my own death, which bears no relation to what will almost certainly be the real facts of the case. First of all of course I am never in any kind of modern hospital or being cared for by professional medical people whom I don't know on twelve hour shifts. I am always in some private lodging, sometimes the camp at Brattleboro, sometimes back in Annapolis or Portland in an upper story of some house or apartment building in one of the older districts of the town. I always have a view of trees and hills or treetops and clouds and stars and part of some sufficiently aged brick or clapboard facade out a window near my sickbed; in the towns I can hear the sounds of traffic and the voices of people on the street below, at the camp the calls of birds or the distant rumbling of rural machinery, but I cannot see them. Some young girl relative, perhaps my daughter (at the moment I have no daughter), perhaps a orphaned niece I have taken in (I have no nieces, orphaned or otherwise, either) is putting warm damp rags on my head and bringing me ginger ale or hopefully the occasional jigger of brandy to ease the passage. If one or more of my sons, out of particular attachment and affection to me, were to take upon himself the administration of this care, naturally I would be much honored. I have left my wife out of this description so far only because if she were there she would of course be in charge of the situation and I don't think she would let me be set up in a dusty 1920s apartment building and treated with brandy and damp cloths so that I could meet Death in a more poetical setting and with greater intellectual autonomy (i.e., as the primary figure of my own death) than I would have in a hospital. Also there would, I think, be a sadness at such a passing--even my passing--peculiar to spouses of long such relation that, unlike with the younger people or literary admirers on hand, who might be persuaded to take some comfort in the poignant spectacle I had arranged, I would feel an obligation to acknowledge with some corresponding emotion, which interferes with the poise and serenity of the imagined scene. This is a most fanciful way of anthropomorphizing Death, but most things of value to the formation of a human mind, I think, derive from originally fanciful notions. The ability to think abstractly is often touted as one of modern man's greatest achievements and assets, and I do not dispute its wonders when it is achieved with some amount of real mastery, but something is lost in the way of vividness and force of individual personality if the habit of abstraction is adopted for purposes of convenience only and not carried through. The mind must in some way be impressed that a thing, an idea, possesses being, in the sense of life, in some manner in order for that idea to possess any reality. A successful allegory or philosophical argument must at least make such an impression of reality plausible, not to the pure reason, but to the lively sense which identifies and affirms experience.

With regard to the play itself it is my intention to keep the notes to a minimum. A few points:

Despite my just-declared enthusiasm for representations of abstract ideas I am still not sure that God Himself ought really to be making somewhat whiny speeches about the ungratefulness of human beings ("They thank me not for the pleasure that I to them meant/Nor yet for their being that I them have lent"). If He is to speak at all one would think it would only be to utter absolute truths in the noblest language possible.

At the line, "Everyman will I beset that liveth beastly" I imagined Death to be speaking with a lisp. Also when he went on with "Full little he thinketh on my coming/His mind is on fleshly lusts and his treasure."

Goods, whom Everyman summons at one point in hopes of getting some assistance on his coming journey with Death, offers some rather strong words: "My condition is man's soul to kill/If I save one, a thousand do I spill."

His hatred of his body and desire that it be punished, while associated here with Christian feeling, seems to be a pretty widespread, at times almost instinctive aspect of the human character, even if only in contemplation, and does not necessarily have any direct connection with either religion or philosophy. This interests me, and I ought to look into it farther some day.

A plug for the authority of the church:
"There is no emperor, king, duke, ne baron,
That of God hath commission
As hath the least priest in the world being:"

and later:

"For priesthood exceedeth all other thing"


"God hath to them more power given
Than to any angel that is in heaven.
With five words he may consecrate
God's body in flesh and blood to make,
And handleth his Maker between his hands."

One supposes this was probably written by a member of the clergy.

I wrote a note that "Longing for death even in theory is odd to our sensibility." It sounds pretty good anyway.